Sunday, October 31, 2010

Guest Post: Hugh O'Donnell MSP in Jerusalem

Central Scotland Liberal Democrat MSP Hugh O'Donnell is currently in Jerusalem as part of a  delegation led by Gerald Kaufman MP. Here he writes about what he's seen today.

So we come to the end of day one here in Jerusalem, and what an eye opener it has been!! Of course most people know about the issues in Gaza, BUT THE REALITIES OF DAY TO DAY LIFE IN AN OCCUPIED CITY LIKE JERUSALEM ALL TOO OFTEN PASS US BY. As well as the usual round of handshakes, speeches and rhetoric we actually had the chance to see the more subtle acts of occupation in the city itself and they are pretty scary. 

I had wrongly assumed that the settlements were taking place in rural or semi rural communities but what's happening here in East Jerusalem is much more deadly than that and often means trying to change the demographic of the city by illegally taking over or demolishing houses owned and occupied by Palestinians, often for hundreds of years. The best example is in Benton where they are attempting to demolish 88 homes of 123 families comprising almost 1500 souls and replacing them with apartments for less that half that number of Israelis, all to undermine the Clinton protocol to have the different communities be governed by their own choice of politicians-change the demgraphic and you change the power base. Gerrymandering of the worst kind in my view.

I also discovered that the Palestinians are 'residents' and not citizens, despite paying their taxes and obeying the laws of Israel,  if they leave to go to work somewhere else they can be refused the right to come back to their own homes. Many families are split up this way, and of course when they go the houses are occupied by Israeli settlers and.....well you get the picture!!!

 This is just a shocking state of affairs and an outrageous way for a so called liberal democracy to behave-it's cleansing by any definition you like.

Scary Hallowe'en

I loathe and detest the day the clocks go back and we descend into an ever deeper darkness for the Winter. I am definitely a Summer months sort of person and I will find as many excuses as possible to inject a little light and fun into Winter.

It's good that this year the 5pm darkness comes along with Hallowe'en.

So Bob and Anna carved the pumpkin (I know it's supposed to be a turnip in Scotland, but, really, why would you make life so difficult for yourself?)

And then a very scary evil black cat was ready to go on the prowl.

She took an even scarier green witch for protection.

Anna did her's and my make up all by herself.

We did, however, go guising - none of this Trick or Treat nonsense.

Fun was had by all.

Has Stephen Fry been taking lessons from Jan Moir?

Harsh, maybe - but you have to wonder what on earth possessed the nation's favourite raconteur and wit to comment with breathtaking ignorance on the dynamics of straight and gay sexual relationships.

"If women liked sex as much as men, there would be straight cruising areas in the way there are gay cruising areas. Women would go and hang around in churchyards thinking: 'God, I've got to get my fucking rocks off', or they'd go to Hampstead Heath and meet strangers to shag behind a bush. It doesn't happen. Why? Because the only women you can have sex with like that wish to be paid for it."
"I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want," he said. "Of course, a lot of women will deny this and say, 'Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!' But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?"
[Update: Stephen Fry has since tweeted that:
So some fucking paper misquotes a humorous interview I gave, which itself misquoted me and now I'm the Antichrist. I give up.
His next tweet was a rather ominous "Bye bye". I'd actually be interested to know what he did say and what he meant and it would be good if he could engage in the debate rather than go off in the huff. I disagree with my best friends all the time but that doesn't mean to say I love them any the less - and so the Twitterverse will have its say for a few hours and move on, and we still love him no matter what.]

Jan Moir bitterly offended most people I know with similar unfounded and ignorant generalisations about gay relationships just after Boyzone star Stephen Gately died suddenly of natural causes last year. She continues to make it her raison d'etre to pick on all sorts of other groups of people from breastfeeding mothers to women who stay at home to look after their children to mothers who go out to work. You get my drift.

I tend to think that because everybody's different, they'll find their own way of dealing with relationships and sex. People's lives are their own and, as long as we're talking about consenting adults,  we just need to live and let live.  Fry's approach is one of sweeping generalisation which shows that he has no understanding of the pressures facing women in today's society.

My first thoughts when Nick Clegg had his "30 women" moment with Piers Morgan (although he never actually said he'd slept with 30 women) was that if he'd been a woman, he'd have had every single tabloid publication in the country calling him every name under the sun and suggesting that he was not fit for public office. The old double standard, that there are nice girls and girls who sleep with men is still alive and well in the 21st century. Still, men can do as they like, but if they choose to do it with women, guess who gets the blame? I'm bemused by the number of fathers I know who would be happy for their sons to get out there and sow their wild oats but still want to keep their daughters locked up until some time in their mid 50s..

Fry also asks us to believe that all gay men find sexual gratification from late night anonymous encounters on heaths or in bushes which is an equally ridiculous assumption.

Oh, and not that hanging around in the cold and dark is my thing anyway, I, in common with every other woman on the planet, don't have rocks. That's probably why we don't use that phrase.

The notions that wanting sex to be within the context of a relationship is a purely female idea and that a dislike of casual sex equates to a dislike of sex itself are completely wrong and show no understanding of the cultural context. Stephen Fry should think more about that before he opens his mouth on this subject again.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Harriet Harman demeans herself by calling Danny Alexander a "ginger rodent"

Now many of us in in the Labour Party are conservationists and we love red squirrels. However there is one ginger rodent we never want to see again in the Highlands, Danny Alexander.
So said Harriet Harman in her keynote address to the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Oban today.

I have always had a huge amount of admiration and respect for Labour's Deputy Leader. Her work on equalities, often banging her head against a brick wall in her Party as Blair's and Mandelson's memoirs show, is something I both have a lot of time for and empathise with. Also, I always felt that when PMQs came down to her, Hague and Vince, that it was more thoughtful and meaningful than the usual macho pantomime.

Today, though, she crossed a line. We all indulge in political banter. There isn't a political activist anywhere who hasn't at some point said in private some fairly insulting things about other politicians that they don't really mean and would never repeat on a public platform. It's a way of relieving the tension of an intense political campaign. Today, Harriet Harman brought that bar room banter onto the main political stage with that really unacceptable comment about Danny Alexander.

I don't think for one minute that Danny will be crying into his tea this afternoon, but Harman's comments show up three things:

  1. Labour have nothing to say. Which is a shame, because there is some stuff that the Coalition is doing that could do with some effective opposition. Sure, it's doing a lot of good and you can see how the Liberal Democrats are taking the worst of the sting out of the Tories, but there are elements of the welfare reforms, for example, that just aren't on and need forensic scrutiny. There are good arguments that they could be using, but they can't find them, and are resorting to personal abuse instead
  2. Labour think the people of Scotland are stupid. They've taken us for granted for too long to the extent that they think as long as they throw insults at the Coalition, people will be satisfied with that. Actually what we need is an informed, inclusive, intelligent debate about how we deal with the cuts in Scotland. While the SNP bury their heads in the sand and pretend it's not happening, and Labour are standing around waiting for the Nats to wipe the sand out of their eyes, it's going to be up to the Liberal Democrats to lead the debate and make suggestions of things that could be cut. 
  3. Labour are frightened of their record, even in their heartlands. They've seen the same polls that the rest of us have seen - including the one in Scotland the other week in which 42% of people blamed Labour for the impending cuts. They know they've nothing to be proud of and nothing to say for the future so they are left with cheap lines.
I expect to hear such utter crassness from the likes of David Blunkett, Ken Livingstone and Jack Straw, or most of the other men in the Labour Party to be honest. It upsets me to hear someone who has done so much to combat gender discrimination and use of sexist language to then pick on a guy for his hair colour and appearance.

This is hardly what you'd call taking political debate to new level of sophistication.

Harriet is better than that and I'm really disappointed in her.

If Labour carry on the way they're going, then I'm sure the Scottish electorate will give them the kicking they deserve come next May.

Update: At least Harriet Harman has had the decency to quickly apologise. We haven't heard from the rest of the people in the room who thought it was hilarious.

Update 2: Danny Alexander's reply - via Twitter - is classic
I am proud to be ginger and rodents do valuable work cleaning up mess others leave behind. Red squirrel deserves to survive, unlike Labour

Total Politics Top 100 Journalists Poll - Write-in campaign for women bloggers

I decided, seeing as my health seems to have taken a bit of a dive this last week, to have a quiet Saturday morning with Earl Grey and bacon sandwiches working through my online to-do list of blog posts to write and surveys to do.

