Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why Liberal Democrats must care about burglars' lives

Ok, here we go, another hippy leftie soft on crime blog post from a bleeding heart liberal.

Actually, I'll cheerfully own up to everything except the soft on crime bit. No, I don't think that householders should offer a full fry up and a nice up of tea to the thug who's plundering their worldly possessions, but nor do I have any time for Ken Clarke's latest wheeze - to "clarify"  the amount of force a householder can use on a burglar. 

Being the victim of a burglary is horrible. Not only has somebody helped themselves to your hard earned property, or stuff with real sentimental value, but often the feeling that your space has been violated is really traumatic to deal with. And that's if they haven't done unspeakable things. My friends had a caravan which was broken into and let's just say the Police found a condom.

So it's awful even if you're not there. The trauma of feeling that your life is in danger must be horrendous.

I think it would be wrong, though, to effectively remove your personal accountability for your actions in that situation. If we believe that human life is valuable, and I hope that we all do, then we can't just decide that people have the right to kill trespassers at will.  Isn't this disproportionate?

We will make it quite clear you can hit the burglar with the poker if he's in the house and you have a perfect defence when you do so”
 If you hit someone with a poker, you could kill them. One blow in the wrong place could be enough. During the course of a burglary, depending on the threat to your life, that might be a justifiable response. But if that does happen, and someone loses their life or is maimed permanently, isn't it best that the criminal justice system takes a look at what went on? I don't think that you should just take away all personal responsibility from householders, even if they are victims of crime.Let's look at this rationally. If the law is "clarifed" to suggest that householders can do what they heck they like to a trespasser, if you were a burglar, would you not go prepared for that eventuality? An opportunist break in becomes a much more seriously planned affair with maybe a knife, or a gun brought along for security. Anything that increases the number of guns and knives on the street is going to lead to more dead people. Individuals should have the right to protect their homes and their families, but the current law gives them the 
right  to do that in a proportionate manner.

The current law has safeguards for all of us. There is a good reason we have a police force and don't allow order to be kept by whichever gang is supreme at the moment. It's why we have courts to mete out appropriate sanctions and not victims who are bound to be subjective. If anyone harmed a hair on the head of anyone I love, you can bet your life I'd want them to be dealt with extremely severely - maybe more so than was actually fair. There are good reasons why that decision should be made by an independent body. I expect our MPs to make it perfectly clear to Ken Clarke that they will not support any such changes.  This is where we as liberals have to make a difference.

#Inverclyde by-election: May the best woman win - but please, boys, stop using the F word

Every time Willie Rennie describes Sophie as a breath of fresh air, a bit of me wants to slap him round the head with a wet fish, because that's such a cliche. He's right, of course, but I just hate the phrase.

Even George Lyon, our MEP, used the f-word yesterday when he said:

"It is vital that Inverclyde residents get out and vote on Thursday, and that they vote for a candidate with the drive and vision to be a great MP for the area. Sophie Bridger has all of these qualities. “Inverclyde has been taken for granted by Labour, and abandoned by the SNP. The SNP even cut vital regeneration funding to this area by a staggering 40% last year and refuse to apologise.
 "Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats can truly stand up for this area. Sophie has a fresh vision for jobs and regeneration in Inverclyde, and will always stand up for this area first. "On Thursday, vote for Sophie Bridger, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats."
Off to find some nice halibut for him..................

Whatever, though, this woman has the heart, soul, intellect, judgement and originality to be a first class MP.  She's been a fabulous candidate and impressed many over the last few weeks.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The secret life of Sophie Bridger, #inverclyde by-election candidate

Next couple of days are signficant occasions for two very talented young people in their 20s. Andy Murray plays Rafa Nadal in the Wimbledon semi-final on Friday. By the time he sets foot on Centre Court, though, we'll know how Sophie Bridger did in the Inverclyde by-election.

Murray and Bridger are stars in their respective fields, and, for both of them, whatever happens in the next few days, the future is full of opportunity.

I managed to catch a few minutes with Sophie this afternoon, ironically just as Murray was walking on court for his quarter final match. I didn't want to focus so much on the finer details of policy and what she could offer Inverclyde, although we did discuss that, but what it had really been like for her to find herself in the media spotlight, debating on live television with hardened politicians twice her age and frequently got the better of them. Who can forget that look she threw patronising Labour candidate Iain McKenzie as she said "Are you going to heckle me, Iain, or are you going to let me answer your question?" And then she proceeded to demolish the Labour stance on knife crime.

So, what was the secret of her debate performance?  A fair few young (and not so young) women will understand when she said "awesome shoes." It is true that the right footwear can give you confidence. If she wasn't out on the campaign trail with her sister tonight I'd have a photo to put up here. Maybe later.

She was amused by the arrival in Inverclyde of a real circus to complement the by-election media one. And of her many hours pounding the streets of the constituency, she said that there seemed to be more dogs than in Glasgow - but they were friendlier.

Sophie was  humbled by the arrival of a friend, who'd travelled over 1000 miles there and 1000 miles back on trains and overnight buses from his Summer job in Geneva just to campaign for her.

She described how she alleviated one of those frustrating moments you get in any election campaign by teaching leader Willie Rennie the concept of *facepalm*. I am shocked he didn't know already, having a teenager in his house, but never mind.

Just before she was formally selected, she went to London and met up with Jo Swinson, who is exactly the right person to listen to when you're about to face a big campaign. After they'd finished their discussions, she found herself being taken along to "Simon's party." She was surprised to find herself, not in a flat somewhere, but in the National Liberal Club where deputy leader Simon Hughes was celebrating his birthday. And not only that, but she ended up being introduced to Nick Clegg who was at the party too. She described being dragged off to meet Nick, while spotting her boyfriend whom she hadn't seen for several weeks, at the bar having a laugh with one of our MPs.

Early in the campaign, she had been told to do an interview with a local radio station. A communication cock up led her to believe it was to take place over the phone, but in fact she was expected in the studio in technically less time than there was for her to get there. She made it, just, coped with the interview and then recovered from the experience with "the largest cup of tea that can be conceived by the human mind."

She recounted how strange it was that her family at this point in time were more likely to see her on tv than in real life - and I think she enjoyed it when a complete stranger came up to her in Glasgow and wished her luck

I was kind of clamouring for more gossip, but all of a sudden she got serious with me. There have been some strange and fun moments in this campaign, and she's had some great experiences, but this isn't a game to her. She's in politics to change lives for the better.

She talked about what she would take from the campaign, how it had made her even more determined to find a way to properly tackle the inter-related issues of poverty, knife crime and drugs. It really makes her angry that young people have to leave the area because they can't find work. And when they leave, they don't expect to be back. She wants people to stay in Inverclyde, but knows that they won't, can't, without decent, long term jobs.

You can tell that the lack of opportunities in Inverclyde frustrates her and that she really wants to do something about it. These were issues which already interested her, but I got a real sense that this campaign has ignited a deep passion to change things.

Whatever happens on Friday, this is not the last we've heard of Sophie Bridger. I think it would be great to have someone of her calibre in Westminster. This is someone who's worked in a care home, is studying a psychology degree and has a long standing interest in mental health issues. She's totally people centred and has the motivation and intellect to get things done.

