Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Party funding

The revelations in recent days about Labour party funding will add further fuel to the 'plague on all your houses' attitude in the media and among a growing section of the public about politics and politicians. The rules are quite clear. If you give significant sums of money this has to be reported - you can't 'launder it' through a series of third parties.

The irony of all of this is that the legislation that means donations have to be declared was passed under a Labour government and is something I fully support. Before the 'Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act' was passed (ie under the Conservatives) we had no idea who was giving how much money to who, and what they were getting back for it. The PPERA was meant to introduce transparency into the process.

But incredibly, having introduced the Act, Labour has then tried to find ways to evade it. First we had donors making huge 'loans' to try to avoid declaration, and now we have the money being parceled up and handed on via third parties.

In my view it is time for a severe cap on donations - people should indeed be able to support a party of their choice if they wish, but no-one should be in a position either to buy influence or to appear to buy influence. Decent people are going to get put off going into politics if they think they are simply going to be tarred as 'all the same' and corrupt - we need real transparency and sticking to the rules that have been put in place.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Data going missing

Yesterday's fiasco over the missing Child Benefit data raises an awful lot of questions. One of the most obvious in my mind is if one junior official had the authority to download the entire Child Benefit data and send it in the post, how many other people had access to that data? More worryingly, if this is true in HMRC with Child Benefit, what is going to happen when all our medical histories are on a single NHS computer that can be accessed by tens of thousands of people up and down the country? Of if a national ID database is set up which gradually acquires more and more personal data of every single person in the country?

Don't get me wrong - I'm a great fan of technology! But surely where government is going to be run on the basis of huge databases of this sort, the security processes involved must be absolutely watertight, and given how difficult that is, we should be wary of any unnecessary accumulation of all our personal data in one place.

As for sending the data in the internal post on a couple of unencrypted CDs......

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Lib Dem leadership update

I watched Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne go head-to-head on Question Time on Thursday evening, and have just seen a clip of their lunchtime encounter on the Politics Show. Whereas Thursday's was largely consensual - much to David Dimbleby's irritation - today's was much more scratchy. The Politics Show had been sent a dossier prepared by the Huhne team entitled 'calamity clegg' attacking Nick Clegg on policy and on his record. Chris Huhne said he knew nothing about it.

This is obviously unhelpful for us as a party, as a leadership contest that is about issues gives us a chance to promote the party, but one that turns into a slanging match is damaging for us all.

Today's exchanges tell me two things: a) that both candidates are getting pretty tired after weeks of racing up and down the country and b) that the Huhne camp think they are behind - people who are ahead don't have to 'go negative'. With ballot papers going out in just a few days, I think Chris's team have phoned enough people to know they are behind and have to do something desperate to pull this one out of the fire. It's sad that this may be to the detriment of the party - whoever wins.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Campaigning effectively and getting results

A lot of political campaigning seems to be about delivering leaflets, running petitions, speaking at meetings, issuing press releases etc., but at the end of it you sometimes need to remember that this is not the only way to get things done. My experience of running a successful campaign to get pensions justice for thousands of women (see today's Daily Mail) shows that a different approach can often reap rewards.

The background to this story is that I was contacted some months ago by the Times newspaper about the cases of women who were not getting the full amount of state pension to which they were entitled. This was because the computer records of their time spent at home with children were incomplete. Under the state pension system you can get a measure of protection (known quaintly as 'Home Responsibilities Protection') for your pension rights if you are at home with a child under 16. But because of problems getting data from one computer to another, a significant number of women were missing out on some serious money.

I publicised the issue in the press and on the radio and heard from over a thousand women around the country who thought they might be affected. Along with my team in the office I went through each of these cases individually to find the strongest dozen or so 'case studies' to put to the Government. To give them their credit, the DWP looked at the cases, agreed that there were a dozen good cases that we had sent in (including one woman who has now received over £10,000 in back pension plus interest!) and we had several meetings with ministers and officials to work out what to do next.

DWP and HMRC officials have now come up a 'cunning plan' to trawl through millions of NIC records to try to 'pair up' retired women with the children for whom they should have got HRP in the past but never did. It may take months of work, but could ultimately result in a pensions boost running to tens of millions of pounds for these women.

It's interesting that working mostly quietly, behind the scenes and in a calm and apolitical way has got results, when shouting across the floor of the House of Commons probably would not have done so.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Reflections on Queen's Speech week

Once upon a time the Queen's Speech was awaited with eager anticipation in order to identify the Government's priorities for the coming year.

This time round it was a bit different.

First we had the 'pre-Queen's Speech' - ie Gordon Brown's statement to the Commons in July that identified the most likely main elements. In principle this isn't a bad idea if it meant genuine consultation and scope for amendment, but in reality it was widely seen as putting down some markers just in case of an Autumn election.

Second we had the 'phoney election' and party conferences where ministers trailed various items of future legislation.

Third we had the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which identified the Government's main spending priorities for the next 3 years.

Finally we had all the briefing and leaking prior to the Queen's Speech (eg about raising the 'education-leaving' age to 18).

After all this, Her Majesty's address sounded a bit more like yet another of those TV repeats that fill the schedules - you couldn't help feeling you'd heard it before.

Even allowing for the fact it was all pretty familiar stuff, it was hard to get very excited about the content of the speech. In particular, the hints of revisiting the 28 day limit for detention without trial was the Government at its worst. The limit has already been raised twice and the Government hasn't come up with a single credible argument for raising it further - the Home Secretary apparently said they might raise it "just in case".

When our hard-won freedoms are treated in such cavalier fashion, the need for the Liberal Democrats can never be more clearly seen.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Visit to Israel / Palestine

This week I took advantage of the gap between the end of one Parliamentary session on Monday and the start of the next (Queen's Speech next Tuesday) to join a Bible Society delegation with other MPs to visit Israel / Palestine. It was the first time I had been there and I've come away with a mass of impressions.

We talked on our visit to people on 'both sides' of the issue, although it quickly emerged that there are far more than two perspectives on what is happening. I had been told a lot about the wall (see pictures which are both around Bethlehem) that Israel is building - the Israelis call it a security wall, the Palestinians call it a separation wall. The Israelis point to the fact that since the wall and many checkpoints were put in place, the number of killings through suicide bombings has dropped dramatically. The Palestinians say that it is more about grabbing land than about security - one senior Palestinian said if the wall had simply been on the 1967 borders he would have helped them build it! The main problem it creates is that Palestinian people on the West Bank can be cut off from their place of work or their families. One told us it was like living 'in an open prison', and others that they felt 'under siege'.

Another thing that struck me was the daily suspicion and discrmination that Palestinian people can face. Our group was hosted by two wonderful Palestinian Christians, one of whom in appearance could be taken to be a Jewish migrant from Yemen or somewhere similar, whereas the other is clearly a Palestinian Arab. Everywhere we went, our host who was obviously more Arab in appearance was stopped at checkpoints or delayed whilst our other host was allowed through with no questions asked. One person told me that he was treated fine as long as he did not say much, but as soon as someone spoke to him in Arabic and revealed that he was not Israeli he suddenly got far worse treatment.

One of the most powerful meetings we had was with a senior figure in the provincial government in one of the West Bank territories. He told of how he had been driving with his family and the Israeli army had opened fire, shooting 300 bullets into his car. He was shot several times but survived, but his 12 year-old daughter was killed. As the father of a daughter of similar age, I could only begin to imagine how he must have felt. Yet he said that the only way forward was forgiveness - the alternative he said would destory him. That experience and that conversation reinforces the message that forgiveness and reconciliation is not a soft option - but it is probably the only hope for Peace.