Sunday, November 25, 2007

Diary

Monday

Meeting with Anatol Liabedzka, chairman of the United Civil Party of Belarus and head of the National United Democratic Forces, a coalition of 20 political parties which support democracy.

President Lukaschenko has changed his rhetoric since Putin became president of Russia, no longer favouring anschluss. He is still quite popular in spite of his authoritarian rule, but since the beginning of 2007 when the Russians stopped subsidising oil and gas supplied to Belarus, the cost of living and unemployment have risen.

Among political prisoners are Alyaksandr Kazulin, serving five and a half years after an unfair trial; Zmitser Dashkevich, imprisoned for 18 years for belonging to an unregistered organisation, and Andrej Klimov, who has been imprisoned three times. There will be elections in the autumn of 2008 and without freedom of expression they will be meaningless.

The government produce half a million copies of their official daily paper. The opposition paper Freedom of Belarus, has to be printed abroad, and they can only afford 50,000 copies. There is an opposition website, hosted in Germany. He didn’t think the audiences for BBC World Service or Radio Free Europe in Belarus were very large, or that they were reaching people who needed to be convinced of the merits of democracy. (I since asked them, and the BBC say they have an audience of 67,000 for the Russian, 5,000 English service; RFE say they reach 1% of the population, about 100,000)

Because of low wages and rising costs, there is large scale emigration, with 600,000 in Russia alone. Officially there is no unemployment. The average pay in Minsk is the equivalent of $450 a month, and the rent of a one-room flat is $250.
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Lunch with Tameem Ebrahim at which we discussed citizenship problems, mostly relating to Hong Kong. We have dealt with British National (Overseas) citizens of Indian origin, but there are remaining problems with the Nepalese. But in both cases, where a person was documented by the state concerned, notwithstanding that under the law of Nepal or India a person can’t be a citizen of another country and Indian or Nepalese as the case may be, the British are demanding a certificate that the document was issued in error.

PM, first meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Intergovernmental Organisations, chairman Clive Soley. Terms of reference are to consider how international issues are addressed through our membership of intergovernmental organisations other than the EU, and how our membership contributes to the achievement of specific UJ policy objectives. This is a very wide field, and the Committee will have to confine its inquiries to particular objectives, still to be decided.

Tuesday

Meeting on the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There are good prospects for revival of the international Chittagong Hill Tracts, which did good work in the 90s. The problems still remain: militarization of the CHT; continued dilution of the indigenous people by internal migration of Bengali settlers; failure to implement the 1997 CHT Peace Accords, and human rights violations which are largely unreported in the outside world.

Wednesday

Question on the Rights of the Child. The Government say they need a reservation to make it possible to remove failed child asylum seekers, but other European countries manage without a reservation. Ministers claimed in the Borders Bill that full compliance would create a new avenue of appeal against refusal, but they are wrong; the Convention wouldn’t create any new appeal rights, but could only give applicants additional arguments they could deploy in existing appeals. If this is the fear, the Convention should at least be extended to all other functions of the Borders and Immigration Agency other than the implementation of decisions to grant, refuse or vary leave to remain in the UK.

The Minister who replied, Christine Crawley, didn’t answer these points, and I shall have to write to her.

After questions I met a party of MA students from City University, showed them round the Palace of Westminster, and gave them a thumbnail sketch of the work of the House.

Then to Wormwood Scrubs Prison, for a multi-faith event there to mark Prisons Week. Ironically, because of the endemic shortage of staff, none of the prisoners were able to attend, but there were representatives of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism. The Address was given by the Ven Ajahn Khemadhammo Mahathera, Spiritual Head of the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Angulimala, He said that when he had started work in the prisons, an event of this kind would have been unthinkable. With Burmese monks at the ceremony, he pointed out that recently, monks had taken to the streets there armed only with the Buddha’s words of lovingkindness, even in the face of oppression. Religion gave us a standard: how to live without anger but with friendship to all. If we took this example out into society, just imagine how the world would be transformed. The Prison Service Chaplaincy was to be praised for bringing all the faiths together, and with that peace and harmony we could end violence, anger and hatred.

Thursday

Meeting with NGOs to discuss the Climate Change Bill. It was difficult to see how it could be applied to development issues, the remit being entirely concerned with the UK’s attainment of emission reduction targets.

Then to Cambridge, where I spoke to the University LibDems on foreign affairs generally, and conflict resolution in particular.

Friday

The House didn’t sit today, but I chaired a meeting of the Traveller Law Reform Unit Advisory Committee. The Committee discussed the recent judgement of the European Human Rights Court in the case of DH & others v Czech Republic [57325/00], in which it was decided that the authorities had acted unlawfully in segregating Roma children into special schools, and whether this had any bearing on the exclusion of Gypsy and Traveller children from schools in England and Wales. It was acknowledged, however, that the Department for Children, Schools and Families was very supportive. The Committee discussed the extension of Mobile Homes Act security of tenure to Gypsies and Travellers in the Housing and Regeneration Bill; the need for research on evictions, and on existing local authority sites that were unsuitable because of their proximity to rubbish tips, motorways, sewage works etc.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

BL reception

Taken at the reception in the Lord Speaker's River Room to launch the British Library's digital exhibition in the Lords Library - with David Jones, our former Librarian, Parthe Ward our senior Librarian, Sir Colim Lucas, Chairman of the British Library, and Peter Davis, our Deputy Librarian.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Snakes and Ladders

A major disaster today, when Windows XP on the main computer in my office at home packed up and was incapable of being restored. I had to reinstall XP which took ages, and wiped out the G drive with all my data on it. The most recent backup was several weeks old so I lost quite a number of files, as well as wasting several hours reinstalling drivers, getting the printer to work etc.

