Sunday, January 31, 2010

F1: Rubens Barrichello welcomes Cosworth back to Formula One

Cosworth makes a return to F1 this season providing engines for no less than five teams, USF1, Campos, Lotus, Virgin and Williams. These will be powering the teams round the the likes of the historic circuits of Monaco, Spa and Monza.

Rubens Barrichello, who's moved from Brawn to Williams, recently visited the Cosworth factory with Williams Technical Director Sam Michael.

This video tells us a little bit about Cosworth, gives us a bit of an insight into life behind the scenes, but most importantly, shows what a lovely guy Rubens is. He tells how he's spending time sleeping in his motorhome at the factory making sure he learns everyone's names. I expect that's from the cleaning lady up. He's an incredibly polite team player. It's great that Nico Hulkenberg has someone with Rubens' experience and generosity to help him in his debut year.

Strictly's Camilla sleeps rough for charity

For seven series of Strictly Come Dancing, Camilla Dallerup entertained us with her talented choreography. Who can forget the dramatic Tango she did with James Martin, where she was the doll and he was the toymaker to Mein Herr from Cabaret or the broadway themed Showdance she put together for Tom Chambers?

Last night she and her fiance, Hollyoaks actor Kevin Sacre slept rough in Hatfield to raise money and awareness of homelessness. Their Twitter feeds tell the story of their very cold night on the streets.

Around one in the morning, Camilla asked:

How do homeless people cope in this cold? They don't even have thr warm clothes we have.

When I retweeted this, Andrew Hickey, who blogs here, replied:

Unfortunately homeless people *don't* cope in the cold. Talked to one the other day who said two friends of his had died of exposure and he'd been hospitalised with hypothermia himself.

I've said before, it shocks me to the core that in this day and age, in one of the most affluent countries in the world, people have to sleep outside. Surely we should be able to provide a roof over everyone's head, a space that they can call their own.

Camilla and Kevin weren't the only ones sleeping rough last night. Westmorland and Lonsdale Lib Dem MP Tim Farron joined an event in the frozen north at Kendal Castle where the temperature was -6. Thanks to local Cllr Chris Hogg for alerting me to that via the wonders of Twitter.

Cameron's Chilling Words show Tories' True Colours

It's a cold day, today, for sure. I kind of like these sunny end of January days - they kind of give you hope that the horrible dark Winter will end at some point. It always used to be around mid to end January that it would dawn on me when walking home from school in Wick that it wasn't dark anymore.

The price you pay for lovely, bright yellow sun and blue sky is that it's so, so cold. And as I write this, my husband tells there's a problem with the heating. We're in for a fun night, then.

Anyway, none of this has made me as chilled to the bone as the words that came from Conservative leader David Cameron this morning on the Politics Show.

The moment a burglar steps over your threshold......they leave their human rights outside

I mean, what cheap, populist rubbbish. If you take his words to their logical conclusion, they could be taken as an incitement to virtually anything.

Now, burglary is horrible. I have friends whose house has been done over twice in the last few years and I've seen how traumatised they were. I'm not suggesting it's soemthing that shoud go unpunished. Let's get that clear before I get any "you're soft on crime" thrown at me.

However if a burglar "leaves his human rights outside" what is Cameron giving licence to? Kicking them where it hurts? Bopping them over the head with a frying pan? Stabbing them? Calling your mates over to give them a good hiding?

I mean, if these people have no right to be treated as human beings, where do you stop?

I found it quite scary to hear such nonsense coming from somebody who thinks he's going to be Prime Minister in a few months.

It doesn't make me feel particularly safe to hear Cameron talk like this. I can only see an approach on his lines leading to more dead people, householders and burglars. I don't really think we need to change the law. The cases that have come to court have been really serious. To my mind, when Tony Martin shot a teenage burglar in the back, it was right that he should be tried for murder. The Munir Hussain case involved beating burglars up after they had left the property and nobody was in danger any longer. Yes the family went through a horrible ordeal, but the two men who beat up the burglars with a cricket bat were out of order.

I grant you that what happened to Myleene Klass was maybe a bit over the top. She was alone in the house with her baby. The intruders were outside and she waved it through the window. Like most opportunist burglars, they scarpered at the first thought of confrontation.

A handful of cases in a decade, when the only person who has been killed is a defenceless unarmed kid does not throw up for me any massive reason to change the law. As it stands, it seems to me to be sufficient in determining the rights and wrongs of the situation. Being a victim of a crime does not give you the right to do whatever you like to someone. I think that most reasonable people will see that.

I wonder, though, what's going on in Cameron's head. He knows that he's not making enough headway to secure victory for the Tories. He's tried to make himself out to compassionate and cuddly and it isn't working, so is he casting aside the sheep's clothing in the hope of getting out the core right wing vote?

THe reason the softer approach isn't working is because it isn't real and nobody buys it. We've been there before with Tony Blair. We recognise a charlatan at work when we see one.

One thing that has been mulling around in my head for a while is that the next Conservative Parliamentary Party is going to be much more Daniel Hannan than Ken Clarke. Cameron will struggle to keep that lot under control and will end up pandering to them to get legislation through.

Going back to the burglary issue, most of us will never confront a burglar in our homes. It's very rare. I know I sound a bit like Nick Ross at the end of Crimewatch, but still, he said it because it's true. We don't need a Notting Hill Branch of the NRA with David Cameron as its poster boy, airbrushed or not, thanks very much.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Folly of Follow-on Formula

My enjoyment of Popstar to Opera Star was rudely interrupted by an advertisement I hadn't seen before for a brand of Follow-on formula which had me seething.

Follow-on milk is to my mind an invention of the Prince of Darkness himself. Babies simply don't need their systems assaulted by loads of iron that they can't deal with efficently.

The main point of the advert was to make us think that our babies desperately need iron. How in the name of the wee man we manaaged to survive successfully as a species for thousands of years without artificial baby milk containing iron supplements is beyond me!

The idea that babies need iron supplements, whether they are fed human or formula milk is ridiculous. Most full term healthy babies will get enough iron from their normal diet. What is particularly scurrilous about follow on milk is that it gives parents a false impression that their baby is somehow going to need extra iron that their milk can't give.

Sure, there's not a lot of iron in human milk, but, nature, being clever like it is, provides it in a form which is easily absorbed by the baby's system. In fact, around half of the iron in human milk is easily and unobtrusively absorbed by the baby. Follow on formula is the equivalent of weeding your window box with a bulldozer. It marches in with its tackety boots into the baby's system, and only around 4% of the iron it contains is actually absorbed. If a baby is receiving human milk as well as the follow on formula milk, the good work the human milk does is undermined by the onslaught of the formula. The proteins which bind iron in the baby's gut are overwhelmed and can't work as well.

Generations of babies have survived without this stuff, and a hundred or two hundred years ago, their lives were a lot more physically active than our's.

So what's the attraction to the manufacturers of this stuff? Well, the strict rules on the marketing of breast milk substitutes don't apply to them. That's why you see the adverts with the rosy cheeked happy looking babies which are banned for first stage formula milks. That's why you see follow on milk on promotions in the supermarket.

I think that follow on milk is nothing more than a blatant ploy by artificial baby milk producers to get round the marketing code. I've been concerned to hear health professionals advocating its use and even recommending that it replaces breastfeeding. I would say to any mum who is told this and is worried by it to ask for her baby's iron levels to be tested and not to give iron supplments of any kind unless there is a clinical reason for doing so. Don't be fooled by clever marketing.

If you're interested in any of the issues around the marketing of infant formulas, have a look at the Baby Milk Action website. It has a specific section on follow on milk here.

Thank you for Scotblogs votes

I have to say I always knew I had the best readers in the whole world. I would like to give each and every one of you a big cuddle, but that would probably scare you so I'll just leave it at a polite thank you to everyone who voted for this blog in the Scotblogs Awards. Anyway, the Scotblogs Top 5 Liberal Democrat blogs were posted this morning and I was very pleasantly surprised to be in there.

The top 5 include the witty, irreverent and occasionally slightly smutty tales of Lib Dem campaigns past found over at John Ault's Alter Ego blog. I love the way he intersperses his campaign memories with serious stuff, even if he did slag off one of my favourite movies in one of his first posts.

Then there's the fabulous Stephen. He has an originality and a sharpness I couldn't match in a million years and I don't know how he carries all the stuff he knows about in his head. It must be bigger on the inside. He writes on a fantastic range of subjects and isn't afraid to dig deep inside himself to show what he means. I particularly liked this one where he took Jan Moir apart, word by poisonous, bigoted word.

