Thursday, April 30, 2009

Irish Blasphemy Law threatens free speech and expression

I did one of these quizzes on Facebook recently which "told" me that the city I should be living in is Dublin. To be sure, I would have preferred somewhere a bit more temperate, maybe like Barcelona or Palma de Mallorca, but Dublin is gorgeous, the people are lovely and the Guinness divine.

However, I'm not sure I could afford to go there now, given that the Irish Government is planning on re-introducing a pretty draconian blasphemy law which I'd no doubt fall foul of at some point, being an atheist who's spent her life campaigning on equal rights issues. I know I couldn't afford the rather steep 100,000 euro penalty.

The crux of the law could mean anything:

“A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”

“Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

I'm sure that anyone trawling through this blog would find a number of postings which are open to interpretation as being "insulting to matters held sacred by any religion". I've denied the existence of God, advocated equal marriage, denounced homophobia - more than enough to outrage "substantial" numbers of followers of some religions. And what the hell does substantial mean, anyway? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? A hundred thousand?

It's publishing or uttering that gets me too. Could an innocent late night kitchen table philosophical discussion result in people being arrested?

And what's intrinsically wrong with causing outrage, anyway?

There's a Labour amendment reducing the fine to 1000 euro and exempting "literary, artistic, social or academic merit." I think a red line through the clause would have been better.

This sounds to me like a law which could easily be hijacked by a few intolerant people to stifle debate and freedom of speech. The only people likely to benefit are lawyers who could make a fortune from arguing the interpretation of the law in Court.

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Forget the Tabloids, get your Swine Flu information here

No, not right here, obviously, because I don't know any more than you do, but here on the dedicated pages on the Health Protection Agency website.

It's updated all the time and will give you the information without the hysteria.

How do I know? I guess it's one of the "advantages" of living with a health and safety adviser. Other such advantages include having to stop at every set of scaffolding on holidays so flaws in the way it's been put up, or people working without harnesses and helmets can be pointed out to you, and loitering by fire extinguishers while the dates on them are being checked.

Just as well he has many lovable qualities.

Oh, and spare a thought for my wee sister, who starts a new job with NHS 24 on Monday. An interesting time to begin her training, for sure.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine, Wolf and Drugs

I'm surprised that a state registered coward and instinctive worrier like me isn't in hysterical panic about Swine Flu. The honeymoon couple who are currently in hospital in Airdrie with the first confirmed cases in the UK barely live 15 miles from here. Half the teachers at my daughter's school live near them. Why am I not fretting about living at the epicentre of a Survivoresque Armageddon?

It is of course horrifically sad for those who have died, and news is coming in that an American toddler has become the first person to die outside Mexico.

It's important, I think, to keep everything in perspective though. So far, the vast majority of people outside Mexico with this bug have experienced mild symptoms, - that's certainly true of everyone in the UK. In fact, I probably feel worse, with my Glandular Fever, than they do at the moment. There's also good news that 7 out of their contacts have tested negative.

I'm concerned that the media is whipping us all into an unnecessary frenzy of panic. If Swine Flu amounts to nothing, then when future viruses come along, we'll maybe not listen so closely to the papers and tv and might miss out on important information when we do actually need it. Remember the boy who cried wolf? When the wolf really did come, it was able to eat him up because nobody listened to the warnings. I know that crises sell newspapers, but there has to be some sort of responsibility on the part of the media to report things factually and calmly.

The truth is, that nobody really knows what's going to happen with this virus. Those who are recovering from it are quite lucky in some ways because they will presumably have immunity to it in the future.

I guess that part of the reason people are so worried is that nobody of my generation has any experience of the rapid spread of a potentially fatal illness. We were lucky enough to be immunised to the extent that we almost turned into pincushions so that we did not succumb to the likes of Diphtheria and Whooping Cough. Every British parent today shudders at the thought of Meningitis, and rightly so, but even that danger is, thankfully, very rare. There are very many people who live in horrible circumstances in this country and I don't want to belittle that, but none of us have had to live with the threat of a huge national crisis, be it illness or war. We have been spoiled to a certain extent.

It's important that we all play our part and act responsibly - if we do have flu symptoms, we shouldn't go out, we shouldn't cough or sneeze over people - but let's face it, we shouldn't be doing either of those things anyway, Swine Flu or not.

I suppose, as well, that it won't do us any harm to eat as much fruit and vegetables as we can get our hands on, to make sure that our bodies are well fuelled with the right nutrients should it have to deal with a new virus.

If Swine Flu does become more of a worry, I hope that we do rediscover some sort of community spirit. It would be much easier for my neighbour with flu symptoms to stay in if I went and did their shopping for them and left it outside their door. We have better communications than ever before - we just need to use them and be inventive and make sure that everyone in our community is properly looked after if they need it.

We need to embrace the calm and stoic aspects of our personalities, and ditch the hysteria. I'm concerned that people fight over bread in the shops on Christmas Eve when the shops are only going to be shut for 2 days - that sort of behaviour in the face of the threat of a pandemic is only going to make things worse.

I'm wondering if I'm going to have to get more diligent with my housework and re-aquaint myself with regular use of disinfectant. Will my slovenly ways have to come to an end?

Two thoughts to end with - all this Flu stuff is good for pharmaceutical companies, who turn from pariah to potential saviour in these circumstances. Their share prices are going up.

For the Doctor Who fans out there, I was idly wondering how Stephen Moffat might turn Swine Flu into as story for next year's series with the new Doctor...

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Clegg Slams Brown on Gurkhas

Wow! Nick Clegg's passion for justice and fairness came out and smacked us all in the face this lunchtime. David Cameron had started off questioning generally on the principle of allowing Gurkhas to settle in the country, but Nick actually turned to the specifics of the rules which seem to have been designed to exclude as many Gurkhas as possible from coming into this country.

Brown gave a bit of a lacklustre answer, which, to be honest, it was hard to imagine he actually believed himself. Nick came straight back at him saying that "his answer was that of a man who knows he's doing a shameful thing but doesn't have the guts to admit it or change it."

I want Clegg fighting on my side if I'm ever in trouble.

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Has economy let McLaren off the hook?

The World Motor Sport Council has just given McLaren the equivalent of a cuddle for their appalling behaviour at the Australian Grand Prix when they tried to claim 3rd place from Jarno Trulli by complaining that he'd passed Lewis Hamilton under safety car conditions. In fact, radio transmissions confirmed that Hamilton had let him pass.

I remember Michael Schumacher having the book thrown at him for ignoring a black flag at Silverstone some years ago.

McLaren's actions in Melbourne broke even the most basic standards of sportsmanly conduct. Ok, they've got rid of Dave Ryan and put Ron Dennis out to grass, but surely it takes more than a bit of grovelling from Martin Whitmarsh to put things right?

And now it seems that any other team that wishes to do the same has been handed carte blanche to do so, because nothing will happen to them.

I wonder if yesterday's bad results for Mercedes, whose owners Daimler lost an eye watering £1.27 billion in the first 3 months of this year had any bearing on this decision. If they decide to pull out of F1 to save money, then McLaren is in trouble and a ban would not help with this.

Was the WMSC allowing economic circumstances to over-ride fairness and justice? They had the option of giving Hamilton personally a ban for his actions, and they chose not to do that either?

I don't like the fact that McLaren have effectively got off. I can't imagine that any more facts could arise that would make things any more incriminating for them, and they will be sure to keep their noses clean for the next year.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The First Time Ever I............

Thanks to Jeff for tagging me with this meme, brainchild of Iain Dale in which we take a trip down memory lane and recount some important milestones.

So, here goes:

First Job:

Assistant Warden at Braemar Youth Hostel. This was a Summer job that kept me busy during the Summers of 1985, 1986 and 1987. I loved it, meeting people from all over the world, including a divorced man twice my age I would later run away with, much to the consternation of my parents. Good move, though, given that we have now been married for over 20 years.

First Real Job:

Nanny to a little girl in Edinburgh after said running away with hostel guest.

First Role in Politics:

I guess being on the local Committee of the Caithness and Sutherland SDP when I was 16, reducing the average age considerably. I was instinctively a Liberal rather than a Social Democrat, but the SDP, with an average age in the 50s, seemed younger. That kind of mattered when I was 16...

First Car:

A gorgeous little gold Mini Metro that I loved to distraction. Learning to drive became a necessity after we moved from Leith to the Nottinghamshire countryside. I was heartbroken when abovementioned man twice my age pranged it a year later - although I was relieved that he was ok, I'm not that heartless. And he has the cheek to criticise my driving! To be fair, it wasn't really his fault. It's undoubtedly a tribute to British engineering that a shunt at fairly low speed was enough to write off the car.

