Equalities: my keynote conference speech

Here’s my keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat Bournemouth conference:

My fellow Liberal Democrats – what a moment in world history for equality.

When we were last here in Bournemouth, the Presidential Campaign in the US was drawing to a close. I don’t know about you, but I can still hardly believe it. Who would have thought it possible … there is now a black man who is president of the United States of America.

The message of hope and optimism, and the potential for change could not be clearer. On that historic day when he made his inauguration speech, the words of our own party constitution kept repeating through my mind: “That no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

So conference let’s today be ambitious as Liberal Democrats.

Let’s agree right here and right now that anything is possible whether by small practical steps or by great leaps of inspired Obama-like faith.

Because if a black kid in America can rise above the noise, the prejudice and the class divides to become the President of the United States – then anything is possible.

But as all Liberal Democrats know, and as President Obama himself said, idle aspiration alone is not enough. On Monday morning I went to Moordown St John’s Primary School – here in Bournemouth – with Trevor Phillips from the Equality Commission.

Now the children had been asked to draw pictures of politicians – needless to say – the pictures were almost all male and almost all pale – just like the House of Commons! These children captured Parliament perfectly with the skills of the best sketch writers.

One comment on one drawing said: ‘I have drawn a man because I think that men can stand up and talk better to a crowd than a woman can’. Another had written: ‘I have chosen a male MP because I have never seen a woman MP’. He has now! And I’ve had a word with him.

That’s the power of the role model, the power to challenge our preconceptions and to bring hope alive.

In my constituency I see kindness and cruelty; fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance; the struggles and successes; the love; the bitterness and the bias that make up the sum of all our experience.

But in small corners of that experience I have seen a shift.

Children for whom the halls of Harvard Law School, or for that matter Oxford or Cambridge, have seemed no closer than the moon can see the possibility.

This new generation pregnant with that possibility should not – cannot be let down.

And for many, far too many, President Obama’s triumph remains as irrelevant as the more distant figures in our history books.

That’s why we need action – the practical steps – because education and opportunity are the ways to blast away the old order.

The Liberal Democrats offer the bold approach to tackling inequality. Our pupil premium delivers a life-changing opportunity at school by injecting funds where they are most needed. Our name blank job application policy will open doors previously closed for that young boy – or girl – when they come out of education and apply for a job.

Name blank job applications is a simple idea. Just as we give a number for children to write on their exam papers so there can be no bias in the marking – so job applicants can use their National Insurance number. It costs nothing – and by removing the name from job application forms – we remove from that very first sift the unconscious prejudice that sadly can lurk in all of us. And I am proud of our party passing this on Saturday.

Now, you probably already know that 80% of MPs in the House of Commons are male. Lord knows – I’ve mentioned it often enough!

Even more shockingly, of the FTSE100 companies 88% of the directors are male. That’s right – take the 100 biggest listed companies in Britain, and you’ll find only one in ten directors, here in 2009 – are female.

Do we really think that if we trawled through to find the best people for the job of running our top companies, we’d find nearly nine in ten are male? Or if we hunted out the very best people to be our MPs, that eight in ten would be male?

Friends, I want to set you a task today.

I want you all to conduct some detailed research. Extensive research. Perhaps at the Highcliff Hotel. Perhaps this lunchtime – perhaps in the bar – perhaps at a fringe.

I suggest that you look at all the representatives there and you ask yourselves this simple question: if you hunt out the best people to be MPs – will 4 out of every 5 of them end up being men?

I think not.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’ve consulted with them – consorted with them – and even – on occasion – cavorted with them. But they are not the only answer – nor necessarily the right answer – and they are certainly not the right answer 88 times out of every 100.

I sometimes wonder if we really understand the scale of the inequality that women suffer financially?

The Equal Pay Act was sparked by the gender pay gap. For every pound that men were paid at the Ford Dagenham car plant the women earned only 85 pence. So on June 7th 1968 the women went on strike – and when they were joined by the women and men of the Ford car plant in Liverpool the company caved in and the Equal Pay act was spawned.

But the law has not been effective. And at the high end of the pay spectrum – it’s no different.

We see the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company took home £3.8m last year – but it is a figure dwarfed by the highest paid man – who took home £36.8m – almost ten times as much.

In case you are in any doubt – I think pay levels like that are insane and obscene.

But the issue is – from the highest earners to the lowest earners – women get the raw deal. It is as tragic as it is shameful that these gaps remain 40 years after the Equal Pay Act.