Willie Rennie's blog has a local focus, but he also writes about issues affecting our forces and victims of miscarriages of justice. He traced the progress of his Bill giving the power to suspend driving instructors convicted of serious offences. He's currently campaigning vigorously against Rosyth being turned into a nuclear submarine dump and this post highlighted the reasons behind a Government adviser's departure - I think there are parallels with Professor Nutt's situation here with an arrogant Government refusing to listen to its specialist advisers. He also raised the issue of cleaners at T in the Park not being paid for their work and highlighted how tight fisted the Government is being about allowing children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster into the UK for much needed holidays in fresh air..

Last and by no means least, there's Andrew. He always writes passionately, from the heart, whether it's sharing the appalling violence he suffered as a young gay man, or about awful cruelty to animals, or raising awareness about Pancreatic Cancer after his mum passed away. Politically, he's shown Labour's erosion of our freedoms by highlighting how taking photos of buildings can land you in big trouble and how a baby's DNA was kept on the database. However, for all sorts of smut related reasons, this this is one of my favourite posting of his from last year.

So there you have it, a smorgesbord of the top five Scottish Lib Dem blogs. We should all be very afraid, though, because, on the horizon is a newcomer that's probably going to whip all of our backsides next year. Only a week old, Alistair Carmichael MP's new blog is right on the money. Alistairs's tweets and Facebook status updates have brightened many a dull day for us for some time and if Burning My Boats is half as good as these, he'll take the blogosphere by storm. His second post made it into Lib Dem Voice's Golden Dozen last week - hardly surprising as it highlighted those who share the blame for the Iraq war but who will not be scrutinised for their actions. I hope he finds the time to keep it up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shameless Last Plea for Scotblogs Awards votes

There's less than 8 hours to vote in the Scotblogs Awards. I've really enjoyed the opportunity it's given to get to know some great blogs. There's a lot of talent in the Scottish blogosphere.

This is simply a shameless plea for your vote for this little blog. It's an 142 horse race, so I really need it!

Thanks are due to Duncan Stephen, or Doctorvee, for the work he puts in to developing Scottish Roundup and the Scottish blogosphere. He's continually seeking to improve the site and encourage bloggers everywhere. It takes up loads of time and he deserves never ever to have to buy himself a drink ever again.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Burns Night: Why exactly do we celebrate?

All over this past weekend, Burns Suppers have been taking place all over Scotland to honour our national bard. Sometimes I wonder why, though. For all the atmospheric rama of Tam O'Shanter and the poignancy of Ae Fond Kiss, he was not above spouting some misogynist bile.

Not that I'm one to hold grudges, but I do nurse my wrath to keep it warm on this one, The Henpecked Husband:

Curs'd be the man, the poorest wretch in life,
The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!
Who has no will but by her high permission,
Who has not sixpence but in her possession;
Who must to her, his dear friend's secrets tell,
Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell.
Were such the wife had fallen to my part,
I'd break her spirit or I'd break her heart;
I'd charm her with the magic of a switch,
I'd kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.

For sure, the picture he paints of this woman is not a pleasant one, but, frankly, if a man is capable of the last 3 lines, then he deserves everything he gets.

Having said that, the haggis, neeps and tatties are cooking away as I write. Weirdly, it's vegetarian haggis. I'm pretty much a hardcore carnivore (although there are a few rules about whatever meat I eat having had a nice life), and Bob would not be bothered if he never ate meat again. However, his preference is for the real McCoy when it comes to haggis, which I won't touch, cos I think it's disgusting. It's the only time I'll ever knowingly choose a vegetarian option. And before you all start omparing me to the woman in the poem, I'd make a proper one for him if he wanted - although when I say make, I more appropriately mean picking one off the shelf in Morrison's. I mean, there's no way I'm handlling any sheep's stomach.

So, if you're celebrating tonight, have fun - but remember that there are bits of what he wrote that have no place in 21st century Scotland.

And Hello to Mercedes GP, Schumacher and Rosberg

First, they teased us

And then they finally gave us what we wanted - a good lopk at the car and the drivers, for the 2010 season. As the launch was taking place, people were asking on Twitter what colour the car actually was. Was it white, or silver - and nobody mentioned the lovely splash of turquoise which is ironically and spookily similar to the shade used here. I love it when there's a bit of symmetry between all of my favourite worlds. I do hope that someone is going to have a word in the video commentator's ear though and remind him within an inch of his life that the team principal's name is Ross Brawn, not Brown, nor Braun.

We don't know what the 2010 car looks like, and won't until the test in Valencia next week. Even then, that's not going to be the car that ends up on the grid in Bahrain, because there will be a further aerodynamic upgrade before then. Well, you're not going to give all your secrets away in a test 6 weeks before the start of the season, are you? What we saw today was the 2009 car with a lick of paint on it.

I think the car is absolutely gorgeous. I love the simplicity and sleekness of it. I didn't expect to like it as much as Brawn's bright and sunny car from last year, but I do.

There's symmetry for Schumacher as well, ending his career at Mercedes where it began in sports car racing. This was a highly unusual way into F1 in those days but it turned out to be a good choice by Schumacher's manager Willi Weber.

I'm wondering how the relationship between Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher will pan out. Nico is a talented driver who's had a good grounding at Williams. Michael Schumacher is a legend. Ross Brawn says that both drivers will have equal status. Now, he lived up to that last year, but he has so much history with Michael that it may be hard for Nico to break into their close relationship. He certainly won't have a chance of ever getting on with Ross if he behaves like a brat, like Lewis Hamilton did to Alonso when he arrived at McLaren. I watched the DVD of the 2007 season and, sure, both drivers behaved appallingly, but you'd think that there would have to be some respect shown by a rookie to a double world champion.

I think, I hope, that Nico's more grown up than that. I hope he relishes the chance to work with one of the best drivers ever. Yes, he'll try his damnedest to beat him, which is fine, but I'm sure there's a lot he can learn from Michael's long experience. Interstingly, Nico's race engineer will be Jock Clear, who was Jacques Villeneuve's race engineer at the time when Villenueve was beating Schumacher.

I'm hoping that the new Mercedes website will have special features and more scope for interaction like the Brawn one did. They seem to have taken away most of the team biographies. They did really excellent race weekend coverage last year and I hope it continues. They need to keep the fans who came to them last season.

I like the photos they've put up from today, though. There's an especially lovely one of Michael and Corinna Schumacher.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how next week's test goes. And it's only 6 weeks on Friday until the first race in Bahrain.

A final farewell to Brawn GP

As I write this the Formula 1 media circus is gathering in snowy Stuttgart for the launch of Mercedes GP Petronas, the team that will hopefully propel Michael Schumacher to his 8th world championship, not that I'm in any way biased or anything.

This is the new incarnation of the Brawn GP team which was in turn rose from the ashes of the Honda GP team, rescued by team principal and F1 legend. He never really wanted to own an F1 team - he's a strategy guy - so it's no surprise that he would sell the team to a larger company who could put it on a more secure finacial footing and protect the jobs of its 450 employees.

Over the last few days it's been quite sad to see the official Brawn GP website and Facebook and Twitter pages take on the black and silver of Mercedes rather than the yellow/green, black and white of Brawn. Hopefully we'll see more on the website today than a recorded message from Nico Rosberg. I'm kind of glad he's getting a look in. When the Twittar account changed to OfficialMGP, I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking the M stood for Michael.

You can't really say that it's the end of an era for a team that was only in existence for 10 months, but Brawn GP gave us a really special season that united F1 fans in admiration. Who would have thought that a team that didn't exist a month before the start of the season could win both championships? Their spirit, effort and teamwork paid off in unprecedented and spectacular style.

The good news is that the heart of that team will still be beating in Mercedes GP Petronas. Ross Brawn remains at the helm and everything will be done his way. The colours may be more sleek steel than Summer cocktail but there's every reason to believe that the Brackley team can do just as well this year.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Twilight Saga: my first reaction

I've spent much of the last few days getting to grips with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga, the series of books detailing the love story between a teenager in a small, rainy north western US town, Bella Swan, and her vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen. Thrown into the mix is a vampire family that's much more functional than any of the human relationships in the book, werewolves (one of whom is Bella's best friend), some really nasty, murderous villains. You get all the perils and dilemmas of first love combined with added horrors.

I've meant to read these books for a while, not least because all the people I know who are into the same sort of things as I am absolutely loved them. There's quite a crossover between the Harry Potter fanbase and Twilight - and for the F1 people, Stephenie Meyer has helpfully imbued her vampire heroes with a love of speed and fast cars. What spurred me on was that virtually every single one of my daughter's school friends was reading them and she wanted to. I knew that the content was in places inappropriate for 10 year olds, but to be honest, I'd rather we read them together and discuss the ideas in them than she gets frightened by what she's told in the playground.

