Monday, October 31, 2011

What would David Cameron have answered on women if it hadn't been for the Liberal Democrats?

When Labour MP for Ashfield and former GMTV political correspondent Gloria de Piero asked David Cameron  at PMQs last week why women were "significantly more negative about the Government than men", the PM gave this reply.
When you are making difficult spending decisions and have a difficult economic situation, and household budgets are under huge pressure from things like petrol prices, food prices and inflation, clearly, that impacts women. The Government want to do everything they can to help women and that is why we have lifted 1 million people out of tax, the majority of whom are women, and that is why we are putting much more money and time into free nursery education for two, three and four-year-olds. That is also why, for the first time, we have agreed that women working fewer than 16 hours a week will get child care. And we do not just care about this issue at home: because of what we are doing through international aid, we will be saving more than 50,000 women in childbirth around the world.
What saved this being a hotch potch of patronising assumption and platitude was three clear achievements on child care, raising the tax threshold and nursery education. All of these ideas were brought to the table by the Liberal Democrats. He could, of course, also have mentioned the work done on body image issues for girls under the auspices of the Campaign for Body Confidence by Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson.

He could of course also have mentioned the women who have benefitted from the restoration of the pensions/earning link and Steve Webb's triple lock on pensions which will avoid the paltry rises we saw under Labour. Yes, there have been issues with the raising of the Pension age - but £1 billion was found so that the maximum any woman has to work more than she planned will be 18 months instead of two years. And who bothered to try find that extra money? The Liberal Democrats and Jenny Willott in particular. As someone whose husband has found, five years from retirement, that he'll have to work an extra year, I sympathise with those women - but I also accept the need for the change.

Without the Liberal Democrats to come up with ideas, if Cameron had been asked that question, his cupboard would have been well and truly bare. This is not an easy time to be in Government, but we are doing what we can to put our values into action.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Steel warns against referendum confusion bitterness

David Steel should know what he's talking about when it comes to constitutional politics. As a co-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and subsequently as the chair of the Steel Commission that examined post devolution policy options for the Liberal Democrats, his experience and knowledge is unparallelled.

We should, therefore listen to what he has to say.

He has stepped into the debate, instigated by Willie Rennie, on the subject of a two question referendum, saying that it could lead to an unclear outcome. He, of course, has had direct experience of politicians with an agenda seeking to manipulate the results of a referendum. In 1979, a majority of Scots voted in favour of a Scottish Assembly, but a requirement that 40% of the electorate should vote in favour had been inserted by anti-devolution Labour dinosaurs. Unfortunately, this threshold was not reached despite a turnout of nearly 64%. Such a blatant attempt tosall the wishes of the Scottish people has cast a long shadow.

Lord Steel said:

I made my maiden speech in the House of Lords on the 1997 referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament which followed seven years as co-chair of the Constitutional Convention. In the House of Lords I also reflected on the situation at the 1979 referendum.
“Back in 1979, changes were made to the referendum to put a qualifying quota for support for devolution. That meant that, even though a majority of Scots voted for devolution, it didn’t happen in 1979. In fact, people on the electoral register who had died or were simply on holiday were counted as if they had voted ‘No’.
“As I told the House of Lords, ‘that left a sense of real bitterness and frustration which one does not want to see repeated in any form on a future occasion’. So, it is astonishing to see, more than thirty years later, proposals that could make the result of the next referendum unclear.
“The ‘bitterness’ and ‘frustration’ will been seen again in Scotland if a landslide of voters choose further devolution but they get defeated by a less popular option of independence.
“Willie Rennie is right to draw our attention to the potential problem. Professor John Curtice has said it is an ‘obvious problem’.
"The analogy with the 1997 referendum is false. The second vote back then was a simple add-on to the first. As Willie Rennie has already pointed out, Independence and Devolution Max are two, separate, stand-alone propositions. One is within the United Kingdom and one outwith. They are mutually exclusive.
“The Scottish Government now have to set out far more clearly the answers to the challenges people are posing them.
“The last thing we want is for the Scottish Government to make the same mistakes that were made in 1979 and have a referendum where there is no clarity or justice to the result.
“I make no secret of the fact that I have always favoured the maximum common sense amount of devolution possible to the Scottish Parliament without unnecessary expense or the break-up of valued UK institutions such as our social security system. 
“To achieve this we need calm constructive dialogue between Ministers in Edinburgh and London.  Instead at the moment we have to tolerate megaphone diplomacy and extravagant public posturing which does nothing except spread confusion in the public mind”.

I don't always agree with David Steel but his track record of credibility on Scotland's governance is indisputable.

The SNP need to let go of the massive chip on their shoulder and work with others to ensure that the referendum result is unambiguous. Their "my way or the high way" approach could poentially be extremely damaging.

Scotland deserves a quality debate on its future. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a place where we really don't want to be.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Glasgow City Council passes Lib Dem equal marriage motion

My Liberal Democrat Councillor of the Week is Alex Dingwall of Glasgow City Council. Yesterday, Alex introduced this motion which committed the Council to respond to the Scottish Government's equal marriage consultation supporting same sex marriage, extending civil partnerships to mixed sex couples and very firmly stating that allowing equal marriage does not undermine the freedom of any religious group which does not want to offer it.

The motion received unanimous backing, which is a good sign. Credit is due to Alex and his Lib Dem colleagues for doing the work to make it happen.

And, by way of nagging, if you haven't yet responded to the Scottish Government's consultation, you can do so here. Don't leave it until the last minute - but you do have a while yet, until 9th December.

In full - the self-induced humiliation of a First Minister

I knew when I read the Official Report of yesterday's proceedings in the Scottish Parliament that I'd enjoy it probably more than I should.

I will admit to a bit of schadenfreude at the uber-smug Alex Salmond coming a fairly major cropper but, actually, the appropriate emotion is pure fury and indignation. Fury because the leader of our Country, the person who represents us, whose larger than life figure has become almost synonymous with Scotland in some people's eyes, has been shown to be so brazen in his manipulation of the facts. That a special adviser should attempt to put words into the mouth of an eminent expert is, in the first place, outrageous. For the First Minister to present these words to Parliament as if they were a done deal just makes it all so much worse.

In their 4 years of minority administration, the SNP had a reputation for being reasonably competent. In the last few months, over the Supreme Court, human rights, Cornton Vale and now this, they have shown themselves to be pretty incompetent. Most of the errors have come from either Alex Salmond or Kenny MacAskill. That's quite telling, I think. I wonder what someone like Angela Constance, much as I'm loathe to see her move from her current position as Children's Minister, could do at Justice. She'd have more credibility and understanding of the issues, I reckon.

Anyway, I digress. I thought it would be useful to tell the full story of yesterday's shocking events in Parliament, from Murdo Fraser's initial question, right through to the FM's statement of apology.

Things to note are:

How utterly smug Salmond was to Murdo, suggesting that if the Tories had taken more advice from constitutional experts, they might have done better these last few decades - just after he's completely misquoted one.

What a good week Willie Rennie has had. He started with the two question referendum issue on Monday and it's been in the headlines for most of the week. On Reporting Scotland last night it was Willie's point of order that was shown, not Iain Gray's. Not bad for a party with five MSPs.

It's also worth pointing out that Willie has made Labour leadership contender Tom Harris look like a total and complete amateur. Tom spent the week before accusing the SNP of trying to rig the referendum by allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote. Unfortunately, the discussion centred around Tom's rather antiquated prejudices against allowing young people, many of whom pay taxes, to vote.

