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.
30 May 2009
Receiving a cash windfall has happened to me a couple of times. Once, when my parents passed away and when a property developer wanted to buy out the lease on the flat I was renting in London. In the first instance it was money I would have gladly never have received and in the second I was left with a lump sum which I never expected and had to decide what to do with it. Tonight's Evening News gave full details of what happened to it and it was pretty fair coverage, although many comments on the Evening News web site have said it was a non-story,
28 May 2009
Spent the afternoon with SNIP, who provide advice to people who require Special Needs Information Packs for those with children who have physical or learning problems. Picked up some important issues I will need to raise with the Minister for Disabled People at our next meeting. SNIP are based at the Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh, where I produced a fund-raising video some years ago, following a chance meeting at a charity event in the Scottish Borders. That was my first dealing with the hospital. I would not have thought at the time that 20 years later I would be back again. In the evening I was back out on the streets door-knocking to increase awareness of the European Elections and to answer any questions people might have about MPs expenses. Fearing that I might be in for a tough time, the reception on the doorstep was great. People were pleased to chat and nobody was hostile, lots of them were going to vote and many were going to vote for my party. Dozens were very positive about the service they had received over the years from the local team. At the end of the night the team headed off for a well deserved curry and a cool glass of Cobra beer. It was a good night.
27 May 2009
A few people have asked me about yesterday's Daily Telegraph, which is now producing a list of every single MP and their expenses claims. It included the following for me, "John Barrett claimed on ACA for designated second home in Dolphin Square and submitted £1,138 a month claim for rent. He also charged regular, but £8 monthly bills for his TV." Which sounds confusing in the last line. When I moved into the unfurnished flat, there was an existing television service by NTL, which I continued with. The monthly charge for this feed was eight pounds. All payment for any additional programmes were paid for by me and not claimed. Later I discontinued the service and stopped claiming that amount. At last all parties are getting to grips with the need for fundamental reform of the entire Westminster system. Not just the expenses, but the House of Commons and Lords - they way they are elected or appointed and much more. Hopefully from this all time low, the democratic system will start a process of renewal. Change is long overdue.
25 May 2009
What a life...
For some today is a holiday Monday, for others, today is like any other day and is a living nightmare. This evening, as part of the World Justice Festival, I was the MP on a panel invited to listen to presentations from people about their own personal experiences of living with HIV and of being an asylum seeker in Scotland. Also to discuss the plight and problems of asylum seekers who were also HIV positive. To hear from those who fear the dawn raids, which could result in detention at Dungavel detention centre, and to know that a refusal of permission to stay in the UK would end their access to anti-retroviral drug treatment. Some were young mothers with young children, who could never have imagined that this would be what their life had in store for them. Having met people in the developing world who would now be dead from AIDS, I was honest and told their campaign that I had real reservations about attempts to extend the criteria for asylum grants into health provision, as no developing countries could offer the level of health care we benefit from and if this was to be the case, why treat HIV cases as different from anyone else? A heated debate followed. As I am living without a car for a week - after arriving at tonight's event in spring sunshine I left in a downpour and was soaked through. However, in the great scheme of things, it was not really much to worry about.
24 May 2009
Queensferry Raft Race
I had refused a kind offer from the Queensferry Raft Race to participate in today's event, but went along to support those brave enough to risk ending up in the icy water of the Firth of Forth between the bridges. Traditionally each team dress in fancy dress and today's race included Vikings, Gangsters, Prisoners and Hawaiian Dancers. An every-day bunch of Ferry folk. Back in the city, the news from the General Assembly in Edinburgh was that they had voted last night by 326 to 267 in support of Reverend Scott Rennie, who is the Church of Scotland's first openly gay minister. One small step for equality, one giant leap for the Church of Scotland.
23 May 2009
Church and Politics
Back in the constituency and out and about in the morning with Margaret Smith MSP, meeting locals at one of the many bowling clubs in Edinburgh. It was an opportunity to get feedback on a range of issues and the expense problem cropped up quite a few times. Today another Conservative MP, Andrew McKay, has decided to step down at the next election, following a double claim on his and his wife's properties. The church has now joined the debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, joining in and warning of the "systematic humiliation" of MPs over their expenses being a threat to democracy in Britain. Saying the daily press revelations could erode people's confidence in the political system. Dr Williams agreed that action was needed to restore confidence in the political system. One other risk is that political parties could find it a problem to find high calibre candidates willing to stand for election. The church also has its own politics and problems to deal with, as today in Edinburgh at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland there have been protests and demonstrations about the appointment of a gay minister. Spent the afternoon meeting people in Corstorphine and at the local Lib-Dem book sale, which was one of the busiest yet.
