My week in Westminster (11th to 14th October)
I had intended writing this up on Sunday but IT problems at home frustrated my intentions…so this is a note on some highlights of last week. Monday was actually my 44th birthday. Being an MP means your birthday appears in the quality papers but Parliament is not like any other workplace so there were no cakes or drinks with colleagues, which was the norm in the “real world” pre 2005!
Instead my birthday was buried in a flurry of Bristol and Westminster media events. I’ll be posting a separate note with my views on higher education (so save your comments for that blog!) but my day began at 10 to 8 in the Radio Bristol studio doing an interview with Justin Webb of the Today programme, in advance of Lord Browne’s report on HE due out on Tuesday.
Then at 8.10am it was Radio Bristol proper to talk about Bristol City FC’s visit to Westminster later in the morning. Steve Lansdown and his colleagues were on the same train to Paddington and at lunchtime we met up in a House of Commons function room to hear from him as well as Dawn Primarlo MP and Cllr Simon Cook. Then we were off to College Green for a photo-op with a “City United” banner, joined by Charlotte Leslie and Kerry McCarthy. This is the first time I can recall all four Bristol MPs standing together to support the same issue – we should do it more often. MPs from outside the city (Tessa Munt and Chris Skidmore) plus councillors from all three parties on Bristol City Council were there in support. I will continue to press the government to clarify the town greens legislation and hope that the club get the evidence they need to enable the City Council to reject the inspector’s findings.
Later on Monday I was briefly on duty in the Commons chamber for the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, the technical legislation from the Budget. One such technical measure which pleased me was action to curb tax avoidance…by smokers. Apparently people have been buying long cigarettes, cutting them in half and selling them on, saving duty. One of the roles I’ve taken up in this Parliament is Chair of the All Party Group on Smoking & Health. Over the summer we conducted an evidence based enquiry into tobacco control, in advance of this week’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Our report shows that investment in tobacco control pays a substantial dividend, not just in value for money but in saving lives. You can read it here: http://www.ash.org.uk/current-policy-issues/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-smoking-and-health
The week saw more media appearances in all the quality newspapers as well as Radio 5 and Newsnight and the West regional news on tuition fees. This week I also used Parliament to draw attention to another important local issue. I have campaigned for improvements to Bristol’s rail network for many years. The last government announced an intention to electrify the Great Western Rail line from Paddington to Bristol and South Wales. Bristol, Cardiff and Swindon councils have banded together to promote transport improvements. My colleague Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central and I spoke at a Commons reception for the partnership.
I referred to my summer visit to Swindon’s excellent Steam Museum about the GWR. In May 1838 when the Northern Star pulled into Bristol Station on the inaugural run from Paddington it immediately transformed the lives of everyone in early Victorian Bristol. Speed, comfort and convenience immediately shifted from mail coach to the railway carriage. We even had to change our clocks! Now in the 21st century many people prefer the M4 to the railway. We have to give the advantage back to rail.
Finally, on Thursday we had the latest sitting of the Commons Select Committee on Political & Constitutional Reform. The committee is preparing a report on the post election arrangements for coalition forming. We will look at the experiences of the 5 days in May 2010 when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was formed and making recommendations for next time, should a hung Parliament arise in May 2015.
Our witnesses were my colleague David Laws for the Lib Dems and Andrew Adonis for Labour. Oliver Letwin will give evidence next week. In my opinion Andrew was putting a rather too generous gloss on Labour behaviour after the election. But he came up with one Rumsfeldism – the absence of a written constitution meant that “understandings were not completely understood.” Personally, I think more breathing space will be needed next time. I have vivid memories of reading draft documents in the early hours of the morning on the back of several days without more than a few hours sleep. I don’t think we need as long as the US system of a November election and January handover. In our Parliamentary system we could set a date for the House of Commons to assemble post election (say 2 weeks) and have that date as the time by which a government should be formed, initially by voting for a Prime Minister.
Anyway, it’s 10.20pm on Monday and there’ll be more votes soon on the current constitutional Bill before the House, on the AV referendum. So bye for now.