Sunday, June 17, 2007

Leamington Peace Festival

I had a great time strolling round the Leamington Peace Festival this afternoon. This is a fantastic event often hot and sunny each year and today we were very lucky with the weather. I was able to mix two different worlds, Music & Politics.

When I arrived Souler Rhythm were playing on the main stage. I did sound engineering with this band some years ago and we had some great times travelling around the country, doing gig’s in very different places. It was good to catch up with some of them briefly afterwards backstage.

I then did a tour of some of the stalls and was struck by how many campaigns we are involved with in Warwick & Leamington. We seem to have a great sense of political conscience here and play leading roles in so many issues. So it was good to talk to some of these grass roots campaigners and learn a little about the issues they are working on.

The message of the Peace Festival really is that we can make a difference by standing up and being counted, whether by signing petitions or getting involved in campaign groups. It may seem that we individually have a very small voice, yet lots of small voices make one huge one and that really does make a difference.

I then met up with some friends at the main stage to see Satin Dolls, they are playing at the ‘GW Fest’ at my local, the Great Western in Warwick on the 28th July to raise money for Myton Hospice.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Freedom of Information - We have won!

Great news, I have just heard that your lobbying of Lib-Dem peers has paid off. Despite reports a few weeks ago that Conservative peer Lord Trefgarne would take on the bill, no member of the House of Lords has come forward to sponsor it, effectively killing the bill off.

We mustn't be complacent: the Labour Government has shown little commitment to its own Freedom of Information Act and ministers are still muttering about watering it down. The Liberal Democrats will continue to support the principle of open government, and we will be monitoring for any future attempts to weaken the law - including any moves to resurrect David Maclean's bill.

Why I believe Freedom of Information is important.

There has been an exchange of letters in the Courier over the past few weeks between our Labour MP, James Plaskitt, me. I don’t usually like 'letters page debates' though in this case I feel the issue is important, let me explain why.

The freedom of information act means that we have the right to ask for information about how our government is running our country. Now the government is there to take decisions and spend our taxes on our behalf to provide the services we need. It is important to remember that our government is there to serve us.

So the fact that we can hold our government to account is a very important part of democracy. I believe that this should include our MP's who we elect to represent us in our government.

Some people think that the vote to make MP's except from the Freedom of Information Act is all about MP's being able to hide how much they spend on expenses. I believe the issue is wider than that. I believe it is about accountability of Government including the role our elected MP's play in it.

Now of course there needs to be safeguards in this, to stop personal information being disclosed. I believe that there are already enough safeguards in place to protect this.

This question was raised to Baroness Ashton at the Ministry of Justice last week. The minister was asked whether the government propose to amend either the Freedom Of Information Act or the Data Protection Act to provide greater protection for information supplied by MPs to public authorities and replied that, ‘there are provisions within the Acts to protect such information where appropriate’ and that ‘the Government has not been notified of any improper disclosure of personal or confidential information communicated to public authorities by MPs’. (Lords Hansard 4 Jun 2007: Column WA157 & 158)

Even if the Information Commissioner had evidence of improper disclosure of correspondence, surely a better course of action would be to tighten up the provisions in Sections 40 and 41 rather than to significantly weaken the Act by exempting the elected representatives of that government?

That is why I am campaigning to make sure the Freedom of Information Act stays as it is.

The second reading in the Lords will be later this month and Lib Dem peers have promised to do all they can to stop this Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill becoming law. People are very concerned about how this weakens the accountability of our government.

You can help by following this link and write to members of the house of lords to ask them to vote against the change to the Freedom of Information Act.

More information can be found in these websites.

Campaign for Freedom of Information. - Lots of useful information.
Richard Allan's Blog.
Open Secrets Blog.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Visit to European Parliament and NATO

Wednesday and Thursday this week I visited the European Parliament and NATO as part of a delegation from the Liberal Democrat European Group. I had the chance to chat to many of our MEP's including Liz Lynne from Stratford who is the MEP for the West Midlands.

This was an extremely valuable couple of days, which informed me about a lot of the issues we face right across the European region and the leading role Britain plays.

On Wednesday we met a number of our MEPs and were able to have some very open and frank discussions with them. Key discussions include;

Andrew Duff who outlined the political backdrop across member states to the renegotiation of the European Constitution. Andrew was speaking in the debate on the constitution later that afternoon and he invited us to sit in the diplomatic gallery and listen to some of the debate.

Bill Newton Dunn discussed the scale and scope of international organised crime. This issue alone outlines how Europe is a vital part of addressing many of the issues we now face in the 21st Century. If we did not have an EU we would have to create one. One thing is sure, the international criminal gangs are working in an integrated way and our national and international governments need to be doing the same in order to keep up. Bill outlined some frightening facts related to Electronic crime, laptops are now stolen for personal data rather than hardware. Child Porn, The serious issue of Illegal Immigration, People Trafficking with 1/3 of Africans coming to Canary lsles drowning at sea. Bill also outlined the frustrations faced with getting member governmental organisations to work together, often it is the EU that get blamed in the media when it seems to me that one of the challenges Europe faces is that the National Governments of member states not taking them seriously. If they did Europe could achieve so much more.

Diana Wallis - A Vice President of the European Parliament opened up a lively debate on Single Seat issue, or the move of the parliament to Strasbourg each month, Diana also explained how MEP's have always had the sort of transparency our Westminster MP's are trying to avoid with the amendment to the Freedom of Information act.

Thursday we visited NATO where a member of the NATO staff briefed us on how NATO’s role has evolved to meet the changing political challenges over recent decades. NATO 1 was a response to the cold war, which then evolved into NATO 2 in the early 1990’s expanding and embracing former enemies, including Russia who is now a partner. NATO 3 is now responding to a post 9/11 world.

We had a fascinating briefing from a member of the Royal Marines, who explained the challenges faced in Afghanistan. He told us that morale of our forces over there is high, not least because public opinion at home is more in favour of that war than our actions in Iraq. There are massive challenges ahead in Afghanistan. Regardless of the morality of the war in Afghanistan, I am convinced that not only is Britain playing a key role, we are also leading the thinking and in my opinion are adopting a sensible approach to many of the sensitive issues, an approach that might not be adopted if it were left to some of our other leading partners.

A representative from the Home Office and the MOD also briefed us. I asked how Russia’s response to American stationing of their missile defense system in Poland and the Czech republic, in threatening to target European Cities fitted with their role as a partner of NATO. I sensed the question was being evaded and phrased the question again and they admitted that the Russian response was ‘not helpful’.

The past few days have been of immense value in helping us understand the reality of many of the situations we face and how important our role within Europe is to the UK and why we should not dismiss it as being a political sideshow that has little relevance to the security and prosperity of our country.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Leamington to be Concreted Over.

Well that's how it seems after reading the stories hitting the news over the past few weeks.

First we heard that a developer (George Wimpy) had been in discussion with the Cricket Club in Arlington Road and also the Tennis Club in Guys Cliffe Avenue with a proposal to build on their grounds.

Then we heard how the Binswood allotments could be under threat from development from the very same developer.

I attended the public meeting held at the Cricket Club a couple of weeks ago and heard both sides of the story. I can see that the offer being made to the club is very attractive, yet I share the concerns of many residents that we simply cannot carry on building inside the town, using up the open spaces that add to the quality of the town. As we build more houses we add pressure to the already overcrowded roads inside the town.

Of course there is also a desperate shortage of houses in this area, especially affordable, so this is a difficult balance to get right.

For anyone wishing to object to applications should they be made to build on these lands, the first port of call will be the Town Council and then the District. I will post on here if any of these plans get to the application stage so you get plenty of time to make your views known.