Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brown's barbaric plans to stigmatise teenage mothers.

I'm going to leave others to rip to shreds Gordon Brown's claims on the economy and his new found belief in local Post Offices he made in his speech today. There's plenty of scope for an awful lot of shreds. Others can also comment on the number of Lib Dem policies he stole. Update: for a really good overall analysis of the speech, look at what our favourite Elephant has to say.)

I want to concentrate on one truly horrific aspect of what he said.

Over an hour on, I'm still actually shaking with shock at this sentence:

"From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes"

Parents? In reality, that will be mothers, then, because they're the ones who generally claim the benefit. I don't know how much Gordon Brown knows about Biology but they don't tend to have sex on their own, or at least not the sort that results in babies being born. Here we have another crazy Labour idea which could result in the fathers of these babies carryng on life as usual while the girls they've impregnated are taken to be taught about responsibility. You couldn't make it up!

And while we're at it, does that mean that any 16/17 year old who claims either Child Benefit or Child Tax Credit, both of which are support from taxpayer, even if they have a stable home, will be dragged off to one of these "supervised homes" against their will?

I don't know whether Brown was trying to lovebomb Tom Harris MP who was the sole backbencher to call for him to go at the febrile Labour Parliamentary Party meeting after the disastrous Euro and local elections this year. Earlier this year, I had a bit of a go at Tom after he advocated what I felt was a return to the Dark Ages on this issue. At that time I felt that he was a bit of a lone voice in Labour but now it seems that Gordon Brown has morphed into Iain Duncan Smith lite too.

There are plenty reasonable, fair and effective ways to reduce teenage pregnancies - raising the self esteem and reducing the sexualisation of young women; accessible information about contraception; education for all teenagers, girls and boys. Ultimately, though, they are always going to happen - teenagers always have had sex and always will and no form of contraception is infallible. I don't think that effectively locking up young girls is a constructive way forward - in fact, it's a return to the days when unmarried mums were hidden away and whispered about, their lives ruined.

Brown's idea s a shameful, desperate play for the Daily Mail vote. I hope that enough Labour MPs have the backbone to make sure that it never becomes a reality.

The last word will go to the wise Will Howells who summed up the policy on Twitter like this: "Mothers, lock up your daughters, because if you don't we will."

UPDATE: (already) Paul Waugh has some more information on the plan. The last sentence of his piece is very scary indeed:

"I suspect the Tories will be delighted that the political space has now been carved out for them to perhaps go even further."

UPDATE: (a bit later on) I basically reported the facts and my general horror. Stephen, Jennie and Charlotte have all tackled this with great originality and persuasiveness and their posts are well worth reading.

Monday, September 28, 2009

More Child Safety nonsense - a tale of two wonderful women

Let me tell you about two wonderful women in my life. They've recently got to know each other and become good friends. They will know who they are.

Both are in their mid 30s (and one of them is, I bet, thanking me for my generous definition of "mid"), both are trained nurses and both are fantastic mothers who share a lot of my parenting values. I know them both extremely well and would trust them not just with my life, but, more importantly, with my child's.

My daughter is happy in the company of both of these women. I could feel completely confident about leaving her with them, and if anything ever happened to me, either one of them would in my judgement be competent to fulfil a "mothering" role for her. They love my daughter, they would look after her as well as they do their own children and I feel very grateful that they are in our lives.

Now, according to the Government, in England at least, one of these women is deemed automatically suitable for me to leave my child with on a regular basis, by virtue of being related to me and the other is not because she's my friend. The other would have to jump through all sorts of hoops before I could legally leave my child with her. She would have to probably buy a fire blanket for her kitchen and put special sheeting on her glass doors. The fact that her own children live in the house is irrelevant - if another is being looked after for really very short periods of time, then the State deems that she would have to be registered as a child minder.

The Government is desperate to get all the adults in a household out to work - because if we work, we pay tax and the enormous deficit we've managed to accrue is paid off quicker, maybe in a squillion years rather than a gazillion. So says the theory anyway.

When women with children go for an interview, it's illegal to ask them what their childcare arrangements are. The interviewer, rightly, is supposed to realise that if someone with children has applied for a job, then they might just have thought about how their offspring will be cared for. Of course, it would never cross anyone's mimd to ask a father about childcare arrangments so these laws are important to prevent discrimination against women.

We have a situation where, still, childcare is seen as primarily the role of the mother. That's not something I actually have a particular problem with, and nor do most mothers I know,to be honest. In most homes, whether we like it or not, it will be the woman who arranges and makes decisions about childcare arrangements, even if both parents work full time. Unless Ed Balls gets off his backside and does something quickly about this ridiculous piece of legislation, women will bear the brunt of having to make alternative arrangments. I can't imagine very many friends participating in an informal childcare arrangement will want to go through the expense and hassle of satisfying an OFSTED person that they are as fit to look after other children as they are to look after their own. Nor would I imagine that they would want to disrupt their lives and move into the child they are looking after's home, where registration is not required. If OFSTED going to break up voluntary child caring arrangements, it's bound to lead to women having to pay much more for childcare, to alter their working arrangements, or maybe even giving up work? So, this piece of excess nanny statism in fact indirectly discriminates against women. I just have this feeling that if childcare were seen as men's responsibility, the State wouldn't interfere so much.

It makes me furious that a Government doesn't credit me with the ability to make appropriate decisions about who should look after my child when I'm out earning taxes for them. Either of the wonderful women I wrote about above are more than qualified to look after her. I personally would much rather that she was in their family environment where she would get a hug if she fell over and nobody would think twice about putting suncream on her in the Summer than anywhere else. It strikes me as very strange that every moment that my child is away from me is regulated to within an inch of its life, yet nobody would challenge me if I smacked her in either public or private. For the record, I never, ever would and I think that it's appalling that the law allows children to be treated in ways that would result in an assault charge if done to an adult.

Of course nurseries and after school clubs should have to meet certain standards, but when it comes to regulating informal arrangments between friends, the Government has gone too far. I need a nursery or an after school club to be registered because I haven't spent a long time getting to know them and sharing experiences with them like I have with my friends. I am far more qualified than an OFSTED inspector to judge whether my daughter will be safe and happy and whether her needs will be met when I'm not there.

Blogging will be light for a while because I'm having a particularly bad spell healthwise, but I couldn't keep quiet about this one.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hamilton on Pole as Brawns struggle in Singapore

"apart from the shunt at the end of the qualify it was a positive day...flat out tomorrow"

You have to love Rubens Barrichello. It can't be easy to maintain a positive attitude on a day when the Gearbox Fairy had basically farted in his face and a truculent bit of wall had got in the way of a crucial flying lap in the final qualifying session, but that tweet from Rubens shows that he is as on fire as ever. He is the one who has managed, despite the Brawn team's various woes over the Summer, to get his head down and steadily build vital constructors' partnership points. He's been the tortoise to Jenson's hare and we all know who won that race.

The first bad news of yesterday came before qualifying even started. The gearbox that had been damaged in the engine fire at Spa, when Rubens had nursed a smoking car home to snatch a couple of points, was finally deemed to be, in technical terms, knackered. I suppose we can't bear it any grudges after it had powered him to victory in Monza, but its replacement meant that wherever Rubens finished in qualifying, he'd end up 5 places further down the grid. I guess it would have been worse if the gearbox had failed during the race because then he'd have no points in Singapore and would have to take the grid penalty at the next race in Suzuka, but, still, it's frustrating.

So, with Rubens already at a disadvantage, how would championship leader Jenson Button fare? Would he be able to capitalise on his teammate's misfortune? Well, no. Despite an excellent first practice on Friday, when the Brawns looked very quick, yesterday morning's session was marred by a plaintive, exasperated radio transmission from Button to his engineer that he was "massively struggling for grip" which has been his anthem in some ways since Turkey.

As it turned out, Jenson didn't even make Q3. Team boss Ross Brawn explained that they'd "underestimated the competition" in the second session, meaning that they were lucky to get Rubens through with Jenson languishing in 12th place.

Rubens may have been able to grab pole at the last minute, although he hadn't looked that strong in the final session, if he hadn't had an argument with a wall that ended up stopping the session early. He finished the session in 5th and will start 10th, a few places above Button.

This being a street circuit, with walls rather than nice run-off areas, the chances of drama during the race is quite high. I completely missed it last year (Glenrothes again) so I've enjoyed getting to know the circuit and the beautiful Singapore skyline. I know we don't quite have the same weather, but it did make me wish that we could show off Glasgow in the same way - I reckon we could build a reasonable street circuit there although I expect the very thought would have glasgow Green MSP Patrick Harvie raging.