I was actually worried that I might get scared - regular readers will know I'm a great big wuss. I get upset watching the bit in the Sound of Music where Fraulein Maria goes back to the Abbey, so vampires and werewolves are bound to petrify me. Well, yes, but I stepped up. I managed it. Well, so far, anyway.

I've only just started the third book of the four - but I was so absorbed in the second that I didn't turn the light out until 1.30 this morning. When I woke at 9, it wasn't to watch Andrew Marr, but to read some more. And when I finished that at midday, I thought I'd just have a wee nap - and woke up at 2.30.

When I mention that I'm reading Twilight most people ask whether I've fallen for Edward Cullen. Well, no, to be honest. I think the character's great, complex, capable of great love, honesty, nobility and self sacrifice - but he can also be patronising, supercilious, controlling, manipulative and intensely annoying. If I had to choose one character to go for, it'd probably be Carlisle, the "daddy" of Clan Vampire.

I guess I look at it from a different perspective as the mother of a daughter. I know all too well that mine will go through the intense experiences of first love, although obviously not with a supernatural being. She's bound to get her heart broken at some point and the books remind me what that's like. Of course I don't want her to go through it - but she will, and that scares me as much as any vampire. I think, though, that the fact that Bella and Edward's relationship is intense, but essentially chaste is a good thing if it's being read by 10 year olds.

There are lots of very positive themes and messages that I've picked up so far - as a mum I have no problem with her reading tales of genuine self-sacrificing love and the stabilising influence of family. Bella is the anchor in her human family - she's the adult in the relationship with her mother and her father's effective housekeeper - but in desperate need of her own support network, although she doesn't realise it. There's also a very liberal theme about accepting people as they are - Bella has absolutely no problem accepting that her boyfriend is a vampire and his family accept her into their midst with little resistance. Bella also copes remarkably well with her best friend turning werewolf on her, more troubled about the effect it has on their friendship than the issue in principle. If only we could all be as accepting of those who are different.

For all the mutual acceptance between Bella and the werewolves and Bella and the vampires, the prejudice and bitter emnity between the two supernatural species mirrors the sort of ridiculous bigotry we come across too often in our society. There's also a powerful, ruling vampire family whose outer civility hides both their hypocrisy and the atrocities they carry out in secret.

The other thing I've acquired from my first foray into this saga is a serious case of author envy. How I would just love to turn a dream into a best selling series of books. When I read a book, I always make a point of avidly reading the acknowledgements. Often they are perfunctory lists, but I love it when an author puts some effort, something of themselves, into thanking the team who've helped them. I think she does it well.

She's written the books beautifully and sensitively, creating characters and situations in a deceptively easy style that just draws you in. There's a scene in a meadow between Bella and Edward where they're both very honestly discussing the situation they're in which is fantastically done. One of the best love scenes I've come across in a while.

Anyway, I have been away from Eclipse for about as long as I can stand. It's sitting on the desk inviting me in. School night tonight, though - so lights will have to be out at 10.30.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cable questions Government on Cadbury Takeover

I have to say I do love my chocolate. While I naturally prefer a very dark Lindt or Green and Black, I do love that unique sweet cocoa creaminesss of Cadbury's chocolate, whether it's covering fruit and nuts, honeycomb, caramel or encasing white and yellow fondant.

I was not chuffed to hear news of the company's takeover by US food giant Kraft. Not just because I'm concerned that the company that makes plastic cheese might turn my favourite sweets into plastic chocolate, but also because it's handing control of another British company, a national institution abroad and putting the jobs of 4500 workers on the line.

What is quite bizarre is that more than half of the £11.9 billion price that Kraft has offered is to borrowed from a consortium which includes the Royal Bank of Scotland. That's right, the bank that we own is financing the sale of one of our national treasures. Why should a state-owned bank finance a deal that is not in the best interess of the UK economy?

That's why Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable has raised this concern with the Government. I can't see them taking any action - after all, they've not used their control of the banks to stop them awarding their top staff obscene bonuses, or regulated the industry to stop the disaster of 2008 ever happening again. In short, the Government has been about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Of course it's up to Cadbury's shareholders to decide whether to accept the Kraft offer. It would be great if they'd turn it down, but somehow I doubt they will and Kraft will be free to do what it likes with our favourite chocolate maker.

From Barbie to Supercars

My husband likes all sorts of strange things. When he buys me bubble bath or smelly stuff it's always fruit flavoured. When he's given free rein over a choice of car, it's always tiny and garish. It's quite amazing that someone who's 27 feet tall - well, not really, but he was walking through a park one day and a little girl on the other side of a hedge yelled out "Look, Mummy, it's a giant - should have a lifetime of buying itsy bitsy teeny little cars. The tinest of all was not one but two of these yellow square boxes.

We then had a little purple rectangular box called a Suzuki Wagon R.

I guess I wasn't really surprised to see the video below on his Facebook page with the comment from him "very girly, I know, but I love it".

I am a real girl, but it's too much, even for me. Tacky or what. I'll let you judge.

If you've fallen in love, here's how to order

If we win the lottery, he can have one, but I want one of these or even this.

Annabel Goldie to Scottish People: You don't matter

Scottish Tory Leader Annabel Goldie has shockingly told Scottish voters that the Conservative Party doesn't need them to govern. Even if her party wins no Westminster seats in Scotland, she warned that it actually didn't matter because David Cameron doesn't need Scotland to make up his majority.

I say shocking not because it's something we didn't think could happen, but because it's hardly tactful of her to rub our noses in thoes horrid 18 years when Mrs Thatcher presided over the demise of many Scottish industries - the car plant in Bathgate, Gartcosh, Ravenscraig, the coal industry to name but a few - and refused to accept the will of the Scottish people to have more say over our own destiny while remaining part of the UK. How we rejoiced when the 1997 election brought a Tory free Scotland. It seemed fitting.

Why would Annabel Goldie say something like that? She must know that the Tories will continue to be nothing but an irrelevance in Scottish politics. They are the only party who don't support increased powers for the Scottish Parliament and are running away from Calman as fast as their little legs would carry them. They say they've changed but on so many issues it's clear that they're the same old wolves dressed up as eco warriors and cuddly teddy bears. Not that I've seen any I want to cuddle. Thought I'd make that very clear.

If I werre a Tory activist, I'd be dismayed by Annabel Goldie's "you'll take what your given" attitude to democracy.

Her comments are just typical of how the Tories like to govern - arrogantly and remotely, using the state to crush rather than as the servants of the people.

While the Tories sure as anything won't get their majority from Scotland, they are not assured of it in England either. Their attempts to win seats from us in the South West don't seem to be working if local by-election results are anything to go by. We are doing much better than many thought we would at holding off these pseudo fluffy Tories.

The Perils of TV Listings Magazines

One of the reasons blogging has been a bit lighter than I have ideas for at the moment is because of me being a clumsy eejit. On Hogmanay, I managed, while stone cold sober before anyone insinuates anything, to poke myself in the eye with the Radio Times. Basically what I have now is a paper cut on my cornea. At the time, it really hurt, but calmed down within a day or two.

Since then, I've been waking up several times a week since in excruciating pain. It basically feels like I'm being stabbed in the eye, it's very watery and then when it calms down to a dull ache I can't read properly for ages cos my vision is blurry. This has led to me resorting to using a pirate patch from Anna's toybox so I can get on with some work.

I went to the GP yesterday and he gave me some drops which sting like hell. Then I went to the optician today. She told me to ditch the GP's drops and go and get two different types of drops and put them in a total of 5 times a day. That's great fun for me cos I hate touching round my eye - but I have to do it because if there's one thing I hate more, it's anyone else touching round my eye. So far the artificial tears do seem to be helping. I'm not looking forward to putting in the Lacrilube later tonight. I mean, what sort of name is that? It sounds like a product you'd use to grease your car engine. Or something. If it means I'm not going to wake up in agony, I'll give it a go, though.

I'll tell you later about the other reason blogging has been a bit lighter. If you follow me on Twitter you may already have an idea......

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Labour's benefits changes hit vulnerable

The Labour Governmenat's welfare reforms, designed to get people off Incapacity Benefit and into work, have come under criticism in a BBC investigation.

The BBC report highlighted the case of Maureen Leitch, who was summoned for a medical examination and told she was fit for work within weeks of undergoing debilitating treatment for Cancer, at a time when she was in excruciating pain.