And it happens – and can happen – because that differential is hidden from public or indeed, the employees’ gaze.

Liberal Democrats would introduce mandatory pay audits. We would expose a company’s overall pattern of pay – not individual salaries – but enough information to show quite clearly where the pay gap lies.

That would put power into the hands of an individual to see for themselves whether they were being discriminated against – enabling them to take forward a case of discrimination -b e that man, woman, someone from an ethnic minority or a person with disabilities.

When it comes to pay, everyone is entitled to greater transparency.

And there are wider inequalities we must tackle.

A primary school child in an inner city constituency is not judged by the content of his or her character or the passion of his ambition. He is judged by the invisible barriers he or she will face because of both the colour of his skin but also his class and family income.

Poverty reinforces class barriers. That’s why in difficult times for the taxpayer Liberal Democrats make our priorities clear.

We will cut taxes for those who are on middle and low incomes – so that no one pays a penny on income tax on the first 10 thousand pounds they earn.

And then there’s religion. In recent years, sadly the spectre of religious discrimination has arisen again. A party born of revulsion at the treatment of Catholics and Non-conformists stands four square behind all those who seek to practice their faith.

9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war has fostered increasing ignorance and prejudice – on all sides. And it deepens apace – as we saw with the fascist demonstrations against the Harrow Mosque on the anniversary of 9/11.

And there has been so much damage done to the image of Muslims with the reporting of news from overseas and here, where so-called Islamic terrorists often feature – but when those fighting the terrorists, or the victims of terrorism, are also Muslim – this often goes unmentioned.

The drip-drip effect of linking the word ‘Muslim’ and the word ‘terrorism’ – but not linking “victim” and “Muslim” in the same way – is pernicious.

And at the same time we have seen a rising tide of attacks on Jewish people too.

It is better to confront and address these challenges before we are at real risk from violent internecine strife or the hideous bile of the far right – especially as there is no doubt that with an economic downturn the far right will be looking to turn the screw on peoples’ fears.

Liberal Democrats believe in cohesion – not separation.

Friends, there is not enough time to talk in one brief speech about all the inequalities that exist today. I would love to have the time to tell you exactly what I think of BBC’s sacking of Arlene Phillips from Strictly.

What on earth are we doing when we throw someone of Ms Phillips experience – one of the world’s foremost choreographers – on the scrap heap in favour of someone young and pretty? No offence to Alesha and I’m sorry she had such a rough ride on her first outing. It’s not her fault – it’s the BBC bosses.

What message do we send out – other that we don’t value what is important but we pay homage to the fleeting, the superficial and the desperate quest for youth?

We believe there should be no mandatory retirement age – something Labour refuses to support.

And I’d love to have time to talk about the severe prejudice encountered by our young people and the many barriers that remain for those with disabilities, I’d like to talk about caste discrimination, and gender identity issues.

So – let’s not kid ourselves that there isn’t discrimination out there – whether it is on the basis of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, age or disability.

Discrimination is still rife. After hundreds of years of fighting against it.

But what I do have a moment for – is to persuade you, to continue your fight against prejudice, to use your powers in local authorities and devolved bodies throughout the land to use your powers as the great campaigners that I know you are. To fight and continue to fight until issues of equality no longer need to be on the agenda.

We are called on, as a party, by our history to fulfill our creed and fight for equal rights.

This is not the politics of single issues that should remain in the province of women, or minority groups.
It is a cause to which all those who hold a liberal world view are drawn.

In facing the scale of that challenge – and the urgency of that need – we have to persuade people that doing nothing is letting entrenched discrimination win.

I want to turn on its head the way we approach campaigning on this issue – I want to reframe the debate – so that we don’t just present issues in a way that appeals to those who already agree – like us – but which takes the argument to those who don’t.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when a company discriminates in its choice of senior staff – and ends up predominantly male – it’s not just the woman who gets overlooked for promotion who loses out – it’s all those who lose their jobs, men and women because the management of the company itself is not up to scratch.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when the police carry out stop and search on black and ethnic minorities. Searches which are out of all proportion to the numbers in the population and crime figures – it isn’t just those who are stopped who lose out, it’s all of us who lose out – from the police wasting time on the innocent rather than catching the guilty.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when so many schools assume that information about children of separated parents should be given to their mothers – it isn’t just the fathers who lose out, it’s all of us who lose out from the damage to our next generation.

Whoever the discrimination is against – even when it is against the less talked about groups such as men – no I hadn’t forgotten you – we all suffer.