22 May 2009
The 'What a gate' scandal
With it being a bank holiday weekend every flight from Heathrow was fully booked and for the first time in a long time I flew up to Edinburgh from the London City Airport. As the small plane took off it was good to see, from the air, progress at the Olympic site, with the railway and other infrastructure construction well underway, but there is a lot to do if it is going to be ready on time for 2012. The credit crunch has taken its toll on the dry cleaners next to Westminster and their liquidation resulted in many MPs losing their shirts, literally. Thankfully, I got all my ones back today. Back in Edinburgh, after an afternoon of advice surgeries I was asked by a new radio station, starting to broadcast on Saturday if I would do an interview for their launch day tomorrow. No surprise to find that the topic of the interview was MPs expenses. The saga has taken another twist tonight with the whistle-blower's middle man, named as John Wick, who then passed the information on to the Telegraph. Still no details of who actually supplied it to him. Tomorrow's paper will reveal details of one multi-millionaire MP who claimed £5,000 for a gate on his driveway.
21 May 2009
The last day at Westminster before a week in the constituency saw another outrageous expenses story in the press with the details of one MP who claimed £1,600 for a "duck island" - I did not even know there was such a product on the market. No doubt the manufacturers will be delighted to see their unusual product on every single news story. Two more MPs announce that they will stand down at the next election. Talk at Westminster is of many MPs deciding to call it a day or being forced out by their parties. Some have mentioned that some MPs are on "suicide watch" although nobody is sure if this is actually the case. Now that the Speaker has resigned a number of runners have entered the race. Alan Beith, John Bercow and David Davies have already been particularly friendly - I wonder why? Finally delivered a speech on Global Food Security to end the day - good to deal with something other than expenses - a million miles away from duck island.
20 May 2009
A question - but no answer.
It was good to welcome my former member of staff, who had worked with me for many years when I was a City Councillor. At the same time I had 90 pupils from the Royal High School visiting and on a tour of Westminster. I had to leave them at 11.30am to head in for Prime Minister's Questions. I was lucky to be called as it only happens once in a blue moon and I asked Gordon Brown about rising unemployment and the need for a national High Speed Rail Link. His answer shed no light whatsoever on the subject. High Speed Rail could provide many construction jobs, reduce pollution and stimulate the economy up and down the country as well as reducing the need for much planned airport expansion.
19 May 2009
The Speaker Resigns
For the first time in 300 years the Speaker of the House of Commons was forced to resign. A truly historic day indeed with Michael Martin making the shortest of statements - about 30 seconds. I had not joined in the clamour for his resignation as I had always been concerned that some thought that his resignation would be be enough to solve the current problems at Westminster. I have always been convinced that a radical overhaul of the entire system here is long overdue and that we have a real democratic deficit as well as the expenses problem to solve. With revelations continuing on a daily basis and MPs now being suspended and announcing they would stand down at the next election, the saga continues.
17 May 2009
The Sunday Post - shock news - hard working MPs
In the midst of all that has been in the press recently, it was nice to read today's report in the Sunday Post, an article asking how hard working your MP was. I was delighted to see that, using a number of different indicators, they had calculated that I was 7th in the Scottish league table of how hard MPs work, and in Edinburgh and the Lothians, was number one. They based this on Westminster performance and I would always add that much of my time is dedicated to work in the constituency as well. Some Years ago the Edinburgh Evening News described me as "Edinburgh's hardest working backbench MP". Not something I am going to challenge. Again, I am more than happy to accept the findings of the Sunday Post, as it clearly has got this right (I can declare an interest here) and it is also the most widely read Sunday newspaper in Scotland. Totalled up the number of hours worked this week and it was about 78, as Saturday and Sunday were both working days. Hope for a quieter week next week.