The first of these was the Total Politics Top Political Journalists poll, which closes next Tuesday, 2nd November. My only worry was that I wasn't quite feeling charitable enough this morning to do a fair job of it. Actually, I gave much higher marks than I expected to. You have to give each individual journalist marks out of ten which is actually very satisfying, much more so than I'd anticipated.

I only gave one perfect 10, to the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg because I think the quality of her work, particularly in the aftermath of the election, has been outstanding. She is the clear star of the year for me.

There was a question about bloggers, too. Do not underestimate the intensity of the tantrum I threw when I realised that only two women had been included on the whole page, and those were Kerry McCarthy and Nadine Dorries. There are four women in the Total Politics Top 50 blogs of 2010. Admittedly, Laurie Penny was rightly included as a journalist earlier in the survey, but there was no Charlotte Gore, or Anna Raccoon, who deserves recognition for her work, even though she has recently given up.

What about Lynne Featherstone, a well known blogger who has written for years as a campaigner, an MP and now a Government Minister actually making things happen? Leaving her off that list is And Jennie, who has been writing about this sort of thing for ages, and Sara, and the Divine Ms Duffett, Tracy Cheetham, Mary Honeyball, Claire French, Caroline Lucas MP Subrosa or Kezia Dugdale? Much as I love the Liberal Democrat Voice boys Mark Pack and Stephen Tall, I don't see why they have been included in the list and Sara Bedford and Helen Duffett haven't.

I've thought of a way that we could raise awareness of these and any other wonderful women bloggers you might read regularly while also enhancing the Total Politics survey.  What I'd suggest is that you complete the survey as normal. On the last but one page, there is a space to include anyone that they'd left out or forgotten. Use that space to add in as many good female bloggers as you can. Then encourage as many people as you can to also fill in the survey. That way, they become aware of more female bloggers, and their survey has more credibility because of increased participation. A win all round, I'd say.

Anything you can help to boost the signal of this post would also be appreciated.

Remember, the deadline is Tuesday, so let's get the word out quickly.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy 11th Birthday, Precious Mhango

The best birthday present Precious Mhango could get today would be if Home Secretary Theresa May gave her and her mother Florence permission to remain in the UK and removed the threat of imminent deportation to Malawi.

This is the only honourable course of action for the Government. The alternatives, of deporting them to an uncertain and possibly separate future would be cruel and inhumane. Let's face it, none of this is Precious' fault, but the fact is that she's lived most of her life in this country, she speaks only English and she is effectively Scottish. You can't blame her mother for taking every legal opportunity our system offers in her long battle to be granted asylum, but the effect has been that Precious has been in the country for so long that her roots are here. To remove her after all this time would be to severely compromise her welfare.

The last Government was hauled across the legal coals often enough for failing to properly assess children's welfare before removing them from the country. I expect better of an administration that has Liberal Democrats in it.

Please take some time out to leave a message for Precious on the Facebook group today - as I said the other day on Florence's birthday, these good wishes mean an awful lot to both of them.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scottish Liberal Democrats want rates relief for businesses

Scottish businesses have taken a hammering over the last couple of years. Not only from the recession, which hit Scotland harder than the rest of the UK, but from the failure of the banks to see sense and lend to sustainable business.

Then we see the SNP Government at Holyrood kick Scottish business when it's down by refusing to introduce a transitional relief scheme after a rates revaluation. Some businesses have seen their rates double.

In England there is such a scheme which helps business to ease into the new rates. In Scotland, given that we have higher unemployment, which is continuing to rise, should we not be doing something to make sure that businesses are helped to create jobs?

Well, the Scottish Liberal Democrats certainly think so and have been consistently calling for help for business for the past 6 months. I wrote in April about the Conservatives' hypocrisy in voting down a Liberal Democrat motion in the Scottish Parliament.

Today they have a chance to redeem themselves by backing the Liberal Democrat motion for help for Scottish business. Will they take it? And what excuses will the SNP have to offer for their failure to help companies cope with this huge rise in rates? Saying that 60% of businesses are better off means nothing if you turn your backs on the third that have been adversely affected.

I won't be holding my breath on either count.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scottish Police Federation head warns Police Stations can't accommodate lawyers

Those of you from south of the border may not have heard of a landmark UK Supreme Court judgement given yesterday which stated that in future Police will no longer have the right to question suspects in Scotland without a lawyer present. In 2008, a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights stated that it violated human rights to have interrogation without legal counsel. I'm not a lawyer, but I am not sure I understand why the SNP Government didn't see the significance of this at that time and take time to consult and legislate.

Instead the Scottish Parliament has had just one afternoon, today,  to debate a significant change to Scots Law by way of a rather unflattering jerking of the knee. The SNP are taking the opportunity to quadruple the time someone can be held without charge in Scotland from 6 to a maximum of 24 hours. While that might seem generous in comparison to the English maximum of 4 days (except in terrorism cases when it's 28 days), it's still a significant shift for us up here.

Today's emergency legislation isn't the end of the process - SNP Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has set up a review body to look at all he issues surrounding this and report back next year. No further legislation is expected before the Holyrood elections next year.

The path to the judgement started when Peter Cadder, aged 16, was interviewed without a lawyer and later convicted of assault and breach of the peace on the basis of a confession he made during that time. He appealed his conviction on the basis that the manner of his interrogation breached his human rights.

Political reaction has been predictable. Stephen reported the other day how the Tories were affronted because of the human rights angle, and they're not over keen on human rights, especially those associated with Europe. MacAskill is annoyed that the UK Supreme Court, which he seems to think is nothing to do with Scotland, is bossing him around, failing to recognise that if this had gone directly to the European Court of Human Rights, the chances are it would have delivered the same result, only more expensively.

Thankfully the Liberal Democrats' Robert Brown is on the case, expressing our reservations about the necessity for the legislation and particularly the extension of the detention time. He said:

“The Cadder judgement poses substantial challenges for the Scottish criminal justice system.
Liberal Democrats have substantial reservations about the emergency legislation proposed by the Scottish Government. There will be no detailed consideration of these important changes by the Justice committee and negligible chance for public input.
“We have reluctantly agreed to the process but we will be pursuing amendments to tighten up the procedures.
“Whilst the law needs to be changed to accommodate the judgement, I have concerns about the proposal to extend the period of detention from 6 hours to 24 hours effectively at the discretion of the police.”
Unfortunately, and equally predictably, as I write, the first few amendments introduced by the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been defeated. And I can't believe that MacAskill has just called out Mike Rumbles for daring to suggest that anyone being detained in a Police Station was a suspect and not a criminal.

The most bizarre reaction to the Cadder Judgement I've seen came from Calum Steele, the General Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation. He thinks that there isn't enough room in Police stations for all these  lawyers who'll be hanging around. Surely to goodness it can't be too difficult to move an extra chair into the interview room? For heavens sake, I don't think we need to build an annexe on to every Police Station.
 It's immediately apparent that this will have significant resource implications for the Police Service. At this moment in time, most Police stations in Scotland aren't designed or have the facilities to enable significant solicitor access to their clients. That will demand significant capital resource and we know already that the capital budget for Scotland is reducing in the next financial year.
You can watch the interview here at around 4:45 in.

I actually struggle with the notion that people can be interrogated by the Police without a lawyer present. I've clearly watched too many American crime dramas, or episodes of The Bill but it's only recently that I've become aware that you don't have a right to a lawyer in Scotland. If I were ever questioned for anything, I'm sure I'd be so freaked out that even though I'd be innocent, I'd end up getting confused, or upset and not giving the best account of myself. Any knowledge of my legal rights would also no doubt fly out of my head. I'm sure that most people don't even know what their rights are if they're arrested. Therefore I feel I'd need someone there to give me professional advice and to ensure that all the proper processes were being adhered to. Surely that's the least you can expect from any judicial system.

Scaremongering and slanging - the new generation Labour approach to Parliamentary Debate

Of all the welfare elements cut by the Government, the one which troubles me the least is the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant. This one of payment of £190 was paid to every single pregnant woman in the last 3 months of her pregnancy, with the aim of ensuring that she was able to provide herself with nutritious food as she approached the birth.