First Record:

Mull of Kintyre, by Wings. How in love with Paul McCartney was I at the age of 10? That was the first single. The first album was Hits of 76 which had my favourite record of that year, I Love to Love, by Tina Charles. I am really showing my age now......

First Football Match:

Inverness Caledenian Thistle v Dundee Utd, September 2006. It was the first time former manager Craig Brewster had returned with his new team since he'd left and the crowd jeered at him with all the passion of a woman scorned. It was very funny. It was a lovely day and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I saw a different side to my lovely brother-in-law, Mike, who works for a bank and is very sweet, that day. I don't think there was a swear word he didn't use. After the F word, the C word and B and S words in close succession, I had to tell him not to hold back just because I was there.

First Concert:

No wonder I ran away with divorced man twice my age - he took me to the U2 concert at Murrayfield in 1987 for my 20th birthday. How naive was I, though? I hardly really knew him, he lived in Leith, I was in Braemar and he invited me down to stay in his flat. He said it was 2 bedroomed flat and I could stay in his spare room. He was telling the truth, but he could so easily not have been. Anyway, it was a very lovely weekend and I moved in for good less than 3 months later.

First Country Visited:

Portugal, at the age of 6. We went on one of only two family holidays we ever had to Estoril for Christmas 1973. The other one was to a cottage in Stoer, Sutherland, in 1980.

First TV Appearance:

I think it was the SDP conference in Paisley (?) in 1986. A vox pop for STV.

First Political Speech:

At the same conference, slagging the Government for cutting customs officers and so letting loads of drugs be smuggled into the country. I said at one point that drug abuse was not confined to the Central Belt and I had been aware of it in Caithness. I was subsequently described in the Press and Journal as an "all over problem". A year later, when I was working at the Youth Hostel, the local paper, the John O'Groat Journal, rang me to follow up the story.

First Girlfriend/Boyfriend:

Feb 1984, met him at a Scripture Union training event. (How my outlook on life has changed!) He was gorgeous, 20 years old and called Rory Dobson. It was very short lived and relatively innocent, but lovely.

First Encounter with a Famous Person:

I don't know if I was ever in the same room as him, but when I was very small, my mother ran a secretarial business in Inverness. One of her clients was Jimmy Page - so that's a really tenuous claim to fame.

Proper famous, who's not a politician, would probably be Jon Pertwee at a Cult TV convention a couple of years before he died. We had a bizarre conversation in Russian and he signed a photo of him in a sports car.

First Brush With Death:

Touching wood and all sorts, I have thankfully managed to avoid life threatening situations, although it may have been a mistake to challenge aforementioned man twice my age (also very tall and at that time probably 2.5 times my weight) to a drinking competition. It was the only hangover I've ever had which lasted more than a day.

First House/Flat Owned:

I never really owned the flat in Leith - it was the man's bachelor pad, so the first house with my name on the deeds was the little semi we moved into in Coylton, Ayrshire a few months after we were married. We were unpacking boxes just after moving in and heard loads of sirens, and wondering what was going on. It was December 1988 and they were on their way to Lockerbie.

First Film Seen at a Cinema:

I know there must have been some before, but the first I can remember right now is Star Wars.

First Time on the Radio

A Moray Firth Radio phone in on religion and politics round about 1984/5.

First Politician I Met:

Robert Maclennan, then Labour MP for Caithness and Sutherland, who did the prizegiving at Wick High in either 1980 or 1981.

First Book I Remember Reading:

Noddy's Adventures in Toyland, by Enid Blyton, when I was very small.

First Visit to the London Palladium:

Never been - although I did go to the Royal Albert Hall for a Star Trek convention in 1995 so I'm not entirely uncultured.

First Election:

In 1983, at the age of 15, I walked into Bob Maclennan's campaign headquarters in Wick to ask for a copy of a manifesto. I walked out with a bundle of leaflets and a map.

The election was in June, and my O Grades had finished at the end of May. There was nothing doing at school and I was bored, so I bunked off to help the campaign as often as possible. I had official permission to be off school for a whole day to attend the Caithness Music Festival, where I was doing some poetry reading. My bit was finished by 11, so I went into the nearby HQ. Bob's wonderful wife, Helen, offered to take me canvassing far, far away. Unfortunately, one of my teachers saw me get into her car. Detention for me.......but it was worth it, and I was so boringly good that I needed to have a moment of rebellion.

It was quite an ill-tempered election as there was a lot of bad feeling from Labour over the fact that Bob had left them. One of the things he taught me, and therefore one of the first lessons I ever learned in politics, was never, ever to take any votes for granted and always to listen to people. He was always modest, courteous, decent and attentive and I still have bags of respect for him.

I'm going to tag Will Patterson, Duncan Borrowman, Neil Fawcett, Yousuf Hamid and Jennie from the Yorksher Gob, and anyone else who wants to do it.

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Joanna Lumley's plea for Gurkhas - how you can help.

Joanna Lumley has sent out an e-mail to all supporters of the Gurkha Justice Campaign asking for help in 2 ways:

Firstly, asking people to ask their MP's to vote against the Government's proposals tomorrow. I wrote to my Labour MP, Jim Devine, on Saturday and his response will be posted here if and when I get one.

Secondly, if you are in London, join the Gurkha Justice Campaign at their rally at noon tommorrow, Wednesday 29th April, in Old Palace Yard, Westminster. It's a good way of spending your lunch hour, if ever there was one.

Joanna's e-mail is copied below - I'm assuming that "pass on to others" means that she doesn't mind it appearing on blogs.

"Thank you so much for your support of the Gurkha Justice campaign. We are overwhelmed by the support the campaign is receiving.

As you may know, on Friday, the Government badly let down the Gurkhas. The new rules they have announced will exclude the huge majority of ex-Gurkhas who retired before 1997 from claiming citizenship in this country. They've given five bullet points that virtually cannot be met by the ordinary Gurkha soldier.

It is so obvious that the treatment of the Gurkhas has been a great injustice. To treat them like this is despicable.

The strong reaction by the public and press should show the Government that they simply cannot get away with this outrage.

I'm ashamed of our adminstration. We will be challenging this decision in the courts and in Parliament. We will not stop now.

This is not a party political campaign: it's simply one for justice. I am so grateful though for immediate support from MPs from all Parties, including amongst others Conservative leader David Cameron and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg.

Nick Clegg has agreed to put a vote to Parliament this Wednesday calling for a fair deal for Gurkhas. This vote on its own won't change the Government's ruling, but would be an overwhelming signal to the Government that they need to think again.

We need all MPs that support the Gurkha justice cause to turn up and vote for a proper deal for Gurkhas on Wednesday. Can I ask that you take a couple of minutes right now to ask your MP to do so?

You can send a message to your MP directly at - please ask them to support the Gurkha Justice motion on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, there will also be a Gurkha Justice rally and protest against the Government's decision, starting at noon in Old Palace Yard, Westminster. Many MPs have already committed to support the vote and join me and others at the rally. I know it's awfully short notice, but if you can, please do come along as well to add your support.

If you can pass on this message to others as well that would be fabulous - and if they sign up to we can keep in touch with them directly in future.

Lastly, again, thank you so much for your support. It means so much to us. I spoke today to Lt Madan Kumar Gurung, who has been at the forefront of the campaign since it began. He said to me that he has no fear for the Gurkhas any more, as he knows the loving hearts of the British people will not let them down. With your support we won't.

With warmest good wishes,


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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Smooth Driving and Cool Strategy comes up trumps for Brawn

Today saw another fantastic win for Jenson Button, making it 3 out of 4 Grands Prix so far this season, in Bahrain.

The Brawn team had done their best to play down expectations, saying that they were well off the pace and they had severe cooling issues with their engine. This had me sitting on the edge of my seat, barely able to breathe, worrying right to the end that the engine was going to blow up. Thankfully it didn't.

We saw Ross Brawn work in this kind of blissful harmony with Michael Schumacher for so many years and we're starting to see a similar symbiotic relationship develop with Jenson Button. And who's the team-mate that has to cope with this? Rubens Barrichello again. Bless him. Mind you, he's used to it, and he was so good at playing second fiddle before. I would love him to have the chance to shine before he finishes in F1 for good, though.

The win today needed Jenson's driving and Brawn's strategic brain. It was imperative that Jenson re-take the place he ceded to Lewis Hamilton at the start and he did in a gorgeous passing manoeuvre very early on. This enabled Brawn to time the pit stops to perfection and leave Jenson far enough ahead by the time he had to put the medium, slower tyres on that it didn't matter. Toyota did screw up, though, leaving Trulli on the medium tyres for a very long stint in the middle.