On many of these issues there is progress.

Not that long ago it was against the law to be openly gay. Now it is against the law to refuse to register a civil partnership

Conference, this is a call to arms. For each and every generation has the opportunity to shape our society and our communities. In this year, an election year, we accept that challenge.

Liberal Democrats are different – we are the real alternative to failed red-blue/blue-red stale old politics. Liberal Democrats are straight talking – we are prepared to stand up for what is right for people – not what is popular with the tabloids.

Liberal Democrats are ambitious – for change – for every woman who is underpaid, for every child who is denied life opportunities, for every person who suffers the insult and injury of discrimination.

The battle lines are drawn at our childrens’ feet.

Against us – those who can live with – racial hatred, gender discrimination, and homophobia. Those who point fingers but don’t point out solutions. And those who just can’t be bothered.

Ladies and gentlemen: be bold, be brave, be active. History will judge us on our action and our purpose.

The Liberal Democrat purpose is to set our nation free.

We're sick of jam tomorrow!

Just watched Trevor Phillips on Andrew Marr saying that tomorrow the Equality Commission are going to publish (finally) their report into unequal pay in the financial services sector – and ‘it’s shocking’! No kidding? We know that – so presumably it’s even worse than we thought and women are not only getting unequal pay and unequal bonuses (setting aside the issue of size of bonus momentarily) but the differential will be staggering. So much so – that the Equality Commission says that if the City doesn’t come to heel – they will have to use their statutory powers. Oooooooh! Warm wards indeed.

And yet – the biggest flunk this century in terms of ending pay inequality comes from the Equality Commission itself who rant on about the importance of the Equality Bill currently going through Parliament yet failed to do anything really significant on women’s pay in the Bill. In the Bill was / is the opportunity to make all companies publish their pay scales and value male and female jobs.

The Equality Commission, clearly in cahoots with the Labour Government and running scared of the CBI, refuses to endorse mandatory pay audits saying that they will leave publication and valuation as a voluntary code for four years and then if the private sector continue on the naughty step – only then will they make it mandatory. (Forty years ago when the Equal Pay Act came in – the then Government gave business five years to get its house in order – and we are still waiting!) And whilst the Equality Commission chief equivocates his remarks by saying how hard the city is trying – it doesn’t mask what is obviously going to be a damning indictment of the lack of success it has had in so doing.

Surely what we will see tomorrow is a clarion call for all sides of the House of Commons at the Report Stage of the Bill to introduce mandatory pay audits. It was a LibDem amendment at committee stage and will be again at Report Stage. So I expect the Equality Commission to put its clout where its mouth is. It cannot be right that the Commission can investigate the financial sector – which means looking at pay scales and work value – find it to be hideously biased in its pay practise – but then draw back from supporting legislation which will make all companies publish and therefore put power into individuals to see whether they are being discriminated against to take a case forward.

I asked the Commission to look into another sector a while ago – and was told that they couldn’t because they were busy conducting the investigations into the financial sector. Equality shouldn’t have to wait until the Commission has time and resource to investigate. They cannot do everything – so give us the information to see and do for ourselves!

Troubles at the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Thought I’d pitch in with my thoughts on the troubled Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I remember being on the London board of the original Commission for Racial Equality when this new all singing, all dancing Equality Commission was first mooted. All the race bodies and leaders of different groups in the community were against it – including Trevor Phillips. The leaders of the other commissions (women and disability) were all against it – as they all appeared to resent to some degree (and not surprisingly) giving up their leadership positions and becoming commissioners under someone else – particularly when that someone else turned out to be Mr Phillips. There was also genuine concern that the clear fight for a particular cause would be muddied and subsumed by being part of a greater whole. And there was fear and competitiveness as to whether the Chair would give more attention to race (as that was his background) and would that leave women, disability, sexual orientation and so on playing catch up.

Nevertheless – the new Equality and Human Rights Commission came into being, chaired by Trevor Phillips, who hired as the new CEO Nicola Brewer, and is now about 18 months old. Ms Brewer has recently left for a plum job as South Africa High Commissioner.

There was always going to be trouble at mill. Lots of old scores, egos and enemies all thrust into one body would inevitably lead to jealousy, noses out of joint and undoubtedly the real feeling of being ignored when it came to some decisions.

In terms of the tide of resigning commissioners – there are some who are and have been phenomenal campaigners, leaders and experts in their particular field – and there are some that may simply be crumbs fighting.The severe reduction in number of commissioners which is coming, and the fact that they all have to reapply for their jobs, may also play a part in their ‘brave’ decision to go at this point.

