Christmas is traditionally a time for turkey, giving and receiving presents, family reunions, tinsel covered trees, fairy lights, decorations and snowmen. For most of us the festive season traditionally starts on December 25th and finishes some 12 days later on the feast of Epiphany on January 6th at which date all decorations are supposed to be taken down.
One man who did not sit down at the dinner table this year for his cranberry sauce was long-time peace campaigner Brian Haw. He and his colleague on the peace campaign Mrs Barbara Tucker have been protesting against the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq for many years. Brian started his protest on June 2nd 2001, before the September 11th attacks, while Barbara joined the campaign in December 2005. Brian who has a website http://www.parliament-square.org.uk/ has now clocked up an astonishing 3,133 days (and nights) in London’s Parliament Square.
Yet for all his proximity to the `mother of all parliaments` he receives scant media attention. The many TV news reports which come from in and around the Square never have Brian Haw or Barbara Tucker as even background extras. Instead `our political correspondent` tells us of the latest financial or sexual shenanigans of the `honourable` members in the House of Commons across the road from the Square.
The recent MPs expenses scandal has seriously damaged the credibility of politicians in Westminster. The ongoing Chilcot inquiry will keep the war on Iraq and the reasons for going to war in the public eye with Tony Blair due to give evidence in either January or February 2010.
The `war on terror` was launched after the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon in September 2001 when around 3,000 people tragically died and it is unlikely we will forget or be allowed to forget this event. Yet consider the more recent tragedies such as the tsunami of 2004:
Banda Aceh, Indonesia - It was on boxing day five years ago that a tsunami, triggered by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake, ripped through Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh and 10 other countries, killing more than 226,000 people. The loss of life caused by the tsunami (a huge tidal wave) in 2004 was around 80 times greater than that of the dreadful September 11th 2001 attacks on the twin towers in New York and it is more recent yet whose victims do we remember today?
How many now remember the `disappearances` of thousands of people
in Argentina and Chile in the 1970’s?
Writing in the `Christian Science Monitor` Sam Ferguson writes: `Buenos Aires - Just outside Buenos Aires, in the depths of the Rio de la Plata and the South Atlantic, lie the remains of thousands of bodies.
A generation ago, officials from Argentina's Naval Mechanics School, known by its Spanish acronym, ESMA, secretly loaded drugged prisoners into aircraft and threw them out over the brown and frigid waters. As many as 5,000 people were "disappeared" at the hands of ESMA, perhaps the most horrifying symbol of South American repression in the 1970s.`
Milan Kundera who is a Czech and French writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975 once famously said: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
MP’s expenses scandal
The MPs expenses scandal which is still ongoing started when The Daily Telegraph newspaper, having obtained a leaked full copy of the expenses records of MPs, began publishing details in daily instalments from 8 May 2009. These disclosures dominated the British media for weeks, with the findings being considered to show flagrant and sometimes gross misuse of the expenses system for personal gain by many MPs, including Government ministers, and across all parties.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper acquired a full copy of all expenses claims and then began publishing them in instalments from 8 May 2009. The Telegraph justified the publication of the information because it contended that the official information due to be released would have omitted key information about re-designating of second-home nominations
Frank Field, the former Labour minister, has become the most senior MP to refuse an on official demand to repay money he claimed in parliamentary expenses.
The Daily Telegraph’s Expenses Files investigation earlier this year designated Mr Field as a “saint”, one of the group of MPs who minimised their expenses claims.
But writing on his blog, Mr Field revealed that Sir Thomas had told him to repay £5,000 in “housekeeping costs” claimed over five years and another £1,800 in other household bills.
The MP said that Sir Thomas was “simply wrong” in his interpretation of his expenses claims. Several other MPs have challenged the factual accuracy of Sir Thomas’ audit. He has given them three weeks to contest his findings.
Mr Field said he has replied to Sir Thomas, rejecting his claim.
Sir Peter Viggers
Sir Peter Viggers, Conservative MP for Gosport, wrote on his website in reference to his nearly £2,000 claim for a duck house:
`I have made a ridiculous and grave error of judgement. I am ashamed and humiliated and I apologise. As has been reported my claim for the duck house was rightly “not allowed” by the fees office. I paid for it myself and in fact it was never liked by the ducks, and is now in storage.
Gosport is my home town and I have always worked hard for constituents. I am very proud to have been the Member of Parliament. `
Sir Peter, who has been an MP for 25 years, lists gardening among his hobbies. His is also a qualified pilot and previously worked as a banker and lawyer.
His expenses files - as revealed by the newspaper - says he was reimbursed from the public purse for more than £30,000 for "gardening" over three years, including nearly £500 for 28 tons of manure.
In a statement posted on his website on May 13, Sir Peter defended his use of the expenses entitlement saying: "Personally, I have of course always scrupulously observed the rules."
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith MP admitted on BBC1’s `Question Time` that she had acted disgracefully. The former Home Secretary admitted that she had been shamed over her use of the Commons housing allowance.
She declared her main property was a house she shared with her sister in London which allowed her to claim tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' cash for her family home in Worcestershire.
Pressed on whether ministers heavily criticised over their expenses should become peers, she told Question Time: “I don't think people who have been disgraced should go to the House of Lords.”
Asked by presenter David Dimbleby whether she would include herself, she added: “Yes, I think, to a certain extent I have been. I think it's obvious because I have made an apology to Parliament that I was wrong.”
Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary had managed to pass the 42 day detention law plans in the House of Commons, despite heavy opposition. The House of Lords voted overwhelmingly against the law, with some of the Lords reportedly characterising it as "fatally flawed, ill thought through and unnecessary", stating that "it seeked to further erode fundamental legal and civil rights".
In the Daily Mirror of 30th March 2009 Bob Roberts wrote:
`Jacqui Smith went ballistic when she found out her husband had been watching porn movies at their home – and putting them on her official expenses.
A friend said last night: “On a scale of anger from one to 10 she was a 55.”
In a furious showdown the “mortified” Home Secretary threatened to sack shamed Richard Timney as her £24,000 a year parliamentary assistant.
Instead she sent him out of their family house in Redditch, Worcs, to make a humiliating public apology.
In a 22-second statement Richard Timney (her husband), 46 said: “I am really sorry for any embarrassment I have caused Jacqui.
“I can fully understand why people might be angry and offended by this.
“Quite obviously a claim should never have been made for these films, and as you know that money is being paid back.”
In a statement, Ms Smith also apologised for making the claims. She said: “I am sorry that in claiming for my internet connection, I mistakenly claimed for a TV package alongside it.
“As soon as the matter was brought to my attention, I took immediate steps to contact the relevant parliamentary authorities and rectify the situation.
“All money claimed for the television package will be paid back in full.”
The latest scandal could not come at a worse time for Ms Smith.
She is already under investigation for claiming at least £116,000 in second home allowances on the house in Redditch while listing her main home as a London property she shares with her sister. And the fact that the new claim again relates to the Redditch home will only add to her problems. `
Julie Kirkbride has been the Conservative Party Member of Parliament for the Conservative stronghold of Bromsgrove (in Worcestershire) since 1997.
Her extravagant expenses claim, totalling around £140,000, is probably the highest of any MP.
On May 14, 2009, her husband Andrew MacKay, the Conservative Member for Bracknell, resigned from his position as parliamentary aide to David Cameron, in the wake of the furore over Parliamentary expenses after what was described as an "unacceptable" expenses claim.
MacKay and Kirkbride own two homes: one in her constituency of Bromsgrove; and a flat close to Parliament in Westminster. In a case of so called double-dipping, according to The Daily Telegraph, Mackay had used his Additional Costs Allowance to claim more than £1,000 a month in mortgage interest payments on their joint Westminster flat – even though he did not have a residence in his Bracknell constituency – while Kirkbride used her Additional Costs Allowance to claim over £900 a month on paying off the mortgage for their family home near her constituency. "This means," reports The Daily Telegraph, "they effectively had no main home but two second homes – and were using public funds to pay for both of them". In 2008/9, MacKay claimed a total of £23,083 under Additional Costs Allowance, while Kirkbride claimed £22,575. They also claimed for each other's travel costs, with Kirkbride claiming £1,392 to meet spouse travel, while MacKay claimed £408.
Julie Kirkbride employs her sister at taxpayer's expense as her secretary despite her sister living 140 miles from the constituency. Kirkbride also extended her mortgage to pay for an extension to her house, which she said was to provide a separate bedroom for her son, and claimed for this on expenses. She said she allowed her brother to live rent free in her house some of the time so that he could care for her son, Angus, while she undertook constituency work in the evening.
On May 28, 2009 Kirkbride cancelled a meeting in her Bromsgrove constituency to discuss the expense claims, and news was announced that owing to public and press criticism of her expense claims, she intended to stand down at the next election. In a letter to Cameron, she said, "My principal concern has to be for my very loyal local supporters in Bromsgrove whose trust in me has been very humbling in the last few weeks ... I also must take into account the effects on my family." A petition in the Bromsgrove constituency demanding Kirkbride's resignation had amassed over 5,000 signatures. Kirkbride also lost the trust of Tory activists: the results of a poll on the Conservative Home website showed that 81% of party members thought Kirkbride should go and only 6% that she should remain as a Conservative MP. Shortly before her decision to stand down, she had stated that it never crossed her mind that she was doing anything wrong; however, she was also quoted as saying that it was "hugely upsetting to realise I have let people down".
On 5 November, she reversed her decision, telling a meeting of the Executive Council of Bromsgrove Conservative Association that she wanted to be considered as their candidate for the next general election. On 18 December she announced she would indeed stand down, in a Christmas and New Year message on her website saying "this is entirely my decision".
Despite their grotesquely inflated expense claims no honourable members have gotten in to really serious trouble. None have been sent to or are likely to be sent to prison. In fact they are treated as virtual celebrities with for example former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith being featured on the front page of `London Lite` headlined `Jacqui Smith: I’m a disgrace` Her image (on Friday 30th October 2009) was juxtaposed with a picture of `X Factor` hopeful Edward Grimes.
Confession it would seem is good for the soul and maybe not bad for the bank balance either.
Contrast this coverage with the almost total media exclusion of Brian Haw, Barbara Tucker and their long running peace campaign.
Brian Haw’s continuing protest
As of Christmas Day Friday 25th December 2009 the day number of Brian’s protest was 3,128 and all attempts to remove him from Parliament Square have failed. Barbara Tucker has been on the same campaign since December 2005 – that’s around 1,500 days. How long will it go on? As Brian himself says “As long as it takes” Brian Haw has a website: www.parliament-square.org.uk
Brian now has access to the Internet direct from his peace campaign in Parliament Square and it is possible that his voice may be heard more often. With general disillusionment with mainstream politicians and a totally inadequate mainstream media the alternative message from Brian and Barbara may start to be heeded by a wider audience.