This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.

Barrett’s Blog

From 1st January 2010 this site will no longer be updated, in accordance with Parliamentary rules.

The site will be kept online and can still be used to find information and to contact John, but the latest news will be posted on the West Edinburgh Liberal Democrats website.

This blog aims to give an insight into the day to day life of an MP, rather than being a political soapbox.

October 2009

This year's Scottish one-day conference was held in Dunfermline's Vine Venue

31 October 2009

Mike - Setting the place on fire.

Saturday was spent at a "behind closed doors" conference in Dunfermline. It had originally been arranged to update our constitution, for its first major overhaul in 21 years. Sad to say - I was around at that time too. Added to the constitutional debate was a consultative session on the Referendum Bill which is coming before the Scottish Parliament soon. There were lots of views on the issue, but everyone was united in opposition to the current Bill as it is proposed. Tavish Scott, the leader in Scotland, was left with a party completely united for the debate ahead. He also introduced Mike as the new Edinburgh West candidate and told the story about when they were heather burning in Shetland some years ago and when the "controlled" burn rampaged out of control for three days!

Passing on the baton

30 October 2009

The Final Furlong

Friday evening was in two parts, the second was to attend a General Election planning meeting, but before that was the much more interesting part of the evening. The count to select the candidate to be my successor, which was by a postal ballot. All the candidates were there and the atmosphere was very tense. In the end it went to Mike Crockart, a former policeman, who now works in the financial service sector. Selections and counts are always difficult, as there will always be more losers than winners. Everyone took it with good grace and the decision will be announced at Saturday's one day Scottish conference. It really feels like the beginning of the end, with the new candidate in place, I can now pass on the baton for the final leg of the race. Well done Mike.

Steve Webb, MP for Northavon and Shadow Spokesman for Work and Pensions

29 October 2009

The Master

Most of this week has been spent on the Child Poverty Bill, with little time for much else, as there is endless reading of background material between the committee sessions. Without a doubt the star in the committee is my colleague Professor Steve Webb, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. Some of the witnesses at the evidence sessions were former students, some of the research on the subject has been his own research and both the other parties present, including the Minister, have mentioned his ability to make this issue his own. I felt like the apprentice in the presence of the master. He has even been light heartedly recommended as the first chair of the new Child Poverty Commission.

Sri Lankan national flag

28 October 2009

Detention Camps in Sri Lanka

The one real break for me from the Child Poverty Bill this week was the debate on those detained in camps in Sri Lanka. It brought back memories of the camps I had seen close up in Darfur and more recently at Auschwitz. In both cases the governments there had made it sound like all was well and that meddling outsiders should keep out and not interfere with a domestic problem. What we need is to make sure that the same tragedy is not unfolding in those camps that exist today in Sri Lanka. Even though they are on a much smaller scale, it would still be intolerable.

Cramond - one of the most attractive parts of the constituency

26 October 2009

Cramond

Spent the evening speaking to a packed hall in the village of Cramond, which is one of the most attractive parts of the constituency. The Cramond Association were celebrating their 50th Anniversary and I had been invited to give a talk about my life and work in and out of Parliament. After a 45 minute talk there was a lively question and answer session covering everything from Tony Blair and Iraq to domestic and international questions. It covered a much wider range of questions than Question Time ever does and not one question about the BNP.

A good result for a constituent from the Inland Revenue

23 October 2009

Tax Repayment

At the end of a busy week and when advice surgeries were over I read through the last of the mail and emails. Two particular ones made me smile. One constituent thanked me for getting £9,600 repaid into his account from the Inland Revenue. After many long battles with government departments, it is always good to get a result that means so much to an individual, who had almost given up battling the system. The second was from someone in Stafford, who had been sent a copy of my Annual Report by her sister. She told me that she had met me when I was ten months old after I had returned from Tasmania and that she had been a friend of my mother since their schooldays. She said that my mother would have been "bursting with pride at my aims and achievements."A perfect way to end the week.