Swinney squirms as Rennie quizzes him on SNP Calman dithering and delay

I've just been taking a wee look at yesterday's Scotland Bill Committee meeting at Holyrood which heard evidence from John Swinney and Bruce Crawford from the SNP Government.

Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat member of that committee, took them to task for the way in which they have behaved throughout the whole Calman process. They did next to nothing (and then, out of the blue, they come out with a whole series of demands that they hadn't thrown into the mix before.

To me, it's a bit like they're treating the constitutional process like putting up one of these pop up tent things, rather than actually looking at this rationally and with consideration.

When Calman was set up in 2007, the SNP had absolutely nothing to do with it. Had I been leading the party, I'd have made sure that I put a clear case to the Commission for exactly what additional powers they wanted. I'd have tried to get into the debate with ideas for greater powers.

But, no. The only engagement the Government had with Calman came in 2009 after they were dragged kicking and screaming to it by Jeremy Purvis as part of the Budget negotiations. As Tavish Scott explained at the time in an e-mail to party members:
The SNP have changed their position and will now engage with the Calman Commission. This is the best way to get extra powers for the Scottish Parliament. It will allow, for example, the Forth Bridge to be paid for without jeopardising every other transport project in Scotland. Professor John Curtice told the BBC on Sunday that this concession could be the "most interesting long-term consequence of all of this." 
At the time, though, the stuff the SNP Government sent to Calman was fairly limited - to do with tax powers anda report that came out of their National Monologue. Nothing about broadcasting, or the sea bed or the likes.

Fast forward a bit to the formation of the Coalition Government and Mike Moore as Secretary of State was seeking consensus on implementing the Calman Powers. Our normally sweet and mild mannered Finance Secretary Mr Swinney was talking about it being a poison pill. When the Bill was announced, he called it dangerous, and one of his colleagues described it as a dog's dinner.  So the SNP were against the Scotland Bill before they were for it, voting for the Legislative Consent Memorandum in March and their MPs didn't oppose it in the Commons last week.

Their thinking seems to be quite muddled. With one hand they say the Scotland Bill is dangerous, yet they support it. They want the borrowing powers but they also want to reserve the right to give the Coalition a kicking for not including powers they've only asked for in the last few weeks. It would be much more credible if they'd engaged with this from the start. Coming in at this stage with a list of demands seems to be a bit opportunistic, to be honest. Why didn't they want their ideas subjected to considered scrutiny by both Calman and the House of Commons and Parliament? You have to wonder.

David McLetchie asked Bruce Crawford if the Government would be filing formal amendments to the Bill in Holyrood and Crawford indicated that they probably wouldn't be. They know that without the Bill, they don't get the borrowing powers that they want - but, if the whole package was so dangerous and canine evening meal-ish,and they felt it wasn't in Scotland's best interests, why don't they oppose it.

The chomping sound you hear is the SNP trying to have its cake and eat it.

For a party that's so into the idea of independence, their grasp of detail, as we saw from Anne McLaughlin's knowledge of how many air bases we'd need in an independent Scotland is pretty ropey. It's not Anne's fault - the party as a whole doesn't seem to have thought it all through.

They've got themselves in a bit of a bourach, really, and Willie Rennie showed their lack of clarity up.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guest Post by Norman Fraser: The Social Liberal Forum (Scotland) meeting

Norman Fraser is the interim Secretary of the Social Liberal Forum (Scotland) and has written this brief report of some of the themes that emerged from the Forum’s meeting in Glasgow last Saturday.

A small but vocal group of Lib Dem activists came together last Saturday in Glasgow to debate the current state of and prospects for the Party in Scotland.  Although mostly drawn from Glasgow and the West of Scotland members travelled from as far afield as Irvine, Bo’ness, Edinburgh and the North of England.

The meeting lasted slightly over two hours but covered a lot of ground.  Caron has already published Robert Brown’s hard-hitting keynote speech in full here

The other main part of the meeting was a series of short themed discussion in an open forum format.  Speakers did not pull their punches and the two distinctively Scottish matters addressed were the actions of the Scottish Parliamentary Party in the last Parliament and the complete ineffectiveness of the Scottish Executive.

The Executive was strongly attacked as being remote, weak and ineffective.  The Executive minutes are confidential and cannot be distributed.  The Executive’s failure to communicate in any other way renders it invisible to both the membership and local parties.  Clifton Terrace Focus appears irregularly and without any attempt to impart anything above the bare minimum of information.  The Executive produces annual action plans that it does not publicise or explain; it has only tenuous formal or informal links with local parties and makes no attempt to involve the lay party by consultation.  It has presided over a withering away of Party policy-making.  Party membership is declining swiftly without any action being taken and the Party has organisational and structural difficulties that are not being addressed.  In addition, senior figures in the Scottish Party are not doing enough to project a strong Scottish voice at Federal level.

Speakers also noted that at times during the last Scottish Parliament the entire rationale of the Parliamentary Party seemed to be to bash the Nats.  It was felt that the Party had become too prone to criticise what it disliked without proposing alternatives.  We need to concentrate more on cooperation to achieve success where our policies are close to other parties.  It was also felt that less attention should be paid to focus groups and more effort put into developing our own distinctive vision.  We also need to better articulate our wish for more powers for the Scottish Parliament.  In this connection it was felt that neither the Westminster Parliamentary party nor the Federal Executive really understands the implications and necessities of devolution and that they need to raise their game in this respect.  The one positive note that was expressed was the indications that Willie Rennie appears to have taken note of most of these criticisms and will hopefully act on them.

The meeting went on to strongly endorse the formalisation of the Social Liberal Forum in Scotland and for the Group to take steps to seek positive changes in the Party and to promote debate on tactics and values amongst the membership and at Scottish Conference.

A more complete account of the meeting has been posted on the Social Liberal Forum website here 

Anyone interested in being kept in touch with future activities of the Forum should contact Norman Fraser at or at 0141-946-4102.

Sixty years ago today................

Well, it doesn't seem like a whole load happened on Thursday 28th June 1951. Not on the face of it anyway.

In the US, a highly dubious show, Amos 'n' Andy, which drew protests from the NAACP aired for the first time on  TV.

In the UK, a baby called Sarah Ward, who would adopt the stage name Lalla and  play Romana in Doctor Who and marry Tom Baker, was born. Here she is with some daleks and Noel Edmonds. Which is scarier?

In the House of Commons, an MP for Sheffield Hallam, Roland Jennings, who fought as a Conservative-Liberal, took the Minister to task on ID cards. There's a certain irony, of course, because Nick Clegg, the Deputy PM, now represents Hallam and one of the things he said at the time was that he would go to prison rather than carry an ID card. Interestingly, Jennings was once the MP for Sedgefield, later represented by the one the Elephant calls Lord Blairimort himself.

But this was one of the most significant days of my life. Even though I didn't make my entrance into the world for another 16 years. Because, in a nursing home which is now a holiday park near St Andrews, a very cute baby boy was born.