Ferrari, thank heavens, avoided the ignominy of recording their worst start to a season ever with Kimi Raikonnen winning some points. Incidentally, David Coulthard has lost no opportunity to paint Kimi as, basically, a lazy team-mate who relies on talent alone. He had another pop this afternoon suggesting that Kimi would not have been too bothered about winning today as there was only rosewater and not champagne at the end.

The bad boy of today was without doubt, for me, Lewis Hamilton. In a pre-race interview, Jake Humphrey asked him straight out whether he was enjoying being an F1 driver which led him into a big whinge about how he didn't like the politics. The boy needs to grow up. If he wanted to avoid politics, might I suggest that telling the truth to stewards and not trying to stitch up your competitors might help.

He also whinged about not being able to go out and buy fish and chips without being papped. He lives in Switzerland, earning a fortune and gets to do what he's wanted to do all his life. He should show a bit more humility and respect. Honestly.

The EJ/DC banter did not disappoint again today. Both Jake Humphrey and DC turned up in pink shirts which did clash rather horribly with each other. EJ was quick to take the mickey out of them.

It was Martin Brundle who made me laugh most, though. The Crown Prince of Bahrain has featured strongly in the BBC's coverage with people generally falling over themselves to see who could be most obsequious. When Brundle caught up with him on the grid, he started off all "Your Highness" this and "Sir" that, but when he finished the interview, it was with a "See you later, cheers".

Brawn is clearly ahead, but Red Bull and Toyota are coming along very well. I'm looking forward to two of my favourite races, Barcelona and Monaco in the next month and we'll see how much Brawn's dominance can be challenged.

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Help Amy and Friends while watching the Marathon

Imagine how you would feel if you were lining up in Blackheath waiting to take part in the London Marathon. You'd have gone through months of painful training and would be wondering if it would all pay off and you'd manage the whole 26 miles. You'd be thinking of the cause you were running for and be a bit scared about letting your sponsors down. Although, to be honest, it would take a really evil sort of person to withdraw their sponsorship if you didn't finish. Just by getting there and putting in the months of work, you have already deserved all the money you raise.

As I look on in amazement from the comfort of my sofa, I'll be thinking particularly of Mike Elliott, who is running for the charity Amy and Friends which I've mentioned before. There is no treatment available in the UK for children with this condition. The charity helps fund travel and expenses so that the children can receive treatment in the US. They also organise support for the kids and their families including an annual retreat with activities for the kids and specialist advice for their carers.

He's not far off raising £2000, so please help him to raise money to continue the charity's important work.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dramatic Qualifying in Bahrain sees Toyota Lead Grid

Today's qualifying session for tomorrow's Bahrain Grand Prix saw a stunning improvement from Toyota which enabled Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock to capture the front row of the grid. Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Rubens Barrichello make up the next two rows.

Mark Webber for Red Bull should have been up there too and I think would have been if he hadn't been blocked in an outrageously bad display of driving from Force India's Adrian Suthil. He first blocked Webber at the last corner at the end of Q1and then basically cut him up as he tried to start his next flying lap which prevented him from setting a time which would get him through to the next stage.

Sure enough, when the BBC caught up with him, Suthil was contrite enough - it seems he thought Webber was on an out lap. That's no excuse, though. The team should have made him aware of the situation - were they asleep in their garage or something?

As a result, Suthil has been demoted 3 places on the grid. To be honest, 16th to 19th is neither here nor there for Force India but the consequences for Webber are much more serious. He would certainly have made it into Q3 but for this incident and would not be languishing in 18th. Surely the rules need to be amended to give the stewards discretion to allow drivers impeded in this way to continue.
Would it really have killed them to have 16 cars in Q2?

I think the penalty on Suthil has been way too lenient - you get a 5 place penalty if you change your gearbox. He should have been disqualified, pure and simple. However sorry he is, he has, as Mark Webber put it, screwed up his race and should pay the price.

Off the track, it was fabulous to see Eddie Jordan back enjoying the banter with DC. They seem to be playing up to it now and it's very entertaining. I could listen to them all day. I think they have to be the best team in sport that I can ever remember.

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Is there any hope for tired, out of touch Labour Government?

If Gordon Brown's Labour Government were a person, I'd probably feel quite sorry for it. It's clearly suffering the symptoms of burnout and stress. It's flailing as it tries to cope with a constantly changing (and not for the better) economic situation. Its ministers seem detached, uncaring and cynical and even the Prime Minister himself has publicly and for no good reason made the most elementary and incomprehensible errors of judgment.

For me, the absolute low came yesterday. I cringed as I watched Phil Woolas stand there and attempt to justify the complete abdication of fairness and decency that was the Home Office ruling on Gurkhas' right to live in this country. To me, if people are prepared to join our Armed Forces and fight for our country, putting their own lives at risk, then we have an obligation to offer them a home. It really is that simple. Instead we have a set of movable goalposts which will exclude people who gave away their youth to fight for us. Accoring to UNICEF, the life expectancy in 2007 in Nepal was 64 years. If someone spent 19 years on active service as a Gurkha, they would have given pretty much 30% of that time in service to our counry, yet they would have no right to live here. Their colleague, with days' more service would. Where's the fairness there?

I find it hard, as well to differentiate on the basis of bravery awards. I do agree that those who show acts of exceptional bravery should have that recognised, but any member of the Armed Forces, just by being in a war zone, facing danger every day, maybe diffusing potentially difficult situations routinely, has shown much more bravery than I have ever done. I actually find the attempt to differentiate between levels of bravery opportunistic, legalistic and quite sickening.

And then you come to the clause that says, "yes, you can come here, but only if you have an illness caused by your service." I've had many and varied dealings with the Home Office in my time, and they don't need much of an excuse to turn somebody down. How on earth is a Gurkha, who may have a condition picked up or exacerbated by service decades ago, going to be able to prove that to the Home Office's satisfaction?

So the Gurkha decision may be the worst, but the Government has dropped the ball on so much else just in the last few months.

Gordon Brown's decision to foist his unworkable plan for MP's expenses on us all just before a perfectly good independent committee was going to work out a new scheme sensibly and rationally, hearing evidence in public was just plain daft. Proposing to replacing one system that is open to ridicule and abuse with another is not the act of someone whose judgement and political nous is in full working order. This come of course on top of their humiliating climbdown on publication of MP's expenses a few months ago. Common sense dictates that if your workload is overwhelming, you delegate as much as you can to somebody competent, rather than try to do everything and achieve nothing.

Then you have this paranoia and distrust over who might and might not be a terrorist. Someone on the Government payroll has come up with a set of criteria which could have air passengers ordering vegetarian meals put under suspicion. Any sensible Minister would have binned that one straight away. They keep the DNA of innocent people and they spend so much on unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance. And what do they do with the information they glean? Well, they just lose it, as they have done with numerous personal details, including mine as a recipient of Child Benefit.

If the Government were a person, I'd suggest a programme of tlc, rest and appropriate complementary therapies to get it back on its feet again. Unfortunately, we can't just give it a cuddle and send it to a health farm. Something needs to happen to get them to regain their sense of perspective, to rejuvenate them and re-connect them with what real life is like for real people. Maybe it's time for fresh legs within their own ranks. The absence of Jacqui Smith from the Cabinet Table would do no harm, for example.

Maybe they should send the Ministers to spend some time doing some work with charities who are dealing with the consequences of their decisions, a bit like the Obama team did the day before the inauguration, to help them get rid of this cynical and distrusting attitude they seem to have towards people. Take them away from the Whitehall and Westminster treadmill and remind them what got them into this in the first place. Send James Parnell incognito to a stressed JobCentrePlus office and let him see what service they offer. Even better, get him to phone up the social fund line pretending to be a client to see for himself the dreadful service his department offers.

Send Housing Minister Yvette Cooper to see the conditions that some people are expected to live in - to visit a family who has been in bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation for weeks or months on end.

We're seeing with this Government what we saw with the Major Government - a complete loss of inspiration and energy. It's not pretty to watch, and horrible for people who have to live with the most severe consequences of their bad decisions.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Liberal Democrat joy, SNP and Tory misery in Scottish Council by-elections

I've just heard the news that Liberal Democrat Alasdair Christie is the new Councillor for Inverness West, gaining the seat from the SNP who were about 125 ahead in 2007 in the ward. However you look at it, it's a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats from the SNP - certainly over 20%. Perhaps the reason the swing is so big is that the SNP have let local people down by failing to provide the funding for the much needed Inverness by-pass.