Anyway, here are the events as they unfolded. It all kicks off at the end of First Minister's Questions, after the live  tv coverage has ended.
Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and  Fife)(Con): To ask the First Minister when the Scottish Government will set a date for the referendum on independence.
 The First Minister (Alex Salmond):  In good time to meet our election commitment. Murdo Fraser:  The First Minister will not give us a date for his referendum and now he wants to muddle things further with talk of a third option.  Surely it cannot be the case that the First Minister lacks the courage to put his big idea of  independence to a straight yes or no vote of the Scottish people, or is he feart? The First Minister:  I now find out that Murdo Fraser has been feeding lines to the Prime Minister. I congratulate Murdo Fraser, who has, alone among the Tory candidates, questioned me for the fourth time. That is marvellous practice. It would be such a shame if all that practice came to naught. I have been handed a statement by Matt Qvortrup, a professor and the world‟s foremost
expert on constitutional referenda, from a letter that he is sending to  The Times newspaper. He closes the letter by saying: “While it is a matter for the Scottish people and Parliament to determine the form of their own referendum and while asking about a single question would be much more common, such a two-question proposition would be fair, reasonable and clear.” Our position is that, whatever else Murdo Fraser can count on—and I suspect that this is more certain than the result of the Conservative leadership campaign—there shall be a yes-or-no question on Scottish independence on the ballot paper, and the  independence referendum will be held in the second half of this parliamentary session. That is the proposition that we put to the people of Scotland, on which we received an overwhelming and resounding majority. 
Murdo Fraser:  I am not interested in the opinions of constitutional lawyers, however eminent they are; I am interested in the opinions of the First Minister. If the First Minister is so confident that he can win support for independence, why not put the matter to a votenow and let the people decide? The First Minister: There are a couple of reasons. The people of Scotland showed faith in
the Scottish National Party in the election  campaign, and I thought that the SNP would show faith in the people of Scotland. That is an original concept for the Conservative Party. I am fascinated. We heard from Annabel Goldie that she did not really care about some of the world‟s most renowned economists; now, of course, we are not to care about the views of the leading constitutional professors and experts. The problem for the Conservative Party and the reason why it has been reduced to its present pitiful  condition is not that it has not paid attention to the views of economists or constitutional experts, although doing so would have been good; the reason for the state of the Conservative Party is  that it has never paid attention to the views of the people of Scotland. 
So, a classic put down from a smug First Minister.

But pride comes before a fall – I was going to write smugness, but  I’m not going to rewrite a well known saying for my own ends.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and just before 3, Murdo Fraser, having realised Salmond’s mistake – maybe he’d been reading the Scottish Lib Dem website, because Willie Rennie had put out a press release giving the correct version of the Qvortrup quote before FMQs – raised this point of order:

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. At First Minister‟s questions today, the First Minister, in response to a question from me on the referendum on independence, stated the following, and I quote from the Official Report: “I have been handed a statement by Matt Qvortrup,  a professor and the world‟s foremost expert on constitutional referenda, from a letter that he is sending to  The Times newspaper. He closes the letter by saying: „While it is a matter for the Scottish people and Parliament to determine the form of their own referendum and while asking about a single question would be much more common, such a two-question proposition would be fair, reasonable and clear.‟
End of quote. I have now been informed that the words quoted by the First Minister purporting to be from Professor Qvortrup are not those of the professor but were written by the First Minister‟s official spokesman, who advised the press of that at lunch time‟s media briefing. I am sure that you will agree, Presiding Officer, that if that is correct it appears that the First Minister has misled Parliament, which should be a matter of great concern to all members. Will you ask the First Minister to come to the chamber and make a statement so that the record can be put straight? 
With less than half an hour to go before the end of proceedings, Iain Gray got in on the party too:

It is evident that either the First Minister knowingly misled Parliament or that his official spokesperson knowingly misled him. Whichever explanation is true, one of those people must face the consequences and the Parliament must hear an explanation from the First Minister for his conduct earlier today. I therefore ask the Presiding Officer to reconsider the issue and to provide additional time this afternoon for the First Minister to clarify the position. 
Fifteen minutes later, with still no word from the First Minister, Willie Rennie ramped the pressure up a notch, calling for a full Parliamentary debate: 
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek clarification, further to the points of order that were raised earlier. Professor Qvortrup was clear that the SNP‟s two-question referendum is untenable, but today the First Minister delivered a fabricated endorsement to the chamber. He quoted a letter that turns out to have been written not by the professor, but by the First Minister’s special adviser in his own office this morning. This is a blatant attempt to nobble an academic, to doctor the evidence and to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Scotland. An apology is not enough.
Presiding Officer, will you make time for an early meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau so that a full debate can be held on the Government’s conduct on this matter. 
And, so, as the session closed, a wearied Alex Salmond  rose with his tail, rightly, between his legs.  
Presiding Officer, I gave a response to Parliament at First Minister’s question time today that I would now like to correct. I believed that the words that I used in response to Murdo Fraser were going to be included in a letter from Professor Matt Qvortrup to  The Times newspaper. I now know that that was not the case and, therefore, apologise to the chamber for my mistake. It was never my intention to mislead Parliament, so I wished to correct the record at the earliest opportunity. I was given a message shortly before I entered the chamber that was wrong, and therefore my response was incorrect. The responsibility for that is mine, and mine alone, which is why I apologise to the chamber for the misinformation.
 The good news is that I have now spoken to Professor Qvortrup this afternoon—something that I should perhaps have done before First Minister’s question time. I now fully understand his position, which is that, if we wish it, it is entirely feasible to hold a two-question referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future in a fair, reasonable and clear manner, provided that certain conditions are met.
 Furthermore, as one of the world’s foremost experts on referendums, Professor Qvortrup has agreed to put his services at the disposal of the Government and the Parliament—if it wishes—to bring about a two-question referendum, should that be the will of the Parliament, when the time comes.
 One thing is absolutely clear above all else: in the second half of this parliamentary term, there will be a clear question in the referendum that consults the people on whether they support Scotland becoming an independent nation.
A slight bit of smuggery at the end, but by no stretch of the imagination has this been an edifying week for the First Minister. He would have wanted to come out of his Conference with a bit of a boost after launching the independence campaign - but instead, it's all looking a bit ragged after this week.

The thing is, the SNP would be quite happy with a straight yes/no question. They clearly don't understand the implications of a third option and how to correctly determine the will of the people. They could have responded to Willie Rennie's initial investigation with something like " We need to make sure that the outcome is clear and that the process is fair. We'll give details of how that'll be achieved in due course." What they did instead was to engage in a debate they don't understand. Once they'd said that independence would win even if it effectively came second, they were sunk. It was an unforced error, as they say on the tennis court.

A final word, though. I'd hate to be the poor staffer who had to tell Salmond that he'd just lied to Parliament. That can't have been pleasant. Although what they were doing was absolutely wrong, I do have just a little bit of sympathy with that person. Having to admit you have made an almighty balls up to your boss is never easy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Caron's Corkers - 27 October 2011

I'd had a mini tantrum during PMQs yesterday when a DUP MP complained about the persecution of Christians. Stephen shows how this guy and the facts are far removed from each other.

The Hon Lady Mark wants David Cameron to have more women in his Government.

Libdemchild reports from Occupy Toronto.

Diary of a Benefit Scrounger talks movingly about how the vernacular of welfare reform makes her feel unaccepted and worthless. That can't be right.

Nicola Prigg writes about how you can't just tell obese people to eat less and exercise more - most of us would be delighted if it were just that simple.

G's Spot has another Labour MP behaving badly.

Eamonn Holmes tells rape victim that she should have taken a taxi

For such an experienced media professional, Eamonn Holmes' foot has been hovering fairly close to his mouth quite a lot this year.

His reaction to the tragic death of 27 year old Amy Winehouse was to tout for business for Sky as I wrote at the time. 