All women would have received that - including Coleen Rooney, married to someone who earns £60 a minute (barely adequate compensation for putting up with him, but that's another story) and who has her own highly lucrative media and fashion career. At a time when public finances are tight, it strikes me that there are better ways of making sure that those who need help most get it.

Now, I have absolutely no objection whatsoever to the Government's measures being properly scrutinised. In fact, a good Government listens to debate and where possible takes on board points which expose a flaw in their plans. That's what an opposition is for. The Liberal Democrats in opposition always acted with a degree of seriousness and responsibility.

Unfortunately, this isn't what we're seeing from the Labour Party. I wrote the other day about their seeming inability to take responsibility for anything. In a way, that's ok, because it shows themselves up and nobody else, but what we're seeing from Labour's arguments in the Commons and elsewhere is nasty, unprincipled scaremongering.

I saw this before in Fife when the Council introduced charges for Home Care for those who were able to afford it. The poorest were never ever going to have to pay. That's now how the Labour Party portrayed it, though. I spoke to streams of people who, even before the changes were approved, were petrified. We were able to reassure them that they weren't going to have to pay, but it made me furious that the Labour Party had put them through such anxiety.

I found some of the arguments advanced by Labour in defence of the Health in Pregnancy grant and the Child Trust Fund yesterday highly insulting to people's intelligence. One suggested that Folic Acid supplement cost £10 a throw. That wouldn't be helped by the HiP Grant, as you are supposed to take Folic Acid prior to conception and for the first 3 months of pregnancy, and this money isn't paid until the last three months. In fact, by the time women receive the money, all their baby really has to do is to grow. The most critical stage of development is the first three months.

Another MP suggested that this money should continue because women used it to boost their local economies. I mean, seriously, this was advanced as an argument. No wonder this lot drove the country to financial ruin.

The Health in Pregnancy Grant is not the only benefit paid in pregnancy - those who need it get the Sure Start Maternity Grant to help them buy things for their baby.

There was no argument so despicable, though, as the one advanced by Thomas Docherty, the Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife. In defence of the Child Trust Fund, he said:
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the crucial reasons the child trust fund is so important is that if a parent can save the maximum amount, the £18,000 or so would probably pay for one year's tuition fees under the Liberal Democrats' new plans?
Where do we start with that one?

Firstly, he represents a Scottish constituency, and not one teenager up here going to do a first degree at a Scottish university pays one penny in tuition fees. That's because of the Liberal Democrats who insisted on that as part of the first Coalition with Labour in the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Liberal Democrats reaffirmed their commitment to that policy just 2 weeks ago in Dunfermline.

Secondly, remind me, who was it who introduced tuition fees in England? Not the Liberal Democrats, who voted against them at every turn. Not the Tories, because they were in opposition. It was Mr Docherty's Labour Party who introduced the ridiculous system they have in England which is currently leaving students with tens of thousands of debts. It was Mr Docherty's Labour Party which was so enthusiastic about top up fees, too.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not a fan of Vince Cable's willingness to accept the principles of the Browne Report and I want to see our MPs keep the pledges they signed during the election. However, I'm willing to accept that whatever system comes out of that, it'll be a darned sight more progressive than anything the Labour Party put in place. And it'll be, as sure as eggs is eggs, better than anything the Tories would have put in place on their own.

Associating the maximum amount of £18,000 which could be saved in a Child Trust Fund with a year's fees is just plain wrong and could mislead people.

I tend to agree with the Government that the half a billion or so that the Child Trust Fund costs could be much more effectively spent elsewhere. Indeed, Nick Clegg argued for its abolition during the General Election campaign.

The Pupil Premium, which will help kids from the poorest backgrounds to get on in school, will do so much to give the next generation the chances and choices this one hasn't had. Never forget that the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer under Labour - and challenge them on that the next time they spin their scaremongering nonsense on your doorstep.  The raising of the tax threshold, taking 900,000 people out of tax, is a huge help for people and a real incentive to work. More needs to be done, but both of these elements are brought to this Government by the Liberal Democrats. That's something we can be very proud of.

In contrast, we have an opposition which is accusing the Coalition of ethnic cleaning because of changes to housing benefit, a claim which is incredibly offensive. I don't care if the Labour Party ruins its own, already tattered, reputation, but it needs to be a lot less hysterical in the manner it conducts itself for the sake of proper scrutiny of legislation.There are reasonable arguments to be had on some of the Government's policies. By failing to find them, Labour fails in opposition as it did in Government.

Happy Birthday, Florence Mhango - and how you can help

You might remember that I've written before about the plight of Florence Mhango and her 11 year old daughter Precious, who are living their lives in Glasgow in perpetual threat of immediate deportation to Malawi where they could face permanent separation.

Florence and Precious came into the UK 7 years ago as dependents of her then husband. Because of his violence to her, Florence fled with her daughter to Glasgow. While her husband remains entitled to live in this country, Florence and Precious have been refused asylum, despite the fact that if they are returned to Malawi, her ex husband's family have threatened to take Precious away from Florence.

Unfortunately, since July, things have become progressively gloomier for the pair as legal and political doors are slammed in their faces. I am particularly disappointed that Home Secretary, Theresa May, has refused to use the discretion that she acknowledges she has to allow them to stay outside the immigration rules, despite intervention from the Scottish Government and religious leaders here. Two weeks ago, their latest legal application failed.

Precious hasn't been back to school this term, because of the threat that UK Borders Agency officials will turn up at the classroom and detain her. That can't be good for them. Every day is an ordeal for them. It says a lot about the prospects of life in Malawi for them if Florence considers the uncertain existence they are enduring at the moment to be preferable.

It's Florence's birthday today, and Precious's on Friday. How good would it be if Theresa May listened to continued pleas from the pair's supporters to let them stay in the country.

If you want to wish them well on their special days, you can do so here on the wall of the Facebook group in their support. The good wishes of their supporters mean an awful lot to them, so please spare a few minutes to send them birthday greetings.

And while you do so, why not fire off another e-mail to Theresa May asking her to reconsider Florence and Precious' case.

Deporting Florence and Precious would be in my opinion an act of unacceptable and despicable cruelty. To all intents and purposes, Precious is a wee Scottish girl and should be allowed to stay here, close to her friends and with her mother.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Will the Labour Party ever take responsibility for anything?

This is a mini rant as I'm trying to get ready to take Anna into Edinburgh for what will probably be an expensive afternoon involving Winter boots and Hallowe'en costumes.

However I've just watched Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray's lamentable interview on the Politics Show yesterday.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott had robustly put the case for the difference the Liberal Democrats had made in Government, securing the carriers jobs, the extra investment from the fossil fuel levy, the fact that Scotland had a billion more than expected over the four years, as well as taking close on 100,000 Scots out of tax completely. You can't deny that a Tory Government on its own would never have thought to bother about Scotland and it's testament to our ministers' fighting within the coalition that we've got comparatively better result.

So, what was Iain Gray's plan, then? He and his colleagues north and south of the border have been whinging for days about the Comprehensive Spending Review in particular and for months about everything else the Coalition does in general. So they must have a better plan, right? Err, no. What Iain Gray said was that they're waiting for John Swinney to come up with the Scottish Budget and then they'll respond to it. What a cop out! Rather than come up with their own plan, they'll just carp at John Swinnney's, the same way as they've trashed the Coalition.

There's more to responsible politics than just pulling lumps out of the other side. You have to have your own alternative to put forward, to give to the debate. The Labour Party are just sitting on the sidelines throwing metaphorical rotten eggs and tomatoes at whoever happens to walk past. That alone shows that they are completely unelectable. What sort of leader sits about and makes his decisions based on what other people are doing? With Iain Gray as First Minister we'd have a reactive and reactionary government in Holyrood without a single original idea in their head that they're willing to take responsibility for.

And that's not forgetting the fact that Labour are responsible for the mess we are in in the first place. Not the stuff they had to do in response to the collapse caused by the bankers, because I agree that they did have to put money into the economy for all our sakes. No, it's the 10 years before that, when they had the most benign of economic circumstances, when they spent much more than we were bringing in, putting nothing away for a rainy day, creating a structural deficit that was say out of control. That's the bit we have to bring some order into.

