Keeping up is hard to do

Baroness Deech 09/02/2013 – 10:03 am

In addition to the usual meetings and sittings this week, I was invited to attend meetings in the Palace of Westminster with and on the following inter alia: Racing and Bloodstock, Working Practices of the House, Reform of the House, the Bahraini Parliamentary delegation, the Leveson Inquiry, the Pancake Race, Universities, Aviation Noise, National Libraries, NHS Primary Care, Crime Figures, Broadband, Marine Pilots, Tamils, the Parliamentary Art Collection, Pro Bono Law, the Netherlands Ambassador, Islamic Finance, Ebacc, Diversity in the Working Place and Sexual Equality.  There were invitations to think tank sessions on Britain and Europe, Marriage Week, Muslim Peace, Child Abuse and Legal Services.  The one event I particularly regret not being able to attend was an invitation from Cumbrian MPs for Cumbria Day, which promised Cumbrian sausages, cheese, fudge, ales, gingerbread, pies and marmalade from that area.  There just isn’t time. 

The All Party Parliamentary Groups advertised their meetings for the week, which included sessions on Kosovo, Brazil, Rail in the North, Agroecology, Weight Watchers, Shooting and Conservation, Food and Health, Malaria, Mexico, the Constitution, Drug Policy, Classical Music, Fashion and Textile, Arts and Heritage, and the Commons and Lords Hockey Team, to name but a few.  There were international parliamentary exchanges with delgations from and to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Sierra Leone, India, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.   There is no shortage of opportunities to be informed.

The three I attended were the launch of Marriage Week, at which I spoke, Legal Services and Peace in the Middle East.  One can do quite a lot of catching up on other events via the internet and of course everybody is tweeting from the meetings they go to.  A deluge of information, not always reliable, and one needs to pick and choose.

The Nyon Process for Dialogue in the Middle East and North Africa

Lord Hylton 01/02/2013 – 11:47 am

Andalusia, in southern Spain, saw harmonious coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews for between five and seven hundred years in the Middle Ages. Its capital, Cordoba, was then the largest and richest city in Western Europe.

 Cordoba therefore provided an ideal setting for the ninth session of the Nyon Process, from 21st to 23rdJanuary 2013.  This dialogue and search for possible joint action began before the Arab Spring, or Awakening, and continues to bring together people who might otherwise not meet.  It bridges the Sunni/Shia divide, and includes American evangelicals and Jews, also European secular and religious leaders. Between sessions the conversation is kept up by video link; while “Forward Thinking”, the London-based facilitator, is also assisting national internal dialogues in Egypt and Tunisia.

 I have vivid memories of meetings and explorations that took place in Eastern Europe and Russia, following the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union.  There were many similarities with what is now happening after the fall of major dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  The emerging movements and political parties need to share experiences and to consult with their counterparts in Europe and America.

 The background to these conversations includes unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine, civil war in Syria, acute difficulties over power-sharing in Iraq, fighting in Mali, tensions inside Gulf states and efforts to bring in new constitutions in Egypt and elsewhere.

 The meeting in Cordoba encouraged maximum links between Middle-Eastern and European parliamentarians and political parties.  It touched on economic development for the benefit of the many young unemployed people.  It urged the media and civil groups to engage across frontiers, focussing on positive opportunities rather than just security situations.  It would like to see national reconciliation between rival Palestinian groups, since 2013 may be the last chance for agreement on two states in Israel and Palestine.  It touched on the role and status of women, and discussed the need for mutual respect between majorities and minorities of all kinds.  The last relationship was perhaps the major theme of the session.

Gender issues

Baroness Deech 25/01/2013 – 4:14 pm

Some interesting issues about gender have been discussed this week.  First, the Royal Succession. I will not spend long on the (rushed) bill that will enable the first born child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whether male or female, to succeed.  I am sure it is a good thing that the oldest child of the King or Queen  should become King or Queen, and we have done very well with our Queens.  But it does raise a host of other issues, which were given short shrift in the Commons debate.  Gender equality in the monarchy and elsewhere is to be welcomed, but it must follow that the transmission of other titles will have to be considered.  Even if you think that titles are not worth bothering about these days, they exist, have importance for many and, arguably, help to sustain the monarchical system.  So surely the oldest child of a titled person should inherit the title and the property, if any, that goes with it. And my persistent complaint – why does the husband of a woman peer get inferior treatment to the wife of a peer?

Second, Tax relief on childcare. Of course, either sex may require childcare, but it is mainly a female issue. Where I mention women in this comment, please apply it to men as well and vice versa. (Bloggers – if you think that all women should stay at home with their children, have you considered that the father should do so?) It was suggested that there might, at last, be tax relief on childcare costs.  This would be of immense benefit to those women who calculate that they cannot afford to go back to work because child care costs would consume their salary.  It would also be of enormous assistance to women professionals, especially doctors and nurses, who spend long years training, whose presence in the hospital and surgery is desperately needed, and who are held back from giving their full time attention to patients because of limited childcare. More women than men now train as doctors, and we cannot afford to lose them, which we do, because they cannot find or afford childcare.  This is so obvious, yet the LibDems have put the boot in, and it is reported that Nick Clegg will not allow this sensible reform to go forward because it would help higher earners.  It would help everyone, actually, including those who might benefit from the increased presence of doctors at work.  Our child care costs are amongst the highest in the world, our childcare redtape is the worst, and many women are desperate to use their education and talents in the workplace, to help sustain their families and their mortgages, but are being needlessly held back.  There really ought to be a massive protest about this iniquity.