The result in full:

Alasdair Christie (Lib Dem) 1503 - 60%
Brian o'hEadhra (SNP) 556 - 22%
Andrew Mackintosh (Lab) 210 - 8%
Sheila MacLaughlin (Christian Party) 115 - 5%
Donald Gunn Macdonald (Con) 111 - 4%
George Macdonald (Solidarity) 27 - 1%

It's a miserable result for the Tories, languishing in 5th place with just 4% of the vote. They also failed to win another by-election in West Aberdeenshire, with victory going again to the Lib Dems, whose new Councillor is Rosemary Bruce. Preliminary figures there are:

1st Preferences

Conservative 1144
Rosemary Bruce, Liberal Democrat 969
Independent 842
SNP 617
BNP 44
Independent 19

After much transferring of votes, Rosemary was elected on the 5th count with 1566 votes ahead of the Tories' 1468. The Tories threw the kitchen sink at the by-election and will be very disappointed with the result. Labour couldn't even find a candidate.

As for the SNP, some have set great store by a poll showing SNP gains published in today's Herald. Well, real votes in real ballot boxes, a good 5 times more than the poll sample, don't tell such a good story for the SNP.

Who's soaring now? It sure isn't them.

This all bodes well for George Lyon's campaign to become the Liberal Democrats' next MEP in June. Rosemary has been a friend of mine for years and I know she'll be a terrific councillor, as will Alasdair in Inverness. Congratulations to both and their fabulous campaign teams. Oh, and this guy might have helped too.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Himmelgarten's Cafe's spot on analysis of terror operation

Amidst all the budget talk, you might miss the fact that no evidence has been found that the 12 students arrested in Lancashire the other week were up to terrorist plotting. You'd think they'd be released and allowed to go back to their lives instead of turned over to the Borders Agency and potentially thrown out of the country.

Costigan Quist has written an excellent analysis of this and if you do nothing else today, read it.

Mind you, this is the same Home Office who have separated breastfeeding mothers from their babies, locked families up in horrendous conditions in Dungavel and Yarl's Wood and suggested that gay men would be fine in countries where they could be put to death as long as they were discreet. We shouldn't really be surprised. Ashamed, but not surprised.....

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Leaky Chanter offends the SNP

Finally, the press get round to debating whether A Leaky Chanter is part of a wicked Labour plot to smear the SNP.

I say finally, because I first mentioned them in association with this over a week ago, even before Iain Dale.

A Leaky Chanter is occasionally juvenile, usually amusing and, let's face it, is more Heat magazine than the Economist. Not surprisingly, some nationalists have been a bit sniffy about it, but then, they would be, woudn't they?

It takes all sorts to make a blogosphere and, sure, if I was marooned on a desert island and told I could only link to a few blogs, I wouldn't pick it in a million years, but it doesn't do any harm. I may yet be proved wrong, but I hope I'm not - I am fairly certain there is nothing sinister in its intent.

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UK fails in child wellbeing AGAIN

The shocking news that the UK has finished close to the bottom of a European study on child wellbeing shows that our children are being systematically failed.

There is simply no excuse for this to be the case in what is still one of the world's wealthiest countries.

Of course it's not all about money, but we can't exactly hold our heads up high and say that anything like all our children are living in decent housing - and I don't mean luxurious, just warm, dry and functional. Nor can we say that they all get a decent education when so many still leave school without basic literacy skills.

What's more worrying than anything, though, is that many children are growing up unhappy, which, even if you look at it selfishly, is going to have an impact on the next generation's ability to fulfil its potential. You can reasonably quickly and easily sort out housing and money and education, but rebuilding and restoring a shattered psyche takes a lot longer.

What are the countries at the top of the league doing that we are not? Well, let's look at them. The Netherlands, Slovenia, Iceland, all of Scandinavia, Ireland - can we identify some common factors about how they bring up their children? Well, in Scandinavia, breastfeeding is by far the norm, even at six months of age. That has to have an impact not only on psychological wellbeing, but also on long term health. Compare and contrast to some of our poorest areas in the UK, where breastfeeding rates struggle even to make double figures. This article shows how a grassroots campaign started 30 years ago ultimately changed the culture from formula friendly to breastfeeding friendly. There are lessons to be learned from that.

I think there is enough evidence of the health benefits to mother and baby, including a new study today to seriously set about bringing about that cultural change.

I also think there are elements of our culture which hinder the crucial bonding process between mother and child. We seem hooked on regime orientated parenting methods which involve separation, isolation and unnecessary stress for both mother and baby. Some of the most stressed mothers I've spoken to are those who are trying to shoehorn themselves and their babies into one of these programmes that has every minute of every day planned out, from when exactly to express milk or have a shower to when the baby should sleep. This article explains eloquently why this approach can cause long term problems. There is a very weird attitude to children in this country, too. If you don't have children with you, you get to eat in nice restaurants, if you do, you are pointed towards garish pubs with play areas.

It might be a random coincidence that in this study of mental health across Europe, the UK ends up at the top, with the highest prevalence of conditions like Depression, but I don't think so. Funnily enough, the Netherlands, which is at the top of the wellbeing study has the lowest rate of mental health problems.

Of all the things that our Government has to hang its head in shame about - the Iraq War, failure to regulate the banks contributing to economic meltdown, the way it's let down the children of this country systematically has to be the worst. It's not that it wasn't warned - this is not the first time a study has come to these conclusions. I expected more from the Labour Party.

It will take a complicated combination of economic and social measures to change things - who has the political will to take this on and bring about that change? I think that the Lib Dems have good answers on things like housing and tax and childcare, but nobody seems to want to take on the artificial baby milk industry which is still allowed to provide so much information to new mothers, in contrast to the Scandinavian countries.

All of this provides much food for thought for Jo Swinson MP's Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Lib Dems could save you £705 with simple tax measure

What would you do with an extra £705 per year? If Liberal Democrat tax proposals announced today are implemented, you might well get the chance to find out.

Basically, you would only pay tax on earnings over £10,000. This would be a much needed and significant boost to the budgets of many low and middle income households. It would also go some way to redressing the terrible situation which, under successive Conservative, and more scandalously, Labour governments has meant that the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than the rich.

It's a good idea, easily explained and understood. Labour has tried and failed to make lives easier for some people on low incomes, but has hung others out to dry. If you have no children, or are not quite disabled enough to get disability benefits, but ill enough to restrict your ability to work, then you get precious little help from this Government. The beauty of this measure is its simplicity and accessibility to everyone. It's also worth pointing out that there are proportionally more women than men on very low incomes and many of them will be taken out of tax altogether.

It's not the whole solution, but it's a big step in the right direction.

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Luck and Skill bring Red Bull China GP Victory

Well, I assume that Sebastian Vettel, the driver who has stepped into David Coulthard's shoes at Red Bull, saw a penny and picked it up on Saturday before he landed pole position from just one flying lap at the end of the third qualifying session. He'd stayed in the running with a similarly late flying lap in Q2. Apparently there was some problem with the car, which meant that Red Bull did not want to push their luck.

It's not easy to go out there and deliver under pressure like that, and it takes huge skill to drive in the rain at pushing 200 mph. I don't like driving in the wet myself and I have a roof, windscreen wipers and rarely go above 70 in the dry. I don't want to take away from Red Bull's brilliant first GP win and first 1-2 for Vettel and Webber, but luck did play its part.

Vettel, Webber and team boss Christian Horner presumably also had black cats walk in front of them on Sunday before the race. They knew that the Brawns breathing down their necks on the grid would be faster and were carrying significantly more fuel. Alonso's presence at 2 on the grid was more down to him running on the whiff of an oily rag and wasn't as much as a threat as it looked. However, they also knew that the Brawn car's wet weather testing had been limited to a couple of laps in Malaysia but rain would be ideal for both the Red Bull car and particularly Vettel.

We will never know whether they actually did a rain dance in the Red Bull trailer, but the heavens did open, leading to a start behind the safety car. Luck smiled on Red Bull again when a second safety car stint coincided with the the time that the Brawns might have been able to get away as they were lighter on fuel. Having said that, luck smiled even more beatifcally on Robert Kubica and Jarno Trulli who had a rather spectacular coming together which left both of them pretty much unharmed.

What gets me about these guys is that they could have decided not to drive aggressively and competitively due to the conditions which had visibility down to virtually zero and several parts of the track turned into Aquaplane Central. However, despite everything they entertained us with some thrilling passing manoevres. Hamilton passed Raikonnen at one point only to have to do it all again when he span off at one of the slippery corners. Similarly, Webber passed Button with great style - and Sebastian Buemi, the Torro Rosso rookie seemed to be out to impress with a skilful and mature display of driving.