And don't forget that the Labour Party told George Osborne that they recommended cuts of 20% per department. What would that have looked like? Don't let them off the hook on that one. Next time you have a Labour activist on your doorstep, don't let them go until they've given you some specific answers about what they would have cut. It's not a million miles away from the spending review we're looking at now, regardless of what they might tell you.

Labour can't be allowed to get away with their past failures or the way they are behaving in opposition.

Nick Clegg on Desert Island Discs, why I want to smack him round the head and the truth about him and smoking

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I'm just listening to Nick Clegg's Desert Island Discs on the BBC iPlayer. The first thing that comes across is how important his wife Miriam is to him.  It reminded me of when I first knew Nick 12 years ago. I didn't have to know him for very long to know how utterly besotted he was with her. She came across one weekend during the selection campaign and I got together some of the nicest people I know at an Indian restaurant in Chesterfield to make her feel welcome. It's not surprising that his first choice of music was Chopin's Waltz in A Minor which Miriam played a lot when she was pregnant with their first son Antonio.

His second choice was a Johnny Cash track, Sunday Morning Coming Down. Apparently Mum and Dad Clegg used to subject their children to Johnny Cash on long journeys through Europe. I have similar childhood memories, although, we never left Scotland but it was Billy Connolly cartridges that I was exposed to. "If it wisnae for your wellies" was engrained in my brain from a very early age.

Nick and Kirsty Young talked about all sorts of things, from Nick's fascinating family background, to drawing a line between what's public and private about his life, to how he copes with the pressures of Government, how he managed to strike a deal with David Cameron. I liked the fact that he'd sat up until 2am one morning trying to work out which songs he'd choose for the programme and how much he'd enjoyed the first chance he'd had in ages to listen to CDs and relax.

He talks about how difficult he found the whole tuition fees issue but says that he believes that what the Government comes up with will be more progressive and fairer than the current system. That, to be honest, would not be difficult.  He states his belief that "there's a utility in learning but it has to be treasured and cherished and valued as an end in itself." However much I believe that the Government should reject the Browne Report and ensure that higher education is free again in England as it is in Scotland, thanks to the Liberal Democrats, I acknowledge the hand of Nick and Vince in making the final outcome a lot better than it would have been had the Tories, or Labour, for that matter, been governing alone.

He talked about his preparation for the leadership debates during the election and how his was all done on a shoestring, like all Liberal Democrat campaigning. I laughed out loud when he described his practice sessions with certain people playing the roles of Brown and Cameron.

He said that he hoped that over time, people would realise that the picture emerging from the Government would be a good, progressive one.

This was a conversation which meandered from the UN, to his time with his children, to the trauma of both his eldest son and his wife being seriously ill in the same year.

There was one thing he said about being a father that I simultaneously totally understood and wanted to smack him around the head for. He was talking about how being a dad means everything to him and how spending his time playing with his kids is so vital to him. I'm a great one for enjoying life and taking time to smell the roses and that sort of thing and I'll happily cuddle up on the sofa with Anna and be tested on how well I've remembered the names of her little plastic toys, or rating them out of ten, or talking about the latest books she's reading, or watching Doctor Who. All of these things are much more important than housework, but somebody has to make sure she has clean clothes of the right size to wear, and food to eat, and is in the right place at the right time. And it's usually the woman, whether they work full time or not who does the lion's share of this sort of thing. Mr Clegg seems to have quite a charmed life at home if his time with his kids exclusively consists of those good moments and none of the practical ones. At least he understands the debt he owes Miriam, which is more than many men, even in this day and age do, but still!

It certainly sounds from what he was saying later on about Miriam laughing at the thought of him being able to feed himself on the desert island, that he doesn't do much of the cooking in their house. We know that he can boil an egg because we saw it on the ITV interview before the election, so nobody would starve if he were left in charge, but it annoys me that anyone, man or woman, of my generation should have grown up unable to cook a decent meal.

And as for all this fuss about him taking a stash of cigarettes, with hysterical headlines about him "confessing" his smoking habit, reported in the press with the sort of horror they'd reserve for someone found torturing puppies, well, it's hardly a secret. Look at this from April this year:

There's good stuff in there about evidence based drugs policy too.

The thing about Nick is that he's pretty upfront and honest, and always has been - sometimes painfully so. It's good to see that being in Government hasn't changed him.       

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Anna's first running animation

While I was watching trash last night, Anna was teaching herself how to do to run cycle animations. She drew the pictures herself on Microsoft Paint and then put them together using Windows Movie Maker.

I could never have done anything like this at her age and I'm impressed with her creativity.

She's heavily absorbed in the Warrior Cats books by Erin Hunter at the moment and she's not only reading the books, but creating all sorts of artwork about the characters.

McLaren action curtails #F1 artist's business #supportunlap

One of the regular contributors to the F1 discussions I enjoy on Twitter has been the artist behind the Unlap website, Luke Pollard.

He produces excellent motorsport related prints, mugs, t-shirts, often with a very humorous side to them. Remember the Ferrari team orders fiasco at Hockenheim?  Well, this design was his response.

Word reaches my ears that McLaren, a large, rich company with a gleaming "technology centre" from which David Coulthard has been broadcasting for the BBC all weekend, has taken legal action against Unlap which has meant that Luke's had to stop selling his McLaren merchandise.

As he says:
I take copyright very seriously. This is why none of my designs carry any form of original logos, team names or driver names. 
At this time, we have no choice but to suspend the sale of the Unlap designed McLaren based items (cars, current and ex-drivers).  You may continue to purchase other Unlap goodies though!
When I have had messages of praise from other drivers and teams in F1, this has really come as a big kick in the teeth, especially as I *was* a life long McLaren supporter.
One of the things that really makes my blood boil is when large corporations take on small traders like this. I've certainly never seen anything that I would think was an infringement of copyright on this site. It seems spectacularly mean to take this action in the run up to Christmas, the busiest time of the year, when these products have been for sale for quite some time. 

I hope that F1 fans who believe in the right to be original and creative will boycott McLaren's own overpriced merchandise. Hitting them in the pocket is the only way to tell them that picking on small traders in this way is completely unacceptable.

If you want to show support for Unlap and you're on Facebook, there's a group here

I hope that we hear very soon that they have withdrawn their legal threats and that Unlap is free to sell his full range of merchandise again.

Mr Eugenides' Michael Fish moment

I shouldn't really take the mickey out of a fellow blogger, but seeing as I'm out of bed at this inappropriate hour on a Sunday morning for no good reason, and I'm grumpy about it, I shall.

Remember when Michael Fish told the world there wasn't going to be a hurricane in 1987 and later that night we had the worst storm for decades?

Well a few weeks ago, I wrote about Karun Chandhok's inaugural trip round the Korean Grand Prix circuit in an old Red Bull.

I speculated at the time that a wet race might be exciting.

Mr E, who lives out there, albeit a long drive from the circuit, gave me some very useful inside knowledge:
For what it's worth, I suspect (famous last words) that the race will be dry. The rain in Korea is a monsoon seasonal rain; it starts in July and comes down in fits and starts until mid-September. Late October should be dry.
He did actually say famous last words, so I have to give him that. Well, it's now race day, and it's raining cats and dogs. This on its own might not be a dealbreaker, but because the track's so new, and the tarmac's just been laid, the cars haven't been able to lay down any rubber so there's just no grip. Even wet weather genius Michael Schumacher said it was too dangerous to race and Alonso told his team that this was the worst race he had ever driven in.

We've been sitting for the last hour listening to the unsufferable Jonathan Legard utter banalities.

The race is about to have its second start behind the safety car. I feel a bit nervous because there's so many walls on this track. I don't really like it that much and the pit lane entry is lethal.

Let's hope all passes without incident and that Mark Webber takes one more step towards the world championship.

Looks like Mr E has borrowed Jeff Breslin, from Better Nation's notoriously wonky crystal ball. Not that I have ever made any dodgy predictions, of course.................

Friday, October 22, 2010

Helen Duffett chairs Presidential Hustings with Susan Kramer and Tim Farron

I have just had an e-mail from them at Lib Dem HQ alerting me to the fact that the online presidential hustings I mentioned the other day is now up on You Tube here.

Helen Duffett did a fabulous job, clear, assured and confident, of keeping the two candidates under control - although, to be fair, there was just high quality debate.

You already know that I'm supporting Tim Farron, and I'd recommend you read Sara Bedford's endorsement of him which she's posted today. 