The Vicar of Dibley - an idea that turned into a resounding success

22 October 2009

The Vicar of Dibley

During an evidence session today for the Child PovertyBill there was one witness, a former church minister, who had spent many years working on behalf of families who had experienced real poverty. He was keen that we were well briefed on the impact of inadequate incomes on the health of young women, particularly those who were pregnant, and their unborn children. One other interesting aspect to his life was that it was he who was contacted when programme makers wanted to film a TV series in his parish and village. He granted them permission and the programme went on to be a great success. He was in fact the original Vicar of Dibley

Vince has been a champion of Equitable Life policy holders

21 October 2009

Equitable Life

Today was one of the very few days where the Liberal Democrats could decide the topic for debate in Parliament, on what is called an opposition day. We decided to split the day into two debates on Equitable Lifeand Climate Change. I have been dealing with Equitable Life policy holders for the last eight years and following a court judgement last week we decided to push the Government again on this. Vince Cable's Early Day Motion, which was basically the same as our motion today, now has the support of more than half of all MP's, but when the vote came at the end of the debate, many voted on party lines and we lost be a mere 25 votes. Those policy holders deserve better from their elected politicians.

Save The Children - a leading charity taking a strong interest in the Child Poverty Bill

20 October 2009

Poverty

Much of the week has been spent taking evidence for the Child Poverty Bill and questioning witnesses. They have ranged from Government Ministers, pressure groups - such as Save the Children and Gingerbread, church groups, academics and much more. The complexity of the issue is something that many do not understand and often poverty is looked at as a simple lack of cash. It is much more than that and it will take much more than cash to reduce the number of children living in poverty in the UK today. While we do not see the absolute poverty experienced elsewhere in the world, there is still far too much poverty throughout the UK, with the numbers rising during the recession. It is often not really just child poverty, it is family poverty, with an estimated 4 million children living in families where everyone lives below the poverty line.

The Pink-footed Goose

17 October 2009

Ten Years On

Ten years on from my own hustings meeting, when I was one of the candidates being grilled, today it was now the turn for my potential successors to face the membership. I sat back and listened to each one of the four candidates in turn make their presentation and then answer questions. This is the final phase before ballot papers are issued and the final decision is made. I had planned not to ask any questions, but could not resist, and asked what their priorities would be at Westminster and in the constituency. It was also a good chance to meet up with many of the members I had not seen for a while. In the afternoon at the Scottish Ornithologists Club, I witnessed the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese, which arrive here in October. Clouds of these birds fill the sky in spectacular formation as about a quarter of a million arrive to winter in the UK. Finished the evening with friends at the most mind boggling film I have ever seen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a truly magical film, which had to be rewritten as Heath Ledger died while it was being made. Dream sequences using other actors were then written in, so the entire project could be completed. Well worth seeing - if you don't mind entering a parallel universe for two hours.

16 October 2009

Archie Mills

Earlier in the week I heard the sad news that an old friend, Archie Mills, had died. His funeral was this afternoon and he was probably one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. He had lived a full life and latterly stayed in South Queensferry, with excellent views of the Forth bridges from his home. He and Eleanor would always welcome many friends and family into their home on New Year's Day for a drink and to watch those brave enough to run into the chilly waters to raise money for charity at the "Looney Dook". My memories of Archie will be happy ones and through his life he changed from being an atheist to a Christian, after studying a number of other religions. He also started off at sea being sea-sick all the time and ended up in the Royal Navy and owning a number of boats. A truly remarkable man.

Climate Change protestors campaigning on the roof of Parliament

15 October 2009

Groundhog Day

At times it has been like Groundhog Day at Westminster, with protestors on the roof and expenses stories filling the press. It has been good therefore to get back into dealing with some serious work, with the start of the Child Poverty Bill evidence sessions. There is a lot of background reading and I will immerse myself in that for the next month or so. I was also invited by Save the Children to speak at the launch of a film made by youngsters from around the country about child poverty, timed to coincide with the Bill. It reminded me of many years ago, when I made a short film in the USA with homeless youngsters, who then used the film to help campaign to keep their shelter open (it was about to close) - which they managed to do. An early campaign success from about 20 years ago. It is more like Groundhog Day than I first thought.