You see, this sweet baby became a lovely man. 24 years ago today he decided to go for a birthday walk in the mountains around Braemar with some colleagues. They all went back to work the next day, but he was on holiday so he stayed at Braemar Youth Hostel. He'd only planned a night, but ended up staying a week and a half and leaving with a lot more than he bargained for.  If you want to know more, read  The Lure of Lentil Gunge - or how the Bob was won.

He has been an absolutely brilliant husband for all of these years - and anyone who takes on a Liberal Democrat activist takes on the party as well - and plays second fiddle to it on many occasions. I am a fairly crap wife, to be honest, certainly missing the domestic, home-making gene, but it seems to work......

I may have bought him coffee called Grumpy Mule this morning as a joke, but in reality he is lovely and he makes my life happy and full of laughter. Well, most of the time. He's making full use of this special birthday to  tease Anna and I to the max this morning. I've already been threatened with a gag - and I just have to let him away with it (the joke, not the actual gag, of course).

He's using his birthday to finally embrace the 21st century. We're off to get him a new mobile phone and then go out for lunch.

Later, it's Wagamama for dinner and then Anna's primary school graduation. And there may be some more presents too...............

So, with a little help from my friend Elspeth - can you recognise the font from every glossy Lib Dem leaflet you've ever had in your life............

And although he does look very long and very suffering in this, it was taken on the last night of our holidays last year and he was actually quite relaxed.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How can anyone support Hearts FC now?

A few years ago, then Scots Tory leader David McLetchie had to resign  effectively for taking a few taxis he shouldn't. Ultimately, he's a decent bloke, and losing his job was probably a bit severe. In the volatile world of politics, though, his position was untenable. I wouldn't condone what McLetchie did, but it was an easily made and easily rectified mistake.

And then we have Craig Thomson, the Hearts defender, who has recently been convicted of sending lewd photographs of himself to girls of 12 and 14. He has walked away with a £4000 fine and has been put on the sex offenders' register. Has he lost his job? No. He's walked back into his high profile job with a premier league club. That seems wrong to me.

He issued an apology, one which really worries me on two grounds. Firstly, he apologises to everyone except the two girls concerned. Then he talks about how the Club has shown "full understanding into every aspect of my situation." That sounds to me that a part of him, in his own mind, has justified what he did. I don't think there is any excuse for it. The Scotsman today reports an interview with the 12 year old's mother who states that he was fully aware of her age. If he'd said, actually, there's no excuse, I'm really sorry, and I'll be taking steps in my own life to address my lack of responsibility and judgement I might be prepared to think differently, but as things stand, I don't believe he should continue in his role at Hearts.


Simply because it sends the wrong message to children to keep a footballer who is in a high profile position, as a role model to children, on their team in circumstances such as this. I agree with the charity Children 1st, who have called for Hearts to reconsider his position. Their policy officer Kate Higgins, better known to us as The Burd was on the news yesterday and she said:

"We believe that Hearts football club needs to look again at this situation, not taking action to protect children from the risk of sexual harm is unacceptable.
"Allowing convicted sex offenders to continue working where they will have direct and indirect contact with children is wrong."

Part of the reason that I'm writing this post now and not two hours ago is that I've become involved in a debate on Twitter about this. Good liberals, people I respect, take the opposite view. One thing I think is quite good is that in the main (apart from the person who called me a right wing vigilante) had a civilised debate about a highly emotive issue. My respect for the people concerned did make me question my initial instinct, but I haven't changed my mind. However, I do want to qualify what I mean.

I don't believe that everyone on the sex offenders' register should lose their job. That seems to me to be completely counter productive and against every instinct of the rehabilitative and restorative justice that I believe so passionately in. It may well lead to re-offending or more serious first time offending if that were the case. These people, if they are not being locked up to protect the public, need to be able to earn money and have a life of quality. There are some jobs, though, which they shouldn't be allowed to do. Allowing close contact and responsibility for those they've been convicted of abusing is wrong.

Craig Thomson has implied that there are some mitigating circumstances which justify his conduct towards a child whose age he actually knew. Footballers, whether we like it or not, are role models to young people. Always have been, before the trashy celebrity driven media. By keeping him in post, Hearts are sending out a message to young men that they will support an adult male who has behaved inappropriately towards a child. Young girls who may be experiencing that sort of abuse, they see a man who has done this suffering very few consequences.  Can that be right?

It may well be that I'm reacting particularly strongly to this because I have a 12 year old daughter myself. She's growing up, and she's emotionally mature for her age, but she's still very much a child.

I do wonder whether the way the law deals with these crimes is right. A fine, and being put on a list. That's not rehabilitative. I just think he should have had access to some sort of facility where he could talk through this and be encouraged to see for himself, in a non threatening environment, why what he did was totally, inexcusably wrong. And taught strategies to cope with any issues which surround his conduct.

Back in the day, Richard Bacon, then a 22 year old Blue Peter presenter, was sprung by a Sunday tabloid doing Cocaine. He was immediately sacked. No questions asked. He hadn't even been convicted of a crime. He did, though, take full responsibility for what he'd done. He spoke very honestly to the Guardian many years later about how it felt at that time, being at the eye of that particular storm. His sacking wasn't the end of his life, and he's built a successful broadcasting career since, but he did have to take the consequences of his foolishness.

I'm not saying that Craig Thomson shouldn't have a job. I just think that a high profile role at a premier league football club is not appropriate at this time, especially not while he still thinks there is an excuse for what he did.

It's clear that not all is well in the judgement department at Hearts at the moment, as this bizarre statement from owner Vladimir Romanov, accusing outside Mafia forces, indistinguishable from paedophiles, of interfering with the club's fortunes.

James, from Better Nation, a fan of the club since he was a wee boy, writes about why he can no longer support them. I really can't see why anybody would after the events of the last week.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Exclusive: Robert Brown's speech to Social Liberal Forum Scotland in full

Regular readers will know that I'm a huge fan of Robert Brown, our former MSP for Glasgow. I really feel that Holyrood is much poorer without his grasp of justice issues. This is the guy who stood up against all the other parties bar the Greens casually agreeing to quadruple pre-charge detention times in an afternoon following the Cadder ECHR judgement. I don't always agree with Robert on every single issue, but I trust him 100%.

So, I view what I'm about to put before you as a major treat. Yesteday, in sunny Partick, the Scottish Social Liberal Forum took place and this is Robert's keynote address.  It's long, over 2500 words, but, hell, it's Sunday, and you have the time to read it. I really didn't want to edit it down because that would be a bit like offering you a lovely box of chocolates and taking out all your favourites. And in terms of an exposition of our party's values, it's a treat. The photos were taken by Norman Fraser and are reproduced with his permission.

I particularly liked his description of our new leader Willie Rennie, and his comparison of our values to those of Labour and the SNP, and particularly the latter's interactions with rich, powerful people.