What I don’t understand is if it has been so dreadful why none of them really rocked the boat prior to the possibility of losing their jobs? It’s one of the reasons I think that if Trevor Phillips survives this debacle new blood might be a very good thing. Well – there will be blood on the carpet – that’s for sure.

However, there is always a difficult balance to strike when people have championed causes and been instrumental in moving forward the agenda on whichever equality is their drum to beat. The problems arise, I think, in twofold ways. Firstly – if you have banged a drum for years and years – it is very difficult to change the way you beat it or the repertoire that you play. Secondly, Trevor Phillips appears to have trodden on many other egos to make announcements, change direction, challenge the status quo – without consultation or agreement. That too is a difficult balance to strike – leadership versus consultation. Phillips has clearly got it wrong in terms of Commissioners’ feelings and also, perhaps, his style of leadership. On the other hand – there are such major challenges for this country in terms of equalities – taking the agenda boldly where no one has gone before may require such leadership and saying the unsayable.

Phillips has been right on some things like changing multiculturalism – or aspects around it. He said we were sleepwalking into segregation – and that did change the multicultural weather. Councils who for so long had funded so many different communities – funding separateness – have started to fund togetherness instead. Critics turned that into Phillips wanting to attack multiculturalism – but it wasn’t – it was acknowledging that what was once good policy had had its day.

My main anger with the EHRC is that it is compliant with the Labour agenda – not independent enough. Women have been the sacrificial lambs that Phillips has happily led to slaughter in the Equalities Bill . But Harriet Harman lost in cabinet to Mandelson on that – ergo women can just wait for equality. Trevor Phillips is a Labour man and won’t really challenge the Government.

The other main complaint is that the EHRC is just dreadful at answering mail – both in terms of getting an answer – and the content when it finally comes. However, I would lay this at the door of the ex-Chief Executive. It was Nicola Brewer’s job as Chief Officer to run the Commission – and she singular failed in terms of efficiency on this score alone.

It’s not just growing pains that have caused the hoo ha at the EHRC. There are real problems that need sorting – and fast. With Brewer gone – and about six commissioners gone – who knows whether Trevor Phillips will survive. Having just signed a new three year contract for his job – and with Government backing – he may do. If he does – he has one hell of a lot of mending to do – and perhaps a little bit of humility might help.

A New Deal of the mind

Will Martin Bright’s vision of inspiring, encouraging, skilling and putting to useful purpose the generation of young people who will emerge from education to unemployment be realised?

I was immediately inspired myself by Martin’s big idea when I originally read his piece in the New Statesman. Called ‘The New Deal of the Mind’ this brave and visionary project would scoop up this potentially lost generation and create a version of Franklyn Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 30’s. It would see an army of young people employed in projects to record, write, film, photograph, design and record aspects of our lives, the recession, living histories, archives and so on – creating a legacy for future generations from this era whilst battling the scourge of unemployment in current times.

Since I first read about the New Deal of the Mind, I have been pushing the idea whenever I have had the opportunity. And today – the stellar gathering at 11 Downing Street (hosted by Mrs Darling) demonstrated that this is an idea which has grabbed hold of everyone’s imagination.

I can’t even begin to describe the guest list – other than the head of any arts, music, film etc organisation you can think ofwas there – from Sir John Tusa, Alan Yentob and Sir David Putnam to Michael Wolff, Sir Christopher Grayling and Mark Thompson (and loads more). As for Secretaries of State – we had two – James Purnell and Andy Burnham who both verbally gave their support and said they were both thinking along these lines anyway.

The event was kicked off by Martin describing the idea – and then we heard from Alan Brinkley, Professor of History at Columbia University who is an expert on Roosevelt’s New Deal and gave us the history and analysis of it.

Then it was opened for discussion to the floor – and the great and the good all agreed it was a brilliant idea. There seemed to be some debate as to whether this army could be achieved in existing structures with existing funds (benefits, money already earmarked for apprenticeships etc) or new money. There was agreement that whatever shape this took, who ran it or who funded it – that this needed to be done fast, as locally as possible and without endless hoops to jump through. It has to be simple.

Admiration for the idea was fulsome – but it took Trevor Phillips (Equality and Human Rights Commission) to put money on the table with the challenge for others to do same and for a partner to come forward to set up a project. It will be interesting to see if the others come forward – or if everyone just waits for someone else to do it!