I mean, what excuse is there to tweet this?

Today, on This Morning, he decided to give a rape victim a bit of kindly advice - expressing his hope that she'd take a taxi in future. I literally have no words to describe such utter crassness. Thankfully, though, Philippa Willitts, writing at The F Word, puts him right in no uncertain terms.

This seems as good a moment as ever to remind you of Rape Crisis Scotland's Not Ever campaign which seeks to tackle the victim blaming culture associated with rape.  No other crime victims have sympathy for them suspended while their actions are pored over to ensure that they didn't contribute to the horrendous violation that will cast a shadow over the rest of their lives.

Eamonn Holmes might actually learn something from this list of tips on how to prevent rape. I'd like to see him apologise and refer to some of these tomorrow on the show.

Another expert says SNP Referendum Plans "untenable" and "not feasible"

One of the world's leading authorities on referenda has said that the SNP's plans for a two question referendum are "untenable".

Dr Matt Qvortrup of Cranfield University says in today's Times (£) that:

“Two questions where people can vote ‘yes’ to both is simply not feasible.”

The SNP can't, as they are trying to, compare this with 1997 - having a parliament and it having tax raising powers are not mutually exclusive options. Independence and Devo Max are - with the first, Scotland becomes an independent country, with the second, we stay part of the union. 

This is the second renowned expert to dismiss the SNP's plans. SNP tweeters and commenters on this blog denounced Professor John Curtice as an evil unionist (not quite in those words, but it's what they meant), but Dr Qvortrup is someone who's actually been on their side in the past.

I want to find a way of including a Home Rule option in the referendum, perhaps selfishly, because that's what I want to put my cross beside. However, we have to find a way of doing it that makes the outcome clear. We already have that in the form of the way we carry out council by-elections - a preferential system. I'd like to see what the experts have to say on that one.

I don't want independence, so voting no in a straight yes/no ballot would be an authentic choice for me. However, as I said yesterday, I worry that a no vote would give the reactionary forces within Labour and the Tories the excuse to stall on further reform.  

The BBC coverage of FMQs stopped just before Murdo Fraser got the chance to press Salmond on the date of the Referendum. As part of the exchange between them, Salmond tried to claim that Dr Qvortrup was supporting his view, only to have to grovellingly apologise later. Woops! 

Willie Rennie told the SNP in no uncertain terms that the mandate bestowed them in May did not include carte blanche to manipulate the referendum result:

The First Minister should listen to the SNP’s favourite constitutional expert.
 “The SNP won a mandate to hold an independence referendum but they did not win a mandate to manipulate the referendum result.
 “Scottish voters will want their views to be represented fairly but the SNP’s plans could make that impossible.
 “The First Minister must intervene personally to resolve this critical issue.” 

Salmond fails on carbon capture at #fmq

The SNP will do anything to take a knock at the UK Government. It's all part of their plan to persuade the people that anything that involves Westminster is the Spawn of Satan.

First Minister's Questions is, these days, not so much an opportunity to scrutinise the Government, but more a place for craven SNP backbenchers to do homage to their Mighty Leader.

And so it was when Bill Walker, who was pretty surprised to be elected MSP for Dunfermline in May, rose to his feet to ask about Carbon Capture. You could tell his question had been written by the Whips because he clearly didn't understand it himself, tripping over any word longer than 3 syllables. Not for the first time, I wanted Jim Tolson back there.

The First Minister wasted no time in slating the Westminster Government and the Liberal Democrats in particular for withdrawing the funding for carbon capture. Err, no, they haven't.  The money is still there. It was just going to be way too expensive to develop at Longannet. It's difficult to make it work in a coal plant and the idea that you can somehow make coal cleaner is not an easy one to make a reality.

The idea is, however, much more likely to succeed at a gas plant and the money available for CCS is likely to stay in Scotland, at Peterhead. And, even better, 75% of the work done at Longannet can be transferred.

But of course the First Minister didn't mention any of this. Yet again, the facts get in the way of his union bashing agenda.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What was David Cameron thinking when he spoke to the Liverpool Daily Post on Hillsborough?

Luciana Berger, Labour MP, for Liverpool Wavertree has crossed my radar before - and not in a good way.
So, my ears pricked up when I heard her dulcet tones ask the first question at today's PMQs. She demanded an apology from David Cameron for remarks he was supposed to have made about the Hillsborough disaster. According to Hansard, Berger asked:

 Yesterday it was reported that the Prime Minister had compared the families of those who had died at Hillsborough to
“a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there”,
and had complained that he was not being given enough credit for the release of all the Government documents relating to the tragedy. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to the relatives and friends of the 96 Hillsborough victims for those grossly offensive comments?
 Cameron ignored the main part of the question and said:
What I would say to all the victims and their families is that it is this Government who have done the right thing by opening up the Cabinet papers and trying to help those people to find the closure that they seek.

Obviously I wondered what it was all about. A bit of Googling led me to Monday's Liverpool Daily Post in which Cameron is directly quoted as making that exact remark.

"I don't think we will ever achieve closure on Hillsborough. I don't think there will ever be one moment when you can say 'that's it', as there was with the Saville Inquiry."It's like, what's the saying, it's like a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn't there."
Oh dear.

I can actually see that he may have meant this in a reasonable way. Cameron can be crass, for sure. Anything he's ever said on the Human Rights Act, the riots, Europe and immigration refers. In this case, I'm not sure he was going out of his way to offend.  I don't know what goes on in his head, which is probably a good thing, but it may be that he thought that he was saying something sympathetic when he made that remark. The words may well have made his way from his brain to his lips without engaging the  "what will this look like out of context in print" filter. That's not always a bad thing, either. I'd rather genuine attempts at communication which were occasionally cocked up than someone who only ever talked in scripted banalities. The statement from Downing Street reported by the BBC certainly states that he didn't mean to offend anyone and was talking about how difficult it can be for someone who's lost a relative in these circumstances to find closure.

I think, though, for the head of the government to say this, when these families were clearly failed by servants of the state, albeit not this particular administration, is at best ill advised. You have to be extra careful to be sensitive in these situations and his remarks could be interpreted as implying that the families should just give up their quest for truth cos they aren't going to find anything. 

 This Government has certainly released the Hillsborough papers, which has to be a good thing and which Labour failed to do so its intent is clear. I suspect that Cameron did not set out to deliberately challenge what the families are doing. I wish I could be even half as sure that Luciana Berger's sole motive was to stand up for those families and not make political hay out of a tragedy.

Willie Rennie: SNP moving the goalposts to win at all costs

I have shamelessly filched this from Willie Rennie's Facebook fan page with the aim of encouraging you to "like" it if you haven't already. 

It's quite an interactive environment, with discussions, polls,  pretty pictures and lots of information about what Willie's been up to.

And for what it's worth, I'd actually back Willie's sons against him on any computer game you might care to mention. Twiddling knobs and waving about controllers isn't really his thing.

Anyway, this is Willie's piece on the SNP's plans for independence to win in the referendum even if it comes second. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University said yesterday that he could see an "obvious problem" with the Government's intentions.

"The Scottish Parliament has been in recess for the last couple of weeks, a chance to spend more time in the constituency, catch up with family… and play football on the Wii with my son.

I don’t get the chance to play that often and as a result he is a great deal more accomplished at the swoosh of the wrist needed to even pass the ball.

I lost, convincingly. But this week the SNP Government offered me solace in defeat.

In football, just as in politics, I believed that who scores the most goals, or secures the most votes, wins - but it seems I have been mistaken.

Let me explain. The SNP have confirmed that they will include two questions in their referendum to split Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. The first, a straight yes/no on if Scotland should be independent, the second on if Scotland should enjoy more powers in partnership with the rest of these islands.