There is nothing like a major defeat to make individuals and parties reassess themselves – but it is not an occurrence to be welcomed nevertheless!
My contribution this morning is entitled – “Liberal Democracy in Scotland: the Way Forward” but, in order to look forward, we first have to look back, to identify what went wrong and be realistic about the causes, to ask what sort of people Liberal Democrats are and what we believe, to examine the challenges, and to begin to plot the way forward.I have always believed that Liberalism and Liberal Democracy has been over the years a more coherent, principled and radical political philosophy by far than anything else on offer in British or Scottish politics. It is a source of inspiration and reinvigoration in difficult times, a litmus test of what is right for our country and a solid foundation for hope and optimism in our future.
Now, to say the least, these are difficult times. The disaster of 5th May cannot be understated – we hold no constituency seats in mainland Scotland, our constituency share across Scotland was 7.93% of the vote - the regional list vote 5.2% and only 2.5% in Glasgow. It is, I think, the worst result in Scotland since 1959.
It is true, of course, that a major cause of the Liberal Democrat collapse was the view taken by the voters of the Coalition Government. I support the Coalition but I take David Steel’s view on it, that “the coalition is a business arrangement born of necessity to clear up the country’s dire financial debt. It should never be portrayed as anything else.”But we have paid a huge price for the failures of our leaders to realise that trust was our strongest asset, that you can’t retain trust by selling out on our most identifiable policy, on which our MPs had made personal pledges, that back slapping on the front bench between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander and the Tory leadership was the crassest of political blunders, and that a Coalition Agreement which works must require sign up in advance to major new policies. Suggestions that Liberal Democrat leaders agreed to sell out on tuition fees well in advance of the election because they themselves opposed the policy simply add to the image of untrustworthiness.
Nevertheless there is no mileage, in my view, in attempting to pretend the Coalition is nothing to do with Scottish Liberal Democrats, because it defines, for better or worse, our strongest public image.
And I believe it would be a huge mistake to believe that our defeat was nothing to do with the Scottish campaign or the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The truth is actually stark and depressing and one we need to recognise. There was no substantial reason to vote Liberal Democrat at the Scottish elections. All the glossy, unread newspapers in the world, the blue letters, the targeting is no use if the central strategy and messages are not up to the job.
There was no message to set the heart racing – indeed it was difficult to discern a message at all. There was no narrative as to our view of Scotland going forward. There were no big ideas, and no obvious strategy. There was no strong connection between manifesto ideas and the core values of the Party. There was nothing for urban voters.Above all, there was the trust issue – the evil fairy begotten of the tuition fees debacle in England – which infected our supporters, destroyed our confidence and killed our vote.So where do we go from here?
Our central challenge is to rediscover our own tone and language, to rebuild that trust and to widen the constituency to which we can appeal – and to offer a more attractive appeal as a national Party than the SNP.
The first thing is for us to understand and have confidence in our political beliefs and values. This meeting today is held under the banner of the Social Liberal Forum – but can I challenge the very title of Social Liberal? Social Liberalism is Liberalism; it is Liberal Democracy. We should not allow our Party and our philosophy to be stolen from us by the New Right, by the neo-liberals, by those who believe that freedom means primarily economic freedom - the unrestricted freedom of the market, rather than the freedom of people or communities. Markets, for us, have never been “tools of unrestricted wealth accumulation divorced from any concept of the public interest”[i]
Let me quote from an article by Simon Kovar in the Liberal magazine last year which I think may help us to focus on the key themes and drivers of our cause. Simon Kovar said this:
“Successive generations of Liberal Democrat leaders and politicians, whether of the party’s left or right, have held the following in common. They have fought privilege and corruption; they have argued for a redistribution of wealth and opportunity from the rich to the poor; they have regarded the market as a (limited) means and not an (un-checked) end; and they have recognised the moral limits of markets. They have argued in support of public services and, when they have spoken of public service reform, they have meant alternative means of public provision, not privatisation.”
The late Conrad Russell believed that Liberalism as a philosophy is primarily concerned with the use and dispersal of power.Beveridge,” he said, “try­ing to protect people from the giants of poverty and want, came from the same tradition as (John) Locke trying to protect them against an arbitrary king. It is a tradition of protecting individuals from the effects of arbitrary power.”
Now surely the last few years have seen arbitrary power at its most obscene.
·         The Iraq War, built on American and British power, without international sanction;·         The power of huge supermarket companies to undermine local economies, impose themselves on local communities, dictate terms to local Councils and local suppliers, and distort food supply chains.·         Above all, the greed and recklessness of the banks which brought down the world economy, destroyed the life chances of individuals and the prosperity of nations, and handed unimaginably huge dollops of money to its top executives – banks which were too big for Governments to allow them to fail.
I am in no sense a Socialist leveller down – but I must say I find the pay package of £7.5 million paid to the Royal Bank Chief Executive obscene, regardless of the justification that it is the going rate. I also find the creep in the salaries of top executives in the service of Government, Quangos, Councils and Universities to anything up to the £1/4 million mark, often together with bonuses, to be distinctly questionable. These are matters on which Liberal Democrats should have a view because they destroy any sense of fairness and common purpose in our country.
I am a “condition of the people” Liberal Democrat – I think most of us here are. For me, equality of opportunity; enhancing the life chances of young people; balancing the disadvantage which afflicts so many, not least in Glasgow, from and before their birth; the liberating power of education; the quality of communities and the urban environment. These things are the essence of Liberal democracy, the fulfilment of our defence of the rights of the individual.
And along with the ideas I have mentioned – fighting arbitrary power, breaking down monopoly, fighting privilege and corruption, good quality public services, we can add the theory of ascending power[RB1]  – that power comes from and is conferred by the people – and the concept of pluralism which means the dispersal of power and the promotion of diversity. The idea of localism which is a powerful, if ill-developed, idea in our lexicon, is linked to these themes. So is our support for the Voluntary sector - and our view of a federal future for Scotland and the United Kingdom.
And one might add that Liberalism also backs a vigorous view of the public interest – from Gladstone counting every paper clip in the Treasury, to Vince Cable warning about the debt mountain and the unsustainable prices in the housing market, from open competition in the civil service in the 1860s to opposition to a single Scottish police force in 2011. Contrast that with New Labour, a party at ease with the excesses of the filthy rich, or the SNP who take money equally readily and without scruple from Edwin Morgan, the late Scots Makar and a gay man, and from Sir Brian Soutar, the backer of Section 28; from Sir Sean Connery, who offers support to the SNP from the comfort and ambiguity of tax exile – or for that matter a party which lavishes SNP Ministerial access and bias on Donald Trump.
I have talked about values. Values should lead to our narrative – about renewing the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place in it, refocusing our identity in a post nationalist age. Home Rule means more powers for a purpose for the Scottish Parliament within a reformed United Kingdom.
We must develop and give meaning to the idea of localism. This is not, as many of our Councillors believe, just a matter of central Government surrendering power to Councils. Councils, Liberal Democrat led or otherwise, should set the local strategy but don’t always have that great a record of truly empowering local communities, social enterprises and the voluntary sector. And there must be solid, clear and attractive ideas that speak the language of the voter.
And a narrative too about young people. If young people support us in greater numbers, there is inevitable growth over the years. If nationalism is old fashioned – as I believe it is; if Labour has lost its soul and purpose – as it has - a principled non-ideological but values-driven Liberal Democrat Party is well-placed; If people are rejecting traditional politics, a community based campaigning Party has the ball at its feet; If the electorate is becoming more middle class and aspirational, if it travels more,  it is more in our image.We need – and we have lost - optimism, hope and a sense of progress. We must be the Party of the future, uniting demographic, political and social trends.
Above all, the narrative should help the debate be fought on our territory, not someone else’s.
What about the way forward inside the Party? We need to reignite debate and discussion and passion about our cause, to write pamphlets and articles, to encourage new thinking, to engage with academics and others with ideas. We need to identify and take forward those ideas on the basis of our values and our narrative, hone them with the voters, challenge our Party at Conference, fight over them in local supper clubs, imbue our elected representatives and candidates with them and train our people, not least our young people, in the language and values of Liberal Democracy.
And, if the direction of these ideas is not that of the Coalition or the leadership, or the Orange Book, we need to have the analytical tools to engage in and win the arguments, to understand and debate the issues around public sector “reform” in particular, the role of the private sector and what we want for schools, and hospitals and the NHS. Because the Party is our Party, held in trust by the present leadership for the future, built on the traditions of the past.
I know there will be some people here today who take the view that the leadership are closet-Tories, that they have sold out the Party’s soul for Ministerial office, that the new leadership project is to reposition us on the centre right. I don’t share that view, but there are undoubtedly areas where the actions of the Coalition and of our Ministers seem at odds with the instincts of the Party. Coalition is a tricky place to be and a strong and assertive Party can strengthen the extent to which Liberal things – things which affect the worse off in society - happen in our Government. Liberal Democrats are not, as indeed Nick Clegg said in a major speech last July, in favour of reducing the size of the state as a matter of ideology, but equally we shouldn’t take hard earned cash from ordinary people to spend on bureaucracy, waste or inefficiency.
I confess I am uncertain how best to widen the ground on which we stand, which currently looks a bit like one of these English coastal villages where the sea has eroded the coastline and demolished everything within 100 yards of the previous beach. It is part confidence and credibility, part relevance of message, part the excitement of new ideas and modern mood music, part identifying and playing to our “constituencies” of interest – which would previously have been the progressive middle classes, the young and aspiring, women, and rural Scotland but had increasingly become a section of the urban electorate.
Our challenge has become immeasurably tougher following our defeat in May. We have, in my view, the right man to lead us in Willie Rennie – the one positive outcome of the elections, but a crucial one. Willie is already articulating our values; he is a man used to winning, and he has the combination of the common touch and personal authority which is needed for the battles ahead. Our cause will be immeasurably helped if he and we can ignite an intellectual ferment within and beyond the Party.
Our belief as Liberal Democrats was eloquently expressed in the pamphlet “We can conquer unemployment (1928):
“We believe with a passionate faith that the end of all political and economic action is not the perfecting or perpetuation of this or that piece of machinery or organisation, but that individual men and women may have life and that they may have it more abundantly.”
But let me finish with a quote, as one must in difficult times, from Russell Johnston on the importance of Liberalism. Not the one about climbing the mountain and seeing the peak, because we have fallen off that mountain. But one from the 1984 Conference in Ayr.[ii]
“Freedom,” he said, “simply for the self to do as he or she wants, if it is not joined with a responsibility to care for the freedom of others, is no more than the pursuit of privilege, the badge of Conservatism through the ages. There is no freedom for the poor....Liberalism has within it the dream that the good and the courageous spirit that resides within mankind can be given release.It is for these things that we walk the wet streets; it is for these things that we commit our time and treasure; and it is these things that we will one day bring to pass.”
I make no apology for ending on this note, with recollection of days when Liberals were confident in their beliefs, because our cause – the cause of Liberal Democracy – remains a great cause, needed in Scotland and beyond, and is something to be confident and optimistic about.