It must be very weird for teams and media alike as they are sticking to European time. Because it's a night race, they're getting up 6 or 7 hours before the race, rather than 13 or 14 so that drivers and teams are as fresh and awake as they can be. They end up going to bed at 4am and getting up at lunchtime - a bit like all my friends and colleagues who were in Bournemouth last week for Party Conference.

Racing in the dark means that the cars, especially I have to say the pesky Red Bulls and the Ferraris, look absolutely gorgeous under the lights. The night skyline is very pretty and on the wide angled camera shots you can see car headlights on the roads which are open. It takes a bit of getting used to but I really like it. The darkness seems to add to the drama of the event.

The Prize for Ironic Moment of the Weekend has to go to new Renault driver Romain Grosjean. As the team arrived in Singapore, desperate to move on from the terrible events of the inaugural race, what's the first thing that Grosjean does? Crashes, with style, at turn 17, now cruelly and probably permanently dubbed "Piquet Corner."

I wrote earlier in the week about how Renault's punishment had been virtually non existent. However, where the FIA failed, its sponsors did not as Dutch banking group ING pulled the plug early on its contract wit the team. It's hardly surprising, as the large ING on the car is the first thing you see when you watch a replay of one of the most shocking incidents of sporting cheating of all time. Unfortuantely, nobody seems to have told whoever run Renault's official Twitter account as it's still using the ING logo at the time of writing.

An award for bravery must surely go to Jake Humphrey and Eddie Jordan who pushed
Bernie Ecclestone quite hard on the Renault decision and particularly on the fact that he had described the life ban for Briatore as harsh when he'd been part of the decision making process. Getting a straight answer out of Bernie is like trying to nail slime to a wall at the best of times, but they really tried. EJ even brought Bernie's earlier comments about Hitler. We'll know next week whether they get their paddock passes for Suzuka.

As far as the race is concerned, we'll have to see if the Red Bulls can capitalise on their relative advantage over Brawn, although even if Vettel wins he can't overtake Rubens to take second spot in the championship. Hamilton might well have the advantage, not just with his magic KERS button but of being considerably heavier on fuel, but he's also displayed a growing attraction to walls this season, as we have seen in both Monaco and Monza, and Singapore has plenty of opportunity for disaster.

I reckon we'll see the Safety Car at least once and there's every opportunity for the Brawn boys to finish in the points - and, of course, if Rubens finishes ahead of Jenson, it closes the gap in the Drivers' Championship some more. The boys need Ross Brawn's genius strategic mind more than ever today.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Of Savage Cuts and Tuition Fees

Sometimes we Liberal Democrats can be too honest for our own good. It would have made our lives a lot easier if we had concentrated on passing the fabulous policies on our agenda without looking at the financial context in which the next Government is going to have to operate.

We're not like that, though - at the heart of the way we operate is openness and honesty and if we know that the Government cupboard is going to be bare, then it would be stupid of us not to take that into account. Rather than whisper in the dark, we'll consult, debate and work out how to deal with these changed circumstances in a rational manner.

It would be far more wrong to make all sorts of commitments and then find out when we got into office that we just simply couldn't make good the promises we had made. It makes sense, then, to work out what we absolutely can't do without and what might have to wait until we're in a better financial position.

The last few weeks of the Parliamentary session were marked by less than illuminating bouts of ill tempered bile between Gordon Brown and David Cameron every week at PMQs. As I wrote at the time,Nick Clegg tried to kickstart a proper and grown up debate about what needed to be done to reduce the deficit while protecting public services. Looking back on it now, it almost seemed like Brown and Cameron were using each other as a fig leaf of an excuse not to discuss the issue. We had Brown going on about zero percent increases in spending and Cameron's front bench team seemingly at odds with each other about the possibility of ten percent cuts across the board.

Nick Clegg has acknowledged that in the wake of Labour's recession, we will have to find some way of paying the enormous debt that Labour have built up. If we don't, then there will be economic catastrophe in the future. The thing about the Lib Dems is that you can be sure that our first instinct will be to protect those on the lowest incomes, who need the Government help the most.

That's why, whatever happens, we'll make sure that people on the minimum wage don't pay tax, that the children who need it most get the help they need in school so that they do not leave at 16 disillusioned and barely able to read, write or count, that the health service meets the demands placed on it.

As an aside, during the manifesto debate at Bournemouth today, Lizzie Jewkes from Chester told how the taking the people who pay the minimum wage out of tax idea had come about. A group of ordinary conference delegates came up with the idea while chatting in the conference bar last year. Lizzie took it to a national policy workshop and it has now become party policy that anyone who earns less than £10,000 will not pay tax. That's going to make a huge difference to ordinary households, the sort of people who found that they were £30 a month worse off when Labour abolished the 10p tax rate. That just shows how a good idea can be listened to and taken on board by the party leaders.

David Cameron knows fine well that the only thing the Liberal Democrats have in common with the Conservatives is the word party. The Tories' gut instinct is to protect the rich - that's why they go on about giving tax breaks to people on six figure salaries. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are polar opposites.

I think that the Fresh Start for Britain pre manifesto document and the motion passed today clearly sets out where our heart is as a Party. There has been a whole load of nonsense about it in the press so we are going to have to be very careful about how we get our message across to people.

Nick Clegg has been open enough to say that there is unlikely to be enough money in the pot to put every single Liberal Democrat policy into practice. That's why he's said that it might be that tuition fees south of the border (the Liberal Democrats made sure of their abolition in Scotland) may not be got rid of in the next Parliament. Nick Clegg, and every other Liberal Democrat for that matter, opposes tuition fees.

The other parties have bent over backwards to try to make us look bad with students as a result of what Nick has said. Let's have a closer look at them, though. You would never think from the attacks from Labour MPs and bloggers that it was in fact the Labour Party who introduced fees in the first place.

As for the Tories, what have they ever done to help students? When the CBI yesterday called for student loans to attract commercial rates of interest and for tuition fees to rise, Tory spokesman David Willetts could barely disguise his glee, saying that the CBI's report was "a good opportunity to bring this issue back to life."

There's no doubt in my mind that it's the Liberal Democrats who will have most to offer students at the coming election and beyond.

It is a bit annoying that it's talk of cuts and tuition fees that have most widely reported in a Conference which has passed some amazing policy - giving families freedom on childcare, enabling parents to choose the leave arrangements that work best for them, to try and tackle the problems caused by the unrealistic portrayal of women in the media, on child protection to avoid future tragedies, on civil liberties calling for the abolition of the abhorrent mosquito devices to name but a few issues.

In all of this, I've been really heartened by the contribution of Liberal Youth. They have been amazing, providing really constructive, excellent contributions to the debates. Alex Royden, one of their Exec members impressed me twice on Sunday, once in her passionate and clearly argued demolition of the case for the mosquito device and again on Radio 5 Live talking about tuition fees, stating that while it was still party policy, she knew that it wasn't just about students, that there were other people who needed a share of the shrinking pot of money available. I don't think I would have had such a wide view as a student many years ago.

I've been really impressed with what I've seen from Conference and I think there's lots to be hopeful about in the coming months leading up to the election.

A Very Sweary Conference

I had to laugh last night when, at 6pm, BBC Parliament introduced the recorded coverage of the day's proceedings at Party Conference at Bournemouth with a warning about offensive language.

In fact, there were 3 incidents of swearing that I heard - and two from Parliamentarians at that. In the debate on the MP Expenses scandal Paul Burstow's proposing speech contained the word that rhymed with twit not once but twice.

Later on, in a characteristically passionate speech, MEP Chris Davies talked about how privileged and honoured he felt to be a public servant and how he'd do the job for half the money. He spoke of his anger of those few "cheating bastards" who had besmirched the reputation of politicians. He told of how most people he knew, in all parties, came into politics for the right reasons, to make people's lives better. I remember spending a lot of time in Littleborough and Saddleworth during the by-election he won in 1995 and I'm glad that he's kept the energy and passion he showed us then.

Finally, there was a comment that I don't think was ever meant to see the light of day when Alan Sherwell took the chair for his debate. He made an offhand comment to his aide which included the word that rhymes with hissing.

An amusing aside to a busy and vibrant conference!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Relief for Renault as Flavio shown the door

The World Motor Sport Council met this morning in Paris to decide the fate of the Renault F1 team after it as good as admitted that its former team principal, flamboyant Flavio Briatore, and his engineering director Pat Symonds, had left the team after ordering Nelson Piquet Jr to crash during last year's Singapore Grand Prix to give Fernando Alonso the advantage to win the race.

The judgement came at lunchtime. Renault's culpability was deemed to merit being thrown out of the sport, but that this drastic sentence was suspended for two years, only to be enacted if they were found guilty of a "comparable" offence.

What this essentially means is that Renault have got away with little more than a bit of egg on their faces. Where is the deterrent on this? Does this not give the green light to any other team to do whatever it pleases as long as it co-operates with the eventual investigation and sacrifices some personnel? I'm not suggesting that this is what happened in this case - I'm sure Renault were horrified when they found out people's lives were brazenly put at risk for a race win by their employees, but it sets a dangerous precedent.