If a man is self employed, he can claim as a business allowance the salary he pays to his secretary.  If a woman employs a childcarer, why can she not claim the salary as an allowance? The secretary is regarded in tax law as necessary and exclusive to the business, but we all know that the job is more wide ranging and personal than that; the childcarer is every bit as, probably more essential to the working capacity of the woman at work. I guess that if mothers at work were allowed to choose between having a secretary or a childcarer, many would go for the latter.

Third, gay marriage. One of the grounds for divorce in a heterosexual marriage is adultery.  The newly-published Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill applies the same divorce grounds to same sex marriage but specifies that adultery is to  be defined as conduct only with a member of the opposite sex and not the same sex! So intimacy between a married gay person and another person of the same sex would not count as adultery. But intimacy with a person of the opposite sex does. What are we to make of that?

Target Practice

Lord Tyler 24/01/2013 – 3:43 pm

I wonder if any colleagues, or any regular readers, have ever tried to find the “Parliamentary Rifle Range”.  For some years, while I was still an MP, there were regular requests for this apparently anachronistic  facility, somewhere in the basement, to be replaced with a creche for the children of staff and members of both Houses.  One Conservative MP naughtily suggested that the two roles could be combined.

A few weeks back, I spotted the following exchange in the Commons:

Rifle Range

9. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What the cost to the House of Commons Service of the rifle range on the parliamentary estate was in the latest year for which figures are available. [52659]

John Thurso: The range is situated in the House of Lords, so there is no direct cost to the House of Commons other than in respect of that percentage of the estate which is paid for by the House of Commons.

Diana Johnson: Given the continued sniping about some of the family-friendly measures that have been introduced, such as the crèche, and the need for the House of Commons and the House of Lords to make cuts to their budgets, are we not shooting ourselves in the foot by continuing to pay for a rifle range in the House of Lords?

John Thurso: I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her attempt to brown the covey, but I suggest that she has to take a more targeted approach. This is a matter entirely for their lordships.

 

That seemed to throw the responsibility in our direction, so I initiated an exchange here, with the Chairman of Committees in the Lords:

House of Lords: Rifle Range

Asked by Lord Tyler

    To ask the Chairman of Committees what was the cost to the House of Lords of the rifle range on the parliamentary estate in the latest year for which figures are available.[HL4463]

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Sewel): No such figures are available. The rifle range uses minimal amounts of lighting, but it is not possible to calculate the particular costs attributable to the rifle range. The House does not incur any other costs in relation to the rifle range, other than in respect of that percentage of general estate costs which is paid for by the House.

More mystery.  If this facility costs the taxpayer almost nothing, who runs this outfit?  Who is responsible for the security of the rifles and their ammunition?  Surely selected members are not permitted to wander round the building with them?  Is this not a potential weakness in our otherwise tight security?  And who pays for that security?   I tried phoning the Rifle Range (ext 3350 if you want to know), to get answers to these questions, but it rang without anyone answering.

This is all very unsettling.  If the House authorities are not responsible, who is?  To whom should I target my questions now?

The demise of snail mail

Lord Norton 22/01/2013 – 11:57 am

I have previously written about the decline in the volume of letters received in the Palace of Westminster.  At the beginning of each year, I put down a question to find out how many items of correspondence were received in the Palace in the preceding year.  I have now received the figure for 2012. 

The figures for 2005 onwards are (with the percentage going to the Lords in parenthesis):

2005  4,733,000 (estimate) (20%)

2006 4,789,935  (no % given for the Lords)

2007  4,199,853 (20%)

2008  4,135,144 (15%)

2009 3,540,080 (25%)

2010  3,082,187 (25%)

2011  2,691,576 (25%)

2012  2,544,019 (25%)

The number of letters coming in by mail has decreased markedly in recent years and is now almost half of the figure for 2005.   There is little evidence of demands on parliamentarians declining.  MPs in particular continue to have bulging files of constituency casework.  What appears to be happening is that correspondents are switching from paper to the Internet.  E-mail correspondence is cheap and quick to send and, unlike letters, can be sent in bulk.  Organisations lobbying on a particular issue can add bulky attachments without having to stick all the material in a large envelope. 

The result is that e-mail boxes are overflowing, while the pile of letters declines in size.  The result, I suspect, is that more material now flows into the Palace than ever before, the volume of e-mails more than compensating for the reduction in the number of letters.  As yet, I have no hard data to support this.  E-mail traffic is not monitored, but from my own experience outside bodies seem to be relying more on e-mail correspondence and sending more, either or both in terms of the number of parliamentarians contacted and the number of e-mails, than used to be the case with snail mail.  

Keeping pace with the volume of correspondence has always been a problem.  As more and more comes in electronically, and at a time when demands for more expenses are not likely to find a sympathetic ear, the challenge to parliamentarians (especially MPs) is going to be pronounced.