My heart was in my mouth when Adrian Suthil hit a polystyrene bollard thing at 150mph, littering bits of his car over quite a large area of gravel trap. There were a few breath holding, anxious seconds until we saw him not only move, but get out of the car and run off. It just shows how good these cars are these days.

One of the highlights of yesterday was Martin Brundle in "when I were a lad" mode. He was grumbling about the safety car start, making out that in his day it would never have happened and they'd just have to get on with it. Later on, he had a go about the wide run off areas at the new circuits which weren't there when he was driving. All very funny.

The BBC coverage is still absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately the DC/Eddie Jordan bitching had a week's hiatus, but Mike Gascoigne, ex engineer for McLaren and Force India stepped in. He seemed uncomfortable on Saturday, but much more assured and willing to take part in the banter on Sunday. It was interesting to have his take on strategy, although his advice that teams should pull their drivers in early during the first safety car stint didn't work so well for Alonso who ended up at the back of the pack not able to see anything.

My moment of the weekend, though, belongs to Jake Humphrey. His advice to DC and Gascoigne that they should get out of the way as the pit lane opened for the grid formation on Sunday "because the cars could come out without warning." DC's wry retort was that they would probably hear noise of the engine. You couldn't script something that good.

Now I'm looking forward to Bahrain next weekend. Who would have thought that the season would be so dominated in the first 3 races by two much smaller teams while Ferrari, McLaren and Renault limped along huffily on the sidelines?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Obama does half a job on torture

I've been sickened by reading the extent to which the US sanctioned torture during the Bush administration.

Here are some of the things they did:

Imagine being kept, standing up, without sleep for 7.5 days.

I am petrified of wasps and can completely relate to the terror felt by somebody who was kept in a confined space into which an insect was released, and those who put the beastie in there told them it would sting them.

Being slapped, or slammed into a wall.

Waterboarding - not some jolly sport you do on holiday, but a hideous and terrifying form of abuse. I'm not over keen on water at the best of times so even reading about this makes me feel sick. It's important to recognise that this actually happened in the name of the United States. Basically victimes were strapped to a board, with their head tilted back. They then had water poured over them which would basically go down their nose and make them think they were drowning. How awful is that going to be?

I struggle to see what the use of these techniques actually achieves other than reinforcing in the minds of those who hear about it that the US is a bad country with no respect for human rights. It's just so inhumane and wrong and can never, ever be justified.

Even if you take the human rights side out of the equation, how can you rely on information extracted under torture being accurate. If it were me, I'd probably get to the point where I'd tell my abusers what they wanted to hear just to get them make the hell stop.

One of Obama's first acts in office was to stop all this nonsense and make it crystal clear that the practices were unacceptable. Now he's published the memos relating to the practices used. Big tick on both counts.

However, he's said that no action will be taken against those who carried out the abuse, and hasn't taken any yet against those who told the Bush Administration what it wanted to hear, that the use of these torture techniques was legal. This runs the risk of undermining, at least, the good work that Obama has done. Is it good enough to say "this ain't happening on my watch but I can't do anything about the other guy's?"

My instinct is that some sort of action should be taken against everybody involved, that should be proportionate to their role and influence in the process. If I were a CIA operative doing the interrogation and was ordered to do this kind of stuff and told that the Government had been advised that it was legal, I may well have felt powerless to do anything about it. I suspect I would have refused, though, just because I wouldn't have been able to do that to another human being. That would no doubt have had ramifications for my career, or my liberty, but I would have had a clear conscience. Having said that, the chances of me ever either seeking or being given that sort of job are less than zero.

The real villains of the piece are, of course, those who advised and implemented the rules, who did have the ability to pull back from the brink. In my opinion, they should have the book thrown at them. Obama has not ruled that out, which is hopeful.

One footnote to this is that the memos were released in response to a request from the American Civil Liberties Union. Our Government could learn from that, rather than spend a fortune on barristers trying to keep documents relating to the use of torture secret.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Piers Morgan's Boris Moment

Hat tip to Stephen for pointing out this story highlighting the success of local (to us) woman, Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent. And in case you were wondering, no, she wasn't the stripper I've been complaining about.

Stephen was at my house when the show was on and I think it's fair to say that this woman is a miracle worker. Shutting one of us up is an achievement, stunning two of the biggest gobs in the Scottish Lib Dems if not the Scottish blogosphere into awed silence is probably unprecedented. She didn't look like she was going to have one of the most amazing voices ever seen on one of these shows as she sung "I dream a dream" from Les Miserables.

So from the talented, we go to the ignorant. The same story tells how Piers Morgan took exception to the footage of Susan's home town of Blackburn, describing it as a dump and apparently ordered filming to take place in Bathgate instead. The cheek of the man! West Lothian is one of the best areas to live in the UK as far as I am concerned. It's accessible for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth and Stirling, has great facilities and lovely surrounding countryside. I think it might be a good idea for him to get his backside up here and have a look round the place for himself before he starts decrying it. It may not be a chocolate box pretty corner of the posh south eastern countryside like the village he comes from but Blackburn and the surrounding area is a good place to live.

Not only that, the area is fairly rich with hidden talent with Kerry McGregor from Pumpherston making it to the X Factor final 12 in 2005, Leon Jackson just down the road in Whitburn winning the X Factor in 2007 and now Susan, who probably tops both of them. Just as an aside, in an addition to the point Stephen made about when the X Factor filmed for Leon, during the final the crowd was gathered in Edinburgh, with Liberal Democrat Lord Provost of Edinburgh talking live to host Dermot O'Leary. Much as I love George, they should definitely have filmed that in West Lothian.

Simon Cowell should send Piers up here, the same way Boris Johnson was made to go to apologise to Liverpool, to make amends for the slur he has cast on us.

And now that my rant is over, sit back and listen to the marvels Susan has to offer have a look here. 2.1 million hits and counting.

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Lapdancing - does it cause harm?

Costigan Quist has taken issue with a report I referred to in this posting the other day.

My main issue was with reality show Britain's Got Talent including an act at the very end which was to all intents and purposes a striptease - and one which got through the audition stage, too. Children are not normally permitted to view such material. Lapdancing clubs are open to adults only, yet this show brought what I feel is an inappropriate environment for children into our living room. For those who say that it was all good harmless fun and it was after the watershed, well, frankly, I would never have expected a programme which started at 7:45 pm, which is clearly aimed at families to contain such material. It was obvious that children would be watching and given that we were given no warning of what was about to take place, I could hardly get my daughter out of the room before it was shown.

Costigan's issue is with the Lilith Report's evidence about increase in reports of rapes and sexual assaults near lapdancing clubs. I take on board what he's saying that you can't prove cause and effect - but nor can you say that it is insignificant. I don't think you can dispute that these clubs do not help to reinforce the idea that women are equal members of society.

I found this study of lapdancing clubs in Glasgow and London interesting. It has no hesitation in concluding that lapdancing is a part of the sex industry and recommending that there should be much greater regulation of the industry with greater power to local authorities to restrict them.

Of concern was the way in which dancers reported harassment and pressure by both clients and management, and are the fall guys when the authorities discover breaches of conditions, which has also been documented here and powerfully here and here. What is particularly interesting about the last report is that it mentions a study of men in East London who paid for sex and who basically didn't even recognise the women who provided these services as human beings.

As well as all this, the office trip out to the lapdancing club with a client is seen as the norm. I actually know straight, male friends of mine who have felt pressure to participate in this type of outing and if it's bad for them, how on earth must it feel for their female colleagues? Have a read of this account of one woman's experience. I wonder what happened to the colleague who paid for this humiliating experience for her "as a joke."

I think there's enough evidence out there to make the case for proper regulation of lapdancing clubs and a recognition that they are part of the sex industry. I don't think it's healthy or appropriate for them to be seen as mainstream entertainment, either and I hope that the producers of Britain's Got Talent take note.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Commemoration for Hillsborough and Helicopter crash victims

It would be wrong to let today go by without a mention of two very poignant and sad events which are taking place as I write this:

the memorial service for the victims of the North Sea helicopter crash two weeks ago in Aberdeen

and the 20th anniversary service for the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. We will all have heard members of their families recount their experiences and memories over the last few days. I listened to one mother on This Morning yesterday tell how she had lost both her daughters on that day.

My thoughts are with the families of all the people who lost their lives in either of these terrible events.

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Brawn, Toyota and Williams vindicated as FIA throw out diffuser appeal

To be honest, I never really expected this to go any other way, but I'm glad to see that the FIA has now ruled that the diffusers used on the Brawn, Toyota and Williams F1 cars are in fact legal. This will no doubt have the complainers, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Renault crying into their beer as they ponder how to make their cars competitive for the Chinese Grand Prix at the weekend.