In this economic climate, a hefty fine of the order of the $100 million dollars levied on McLaren for the Spygate scandal in 2007 would perhaps have been too harsh, although this offence was much worse. This was not McLaren's only punishment. They were also disqualified from the 2007 championship. That would also have cost them dear.

F1 teams get a share of the commercial spoils of the sport. Exactly how these are divvied up is kept signifcantly more secret than the evidence presented at today's hearing, which was leaked to the press a week ago but we do know that the amount a team gets depends on how successful they are, how long they've been in the sport and on all sorts of various criteria. If Renault had been disqualified from this year's championship, it's no exaggeration to say that this would have cost them a few million. In the context of their overall budget, it's not huge, but it would have been a bit better than just allowing them to pretty much continue as normal.

I am not in any way sad to see that Flavio Briatore has pretty much been told never to darken the doorstep of motorsport ever again. Given his culpability in cheating in one sport, a question mark surely must hang over his participation in football, as owner of Queens Park Rangers. He's also banned from managing drivers so no doubt Fernando Alonso (who was completely exonerated of any involvement in the crash plot)and Mark Webber will be looking for a new manager.

Pat Symonds gets a five year ban because he said sorry. I think, to be honest, that that's a bit lenient.

Completely escaping any sort of punishment is the driver involved, Nelson Piquet Junior, because he blew the whistle. What he did was completely wrong, but we have to remember that he we one with the power in that situation. His statement and apology today gives some indication of the pressure he was under and his emotional state. Being bullied, as he undeniably was, by Briatore, a man who seemed to control every aspect of his professional and personal life, can do strange things to a person's psyche and the fact that he was prepared to crash a car at over 100mph on orders shows the fragility of his mind at the time.

I'm not optimistic that he has a future in Formula 1, as he clearly wants to have, but I'd like to see what a decent team manager would do with him.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lang and Lyon back Referendum on Independence

I sat down to watch the debate on Devolution from Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth a bit grumpily because I had forgotten the time and missed Alistair Carmichael's opening speech. In virtually any debate, I'd always class Alistair's contribution as the best, even if I disagree with him. He's down to earth, natural and funny and really good at these Conference speeches.

I was pleased to hear Kevin Lang, PPC for Edinburgh North and Leith, being called to speak, just behind Edinburgh West's talented organiser Bev Hope. Kevin, too, can always be relied upon to deliver a passionate, well argued speech. I remember calling him at Scottish Conference to speak on Local Government finance cos I thought he'd bring a new and fresh perspective to the debate and he did.

He certainly didn't disappoint today, outlining how proud he was to be a Scottish Liberal Democrat, to be part of a Party who had helped form and frame devolution, helping to build a Parliament elected by a fairer voting system which had delivered the abolition of tuition fees, free personal care, the smoking ban and the like.

What he said next surprised me, though - he came out and said that he thought that we should have a referendum on independence. Like most Liberal Democrats, including me, he is passionately against devolution and pro a federal UK, but he feels that the last thing the SNP want is for their bill to pass now. He thinks that, like we wanted an in/out referendum on the EU, to take the argument to the likes of UKIP and the Tories, we should have the same debate on Scottish independence.

It was all good, cogent stuff. What I didn't expect was George Lyon MEP to stand up and make virtually the same points, and then adding that "Calman is the antidote to the virus of independence."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that this is not the same line that our MSPs have taken with this Bill. I don't know to what, if any, extent Lang's and Lyon's comments are the precursor to a change in that stance.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I was quite relaxed about the prospect of a referendum on independence. I think that where George and Kevin differ, is that they want a straight in/out referendum as opposed to a multi option one.

If the Party is to change its line, then I think there are two things it has to take into consideration. First is the promise we made to our voters in 2007 that we would not support a referendum on independence. Once we had taken that position, it would have been wrong to immediately renege on it which is why we very quickly gave up the chance to be in Government.

How could we justify a change in our stance? I think it's possible. First of all, I think our voters are generally opposed to independence, and if we look at the referendum as an opportunity to get rid of the prospect of independence for a generation, then I think that they might see the logic in what we are doing. I also think that a good number of the people who voted for us are actually quite relaxed on the issue and some are actually in favour of a referendum at least.

The other issue, of course, is cost. We've had Nick Clegg talking with refreshing realism about how there will have to be cuts in public spending - savage, he called them -and you have to wonder whether this is a luxury we can ill afford. I don't want to see hospital wards closing, or the vital Forth crossing not being built, or schools not having the equipment they need or people being homeless for longer just to have the referendum. There has to be a way of funding it that doesn't impinge on the delivery of vital frontline public services.

What I would say to Kevin and George, however, is that we must not sleepwalk into a referendum complacently assuming that the option for independence will be defeated. That's certainly the most likely outcome but we can't take it for granted. The pro independence campaign will be slick, sexy and superficial. Gazillions will be spent presenting a lovely feelgood vision of an independent Scotland where there will be no poverty, illness or unhappiness. The alternative campaign will have to be better.

It will not be enough to advance negative, fear inducing arguments. There are so many positive reasons why Scotland has and can continue to flourish as a partner in the union. Of course we need more devolution, but the path to a sustainable and prosperous future lies in being a part of that United Kingdom.

Maybe it's time for the rest of Scotland to take the SNP on at its own game and show them how to have a meaningful national conversation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Real Women get Liberal Democrat Conference off to a cracking start

Someone in the first policy debate of the Conference complained that the Real Women policy paper had in some way been sidelined by giving it such an early slot in the agenda. I don't think so. If the quality of the debate we saw this afternoon continues over the next five days, then we're in for a real treat.

I was particularly impressed with the contributions of so many Scottish speakers too, but more of that in a moment.

The Debate was about the Real Women policy paper which has attracted widespread media attention. Its design has attracted a bit of criticism. Liberal Democrats are used to having their policies espoused in long, closely typed policy papers, set out in two columns, a bit like the Bible. This one is more like Bella, or Heat than that - but I think it's good that we've produced something in a format that others might actually want to read. Jo Swinson herself suggested leaving spare copies in doctors' surgeries or giving them to a friend to spread the word rather than helping your local authority meet its recycling target.

The main points of controversy in the paper were to do with proposals to have airbrushed adverts labelled, and to ban airbrushed ads aimed at the under 16s and there was an amendment in to delete that part of it. There was also to be a separate vote on proposals for name blanking in job applications.

The debate was extremely well balanced and chaired excellently, if a bit ruthlessly at times by Cllr Sarah Boad. She wisely selected people to speak about all aspects of the policy paper, not just the controversial ones, so we got a good flavour of what it was about.

The first Scottish speaker was Jo Swinson MP who was absolutely passionate on the issue of body image, talking about giving information on what had been airbrushed was essential to liberty, and about how these proposals had struck a real chord with women who had contacted her. She spoke about how most women looked upon the "Westminster playground politics" with exasperation but who were in total sympathy with the proposals in this document.

Also from Scotland was the proposer of the amendment deleting the airbrushing proposals, our own Bernard. On this occasion I disagreed with every single word he said.

Jill Hope spoke about the number of women and babies who were dying because there weren't enough midwives and wanted more attention paid to that issue.

Susan Gaszczak spoke about her experience of running weight loss classes, where women were putting up on their fridges as inspiration pictures which had been airbrushed, presenting an image to them that was completely unobtainable.

Jacquie Bell, from Scottish Women Liberal Democrats, spoke of the pressures on carers, who are predominantly women and how the proposals would help them.

Lizzie Jewkes highlighted what she saw was a lifesaving clause in the motion. She spoke of women and young girls who were not able to get help if they suffered domestic abuse because their immigration status did not give them recourse to public funds. She gave the horrifying statistic of 10 women in this situation committing suicide every week. She spoke of how these women had the choice of putting up with the abuse or being deported back to a family who may not want them. She compared the tiny cost of allowing these women access to the public funds that would enable them to get into a refuge to the astronomic cost of keeping the 4 men who killed one woman in jail.

I think the speech of the debate came from Ettie Spencer, a first time Conference goer from East Lothian. She's worked in mental health and she's an artist and mother of 6 and she spoke of how her teenage daughter had said to her that she felt that boys had more fun, and how even though she was perfectly proportioned, she thought she was fat. She asked why on earth we should protect the super rich advertising industry and huge corporations at the expense of women and young girls.