I suspect that this is not a solitary example. I expect that anyone with any experience of the benefits system whether people making the claims or workers supporting them will have similar tales to tell. They will be able to cite numerous examples of people being told they are fit for work who very clearly are not.

Now, I think the idea of supporting people into work is a good one if it can be done. There is nothing more soul destroying than a system that writes you off and dismisses your chance of ever working again. My husband was made redundant from British Coal in 1994 at the age of 42. It was clear from his treatment by the DSS as it then was that he was not expected to work again - and that was under the Tories. It took him 10 months to find work again, 10 months during which he made hundreds of job applications. He went along to his 6 month review interview with several lever arch files containing copies of the applications he'd made. The person conducting the interview didn't even do him the courtesy of looking at them and dismissed him with barely a word.

Labour seems to have a bit of a split personality on the welfare state. On one hand, they say they're committed to helping people and providing them with what they need to live on and on the other they feel the need to sound tough and say that they're going to force people back to work. In fact, they achieve neither.

The benefits system under Labour is a great big mess. It is completely rubbish at adapting to changes in circumstances. If someone takes a temporary job and comes off benefits, the hassle they often experience when they are unemployed again setting their claim up again can leave them waiting for weeks without any money at all.

It would be nice if all it took to reduce the benefits bill was for a doctor to pronounce someone fit for work on the basis of what is quite an arbitrary test and then they'd go off and happily find a job. Life isn't like that.

For a start, people who have been on benefits for a long time are unlikely to get past the first sift of applications for most jobs, especially in the current climate when so many people are out of work. Employers will look first to the ever growing list of applicants with a recent employment history. They need specialist help in preparing their applications to get themselves noticed. When my husband went through that long spell of unemployment, he was helped by British Coal Enterprise who had an office in Mansfield with PCs where he could make up his applications and get specialist advice and interview practice for each job he went for. Even with that help it took him, with his 20 year employment history, 10 months to get a job.

He was going straight from a job. If someone has been battling with a painful or debilitating condition and been out of the labour market for a while, it's going to be so much more difficult. It takes specialist support to build their confidence and skills. The training on offer through the New Deal is often inappropriate for them and takes no account of their own aptitudes or preferences. There are some excellent training providers but also others where the whole thing is just a tick box exercise.

I would like to see a benefits system that treats people as individuals and not as one big mass of homogeneous gloop. If someone has a long term, serious condition, they should not be dragged to return to work examinations. Why not get medical evidence from their specialists. For those who could be supported back into work, then they need help and support tailored to their needs. That needs giving local managers who deal with people on a daily basis more discretion. But then, the Government has centralised so much of the benefits system that decision makers are often far removed from the people they are dealing with. That's a recipe for mistakes to be made.

The Government itself hasn't got a clue how many people it's got back into work as a result of these changes. If the doctors who are carrying out its examinations feel that the system is flawed, and we can see examples of where the system has told seriously ill people that they can work, then it's clear that things have to change.

Frail and vulnerable people should not be put through the stress of appealing. Making sense of DWP rules is tough enough if you're healthy. I wonder how much the appeals system costs to administer and if some of this money couldn't be better used in proper, meaningful support for people to help them back to work. It seems to me that so many cases succeed on appeal that surely it would be better to make the right decision in the first place. Obviously there has to be mechanism for appeal but it should be the exception, not the norm.

This barely scratches at the surface of what I think needs to change to make the benefits system fairer, more responsive to change, effective and supportive. Labour have failed miserably on all of these counts.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clegg on Marr: Setting out the Liberal Agenda

I didn't watch Nick Clegg's interview on Andrew Marr this morning live. I couldn't face getting out of my nice warm bed. Not for the first time, I cursed myself for sticking so rigidly to my no tv in the bedrooms rule. Anyway, it was being captured on the Infernal Wickedness of Sky Plus. I wasn't however, able to resist a peak at Twitter where I found some Tories pulling him apart on what he was saying on immigration. I reckoned that had to be a good sign and when I watched it back, I was proved right.

Nick deftly blew all the nonsense you hear from Tories out of the water, sensibly outlining how we need to know who comes into the country and who leaves it, reminding us that it was the Tories who abolished the exit checks. He talked about his visit to the Borders over the weekend where he was told that businesses didn't have enough skille workers locally and where they needed people to come in and do the jobs. He said that a points system based on regional need, as works in other countries such as Australia could help us to manage immigration for everyone's benefit.

He was also very clear that anyone fleeing persecution, violence, rape or torture would be treate fairly if the Lib Dems were in power and, of course, this would include people who could be killed for being gay in their home country.

I don't think I've ever heard Brown or Cameron talk about the fact that more British people leave the country to live and work abroad than people come here from other countries. Nick is worried that if we "pull up the drawbridge" by following Cameron's proposals it'll have a negative impact on emigration as well as being ineffective anyway.

He also laid into David Cameron's ridiculous ideas to give tax breaks to married couples. He explained very clearly how passionately he believed that "happy families who stayed together to love, nurture and support their children" were a good thing. The question of how we get there is not to dole out a tax bribe for holding a marriage certificate. He used the example of a woman deserte by a philandering husband who then went on to another marriage, to get another tax break while she's left with a tax hike as well as the stress of a broken marriage. He could also have used the example of someone being widowed. I thought he managed to effectively deal with the trap the Tories thoguht they'd set him by showing his commitment to family life and showing up the idiocy and unfairness of the IDS thinktank ideas.

Also on tax, he talked about taking 4 million people out of tax altogether by raising the tax threshold to £10,000 while closing down loopholes for the rich. He mentioned the case of the city banker who pays a lower rate of tax on his enormous capital gains than his cleaner pays on her wage, and, let's face it, it's probably the minimum wage.

Marr brought up the experience of tv presenter and singer Myeleene Klass who was told off by Police for waving a knife at two would-be intruders. I felt his response was liberal, sensible and clear. He said that he didn't see a case for a change in the law when the current system gave judges and courts discretion to look at each case individually. My own view is that it's perfectly reasonable for a young woman, when confronted with two men who are threatening who knows what level of harm to her and her baby, to wave whatever she likes at them. If she had chased them down the street and stabbed them, that would have been different. I don't agree with her that the law needs to be changed - but based on her experience and what the Police said to her, I see why she thinks that.

Marr then tried to do the ritual that all Lib Dem leaders get - trying to get a list of what our bargaining chips would be in the event of a hung Parliament. I'm sure Nick must be sick to death of that question by now, but he didn't show it. He explained very clearly what our principles would be in that situation - firstly, that the people were in charge and not politicians and secondly that fairness would be at the heart of our actions. When asked if PR was a prerequisite, he replied that it was crucial to the change the country needed. He said that it was "implausible that the Liberal Democrats would take any position of power without radical political reform."

If I had to pick him up on anything, it would be that I'd have liked him to be more positive about the things like free personal care, saying that of course we want to be in a position to deliver it but the money just isn't there to do it during the next Parliament.

All in all, I think it was a good performance. When Gordon Brown is being interviewed, he's so defensive and closed, even when he's trying to be sincere. It's actually painful to watch. When David Cameron is being interviewed, I just feel he's just trying out slick communication techniques he's learned from a specialist and comes across as airbrushed as his poster. Nick on the other hand comes across like he's having a genuine conversation. He doesn't just trot out a lot of stock phrases. He generally has a go at answering the question he's been asked, but he still gets in the things he wants to tell people.

A Lib Dem friend of mine and I were chatting away the other day about Nick in the wake of his comments about Gina Ford and his unequivocal support for LGBT rights. We were talking about what a joy it was to have a leader who was as open and willing to take a stand as Nick in an environment where politicians have tried to be as bland as can be so as to avoid offending people. In fact, there's a thread on my Facebook where I'd posted the Gina Ford article and someone had said that it was a bit strange that he'd taken a position on someone who could be so polarising, cos he'd no doubt offend Gina's fans. A friend of mine who isn't party political at all said that that was one of his assets.

I don't want Nick getting the idea that he's perfect or infallible, because he isn't, and he is bound to do something that seriously annoys me (which you will hear about) but by being himself, he's doing a great job of getting the liberal message out there.

Curse of the Control Freak Dentist

I have been bemused this week by the culmination of a saga which could have been resolve in 5 minutes over 2 months ago if our dentist's reception staff had been less control freaky in their approach.