16 May 2009
Tightening my belt
After a morning spent at a Scottish Party Executive I was contacted by the BBC to ask if I would be calling for the Speaker to resign and the Edinburgh Evening News asking about my expenses, and if I would detail the breakdown of my second home costs. I said to the BBC that there were far bigger problems that needed to be sorted out first and told the journalist from the News that I was happy to do so and that they could publish any information I had. One interesting fact that has come out in the wash is the amount of subsistence paid to MPs, when they have to buy meals away from home. The current daily allowance is £25. When I am working in London, and have to eat out, I have claimed in the past an average of £20 a day. Although I stopped claiming this over a year ago. The subsistence rate for one day at London Metropolitan University is set at "up to £40" which they say is the avarage cost of breakfast lunch and dinner in London. Currently Councillors in Scotland who have to eat meals away from their own area have the amount set by the Scottish Parliament. Their daily meal allowance is £8 for breakfast, £12 for lunch and £25 for dinner. £20 in London buys a meal for one in Pizza Express next to Westminster. I have eaten too many meals there in the past and will now have to literally tighten my belt.
14 May 2009
The Daily Telegraph
After a week of revelations about Labour and Conservative MPs, today was the turn of the Liberal Democrats to feature in the Daily Telegraph. No party is immune from the current wave of disclosures and although the scale of the finance involved was on a lower scale it was still a bad day for politics and politicians of every colour. Later, I overheard two journalists talking and one asked, "If you have a moat, just when do you know that it needs cleaned?" you could not make it up. In the evening I was back in Edinburgh and went out canvassing with a team to speak to the public face to face, knowing what the number one issue would be. I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent reception we were getting on the doorstep. With Ministerial resignations and suspensions from the Labour Party it was no surprise that all parties represented on Question Time later that night on TV got a severe pasting from the audience.
12 May 2009
One mum who deserved a day off.
Two interesting events at Westminster today included an awareness raising mini-conference on ME (or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and an Autism event supported by Treehouse, the purpose built school for autistic children in London. The speakers at the ME event covered the science and the future developments in the fight against this terrible problem. While many think this is a recent problem, it is now recognised that historic figures like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning both suffered from ME. At the Autism event I recognised the mother of two autistic sons whom I visited some months ago, (see 3rd December 2008 blog entry) to see what life is like for families fighting the daily battle that all parents of autistic children go through. I was then able to live up to my promise made to the mum, on my earlier visit, to take her for "Tea on the Terrace." Her son enjoyed posing in front of Big Ben. The day ended late, with votes after 1am - home by 2am - asleep by 3am. This week I will probably chalk up betwen 60 and 70 hours at work.
11 May 2009
Friends of Poland
Today the Equalities Bill had its Second Reading, but as my friend Lynne Featherstone was leading for the Liberal Democrats, she could not leave the chamber and she asked if I could step in for her and host the inaugural meeting in Parliament of the Friends of Poland. The guest speakers included Ros Scott, the Party President and Vince Cable MP, our treasury spokesman. The room was bursting at the seams and the Polish community enjoyed their moment in the spotlight. Returning to the chamber I was stunned to watch the opposition to the Equality Bill unfold on the Conservative benches. In the end I was glad it got its Second Reading, as, although it needs improving, it will be welcomed those who believe in equality for many currently denied this basic right.
10 May 2009
History repeating ?
Driving home, listening to classic FM, I was struck by a lovely piece of music by John Williams and performed by Itzhak Perlman. It was the theme from Schindler's List, the film about the German officer who saved so many Jews from the Nazi concentration camps. As I was checking my emails I had it playing in the background, when I opened an email from those campaigning to save Tamils, who are currently being shelled in so called "safe zones" in Sri Lanka. The photos were of what looked like concentration camps, with barbed wire surrounding men women and children. The most horrific one had clear images of dead bodies with limbs missing and for a moment I was stunned. It was the combination of the music, the images and the realisation that what happened all those years ago was, to some degree, being repeated today. Protesters are outside Parliament every day shouting about this issue. We must not walk on by on the other side, as so many did, for too long, last time. Tonight's BBC news coverage of the 300 killings did not show the most shocking images sent out to MPs.
9 May 2009
Queensferry Flower Festival
The day started at one of our book sales which helps to fund the local party. Then it was off to the Gylemuir Primary School spring fair, which was in the blazing sun last year, but this year the rain was pouring down and those on the hamburger stall were doing their best to battle the elements. Next it was round to St Anne's church for their annual fair and to meet lots of people - and for some tea and home baking. The rain was still pouring and the pony rides were having a quiet time. It was getting no brighter and the book sale had to close early. This allowed me to visit Linlithgow with some surplus books to help out at the annual street fair. The sun came out in time for my final visit, appropriately enough to the Queensferry Flower Festival with my little grand-daughter, Maria, who was enjoying being wheeled round in a church and was impressed by the children's floral display, which included malteesers and a number of chocolates. Had a good chat with the minister, who sounded pleased with what I had been doing since I was elected. We had a joke about his name - he is called David Cameron!