This got me thinking – what happens if the answer to both questions comes back yes, but with more people voting for more powers? Who wins?

The answer given by the SNP should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who believes in democracy.

In this scenario, where yes to independence gets 51% of the vote and yes to more powers gets 99%, the SNP have said that independence would win.

This kind of electoral jiggery pokery proves that the SNP will do anything to tear Scotland away from the secure and strong partnership that the UK offers.

 ‘Who gets the most votes wins’ has been a universal principle since landowners lost the chance to influence tenants with the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872.

Although Mr Salmond will not be standing over the shoulder of every voter in the polling booth, how much will that vote count for if the SNP simply move the goalposts and declare victory?

The two question conundrum is just another in a long list of questions that the SNP have failed to adequately answer. How much will independence cost? How will we defend ourselves? What role will we play in international organisations?

I will continue to seek answers to these questions as the constitution, the future of Scotland, needs clarity not confusion.

Mr Salmond’s electoral strategy is at odds with every democratic principle that exists.

That said, if my son wants to introduce it at our re-match then I won’t quibble too much."

Ian Davidson is the wrong person to chair the Scottish Affairs Committee

I've thought for some time that Glasgow South West MP Ian Davidson is the wrong person to chair the Scottish Affairs  Committee of the Westminster Parliament. Any Parliamentary Committee is there to hold the Government to account and so its chair must be capable of ensuring that evidence is heard and conclusions made in a credible and fair manner.

It's hard to do that when you have a huge chip on your shoulder about the SNP. Yes, they can be darned annoying, their constant picking of fights with institutions on the basis of location rather than efficacy is tiresome and the narrowness of their nationalism is at times the political equivalent of nails on a blackboard as far as my liberal sensibilities are concerned.  However I would never, ever describe them as neo-fascists. Not even in jest - and Ian Davidson did not appear to be struck with mirth when he so described the SNP during the Scotland Bill debate earlier this year. He later said that he meant that they were thuggish. Well, with his pugnacious manner, it's a bit like the old pot and kettle scenario. And I could tell you stories about how I've had dogs' abuse and been chased out of streets by burly Labour thugs in my time. Let's not pretend that the Labour party are a bunch of cuddly teddy bears.

And now the latest incident to involve Ian Davidson has resulted in the withdrawal from the Committee of Dr Eilidh Whiteford, SNP MP for Banff and Buchan. She alleges that Ian Davidson threatened her with "a doing" if details of a private meeting of the Committee last week were leaked to the media. Clearly I wasn't there. I have seen Ian Davidson use strong and pugnacious language on many occasions, though.  I also know and like Eilidh Whiteford and am absolutely certain that she would not make something like that up. I have enough faith in her as a person to trust what she says on this.

The BBC states that concerns about Ian Davidson's language were first raised by officials, which may explain why this has not been made public until now. I can't imagine that Eilidh will have made the decision to do so lightly, either - for precisely the reason of the pasting she's getting from Labour. Their response has been gruff and churlish. We'll see what they have to say in a fuller statement later.

In my local Health Centre, there's a sign saying that anyone raising their voice or using aggressive language to staff will be struck off the patients' list. In most places of work, aggression and violence towards people is just not tolerated. An allegation of this nature would normally mean suspension pending an investigation. The political environment is tough - but MPs should be able to go about their business without threats of violence from their colleagues.

There was already enough doubt in my mind about Davidson's performance before what happened to Eilidh and I really think the Committee needs a more effective chair. Therefore, I want to see Ian Davidson step down and hand over to someone else who can be a more credible and calm leader of the committee.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Professor John Curtice sees "obvious" problem in SNP Referendum plan

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Hot on the heels of Willie Rennie forcing the SNP to admit yesterday that, under their plans, even if independence was the second most popular option, it could be counted as the winner in the Referendum, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has expressed similar concerns.

Speaking in the Times (£), he says that:
“In 1997 the two questions were clearly linked,” he said. “The questions in the independence referendum would be in competition with each other, which would create an obvious problem.”
“They are interpreting this as people voting for devo-max as their second preference but that can’t be assumed unless you have a preferential voting system, which is not the plan.”
Speaking in response to Professor Curtice's comments, Willie Rennie said:

“It’s time the SNP abandoned the smoke and mirrors and explained how they can possibly justify how a tiny majority for independence could trump a landslide for DevoMax.
 “Yesterday the SNP admitted the flaw in their plan but refused to change course.
 “This creates an obvious problem, clear to everyone else. The SNP do not seem to grasp that Independence and Devolution Max are two separate stand-alone propositions unlike the 1997 Scottish Parliament Referendum. “This needs urgent attention from the First Minister. “It’s starting …to fall apart.”
 From what Professor Curtice is saying, any multi option referendum without a preferential voting system has the potential to have a dubious outcome. It's not for the SNP to make assumptions as to what people intended when they voted. There needs to be no doubt whatsoever.

If we have to do this, and we do, I would really rather we included a Devo Max option. I don't want to be lumped in with Labour and the Tories on a straight yes/no option to independence because I have totally different views about governance to them. I want to see Scotland raising and spending its own budget on its own domestic policies. but as part of a federal UK.  I don't want the reactionaries in Labour and the Tories to interpret a no vote in a referendum erroneously, and assume that Scots aren't interested in further constitutional change. I think that a significant majority of Scots want to go a lot further than the Scotland Bill. Although polls show growing support for independence, we aren't close to majority territory for that yet and most people haven't made up their minds. The important thing is that Labour and the Tories must not be allowed to suppress our future ambitions.

That strange SNP logic where Independence will win even if it comes second

Over the years I've become accustomed to the fact that the SNP have trouble counting. Any analysis of any of their spending commitments at any election has shown a gaping hole somewhere. I think the funniest thing was them accounting for £250 million of savings for the Forth Bridge, which hasn't even been built yet in their most recent manifesto.

These are big numbers, though. I kind of gave them credit for being able to work out which was the most popular between three options using numbers between 1 and 100. 

How wrong I was.

Thanks to some investigation by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, it transpires that we are in danger of getting independence anyway, even if most people choose what will effectively be the home rule option. It's not like in 1997, where the second question, on tax raising powers is a subset of the first - you can't have tax raising powers without a parliament. This time round, independence, devo max and the status quo are all separate options. Willie asked what would happen if both options had over 50%. Well, it transpires, that if the independence vote went 51-49 and the devo max went 99-1, both in favour, that independence would win.

In what universe does that mean that the biggest mandate for independence? A vote for Devo Max is effectively a vote to remain in the UK, which is contradictory to independence. If both questions are won, surely the option with the biggest vote is the one which should prevail? 

Regular readers will know that I have always been extremely relaxed about the idea of a referendum on independence and I was annoyed by the position we took in 2007. I'm also not wildly bothered about process stories, much preferring to discuss the detail and the ideas. However, I have to make an exception in this case - Willie was right to highlight this as an example of the SNP's "astonishing disregard for democracy". 

He called their position "election jiggery pokery". One thing about Willie is he's bringing good words of our childhoods back into use. It'll be crikey and crivens next, no doubt.

What we need out of this referendum is certainty one way or the other. What we don't need is the settled will of the Scottish people being disregarded in favour of the only outcome that's palatable to hardened SNP activists.

The way the SNP is planning to do this could lead to a disputed outcome which in turn could make things very, very tense. Now, I want to see home rule, or devo max, or whatever you want to call it as an option - but I also want to be sure that the SNP will back the clearly expressed will of the people. If more people back devo max than independence, then that is what should be implemented. No ifs, buts or maybes.