We registered with a local NHS practice when we moved back here in 2000. We were somewhat annoyed when they went private a few years ago, especially when they wrote to us saying that unless at least one of us signed up to their plan, they wouldn't take our daughter as an NHS patient. They very quickly retracted that, but still. We decided to sign up as we had no chance of finding another NHS dentist and we felt that even if there were NHS places available, we could afford to pay and it wasn't fair of us to take a space from someone who would really struggle to afford private care. Heaven knows, though, what would happen if we needed major treatment. There is simply no way we could afford that. We've been lucky so far.

Anyway, a couple of months ago, my husband was asked at a routine appointment to sign a new direct debit form as they were changing their provider to someone else. Bob, bless him, knows precious little about our finances, so he said he'd take the form home and get me to fill it in. They literally wouldn't let him out of the premises with the form because, they said, it wouldn't come back. Anyway, he said that he didn't have the details on him but he'd sort it out the next time he was in.

A few weeks later, he went for his next appointment and again the form was mentioned. He again said he didn't have the details and asked to take it home to me. It didn't occur to him that all the info he needed was on his bank card which was in his wallet. Nor did it occur to the staff at the practice when they took his payment.

Finally, when he went back to the surgery for his emergency treatment a few days later on Christmas Eve, they got their blessed form, which could easily have been one several weeks before, completed. Not without a phone call to me to confirm some details, but it was done.

Why am I telling you about this now? Because we got a letter this week from the surgery saying that one of the numbers relating to our account was wrong. I'd say it was a very obvious mistake on our part, because when I asked Bob to read the number from the card, he got it right. So now we have to go back there and do it all again. What a ridiculous palaver!

The moral of the story is that things get sorted quicker if you are not a control freak and you treat people like adults.

Holyrood: The Budget Battleground

Last year the SNP Government was only able to get its budget through after a highly dramatic Holyrood showdown. Will the various groups in the Scottish Parliament be able to conduct themselves in a constructive manner this year, working together to pass a budget that meets the needs of the people of Scotland? After reading the articles in today's Sunday Herald where the Party Leaders set out their positions, I'm not convinced.

We need more from John Swinney than what amounts to a plaintive wail that the big boys in London ran away with our money. If I in my own household budget have to deal with the impact of Labour's recession, then why shouldn't John Swinney with the Scottish budget. It's not pleasant, but you just have to get on with it, work out what's important, and stop whinging that it's all someone else's fault.

Let's look closer at Swinney's boasts that the Scottish Government has delivered a surplus of £2.6 billion over 3 years. I don't usually have much good to say about how Labour have managed the country's finances but you can't really compare the Holyrood and Westminster budgets in terms of responsibility. I mean, how many banks did John Swinney save? To say that the current economic crisis strengthens the arguments for independence is patently ridiculous. Look at the real pain that the Irish people go through as their Government made huge cuts make monstrous cuts in public spending in 2 emergency budgets last year.

As for Iain Gray, he concentrated most of his space on slating the SNP over the cancellation of GARL and blinding us with figures which supposedly show that the SNP has had plenty money but it just hasn't used it wisely. His words just seem to be an extension of Labour's inability to talk honestly about the financial mess we're in on a UK level. He also fails to recognise that one of the factors making things worse for Scottish businesses is London Labour's abject failure to properly regulate the banks, to use our ownership of them to keep them lending to sustainable businesses. Labour wants to see an extension of the concessionary travel scheme to those on the minimum level of DLA and more investment in housing as well as the reinstatement of GARL.

And still the Salmond-Goldie love-in continues as, get this, all the Tories want, their big idea, when Scotland's businesses and households are struggling, is that the Government should publish online any expenditure over £25,000. That's it. How is that going to help? The Tories are very keen on this kind of pledge. I remember Boris Johnson saying during his election campaign that he would publish every pennny he spent on his website. I'm not sure he's delivered on that in any meaninfgul form.

Patrick Harvie says some good things about investment in renewables and insulation but he'd be more than happy to ruin the economy of Fife by cancelling the vital new Forth crossing.

In contrast to all of the above, Tavish Scott's piece is mainly full of positive, practical stuff. That F word - fairness, highlighted by Nick Clegg this week, a principle of virtually every Liberal Democrat election campaign I've ever been involved in, is at the fore of what Tavish is saying.

First, he wants an end to the top earners in the public sector being able to award themselves big bonuses while those at the bottom end of the pay scale get nothing. He wants action on paying six figure salaries to doctors who also work in the private sector. I agree with him that if we're paying that sort of salary, we deserve to have them full time. If they want to work part time in the private sector, then their salaries should be reduced accordingly.

He says that urgent investment is needed to get young people into work, highlighting a 45% increase in claims for Job Seekers Allowance among young people.

He also highlights practical examples of how businesses are suffering, being turned own for credit even when their proposals are sound, being dealt with remotely by people who don't know their history and their business.

It's notable that Tavish is the only leader to report on constructive discussions with John Swinney which seem to be going somewhere. I like the fact that he's chosen to emphasise that dialogue.

Labour and the SNP don't escape focused criticism, but Tavish is much more positive in his presentation than the others. Labour gets it for its myriad economic failures, the SNP for the failure of its Scottish Futures Trust which "continues to consume millions of pound but still builds absolutely nothing."

If I have to say one thing about the Liberal Democrat proposals, is that they don't mention at all one of the biggest issues to me - housing. When you have some local authorities and housing associations able to house barely a fifth of the people who need housing, when large families are crammed into 2 bedroomed houses, often in hellishly poor conditions, damp, with inadequate heating with no hope of a move to something bigger, when you have families in bed and breakfast accommodation because there's nowhere else to house them, something has to be done. Tavish understands this. When I and other bloggers interviewed him just after he became leader, he wanted to see more invevstment in social housing to save the construction jobs haemorrhaging during the recession. I don't think that this can wait for action - we need to do more to help these people now. Only then will we have a budget for all of Scotland.

The first act of the budget drama plays out this week. Let's hope that the process is more serious production and less pantomime farce.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tarmac, I have missed you........

It's Day 31 of the Big Freeze here. That's over 4 weeks since the snow came. It's certainly on its way out now. Only a few days ago, the rabbit run had well over a foot of snow on it, now only a couple of inches. We can even see some grass. Our little cul de sac, however, was still regularly scattered with cars in weird positions, their owners having bravely tried to make an escape. I have most sympathy with my friend who bought a sporty wee MX-5 just before the snow came. Sleek and sexy it may be, but more suited to speeding along the roads in the south of France, from Nice to St Tropez and then on to Monaco than for dealing with Winter in West Lothian. Even our little Micra hasn't been anywhere since Bob got stuck on 30th December. The car that he helped to dig out on 2nd January has only just managed to move from where it was left then across the road from our drive.

Our street could not be any lower on the Council's list of priorities and not once did I ever expect them to come and dig us out of our misery. Much to my surprise, I woke this morning to the sound of a digger shovelling the snow away. I have never been so pleased to see tarmac in my whole life so I have to say a big thank you to West Lothian Council. I wanted to go out and give the guy driving it a bottle of beer but couldn't because a) we have no beer and b) the sight of me in my jammies might have traumatised him for life. There's still snow on the path, but I'm hopeful that I might get out somewhere, anywhere different from this street for the first time since 19th December.

Don't get me wrong, I love my home, messy and completely unlike a show house that it is, but I've been struggling a bit with cabin fever particularly in the last couple of weeks.

Look at the after photo!

DEC Haiti Appeal - watch and give

The BBC estimated in its recent report that 14 million meals are needed to feed the people of earthquake stricken Haiti now. Three million people, a sum equivalent to half the population of Scotland, now urgently need food and water. Once those basic, immediate needs are met, there's going to be a longer term need for help with food, shelter and rebuilding.

This is the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal broadcast last night.

You can give here or by phoning 0370 60 60 900.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How you can help Haiti - DEC appeal goes live

We will all have seen the harrowing news reports about the Haiti earthquake, reports of badly injured people being left in hospital grounds to die because there isn't the medical help to treat them, people living out in the open with no access to food or water.

The quicker help can get there, the more lives can be saved in the immediate few days and then there will be a long process of rebuilding and helping the people who have lost everything they have.

The Disasters Emergency Committee launched their Haiti Earthquake appeal at midnight. When the broadcast is available, I'll post it on here. In the meantime, you can call 0370 60 60 900 to make a donation here

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different Part 1

Last night as I was going to bed, my husband excitedly invited me into the study to see something on his pc. I was possibly a bit grumpy with him at the time because I was, not to put too fine a point on it, knackered and feeling rubbish. However, I found myself, weirdly, being fascinated by it.

