My week (18 – 24 October)
Main event of the week was obviously the Comprehensive Spending Review. This merits a note of its own, so I’ll confine myself here to the theatre of the announcement. The House was packed to hear the Chancellor end months of speculation on the contents of the CSR. Many of his predecessors (Tory and Labour) were sat in the Peers’ gallery. I would not say that I am normally the biggest fan of George Osborne’s speaking style. But on this occasion he was calm and measured, especially in answering the hour and half worth of questions that followed. The expressions on the faces of Labour MPs told a story. They had spent months predicting Armageddon for public services and the poor. They sat through the statement looking remarkably glum, as the story clearly didn’t match the build up. The Chancellor announced at the end that the cuts were set at 19%, lower than the figures Labour had been predicting and lower than the 20% suggested by Labour as its own policy. This was met with laughter and some cheering – entirely at Labour’s expense. Personally, I don’t go in for the traditional Commons ballyhoo and order paper waving…
The statement wasn’t all cuts either. The NHS gets year on year increases and the schools budget is protected. The best news was confirmation of £2.5 billion a year extra funding for the pupil premium – a key Lib Dem policy and one which I spoke about more than any other in my election campaign in Bristol West. I asked the Chancellor to confirm the funding and spoke of my own experience of being on free school meals, the key qualification for the new funding.
Back in Bristol on Thursday evening I was able to mention another area where this coalition government will have a good record. The Bristol Festival of Ideas (see http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/?p=521 ) held a debate at the Watershed on the “Robin Hood Tax”. The CSR has given a wopping 47% increase in funds to the Department for International Development. Britain will be the first major economy in the world to reach the target of 0.7% of national income being given in overseas aid. Norway, Sweden, Netherlands and Luxemburg are already there. The Robin Hood tax campaign want a mix of three funding streams, broadly being a bank levy, a tax on bank bonuses and a transactions tax (commonly known as the Tobin Tax) on speculative transactions such as currency deals. I support the broad thrust of the campaign. The government has made a start with a £2.5 billion banks levy. An independent commission is looking at the structure of banking and has been asked to consider a FAT – a financial activities tax.
In the Commons much of my time this week was taken up with constitutional reform. The Bill allowing the referendum on AV and resizing of constituencies continues to make progress. I spoke in the debate on the size of the House, which is set to fall from 650 to 600. I said that Britain compared to other countries (and after my visit to the US, used the State of Michigan as an example) had remarkably few elected politicians. We actually do politics on the cheap, relying on a lot of part time or pure voluntary service by councillors, JPs and school governors.
The Political Reform Select Committee continued our look at post election procedures and coalition forming. Oliver Letwin gave evidence. He described the coalition talks as a game of battleships and owned up to being an avid reader of Lib Dem policy documents!
Finally, the constituency weekend saw two pleasant events. I visited St Nicholas Tolentino School in Easton. Years 5 and 6 had written to me about their community. The children are particularly concerned about local parks and litter in the streets. They showed their work to the full school assembly and then I met them in class. From there it was off to the Mansion House to witness the awarding of the German Order of Merit to Ann Newby. The German Ambassador presented her with her medal to make her many years service as the German Honourary Consul in Bristol.