The other person who particularly impressed me was the woman from the Heritage Lottery who said she was interested in partnering on the archiving idea. I hope all the others are fired up by the meet-up and put what were a range of splendid desires into reality.

Congratulations to Martin who is driving this ferociously and relentlessly forward. It takes someone with passion to push this forward – and this is a critical period where everyone has said yes – great idea. Now his challenge is to make it happen.

The Single Equalities Act

Speak to Equality and Diversity Forum today, wearing my hat of Liberal Democrat Equalities spokesperson.

What I am trying to persuade the world of, in regard to the Single Equalities Act, is threefold.

First – discrimination more difficult – and the particular suggestion I make today is for ‘name blind’ employment applications, i.e. keeping the names of applications hidden from those who process job applications.

Why? Well, to take personal experience as an example – two of my interns who had non-Anglo Saxon names applied to loads and loads of jobs – not even getting an interview. After they worked for me – and having worked for an MP on the CV – they both quickly got great jobs.

The problem is that having a non-Anglo Saxon name on your application form can mean being thrown on the reject pile because of low level discrimination. Once through to interview (or possessed of something extra on the CV to overcome this ‘hurdle’) – well the chemistry between humans then takes over – for better or worse. So – name blind employment application – probably using National Insurance numbers – is an idea we are looking at.

Second – strengthening legislation against discrimination. We have had enough legislation on crime to last well into the future from New Labour – and the legislative wand is clearly not the answer to everything. However, the courts do need a bit of muscle as currently they cannot award punitive damages. This can mean damage awards are far too small to really have an impact on changing behaviour.

And third – that anyone who wants to perpetuate discrimination has to have it explicitly as an exemption. If you want to discriminate – make your argument, and make it out in the open. That to my mind is the best way to address such issues – and I’m sure some powerful cases will be made for some exemptions – but let’s have the debate and make a decision rather than let things slip through on the quiet or because that’s how they’ve always been done.

And a parting shot for the CEHR. I think the Commission has the potential to be an incredibly powerful force for good. Trevor Phillips – its chair – is remarkable in the way he can and has shaped the nation’s thinking with his accurate and memorable soundbites such as ‘sleepwalking into segregation’, the ‘race cold war’ and so on. But I would argue that the Commission should be given more resource so that it can drive through substantive change.

The abolition of the slave trade

A tremendous event: a commemoration of the bicentenary of the Act abolishing Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. It was put on by the Commission for Racial Equality in Westminster Hall in Parliament – where the debate that ended this abhorrent part of history took place.

There were speeches by Uzo Iwobi, a Commissioner from the Commission for Racial Equality, Baroness Amos, Leader of the House of Lords and Trevor Phillips, Chair of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. The event was hosted by Floella Benjamin OBE (former presenter of Play School, but that’s only a small part of her many and varied activites). It also included actors from the Globe Theatre who enacted dramatised readings, a young poet, Louis Antwi, and two choirs.

What I liked about it was that the speeches were very hard hitting about the reality of what happened. It wasn’t about bitterness or recrimination – but about accepting the reality of what is our history and understanding the consequences – psychological, socio-economical and historical – for all of us living now in this country. It was very, very powerful.

RADAR people of the year awards

This evening I was the guest of honour on a table hosted by a taxi manufacturing company, LTI, at the RADAR People of the Year Awards at the old Billingsgate fish market. (Smell is gone!). RADAR is a charity working for diabled people; in their own words their job is “to promote change by empowering disabled people to achieve their rights and expectations; and by influencing the way that disabled people are viewed as members of society.”

Black tie is always a bit of a struggle when you are at Parliament in meetings or debates and then rushing off. I have developed a really clever outfit. No long dresses for me – but I have a black suit slightly dressier than my normal business uniform, which I wear with a white T-shirt all day – then into the Ladies to change the T-shirt for a gorgeous chiffony evening top which looks really dressy under the suit jacket – and out.

For the Chancellor’s pre-budget statement I am still sporting the white t-shirt. He gave a particularly grumpy performance I thought. Outside of the content – I wonder if Gordon is really going to make it to Prime Minister – or if he does, it won’t be for long and he won’t be popular. Middle-England will desert Labour in droves once he inherits – if he does. Osborne gives a limp response for the Tories and our Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, does a really good job. Even Gordon acknowledges publicly the respect he has for Vince.

So between the pre-budget and my next meeting, because of the timing I have to change into my evening gear before my last meeting of the day so arrive seriously over-dressed for a meeting with the Commission for Racial Equality. Trevor Phillips has come to talk through issues with some of us at the House.