Bob's music tastes and mine are as far apart as you can get. How we ended up together I have no idea, but it works! My music collection consists almost entirely of what he would consider to be trashy, cheesy pop mixed in with lots of musical theatre. I think he'd probably consider my Fleetwood Mac and Beautiful South and REM type stuff to be acceptable but nothing else.

On the other hand, he likes what Anna would describe as "rackets" and what is actually defined as various types of house music, deep house, acid jazz, chillout, that kind of thing. He's passionate about it and loves spending time in record shops like Underground Solu'shn. I went in there a couple of years ago when he was really ill. I went up to the owner and asked if he could give me a stack of records Bob would like as a present to cheer him up, which he did, and said that I could bring them back if they weren't to his taste. He'd got him absolutely right though, because Bob loved every single one of them.

Anyway, Bob now buys more vinyl than anything else. In the middle of last year he bought this one of a limited edition of 1000 made by these people.

He didn't tell me at the time, but it didn't take me long to find a conection to Underground Solu'shn. The boss of the Firecracker label, based in Leith, used to work there.

Anyway, every single one of the sleeves of that record were screen printed. And you know what? They videoed the process and put it up on You Tube. This is what Bob wanted to show me last night. In a way showing me was like getting him to read a Lib Dem cammpaign manual or something, but like I say I was weirdly fascinated. You might be too. Enjoy!

Nick Clegg's Fabulous Attitude on Equal Marriage

Nick Clegg has laid out five key changes the Liberal Democrats would make to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were treated equally under the law.

In an interview with Attitude, reported in the Independent, he says that we would:

1 Make sure that children in all schools are taught that homosexuality is "normal and harmless" so that they grow up learning to accept everybody. Schools would also have to address homophobic as well as racist and sexist bullyng. There is no justification for allowing prejudice against people being who they are. My daughter's only 10, but kids in her playground are already using homophobic insults. I'm glad that she will stand up and say she thinks it's wrong for them to do so, but she shouldn't be leading the fight against it.

2 Have one form of marriage for everybody.

3 Allow gay men to give blood. Every single day I hear adverts from the Blood Transfusion Service encouraging people to give blood. They've reported how stocks have become low during the cold weather. Yet there's an automatic ban on any man who's ever had sex with another man on donating their perfectly healthy blood, which makes absolutely no sense.

4 Give asylum to any person fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation as we do for religious and political persecution.

5 Review Uganda's Commonwwealth membership because of its new law introducing the death penalty for homosexuals. I think that probably means kicking Uganda out. I certainly don't see why it should have the ecoonomic benefits and international standing that Commonwealth membership gives it while it discriminates in this way.

To me all of this is just basic common sense. It's also a statement of our long held core beliefs, that nobody should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. That was written in to our constitution when the party was formed.

We have to give Labour credit for the progress they have made on LGBT issues during their time in Government. The Tories, however, are a different kettle of fish. People who are still on their benches in the House of Commons brought in Section 28. Cuddly Ken Clarke, often put out as the affable face of the Conservatives was part of that Government. I instinctively don't trust them on any sort of equality issue. It will be interesting to see if David Cameron's reaction is. Our policies are the logical extension of a commitment to equal rights for gay people. Will his deeds match his actions?

I'm proud of Nick for the open, relaxed and very matter of fact way he presents and stands by liberal ideas on a whole range of things. When I see him on the tv, he's the same Nick I first met 12 years ago, completely genuine. The public already has a very high opinion of him - a whole range of polls gives him a very healthy aproval rating and I think that trend will continue in the coming months as they get to know him more.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Guest Post by Wendy Fraser - Crisis at Christmas

To me it's unbelievable that as one of the most affluent countries in the world, we can't provide a roof over everybody's head. It's bad enough that people sleep rough at any time, but in the depths of Winter, and this hellish Winter at that, the fact that people are sleeping outdoors in Princes Street Gardens is something we should be deeply ashamed of.

I'm very grateful to Wendy Fraser (aka PJ) for taking the time to write down this moving account of her time volunteering for Crisis in London these past two Christmases.

I read with interest, and despair, the report by BBC Scotland on Friday entitled ‘Homeless urged not to sleep rough’ Although the article highlighted the plight of a homeless woman in Edinburgh, it barely scratched the frozen surface of a national issue that gets neither the media attention nor the financial investment needed to improve the harrowing existence of the residents of our streets, doorways and parks. Was I the only one who felt that this portrayed the homeless as ‘choosing’ to sleep on freezing streets when a bed was available if they would only ask? Let alone the underlying tone of the article that the council were providing adequate facilities.

Crisis is a national charity that supports the homeless and for the past two years I have had the privilege of volunteering with them during their Christmas campaigns in London. Over the past 39 years Crisis have opened up shelters across London during the Christmas week to give thousands of homeless people a safe place to sleep, hot food and access to medical care. Whilst what they do is a logistical triumph and a truly invaluable service, it simply isn’t nearly enough to support these people back into society. It’s honestly quite a grounding experience to be involved in something like Crisis; you can’t avoid the destitution of some of these people nor the hopelessness of their situations. Neither can you avoid the desperation of the support workers who are continually battling against cuts in their budgets and facilities being closed despite the numbers of users increasing at an alarming rate.

One of the first centres I worked in two years ago had a high proportion of Polish and Eastern European ‘guests’ who had come to London to work on the building of Terminal 5 and found themselves jobless and homeless, and on the whole unable to communicate in English, after the work was completed. This Christmas it was estimated that 60% of the guests were Polish and Eastern European (I’m deliberately distinguishing between the two after a rather comical geography lesson from a Polish man who drew me a map of Europe and insisted that Poland was central Europe and everywhere else lay north, south, east or west of Poland). That percentage is expected to continue to rise.

This year I was struck by how many of the guests had just been released from prison, all of them with nowhere to go other than the streets. I spoke to one lady who was 74 and coughed, spluttered and wheezed the whole time I chatted with her. She had TB (the non-infectious variant she assured me!) and carried a chart with her with photographs of the pills she had to take and the order in which she had to take them, she couldn’t read. Her one wish was to get back into prison because at least there she had a bed and food, but not safety - she cackled and coughed simultaneously at that point.

The youngest person I came across in the shelters was an 18 year old boy, the oldest was in his 80s but he couldn’t remember exactly how old he was. Poverty and homelessness can quite literally happen to anybody. A few strokes of bad luck and any one of us could share the plight of those struggling to exist on the streets. Yes, many of them are alcoholics and drug addicts, prostitution and crime are the norm not the exception. But every person I spoke to wanted a different life, a way to escape the downward spiral of homelessness. For some of them the only escape they could envisage was to end their lives.

I listened to their stories, held their hands and gave them hugs when they cried. It wasn’t enough. I felt useless and inadequate when faced by their desperation. I can only hope to change a tiny little bit of their lives very briefly. When I choose who to vote for in the General Election (and I haven’t yet), I will be looking to see which party truly cares enough about our homeless to make a lasting difference. Less talk about the rich and more action for the poor!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Missed opportunity of Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation

I was a bit dismayed by the outcome of the Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation which really doesn't seem to have got the point on increasing the number of women in Parliament.

Apparently if there is no improvement in the representation of women from the current rather pathetic 20% of the House of Commons, then it wants parties to face mandatory quotas.

I expect even the Tories would go for that, you know. Sure, they might well be happy to put up loads of women. In fact, they could put up female candidates in every Scottish seat. Wonderful! Yes, but most of them wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance of getting elected. Quotas and first past the post really make no practical sense.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but European countries where they have quotas also seem to have party list type electoral systems. I don't like them because they give too much power to the party and not enough to the voter to choose who they want to represent them.

I reckon the introduction of the Single Transferable vote, the same system used in Scotand for local council elections would see a much more diverse parliament and give maximum voter choice.

I'd much rather see a people focused approach like that than a diktat from on high about numbers of candidates.

Within the Lib Dems I think there are things we need to do to promote better gender balance. A lot of things. Please don't think for one second I'm going to defend our record on the number of female MPs and MSPs in particular, and these things should continue, regardless, However, I think the Speaker's Conference has missed an opportunity to make a real difference.

I really don't want Anna to be scratching her head wondering when things are going to change when she's my age. I hope by then that our Parliament looks a little less like a convention of middle aged white men in suits. Unless those with the power to change look beyond things like quotas and look at the wider question of empowering people, I'm not that hopeful.

Nick Clegg's Four Steps to a Fairer Britain - real change on the cheap

Today, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg outlined the values and commitments that will be at the heart of the manifesto the party puts to the country in the General Election. In contrast to Labour and the Tories, who, he said had produced "a greatest hits compilation of almost everything that has turned people off politics", he argued that the ideas he would put to the country would build us a fairer and more sustainable future.