For the last few years, the SNP have talked of independence only in whispers. In the run up to this year's election, they barely talked about it at all. And when Mike Moore and Willie Rennie try to get details about their plans out of them, they tell us to wait and all will be revealed in good time. Then they go to Inverness for four days and literally talk about nothing else. They're clearly in a euphoric, blissful bubble after their first get together since what was admittedly a very clever campaign and historic victory. They will soon lose the confidence of the Scottish people, though, if they carry on like this. A huge majority in favour of devo max gives a mandate for that and no further.

Willie's had some good coverage in the press today -  as well as the Scotsman, there's the Record, the Telegraph and the P and J, which aren't online yet. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bob's photos: more Edinburgh in the morning

These  were taken on Friday 21 October at around 7:50 am. He normally gets off the train at Waverley but had walked from Haymarket because was handing in some forms nominating Jo Swinson to be Deputy Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats at party HQ.  I love the sky.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Edinburgh on an October morning

As taken by my husband yesterday morning on his mobile phone. I think the sky is gorgeous. Oh, and I did ask him first if I could post them here....

Please say we're not a nation of tricoteuses - the appalling coverage of Gaddafi's death

Before I start, don't think for one moment that I will be shedding any tears for Muammar al-Gaddafi. He was a thoroughly nasty, cruel, manipulative man who cared little for the lives of innocent people, whether his own citizens or those of other countries calmly going about their business in Northern Ireland, or catching a flight across the Atlantic. The world is undoubtedly a better place for him being out of power.

The British media, sadly, isn't showing its best side, though, in its coverage of the dictator's demise. You don't expect much of the Sun, for sure, but for them to splash a photo of a dead Gaddafi on their front page with the headline "That's for Lockerbie, Yvonne Fletcher and IRA semtex victims" defies even the most basic standards of decency. The thought of that image being displayed at toddler height in supermarkets makes me feel ill.

But it's not just the Sun. Decent newspapers like The Guardian and the BBC haven't been as crass, but I really don't think it's right to show video footage of the last, violent moments of a human being's life. There are no exceptions. Technology may make it possible to film such events, but editors should show more discretion than they have. I don't like the self-justifying "these scenes will upset you, but there was a lot worse we could have shown you" argument we were hearing across the tv news networks last night.

This all put me in mind of the "tricoteuses" at the French Revolution, women who would gather to watch the guillotining in the market square, calmly knitting between executions. Now, there's an argument that they had been directly affected by the profligacy of the monarchy, not getting enough to eat. There's also the fact that in those days, mortality rates were pretty high and life expectancy low because medicine and sanitation were much less advanced than they were now. Even with that direct involvement, it wasn't right. Your average Sun reader gloating over Gaddafi's death over their cornflakes has no excuse.

If we accept this sort of thing, where does it end?  Televised executions in the US? After all, if it's right to show the death of one bad person, what about the rest? I'm not going to be buying any papers today because I really disapprove of the way all of them have covered this event.

I think we could all do with learning from the unfailing dignity of Dr Jim Swire. He suffered the loss of his daughter Flora on Pan Am Flight 103 but he's not celebrating Gaddafi's death. Speaking on BBC Breakfast and quoted elsewhere, he said that he'd much rather have seen Gaddafi put on trial.  However unpleasant a spectacle months, if not years, of Gaddafi rants in the International Criminal Court might sound, it would have been much better than what's happened. We might have found out more about his dealings with the US and the UK. And, of course, we now have no chance of finding out the truth about Libya's involvement in Lockerbie from his point of view.

I'll leave the last word to Anna's 12 year old friend. The first thing she said on arriving here was that she'd seen Gaddafi was dead - but she didn't think it was right to show the dead body because he was a human being after all. It's people like her who make you optimistic for the future of the human nature.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What we're all missing in the Mike Hancock affair

A fair few Liberal Democrats, myself included, have raised our eyebrows over the story that Mike Hancock, our MP for Portsmouth South, who has stepped down from the Defence Select Committee because of his relationship with a woman, now facing deportation, accused of being a Russian spy.

This could be another of those "you couldn't make it up" type stories, like the tale of John Hemming's wife stealing his girlfriend's cat. I just hope, though, that we aren't seeing a huge injustice done to a young woman at an immigration court.

I don't know and I'm not in a position to judge the truth of the matter, but it appears to me that Katia Zatuliveter has been put in a very difficult position. How do you prove that you are not a spy?

We will never know all of the evidence against her because much of the case is being heard in secret.

I wish I could be confident that the right decision will be made but I have a huge feeling of unease about the whole thing. It could well be that the powers that be have put 2 and 2 together and come up with 39.

How do you ensure justice for the defendant in a case like this?  Everybody, no matter what the circumstances, deserves a fair hearing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Scunnered already - and the referendum won't happen for years......

We've had a wee glimpse of what life would be like if Tom Harris won the leadership of Scottish Labour over the last couple of weeks - and it isn't a pretty sight.

The debate on the future of our nation, which should be full of vision and detail, currently has neither. If it's left to Labour and the SNP, or more specifically Harris and Salmond, all we're going to have for the next five years is sterile, macho posturing in a series of manufactured squabbles. It makes me want to run into the middle and shout "STOP!"  The independence referendum itself will not take place for at least three years - I'm actually not sure I can cope with this sort of nonsense for that long. That's not to say I think Westminster should call a referendum unless there is a very clear indication that the Scottish people want them to. 

It's actually doing my head in. What would an independent observer see? A diverse nation deciding its future - but the main voices heard are two white middle aged men shouting at each other and not listening to anything the people are saying.

If I see another Tom Harris #riggedreferendum tweet I'm likely to scream. Mr Harris has decided that the SNP are trying to rig the result by giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote. For me, it's simple. I've always been in favour of votes at 16, the principle is right - if we take their money in taxes, we need to give them a say in the spending of those taxes. It really is that simple. I might remark in passing that this is one long standing SNP policy that they could have passed for Council elections in minority Government with Green and Lib Dem backing.

But rather than actually going to find some young people and discussing their vision for the future of Scotland and explaining his - you know, good old fashioned civilised debate - Tom Harris decides to insult every young person in the country by suggesting that somehow their votes aren't valuable. His assumption, too, that they'd all vote for independence is not a huge amount of help to those of us who don't want to see independence.

The SNP are little better. Yes, I see a better, more secure future for Scotland as part of a federal UK, but I'd really, really like to understand and learn more from them about their reasoning for independence and how it would work in practice. I don't want to hear about dry constitutional stuff going back hundreds of years - I want to hear about how my pension would work under independence, how much money we'd have to spend on schools and hospitals, how I'd still get my Child Benefit, exactly how these databases would be split and, crucially, how much it would cost.  If Anna had a job in England, would she be chucked out on the day Scotland became independent? I mean, would Scotland be accepted as a member of the EU from Day One? If so, then she'd be fine under EU rules, but would she need a work permit and how would she go about getting it. And if there were a majority Tory Government in England (or even a Labour one given the stuff they've been coming out with on immigration recently), would she be subject to some sort of quota? I could go on. I will - but I need to head into town now as Anna's Winter boots won't, however much I might like them to, buy themselves.

Rather than actual detail from the SNP, we're getting attacks on Westminster at every single opportunity combined with vague, idealistic utterances about the utopia that an independent Scotland would be. I wouldn't buy a house without checking it didn't have dry rot,solid foundations and that it was put together properly. I can't imagine the people of Scotland will want any less detail on the future of their home nation.