Liberal Democrat candidate Eileen Baxendale with Glasgow Representatives Jo Swinson MP and Robert Brown MSP

14 October 2009

Glasgow by-election campaign launched

Every Wednesday the entire Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party meets up, along with key staff and representatives from the Lords. One issue I will be raising, in case it has missed anyone in London, is that today is the launch of the Glasgow North East by-election campaign by Tavish Scott. I am planning to go along, as soon as possible, to help our candidate Eileen Baxendale and I know that many of my colleagues will also be doing the same.

The day I pushed Patsy into the Commons to take her Oath

13 October 2009

Patsy Calton

MPs are often asked to participate in unusual photo-calls to give publicity to good causes. Today we were encouraged to wear something pink, by the Breast Cancer Campaign, to help them raise funds and to highlight the fact that Over 45,500 women and around 300 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year, making it the most common cancer for women in the UK. The money raised from wear it pink will fund innovative world-class research to understand how breast cancer develops, leading to improved diagnosis, treatment, prevention and cure. Sadly today also reminded me of a good friend and colleague, Patsy Calton, elected on the same day as me in 2001, but who died of breast cancer shortly after being re-elected MP for Cheadle in 2005. Following that election, I pushed her wheelchair into the commons where she took her oath. She died shortly afterwards.

The man charged with auditing MPs' expenses, Thomas Legg

12 October 2009

Legg's Letters

Back at Westminster, the expenses issue has taken off again. With MPs receiving letters today from Sir Thomas Legg stating that some had large sums of money to repay and other would need to do some explaining about what they had done in previous years. By the end of the day not every MP had received their letter. I did get my one and was glad that there were no issues causing problems and no amounts to repay. No doubt this issue will rumble on for months to come.

Shoe-shine boy

11 October 2009

Shoe-shine boy

Last day of the recess and watching the news, it looks like most MPs will have a letter tomorrow from Sir Thomas Legg to respond to about expenses. Everyone from the Prime Minister to humble back-benchers will probably have something to respond to. Also, Westminster has been invaded by climate change protestors and they are on the roof of the building. I am less worried at their protest than I am about the ability of the security of the place to be able to deal with a genuine attack. Like the case of Garry McKinnon the computer hacker. He clearly exposed lapses in the American defence computer network, while not being a real danger. He should be thanked for showing how useless their security was. We should maybe thank the climate change protestors for exposing how weak the security actually is, in the House of Commons. The day ended with a constituency meeting which went on to 11pm. With more casework to do and emails to clear it looks like a very late night tonight, or an earlier start than normal tomorrow will be required. One e-mail, which was good to get tonight, was from, "shoe-shine boy", as I first knew him, from Ethiopia and who has been able to continue his studies at school because of the support we have been sending him. His name is Fasil and he has kept in touch for about six years, first by letter and now by email. He lives in the slums of Addis Ababa and hopefully a good education will provide his route out.

Novel 'Little Daughter' by Zoya Phan

10 October 2009

Burma

Spent the morning out delivering and meeting constituents in the Balgreen area, which was where I started to campaign in the early 1980's, when we won the local council ward for the first time. I had been selected to be the candidate, but had to stand down because of pressure at work. I organised the campaign and was the agent for a good friend, Veronica Crerar, who then went on to win the seat. I also met up with an old lecturer from my days at Napier Polytechnic as it was then, (it is now Napier University). Then it was down to Inverleith Park to meet those running for Burma in Run for Burma, a sponsored event and to raise the plight of those out in Burma suffering under that dictatorship. I met up with a young activist, Zoya Phan, whose father was a political leader and had been assassinated 18 months ago. Her excellent book Little Daughter, tells her story. Although she was 28, she only looked 18, but had been through what most of us would never want to experience in an entire lifetime.