[i] Simon Kovar – The Neo Liberal Democrats – The Liberal magazine Aug 2010
[ii] Just Russell – The collected speeches of Sir Russell Johnston MP 1979-1986 p56 – published by the Scottish Liberal Party

 [RB1]The Glorious Revolution of 1688 committed the Whigs (q.v.) to the ‘ascending theory’ of power, in which power came up from the people, who conferred it – or not, as the case may be – on government. (Conrad Russell)

Why a strong, liberal voice is necessary, episode 1

I can't imagine many more traumatic experiences than the loss of a child at any age.

I don't think, though, that  people often understand how awful it is to lose a baby to miscarriage or stillbirth or in the first few days after birth.  It's such a hard and cruel thing to go through, physical and emotional agony combining to permeate every single part of your consciousness. For a very long time. And people expect you just to get over it. That just ain't going to happen. It may at some stage not hurt so much, but getting over the death of a child is not something we're programmed to do.

Imagine, then, in the depths of that grief, you're arrested and interrogated by the Police. And then maybe charged with murder. You face the rest of your life in prison.

Of course that wouldn't happen. Where could the law be used in that way?

Yes it could, in the Land of the Free itself.

Don't believe me? Well it's all in Friday's Guardian, which reported that as many as 300 women have been  arrested and accused of murdering their unborn babies. A tweet from Chris Took on Friday night in response to my tweet about that story led me to this account of how a woman who accidentally fell down the stairs and subsequently lost her baby was taken away and interrogated.  Apparently, because she'd considered terminating her pregnancy at the beginning, and decided against it, the nurse to whom she'd confided this took it upon herself to report her to the police. Strange idea of patient confidentiality there.

The persecution of women in these circumstances, some of whom will be women who through poverty or abuse may ended up with drug problems, is apparently a new and sinister  front in the increasingly bitter debate over abortion in the US.

The events described in the reports show what can happen if dogmatic belief and intolerance is allowed to reign unchecked.  You need a strong liberal presence to stand up to this sort of persecution of vulnerable, powerless women. If you start prosecuting women when they lose their babies, where will it stop? If they eat a bit of brie and get listeria? If they climb a ladder to do some decorating for the nursery and fall? If they choose to give birth at home? That would be the logical conclusion.

You might think that if people are worried about babies being born addicted to drugs, they might do something about the circumstances which lead to poverty and addiction instead of persecuting women when it's too late.

While I was thinking about this, I read the amazing Elephant's post about how sloth, intertia, is a real danger. Does it really take a real threat to our liberty to make us appreciate it?  Why can't we see the consequences of illiberal measures? When the Daily Fail complains about there being too many human rights around, nobody really has much of an idea about what the alternative would be like.  I am speechless with anger about the treatment of these women in the US. And, of course, these laws have not been used against many men who've violently abused their pregnant partners, causing them to lose their babies.

I think it's important to be aware of what's happening in other countries, where, as I've said, there isn't a strong liberal voice speaking up for justice and defending rights which have been fought over for decades.  Liberal in certain areas of the US is often used as a term of abuse.

Speaking up for the underdog,for those who can't defend themselves, against a state that tries to wield inappropriate power, calling out for fairness and justice are what we as liberals are for. In a Scottish context, when the First Minister talked about the recent Supreme Court judgements showing up where we fail to meet the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights as allowing the vilest people in society to claim money from the public purse, it made me shudder with horror.  If that's the SNP Government's attitude towards prisoners, you have to wonder if that's why Kenny MacAskill didn't prioritise the improvement of conditions at our only women's prison Cornton Vale after the first damning report, leading to a second inspection report which laid bare the lack of even basic facilities or access to medical treatment.