7 May 2009
Children in Africa with AIDS
Much of this morning was spent finalising a speech I would be delivering later in the day on the impact of Aids on Children in Developing Countries. The facts are staggering, with over 11 million orphans due to AIDS, in Africa alone. There was little if any disagreement between the speakers from all sides and in summing up the debate, the chair mentioned that this was an example of Parliament at its best. Outside the explosion of revelations regarding MPs' expenses looks like the complete opposite and the public's regard of Parliament is at an all time low.
6 May 2009
On the front bench at PMQ
At Prime Minister's Question time every Wednesday the House of Commons chamber is packed each week and there is always a struggle to get a seat for backbenchers. While there are over 600 MPs there are only approximately 400 seats in the House. The front benches are filled with the party leader, chief whip and our shadow cabinet. Today there was a gap, when our Chief Whip was unable to attend PMQ and Chris Huhne suggested I join them on the front bench. I had planned to try to ask a question on ID cards from the back benches, but the opportunity to be there alongside the leader at PMQ and on the front bench was not one to be missed. For the eagle eyed, I was wearing my NO2ID badge which was given to me from the Edinburgh campaign group I spoke to last Friday. The question will have to wait for another day.
5 May 2009
11 Downing Street
Now and again I have to go to Downing Street, and to date I had only ever visited number 10, the Prime Minister's residence. Today I was as number 11, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's home for an event to mark World Autism Awareness Day. A variety of autism charities had been invited and I was asked to come and meet them. The Chancellor and his wife were there hosting the event. Too many children with autism do not receive the help and support they need to achieve their full potential and in the current economic downturn there is a real danger that vulnerable families will be hit hardest. At a time when swine flu is dominating the news headlines - although it might hit one in tens of thousands, one child in 150 is on the autistic spectrum. I often think that just because something is hitting the news headlines, it does not mean that it really is the important issue of the day.
4 May 2009
When I arrived at last night's Ikea Achievement Awards event, I was asked to make a speech, rather than just present awards. I also met up with a number well known local faces, including the Lothians Chief Constable and the judge, Lord Hardie. The evening was full of inspirational stories of people who had made great progress despite their disabilities. However, the most inspiring person there was Olivia Giles. She was a high-achieving lawyer, when surgeons were forced to amputate her hands and feet to save her life after she was struck down by meningitis. As a result of her experience she has since set up a charity to raise awareness of meningitis and is pressing to highlight the importance of catching the potentially deadly disease early. We had a chat about a previous time we had met at Prestonfield House Hotel on the night Lord Watson tried to burn it down following the Politician of the Year Awards. At tonight's event the fire alarm was also set off and we both thought, "Not again".
3 May 2009
The State of ME
After a Saturday morning tied up in casework and emails it was good to get out and about in the constituency in the afternoon, meeting the public and helpers. Sunday was more relaxing and before going out to present some awards on the Sunday evening, I finished reading "The State of me" by Nasim Marie Jafry, the excellent debut novel by an author who currently lives in Edinburgh. Nasim and a number of fellow sufferers from different parts of the UK had contacted me following my comments about ME on the blog last month. She had offered to send me a free copy of her book about the life and loves of a fictional character Helen Fleet, who suffers from a mystery illness, but I purchased one at an Edinburgh book shop and was delighted that she had in fact already signed it. It was a really enjoyable read, with a wicked sense of humour. There was real sadness and joy that were clearly in Nasim's own life that left me much more aware of the daily battle of those with ME and of the disgrace that people suffering from it were denied support by many in the medical profession and others, for so long. I found it took a little time to get into it, but after a while, it was like the West Wing on TV for me, I was hooked and did not want it to end.
1 May 2009
After a full day of advice surgeries, in the evening I addressed the Edinburgh branch of NO2ID, the campaign group focussed on opposing Identity Cards. It reminded me of the Edinburgh University debate on the issue some years ago, when they could not get an MP to support the case for ID cards and I had to put forward both sides of the argument. That night it was one debate I was guaranteed to win. The press this week had been full of the fact that David Blunkett had changed his mind on the issue, but this is not actually the case and he has denied this reported u-turn. Going back to 2004 when this issue was first raised in Parliament, the then leader of the Conservatives, Michael Howard, let the charge for ID cards supported by the Conservative party. How times have changed - but they could easily change back again.