Typically, the media has chosen to focus on what's not in there, so let's do a bit of rebalancing.

Nick spoke about how we need to treat the electorate as grown ups. They know perfectly well, some learning particularly harshly as they've lost their jobs or homes during the economic crisis, that the country is in a financial mess. To present a list of high spending commitments would have no credibility.

There are lots of things we would love to do, but we simply don't have the money for. Everybody can relate to not being able to afford something they really want to do, but have to put on hold for a while. Everybody knows that we need the mother of all economy drives for a little while at least.

Liberal Democrats are nothing if not experts at making a little money go a long way, though. On a campaigning level, we've run effective election campaigns spending a tenth of the amount Labour and the Tories shell out so it's hardly surprising that we've worked out a way to bring about some seriously radical changes to taxes, children and politics when things are tight. Look what we have worked out we can do when the cupboard is bare:

Take everyone earning less than £10,000 a year out of tax, saving the poorest £700 every year - a couple of months' rent, or several months' council tax, half an annual rail season ticket. Enough to make a real difference to struggling households.

Putting an extra £2.5 billion into schools, targeted at the children who need help most.

In England, following Scotland's lead and phasing out tuition fees

Changing the electoral system to abolish safe seats, making MPs properly accountable to their electorate.

Reducing the number of MPs by 150.

Cleaning up politics and political donations, restoring the public's faith in politics.

Meaningful regulation of the banks.

Building an economy based on environmentally sustainable technology and renewable energy.

That's not bad for starters.

However, I'm hoping that today's launch was only the start. What Nick did this morning was to cover the key spending pledges and showing how they are based on fairness, but there's much more to lib demmery than that. I hope we'll see him speaking up more about the freedom and liberty we know he passionately believes in. Right back when he was elected leader, he said that if he was required by law to have an ID card he would refuse on principle. He led the party to vote against the Government's unnecessary and draconian 42 days' detention. He's spoken out against intrusive surveillance and innocent people's DNA being kept on record. That commitment to civil liberties, that presumption that people are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves how to live their lives, are at the heart of what we are about.

I'm sure that's all to come, though. Today was a good start.

I shall give the last word to Mr Clegg:

Question for Nick Clegg? Ask him at 9am TODAY

Nick Clegg is doing a speech and interview at 9am today which is being broadcast here. Join him as he unveils the principles behind the Liberal Democrats' General Election campaign.

If you have something you want to ask, then it couldn't be simpler to put it to him. Simply log onto Twitter, type in your question like a normal tweet and add the hashtag #askclegg.

Hope to "see" you there.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Nick Clegg blasts Gina Ford's ideas as "absolute nonsense"

One of the things you may not know about me is that I spent a fair few years as a volunteer breastfeeding supporter. I used to run breastfeeding groups where mums would meet together to help each other through the often challenging process of getting to know their new baby.

What was so good about those groups is that I'd see women who'd been tentative and nervous when they first came along months before confidently and sensitively support and reassure new members with tiny babies.

An all too common experience during that time was to have a woman phone me up in tears because she and her baby were so unhappy. There are lots of reasons for that to happen, but on many occasions I found that the root of their distress was trying to follow the rather prescriptive regimes in Gina Ford's to my mind ironically titled "Contented Little Baby Book." I have no doubt that her methods work for some people, if you define success as a baby that sleeps through the night and doesn't trouble its parents at all.

The thing is, most babies don't do that. Ford's one size fits all approach, which includes putting the baby to sleep in a totally blacked out room from birth, a completely alien environment, and leaving him or her to cry, is by its very nature counter instinctive. I used to suggest to mums that the best place for that book was to prop up the leg of a wobbly table or something and encourage them to set themselves free from the tyranny of her routines which had practically every minute of the day mapped out.

In every single instance, within days mum and baby were happier as they started on a two way process of communication and built up a trusting and responsive relationship.

Those experiences are why I am so utterly thrilled to see Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg explain how her methods certainly didn't make his family contented in the Sunday Times. He hit the nail totally on the head when he said:

“I will never forget — in the middle of the night, Antonio woke up. Miriam said to me: ‘What does the book say?’ I remember saying to her: ‘Okay, we have got to stop this. I have subcontracted my parental instincts to this book’.”

Gina Ford is clearly unhappy with Nick's comments, but I'm sure that there are parents round the country who will appreciate that he's spoken out and will empathise with his experience.

UPDATE: Superb post by Cllr Lisa Northover on how Gina Ford's methods undermine breastfeeding and wreaks havoc on the relationship between mother and baby.

Did David Tennant learn nothing from the Doctor?

Former Doctor Who actor David Tennant and longstanding Labour supporter has outlined what he sees as the "terrifying prospect" of the Tories in Government with David Cameron as their Prime Minister. In an interview reported in the Mirror, he denounces Cameron's rhetoric as "manipulative" and compares him to a regional newsreader in a suit.

He comes from Bathgate and will no doubt remember a time when the town had a flourishing car factory which was turned into miles of wasteland which lay bare for years. There are many other relics of Scotland's manufacturing industry which perished during the Thatcher years.

The thought of a Tory Government fills me with dread too as I know fine they'll protect the rich and punish the poor. I do think we'd be completely screwed if they had been in power at the start of the recession. I doubt, though, that the Doctor would be quite as happy with Tennant's endorsemennt of Labour, even though that support is somewhat qualified.

Clearly, the Labour Party is not without some issues right now and I do get frustrated. They need to sort some stuff out,

I don't think the Time Lord would have been in favour of the Iraq War, for starters, and then there's the not so small matter of detaining people without charge, denying the Gurkhas the right to stay here, creating more of a surveillance state than we've ever had, and sending our troops into battle without the basic equipment they need.

Tennant says he can't understand why anyone involved in the arts would vote Tory, saying that:

"It's weird that you can work in the arts - which tends to be about empathy and understanding and, hopefully, feeling some kind of sympathy for your fellow man - and vote Tory. I find that inconceivable.

"I still don't get it when you meet actors who buy the Daily Telegraph and talk about this terrible wave of immigrants. You just think, where did that come from? Have you read King Lear? Have you read Hamlet?"

While I get what he's saying, if he looked back on his own scripts as the Doctor, he'd find empathy and understanding that you just don't get from Labour. The Labour Party tends to view people as one great big blob and apply a one size fits all approach, rather than acknowleging, respecting and trying to honour people's individual needs. You can see that through the health service, the way they run education, the benefits system, all of whom waste resources and cause real problems for people by not being more flexible in their approach. Their any rose as long as it's red sort of approach is far from the Doctor's more liberal world view.

Look at Mickey, for example. Let down by the schools system, living on a poor estate in London with not very many prospects. Sure, the Doctor had a good go at him because he was jealous, but he saw his potential and encouraged it.

Clearly David Tennant is going to be part of what Labour will try to turn into a very polarising "Vote Labour or you let the Tories in" campaign. I'm sure he's well aware that that's a completely disingenuous argument in Scotland where the Tories remain irrelevant.

If Labour's campaign after 13 years in office is going to be based on a few national treasures saying "vote for them cos they're better than the bad guys", then that really is depressing.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Of Snow and Cack-handed Coups

Only in Britain, or, maybe, as Stephen corrected me earlier, only in England could you have a half hour news special at prime time on the weather conditions and not one on an attempt to unseat the Prime Minister. Ok, so that attempt was as ill advised cackhanded as the weather is disruptive, but still. You might like to read Eric Joyce, Labour MP for Falkirk West's view of today's events. It will be interesting to eventually discover, no doubt in someone's memoirs, what really went down today. Who pledged support to the plotters and then pulled the rug from under them?

Anyway, back to the snow, which merited a news special which seemed to be crafted entirely for the TV column of Private Eye. They even got together a whole load of people in a pub for the occasion. What's really funny is that we in Scotland have had several inches of snow for the last three weeks but only when the white stuff hits the home counties is it newsworthy. I despair.

As I've said before, I'm pretty much phobic about the stuff. Today is Day 21 for us and I've been out of my house 3 times. Once to go to the shops in the car, once to go to my neighbour's 2 doors down and finally to go to my neighbour's 3 doors down in the other direction for their Hogmanay Party. The neighbour who had the party fell and broke her wrist on the street which hasn't made me any more confident about venturing out.

So, we've had a minimum of four inches of snow for the last 3 weeks. At the moment there's over a foot on the rabbit run. (in case you're wondering, rabbits are under several hutch covers, have lots of snow and get checked regularly and their bottle is changed every couple of hours whether it's frozen or not) every day, somebody gets stuck trying to get their car in and out of our street. It's a testament to the wonderful community spirit here that there's always been someone with a shovel to help dig them out.