And then there's the anti sectarian bill - there are still serious issues of freedom of speech to be resolved with that.

In England we've seen the arguments over the cross examination of the Dowler family by their daughter's murderer's lawyer which most people will feel uneasy about. The more illiberal elements of the press are saying that there should be limits on the sorts of questions that can be asked. As David Allen Green points out in the New Statesman, there are limits on what Barristers can ask and they can face sanctions and complaint if they go too far and also the trial judge has a say. I tend to agree more with the comments of Lord MacDonald and Shami Chakrabarti on Andrew Marr this morning. They said it's important to ensure that people have the right to defend themselves, and that our justice system has to be seen to be open. Most of the time when I read the reports of a criminal trial and the subsequent verdict, it gives me confidence that the verdict reached was the correct one on the basis of the evidence. There are a tiny minority of cases when I haven't had that feeling - and, funnily enough, they are often the ones where it transpires there's an issue with the conviction. Justice carried out in secret is quite a worrying thing.

We have to evaluate our system to ensure that it is treating everyone within it fairly, and striking the right balance is not easy. A strong liberal voice in that process is essential. Without it, you might end up in a position where you find yourself looking at a long stretch in prison for a crime you didn't commit and without the ability to defend yourself fully - and once you're in prison, nobody to care about what happens to you.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cybermummies meet Sarah Brown at blogging event to discuss the impossible

There's a fantastic sounding event taking place today in London. Well, another one, that doesn't involve hitting balls over a net. CyberMummy 2011 is a Conference for parent bloggers which had Sarah Brown as its keynote speaker.

I'm not there but it sounds fantastic. Maybe I should do more of the parenting type blogging to qualify.

However, I do know some people down there and will be checking out their blogs in the days to come for their reports. There's Ellen, Melaina, Scottish Mum, Little Mummy and Susan K Mann.

What I'm most looking forward to is finding out whether they found out how to use social networking effectively without it taking over their lives. Aye, right. Sure, you can schedule tweets and the like to make it easier, but it's so easy to find yourself being enticed nto a conversation about any random topic you might never have imagined discussing. The sort of discipline you need to avoid those sorts of distractions must surely minimise the enjoyment. It's a balance, of course, and I look forward to hearing how others juggle blog and life.

This event was only vaguely on my radar, so you may not have heard of it either. It might be a very useful distraction to check out the experiences of people who were there.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Wimbledon hits the 21st Century

I love Wimbledon.

There's something mildly therapeutic about the sound of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. And there's nowhere quite so full of tradition and English eccentricity and quaintness than the hallowed lawns of SW19. I've seen Today at Wimbledon right through from the days of Harry Carpenter to its current incarnation from the rooftop which seems designed to torture the poor Americans like Tracy Austin who has a special bottom warmer cos she's so cold up there.

One of the best things about the whole thing is having John McEnroe as commentator. I hated him when he was hurling abuse round the courts like a spoiled brat, but his commentary is vivid, illuminating and often hilarious.

In fact this place is so traditional that outfits remain in old fashioned white - or at least predominantly so. To someone of my vintage, it seems weird to see players in other grand slams playing in brightly coloured sportswear.

It was Chris Evert who first got me into tennis. I loved her cool manner and skilled baseline play. I've never been much of a fan of the serve and volley types. I prefer the intelligence, the cat and mouse game of long, high quality rallies. The quick smash and grab stuff just doesn't do it for me.

Throughout all the Evert/Navratilova finals of the 70s and 80s, I sat on the edge of my seat and watched my hopes disintegrate.

One thing that really used to irritate me was the habit of referring to married women by their husband's initials. During the 1979 tournament, I was shocked to see the newly married Chris Evert referred to as "Mrs J M Lloyd" on the scoreboard. Even then it seemed dated, something that my Granny would write. It's not that long since Wimbledon stopped that nonsense and only a couple of years since they started putting first names and surnames in full on the scoreboard.

I have been pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see the All England club embracing new technology. Their Twitter feed is regularly updated and their iPhone app keeps me up to date with what's going on - and it's free.

It's a small thing, but it amused me last night to see the person behind the Twitter feed using text speak. I'm not complaining - it just seemed strange to see the stiff upper lipped, uber-traditional Wimbledon establishment using language like this:

I do actually hate text speak with a passion. I very rarely, if ever, use it - although I bet some of you will find examples. 4 is a number. It does not signify the word for.  And nite just is not a word.

On the actual tennis, I love Rafa (partly for the Mallorca connection), Federer for being classy and brilliant and Andy Murray, although I wish to goodness he'd shave and get a decent haircut. If I had my way, I reckon it would be a Federer win because I want him to get more titles than Sampras and he's running out of time.

As far as the women are concerned, I'm over the Williams sisters. I'm not as bothered about any of the top flight any more - although I think it would be good if Caroline Wozniacki could actually win a grand slam. I don't think she needs to justify her number one status, but she deserves some glory as well for strong consistent play.

This year's tournament is going by too quickly already.

It's the second week that's my favourite, though - the late evening doubles matches, particularly in the mixed,  as the sun sets, the veterans clowning around, the fabulous atmosphere.

Sophie Bridger gets #Inverclyde Tory to admit Lib Dems make Government fairer

"I think it probably is fairer than a minority Tory Government." 

So said Inverclyde Conservative candidate David Wilson in response to close questioning from Liberal Democrat candidate Sophie Bridger on last night's STV debate.

David Cameron had already said this week the benefit reforms weren't as severe because of the Liberal Democrats.

When I was 18, I made my first speech at an SDP Conference, in Paisley, in 1986. It was a reasonable effort, about drugs. However, later that weekend someone from STV shoved a tv camera in my face and I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. That's when I knew I was destined to be a backroom girl.

Sophie Bridger's destiny is very different. In the intense format of a tv debate with a former MSP and two prominent councillors, she was assured, reasoned and forensic in her questioning.  I think the bit where I was most impressed with her was when the Tory asked her a question, about a decision made months ago by the Inverclyde Council group, that she didn't know the answer to. Rather than dig herself into a hole, she simply admitted that she didn't know and moved on, not letting that put her off course. That showed good judgement and maturity that you don't always see even in seasoned campaigners.

She managed to trump the SNP's Anne McLaughlin on the SNP's cuts in regeneration funding too. I have a whole load of time for Anne - she was one of my Top Ten MSPs for her tireless work to help asylum seekers and other victims of our cruel immigration system. And, certainly, if she were elected, she would be a complete and utter pain in the backside to the Home Office. That seems unlikely, though, given the SNP's track record of failure in Inverclyde - terrible roads, funding cuts and having lots of young people leaving the area because they can't find work. This is a seat they couldn't win at Holyrood on their best night ever, so I doubt they're in with much of a chance in the by-election, especially with Alex Salmond's and Kenny MacAskill's dogmatic constitutional grandstanding since. It was also shocking to see yet another SNP candidate flounder at being asked about how an independent Scotland would defend itself. They've had long enough to get their line straight on that one. I despair.