Katy Gordon, PPC for Glasgow North spoke of how she'd had a discussion with the women at the North West Glasgow Women's Centre. They'd spoken about the issues around body image and independently they had suggested all the policies that were in the paper. She gave examples of a mother who suspected her young daughter was using laxatives after becoming distressed because her body didn't match up with the flawless portraits in magazines. She also made the very valid point that Marilyn Monroe would have been considered fat (actually I think obese) today. If you look at the stick that's handed out to poor Natalie Cassidy, who used to play Sonia in EastEnders, for being a size 16, in the media, you can see the truth in what she was saying.

Elaine Bagshaw, Chair of Liberal Youth made a clear, confident and well reasoned argument in favour of the whole policy document, talking about how Labour had been in power for most of her life yet had done very little to advance the cause of equality. She talked about the pressures of being assaulted with images which were completely fake, unrealistic and unachievable. Liberal Youth in general is making an awesome contribution to the Party at the moment and it's great to see. What I will say is that 20 years ago, I was feeling as passionately about the issues she was espousing today and I hope that her's is the generation that sees the change that we need.

Neil Fawcett spoke from the perspective of a dad, having to listen to his young daughter worry about being fat. No child, he said, should have to go through that.

Lynne Featherstone ended the debate with a simple conclusion - she compared women and the rich global corporations who prey on their insecurities as David and Goliath and challenged Conference to say whose side they were on.

Conference was very clear on the matter, rejecting moves to dilute the body image and name blanking policies.

This isn't the end of the road for the Real Women campaign - join in here and add your name for the calls for change.

Happy Birthday, Stephen Glenn

Forty years ago today, in Northern Ireland, the phenomenon that is Stephen Glenn was born. He was raised in the beautiful seaside town of Bangor, home to some of my favourite relatives, but he doesn't seem to know any of them and made his mark in both athletics and then bowls over there.

I first came across him in the run up to the 2003 Holyrood elections and started a trend that has been a bit of a recurring theme in our friendship - driving him to unfamiliar locations in the pouring rain and dumping him with a pile of leaflets.

This man's capacity for work is incredible and I expect there will be quite a custody battle for him in the build up to the election.

He's also been this blog's sugar daddy, always on hand to provide technical support.

I am just relieved that he hasn't mentioned having a Cold. When he came over to pick up the cuddly toy that's representing me at the Blog of the Year Awards tomorrow night, I was probably at my worst with the cold that's laid me absolutely low this week.

Anyway, he's in Bournemouth where some people are throwing a 5 day birthday party for him. If you're in Bournemouth, then you're sure as hell not going to be reading this, but if you aren't, go to his blog, or tweet @stephenpglenn and wish him a happy new decade.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nick Clegg's Liberal Moment

I haven't yet had either the time or the energy to read through the entire 92 pages of Nick Clegg's new pamphlet, "The Liberal Moment." I will do and I'll write more about it later when this horrible cold that's floored me these last few days has subsided a bit.

What he does in those pages is quite simple - he basically says that it's time now for the Liberal Democrats to become the rallying point for those who want to see a society which has social justice, civil rights and fairness at its heart.

He takes apart David Cameron's claim to be progressive, rightly pointing out the contradiction in the term progressive Conservative. It's clear that he believes that the Conservatives will always instinctively protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the reform that we so badly need across all our policy areas.

Those of us who saw Nick during his leadership campaign will have seen his passion as he spoke of his horror that a person living in a poor part of his constituency in Sheffield could be expected to live for 12 years less than someone in a more affluent area. It's his heartfelt commitment to do something about injustices like that, to give children who currently have no chance the hope of a successful future, to protect the planet for future generations and to work with other countries and organisations to build a fairer, more peaceful and secure world that makes him tick.

Ever since he's been leader, I've been consistently impressed by how he has always come down on the side of fairness and justice, even when it's not been the more popular line. He's stood up against ID cards, even saying he'd refuse to have one himself even if they became compulsory, he was the first UK politician to condemn the appalling Israeli attacks on Gaza at the end of last year, he fought for the Gurkhas' right to stay here, he took the unprecedented step of calling for the House of Commons speaker to resign when it was clear he was an obstacle to reform. While Brown and Cameron still prevaricate about when a cut isn't a cut, Clegg and Vince Cable have come out with actual proposals, like scrapping the renewal of Trident.

You can guarantee that Nick will instinctively come down on the side of justice, social mobility and fairness, at home and abroad.

In the Times today, he writes:

"So the real choice at the next election is not the old red-blue/ blue-red pendulum of British politics. It is between yellow and blue. A choice between a liberal movement — led by the Liberal Democrats — that is attracting disaffected progressive voters from a Labour Party which will take years to recover, if at all; and a Conservative Party that parrots the language of change to maintain the status quo. In short, an opportunity for progressives to do something different, and finally change things for good."

He's right to emphasise that only the Liberal Democrats have both the instincts, the imagination and the determination to deliver change that will empower rather than dominate people at every level of Government. Labour have had their chance and they've completely blown it, possibly for good.

He's right to emphasise that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are polar opposites in what we stand for.

He's produced a serious and detailed piece of work which sets out the principles on which our policies are based in key areas like the economy, political reform and international affairs.

I think this is a good move on his part - a fresh politics go along with the fresh start for Britain theme for conference.

Keeping children safe - sign Downing Street Petition against new vetting and barring system

As you'll be aware, many of us in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere and beyond have been very concerned about the Government's plans to vet every volunteer who comes into contact with children. I, as the most over-anxious mum on the planet, wrote about how I didn't see how this system would make my child safer and how, actually, it could do a whole load of harm.

Having been convinced of the iniquities of the system, it's then been harder to work out what on earth we could do about it. Mark showed how difficult it will be to campaign against it - those in its favour will just cast us up as being against child welfare. He recounted dialogue he'd had on Twitter with someone who was in favour of the scheme. Mark's line of argument is impeccable and logical, but the emotive stuff he got in return is going to be quite difficult to rebut.

While I think it's vital that we keep this issue in the public consciousness, I expect,sadly, it will be the banning of some perfectly innocent people from working with children which will lead to change.

I'm glad to see that someone has put up a petition on the Number 10 website calling on the Government to abandon the new anti vetting and barring procedures. I signed it this morning and if you share my concerns, I hope you'll do the same. It's important that the Government realises the strength of feeling on this.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Flavio Briatore out as Renault fight to save F1 team.

What a horrible day this is for Formula 1. I always thought the day that Renault Team Principal Flavio Briatore, a man I have absolutely no time for whatsoever, left the sport would be a day when I'd hang out the bunting and have a party. The circumstances of his departure, however, are very bad news for the sport.

Next Monday, the Renault team will face a World Motor Sport Council hearing to determine whether allegations made by Nelson Piquet Jr, the driver Renault sacked earlier this Summer, were true. Piquet had told the FIA that he had deliberately crashed his car during the Singapore Grand Prix on the orders of Briatore and the Engineering Director Pat Symonds in order to give an advantage to his team-mate Fernando Alonso, who went on to grab a surprise victory. Because Alonso had stopped by the time Piquet's crash brought the safety car out, he was in last place behind it, but everyone else still had to stop, which effectively gave him the race.

This morning, the team put this statement out saying that they wouldn't dispute the allegations and that both Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds had left the team. It's an announcement that has shocked and saddened those of us who love the sport. It's not quite an admission of guilt, but it does suggest that they were not able to find a way of defending themselves against the compelling evidence against them.

We know exactly what that evidence is because it's been widely published in the press. I can't believe I'm linking to the Daily Fail in a non negative way, but they've put it all up on their website. I have to say that the FIA should hang their heads in shame for allowing what is effectively the case for the prosecution to be leaked and published in the press. If that happened in an actual criminal court case, it could result in the defendant getting off and would certainly be contempt of court. Surely it can't be too much to ask, even in the soap opera world of Formula One, for investigations to be conducted with some sort of decorum, or at least the basic standards of confidentiality and security.

That evidence included the telemetry from Nelson Piquet's car, which indicated that he was accelerating after he lost control, a counter-intuitive reaction. While this could allow the conclusion to be drawn that the crash had been deliberate, it was the evidence given to the FIA by Pat Symonds who refused to answer a number of the critical questions put to him which added weight to suspicions of collusion.

Nelson Piquet Jr has come in for huge criticism for his actions both in causing the crash and for blowing the whistle. There is no doubt that what he did was very wrong, but we have to look further at the pressure he was under. from the statement he made on his sacking outlining his treatment at the hands of Flavio Briatore and his statement he made to the FIA we can put it all a bit in context. If half of what he writes is true, there is no doubt in my mind that he was being bullied by Flavio Briatore. Nelson had the added pressure of having a triple world champion as a father and was desperate to prove himself in that world. It seems that right from the start at Renault he was put under immense strain to deliver results and wasn't given the support that he needed to do that. By Singapore, three quarters of the way through the season, his contract had not been renewed for this season and the conversations in which he says he was ordered to crash took place in a climate of uncertainty about his future.