At 6pm I run to get a taxi to the ‘do’. The evening is lovely – and my hosts at the table very charming. Unfortunately I get a pager message that there are two votes, possibly three expected at 10pm and so arrange for a cab at 9.30pm to take me back to the Commons. It is a shame as I have to leave after the first two of eight awards. Earlier on there is a deaf comedian who is funny – but actually swears a lot. Now I am no prude (I don’t think) – but I wasn’t too keen on the obscenity side. I myself have been known to let rip on the odd occasion but this was the wrong occasion – wrong place. He was still very good – despite battling with a series of microphones that didn’t work. As he said – ‘how long were you f****ing going to let me go on without telling me’?

These awards are well deserved. The battle in this country for rights for the disabled have been long and hard fought for – and still there is a long way to go. But tonight – from the size and import of the evening itself – you can feel that at long last change is happening.

At 9.30pm precisely Cinderella flees and jumps into her carriage – and sods law – as I arrive at Parliament about 10 minutes before the expected vote – another pager message arrives saying that there are now no votes expected tonight after all! Exasperated, I go into the chamber to listen to the end of the debate very, very cross.

Liberal Democrat conference, Blackpool

My bags are packed and I hi-tailed it out of town on Saturday morning from Euston. On the train, I sit down and the woman across the aisle from me immediately asks me if I am Lynne Featherstone. I cannot tell a lie! Actually, she turned out to be a constituent living in Creighton Avenue on her way to Glasgow to visit her Mum and we had a few enjoyable hours putting the world to rights; if only we were in charge!

Blackpool may well be a wonderful place for stag nights and hen parties for the young, drunk and noisy, but – sober and middle-aged, truly sorry and no offence meant, it would not be my first choice. Every time I enter the Winter Gardens – which is the conference centre – I try and imagine what nightmares were haunting the author of the design brief. Must have been truly evil!

The Conference Hotel is adequate – but is nowhere near the Winter Gardens and so the delegates are consigned to spending a good part of each day travelling between the two from main hall debates at the Winter Garden to all the fringe meetings at the main hotel and others. In fact, the local authority provided a free shuttle bus – but hardly anyone was told.

But to the business. My guess is – as always – that the media will focus on whether Lib Dems are going to the right or the left and whether Charlie boy’s leadership will be challenged. I turn out to be right on both counts. I do one fringe meeting on the right/left kafuffle. The title of the event is ‘Can the Liberal Democrats be part of a Progressive Consensus’? This is hosted by the Independent Newspaper and chaired by Steve Richards who does the early Sunday morning politics show on GMTV. (You can read my speech on my website).

I have a go a Gordon Brown – basically. Don’t believe he is capable of a consensus – progressive or otherwise. Or more accurately, Brown’s progressive consensus is just that – OK so long as you agree with him. Anyway – as everyone knows – I think Brown is a coward who keeps his head down below the parapet when the going gets tough, votes a straight New Labour ticket, is the author of the astronomically expensive and appalling part-privatisation of the tube and who broods in the shadows whilst waiting for Tony’s tide to go out.

But what the media really, really want – is for the Liberal Democrats to tear themselves apart on the basis that those of us who fight or represent old Tory seats will want to shift to the right and those of us who fight or represent old Labour seats (like me) will want to be on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

Clearly a disappointing night then as all four of us speakers – Simon Hughes, David Laws, Vince Cable and myself – in one way or another all argue that it isn’t a matter of right left – it’s about Liberal values. Especially when the Labour government is knee-jerking poorly thought out legislation into being and striking at the principles of justice and freedom that make our country what it is.

The other great debate going on is about multiculturalism and what it means to be British, particularly after 7/7.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has thrown down the gauntlet with a nifty little sound bite: ‘we are sleepwalking our way into segregation’. His thesis being that we live in our cultural enclaves and mix less and less. Statement of the bleeding obvious I should say – although it strikes me lots of politicos are fundamentally in denial whilst a Sky TV poll clearly puts over 80% + of real people in line with that thesis.

I get two bites at this issue. I speak at a fringe meeting and then there is also a debate in the main hall.

For the debate, conference has introduced a new format where representatives send in their preferred topic for a discussion on an urgent issue. There is no motion or vote – but people’s views are taken back and with further work and consultation a motion will then be brought back to the next conference for decision. It’s my job to summate the debate.