As for the Labour Party, their candidate, Iain McKenzie, was toe curlingly awful. You'd think that they would have learned on knife crime after the fiasco of the election campaign. In a few short words, Labour talk mince, No Knives Better Lives get it right.  Anyway, Mr McKenzie asked Sophie about knife crime and then proceeded to harangue and heckle her before she answered. Sophie showed that she has a very effective "Don't you mess with me" look and said, "Do you want to lecture me, Iain, or do you want me to answer your question?" And then she did - and she completely won the argument on policy too. She has this way of using very few words to make her point, something, surely, to be welcomed in a politician.

Bernard Ponsonby questioned Sophie on the Coalition and more specifically, tuition fees. That's been one of the biggest mistakes we've made. Not delivering a fairer policy than Labour left us with, but signing that NUS pledge and breaking it. Especially as by the time the issue was discussed in the Commons, NUS no longer believed in their own pledge. Sophie made it perfectly clear that if she had signed the pledge, she would have kept it and voted against the policy. That drew her the second "that's clear" of the night from Bernard Ponsonby. These are not words journalists often use to politicians.

Sophie got the message across that we had done lots in Government to help those on the lowest incomes, to help boost the State Pension far more effectively than the Scottish Liberal Democrats have done recently.

Her performance last night showed good judgement, a sharp intellect, an ability to scrutinise effectively and a very pleasant manner. She proved herself to be well worthy of the job of an MP. Want to see for yourself? Watch the whole thing here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Grown up politics all round as Salmond delays the Anti-Sectarianism Bill #sp4

I am heartened today that it's clear that the SNP bulldozer can choose to bring itself to a halt. It's a good thing that the First Minister has announced that the Sectarian Bill will not be rushed through in the next week after widespread criticism of such a quick timetable. Instead, the Government will extend the timetable to allow for greater scrutiny.

Alex Salmond could have ignored the wishes of football clubs, churches and lawyers, and the rest of the Parliament. After all, he has a parliamentary majority and can do what he likes.

I had started to write a post this morning, which I never got round to finishing, which basically asked how could Alex Salmond get himself out of the corner he'd painted himself into without losing face.

That needed the co-operation of the other parties in the Parliament.

You see, our political culture demands that if someone, most especially a Government minister, changes their mind, it's a sign of weakness and they must be attacked for U-turning. That certainly is what happens at Westminster, where the Labour Party have been sure to pounce on any change of heart by the coalition government.

What happened today was that the other parties in the Parliament gave Alex Salmond wiggle room, and heaped praise on him for his decision to delay the Bill. Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Willie Rennie all used variations of the words mature and sensible and thanks. Willie said:
When politicians change their mind we must welcome that consideration and reflection and not complain and criticism. Can I offer my thanks to the First Minister for listening on the Sectarian Bill?
When it came to the actual Stage 1 vote on the Bill, the SNP and Labour voted for it, the Tories and Greens abstained and the Liberal Democrats voted against. That was a lot less stark than it could have been.

Given Labour's illiberal track record in recent years - who can forget their shambolic justice policies developed by Richard Baker - I was surprised that they spoke out so strongly against the Bill.

I would have hoped that the Greens would have joined the Liberal Democrats in voting against the legislation in principle at this stage. I don't believe the case has been made to justify why it's needed, and whether in fact the Government has the powers it thinks it has on the internet. Instead they joined the Tories on the fence.

Now, before you say anything, I know that our parliamentary group has abstained on things, namely budgets, over the years. Abstention is a pet hate of mine. I kind of like to see people make their bloomin' mind up.

The liberal position is that there has to be a very good reason to interfere with freedom of expression and that the case had not been made for this Bill. There were too many doubts that it would limit things it really had no business limiting. It also seems to be a quick fix, totally contrary to the quest for long term solutions to problems that Willie Rennie is so keen on. Voting against is a natural conclusion for us at this stage. That's not to say that we won't listen to the arguments made, but we'll take some convincing. That is as it should be and what I expect of a liberal party.

Willie said after FMQ:

“It is good that the First Minister has listened. He should be commended for his change of mind.
“It shows that our strong Liberal voices count in this Parliament. “Scores of questions still remain over the Bill and we will work constructively with the Scottish Government to explore these issues.
“We believe that voluntary action and community measures need to be fully exhausted first before resorting to further law making. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Light blogging, diamond jubilees and punctures

Just popped in to say that the reason for the lack of blogging is that I've been feeling really rubbish for the past few days. I seem to have managed to exhaust myself completely.

In amongst that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I have managed to make sure that my beloved has some presents for his forthcoming Diamond Jubilee. I am particularly impressed by the service from one company, but I can't say which in case he reads this!

At the moment, I'm sitting in the garage for the second time this week. Our car has a recurring puncture they thought they'd sorted the other day. Let's hope they get it fixed without it costing a fortune.

This means I'm not going to get back to Zumba today. I'd been missing it due to my inability to listen to the warm up track, Lady Gaga's Edge of Glory, which was played at Andrew's funeral, without dissolving into a soggy mess. However, now they've moved on to J-Lo so hopefully I'll get back next week.

Next week is a huge week for our family. As well as the aforementioned Jubilee, it's Anna's last week of primary school and there are loads of things going on. I need to be better for that!

Anyway, I am going to take it easy today & hope I'm feeling better tomorrow. See you later.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In which I warmly embrace Liberal Vision

While all the attention today is on the Social Liberal Forum conference in Islington, I shall be spending today in the arms of Liberal Vision at their event. I'm fairly certain the food is going to be better - kicking off with coffee and bacon rolls at 9:30 and with scones and cakes featuring on the menu throughout the day.

I shall certainly be well nourished.

You may feel quite perturbed at a peace loving hippy throwing her lot in with that lot.  Especially after Lady Mark described them as "as warm and human as a thrown knife the other day".

You wouldn't think they were my cup of tea, really.

And they aren't.

The event I'm going to today is run by a Scottish group of the same name, which, when it realised what it had done, had to ensure that people realised that they were nothing to do with that lot down south by a rather sheepish paragraph at the bottom of all its correspondence stating so.

The idea of today is to bring together Liberal Democrats of all opinions "aimed at developing a Liberal Vision for the future of Scotland by applying fundamental principles of Liberal philosophy and social democracy to foreseeable changes in our country over the next decade.

I feel that too often we've produced a list of well meaning policies at elections without showing where our heart is and today's event will be helpful in weaving that much needed narrative.

We have some real issues to deal with up here - housing, poverty, social care, mental health would be my priorities. We need to find liberal solutions to these - and, arguably, we need to look well beyond the next decade.

I'm really looking forward to it. Willie Rennie, our new leader, will be there as well, speaking at the end of the day. We also have Robert Brown, so missed from Holyrood where he was a fantastic education minister and justice spokesperson, former MEP Elspeth Attwooll and former convener Judy Hayman.

One of the key speakers is Michael Meadowcroft who has written extensively on marrying up core principles and policies. 

I'll tell you all about it later...........................

