Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Labour Party Conference, Brighton

I had spent the day at the Labour Party Conference yesterday wearing my BMA hat, when I was involved in a series of fringe events and had the opportunity to have conversations with MPs and health ministers. I was in the main hall on Monday afternoon to hear the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, who announced that water companies would be encouraged to offer concessionary rates to churches who are currently having to pay large bills since the introduction of the so called “rainwater tax”.

It was also good to meet ex-President of Conference, Revd Stuart Burgess who was here in his capacity as the Government’s Rural Advocate and who works closely with Hilary Benn’s department.

Today I visited the Conference in my capacity as Vice-President alongside colleagues from the Baptist Union, URC and Salvation Army. We started bright and early at the Christian Socialist Movement’s prayer breakfast meeting. Cardiff MP, Alun Michael chaired the meeting and I had the opportunity to respond to Stephen Timms who is the Financial Secretary to Treasury. Stephen has had a key role to play in working to find a resolution to the current global financial problems, and he reflected on issues relating to the economy in his address to the meeting. You can read my response below.

Later in the morning we had a good discussion with Methodist MP, Meg Munn, who told us about her visit to Fiji during the summer and reflected on the severe difficulties facing the Methodist Church in that country at the moment. We also had the opportunity to raise our concerns about the situation directly with the Foreign Office minister responsible for co-ordinating Britain’s response to the situation, Chris Bryant. We agreed on the importance of raising awareness of the situation, the important role the EU, Australia and New Zealand can play in putting pressure on the Fijian government, but also reflected on the difficulties of engaging with the military dictatorship when they can so readily accuse us of ex-colonial interference.

Meg Munn also described the reality of climate change for low lying Pacific Islands, and how ground water was already becoming polluted by salt water, islands having to rely on scarce rainwater instead. There is now a resignation among islanders that it is already too late to avoid the loss of a large number of their small islands. They hope the rest of the world can wake up to the reality of climate change quickly before is too late for other parts of the world too.

Michael Foster in another Methodist MP and we had a good opportunity to discuss with him the Equalities Bill which he has responsibility for guiding through parliament at the moment.

We attended a fringe meeting at lunchtime run by Action for Children, focusing on how we could improve safeguarding of children and how we can learn important lessons from the recent tragic Baby Peter case.

Throughout the week comments were made that there were often large numbers of empty seats in the main Conference Hall (see the picture below on Monday afternoon) yet the fringe meetings were buzzing with activity. Some reflected that it was on the fringe were the real debate and engagement now took place. However the hall was packed for Gordon Brown’s speech this afternoon. It was certainly well received by those present, and he echoed the commitment I had heard him make 2 weeks ago at the TUC, to enshrine in law the amount the country gives to international development. Whatever your political persuasion, there is no doubting his personal commitment to supporting the world’s poorest communities.

We concluded out visit to the Conference by joining the Citizens for Sanctuary campaign meeting, which is encouraging all mainstream political parties to sign up to the Saving Sanctuary Pledge. You will have seen David signing this last week at the Liberal Democrats Conference, and today I added my name under his. The campaign aims to encourage a responsible discussion about migration at the general election and to start to focus on offering sanctuary rather than using terms like asylum, which now creates a far more negative public reaction, whereas polls suggest the public reacts far more positively and with understanding when we talk of people seeking sanctuary from persecution.

One of the main aims of attending the party conferences is to offer support to Christian MPs, and we were able to do so today. All the men and women we met today are people of great integrity and it is important that we offer them our prayerful support as they work on our behalf.

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