Anyway, sit back with a cup of tea and a biscuit and enjoy the almost hour long hustings in full, where the candidates talk about how to maintain our distinctive message, grassroots campaigning, the AV referendum, tuition fees, diversity and keeping members onside.

Should obstetricians be trained in forceps deliveries to avoid Caesarian Sections?

Childbirth has been a feature of this week twice for me. Not personally, obviously, but there are a couple of things I wanted to share with you.

Firstly, I was taken by this report on the BBC today that apparently doctors need more training in forceps deliveries to avoid caesarians. Apparently there's not enough time for training due to the pesky Eurocrats, but it would be so much better if doctors could just yank babies out rather than put the mother through surgery. Frankly, if that was the choice available, I'd prefer taking the pain and the risk of the op rather than giving my baby a very sore head and possibly some injuries to welcome them to the world, but what do I know?

I know that there are times when heavy medical intervention in the childbirth process is necessary and it saves lives. However, I wonder if it wouldn't be better if there were more time given to learning traditional skills, like turning babies manually, or learning newer techniques like optimal foetal positioning. That sort of ante natal preparation, combined with a supportive environment to go through labour in, can avoid complications during birth.

On Monday, the Divine Helen Duffett popped up on Iain Dale's LBC show. Not, this time, representing Liberal Democrat Voice, but to talk of her experience of giving birth to her two youngest children at home. I don't like giving credit to Nadine Dorries, but in the spirit of being fair to everyone that I try to espouse on this blog, I have to say that she talked a lot of sense in encouraging this and saying that women should have the right to choose themselves whether they want a home birth.

There aren't very many men on this planet who can talk comfortably about childbirth, but I have to say Iain did well. I generally define doing well in those circumstances as not asking any really crass questions or pretending that you have a clue what it is like. Having said that, I'd have loved to have seen his face when Helen was describing the purchase of large plastic sheet from B & Q, which she later lent to a friend. A little bit of raised eyebrow did creep into his voice at that point, but he pulled it back.

Anyway, I found another aspect of what Helen was saying very interesting. She talked about how her first baby had had a fairly dramatic entrance into the world because he got stuck. The same situation occurred with her third baby, but the midwife attending to her at home suggested a simple manoeuvre (which probably wasn't that simple to perform in the circumstances, I grant you) which got the little one safely into the world without trauma. Helen pointed out that along with her being able to choose the birth she wanted, she'd also saved the NHS £4000 - an argument she thought would appeal to Mr Dale.

My own experience of giving birth (don't worry, I'm not going to get gory) went through 3 hospital shifts. At the start, I had to hide for an hour and a half from a doctor who was a bit over eager to get things moving. That was not a nice experience. Things improved with a midwife who had the time and knowledge to support me through the hard bits, a female doctor who saw something a little abnormal but didn't panic and a lovely companion who anticipated almost all of my needs and responded immediately to my barked out commands when he didn't.

It's easy for me to see how the actions of the health professionals actually led to me having the intervention free birth I wanted. There were a couple of critical points when they could have made some different choices. That would have led to an avoidable and ultimately unnecessary medicalisation of a process which was proceeding perfectly well on its own. I was very lucky to have that kind of care and I want to see that available to other women.

If we're going to be giving doctors more training in birth, then I think it has to encompass methods which encourage and promote a more natural approach. By all means teach them the skills that they need to use in an emergency to save a mother's or baby's life, but that's by no means the whole story of what they need to know.

Doctor Who Live Review

Last Saturday was a busy day for us. In the afternoon, we'd gone to the Strictly roadshow in Edinburgh and we went virtually straight from there to the SECC in Glasgow to see Doctor Who Live, touted as:
"an out-of-this-world experience featuring many of the television show's most popular monsters and images. Special effects, optical illusions and fantastic pyrotechnics accompany specially edited video clips and exclusively filmed scenes starring Matt Smith as the Doctor.
The iconic scores of Doctor Who's composer, Murray Gold, are brought to life by a band of live musicians on stage as the Doctor battles to save the World"
Daddy Alex was lovely and sent us a recording of Genesis of the Daleks for my birthday, but we were both suffering from withdrawal symptoms from Matt Smith and the wonderful writing of Steven Moffat. 

We had originally booked for the first scheduled showing on Thursday 14th, but about a month ago, we had a letter from Ticket Soup to say that the performance had been cancelled for "technical reasons". I wonder if those reasons included not selling very many tickets because even on Saturday the arena was not what you would call full. I was really annoyed, though, because I had paid for decent seats near the front and our new seats were on the absolute extremities of the arena so our view was very restricted. That was really unfair and I'm taking that up with Ticket Soup separately, especially as there were much better seats, which weren't even as good as we'd originally booked sitting empty.

Having said that, although Anna loves Doctor Who, the idea of having the monsters, especially the Cybermen, actually walking around near her scared the living daylights out of her more than I'd anticipated. Her face was a mixture of terror and amazement for most of the show. For the rest she hid under my coat. I wondered at the beginning if it was all a bit too scary for her, but Winston Churchill, played by Nicholas Briggs, saved the day by making her laugh. It would have been good to have seen more of him throughout the show because his brief interlude was definitely one of the highlights.

The story was basically that an inter-galactic showman, Vorgenson, played by Nigel Planer had managed to capture many of our favourite Doctor Who monsters and kept them inside a device called the Minimiser. The Doctor gets wind of this and tries to stop him, fearing what that crew, combined, could inflict on the universe.

It was a good enough story, with a few bangs and whistles, and the live band was spectacular. It was quite strange to see them carry on playing despite the mayhem that was going on around them. To be honest, though, I felt that there was something missing from the performance. I guess it didn't help that the main character on stage, the one holding it all together, was such an unsufferable twit. He was just a prat, and not even that good a showman. Maybe he needed a bit more pure evil about him. Nor were there any female characters. Surely they could have filmed some stuff with Karen as well as Matt - maybe have had Vorgenson kidnap her as a way to get to the Doctor. I think that would have helped get the audience on side sooner - and  also offered another opportunity for interaction, for giving us a role in moving the plot forward, perhaps by making us shout something to attract the Doctor's attention, or something.

For much of the first half, I felt that I had paid an extortionate amount just to see footage from the last series on a big screen, which I could look at any time on my Sky Plus box at home. It took a while before the plot really warmed up.

There was noise and kerfuffle and flying daleks and sparks, and smoke and cybermen. For the first time since the Battle of Canary Wharf at the end of Season 2 of the new series, we had dialogue between the Daleks and Cybermen. To be honest, it wasn't as humorously full of mutual disdain as that initial encounter, but I still want an anti dalekanium plasma gun. Just in case, you understand. BBC, please note merchandising opportunity.

It's only right that the BBC should find a use for the expensive costumes it's created, to give them an airing and make some money out of them, and Doctor Who Live is a good way of doing it. I think the detail needs sharpening up, but I'd still recommend going to see it. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Lib Dem wins in the spending review - but who will speak up for the poor now?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I find the House of Commons a very depressing place at times. What should be a place of serious debate all to often, and especially at Prime Minister's Questions, becomes a haven for willy waving and general macho nonsense. Having the weekly event immediately ahead of the Spending Review was a complete and utter waste of time, yesterday. I know I'm paraphrasing a lot, but questions from the Government benches went along the lines of "Aren't the other lot a bunch of irresponsible gits who shouldn't be trusted with the Commons tea fund and aren't the people of Britain lucky that we're here to clean up the mess they left behind?" Seriously, one Tory even quoted from Mao (espousing the virtue of thrift) to suggest that the Chinese Communist dictator supported coalition policy.

It's not as if Labour were much better, their questions being of the "Aren't you evil people about to ruin everyone's lives?" standard. I never quite got why people thought Ed Miliband had done well on his debut last week - he spent the entire time banging on about Child Benefit being removed from higher earners rather than the poorest Labour are supposed to be protecting. They made a rubbish job of that in Government but you might have thought the New Generation might have gone back to its roots. This week he wasn't much better. The best that could be said about his lacklustre performance is that he looked less like he was about to vomit than last week. It was almost like he set himself up for being batted away easily by Cameron. PMQs is a bear pit, but he really hasn't got much of a clue about how to handle it. He's actually quite painful to watch. It's quite something when you can say that Iain Gray looks almost competent in comparison during his weekly sparring matches with Alex Salmond.