It's very easy for us to say that we would have told Flavio to get lost, but everybody reacts to bullying in the workplace in different ways. Piquet's confidence was clearly non existent and he was in a fragile state emotionally, not an easy thing to deal with in the macho Formula 1 world. Briatore, by his own admission, seemed to be controlling areas of Piquet's life which were none of his business. It was very difficult for this young man to make his own way and exert influence on his own life. A sensitive young man like Piquet had no chance of standing up to a larger than life figure like Briatore. In that frankly abusive set up, would you have been able to stand up for yourself? Imagine how desperate he must have been to deliberately take action which could, if it had gone wrong, killed him or somebody else - not even at the point of the crash, but I can imagine that the enormity of what he had to do consumed him throughout the race. He could easily have lost concentration earlier and inadvertently injured himself or somebody else.

Whatever his motivations in subsequently going to the FIA about to tell them that he had been ordered to crash in Singapore, it's probably a good thing that he did. If people are going to demand that their drivers crash out of races, then the sport is well rid of them. It beggars belief that any manager would put pressure on a driver to take action that could in the short term endanger the driver's life or that of any person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong term or in the long term put the jobs of everyone who worked for them in jeopardy unnecessarily.

What should happen now, though, to Renault? Presumably the parent company has completed an internal investigation and judged that Briatore and Symonds should leave to show that they had taken action and presumably to save the team being potentially being thrown out of the sport. Now that the All New Lotus has been given BMW's grid slot and the BMW team has been saved, Max and Bernie have more than enough cars to make up their grid, thank you very much. Renault's presence is less necessary on the grid for 2010 than it may have been a few weeks ago. The FIA could well decide to kick them out. There have been rumours all season that they were going to withdraw anyway, but I doubt they would want to leave in such ignominious circumstances. Distancing themselves from Symonds and Briatore could be an exercise in pre withdrawal rehabilitation for Renault, but they had signed the Concorde Agreement which committed them for 3 years, so we can only assume that they intended to stay.

Is it the case that Renault should only be punished lightly because they have dealt with the trouble makers? I'm not so sure. The team has to be accountable for the actions of its employees otherwise an unscruplous team could unofficially encourage its managers to do all sorts and then fire some sacrificial lambs if they got caught. I would expect that they would get some punishment from the FIA. For a transgression which did not endanger life, McLaren got a $100 million fine and were excluded from the championship for 2007. Surely the potential dangers of a deliberate crash are worse than that? On the other hand, the economic situation is pretty rubbish compared to 2007, especially for car manufacturers and there's an argument that the jobs of hundreds of people should not be put at risk for the irresponsible actions of three.

We know that Pat Symonds has been offered immunity by the FIA but we don't know whether he has accepted this. It concerns me that of the three people in the room, two of them have been offered immunity. There is a strong argument that Piquet should not face further action - he was not the person with the power in that situation, but Symonds? If it had been up to me, I'd have thrown the book at both of them.

Nelson Piquet Jr will find it very hard to secure employment in F1 in the future - which is a shame. I'd have loved to have seen what a decent manager like Ross Brawn or Stefano Domenicali could do with him. Presumably the only way back in for him is for his father to invest in a team and effectively buy him a seat. From there, he could prove himself in his own right. He certainly had a good track record in other series before F1, so he's clearly capable. I hope that whatever his future holds that he finds something that fulfils him and gets him out of the onerous shadow of his father.

The other intriguing question is what effect this will have on the mooted move to Ferrari of Renault's double world champion Fernando Alonso. I don't think that he knew anything about it. If he did, I can't imagine that he would have said to Pat Symonds that it was the safety car that won the race for him on the way up to the podium. He's just not that brazen and I think he'd be horrified to win a race under those circumstances. That said, will Ferrari want a driver from a tainted team? They already have too many drivers as both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonnen are contracted to the end of next year. Massa looks like he's on his way back to full health and Kimi is on fire at the moment. It was a pleasure to see the often random and monosyllabic Finn talking in paragraphs in the post race press conference on Sunday. He certainly seems to be having a spell of good form after a while when it's been hard to see his motivation. He's had several podiums and his recent win in Spa shows that he's in spirited mood. He's such a character that I really don't want to see him without a drive for next year and he certainly shouldn't, as also speculated, go to McLaren to play second fiddle to Lewis Hamilton. Only misery lies in that course of action.

As for the sport itself, it's horrible that this has happened, but I don't think there will be any long term damage. It may lead to closer investigation of accidents by the FIA given the crucial and damning telemetry from this one - but on its own, without Piquet speaking up or Symonds' evidence, it would be hard to build a case in isolation. For what it's worth, I think it was a one-off. We'll see what the FIA does on Monday and then I hope we can move on.

And please let the off track drama be over now - all I want to see is a fight to the wire as the Brawn boys determine which one of them wins the Drivers' Championship!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bedford 1 - Toynbee 0

Next on my list of things to do after the Lib Dem Blog of the Year posting was to take issue with this ill-informed column from Polly Toynbee, who sees a contradiction between highlighting the State's failings over the death of Baby P and the Soham murders and objection to the way the Independent Safeguarding Authority has been set up and will operate. Sounds like an attractive line of attack? Sure, as long as you don't trouble yourself with the facts.

I'm not going to write that piece, though, because Sara Bedford has done a brilliant job that says it all.

I'm now going to go and take my stinking cold and lie down on the settee and watch rubbish on tv.

Scots do well on Lib Dem Blog Award Shortlists

Those nice people at Lib Dem Voice have been messing with the fragile and egotistical heads of we bloggers over the last few days. They've been teasing us with hints of secrets for days on Twitter, whipping us into an anticipatory frenzy. They even gave us a couple of hours' notice that the shortlists were going to be announced at 11:25 this morning. They were on time, too and you can read the full list here.

I had never had any expectation of being included in any of the shortlists, so I wasn't surprised not to see my name in any of the categories - and then I was completely flabbergasted to discover that this blog on the shortlist for the actual Blog of the Year award. Imagine, a one in five chance of getting a BOTY. Mind you, I tend to assess these sorts of chances in the same way as John Diamond, the late and much missed (by me, anyway) Times columnist who wrote in his book C, Because Cowards get Cancer too about his feelings about being told he had a 80% or a 60% chance of survival or whatever. He said, no, actually, it was 50-50 - he'd either survive or he wouldn't. On that logic, I'm in with a 50-50 chance of victory:-)

So, having talked up my chances of winning by two and a half times, I am crushed that I am not going to be able to be at the glittering awards ceremony on Sunday night at Bournemouth. No Kate Winslet moment for me.

You know when they do the Oscars, or the BAFTAs, they do them very early in the evening, and probably for good reason, because they don't want the participants to have been drinking free booze for an extended period of time. By my the time the awards start at 10pm, all the participants will have been enjoying the delights of the Conference fringe for several hours. That's going to be fun. The spirited and opinionated Liberal Democrat nature is only enhanced by copious amounts of wine and beer so I hope that there's championship quality banter.

Seriously, though, I find myself on a list with exceptionally talented people:

the wonderful Costigan, king of smut, innuendo and tearing the Daily Fail to pieces, also up for best new blog, and with one for Best Posting;

the original and talented Charlotte, also nominated for best new blog and with two posts up for the Best Posting on a Lib Dem blog;

the man they call the Lib Dem Blogosphere's Tactical Nuclear Bastard, previous champion, with his post on the appalling reporting of Jo Swinson's expenses up for best posting, fierce, provocative, sweary and usually right;

everybody's favourite elephant - for a long time, I sported a Bloggers for Fluffy Justice banner on this blog after he was shockingly denied victory last year, cos he's brilliant as this posting on the Megrahi affair shows.

So there you have it - but what of the other Scots? Well, we've done really well, with two of our number up for the "Best Blog from a Liberal Democrat holding public office", Willie Rennie MP and Cllr Fraser MacPherson.

Alexander Ryland's Lamp of Liberty is shortlisted for best new blog.

Jo Swinson gets the nod for her fabulous tweets and use of Facebook for which she's already received public acclamation.

Finally, in the Best Non Lib Dem Political Blog, our own Mr MacNumpty makes the shortlist. Nominations were invited from all Lib Dem Voice readers and I nominated J Arthur partly because his diligent round up of Holyrood happenings every week takes some effort and is a valuable historical asset and because of posts like this , this and this. Sure, he often has a good go at the Lib Dems, but then I often have a good go about the SNP but we generally make up over a discussion on Strictly Come Dancing.

We have a lot to be proud of in the Scottish and Lib Dem Blogospheres as the various lists that have come out in this awards season have shown.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Brawn Boys are Back - a perfect 1-2 in Monza

I wonder how Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is feeling tonight. With one driver out on the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and the other only getting a point because it was thrown into his lap, his team's championship challenge took what could be a mortal blow. Nobody's counting any chickens, of course, but perhaps he's regretting stirring it in an interview he gave to the press intimating that Jenson might not quite be up to the Championship challenge.

