Having a long history of correspondence with Oxford East MP, Andrew Smith, on a range of issues of concern to NOW members, we were delighted when he, together with his wife, County Councillor Val Smith, agreed to meet with us.
At a well-attended meeting we asked Andrew and Val questions on key issues.
Iraq and terrorism
We reminded Andrew that before the Iraq war NOW had urged him to oppose it, in part because there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction and in part because of fears that instead of tackling terrorism such a war would make the UK a more likely target. Andrew however had remained adamant that there were weapons of mass destruction and he did not agree with our arguments about terrorism. We asked him what his thoughts were now, in the light of experience. Andrew made clear that "I don't regret the fact we invaded Iraq" and said it was justified by the demise of Saddam Hussein and moves towards democracy. He agreed that Parliament's decision to go to war had been based on misinformation but said it was nevertheless done in good faith. He felt that even if there was a connection with the war in the minds of some "would-be terrorists" this should not stop us carrying out the "right" foreign policy. He pointed out that the attacks on New York had taken place before the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and blamed "fundamentalist extreme-brand Islam". He said it was our liberal values and alliance with the US that made us a likely target . He did acknowledge that there had been a failure of planning for a post war Iraq. It was pointed out to Andrew that the US was certainly not suited to a policing role given its own abuses e.g. the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam.
On Palestine Andrew spoke about the need for "even-handedness". He was asked how far the government was aware that the pull-out from Gaza was just a cover for expansion in the West Bank. He said this was disturbing and asked for more information so that he could pursue the issue. He condemned the expansion on the West Bank and said that such expansion must stop for there to be a lasting peace. He was sure the government agreed with him on that. He was clear however that irrespective of this the Gaza withdrawal should be welcomed as a sign that Israel was willing to confront the settlers. He was asked what actions the UK government would take to turn words into action on this issue. He said that the government had a commitment to calling for the peace process to start; however Europe had very little influence on Israel. It was the US which had the influence and Andrew said that Tony Blair kept trying to get the peace issue back on President Bush's agenda.
Asked whether the government was going to replace Trident, Andrew expressed the belief that no decision had been taken or would be taken without a debate in Parliament first. It was pointed out that activity at Aldermaston implied that preparation was being made for replacement of Trident, and there were particular concerns about a new generation of small nuclear weapons. Andrew said he found the idea of making more easy-to-use nuclear weapons very dangerous and was not sure who we were defending ourselves against by having nuclear weapons. He agreed to look into this further.
Declaration of War Bill
Andrew expressed support for Claire Short's Declaration of War Bill which requires parliament to be consulted before any war situation. He agreed that more decisions should be made with parliamentary authority and fewer with Tony Blair's use of the royal prerogative. ASBOs
Concern was expressed about the inappropriate use of ASBOs. Val was very much in favour of ASBOs and said that in Blackbird Leys they had been found to work and were a popular measure. It was pointed out to Val that ASBOs may not help street drinkers and that plastering their photos everywhere could make them a target to the very people ASBOs were designed to restrain. Val acknowledged this may be the case and said that ASBOs should be accompanied by support measures. Andrew agreed that ASBOs should not be seen as a solution on their own but as a part of it.
Corporate structure of County Council
Val welcomed concern about the corporate nature of the County Council now under Tory control and the lack of democracy now operating. She said the Tories had taken all key positions on the Council and that the only way Labour politicians could participate was through motions and questions to the full council. She suggested NOW members attend council meetings and ask questions via their councillors. Also members of the public had the right to make comments at cabinet meetings.
The longest discussion took place on this issue. NOW members criticised many aspects of asylum policy in particular forced returns to unsafe countries, upheaval to families who had made their lives here, lack of legal support, conditions in detention and removal centres, withdrawal of benefits and policies which appealed to racists and xenophobes whilst ignoring human rights. Despite numerous examples referred to by NOW members, Andrew was generally unprepared to acknowledge faults in the asylum system. Instead of changing the asylum system he favoured a more liberal immigration policy. He would hope some whose applications for asylum had been refused would apply for immigration when they returned to their countries of origin. It was pointed out that many would never have the opportunity to do this because of the imprisonment or even death they faced on returning. It was also pointed out that unskilled workers should have rights just as much as those with the skills we needed, and that we should not be poaching skilled workers from countries where they were desperately needed. Andrew agreed that these issues were problematic but that they could be dealt with more imaginatively e.g. by operating reciprocal arrangements. He hoped that our policies on debt relief would reduce the numbers of those driven to come by economic need. Andrew did agree to pursue the question of funding and availability of legal representation for asylum seekers but his general approach was that the government had to balance public concern for asylum seekers and those who think the system is too "soft". It was pointed out to Andrew that there was a group of refugees desperate to be returned to their homeland if only they could i.e. the Palestinians. The broad range of discussion topics meant that it was not possible to have in-depth discussion on any one of them. However we were pleased when Andrew offered to return in six months to consider other issues but also to provide an update on those we had raised on this occasion. Val was asked to keep in touch with NOW on county council issues and she was invited to participate in Women in Black vigils.
The meeting highlighted the broad range of knowledge and expertise shared by NOW members and it is welcome that key local politicians have recognised the value of a dialogue with us.
For more information about NOW, please see our website at www.nowpeace.org.uk. We hold monthly meetings, organize Women in Black vigils for peace in the city centre (usually Bonn Square) and are active in a wide variety of Oxfordshire groups. Our events are usually listed on Indymedia as well as our own website, and all women are welcome to come along and meet us.