I have been appointed to the Ad Hoc Committee on Intergovernmental Organisations, a new Select Committee which starts work on Monday, with consideration of subjects for the first inquiry. The idea is to see how the UK addresses issues of international policy through our membership of international organisations (other than the EU). The Liaison Committee recommended that this Committee be established in pursuance of suggestions by Lord (Clive) Soley that the Committee should evaluate the contribution our membership makes to the achievement of specific UK policy objectives such as the prevention of human trafficking or limiting global warming.

Friday, November 16, 2007

With Barbara Stapleton

Diary

I’ve not been lazy since the last time I posted, just busy. Here’s a brief diary:

Wednesday November 7

Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs and defence, was to have opened for the Government by Lord Drayson, but he cried off just beforehand to start a new career in motor-racing. You couldn’t invent it, and it will be interesting to know what the real reasons were. Baroness (Anne) Taylor said it gave her great pleasure, and not a little surprise, to be taking his place. There were 44 speakers, who were invited to restrict themselves to 8 minutes, and in that time I touched on the crisis in Pakistan, and the forgotten agenda of Mr Blair’s Commission for Africa. I welcomed the belated addition of access to reproductive and sexual health services, including contraceptive advice and services, to the millennium development goals. Most speakers ignored the advice on timing and we finished at 10.53.

Thursday November 8

Meeting with Dr Orin Levine, Executive Director of PneumoADIP, to discuss the work of the All-Party Group on Pneumococcal Disease Prevention. Meeting with Frank Soodeen of Alcohol Concern, to discuss a survey we are planning on how Primary Care Trusts are spending the money they had from the Government to combat alcohol harm. It wasn’t ring fenced, and some may have used the money to reduce their deficits. Lunch with Frank Russell to discuss an ambitious scheme for regional centres of educational excellence in Africa. Afternoon, meeting with Raja Devasish Roy to discuss the current situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. The Minister of Foreign Affairs in the caretaker government, which holds office until the elections at the end of 2008, is also responsible for the CHT, and I had attended an off the record presentation he gave at the International Institute for Strategic Studies the previous Monday

Friday November 9

To Oxford, to chair a meeting of the Maurice Lubbock Memorial Fund Trustees. The fund, in memory of my father, promotes engineering and management education at Balliol College and Oxford University. This year is the 50th anniversary of our engineering scholarships, and the centenary of the Engineering School. (And its 62 years since I went to Balliol to read engineering)

Sunday November 11

To the Dutch Church, at Austin Friars in the City, where English Voices and the Steinitz Bach Players were playing Bach’s cantata We must pass through great affliction to enter God’s Kingdom. I said to the Minister after the service that the words reminded me, as a Buddhist, of the First Noble Truth: that ‘dukkha’ or unsatisfactoriness is an inevitable quality of human life, and though one may be lucky enough to have moments of pure joy – as in listening to the duet in this cantata – they don’t last long.

Monday November 12

All-Party Burma Group to hear from Bo Kyi about political prisoners, and Charm Tang of the Shan Women’s Network. Among others, Buddhist monks have been killed, hundreds arrested, and monasteries closed down, particularly appalling for a people who have always respected and loved the Sangha. At lunchtime, to the Department for Children, Schools and Families for a meeting between the Minister, Lord Adonis, and officers of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers (ACERT), of which I’m President.

I was invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace for people concerned with the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala, but was held up dealing with an urgent immigration case. Hope it wasn’t lèse majestĂ©

Tuesday November 13

Morning, at a Royal College of Physicians conference on reducing the harm caused by alcohol. The conference charter demanded that the price of alcohol should be increased; that there should be enough treatment and help available for those who need it; there should be better regulation of the drinks industry, sensible proposals the Government will ignore. At question time I intervened on the subject of West Papua, which was occupied by Indonesia after a bogus ‘Act of Free Choice’. PM, meeting with Dan Tyler of SaferWorld to discuss their report on the impact on Africa of the international arms trade. Evening, Barbara Stapleton arrived from Afghanistan. We discussed her report on the Provincial Reconstruction Team strategy, which isn’t working.

Wednesday November 14

Armed with SaferWorld’s advice, I chipped in on a question about the proposed arms trade treaty. This evening I hosted a reception for the British Library in the Lord Speaker’s magnificent River Room. The BL have organised an exhibition in our Library of some of their digitisation projects, including the whole of the 19th century provincial press and treasures of early English literature. Evening, preparing for tomorrow’s debate introduced by Lord (Clive) Soley on ‘the case for liberal intervention’. Don’t recognise the term? Read the dabate!

Thursday November 15

Was to have had lunch with the Principal Jim Power and Vice Principal Innes van Nostrand of my old school Upper Canada College, but Ckive’s debate started earlier than expected, and I only had five minutes for a brief chat with them, before settling them in the gallery to listen to part of the debate. Tea with Dr Michele Sciurbs, Honorary Consul of Sao Tome E Principe in Rome, who was preparing the ground for a visit by two of their Ministers.

Friday November 16

To the Royal Geographical Society, for the launch of the UK National Committee for the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, and discussion meeting. Atmospheric temperature increase is a fact, and it’s a dangerous mistake to consider only scenarios limited to 2C maximum rise. Climate change is almost certainly anthropogenic, and we need to integrate the social sciences into the review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unfortunately I was the only politician at the meeting, and there appeared to be no officials there either; yet most of what I heard was of direct concern to policy makers.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thursday, November 01, 2007

With ASEAN MPs in Committee Room 20

Meeting with ASEAN MPs this morning

www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFo7pT1T2O4

A useful and positive discussion with MPs from ASEAN countries on what we can do together to promote the cause of freedom in Burma.