Brawn's retaliation was swift and lethal, with flawless performances from Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button and the pit crews effectively telling Horner that he could take his wooden spoon and sh...er, I mean that he was absolutely wrong.

I knew from the interview that Ross Brawn gave the BBC after qualifying yesterday that he had his drivers exactly where he wanted them to be, even though 5th and 6th on the grid didn't look that great. What he knew, of course, and the rest of us found out later, was that his cars were by quite a long way the heaviest of the top ten. They would only have to stop once and the only thing standing in their way was the KERS cars in front of them. Lewis Hamilton's pole position was won on a very light fuel load, so he was stopping twice, giving the Brawns the advantage over him.

The real worry was Heikki Kovaleinen who was also one stopping. However he didn't have a great start and Rubens and Jenson were both past him by the end of the first lap. The only real worries for the Brawns after that point was whether they would manage to pass Hamilton in the pits and would Rubens gearbox hold up. There had been talk last night that it would have to be replaced, incurring a 5 place grid penalty. They decided against it and I didn't really breathe easy until the end of the race and he and his gearbox had got home in one piece.

Anyway, the pit stops happened, executed flawlessly and both Brawns came out ahead of Hamilton who pursued Jenson relentlessly until just before the end when he spun off at speed at the first chicane. It looked like some impact, so it was a relief to see him get out of the car and walk disconsolately back to the pits. I must be going soft in my old age, because I actually felt sorry for him.

It was a fabulous second win in three races for Rubens Barrichello, who dedicated it his sons Eduardo and Fernando, both of whom have birthdays this month. He really looks on form and on fire at the moment. He seems to have a realistic chance of going for the championship and Ross Brawn seems to be happy to let his drivers fight it out between them.

Brawn needed to have a good result this weekend. They've had a patchy Summer, but the fact that their car has now won 8 out of 13 races, with half of those wins being 1-2s, shows its dominance. Nobody else has had anything like that kind of performance this year.

What was particularly heartening to see was how good the rapport seems to be between Jenson and Rubens. While they were waiting to go up on the podium, they were chatting away and their body language was very positive. While they're both competitive, they know how to be grown up about it. They've been team-mates for a good while now and have had to kiss a lot of frogs before this dream car came along. Perhaps that's an indicator that if their driver line up ain't broke, the team shouldn't try to fix it. On the BBC Red Button F1 Forum this afternoon, DC, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle seemed to be agreed that it was likely Rubens would be out of a drive next year. This flies in the face of what Ross Brawn himself has said, that he sees no need to change the driver line up. The BBC speculation was down to the rumour that Mercedes are likely to buy equity in the team and will want a German driver like Nico Rosberg in the second seat. I expect that having the current drivers finishing first and second in the drivers' championship and winning the constructors' would give the team extra leverage in that negotiation.

Twitter made the race extra special this year as 3 of the corner I inhabit of the F1 Twitterverse were actually there. Kayleigh, Jay and Kate had a brilliant time, even if they did take refuge in the beer tent rather than watch the GP2 race yesterday in the storm.

The next F1 drama happens in a Paris office a week tomorrow, when the World Motor Sport Council investigates Nelson Piquet Jr's crash at last year's Singapore Grand Prix. Then at the end of the week, the F1 circus again lands in Singapore for a night race. The Brawn car is due a major upgrade and the circuit should suit them, so as long as the Gearbox Fairy keeps an eye on Rubens' car, we could have a repeat of the fabulous result today.

Barrichello Blasts Briatore for Piquet allegations

I'm hoping to have loads of good things to write about Rubens Barrichello after the Italian Grand Prix later today. He and his Brawn team-mate Jenson Button are in a very good position. Although they are only 5th and 6th on the grid respectively, they are way ahead of their Red Bull rivals and they are really heavy with loads and loads of fuel so they only need to stop once. I reckon that the podium should be them and Heikki Kovaleinen of McLaren. Fingers crossed - particularly or Rubens' gearbox. I'd had a whole litter of kittens by the time I watched him nurse his burning car home in Spa a couple of weeks ago and I'm not sure I could cope with that sort of trauma again. I have the Official Hiding Behind Pillow with me, just in case..

Anyway, I wanted to give Rubens a bit of praise for having a good go at Renault team principal Flavio Briatore, for the comments he had the nerve to make about Nelson Piquet Jr's private life.

For those of you who don't know the background, Nelson Piquet Jr used to drive for Renault F1 until the Hungarian Grand Prix in July. He was sacked shortly thereafter and this is my take on the statement he released at that time.

Now, things have taken a turn for the Dallas or Dynasty style uberdramatic. Piquet claims that he was asked to crash deliberately at the Singapore Grand Prix in September last year in order to benefit his team mate who went on to have an unexpected victory in the race. This is a race I missed because of the Glenrothes by-election, but I remember being surprised that Alonso had won in what had been an uncompetitive car all season.

The World Motor Sport Council will examine all the evidence in the case a week tomorrow, 21 September. They'll look at Nelson Piquet's statement, which was leaked to the media this week, hat tip to F1SA as well as telemetry from the car at the time of the crash, team radio transmissions and presumably evidence in person from the Renault team. If found guilty, the consequences for Renault could be severe.

I don't have enough either knowledge or information to volunteer an opinion on the allegations. It would be horrible to think that any team boss would put the life of not just his driver but other competitors and potentially marshals who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I do have to give some weight to someone whose judgment I trust, Ross Brawn, who said that he'd known Pat Symonds, the Renault senior manager implicated along with Briatore, for years and he found him to be a person of the highest integrity.

However,I am disgusted that Briatore has seen fit to attack Piquet personally. I'm horrified that he felt that he had the right to interfere in Piquet's personal life in the first place. He was an adult at the time, for heaven's sake, and who he chose to live with for whatever reason was absolutely none of his business. Good for Rubens to have been so fair minded about it and to have stuck his neck out and stood up for his compatriot.

Keeping Children Safe - an update and round up of reaction

I wrote this piece the other day about the new requirements to register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority for anyone who volunteers with children's groups. While this requirement to register for volunteers doesn't yet apply in Scotland, it soon will.

There have been a few very interesting comments in response to this article not only on this site, but on my Facebook page. With the authors' permission, I wanted to reproduce those comments here:

Sandra Grieve wrote:

"I think this blog covers all the bases. Neil, your memory serves you well, there has been a Scottish version of this for a number of years now. Disclosure Scotland is the organisation charged with carrying out checks on people who have significant access to children, they did not give birth to!

As one such person, although ... Read moresometimes it feels like the ones I gave birth to have unnecessarily, unfettered access to me, I have 'enhanced disclosures' done at least twice a year, occasionally more frequently than that. For goodness sake, I hear you say, she's never been that dangerous.

It's been too long since I was mad, bad and dangerous to know! However, I do work with children through a number of organisations and agencies, each one requires its own personal Enhanced Disclosure. I can hear the staff of Disclosure Scotland groan each time I post off the form, not her again!!

The irony is that children are predominantly and significantly at risk from people who gave birth to them, or their close relatives, so what next? Let's not even think about going there.............."

She goes on to make a very relevant point about child wellbeing:

Despite our neurotic interference in the lives of children and families, we do not fare well in the child well being department

Since I wrote my posting, I've discovered a few more excellent offerings on the same subject:

Sara shows how an unconventional lifestyle could lead to you being barred from working with children I have my own worries about that. What if you home educate or don't immunise your children? Could those departures from what is considered the "norm" lead to you being barred from helping at Brownies?

Charlotte takes this a bit futher with a detailed analysis of the guidelines under which decisions as to people's suitability will be determined. While I don't quite agree that this signifies the advent of a totalitarian regime, her posting raises brilliantly takes the guidance apart and raises some very legitimate concerns.

Costigan takes issue with Charlotte on her totalitarian comments but raises his own concerns about the system.

Jeff has also written about this and if you look at the comments, particularly the one from Ferret, you'll see that we're going to get very similar requirememts for volunteers to submit themselves for vetting next year.

Mark looks at some of the effects that the introduction of these requirements is likely to have.

Tom Harris takes the opposite view but his piece is well balanced, and he raises the spectre that now this system is in, it would be politically very difficult for a future Government to get rid of it - and points out that the Tories have made no commitment to do so, whatever they might say.

Most worrying of all, the Telegraph reports that our biggest children's charity has added its voice to the concerns about this system. When they, and Esther Rantzen, whose long association with Childline makes her an expert in the field, think a mistake has been made, we should all sit up and take notice.

Those nice Brits on Pole people let me write for them....