This debate could be so much better. Scotland deserves calm, reasoned, engaging debate on its future. Of course emotions will play a part - but game playing and negativity should not be tolerated. I include my lot in that too. Mike Moore is the most reasonable person on the planet, and I can't criticise anything he's said so far in all of this. Danny Alexander, on the other hand, needs to take a wee bit of a look at how he's coming across. I didn't particularly feel comfortable watching him, in his penguin suit at the CBI dinner ( I mean the bow tie, not that he was actually dressed as a penguin - it wasn't Gregory's Girl), tell Scotland that we couldn't make ends meet as an independent country. I know you can't go to these events in jeans, but it just looked all wrong.

I don't agree with independence, but that doesn't mean to say that I think that the idea is inherently incompatible with liberalism and I don't want to hear that from any of our lot. There is a superior, narcissistic sort of insular looking nationalism that is pretty ugly and we do sometimes see that from the SNP.  I agreed wholeheartedly with the release of Megrahi but this from Kenny MacAskill on the day made me wince:

"In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.
"It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people."
I actually thought humanity was a defining characteristic of human beings and to claim it as some sort of singularly Scottish trait is not credible. That sort of attitude is where liberals and nationalists can find themselves in real conflict. However, there will be some people in our party - a minority for sure, who will choose to campaign for independence because they believe in it. And that's fine. If they make the whole debate a little healthier, so much the better.
Those who don't want to see the UK broken up need to think very carefully about how they are perceived. They need to create a positive, emotive, practical, relevant blueprint for the future that engages with people. 
Scotland needs the macho mudslinging to stop and the proper dialogue to begin. And a few young and female voices in it would not go amiss either. Otherwise we'll all be driven demented by Christmas.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Caron's Corkers - 18th October 2011

Diary of a Benefit Scrounger wants evidence of clearly wrong decisions made by the benefits system - do you know anyone who has been refused benefit who is too ill to work?

The World According to Sog reminisces on a trip to the US

James Taylor says it's all about trust and gives some ideas for getting it back. Will we really see governments and banks being truly open and honest?

The Lass O Pairts subscribes to my school of thought on blogging - it has to fit in with  life, not take it over.

 I have heard it said that one reason we love motorsport is because it can cover the full spectrum of human emotions. If only that wasn’t true. Doctorvee on the death of Dan Wheldon.

Mark Cole pays tribute to Betty Driver, the legendary Coronation Street actress who died last Saturday.

Paul Edie describes the success of an incentive scheme to help people move from  homes that are too large for them - another of his many successes at the City of Edinburgh Council. Given the desperate shortage of housing for larger families, this has to be a good thing.

Remember that diversity debate at Scottish Conference?

Well, Lib Dem voice have let me write about it for them here.

I've tried to be balanced - but hope I haven't in doing so upset all sides equally...

Blogging may be light due to cupcakes, cute baby animals and the like

If you got past that headline, you probably aren't just a hardcore political type, so I can tell you a bit about what Anna and I have planned for the school holidays.

Despite having the opportunity for a lie in, I wasn't delighted to find myself awake and ready to get up at 8am today. I suspect it'll be a while before herself puts in an appearance.

We had a really lazy weekend - I found that the constant busyness of the past few weeks were catching up on me. I felt pretty rubbish and even fell asleep during the Korean Grand Prix. I wasn't even watching it live at stupid o'clock in the morning.

Yesterday we had two extra children and our plan was to go to the cheap kids' cinema thing at 10.30 am. Well, we got there in good time to discover it had been already sold out for ages. Anna and her friend went to see Footloose a bit later on. I actually dropped them off at the complex on their own for the first time ever while I took her friend's six year old little sister to the Almond Valley Heritage Centre. We've had a membership there for most of Anna's life so we're regulars as she loves animals.

My little friend and I saw the seven week old baby goats, full of fun and little goatly cuteness. There was also the tiniest little rabbit that we hadn't seen before. It was literally half the size of the guinea pig that it was next to. I asked one of the staff about it and apparently it was just what they call a peanut, a tiny, but perfectly formed little bunny. Its siblings were all normal sized. My little friend was more fascinated by the various birds than we usually are. She also beat me fairly comprehensively at the Hoop-la game in the barn. I blame the cold - it was a truly horrible day yesterday.

We also had the fun of a ghost hunt for Hallowe'en. The Centre is having their annual "Fright Night" on Friday 28th October which is usually quite a spectacle with lots of people dressed up in scary costumes and the October holidays usually see some sort of spooky activities. Personally, though, I don't think they've ever surpassed the Ephie McGloom and the Underpants of Doom displays of a few years ago.

Once we'd picked up the older girls, they decided they wanted to try their hand at cupcakes. Red velvet cupcakes to be precise. We went to the supermarket to pick up ingredients from a hastily remembered recipe. What I'd forgotten is that the last time I used my long suffering electric hand whisk it had blown up and I hadn't replaced it. I remembered after I'd measured out the butter and sugar for creaming. Elbow grease it had to be, then. The girls did most of the hard work, but baking by hand is a lot easier than it used to be. However, we will have a new mixer by the time we make our Christmas cake later in the week.

We used this recipe as it was closest to the ingredients we had amassed. We didn't have buttermilk, so just used ordinary and it was fine.

To be honest, I'm not the biggest cupcake fan on earth and these were a bit sweet for me - but given that baking is usually a precise art and we had been less than precise, they were pretty good. The frosting is simple buttercream given that the girls couldn't face the thought of using cheese in icing. They'll learn.

We have trips to the zoo and museum planned for later in the week and also we have to do boring things like get Anna's Winter boots. By the sound of it, Winter's going to be long and horrible. We'd better make the most of whenever there isn't snow.

So, I may not have as much time as usual to talk to you. I know that whenever I say that, I usually end up doing more than usual, but I am going to actually try to take a proper break. I have a huge pile of books to read so I should try to make some inroads into that. So, I should be back with you full time next Tuesday. See you then.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A trio of Liberal Democrat initiatives for Parents' Week

You know how it's the fashion these days in restaurants for them to give you not one delicious morsel on a plate, but three? Well, it's the same for the Liberal Democrats and Parents' Week.

First of all, Nick Clegg's message for Parents' Week, emphasising that we recognise that all families have different needs and we want to give them the tools to arrange their lives in the way that best suits them.

Secondly, Sarah Teather's initiative on Parenting Classes in England. This is all very good stuff. My only concern is that I would like to see a balance between discipline and boundaries, which are crucial to any child's successful development, and the need for responsive parenting in the very early days. This review of Sue Gerhardt's excellent book "Why Love Matters - how affection shapes a baby's brain" gives a good explanation as to why. Those regime orientated parenting methods which advocate leaving babies to cry have longer term effects. Flooding a baby's brain unnecessarily with powerful stress hormones is not a good thing.  I hope Sarah's read the book - and if not, I'd be happy to lend her my well worn copy.

Thirdly, and my favourite, I think, is Lynne Featherstone fearlessly standing up for family friendly policies to Tories who would happily sweep them away in an instant.

No doubt I'll get a fair bit of grief from Anna when she sees this. She already has enough trouble with the concept of Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day. She thinks that's unfair when children don't have their own day. My defence is that children are our top priority every day, including Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day but she's having none of it. The idea of parents having a whole week to themselves will make her apoplectic.

Rennie attacked for being pro equal marriage and accepting intern from evangelical organisation.

The Herald is having a go at Willie Rennie for having help in his office from an intern from the organisation CARE, which is run by evangelical Christians and is emphatically opposed to equal marriage.

They clearly haven't read our constitution. I can't really blame them for that. But this passage is quite relevant.
We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality. Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources.
Is the Herald seriously suggesting we should discriminate against somebody on the basis of their religion? Really?

It will not surprise you in the least to hear that I totally disagree with CARE's attitude on many issues from abortion to equal marriage. That doesn't mean to say I put the organisation in a box that says "don't talk to these people." You can't have proper tolerance if you don't properly engage with people you disagree with. And there are issues relating to freedom and social justice where there is common ground and we can work together.