Friday, June 17, 2011

Brian Taylor and the strange priorities of the news agenda #sp4

This is the second time in a couple of weeks I've argued with Brian Taylor. He's still my favourite political journalist by a long way, but I am taking issue with a comment he made on his blog  about Willie Rennie asking Alex Salmond about Cornton Vale yesterday.

Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats was a little disadvantaged by coming late to the exchanges, after constituency questions.
Still, he piled in with gusto, only slightly weakening it by diverting onto the topic of prison numbers at Cornton Vale.
In response to each, Mr Salmond resolutely declined to apologise.
Brian, it's not just about prisoner numbers. The HM Inspectorate of Prisons  follow-up report into Cornton Vale highlights continued failures that Kenny MacAskill has blithely dismissed as an operational matter for the Scottish Prison Service. For prisoners not to have access to a bed and basic sanitation, let alone proper medical care for their mental health problems is utterly shameful.

 I find the priorities of the news agenda very strange. On one side you have a rammy between the First Minister and a senior judge. Yes, Salmond was wrong in the language he used about Lord Hope, and needs to be told so, but ultimately, it's only words. On the other side, you have vulnerable women being repeatedly failed by the Government.  Which of these stories has had the most news coverage and greatest outrage? I think it should have been the latter.

Willie Rennie was the only person who cared enough about the failures at Cornton Vale to raise it at FMQs. I think it was good that he highlighted where Salmond's and MacAskill's focus should have been. All this time, where they've been slating judges and whinging about decisions being taken in London, the Cornton Vale report has been burning a hole in Kenny MacAskill's desk.

Women are suffering needlessly and it needs sorting now. MacAskill's "it wisnae me" is unacceptable. This story deserves much more attention than it's had. The Government has been found wanting twice, and earned the wrath of the Inspector for its failings. Yet you'd think it had never happened if you read the papers and watched the news. Why are news editors' priorities so skewed?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The countdown to the end of primary school begins.........

My emotions are all over the place at the moment, I'll admit it.

There's a potent cocktail of pride, gratitude, fear and empty nest syndrome slushing around my psyche. In just two weeks' time, it'll be Anna's last day of primary school.

I feel pride because she is (and I'm being totally unbiased here, obviously), such a clever, funny, quirky, unique, creative, lovable girl. Gratitude for the fabulous and nurturing environment provided by her school which helped settle the slightly reluctant 5 year old who wanted to stay at nursery forever and which has kept her happy and encouraged her thirst for learning ever since.

Fear because her childhood is not so much slipping as galloping away at a speed I'm not entirely comfortable with. I can't control that one though - and we just have to embrace the future.

She's spent the last 3 days visiting her high school and having a whale of a time. She's met all her new class mates and is getting on really well with them. We went last night to a parents' evening where the head of her house told us that their priority was for the kids to be safe and happy because if they ticked the boxes on those, they'd fulfil their potential everywhere else. Exactly what parents want to hear. And when the sixth years came over to us as we were mingling and asked if we had any questions, I asked them what percentage of what the teachers had said was true. They all seemed very genuine as they said it was a great school and she'd love it there.

The only fault I could find was that they were serving Nescafe up for us to drink, but I have 6 years to sort that one out.

That parents' night last night reminded me of the anxiety of Anna's primary school induction when we went along to meet these people we'd have to hand our precious baby over to.  And so, today, I went along to the induction meeting for this year's P1 intake. Every single year since 2005, I've done the talk for the Parents' Association, encouraging people to come along and get involved. Today it was time to hand over to someone who will be here next year but I snuck in to see the proceedings just one last time.

At the end, the deputy head teacher said that there was one more speaker, a parent who'd been at the school for seven years, who would give a brief talk about what life at the school was all about. It took me a minute or so to realise she was talking about me. So, up I got and gave pretty much the spiel I've given for 6 years, about how Anna on her first morning was nervous in her line and how her teacher had very gently and kindly come out and taken her hand and how I knew from that moment that everything would be fine.

And how it was - how you can just phone up the school with a concern and they'll always listen and do what they can to help.

How being around in the school as a parent helper gives you an insight that tells you what a calm, happy, industrious environment it is and how that inspires you to want to give something back. I reckon in the 7 years, we must have raised not far off £50,000 for school funds, which can't be bad.

I joked with the deputy head teacher afterwards that she'd taken a big risk - Anna was leaving and I could have said anything - but she knew I was a pretty safe bet.

I shall probably spend much of the next two weeks in a generally ditsy, teary state. Some of you might not notice the difference, I know. I am so going to miss being part of that school community. And parents don't really matter so much at high school, do they?

I know we'll still matter at home. At least I hope we will. Everyone says you lose your kids when they go to high school, but surely we must have our uses as chauffeur, provider of money, shoulder to cry on, that kind of thing........?

Rennie tells Salmond: you should be bothering about Cornton Vale, not slating judges

I was more than a little bit perturbed to see First Minister's Questions today completely dominated by Alex Salmond's thrawn refusal to apologise to Lord Hope. Yes, it's an important issue, but ultimately, Lord Hope can look after himself. A vulnerable female prisoner with mental health problems in Cornton Vale can't, and, as yesterday's inspection report shows, she's unlikely to get the care in the women's prison that she needs.

Only one person raised the Government's consistent failings at Cornton Vale. Unsurprisingly, it was the Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie. He feels really strongly that prison should be about rehabilitation, and giving people the support they need to turn away from crime and contribute positively to the community and I know he's as angry as I am about the situation at Cornton Vale.

I find it really worrying to have a First Minister who repeatedly describes prisoners as the vilest people in society. Sure, there are some pretty nasty pieces of work in our jails, but they still deserve to be treated like human beings, given somewhere comfortable to sleep (like a bed, not a mattress on the floor), access to basic sanitation and health care.  When Salmond attacks lawyers for fighting for human rights for prisoners, it makes it sound like he doesn't value a fair justice and penal system that treats everyone equally.  You also have to remember that addiction and poverty is at least partly responsible for some particularly vulnerable people ending up on the wrong side of the law.

You might think you could never end up in such a place - but what if you were charged with an offence and put on remand? You would experience the appalling conditions described by the inspector and you might realise that the stuff in the likes of the Daily Fail, saying prisoners have a life of luxury, is a bit wide of the mark.

I can't imagine Willie is going to be giving up on Cornton Vale any time soon. After First Minister's Questions, he said:

“Instead of foolishly attacking Scottish judges and lawyers, the First Minister should focus his anger on the unacceptable conditions at Cornton Vale prison.
 “This week’s damning inspection report heavily criticised Cornton Vale for failing its women prisoners. Some prisoners have not even been provided with a bed and are sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
 “The First Minister did not tell me what he will do to address his Government’s appalling failure towards the women in the prison system.
 “He must take responsibility and make immediate improvement to conditions and rehabilitation opportunities at the prison. This is the only way that the cycle of reoffending will be broken.”

Just as an aside, it was quite amusing to see Annabel Goldie describe Salmond's blustering, bellicose manner in his Holyrood Magazine article as if this was some new phenomenon. Does she not know him at all?

And Iain Gray has suddenly discovered he cares about justice. All that stuff with Richard Baker must just have been a bad dream, then.


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