I was very surprised and honoured to get an invitation from the lovely people at Brits on Pole not only to write an article for them about Brawn GP but to contribute regularly to their site. Lisa and Andy, who run the site know everything there is to know not just about F1 but about every single open wheel racing series in the world, including some I'd never heard of. They are serious petrolheads and if you are too, go and have a look at some of the stuff they've produced.

They also do a very good weekly newsletter, which you can sign up for. I look forward to it appearing some time on a Saturday now.

Anyway, I sent them an article yesterday morning and I expect it'll be the last time they ever let me write for them because they had horrendous website problems after that, to the extent that they've had to set up a back up site. Here's hoping that the original holds up. They've put my article here but if that doesn't work, the back up is here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Keeping my child safe - an over-anxious mum writes

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I remember the first time the responsibilities of parenthood knocked me for six. It was when the midwife came to my house for a late pregnancy check and to get me to do my birth plan. The poor woman was subjected to the 2 pages of typed A4 that I had already produced. She then asked me if I wanted the baby to be given Vitamin K as I intended to breastfeed, to prevent haemorrhagic disease of the newborn, and if so, did I want it given by injection or orally. Now, I'd been very careful about what I ate during my pregnancy - I still try to put down my daughter's academic talents to the fact that I consumed a lifetime's supply of Omega 3 in those short months. This, by the way, was not deliberate - I craved sardines - but the vitamin K question was a whole new ball game. For the first time, I actually had to make a decision which would directly affect her and it scared the living daylights out of me.

The issue was resolved in the end after lots of research on my part and discussion with my husband, but the incident gave me my first real dose of maternal anxiety.

I am naturally a great worrier. A temperature or an off sounding cough from my daughter is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Last night, she went off on her new(ish) bike with her friends for the first time - only for a little while, and literally yards away, but I was at home climbing the walls. My current obsession is whether the rabbits are warm enough at night, despite two separate things to insulate their hutch (using NASA technology, apparently, which will be why it was so expensive) and it's barely September. By Christmas, they'll probably be in my bed:-)

So it's such a relief that the Government is introducing a scheme that'll ensure that nobody who ever comes into contact with my daughter will ever do her harm, isn't it?

Well, err, actually, no. I despair of it, in fact.

Along with the overwhelming burden of parental responsibility comes a huge great big long list of worst nightmares. We can all remember the names of the children who have been murdered in horrific circumstances and the thought of any child, let alone my own, going through that sort of ordeal is almost unbearable. The fact that we can remember virtually all of those children's names shows, thankfully, that this is a very rare occurrence.

I think we tend to react very emotionally, and instinctively when we think of these things that could happen, so I can see why some people might think that it's a good thing that anyone who has close contact with children, regularly, should register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority and if those working for that body should deem there is sufficient cause for concern, then that person could be banned from working with children.

The idea is that Ian Huntley, the man responsible for the Soham murders, would have been caught out by this new register because his previous charges or complaints against him would have come to light. But what if he had been identified and removed from the school premises? He'd still have lived somewhere and perhaps on another day a combination of circumstances would have presented him with the opportunity to kill random children he came into contact with.

So that's one major flaw with the new system - it may well not work and, what may be worse, it might lull parents into a false sense of security. The ISA register is based on the premise, gathered on many years of research (why, isn't it obvious?) that those who would harm children get themselves into positions where they can work closely with children. This Register is going to weed them out. But, hang on, teachers are already vetted to within an inch of their lives and very occasionally you read about one who has formed an inappropriate or abusive relationship with a pupil.

The blanket assumption that the person who drives the minibus for a youth club or the parent who helps at Brownies is in some way doing so for unscrupulous motives is highly insulting. Not only that, but how often would that person ever get to be in a situation where they'd be a danger to a child, even if they did have those sorts of motives.

Despite being the world's greatest worrier, I don't subscribe to the idea that there's a paedophile behind every tree waiting to harm my child. We've become obsessed with protecting children from a risk from strangers that pretty much isn't there. We've got all scared about taking photos of children. I remember how we were all stopped from taking photos at my daughter's last nursery sports day because of concerns - yet anyone in any of the houses opposite with malicious intent would have been able to take as many photos as they liked of the children as they ran their races. I'm angry that I lost the chance to record an important event in my child's life because of groundless panic inducing nanny state nonsense.

That was nothing compared to the hullaballoo

Anyway, I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that the Government (and although this only applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at the moment, Scotland will get its own version soon and I can't imagine for a minute it'll be much different knowing the illiberal SNP mindset)is bringing in a system which may not work, and, worse, may actually penalise the innocent.

By targeting every single one of us who works regularly with children, they create a guilty until proven innocent situation which is in direct conflict with everything our legal system has been built on. I am far more worried by this new system and its ability to ruin the reputations of innocent people than I ever was by the prospect of my daughter coming into harm at Brownies, or Swimming, or Drama, or the Dentist.

Let's look at how the ISA will make up their minds:

Applicants will be assessed using data gathered by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) (link opens in new window), including relevant criminal convictions, cautions, police intelligence and other appropriate sources.

Using this information we will decide on a case-by-case basis whether each person is suited to this work. Other appropriate sources? Gossip? Even Esther Rantzen, who set up Childline, has misgivings about the system, linked to in the article above.

"...Ms Rantzen said the whole population was being "blanketed with this extraordinary suspicion that they might be a danger to children."

She told the BBC she was also worried that the checks might "take account of rumour, gossip, unfounded allegations which may be recorded on the police computer."

If they're going to listen to rumour and gossip, then there is definitely potential for somebody's reputation being ruined completely wrongly.

I can see a situation where a man in his mid 30s, driving the minibus for his daughters' hockey team, could be barred from so doing because 20 years ago he got his couple of months' younger girlfriend pregnant when he was 16 and she was still 15and her parents complained to the Police. That would be a ridiculous overreaction but one, sadly, that could happen.

My view of the world is that people are generally good, and that's the view I want my daughter to grow up with. I don't want her to fear that every adult she comes into contact with because the State has decreed that they are worthy of suspicion until proved otherwise.

My daughter is statistically at much greater risk from being run over, particularly when she's out on her bike than she is of being harmed while at any of her activities. Does that mean we should ban cars and bikes? Of course not. Does it mean I should keep her in and encourage her to play on the Play Station rather than go climbing trees in the wood? No way. In our house it's her who tells us off for spending too much time on the computer.

It makes me angry that the Government has wasted money to bring in an illiberal, ineffective system that points the finger at all of us. Most children who are harmed face the danger in their own homes from people they know and perhaps if the resources that have gone into this register had been given to bolster up social services departments, you might have less of that going on.

It annoys me that they spend millions on this when children are suffering long term damage to their health and life chances by being brought up in poor, substandard housing with damp walls, holes in the floor, maybe no electricity because it's been cut off, or no heating. They might even be in a homeless hostel with their family. A Government that actually does something about that scandal will be worthy of all our respect.

I've heard the phrase "if it saves just one child" too often today and its evil twin "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" will be rolled out as well. I'm glad to see that Chris Huhne for the Lib Dems has expressed his concerns about this system and I hope that he's listened to. I get really concerned by the idea that whole groups of people can be demonised. We see it all the time with young people, and now it's anybody who wants to make their lives fun.

I shall leave the last word to Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, who is so affronted by this new scheme that he's stopped visiting schools. It's a shame but I can see his point.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Happy Third Birthday to Caron's Musings

I knew when I posted earlier about Granny that I'd done one of the first posts on here about her. What I'd forgotten was that it was in fact the second post, and it was written exactly 3 years ago today.

A good day, then to notice Jonathan's posting which shows that it has finally scrambled into the Wikio Top Ten Lib Dem blogs. It won't last, but I'm going to enjoy it while it does.

I wasn't sure quite where I was going when I wrote the first post. To be truthful, 808 posts later, I still haven't quite sussed it.

What I do know is that I enjoy it and I hope you all do too. Even if we disagree at times.

A couple of days ago, Mark and I were having a spirited discussion on Twitter which can be roughly paraphrased "Who was worse, Thatcher or Brown?" I think Thatcher, by a country mile, and Mark thinks Brown. It was a fun discussion. Today Mark made a lovely comment to my earlier posting, telling us about his maternal grandmother. When I read it, I actually cried. That goes to show how varied and brilliant this interwebby thing is.

This post, if all goes well, should appear exactly 12 hours after the last, 9:09 pm on 09/09/09. Night all.

UPDATE: A quick edit just to say that when this posting fed through to Facebook, it was quite appropriate that this blog's midwife was the first to "like" it. Thanks to him for all his technical geeky support over the years. Without him, there'd be no pictures, no blogroll, no links - just words, and that would be boring.

09/09/09 - a day to remember Granny

Oh, so it's one of them funny dates today, 09/09/09 and this posting should by magic reach you at 09:09, just to show you that I've noticed.