9 October 2009

Cast Away

The day started well with the front page story in the Independent announcing that there was hopeful news that science had found the cause of ME. As expected, while there is some hopeful news, there is still a long way to go. However, some hope for the future that progress is being made is good news for all those suffering from this terrible problem. The good news on the home front is that Maria's cast has now been removed and her little withered and scarred legs might start to make some sort of recovery. Without the body cast, she is not supported and it will take a while to get used to this and to strengthen her back and leg muscles. This has left her with terrible back pain and her screams last night broke my heart. Today they all returned home, so tonight it will be all quiet again.

Respected Liberal Democrat politician Russell Johnston who passed away last year

8 October 2009

The Real Deal

"Yes, there is a steep climb ahead, but the view from the summit will be worth it". These were the words of David Cameron today in his leader's speech to the Conservative party conference. They were a poor second rate version of Russell Johnston's words from many years ago at a Liberal conference in Perth, when he said. "You can stand at the bottom of a mountain, look up and say: This is so high and precipitous, so rugged and intimidating that I can never dare to challenge it. Or you can begin to climb. And if you do, one day you may see the summit. And if you do not, its peak will be forever hidden in the mists of vanished opportunity. Today we begin to climb." When people compare them, they will see who is the "real deal".

Auschwitz - an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life

7 October 2009

Auschwitz

Should one man, woman or child have been the victim of torture, starvation and execution in a gas chamber today, it would be a horror and an outrage against all common decency. For more than one million to have suffered such a fate at the Auschwitz death camps, makes any words used to describe it, inadequate. Today I set the alarm for 4am to join many other Edinburgh school children for a 5am check-in at Edinburgh airport. We knew it was going to be a long day, returning at 11pm, but those who organised the visit and who wanted people to remember the Holocaust, left everyone in no doubt that history must never repeat itself in this way. Walking through gas chambers, seeing the execution wall where many ended their lives, witnessing the display of hair, spectacles and personal effects, made it all very real. The personal testimonies of those who survived and of those who handed over their children to allow them to escape, while the parents were killed, made it all very real. The scale of the camps, with railway lines, huts as far as the eye could see, barbed wire electric fences and a factory scale killing operation, carried out by what must have looked like ordinary citizens - it was hard to take in. At the end of the day, as the sun set, a service was held and everyone present lit a candle. As we walked along the railway track towards the exit, we were asked to place the candle on the railway line wherever we wanted. Looking back along the line of flickering candles, in the place where those men women and children arrived, believing that they were being relocated to start a new life, but who were all destined to die. It is an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 October 2009

Thanks

After a day in the office, with a break for a snack in the evening, it was back to the office until 9.30pm. The volume of paperwork shows no sign of reducing and with staff on holiday and others off sick it looks like this is likely to continue for a while. The more work I do, the more work I generate. Got a really nice thank you note today from a young man I had been helping tackle the benefits agency. He has ME and they were insisting that he should get a job. We won in the end and he is now able to go back and resume his studies. His note said, "Thanks for your help, your home visit and for the support you gave my family." A short note like this makes it all worthwhile.

The aftermath of Samoa's tsunami

4 October 2009

Natural Disasters

I have often described emails as a blessing and a curse at the same time. They are great for quick, easy communication at home and abroad, but the volume I now receive causes a real problem - in that the genuine ones that need urgently dealt with get mixed up with all the rest and the junk. My mobile phone is much better for making sure that important messages get through to me immediately, either as calls or as texts. Unfortunately my phone has gone "wonky" and will need to be fixed. Hopefully this can be done on Monday. This blog post will let friends and colleagues, who might read this, know that I have not left it switched off for a quiet week before Parliament resumes - even though it is very tempting. With the disasters unfolding in Sumatra, with up to 3,000 people missing and with other natural disasters, such as the tsunami in Samoa and the flooding in the Philippines, it is quite good to have some quiet time, without emails or phone calls, to reflect on the really big issues of the day.

