Friday, 27 January 2012
Take a Deep Breath
Sometimes when you read an account of an event in the newspapers - you just wished you were there - because you can vividly picture the unfolding scene - in your own mind's eye.
Now this was the case for me earlier in the week - when I read a sketch in The Times - an account by Ann Treneman of Sir Richard Branson's star appearance - before the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Here is what Ann Treneman had to say.
All inhale at a whiff of Branson wisdom
"Sir Richard Branson blew into Westminster, a gust of glamour, his white-blonde lion's mane blowing behind him, to tell the Home Affairs Select Committee his view on drugs. His very presence seemed to put Keith Vaz, the celebrity committee chairman into orbit. He was on a high, albeit a legal one.
Sir Richard was there because he sits on the Global commission on Drugs Policy. His answer to our drugs crisis is simple - decriminalise the lot and treat it as a health issue. It is an interesting policy but MPs could not quite forget over the fact that the man, the legend, the hair, was in front of them.
"You yourself have smoked cannabis," noted Mr Vaz with a tinge of wonder in his voice.
"I would say 50 per cent of my generation had smoked cannabis," soothed Sir Richard.
Mr Vaz looked at him solicitously. "And it hasn't been detrimental to your health?"
Sir Richard, glowing with his Necker Island perma-tan, bared his two big white teeth, which flashed at us from among his Van Dyke beard combo of moustache and goatee. "If I had been smoking cigarettes I would have been very worried," he said, eyes twinkling.
MPs' eyes already orb-like, got even bigger. They were, very definitely, inhaling now, heady with it all.
David Winnick, septuagenarian Labour, couldn't stop himself from crying: "I've never taken a drug in my life!" Then he added: "Other than prescription."
Mr Vaz tut-tutted. "No need for further confessions. One is enough."
Sir Richard noted that skunk cannabis was too strong but other types were less harmful than alcohol. Mr Winnick looked askance. "You're not saying drugs should be sold in supermarkets?" he asked, adding "Buy your heroin and get your cannabis free !" (Where do MPs get these crazy ideas? Surely that is the maddest bogof ever?).
Are you getting the feeling that the committee has quite a learning curve ahead of them when it comes to drugs policy? At one point an MP referred to drugs as 'the stuff'. It's hardly The Wire.
Mr Vaz began to burble on about how the committee would be going to Colombia as part of its inquiry. (Bogata you have been warned.) "We will be travelling Virgin!" trilled Mr Vaz
Sir Richard flashed that smile again. "We use fuel on our planes," he said, adding something about 'flyinh high'. Then he stopped himself, quite wisely."
And to think these people are involved in running the country - here's a previous post from the blog site about Keith Vaz.
Much to be Modest About (July 13th 2011)
I watched most of the yesterday's TV coverage from Westminster - where a House of Commons Committee questioned a variety of police officers over the phone hacking scandal.
Inquisitor-in-chief was the committee chairperson - Keith Vaz - a former Labour minister and long-serving MP for Leicester East.
Now it seemed to me that Mr Vaz took great pleasure in being rude to some of the witnesses - even if one one of them (Andy Hayman) was his own worst enemy.
In any event, I was struck by the arrogance of the Leicester MP - a man who has much to be modest about, as they say.
So I looked up what the Telegraph had to say about his record on MPs' expenses - and here's the newspaper's report from 9 May 2009.
"Keith Vaz: £75,000 for a flat 12 miles from home"
"Keith Vaz, the senior Labour backbencher, claimed more than £75,500 in expenses for a flat in Westminster despite his family home being a £1.15 million house just 12 miles from parliament.
Mr Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, also switched his designated second home from the £545,000 flat to a house in his Leicester East constituency and back again in the space of a year.
Keith Vaz Mr Vaz's main home is a house in Stanmore, north-west London, that he bought with his wife Maria for £1.15 million in November 2005. They live there with their two children.
The house is less than a mile from Stanmore underground station, which takes passengers directly to Westminster on the Jubilee Line. According to Transport for London, the 14-stop journey should take about 37 minutes.
His living arrangements will leave him open to the same questions asked of Tony McNulty, the employment minister, who claimed for a house about the same distance away lived in by his parents.
Documents filed with Commons officials showed that between 2004 and April 2007, Mr Vaz claimed more than £69,000 for expenses at the flat in Westminster, which he bought in 2003. He moved in shortly after selling another for £312,000.
His claims included monthly mortgage interest payments of between £1,500 and £1,750, £200 in monthly grocery bills and £50 per month for a cleaner.
On May 1, 2007, shortly after claiming for the flat's £2,073 service charge and £1,022 council tax bill, he began renting it out and designated the Leicester property as his second home. He had no mortgage on it and so used his allowances to fit it with furniture.
In all, Mr Vaz made claims of about £16,000 relating to the house, including more than £480 on 22 cushions, most of them silk, from John Lewis.
He claimed £2,614 for a pair of John Lewis leather armchairs and an accompanying foot stool; £1,000 on a dining table and leather chairs; £750 on carpets; and £150 on a lamp and lampshade.
Commons guidelines said MPs should "avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious".
Throughout the year, Mr Vaz also regularly made monthly claims of exactly £200 for repairs, £200 for service or maintenance and £200 per month for a cleaner. At the time, MPs did not need to submit receipts for claims totalling less than £250.
Mr Vaz also claimed twice for his food, utilities and cleaning bills in June 2007. He later repaid the money after the fees office pointed out his error.
In May 2008, Mr Vaz ceased renting out the London flat, reverted to designating it as his second home and resumed claiming the interest on its mortgage. In the first two months of the last financial year, he claimed a further £6,567 on the flat.
Mr Vaz's claims highlighted the ability of MPs to switch the property they designated as their second home for expenses purposes whenever they liked, simply by notifying the Commons fees office.
A spokesman for Mr Vaz said: "Stanmore is not central London. Like many MPs, he has a flat in central London that is close to the House of Commons."
She added that Mr Vaz had changed the designation of his second home "for personal reasons", and that his London flat "was not available for his use between May 2007 and May 2008". "Mr Vaz's claims have always been in accordance with the spirit and rules of the Green Book," she said. "If they were not within the rules the claims would not have been paid."
Job: chairman, Home Affairs Select Committee
Total second home claims