It's also, apparently the 10th birthday of Bob the Builder. I'm really quite grateful that my days of having to sit through interminable adventures of Bob, Wendy, Scoop, Dizzy, Lofty and Pilchard are over, but I bear them no ill will. I remember Anna as a toddler going up to her daddy with a broken toy and saying "Daddy fix it." Bob looked woefully at the stricken toy and said that he didn't think it could be fixed. Anna then looked up hopefully and said "Bob the Builder fix it."

What today really means to me, more than anything, however, is that it's the 14th anniversary of my lovely Granny passing away. I was very lucky with my grannies - two of the best ever. I should also emphasise, before I get a phone call reminding me so (as if I need reminding) that I also have a wonderful sister who in turn has 4 fabulous children.

Granny was a real proper highland granny. She was kind, gentle, loving and incredibly strong. She just got on with whatever she had to deal with in life and she had a fair few blows in her almost 94 years. I spent most of my days with her from a very young age and the times I spent with her were the happiest of my childhood. She was full of stories and fun and kindness. I also seem to have inherited my passion for cups of tea. The kettle was always on in her tiny flat and she always insisted that tea should be made in a metal teapot and served in a china cup. She wouldn't have had much time for the Earl Grey that I drink all the time, and she would despair that I made it in a mug with a teabag. I doubt, though, that, unlike some, she would condemn me for putting milk in it.

Actually, she wouldn't condemn anyone for anything - she was forgiving and loyal, no matter what. She was so understanding when I did the running off with divorced man twice my age thing - and she thought Bob was fabulous and always took his side in everything.

I still miss Granny and I wish so much that my daughter could have known her. Anna's lucky though in that she too has a lovely, kind, imaginative highland great auntie - my husband's wonderful Auntie Patsy.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Why bother with a referendum on independence?

The SNP unveiled their legislative programme for the new Parliament last week and, to be honest, it seems rather bland.

I know I'm coming late to this, but I wanted to throw my tuppenceworth in on the referendum on independence question. Firstly, I suppose we should be grateful that they are actually having a referendum - the alternative, where they just declare us independent 1776 style is not in any way attractive. Seriously, though, while nobody has ever, ever said to me on any doorstep that they're desperate to be asked for their views on independence, I expect that if they were told that they weren't going to be allowed to express their opinion, they would be quite disgruntled.

There is an argument that this was a key pledge in the SNP Government's manifesto and it therefore has a mandate for its referendum. There is an equally compelling counter argument that the SNP barely scraped a third of the votes cast and that many, many more votes went to parties who do not think that Scotland should be an independent country. That argument would have more legitimacy if Labour and the Conservatives had never used their parliamentary majorities built on a minority of votes to force through measures which attracted widespread opposition. Poll Tax, Iraq War, ID Cards anyone?

Of course, the SNP is slightly lacking in that crucial Parliamentary majority in Holyrood. As it stands, it looks as though Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are going to unite to vote down the Referendum Bill. It may well be that the SNP have factored this in and will simply go through the motions and let it be defeated. This will make it go away, but only for a short time, because you can bet your life that they'll put it in their 2011 manifesto and hope that we're all so fed up of Tory Government in London by then that we'll be clamouring for Alex Salmond to set us free.

I'm quite relaxed, and always have been, at the prospect of a referendum on Scotland's future Governanance. We've had the Parliament for 10 years now and most of us agree that it could do with having more powers. I think that a single take independence or leave it poll would be quite insulting to the Scottish people. The danger is that a no vote on that simple question could allow UK centralists to argue that there is dissatisfaction with devolution and possibly threaten its future. I think a much better thing would be to go for a multi option referendum which included a box to tick for greater powers for the Parliament. I'd happily go out and campaign for that option.

There's a political danger for any party which votes down the SNP's plans for a referendum. The SNP would no doubt then go into the Westminster election crying foul about how the big nasty unionist parties had denied the people their say on Scotland's future. This is the biggest gift the opposition could give them. Allowing them to take the offensive, rather than having to defend their pathetic record in Government, would be a major strategic mistake, particularly when the SNP don't do well in Westminster elections anyway. Why not push for a multi option referendum, get that through the Parliament, and then we can have a period of reasoned debate in the country, followed by a referendum next Autumn? I suspect that the country will reject independence by quite a large majority. It would be a very stupid SNP that then decides we got it wrong and puts it in their 2011 manifesto - would they really fly in the face of the will of the people? They would make themselves a political joke if they did.

It does strike me as odd, though, that of all their 2007 election pledges, this is the one that the SNP are actually going to bother trying to keep. They've failed on Policing and teacher numbers, they've ditched their plans for a Local Income Tax which would have made life so much easier for the poorer people who are so disadvantaged by the unfair Council Tax, but they insist on pushing ahead with the referendum. It does rather beg the question of what they really care about - making life better and fairer for the people of Scotland, or suiting the interests of the SNP.

The Fabulousness of General Election Night

Any political activist will wax lyrical about the various joys of Election Night. Nothing beats being with the friends and colleagues you've been slogging your guts out with as the results come in overnight. The excitement of victory, the disappointemnt of defeat, all enhanced by the surreality of total exhaustion.

Most activists at an election count, which starts at 10pm when the polls closed, will have been up delivering leaflets at the crack of dawn. They will have been on the go all day, stopping only briefly for refreshment. Despite every part of their body aching, the adrenaline keeps them going until the polls close and then through the count. If they're not at the count, they are generally congregating in some place consuming alcohol and watching Dimbleby and others fill in time before the first results come in after midnight.

Now it appears that more and more Councils are going to move towards counting on the day after the election and Liberal Democrat Voice reports on a Tory inspired campaign to Save General Election Night, reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.

The wonderful, wise and usually but not always right Dr Pack thinks that keeping the counts on a Thursday night is a good idea because:

"The drama of election night is one of the rare occasions when a mass public audience gets interested in the details of politics and hears news and information at more than nano-soundbite length."

As not much else happens overnight, the election results get more and better media coverage than they do during the day, when there are more interruptions from other stories.

Switching counts to Friday risks having the immediate news dominated by exit polls – i.e. largely about the UK-wide picture, whilst squeezing out the stories about the huge variations taking place all round the country. (A more partisan point is that it also means reports are likely to be pretty much all about the Labour/Conservative battle as the overall Lib Dem share of the vote in exit polls – unless very dramatic – is likely only to be a very rough indictator of the party’s performance in terms of seats. Saying “… and we don’t know about the Lib Dems” is likely to pale very quickly.)

Particularly in the internet age, speculation and wild gossip quickly fills a news vacuum. Better to be providing hard information sooner rather than later.

Quick counts provide more security against problems with ballot boxes being tampered with or lost. Serious allegations of this only happen rarely, but it is certainly not unknown."

Most normal people I know spend the late-night-results-coming in bit tucked up in their beds and find out what's happened in the morning before they go out for the day, but what would be so wrong about them finding out when they come in at tea time? If they're really interested, there are enough sources of information as to what's going on and if they like they can watch the drama unfold while they're awake.

Dr Pack also knows as well as I do that Simon Hughes has been wrongly predicted by one or other election programme to have lost his seat in every election since 1983, so it's wrong to suggest that somehow the late night programme is a guardian against wild rumours spreading.

He also mentions the security issue if the counts are delayed. In a Euro election, we manage to keep our ballot boxes secure for 3 days before the Count, but for this proposal, we are talking about 12-16 hours. I hope as well that we'll be moving to some sort of fair voting system within the next few years and then I think it would be better if the counts were held during the day, particularly if they are manual.

While I love the drama of Election Night, and I do agree that there's nothing quite like it, and it would be really hard to get to sleep not knowing whether all our hard work had paid off, I'm not so motivated to fight for it and I certainly won't be signing up to any Tory driven knee jerk reaction campaign on the issue. To a certain extent I see it as our responsibility to try to engage the public during the campaign so that they feel they have an interest in the outcome. If they're genuinely on tenterhooks about the result, it won't really matter when they are announced because they'll make a point of finding out what's happened.

There are plenty sensible reasons why the counts should take place on the day after an election, too. It just makes it easier and cheaper for Councils to organise.

I suppose what really cured me of my love of overnight counts was a couple of hours spent in a layby on the A92, a few miles south of Glenrothes, in the middle of the night in the freezing pouring rain, when I broke down on the way back from the by-election count last November.

I suppose one reason that Dr Pack didn't mention as a good reason to have the count overnight is that it enables the new Goverment to start doing things on the Friday after they were elected. Remember how Labour hit the ground running by announcing that they were giving control of interest rates to the Bank of England? If they leave the results until late Friday, there will be no point in announcing much before the Monday news cycles. Is that such a bad thing, though?

Moving the counts to the Friday would be the end of an era. I'm not convinced that it would be such a bad thing, though.


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