Having said that, there were some sensible questions: Lib Dems Duncan Hames on protecting poorer students and Annette Brooke on breast cancer and Labour's Sandra Osborne on international aid and Stephen Twigg on the family of a murdered constituent. I just wish there were more of this kind of stuff.

Moving on to the Spending Review, there was even a bit of machismo about that. I guess Osborne had to tell the country that Labour had been angling for departmental cuts of 20%, which gives the lie to what they've been saying about opposing every single cut, but he didn't have to look so smug about saying he'd delivered cuts of 19% and looked forward to Labour support in the voting lobbies. I would hate to think that cuts of this nature had been planned with the view to getting one over on the Labour Party, especially when the extra money has been taken from the welfare budget.

There was much comment on Twitter about how utterly miserable Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander looked. To be honest, none of the Government front bench looked happy. That would have been severely inappropriate.

I was pleased that I could see the hand of the Liberal Democrats in Osborne's measures - it's clear that our ministers have been speaking up on some of the most important issues, like capital spending. It's great that the carbon capture programme is to be protected, something so vital to Longannet in Fife.

You can see that Mike Moore has stood up for Scotland given that the cut in our budget is a lot less than anticipated and comparatively less than in other areas. You can also see the use of having a Highland MP as Chief Secretary as the Highlands and Islands will get super fast broadband.funded by the Government. And there's £250 million available for renewable energy projects which has to be good.

There are to be no additional restrictions on Child Benefit which you have to take as a big Lib Dem win. Paul Walter had the story a few days ago about how Nick Clegg had won the case not to cut it based on age but to make sure that the restriction was felt by those most able to pay.

Then there's the freezing of the vital science budget - if we're going to be expecting the private sector to provide decent quality jobs, then it's vital for our economic growth that we provide it with a workforce with the correct skills for a hi-tech, science based industry. We can put that down to another Lib Dem win.

An extra £2 billion on social care is also welcome.

What's really fantastic is that Equitable Life policyholders, who Labour had turned their backs on, are finally going to get justice to the tune of £1.5 billion. That's another clear Lib Dem win.

Let's not also forget that the Liberal Democrats won the argument on ensuring that there will be no decision on Trident this Parliament, and have also ensured that 900,000 are taken out of income tax.

There are some things about this Review that really worry me, though:

The fact that a family will have to work at least 24 hours between them to qualify for Working Tax Credit. Imagine a family where one parent loses their job and the other works 16 hours behind the bar in the local pub. At the moment, they'll get Working Tax Credit. Now, the working parent is going to either find another job, or persuade the boss to give them another 8 hours. They might be lucky if they worked for the local supermarket rather than the local pub, but for some families this is going to cause huge problems, penalising the people who are actually working.

The cut in social housing combined with a huge hike in rents for new tenants and limitations on tenancies in England is quite scary. Yes, that's supposed to raise the money for much needed new affordable homes, but if people have to pay £400 other than £250, then if they're on housing benefit, that's an extra £15 a week they'll have to find for rent on top of the £10 from the Emergency Budget in June. I'm not aware of any families on housing benefit where they have an extra £25 per week. That is clearly for new tenants and won't apply to those already in Council housing but I'm not sure that's been thought through properly.

The restriction of Employment and Support Allowance to those in the group who's deemed able to work to a year is also going to cause significant hardship. You've got a group of people who are already disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, in the labour market, you're going to chuck a whole load of public sector workers ahead of them in the queue for employment, so making it even harder for them to find work, and you're going to take money off them too. That makes my eyes water. They need a tailor made individual plan to help them find work, not a withdrawal of support after a year.

While all this is going on, rich pensioners will still get £250 a year in Winter Fuel Allowance and free bus passes. Why on earth did they not restrict these to 65 year old non disabled people, or even those on basic rate tax? Why does David Cameron get to keep his promise on this, while Nick Clegg doesn't get to keep his on university tuition?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of my thoughts on the Spending Review - but, as the zoo beckons, it's all I have time for right now.

For the future, though, our ministers are going to have to keep a real eye on the impact of these measures particularly on the poor. We've been speaking up for those who Labour let down and we must continue to do so. If the economy doesn't grow and there are no jobs for people, then too many people will face terrible hardship. We can't allow that to happen on our watch.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Alex Cole-Hamilton's speech on tuition fees to Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference

Following on from yesterday's post, here's Alex Cole-Hamilton telling Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference last Saturday why we should vote down the amendment calling for a graduate tax.

In his he recalls how proud he was of the Liberal Democrats for standing up to Labour on this issue and how the graduate endowment was simply to help poorer students. It was not spent on paying for tuition in any way.

The clip is worth watching just for the images of Richard Baker producing draconian legislation in iambic pentameter.

Trident decision delay a big win for the Liberal Democrats

Yesterday's defence review was always going to be difficult. Nowhere had Labour left a bigger mess than at the MOD with horrific overspends.

There was some good in it, though - the fact that thousands of jobs in Rosyth and Govan are safe is a huge relief for those areas.

And the there's the fact that there will be no decision on replacing Trident in this Parliament. That is better than I was hoping for and better than I thought we were going to get from the Coalition Agreement. I'd like to see us get rid of all nuclear weapons. I think it's wrong that we have them at all. However a reduction in warheads and winning the argument that it's unnecessary to rush into ordering the next generation of nuclear weapons is a big win for the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition.

Party President Ros Scott e-mailed Party members last night with the good news:

Dear Caron,
The Liberal Democrats have long argued that Trident is an out of date, unnecessary and hugely expensive weapons system that the UK has no need of in modern times. In this period of fiscal constraint it is also a luxury we can ill afford. Nick Clegg was right to argue powerfully against Trident renewal during the Leader's Debates. Our party was right to stand in contrast to both the Conservatives and Labour on this issue.

Today, within the Strategic Defence Review, the Coalition Government announced that there will be no final decision on the like-for-like replacement of Trident during this parliament. So Trident will not be renewed this parliament - not on a Liberal Democrat watch. Let us be clear, this is a significant victory for Liberal Democrat campaigners, and a fantastic example of what our Ministers can and do achieve in government.

But the Coalition Government is not just saying no to replacing Trident this parliament. It is going further. It is also taking important steps towards the goal of multilateral nuclear disarmament. The announcement today sees a 25% cut in warheads.

Today is yet another day that we can all feel hugely proud to be a party of government, delivering key Liberal Democrat priorities.

Best wishes,
Ros Scott
Party President

I'm glad that our ministers have successfully argued this case within Government.

Nick Clegg's members' e-mail about the Spending Review

I've just had this from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg entitled Spending Review with Liberal Democrat values:

Dear Caron,

The spending review has inevitably been a tough process. We have made the decision to take the hard road - but it is the right road to a more prosperous, fairer Britain. The unavoidable moment of truth came just as we entered government: Labour's deficit had to be tackled. I did not go into government to make cuts. But nor can I be in government and allow us to keep spending more than £100 million a day on servicing our debt - enough to build a primary school every single hour, or triple the number of doctors working in our hospitals.

The spending review is a thoroughly Coalition product. Liberal Democrat ministers have been involved every step of the way. Our values and priorities are written through the review, like the message in a stick of rock. We have had to make some very difficult choices. But the review is one that promotes fairness, underpins growth, reduces carbon emissions and localises power.

The Coalition Government is investing £7 bn in a ‘fairness premium’ to help disadvantaged children; putting more than £1 billion into a regional growth fund; launching a Green Investment Bank with at least £2 billion for low-carbon technology and new jobs; and giving local government real financial freedoms. This Government will be spending more than £700bn on public services - the same as in 2006.

For too long Labour enjoyed the years of plenty and whether they are part of the new generation or old, they put their head in the sand when it came to acknowledging the deficit. They spent beyond our country’s means and squandered the public purse. They quite simply endangered the prosperity of our country and it is now taking two political parties to put Britain on the road to recovery.

Along with Danny Alexander, Vince Cable and the rest of the Liberal Democrat ministerial team I have been working day in day out over recent months to ensure that the Comprehensive Spending Review meets key Liberal Democrat tests.