CARE isn't going to change our mind on equal marriage or anything else - it surely must know that given the thumping defeats whenever its members who are also Liberal Democrat members have put motions to our conferences.

I just think it's good to see Willie practising the sort of openness and tolerance he talks about.

And, a wee nag, in case you haven't replied to the Scottish Government's consultation on equal marriage - it's here, get on with it. You have until 9th December. The churches will organise and get lots of people to respond. Our side can be lazy.

And those lovely awesome LYS people are running a campaign on equal marriage. There's a link so you can write to your MSPs and ask them to support it. Their inboxes will be crammed full of e-mails from people opposed to equal marriage, when in fact research shows that a majority are in favour. Help put that imbalance right.

British driver Dan Wheldon killed in Las Vegas

You know how much I love my Formula 1. I'm not, though, blind to its dangers. Twice in the last two years, I've seen literally heart-stopping moments when I've actually screamed. There was Felipe Massa's accident in Hungary in 2009, and that awful moment when Mark Webber went flying after running into the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus. Webber, thankfully, walked away. Massa was out for months.

Around 11 last night, we had a shocking reminder that these things don't always end so well when word  came through that British Indycar driver Dan Wheldon had been killed in an horrific 200 mph plus crash.

I feel so much for his wife, and his two young sons who, at 6 months and 2 years are not going to grow up with any memories of him, really.

I've not followed Indycar racing at all because I just don't have the time to get obsessed with something else. That doesn't stop me thinking of this poor man's loved ones.

Brits on Pole, whose passion is following British racing drivers across all motorsport, have more details here.

What worries me is that some of the drivers expressed safety concerns before the race went ahead. Drivers are by their very nature risk takers. If they are worried about safety, they need to be listened to and their concerns acted upon. They are the experts.

Hypocrisy in action...Labour's record on lobbying in pictures.

The Masterclass on hypocrisy, started by Labour in May 2010, continues.

Before you think I've found some artistic skill - but no, you would never believe that, this was made by Liberal Democrat member Paul Wild, based on information provided by Sanjay Samani.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Write to Lords to change Welfare Reform Bill - my message to the RNIB Fringe meeting at Conference

Last Saturday at Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in Dunfermline, I was honoured to be asked to speak at a fringe held by RNIB Scotland on the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill on disabled people.  I was also really nervous - it felt like such a responsibility. There is some good liberal stuff in there, but some of the measures as they affect people who are ill or disabled have to be changed. I knew that I wouldn't have to win over too many hearts and minds because the audience would be in favour of that but I thought of all the people I'd helped with benefits issues over the years and how they would be affected by these changes. I wanted to put the case well for them. Especially as I had a Cabinet Minister sitting on my right.

To be honest, Mike Moore needs no persuasion on these issues, though. When I interviewed him in the Summer, we spoke for a long time on welfare reform, and how he had actively sought out  groups representing disabled people to feed back their concerns straight to Iain Duncan Smith. I thought it was great though, that he wasn't hiding away - he was there, chairing the meeting, and taking on board everything people said.

I can't write this post without mentioning the sacrifice RNIB Scotland's Director, John Legg, had made in attending the meeting - it was his daughter's 12th birthday. As mum of a 12 year old myself, I know too well of these conflicts. I hope she didn't mind giving up her dad for part of her day and that she had a great time with her friends. John told the meeting that he wanted us to do what we could to make sure that there weren't any unintended consequences in the legislation which would be to the detriment of ill,disabled, blind and partially sighted people. I'd been chatting to John and Ken Reed, RNIB Scotland's incoming chair, earlier in the morning. Ken had said how blind people often had to choose between having aids like a guide dog or claiming DLA as the guide dog would count as a mobility aid. I'm sorry, but a guide dog is very clever, but can't get you from one end of town to the other. It can't drive a car. Even with a guide dog, a blind person still has the expense of public transport or taxis to meet.

Ken is a really eloquent speaker and made the clearest argument I've so far heard against the arbitrary time limit for contributory ESA. He asked us all to imagine what it would be like if we lost our sight tomorrow. It would take us 12 months just to get used to life as a blind person. No way would you be ready to get into the job market again.  You can see what he means. Imagine if it happened to you - once you've got over the sheer shock and can get around your own home without incident, there's becoming fluent in Braille to consider. Maybe you could have a look at an introduction to Russian or Chinese to see how quickly your brain could learn to process different symbols properly just to get a smidgen of an idea of what that would be like.

I wanted to persuade the audience that they all needed to go and write to our Lords to make sure that they worked to implement the terms of the motion passed at our Federal Conference in Birmingham - getting rid of the time limit, making sure people whose claims were turned down had access to representation (not a fancy lawyer, but a CAB or law centre, or welfare rights office) for their appeal, that there was a presumption for putting the most severely ill people with long term conditions into the support group and keeping strong tabs on ATOS and in the longer term bringing the assessment process back in house.

I'm hoping that Mike German, Celia Thomas and Archy Kirkwood, our people taking this Bill through the Lords have had full mailbags this week - and that if you're reading this please write to them. Mike also added in Nicol Stephen as another Scot to write to. His e-mail is Celia Thomas is and the others can be contacted via House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW. Make this one of the jobs you do this weekend as the Bill is being considered by the Lords over the next 5 weeks or so.

The meeting was one of the best fringe meetings I'd been to. It was absolutely packed for a start. There were also some great contributions from the floor. I hadn't realised Cllr Jenny Dawe, leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, was once a welfare rights officer. She picked up on a quote from Steve Webb I'd given at the end of my speech and said that we can't look at the welfare budget in terms of affordability, but we have to look at it in terms of need. And she's right. She also said that when she was doing appeals, her organisation had an 85% success rate.

Ewan Hoyle (he of drugs policy amazingness) mentioned an example of someone winning an appeal under the old Incapacity Benefit at the same time as being given no points under the new Work Capability Assessment. He asked us to imagine the impact of basically being told that you were lying when you were in a fragile and vulnerable condition.

I felt that the whole thing was really constructive and that everyone in the room was pretty much in the same place. I hope that RNIB felt it was useful, too.

Below is the speech that I wrote - it's something like the speech I delivered. I chopped bits out and I didn't get quite as long to deal with the call centre changes as I'd planned, but you'll get the idea.

Dunfermline feels like home to me still because it’s where I worked for Willie Rennie for 4 years as caseworker.  This was before the coalition was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. During that time I saw the failures of the benefits and tax credits system at their worst.
 I saw a system that was inflexible and very bad at coping with changes in circumstances.
It was impersonal – dealt with by remote call centres by staff who weren’t necessarily properly trained in the benefits they were dealing with. And a common thing you hear from people is that they feel that they are being treated like criminals just for claiming benefits which are supposed to be the safety net for everyone.
I saw people being turned down for sickness and disability benefits who were clearly ill.
I saw the distress they went through because of the lengthy appeals process.

And then, almost worst of all, I saw the inability of Government departments to admit when a mistake had been made – and the extra stress that loaded onto the constituent.
I’ve written a fair bit about the Welfare Reform Bill. Much of it I agree with – the move to a universal credit is something we’ve been banging on about for the almost 3 decades I’ve been involved in politics.
Dealing with the poverty trap is also important – work has to be worthwhile. Who could blame anyone for choosing not to work if they were going to be significantly worse off than they would be on benefits, however much they might want to.
  The disgrace of the current system is that it parked people on benefits, who could work and who wanted to work – and that’s pretty cruel to them and it’s also illiberal.
One of the positive changes the Government has already made is the Work Programme, the successor to things like the New Deal. To me, it is much more people centred.  Unlike previous schemes, this one is much more tailored to the individual. The provider is allowed to do whatever they want to help someone into work, whether that means getting them a certain qualification, helping equip them with special equipment, or whatever.  So rather than trying to force everyone through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, it is tailored to every person.  Very liberal. The payment-by-results part is weighted according to, broadly speaking, how difficult it is to get someone a job.  Importantly, the majority of the payment to the provider is conditional on that person keeping the job.  So people liable to drop out of a job for whatever reason (such as through lack of support for a particular disability) are targeted better for help, as the provider has an incentive to ensure that person is able to carry on working.
 So some of the stuff being introduced is actually a great improvement on what we inherited.