One of the most infamous sites at Auschwitz

4 October 2009

Auschwitz

At 5pm, finished my last delivery of Annual Reports to the individual farms and cottages around the constituency, just before the weather broke and it changed from a bright sunny afternoon to a dark rain soaked evening. Of those I met and chatted to, one was Tom Wood, the former top Edinburgh police officer, who was very interested to hear that one of the shortlisted candidates was a former policeman. He said that he thought I was doing the right thing and making a change as he had done, a few years ago, but warned me not to take on too many jobs and said he was sure I would have plenty to choose from. He added that learning to say "no" is essential. With one last week in the constituency, starting tomorrow, it is good to see the last of the reports delivered, so I can clear the rest of the constituency work - before returning to Westminster. Next week will be particularly interesting, as, on Wednesday I am going to Auschwitz for the day with some local schoolchildren. This has been organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Have just noticed that the check-in time is 5am, so I had better have an early night on Tuesday.  It has been another hectic day and I have yet to clear my email. Final email from a constituent at 11.46pm - replied to at 11.54pm. Not bad going.

Miles for Smiles

3 October 2009

I Could Walk 500 Miles

The Corstorphine Literary and Geographical Society was founded in 1880 and from then to this day has a full programme of talks and other events every month. This morning was their coffee morning and it was a good chance to meet up with many locals over a cuppa. Normally I miss most of their evening events because they are midweek, when I am in Westminster, but they were quick to sign me up to give a talk on my time in Westminster, sometime following the next election. In the afternoon I was out walking in support of Miles for Smiles, which is a charity event organised by the dynamic Olivia Giles, who lost both her hands and feet through meningitis and now raises funds for children in Africa who have lost limbs. The event was the 500 mile challenge and appropriately enough I followed the Proclaimers round the course. Even though they sang "I could walk 500 miles" we only walked a few today. Anyone who wants to send a donation can contact me or get details on www.milesforsmiles09.co.uk It was good to meet up with Olivia again today to catch up with how things were going. I never fail to be amazed by her strength of character and energy. She probably did walk the full 500 miles.

I will be standing in for leader Tavish Scott at the East Lothian Dinner

2 October 2009

Stand In for Tavish Scott

A couple of weeks ago I received a call asking me if I could stand in for Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who was to be the guest speaker at the East Lothian Lib-Dems annual dinner. I know what it is like to have the guest speaker drop out at the last minute when tickets have been sold and panic sets in with people fearing that the night will be a disaster. So I agreed to stand in, head out to East Lothian after the advice surgeries were over, give an after dinner speech and not touch a drop of wine as I would be driving. At the end of the evening everyone appeared to have had a good time and the company was very good too. I met up with a former Aberdeen Councillor, Nigel Lindsay, whom I had not seen for about 15 or 20 years. I had once been mistaken for Nigel, by Russell Johnston, the former Inverness MP, when he was signing his book of speeches for me at a Liberal conference many years ago. We agreed that neither of us had changed since! Clear evidence that for both of us, our eyesight is not as good as it was back then.

1 October 2009

Country Life

Another day out and about to the farms and cottages in the more rural part of the constituency. This always takes many hours on many days, as individual houses and farms are often tucked away and at the end of unmade up tracks. It must be near impossible in true rural seats to get round everyone, when there are long distances to travel as well. Many farmers have been taking advantage of the relatively good weather here recently and out in the fields it is all systems go. One thing I have learned to watch out for on some farms is the large numbers of very small cats running around my car. Luckily no accidents yet. What a contrast to life in some of the housing estates only 20 minutes away, where some of the children have never been out to the countryside in their life. Manifestos for the four shortlisted candidates dropped on to the doorstep today. October is decision month.

This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.