I have to say that I have nothing but sympathy for anyone in a Council who's having to manage their Winter services, especially when there seems to be a problem getting grit to the right places, as has been the case in Fife. A lot of effort has been made by many people to keep the gritters going 24/7. Of course there are going to be problems, or mistakes, but this is the worst and most prolonged spell of weather I've seen in all of my life so my instinct is to say "give em a break" rather than slag them off.

Our street has never been gritted - it's nowhere near anywhere the Council would do on a good day when they had limitless supplies of grit and equipment. I get that it's really important that they keep the main roads clear. I found this BBC site a useful education on road gritting, stating that it has to be done often on the main roads to keep them clear which, I guess, doesn't leave much time for anywhere else.

Of course, there's always one example of insensitive and tactless comment, as reported in today's Evening News. Edinburgh City Cllr Norman Work thinks that it's pure laziness that we're not all out there with shovels clearing our own paths and streets. Well, Cllr Work, you try getting out there and see how far you get with a shovel on compacted snow and ice. I accept that it's a difficult job for Councils to manage, but I don't think dismissing local residents as lazy is in any way helpful or constructive.

There are also those who say, and often they're those who are normally in favour of cutting public services, who are shouting loud and long about Councils' failures, accusing them of criminal irresponsibility for not gritting their street. I'd ask them how much more Council Tax they would be willing to pay, or what services they would cut, to buy in equipment which would probably be needed once every couple of decades? In countries where they know they are going to get a lot of snow every year, they deal with it, but because we get it so rarely, we are bound to have problems. These extremities come once or twice in a career so there's not a whole load of opportunity to build up experience.

It may well be that this snow is actually a sign of more permanent climate change, with the mild gulf stream being displaced by cruel weather systems from the north, so we might have to learn to cope better. If that's the case, we'll have to take lessons from the likes of Canada and Scandinavia where the snow tyres come out in November and go away in March.

I think that we do need to pull together in these extreme conditions and do whatever we can to help others - and also to be tolerant of the Councils who are doing their best to keep as many roads as safe as they can. Of course they are going to make mistakes, and when it's all over, these need to be investigated and lessons learned and written down for the future.

Travelling anywhere is pretty hellish at the moment, by vehicle or on foot. I'm lucky that I've managed to avoid it. I seriously don't know how I'd cope if I didn't have a husband to trudge up to the shops, or friends to take Anna to and from school (although she's off this week as our schools don't go back until next week). I have to say that one good effect of the weather for us was that we were significantly less greedy than usual over the Festive Season, given that our consumption was confined to what Bob could carry from the supermarket. The poor man spent 2 hours on the local station until a train turned up to take him to work and may have had to do the same today had a colleague not decided to take his 4x4 into town.

They may have come across one of those Council mistakes on the way. Immediately after Junction 2 of the M8 which leads to Newbridge, the traffic slowed up and the motorway was down to one lane because it didn't appear to have been gritted. The ony place traffic could go was in the outside lane so the usual bottleneck there was intensified. I'm wondering if this is to do with the fact that that area is somewhat in no man's land between Edinburgh and West Lothian Councils and nobody had actually taken responsibility for it. However that occurred, let's hope they get it sorted.

The people I worry about most in all of this are those who really struggle to pay their fuel bills at the best of times. There's nothing worse than being cold and I am scared for people in that situation. Being too cold can be dangerous and can cost lives. I guess our energies should also be focused on making sure people in that situation get the help that they need. It's awful that the Government doesn't give Winter fuel payments to disabled people, or families with disabled children who really struggle to keep warm. Maybe the harshness of this Winter will force a rethink on that one.

So, much more important things to think about all round, not that you'd tell from the actions of a few plotting Blairites and a BBC News Special that didn't really scratch the surface.

A word about Iris Robinson

I have to say that I've never really had any time for Iris Robinson. The vile homoophobic poison she's spouted saw to that. I will always stand up against that sort of bigoted hatred, wherever I find it.

Tonight, though, I feel saddened by some of the reaction to the revelations about her affair. I'd always said that people's personal lives should stay out of politics unless there was obvious hypocrisy eg someone who'd banged on about the family being exposed as having an affair. I should rather shamefacedly admit to having a good laugh at the Tories who were caught out in this way as a result of Major's ill advised Back to Basics thing but maybe I've mellowed a little in my middle age.

I think that if you hold a view of the world that involves respect for other people, tolerance and compassion, then you have to stick by those values. It's clear that the Robinsons have both had a horrendous time and I suspect that Iris in particular is going to get an absolute hammering in the press. I have a feeling as well that she will be isolated in her rather puritanical party who will no doubt be much more condemnatory of her because she's a woman. No doubt the tabloid press will take the same view. Never ones for equality, them.

I think the Robinsons should be left in peace to get on with their lives because that's just the right thing to do.

Text Gary to 65000 to support Gary McKinnon

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a supporter of the campaign to stop Asperger's Sufferer Gary McKinnon being extradited to the US to face charges of hacking into US defence computers looking for information on UFOs. The extradition treaty between the US and the UK acceded to (I can hardly say negotiated) by this Government favours the US at the expense of the rights of our citizens.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson decided recently that he would not stop the extradition. Sara Bedford wrote this excellent post last week contrasting the Government's attitude to Gary as against their horror at the execution of Akmal Shaikh. Gary's lawyers have since applied for a judicial review of that decision for which they were given only 7 days, instead of the usual 3 months to apply.

Gary's indefatigable and admirable mother, Janis Sharp, is now asking people to text Gary to 65000 as a kind of text petition. She will then pass on the number of supporters to the Home Office.

It's a very simple way of showing support and will cost you no more than your standard text rate so please publicise this far and wide to people who don't read blogs or go on Facebook.

Janis said

"The support and compassion shown by members of the public has been a tremendous boost during our 8 year fight to ensure Gary faces justice in the UK.

"I hope this text campaign helps stir the Government from its stupor of inactivity which is simply fuelling the public's sense of outrage at the unnecessary cruelty of the situation.

"Gordon Brown wrung his hands over the execution of a mentally ill British drugs carrier in China. Yet he and his government remain complicit in the US authorities hounding of my vulnerable son, despite knowing that, for Gary, extradition amounts to nothing less than a death sentence, given his growing mental instability.

Another thing you can to do help is to download the song Chicago/Change the World recorded by Gary, Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde and David Gilmour.

I've signed the petition - it's so easy. Simply text Gary to 65000.

I also have a major confession to make. I downloaded the song. Unremarkable, maybe, but this is actually the first time I have ever downloaded a piece of music in my entire life. I know that's a fairly shameful confession. I mean, what sort of luddite am I in this, the 21st century? Well, at least my first ever download was for a worthy cause. It was kind of easy, too. I presume I've done it right because I've played it. Not bad for 69p.

David Heath: the man who made Gordon Brown laugh

When you're feeling the pressure, maybe if your work colleagues are winding you up, for example, it can be really great if someone unexpected comes along and just makes you laugh, even if they're having a go. After all, whoever said laughter was the best medicine had a point.

That's what it was like for notoroiusly dour Prime Minister Gordon Brown today. For a man who was again having to dodge the slings and arrows of outraged Blairites, he managed to land a few punches on David Cameron at PMQs but it was an uninspiring display from both men.

Nick Clegg upped the quality a bit with a clever question on taxes - asking how the PM could go on about aspiration when the 20% poorest people paid proportionally more in tax than the 20% richest.

The star of the show, though, was David Heath, Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome and a long time hero of mine. Asking about Labour's lack of progress on Commons reform, with characteristic wit and with enough passion to melt all the snow in the land, he said that the Labour Government had all the speed of an "arthritic slug on the way to its own funeral." Now, let's not be pedantic and start lecturing on slug anatomy, it was a very funny line and Brown was still laughing as he replied to David that the cross party consensus was useful. It was the sort of exchange we don't see enough of - witty, spontaneous and effective.

I think it was definitely the best line at PMQs since the Almighty Vince's "Stalin to Mr Bean."

It certainly brought a bit of levity to the PM's day before he had to go and deal with the Hoon and Hewitt letter. Geoff Hoon, of course, is facing a very strong Liberal Democrat challenge in his seat, so it's hardly surprising he's turning to desperate measures.

I may be proved wrong this time next week, but I doubt anybody will want to try to take on the job of leading Labour into a very risky election so I think this will go down as yet another attempt by Blairites to undermine Gordon Brown and just fizzle out.


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