The sad thing is that, given the huge amount of evidence given to the FIA by highly paid barristers, we will have no more comedy scenes like we saw on the grid in Malaysia where the Toyota mechanics all stood behind their car to stop Martin Brundle copping a glance at their diffuser.

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Home Births "as safe as hospital"

In 1947, my 46 year old grandmother gave birth to my mother at home, safely and without any fuss, as was the norm at that time. These days, the very thought of such an elderly mother giving birth anywhere other than in hospital under strict medical supervision and direction would make most obstetricians produce a litter of kittens.

More than 60 years later, most women in the UK give birth in hospital, many after medical intervention that simply may not have occurred had nature been allowed to take its course at home.

Now a large study has shown that it is as safe to give birth at home as it is in hospital.

Don't worry, I'm not going to go into the gory details, but let's just say that for me, arrival on the maternity ward at first made life more and not less difficult. After several hours of being very relaxed at home, walking around, sending e-mails and comforting the dog, who seemed to realise that something life changing was afoot, I found myself in hospital feeling that I was being put on a conveyor belt, and that my labour was to progress according to the obstetrician's timetable, and not my body's or my baby's. This, after the painstaking completion of a birth plan with my community midwife which outlined how I wanted things to progress as naturally as possible.

The first thing that happened to me was that I was strapped up to a monitor so that the baby's heart could be traced for 15 minutes. That simply had the effect of bringing everything to a complete halt and is still a part of procedure in many hospitals that could be dispensed with. One of the things that helps nature do its work is a relaxed mother - it's much more difficult to get efficient contractions if she is tense and horizontal. The stopping in itself was deemed a bad thing by the medics, who talked about ways in which they could move things on with barely disguised glee with scant reference to an increasingly panicked me.

I decided I was having none of this, however, and found myself somewhere to hide (generally upright) until the people who were talking about intervention with such enthusiasm had gone off shift.

Thankfully, the change of personnel brought a doctor who was unconcerned by some strange rhythms in the baby's heartbeat - said she'd heard it many times before and all was fine, and a midwife who had actually read my birth plan and basically sat with me and talked me through the bad bits in a way that was to me much more effective than any painkiller. Funnily enough, with this sort of attention, I was able to relax and get on with it. If I hadn't had either of those wonderful people, I suspect that the cascade of intervention would have been unstoppable, putting both me and my baby at unnecessary risk.

The important thing about birth is that women need to have much more of a choice than they have hitherto been given. I have friends who have given up on the idea of a home birth simply because of the negativity of the health professionals treating them. Nobody has ever said to me that a midwife has tried to talk them out of planning a highly medicalised birth.

Of course, giving women the sort of birth they want, whether at home or in hospital, means having enough midwives. It's impossible for a midwife dealing with several women in labour at once to give them all the excellent sort of one to one encouragement that I had.

For the first time, we now have evidence gathered from over half a million births, which shows that statistically women are as safe having their babies at home as in hospital. This should inform the future thinking of ministers and those who actually plan the services.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Draper and McBride the exception rather than the rule

I've now been involved in active politics for over quarter of a century. I've worked with and observed many politicians from all parties whether they be local councillors, backbench parliamentarians or ministers. I've also met activists from all parties who actually get these people elected and try to keep them out of trouble once they're there. And do you know what? I've found that most of the above are decent human beings who want to make people's lives better. There are huge disagreements of philosophy and policy, but most people in my experience are in this game for the right reasons.

Of course I've come across people who don't live up to that ideal in my time, but they are very much in the minority.

That's why it's so depressing to read about the antics of Derek Draper and Damian McBride and their pathetic plan to pollute the blogosphere with innuendo and smear. Their e-mails are full of childish glee at the jape they are planning to pull off. They come across at best as silly boys, at worst as cruel and calculating.

I can't think of one single good thing that the advent of Derek Draper onto the political blogging scene has brought about to be honest. I have no problem having Iain Dale or Guido on my blogroll, because most of the time they write about stuff that either makes you laugh or is worth debating but I wouldn't waste the space for Draper or Labourlist. Guido and Dale engage with fellow bloggers and treat them with respect, most of the time, anyway.

I was way too kind to Draper earlier this year, but the way he behaves, it's like he thinks that people in other parties are actually beneath him. It's almost as though he thinks there's something defective about people who don't agree with his line or his perception of a situaton.

That has always been one of the most annoying things about certain people in the Labour Party, way back to my first experience of them in my student days. Discussion and debate about different ways of doing things was simply not either welcomed or in some cases tolerated. Members of other parties were looked on with a mixture of disdain and pity. If you didn't sign up to the Labour Wimmin's ideas of what feminism was about then you were an apologist for male domination.

Let's not let the Tories entirely off the hook, though. According to Paddy Ashdown's new autobiograpy, serialised in yesterday's Sunday Times, similar dark forces were at work in the Conservative Government prior to the 1992 election.

There are certainly similarities there - a dying Government, running out of steam and ideas, fighting for its political life, facing economic turmoil.

I actually don't think for a minute that Gordon Brown either knew about or was actively involved in this operation. Guido goes on about this Sunday lunch Derek Draper attended at Chequers with McBride. Gordon Brown has made his mistakes both as Chancellor and Prime Minister, but I have enough faith in him as a person that he would have put a stop to this nonsense had he been aware of the extent to which it involved pulling apart people's personal lives.

I don't doubt that there has been some action in Labour circles to try to use blogs to get their point of view out there. Scottish cyberspace has been enlivened, for the better, by entertaining blogs such as A Leaky Chanter whose wicked wit does exactly what it says on the tin - "takes the wind oot of the pipes" of the SNP Government. I don't know if the Chanter has anything official to do with Labour, but it does a good job of deflating the Nats in a humorous way. It may be that if Brown was aware of a Red Rag project, that he thought it was a similar idea.

I hope that now that McBride has gone, and Draper's credibility is basically non existent, that we don't go on and on about this forever. There are many more important thigns which should be dominating the mind of the Government - like making sure people have jobs and homes.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eat Chocolate for a Happy, Healthy Baby

I thought Easter Day would be a good day to share with you an article written by my friend Barbara Higham in which she puts the case that eating chocolate during pregnancy may be good for both mother and baby.

On the same site, she has written quite a range of articles covering subjects as diverse as green funerals, Victorian floriography (the language of flowers) iron deficiency in the nursing baby and Easter art for kids and I'd definitely recommend you take some time on the bank holiday to have a look at her work.

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An Eggstra Easter treat from Jo Swinson MP

Happy Easter to all of you! I'm sure your world is less full of rabbits, chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks than mine is at the moment, but however you are spending your Easter Day, I hope you enjoy it.

I thought you might like to see, courtesy of Lib Dem Voice, the results of Jo Swinson's survey on Easter Egg packaging. Jo has long been campaigning against excess packaging and it appears that she has had some success in persuading manufacturers to celebrate this festival in a more sustainable way.

I hope she'll be able to use her powers of persuasion on Nestle to encourage them to comply with the International Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes. You can find out information on how they fall short on the excellent Baby Milk Action website.

Jo herself wouldn't, sadly, have been able to consume most of the eggs herself as she has a very severe nut allergy. I wonder if her lucky staff helped her polish them off or, as LDV suggested, Mark Pack got in on the act!

Quick update to point out that this story has been picked up by this site and Jo is described as a Government leader. If only - she'd do a better job than the current incumbents, that's for sure:-)

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Tennant excels in cracking Doctor Who Easter special

There's always a bit of anxiety for me in the build up to a new Doctor Who episode - usually loosely based on the thought that they couldn't possibly top the previous one.

In the fourth season, I don't think there was a single bad episode, although, personally, the Doctor's Daughter was not my favourite. The series ended on a huge high with Stolen Earth and Journey's End, which saw the return of Davros, loads of daleks and all the companions from the new series. The Christmas Special was excellent, too, with just the right amount of sentimentality for the season.

As usual, I needn't have worried. Last night's episode had it all - UNIT, a mad Welsh scientist brilliantly portrayed by Lee Evans, insects who communicate by telepathy, a real prospect that the earth would be reduced to mere sand by wormhole creating swarm of metal stingrays, a flying bus (as Stephen said to me last night, this definitely tops a Ford Anglia) and promises of darkness to come.

Michelle Ryan was given a very two dimensional character to play and she did ok in the role. Lady Christina de Souza will go down in history as the unluckiest woman in the history of Doctor Who, though. At any other time in his life, the Doctor would have welcomed her aboard the TARDIS, but it's too soon after losing Donna and Rose and he sent her on her way. She did get to snog him though, so it's not all bad.