Liberal Democrat ministers have fought to ensure that the burden of the challenge ahead is shared fairly. On child benefit, capital gains and tax evasion and avoidance - this government is making the well off pay their share. And for those services that matter most to the vulnerable in our society, such as health and social care and early years education, spending is being protected.

We are not taking the decisions today because they are easy or because we want to see a smaller state, we are taking them because they are right. We have a hard road to recovery ahead, but we are determined to ensure it is a road that leads to fairness too.

I wonder if there will be another later as this one is light on detail, but covers the principles which have been guiding our ministers of fairness and protecting the most vulnerable.

I don't expect today to be pretty or comfortable in any way, but I can be confident that we will have taken the sting out of the Tories in a sigificant way.

Tim Farron's video presidential pitch

Blogging has been light and may well continue to be so over the next few days. This is purely because it's the school holidays and I'm having some Mummy and Anna time. I also seem to be having a lot of sneezing time this morning, much to my annoyance. I won't be able to avoid some comments on the Spending Review, and I'm thrilled that we've kicked the replacement of Trident into the long grass - a big Lib Dem win for the coalition - but I'll be quieter than usual.

However, just in time for the Presidential Election ballot papers to slip through the doors of Party members (and a particular hello to the thousands of you who have joined the Party since May and are doing this for the first time), that nice Tim Farron has produced this video to entertain you in my absence. It's all very nice and atmospheric with music and everything and I think it shows why we need him as President. I think he has, and will have, his finger firmly on the pulse of the Party, being accessible to members and he is exactly the type of no-nonsense bruiser we need to cut through the bile our opponents are throwing at us.

The Party's having an online hustings tonight at 7 pm, chaired by The Divine Ms Duffett from Liberal Democrat Voice. We'll be able to see it on You Tube later, but you can submit questions in the comments thread here by 5pm today.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alex Cole-Hamilton reaaffirms Scottish Liberal Democrat commitment to free higher education

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Central  for next year's elections.

I first met him 9.5 years ago during the 2001 election campaign when he was working in Edinburgh West. Before that, he'd been the President of Aberdeen University Students Representative Council.. As a former student leader he understands both the financial pressures students face and why we all need a flourishing higher education sector.

As this video shows, Alex joined the Liberal Democrats in the first place because of our success in abolishing tuition fees in the first Holyrood coalition and he remains committed to that policy today.

In Alex's words:
Without a well informed well educated graduate workforce, we can't hope to compete or be a leading source of innovation in the world economy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why do T-Mobile and Fonesafe hate their customers so much?

I am not a happy bunny tonight.

Anna's phone has stopped working - when we try to charge it nothing happens. It's insured so we took it into T-Mobile today as it told us to do on the insurance papers. They hummed and hawed and poked about a bit and then told me that they couldn't do anything and I'd have to go home and call the insurers, Fonesafe. And they weren't mighty polite about it either.

This I duly did, only to be told that they couldn't do anything about it as it wasn't stolen, lost or damaged and it was a warranty issue - despite the phone being nearly 3 years old. They told me, wait for it, that I'd have to go into the shop.

I said I'd just been there and they had told me that I'd need to phone them. The woman from the Call Centre said she was sorry but sometimes the shops didn't understand what they had to do and that there was no alternative but me to go back to the store. And if the staff in the T-Mobile shop refuse to do anything like they did today, then I will have to call Fonesafe from the shop.

So, I, the customer, am forced to play Piggy in the Middle between two parts of the same organisation who just don't seem to want to take responsibility for what should be a relatively simple thing. Anyone would think that they were trying to put me off claiming on the insurance.

This is the second time T-Mobile  have failed me in six weeks. Thankfully the replacement iPhone is the best thing ever, but it took them over a week to sort that one out. What a shower!

My Day as Guest Editor on Liberal Democrat Voice

You might have noticed that I wasn't around here much on Thursday because I'd been invited to spend the day at the opulent  Liberal Democrat Voice Towers as guest editor.  Thankfully the kitchen is the preserve of Sara Bedford, so there's always fresh baking around, Alex Foster provides welcome feelgood bellringing, Mummy Helen has a real techie treasure trove and (whispers), I found the key to Dr Pack's chocolate stash. Pink Dog has her own very plush parlour where you can sink into plump, welcoming cushions when you're tired.

I still can't quite believe that they let me loose on their site for the day. My aim was to provide a bit of a showcase about what was going on in Scotland but not in such a way that people south of the Border would think it was nothing to do with them. I hope that the example of how Jenny Dawe and her administration transformed Edinburgh, and how Katy Gordon's campaign team more than doubled local membership will inspire. I hope that the articles on higher education will inform and help the discussions south of the border in the wake of the Browne Report. And when I first read Peter Barrett's report on how he has health and housing convener had taken a housing service with a poor record and turned it round, I actually cried.

It was a busy day, and I was shattered by the end of it. Most of the pieces I'd asked for had come in by Wednesday and were all ready to go up. All I had to do on Thursday was to write up the debate on tuition fees and interview Jo Swinson for five minutes. Easy!

Well it's easy if you wake up feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed! My brain felt like it was full of sludge last Thursday. I got it done, though, just in time to interview Jo.

Thanks to Anna, who set it all up for me, I recorded the interview. I'd thought it would be a brief five minute affair, but, free of the necessity to write down copious notes, the conversation flowed quite naturally for a whole 21 minutes. We talked about everything from sport, to Strictly Come Dancing, to gender stereotyping to door knocking to the Coalition, to calling Tories "Honourable Friends", to Nigeria to living with allergies.  Typing that up, in 3 parts, took most of the evening.

It was after 10 when I finally finished writing my farewell piece.

Just for posterity, here is a list of all the articles which went up that day. My thanks to all the contributors, Paul Freeman, Callum Leslie, Tim Farron, Susan Kramer, Jenny Dawe, Stephen Glenn, Katy Gordon, George Lyon MEP and Peter Barrett for their articles and to Alexandra White and Jo Swinson MP for being such brilliant and easy to talk to interviewees.

From the top:

Presidential Prospects, Passionate Debate and Poll Confidence - a day of inspiration, optimism and hope - an introduction to a day I hoped would soothe and invigorate after a tough couple of weeks.

Opinion: A First Timer's Guide to Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference 2010 by Paul Freeman who blogs at Set in Darkness

Opinion: We are a Party founded on the principles of free education by Callum Leslie

Susan Kramer: Why you should back me for Party President (Scotland specific)

Tim Farron: Why you should back me for Party Presdident (Scotland specific)

Delivering a bright new future for Edinburgh by Cllr Jenny Dawe

The Speaker who stole the show at Scottish Conference - an interview with 14 year old sensation Alexandra White

A snapshot of a first class debate - a Scottish perspective on Higher Education

Opinion: the day the Northern Irish came to Scottish Conference by Stephen Glenn

We should be ambitious in our campaigning - by Katy Gordon

George Lyon MEP - our high hopes for the Scottish Parliament elections

Door Knocking, Deputy Leader and Honourable Friends - Interview with Jo Swinson Part 1

Sport, Gender Stereotyping and Gender Specific Marketing - Interview with Jo Swinson Part 2

Helping children with allergies and Nigeria with climate change - all in a year's work. Interview with Jo Swinson MP part 3

Opinion: How we transformed Housing in Perth and Kinross by Cllr Peter Barrett

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodnight

Nick Clegg on Heat magazine's Weird Crush shortlist

Oh well, here goes my credibility as a serious writer, but, come on, we've had weeks and weeks of things that have been quite difficult to deal with, from Child Benefit to the Browne Report. In fact, being in Government is quite stressful. I said in May that I'd have five years of watching the news from behind a pillow and so far it has been a bit like that. I remain, despite everything, a supporter of the Coalition, but the "through gritted teeth" comment made by one of Liberal Democrat Voice's survey contributors is not a million miles away from where I feel at this moment. In fact, I think it might have been me who made it. This process was always bound to have its peaks and troughs. As someone who used to be dragged up hills for sport, I can testify that getting to a peak is bloody hard work.

In the meantime, you have to take your comfort where you can get it. Trashy magazines are wrong as a concept, but they aren't illegal and Heat has pretty pictures and quite funny tv listings. And Boyd Hilton, their TV editor, has been very nice about Simon Hughes on Twitter.

