I was delighted that Labour was able to defeat the Government in its plans to drive a coach and horse through current Sunday trading regulations. I understand the arguments about modern times, Internet shopping and so on. But I still believe that we are better off in keeping Sunday Special.
With Nisa - the biggest supplier to independent stores - headquartered locally I was pleased that MPs listened to the arguments from the Association of Convenience Stores as well as those set out powerfully by faith groups and USDAW, the shopworkers' Union. This was the first defeat for the Government this year so I was disappointed to miss the vote. I was with three other MP colleagues on an inter-parliamentary union visit to Bolivia! As we were 2 Labour and 2 pro Sunday Trading Conservatives we were paired and our non votes cancelled each other out.
The purpose of our visit was to increase mutual awareness between the parliaments of Bolivia and the United Kingdom. Having little knowledge of Bolivia prior to the visit I can honestly say my awareness is now greatly enhanced! The current charismatic President, Evo Morales was first elected in 2005 since when there has been a commodities driven economic boom. There have been significant advances in the rights of indigenous people, women and other minority groups. But our visit coincided with a sense that Morales' and Bolivia's fortunes are confronting more difficult times. The collapse in the gas price means a period of falling tax revenues representing a significant challenge to the Government's spending plans. A referendum to change the constitution so that Evo could stand again in 2019 was lost and the President himself is now embroiled in various public scandals relating to his private life.
We met Bolivian MPs, the Bolivian Foreign Minister, the Speaker or their Assembly, the Bolivian Ambassador to the UK, the UK ambassador to Bolivia, the U.S. Representative and the EU Representative as well as a host of other people. We visited a school and a coco farming area, diversifying into honey and coffee. It was fascinating. This is a very poor country but receives no direct UK Aid because the progress it has made means it is no longer eligible, which is a good thing. There remain significant challenges particularly on fighting drugs, especially cocaine, getting the justice system on to some sort of footing and making progress in health and education.
One of the things that surprised me was how well respected the EU was. With the government having kicked the U.S. Ambassador out citing imperialist interference in their affairs (!) the EU is the partner with a strong, constructive relationship. The EU representative is not averse to giving hard messages to the Bolivian government. The project we visited on the edge of the Amazon jungle was designed to regulate coco leaf growing whilst getting the farmers to diversify into other crops like coffee, chocolate and honey. In its natural form the coco leaf is not an hallucinogenic and is used in coco tea (good for altitude sickness in this highest of countries!) and a range of medicinal products. So the EU had commissioned the UN to do a study using surveillance and other calculations to determine how much coco cultivation is appropriate for legitimate domestic consumption. We were told the coco grown in the area we visited was highly regulated and policed. Indeed we saw the controls at the checkpoints in and out of the area. And we heard from the police about their successes in the battle against drugs. As well as doing all they can to tackle supply the Bolivians challenged us to do more to reduce demand. A very fair point. I wonder if the people who take cocaine in the UK realise how it is contributing to the violence, poverty and repression in places like Bolivia? It reminded me how we live in a global world with the west's failure to sort out it's drugs problem compounding the difficulties faced by countries like Bolivia.
As well as the beautiful colour of the traditional dress one of the things I will take away from the visit is the hope and energy of the children attending the amusingly named Commandante Ernesto Che Guevara School. Amongst the things they try to instil into their children the Head Teacher said was 'revolutionary fervour'!