David Tennant showed exactly why he is so bloody good as the Doctor and why we're all going to miss him so much. We have less than two hours screen time of him as the Doctor left. He saved the world, making it all look so easy, making us all laugh along the way, but showed his real talent at the end when the Doctor received a very creepy prediction of the future. You could just see his face and eyes darken. Tennant deals so well with the complexities of the Doctor's character and is equally good at showing light and darkness.

And what of that prediction of the future - that "your song is coming to an end". The Ood said that to him last year and then River Song came along. Could there be some tie in with her at some point? Not sure how they'd work it in, though as she didn't recognise the Tennant incarnation of the Doctor, but she is clearly a significant part of his life and there is promise in that particular story arc for the future.

So now we have to wait until the Autumn for the next part of the Tennant Farewell.

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Britain's Got Talent Shame - When did stripping become mainstream family entertainment?

I know that I can usually be trusted to watch every reality show known to man, but I've never quite got Britain's Got Talent. My daughter loves it, though, especially the acts that, predictably, involve cute animals.

What I wasn't prepared for in last night's opening show of the new series was the final act they showed. Effectively, the woman gyrating on the stage in red stockings, suspenders and basque with strategically placed Union Jacks round her bum and bosom was a stripper. For all that people use the term "burlesque" to make this sort of activity sound exotic, in the end of the say, it still represents a massive disrespect to women.

I want my daughter to grow up with an idea that there are no barriers to what she can achieve based on her gender. It makes it all the more difficult if her future male partners or employers are being raised on the idea that women are merely there to be men's sexual playthings.

I am halfway through watching a series channel 4 did last week on the effects of pornography on secondary school students' perception of sex. It's very, very scary stuff although it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to work out the effects of the almost universal access to porn on the internet.

Predictably, girls felt pressure to have come up to the image and behaviour of female porn stars. Given that the entire porn industry pretty much is targetted at straight men, then a whole generation of boys is being taught that women are there to perform a subjugated rather than an equal role in a sexual relationship.

Not only that, but the boys who are watching porn will presumably go to work one day. How are they going to respect their female colleagues as equals if they have been brought up to see them as subservient architects of their sexual gratification?

When I was a student, and first got interested in these issues, porn was limited to some dodgy under the counter videos and top shelf magazines and to get anything really explicit you had to go to a sex shop. Now, for most of our kids, it's a few clicks away.

The inclusion of these acts in a family entertainment show brings the seedy world of the lapdancing club into our living rooms. I leave you with some thoughts on why that is not a good idea. If you haven't got time to look at those links, then the edited version is that reports of rape in the vicinity of lapdancing clubs are up by a third and of indecent assault are up by over 50%.

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Lib Dems call for withdrawal of European Baby Bottle Poster

I'm glad to see that the Lib Dems have called for the withdrawal of the EU election poster featuring a baby bottle to represent the family that I blogged about on Friday. The press release from Andrew Duff, leader of the Lib Dems in the EU said:

"In documentation designed to promote the European elections in June this year the European Union has produced postcards which undermine World Health Organisation, UK health guidance and the European Blueprint for Action, all of which promote breastfeeding by associating a baby bottle as an appropriate image of a family.

Andrew Duff MEP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on the European Union said: 'This image is not suitable to portray a family, other images could have been used, even a picture of a family. All agencies agree that breatfeeding is the best start for babies, yet this postcard undermines the work of all these organisations.'

Numerous Liberal Democrat campaigners including Sal Brinton, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Watford are supporting Andrew Duff's stance, 'So many organisations have worked so hard to increase breastfeeding rates, it is ridiculous that to promote one election, the European Union have decided to portray the choice between family and work in this way. This advert should be withdrawn.'

Arwen Folkes, Managing Director of Real Baby Milk says: 'The use of this image is thoughtless and careless. Especially when you consider the sterling work that so many professionals and volunteers are currently undertaking. We are all working hard to change negative social perceptions of breastfeeding and to properly inform and support mothers to give human milk to their babies and thereby improve the health of future generations. The use of this image by a body such as the European Union sadly perpetuates the cultural assumption that bottle feeding is the normal way to feed babies. I sincerely hope that it can be withdrawn in time.'"

Those of you on Facebook can show your support for this stance by joining the group Europe - Baby Bottles do not represent the Family

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

David, Catherine, Barrowman, Sunshine, Family and Doctor Who

You'd probably have to take Glandular Fever out of the equation for this to be the perfect day, but it has enough elements for me to be feeling cheerier than for a long time. I'm not even feeling that ill today - which is a huge improvement. Bob and Anna are both at home and we are having a completely chilled out time in the sunshine.

I'd definitely buy a drink for both Jonathan Ross (for taking holiday) and the person at the BBC who decided to get David Tennant and Catherine Tate to sit in for him on Radio 2. They are doing a grand job, even though they have managed to completely slag off Twitter - saying it's sad, but at least they had the good grace to admit they were wrong. They are certainly making the long wait ahead of the new Doctor Who special tonight bearable.

In a way, I don't want the hours to pass too quickly. David Tennant only has 3 stories left and then the best portrayal of the Doctor ever will be over. I don't say that lightly, either. The Doctor has been played, very well, by some fantastic actors, but Tennant has the edge for the way he just seems to pull off, perfectly, everything I like about the Doctor. The way he combines mystery, pathos, humour and compassion in such a plausible way is brilliant. He is the perfect Doctor for his time in the same way that Tom Baker just seemed right as I was growing up in the 70s.

When Baker left, the powers that be chose a much younger, albeit well-established actor in Peter Davison to replace him. He was fine but was rather eclipsed by his predecessor. We will have to see how Matt Smith takes up the challenge next year.

I've had a bit of an Amazon flirtation this morning and bought Party Animals, the drama about Westminster researchers from a couple of years ago, which Matt Smith starred in, along with Bob and Rose, another brilliant Russell T Davies drama.

David Tennant has just announced that John Barrowman will be on the show soon - I think I need smelling salts as I can barely contain my excitement. I may have to go and lie down in a darkened room........

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Celtic Tiger licking its wounds

The Irish economy is suffering even more than most at the moment. It's forecast to contract by a staggering 8% this year. I'm not convinced that the Irish Government's harsh approach to public spending is the right path, particularly when all their neighbours are taking the opposite approach. Time will tell, but it would make sense for the Irish as well as us to be investing in green jobs and infrastructure and try to get their economy on a more sustainable footing for the future.

Two stories relating to Ireland catch my eye at the moment. Apparently we have been overpaying the Irish by a good £135 million in 2007. The Irish Exchequer will be getting 200 million euros less than it expects for 2008, which given the precarious state of their finances, is not helpful. This isn't great news for us either, and we need to look at why our tax and NI system is so over complicated and rubbish that it makes so many mistakes. We all know how so many families are being pursued to repay overpayments of tax credits which were paid to them in error through no fault of their own - and now it seems that over a hundred million pounds has been overpaid to another Government. All this at a department Gordon Brown controlled with his clunking fist for 10 years.

The Irish Government might have been able to bear this shortfall a bit better had it collected the same taxes from foreign artists in Ireland that other countries take off Irish acts on tour on their patch. Apparently if they had implemented these taxes, the Irish Government would have been 200 million Euros richer.

I don't know whether they chose not to - and they had the chance to introduce the legislation to do so as part of the emergency budget this week - to encourage foreign acts to play in Ireland when they would otherwise not have done so, but at first glance it does seem to have lost them money.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

EU undermines breastfeeding on Election Poster

I am disappointed to see that the EU is using a baby bottle to illustrate the campaign in the forthcoming elections.

The presentation of this image is a clear violation of The International Code of Breastmilk Substitutes, a Code introduced to protect infant health. The Code provides minimum standards to be implemented in their entirety in all countries to protect breastfeeding and ensure breastmilk substitutes are used safely if they are needed.

According to the World Health Organisation 1.5 million infants die every year because they are not breastfed. While the risks of bottle feeding are greatest in areas of the world with hot climates, lacking refrigeration and adequate fuel to prepare the product safely, breastfeeding reduces the risk of illness in all countries. Even in the UK, a bottle-fed baby is up to ten times more likely to be admitted to hospital with gastro-intestinal illness than a breastfed one.

Using a bottle to represent family life undermines breastfeeding and supports the flagrant disregard for the Code displayed by the formula milk industry.

It is ironic that the EU is claiming to campaign on 'green' issues when bottle feeding is creating an environmental disaster!