I have my own views too- and whilst I do think we are becoming a segregated society, I don’t think the 7/7 bombers were making a statement about poverty or alienation when they blew us up or that solving the issues of poverty and alienation in our ethnic communities will have anything but a tiny effect on terrorism in ours or any Western country. Terrorists don’t generally come from the poorest or most alienated.

However, history has given us a bit of a lesson about where extremists go to find fodder for their causes. So whilst tackling poverty and alienation won’t directly stop terrorism, it will help make it harder for terrorists to recruit support in future.

I also chair two of the keynote speeches in the main hall. The second one is for my Home Affairs team leader – Mark Oaten – our Shadow Home Secretary. So with only a sentence or two to say I introduce him as the ‘toughest Liberal I know’ – a phrase picked up by the media sketch writers for the Telegraph and the Guardian! Mark had said a couple of days earlier that he would kill me if I introduced him thus – but I did it purposefully as I believe that ‘tough liberalism’ is the way forward – particularly in terms of law and order.

Mark gave a bravura speech.

I (and you will thank me for this) am not going to go through every fringe I spoke at – but I was allowed to pontificate on a much wider range of subjects than ever before. In my previous incarnation I was kept pretty much to my policing and transport portfolios. This time – outside of my usual training sessions for the party on ‘How we Won Hornsey & Wood Green’ and ‘Grow your Own Target Seat’, I covered Lords – the Last Bastion of Freedom?, What Difference would Electoral Reform make to Women? (not a great deal in my view); The Future of our Towns; Making the Breakthrough (or how to get our arses into gear in the 100+ seats we are second to Labour in for next time); Blogging and so on.

New experience for me (it is always great to do something you have never done before) was something called GNS. I had to go and do the radio responses on what Mark Oaten had said about breaking the consensus around Labour’s proposed new terrorist legislation. Whilst we support three of the proposals – an offence of training for terrorism, incitement to terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism – we can’t support an offence ‘glorification of terrorism’ or the ‘three months detention without trial’. Briefly – the ‘glorification’ one is just too wide a definition. It would turn into a feast for lawyers all interpreting (as is their job) but with such a wide spectrum that it would be very hard for such legislation to be effective – and you don’t want the real terrorist dodging around the new legislation because it is poor and they have a good lawyer.

The other – three months detention – strikes at the very heart of our principles of justice – and is another form of internment. Moreover, having seen how stop and search works in practice when I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority – it would be just too easy for profiling to lead to autom
atic three month detention on suspicion – and suspicion as we tragically know from the Met shooting an innocent Br
azilian isn’t enough. And if after 14 days they need more evidence and more time, there are other ways. They currently put people under surveillance and the numbers are not such that that would be too difficult or expensive. In fact it might very well concentrate the police mind on intelligence-based evidence rather than suspicion. Three months internment would make them casual in their rigour.

Anyway – none of this was the point of my tale. The tale was about the GNS process. I was to speak for eight minutes to each BBC radio station around the country – live! So with headphones on in a tiny studio and with an electronics box – one after another station around the country dialled me up and did the interview. It was pretty tough going. I was just brilliant by about the fifth one – when I had got all my best lines in place – but definitely going off the boil with over-confidence by the ninth! But – as I say – had never even heard of this type of interview before.

And so – the rest was a late dinner with friends and pretty early to bed – and yes – it really was all work!

Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill

Arrive City Hall to take part in ceremonious signing of Book of Condolences following last Thursday’s terrorist attack on London.

A rabbi comes up to me and started to harangue me suggesting that I (presumably as a Liberal Democrat) should go to Jenny Tonge and ask her to make the same statement she made about understanding suicide bombers now to our home-grown suicide bombers.

I understand the point he was making – but felt it totally inappropriate moment to raise it. I generally end up with both Israeli and Palestinian being cross with me whatever I say in such cases – as I passionately believe that only a solution which gives enough of what each side needs (a two-state or an equally shared one-state) will ever work and cannot bear the repeated calls on history which can stretch back centuries with the old rights and wrongs paraded endlessly – getting nowhere. Only moving forward together will ever create peace.

OK – rant over.

We go upstairs to the chamber. One by one various people come forward to sign – Bob Kiley (Commissioner of Transport), Tony McNulty (Minister), Trevor Phillips (Chair of the CRE), Peter Hendy (Director Surface Transport, TfL), Tim O’Toole (Managing Director of Surface Transport TfL) and on.

It was very moving – very silent – very appropriate.

When the main group had finished, everyone else lines up to sign. I don’t know what others wrote – I wrote something like ‘Love is stronger than hate. Love will triumph’.