That strikes me as a bit of overlong self justification of reading such rubbish, but if I hadn't, I would never have found out that Nick Clegg has for some bizarre reason made it on to their Weird Crush of the Year shortlist. I am not impressed by this. I can deal with David Cameron being on the list, but not Nick, who is taking up a place that could have gone to one of the Top Gear blokes. Nick's not my type, but he is a good looking boy.

Anyway, the winner is decided by a readers' poll. Come on, you know you want to, and if you're a party member, it is kind of your duty:-)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't vote yet in the internal party elections!

One of my favourite things about being a Federal Conference representative is that big thick envelope of manifestos and ballot papers which arrives at the time of internal party elections. I haven't been a rep for the past few years and I really miss my chance to vote.  I used to take it very seriously. There is nothing like spending half an hour deciding between your 12th and 13th preferences.

Anyway, ballot papers have been despatched to Conference reps and many of you will be spending time this weekend poring over the manifesto booklets. I think that it might be worth waiting a while.

Why? Because of this tweet by Councillor Chris White:
Special Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee to discuss tuition fees with Vince on 25 October
If this issue is at all important to you, you might want to contact candidates after that meeting to find out how they voted on it. You have plenty time as the ballots don't have to be back until 10th November. Just a suggestion.

SNP's priorities - cutting taxes for the rich

Well, we can see where the SNP's priorities lie from their plans announced at their Conference, and they're not with the poorest and most vulnerable people, that's for sure.

This reminds me of research done by the Scottish Liberal Democrats last year which shows that over the whole of their four year term, the SNP will have given 133 times more every year to a household on £100,000 than they have to households on £15,000. That doesn't seem very fair to me. At the time, Tavish Scott said:

“Over four years, the SNP will have spent £950m on a set of distorted priorities and hand-outs that give more to the rich than to the poor.
“If you have two children and earn £100,000 then you will have gained £802 per year from the SNP.
“But if you have two children and you earn £15,000 then you will have gained just six pounds and seven pence.
“So that’s enough champagne and lobster every night for the rich, but a fish supper for the poor.
“So I mean it when I say that, in Scotland, the only party at the General Election for a fairer society will be the Liberal Democrats.”
I'm not sure why we haven't made more of this. I mean, to give £802 per year to a family on £100,000 and only £6 a year to the poorest is not something the SNP can be proud of.

The Nationalists seem to be even more in denial about our financial circumstances than the Labour Party when they were in power at Westminster. It worries me greatly that in the current climate, they intend to continue their Council Tax freeze which gives most benefit to the better off. This was only supposed to be a temporary measure until they introduced their Local Income Tax,but they gave up on that one with undue haste. If they'd agreed that local authorities should be able to set their own rates, this could have been up and running by now and people would be paying their local taxes according to their ability to pay and not the size of their house. The elderly widow on a low income paying the same as 2 lawyers across the street under the Council Tax doesn't get any fairer. Yet another failed SNP pledge.

And then there's prescription charges, which they still insist they're going to abolish completely next year. I can think of many  better uses for the £40 million it's cost us. There are more efficient ways of making sure that those who need help most get it. Under the Scottish Liberal Democrat plans unveiled in our 2007 manifesto, we'd have limited prescription charges so that people with chronic conditions who needed a lot of medication would only pay the equivalent of one full prescription charge per month. That seems fair to me.

Under the current system, I,with my dodgy thyroid, am entitled to free prescriptions. I need to take one tablet a day and I am prescribed 8 weeks' worth at a time. Even if prescription charges up here had remained at the same level as in England, my drugs would cost me less than a glass of wine in an Edinburgh pub per month. That's easily affordable. I don't need it.

I may be sick, and I'm certainly not rich, but paying for my prescriptions is not going to cause me any great hardship. I'm sure I can't be alone in that.

The SNP Government has, to add to its pretty shameful record on education, the mantle of being the Party that does most for the rich. For that reason alone, they need to be kicked out of office come May.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Caron decides: Tim Farron for a "stardust" President

The thing about sitting on the fence, is that it's pretty uncomfortable. I knew I'd have to make my mind up at some point, but I didn't expect that the decision would be as clear as it has become. And, to be honest, I'm surprised at the decision I've made. At the start of this, if you had told me I'd be voting for Tim Farron, I'd have laughed at you. The thought of electing an MP to the position of representing the grassroots was one that was difficult for me to reconcile, but I think this week has convinced me that Tim is the right person for the job at this time.

Here's why:

  • He keeps his word - and this tuition fees issue is not an isolated example. He's done it before as he was one of the three who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over the slightly weird position we took on the Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
  • He knows about campaigning - turning a majority of 200 ish to one of 12000 takes some energy, knowledge and commitment.
  • He knows about fundraising which is something the Party really needs to focus on now we don't have Short Money any more.
  • He's been right there in the story of tuition fees this week, on every news programme that would have him, saying he's going to honour his pledge. I don't think a non MP President would get as much coverage.
  • I think he would make sure we were positively in the story on other issues - he'd be hunting down Nick Robinson et al, not waiting for them to come to him.
  • We need someone pretty forceful and terrier like to take on Labour and all their assorted nonsenses. Tenacious Tim is best placed to do that.
  • He's willing to take a risk - his intervention in the most controversial debate at Scottish conference shows integrity and good judgment.
  • He gave me direct answers to questions that bordered on rudeness
We have the most challenging few years ahead for our party that we've had in my political lifetime. We need an exceptional person, someone with a bit of political stardust to be out there fighting our corner. I'm willing to take a bet that Tim is that person. He had better not let me down.

Guest Post by Norman Fraser: Unanswered Coalition Questions

Perhaps a recent anecdote sums it up best.  Last week I asked a question of Michael Moore MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, at a Party gathering in Glasgow.  My point was that the size and dangers of the current deficit were exaggerated and that I felt that the resultant alarm was being used by the Tories as an excuse to cut faster and deeper than was strictly necessary.  I argued that Tory small-state ideology was the driver of the cuts rather than economics.

Michael Moore’s answer floored me: I was told to “change my newspaper”.  There was no attempt to rebut the opinions of a phalanx of Nobel prize-winning economists, argue against the graphs and tables that show the current deficit as far from exceptional, or contradict the numerous reports of investors confirming that there was no City pressure on the Government over the size of the deficit.  Just an airy hand-wave and an implicit injunction to do as my betters have decided.  I was left furious and spluttering at being so crudely patronised.

I am aware that there are good reasons why the coalition was formed and I broadly accept them but that does not mean I like the idea.  I joined the SDP in 1982 when the Labour Party imploded and the SDP/Liberal Alliance looked like the only effective way to fight Thatcherism.  I count myself a social liberal, aware of the need to preserve freedom but strongly of the belief that the state can positively promote that freedom.  I look at the coalition agreement and I see large chunks of Thatcherite policy in it.  Worse still, I see policy being made, ostensibly on the hoof, which follows Tory instincts and is not covered by the coalition agreement.

 The current NHS proposals will not affect Scotland but they worry me as an example of what is happening.  Our own manifesto made only modest proposals for changes in the NHS and the Coalition Agreement does not cover the massive top-down re-organisation the Government’s plans.  The NHS proposals seem to me to represent a decapitation of NHS strategic planning and as opening the organisation up to privatisation on the sly.  Private profit seems the motivator here, not patient care. 

Meanwhile there has been no comment on this policy by the Lib Dem leadership.  Am I to assume that the Parliamentary Party has discussed and wholeheartedly approves a policy no Lib Dem campaigner fought for and no Lib Dem elector voted for?  Is there a distinctive Lib Dem view on these proposals?  If there is, what is it?  All I hear is silence.  Will I have to wait until the debate on the Bill or will I still be waiting when the Act becomes law?

Luckily, there was a more reassuring meeting in Glasgow last Monday night.  The Presidential hustings found both Susan Kramer and Tim Farron in good form.  Both the candidates are totally committed to the coalition but both made it clear that they are aware of the fears and reservations of many members.  There was much discussion of the need to improve communication between the Parliamentary Party and grassroots campaigners.  Rather than ignoring legitimate concerns both candidates addressed them.

It is this approach that is more likely to reconcile me to the coalition and send me back onto the streets to campaign for it.

Norman Fraser is a former member of the Scottish Liberal Democrats' Executive and Campaigns and Candidates Committee as well as being a Returning Officer extraordinaire and a key member of the party in Glasgow.


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