I think that the EU should recognise their mistake and withdraw this poster immediately. It is depressing to think that they have totally failed to appreciate its inappropriateness.

I have e-mailed six of the seven Scottish MEPs to raise my concern. If you would like to, you can find them here.

I am not impressed with David Martin who does not provide an e-mail address and in fact the only Scottish contact is a PO Box address in Edinburgh.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Kettles heat things up

When I use a kettle, it's to heat water to boiling point.

The Police technique of kettling as a method of crowd control must surely come under scrutiny now. I was quite shocked to read Tom Brake, Lib Dem MP for Carshalton's, account of being kept in a Police "kettle" for five hours without access to food or water. It is important that notice is taken of his views as an independent parliamentary observer.

It scares me that innocent people could be caught up in something like this and it strikes me as inevitable that if this technique continues to be used disproportionately and excessively, then at some point, somebody is going to be trampled, severely injured or worse.

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The trauma of trying to get a GP appointment

I'm not feeling great this morning and need to make an appointment to see my GP. Unfortunately, it's not just a simple question of ringing up and being allocated a time. All appointments are now allocated on the day so you have to be on the phone at 8 am if you want to have a cat in hell's chance of getting to see the GP you want.

The first challenge is actually getting through. If you make the mistake of ringing at one second to eight, you get the out of hours message. If you ring at eight exactly, chances are that you'll get a recorded message saying "Welcome to xyz (and the recorded Stepford Woman pronounces it incorrectly too) Medical Practice. Unfortunately the surgery is experiencing high call volumes. Please call back at a less busy time."

Unfortunately, if you call back at a less busy time, chances are you simply will not get an appointment that day.

So, you keep trying to get through and eventually, you will make it to the next automated level of hell, where they imply that you are still a pain in the arse for trying to call at a busy time, but, nevertheless, they've put you in the queue. If you are really desperately needing to be seen, then the chances of you holding on for 10-15 minutes, getting to the "you are next to be answered" and then inexplicably being cut off seem to rise.

So you try again and go through the whole rigmarole. It may by now be 8.30 am. Once you've got your way to the front of the queue again, having been trying for half an hour, you then get a message saying "if this is a life threatening emergency, please press 5 on your keypad now." If it had been that bad, chances are you wouldn't have made it to hear that message.

On several occasions, after going through all of this, I've been told that there isn't an appointment for me that day and there is simply no alternative but to go through it all again the next day.

To add insult to injury, it's cost me a fortune in the process, as the surgery has an 0844 number so is not covered by most landline deals for included calls. I can live with that, even though one time last year when my husband was very ill, it cost £15 in a month trying to procure the appointments he needed as well as over £30 in prescriptions. We have a landline, though. Many people, particularly the poorest, can't afford it and are charged a fortune to call on their mobiles.

There has to be a more efficient system of ensuring the best use of GP time and making sure that access to the GP is easy and free for the patient. This is something I'm going to raise with my MSP because it's an important principle. It worries me that I might be getting an appointment at the expense of someone who needs it just as much as I do and simply can't afford to stay on the line.

Two things need to happen:

1 GPs need to be banned from using 0844 numbers
2 A more balanced and flexible appointments system needs to be in place.

Ironically, it only took 13 minutes to get through today and I had the choice of the GPs I wanted to see, so I'm off up there at 11.30.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ian Tomlinson - Video shows Police Officer's attack as he walked away

My heart goes out to the family of Ian Tomlinson. To lose someone so suddenly is awful. To do so in the way they have done is so much harder.

Mr Tomlinson was walking home from work last Thursday in the area where G20 protests were taking place. Video footage has now emerged and has been reported in the press.

It shows him a few moments before he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was walking away from Police with his hands in his pockets when an officer came up and walloped him on the leg with his truncheon. The officer then appeared to lunge forward, which sent Mr Tomlinson flying.

If that wasn't shocking enough, you then see the whole group of officers just stand about while protesters had to rush to Mr Tomlinson's aid. Once he was back on his feet, he walked off and it was further down the street that he collapsed.

We need to have confidence in the agents of the state who are supposed to protect us. This footage raises serious questions about the conduct of the Police last week. There needs to be an enquiry into this and appropriate action taken to ensure that needless tragedies like this do not happen.

I personally don't think there's any excuse for what happened, but it's worth pointing out that it doesn't seem that the situation round about was particularly fraught. I can't see any reason for what looks to me to be an assault on an innocent man which had awful consequences.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

What is your favourite chocolate?

Firstly, I presume that the title of this has attracted the attention of Dr Pack, so hello Mark. There are even some semi-colons in here to keep you happy, although you will probably have issues with how they have been used.

There's so much angst going on at the moment, and I'm still poorly sick and miserable, so I thought that I might try to cheer myself up with the one subject that will guarantee to bring a smile to most faces. Jennie, I know it won't for you, so feel free to add any kind of food that makes you happy.

With Easter coming up, it's probably appropriate to have a bit of a gratuitous chocolate indulgence. It's the only vice I'm allowed at the moment as alcohol is off limits cos of the Glandular Fever.

Anyway, less whinging about my health and down to business. My top ten favourite chocolatey treats are:

1 Green and Black Maya Gold - the bitterness of the dark chocolate with orange, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla through it is just wonderful. My friend Pippa made me a cake with Maya Gold ganache on it for my 40th birthday, which was every bit as heavenly as it sounds;

2 Lindt 70% dark chocolate - an intense, bitter chocolate sensation;

3 Cadbury's Dairy Milk - it has a unique creamy, sweet flavour. Can only be eaten in small doses, but is just right for a mid afternoon pick me up;

4 Divine Mint Dark Chcolate isn't quite the same but is an ethical substitute for After Eights which as a committed Nestle boycotter I can't have;

5 Cadbury's Creme Egg - in case you're wondering, I bite the top off, eat the inside and then enjoy the chocolate;

6 Minstrels - the lovely creamy Galaxy chocolate with a smartie like coating helps me stay off the Smarties and no trip to the cinema would be complete without some. I don't like to crunch them - just let them melt in my mouth;

7 Starbucks Signature hot chocolate. I don't have this very often, but a couple of times a year, Anna and I will nip to Starbucks as part of a shopping trip and enjoy this rich treat with cream on the top;

[Just as an aside, how did I, who hates shopping in almost all its forms (except buying books and DVDs) manage to produce a child who will walk through the soft furnishings department of Marks and Spencer's admiring bedding sets and cushions?]

8 Fry's Chocolate Cream - again dark chocolate (can you detect a theme here?) with a sweet fondanty centre. I used to love it as a child. You used to be able to get one which had 5 centres, but they seem to have stopped doing it - unless you can prove me wrong;

9 Fry's Turkish delight - I loved this one from school - the lovely gelatinous rosewatery Turkish delight covered in milk chocolate. Very good;

10 Cadbury's Wispa - knocks evil Aero into a cocked hat. Nuff said.

So, have a good Easter, everybody, and I hope the Easter Bunny is very generous to you........ Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments below.

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Malcolm Bruce should be on Lib Dem Voice poll of Greatest Orators

Lib Dem Voice is running a poll on who is the greatest living Lib Dem orator. They've given their suggestions but I think they've missed out my particular favourite. I think you would have to go a long way to beat Malcolm Bruce who can be guaranteed to both inspire and make you think. He can do the tub thumping, barnstorming political gags but he also excels at the reflective, compelling advancement of an argument. One of my favourite speeches of his was given at the Scottish Conference in 2008 when he spoke passionately and authoratively almost exclusively about his vision for the future governance of Scotland.

Three years earlier in the run up to our best election performance in a long time, he delivered this.

I think that there are few better at captivating and inspiring their audiences. His speeches are rich with his wide ranging knowledge of history and huge international experience. I've heard him speak many times, whether it's been at Conference or at a much smaller dinner and he's always come up with the goods. I remember a pre election training event a few years ago where he spoke very movingly of the dark forces at work in Europe and how it was so important that liberals were there to stand up for human rights and freedom. He spoke without notes and it's a speech that will never be published, but years on I can still remember it. That's a huge compliment from me given that I usually forget what someone's said within minutes.

If you agree with me, make a comment to the original thread suggesting Malcolm be added to the poll.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Miriam urges Government to use valuable cord blood

Nick Clegg's wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantes, has told how it was impossible for her to donate her newborn son's valuable cord blood, which could be used to treat people with such conditions as Leukaemia or for stem cell research to find longer term cures for serious conditions.

I share her frustration that we see this needless waste of something nature has given us for free. All the UK's Governments should be looking at this - expanding cord blood banks can't be that expensive and would surely be ultimately a net gain for the NHS.

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