Then off to Westminster for the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill. I sit through the debate as having taken this bill through committee stage with my colleague from the Home Affairs team, Alistair Carmichael, I want to support him and also speak if I can get called.

Prior to the debate – there is a statement by the Prime Minister. I don’t agree with him on many issues – but he is head and shoulders above the others in Labour in performance terms. Maybe it goes with the territory. For sure – Gordon doesn’t have it in that same way. The statement updates us on the situation with regard to the attacks and progress made. There is this time more of a debate and Charles K does dare to raise the issue of Iraq – which all steered clear of last time which Charles Clarke made his emergency statement on the day of the attack.

At 4.30pm-ish we begin the debate on religious hatred. During the debate I pop out to the lobby where I have received a green card from – slipped into me in the chamber. A green card is filled in with the details of someone (a constituent usually) who has come to Central Lobby to lobby their MP. By the time I can get out – about 40 minutes after receiving the card – the person is nowhere to be found. However, I do bump into Pastor Nims (who leads the Peace Alliance) and he tells me that about 3-4,000 black religious leaders are outside Parliament to lobby against the Labour Government’s Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill.

Hurrah I say – about time everyone realised that the people that Labour set out to help by trying to stop incitement to hatred on religious grounds – will be exactly those who find they cannot practise their religion freely any longer.

Many of the arguments during the debate were repeats of, by now, well-rehearsed points. But I felt moved to intervene on Chris Bryant who was making a point (I think) about the difference between the belief and the believer – because Labour believe it is possible to hate a religion without hating the person who believes in that religion. Chris kindly lets me intervene to make the point that if you have love in your heart – then you may well be able to hate the belief not the believer – but if you have hatred in your heart – then the niceties of that distinction fly out the window. Basically – thugs and creeps likely to have religious hatred stirred up in them won’t give a toss about that very academic difference!

The debate is scheduled to finish at 10.00pm sharp – at which point Mr Speaker rises to his feet to call the vote. I am called finally at 9.58pm.

‘I’ll be brief, Mr Speaker’ makes the House laugh – sadly removing precious seconds. With little time – I make the point about the unintended consequences of this bill rebounding on those it sought to help – hence the presence of the thousands outside fearing loss of their freedom to practise their religion freely and simply state that legislation can’t stop hatred.

The LibDem amendment (supported by the Tories) fell – and so I voted against the bill – which I think will be a disaster.

Missing transport targets

Today, I publish a ‘dossier’ of the Mayor’s missed targets.

The Mayor and Transport for London are set to miss six out of thirteen key transport targets set by Government according to the Transport for London Business Plan.

By 2010 a range of targets will be missed, including:

– Reducing congestion in London – it is set to increase by 8% from 2000 levels by 2010

-Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% and CO2 emissions by 20% from 1990 levels to help Britain comply with the Kyoto Protocol

– Meeting National Air Quality strategy objectives for reducing the amounts of Nitrous Dioxide and Particulate Matter 10 in London’s air

For all Ken’s talk on reducing congestion, improving air quality and being a champion of the environment – he sure has failed to deliver.

Reducing congestion was Ken’s flagship policy and yet the figures reveal that despite the huge success of the Central London Congestion Charge, the Mayor has not begun to even touch on congestion in other parts of London.

Nearly all the money has gone to supporting public transport to get people in and out of the centre so the Congestion Charge would work.

Well hurrah! It does – but there is virtually no improvement in public transport in outer London so people still – four years later – have no choice but to use their cars. And to add insult to injury – the five year business plan the Mayor is announcing today still says absolutely sweet FA on improving orbital public transport.

Later, off to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for a Black History month reception. My goodness! You wouldn’t believe this building. Most of us wouldn’t know it existed as it is in a private-ish road next to Downing Street.

As you go across courtyards into the Locarno Rooms – the overwhelming decoration and opulence of an era long gone are so in your face. Not my taste however, and jolly difficult to walk in high heels on mosaic tiles.

That having been said, it was a great juxtaposition to have a steel band playing in this bastion of British tradition. Speeches by Trevor Phillips and Mike O’Brian – followed by networking. Met a really interesting woman from South London who works with 18-25 year old black youngsters to train them as youth workers. She had taken seven of them to a black township in Soweto. She was saying how extraordinary it was to have to explain to black youngsters from London what apartheid actually was. Fantastic mission and eye opener. Very impressed with her and invited her to come to City Hall to talk further.