However,  there are bits of the WRB as it currently stands that I totally disagree with and am actively campaigning against – the arbitrary time limit for contributory ESA for a start. Yes, most people will recover within a year, but some won’t.  It took me two years to recover from an encounter with the Epstein Barr Virus – not an organism to mess with in your 40s, believe me. Had I been reliant on benefits, I’m fairly certain I’d have been put on the treadmill of refusal and appeal simply because my condition was not the same every day. Some days I could barely lift my head off the pillow, others I was able to get up, but it was months before I could spend a whole day out of bed.

And then there are the problems with the Work Capability Assessment. If you have a situation where 40% of its judgments are overturned on appeal, rising to 70% if the people have help in preparing their case, something is clearly wrong.  People in the middle of Cancer treatment, people with long term fluctuating conditions are being told they are fit for work when they very clearly are not.
If we’re aware that half a million people in Scotland are on out of work benefits, and we know some have been there for years, and have maybe never worked, I think it’s right that there’s a process for assessing people to see if something can be done to help them find work. This has to be seen to be fair, though – and people need to have confidence in it.
You need to draw a balance because you don’t want to automatically write somebody off, but nor do you want to impose a requirement to work on somebody who is unlikely to be able to – and a lot of it will be down to the individual and their circumstances.  But I’ve seen it from the other side. My husband was made redundant from British Coal in 1994. He was 42 then, 2 years younger than I am now. He was pretty much told that he wasn’t expected to find work again.
Imagine that – being parked on the scrap heap at a relatively young age.  It doesn’t do much for you confidence.  Luckily, he had the support he needed, from an organisation called British Coal Enterprise which gave him tailored advice with pretty much every job application and helped him pick himself up after yet more rejections. By the time he was called into the DSS as it was then for his 6 months of unemployment  interview, he had filled 2 lever arch files with job applications. They never even looked at them. Even with the support that he had, with a fairly impressive CV, in the economic climate of that time, he took 10 months to find a job. We’ve written too many people off like he was.
There’s a whole load of good intention in this bill – and one thing I know for sure is that our ministers will be fighting like hell in Government to try and make sure that it’s as fair as possible.  I suspect that there’s a whole load going on behind the scenes that we’ll never find out – actually I know so, because Lynne Featherstone told the Guardian debate that at Federal Conference. I know that Mike and our other ministers and MPs have not been hiding themselves away – they’ve been getting out there and listening to people’s concerns – and they are now in a position where they can pass them on directly within the Government.
It doesn’t help, though, when we hear Conservative ministers, and most especially the Prime Minister, use frankly appalling language to describe people on benefits. When David Cameron implied that there were genuinely ill people and those like fat people and alcoholics and drug addicts whose problems were of their own making, I just about spontaneously combusted and I am fairly certain that no Liberal Democrats would agree with that point of view. I know that we have to be careful about the fights we pick in public, but I really think that Nick Clegg needs to call Cameron out when he says ill informed stuff like that.
Already, though, the Government has appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington to look at the Assessment and, crucially, he will continue to do that. All of his initial recommendations, including giving decision makers more to go on than the initial assessment, have been implemented.
Our party showed where its heart was when it debated the changes to ESA at Federal Conference last month. It passed a motion – with a high level of agreement in the hall which made 4 key points which, if enacted, would improve the Bill considerably. I have to claim a little bit of pride here that the successful amendment which had most of the good stuff in it was sponsored by Glasgow North local party.
Firstly, "Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA” sends a very strong message to our ministers and MPs about what we expect of them.  If we really are a compassionate society, we do have to ensure that people who are sick are properly supported. It calls for free legal representation (for example through organisations like the CAB and Law Centres for claimants who are turned down and can't afford to challenge decisions is absolutely vital. I learned in 4 years as an MP's caseworker that Government agencies make mistakes. They are run by humans, after all, so it happens. That's a given. What they do often, though, is dig their heels in and refuse to admit or rectify their mistakes because they know that in the vast majority of cases, they won't be challenged. Often we had to present them with the evidence and be quite robust on several occasions before they would put things right. It's not a coincidence that the percentage of appeals granted goes up to 70% when people have proper representation. You really have to understand some pretty complex stuff and if you are already sick, that can be very difficult, if not impossible to do. We can’t watch people being consigned to a life of poverty, unable to work, yet with no support and unable to fight the bad decision that denied them their benefit. That is wrong and we as Liberal Democrats should stop it happening. And if the process is sufficiently fair, then there won’t be so many wrong decisions. There’s also a presumption that people with long term conditions will be put in the support group - you do have to look at people as individuals, of course, but there are some people who are clearly never going to get better. It is cruel to keep dragging them in for assessments. I know of a fair few people who were denied Incapacity Benefit (as it was), went through the stressful and lengthy appeals process, got their benefits back and almost immediately were plunged into the whole process again. Putting people under this sort of stress exacerbates their condition and makes recovery less likely. Give them a break. The fourth part was all about keeping tabs on ATOS, who, in my opinion, treat people appallingly and make bad recommendations with a flawed assessment tool,. I am very nervous about having such a sensitive system run by a private company anyway. We don't have private companies running courts and the judiciary for a reason. The benefits system should be no different. The motion calls for this to be brought back in house in the longer term. The Bill is on its way through the Lords – and this is a particularly crucial time. I would suggest that all of us who want to see these reforms changed should write to our team in the Lords – Mike German, Celia Thomas and our own Archy Kirkwood are involved – and ask them to do what they can to get the terms of the motion passed at Conference implemented in the Bill. I know that they are also aware of RNIB’s concerns about the visual capability elements being taken out of the Work Capability Assessment, too. On DLA, I understand RNIB’s concerns about the transition to the new Personal Independence Payments – especially when we know that claimants will be assessed. Again what’s key is that we need a fair assessment process that people can feel confident with. People need to see common sense decisions being made. Bob Russell, our MP for Colchester, cited an example at Prime Minister’s Questions a few months back about a constituent who had lost the use of both his legs and who was working. He relied on his motability car to get to work – and a tribunal took it away meaning he couldn’t get himself there. Cameron at least saw the stupidity of that situation. The lessons of the WCA will hopefully have been learned when the DLA assessment is implemented. I think what we all need to do is make it our business to report any incidents of stupid decisions or failures in the system to our ministers and MPs. They’ll be looking for feedback and we need to tell them, raucously if need be,  what’s going on.
 I do think there’s been some missed opportunities though.
I touched earlier on the fact that decisions about people’s benefits are now made in remote centres which people have to call. Now, the staff in there are given 2 minutes to deal with each call and, funnily enough, that’s not often long enough given the complex nature of many people’s cases. So they’re going to call in again and be frustrated all over again. You have to wonder how cost effective that process is. I can’t help thinking that dealing with someone local is actually more efficient and certainly more satisfying probably for everybody. One of the things I’m interested in is ways of improving the quality of service and communication  people on benefits receive. Some of the letters sent out by the Department of Work and Pensions require a degree in rocket science to understand them. You can have 9 pages of writing that tell you precisely nothing. I think we also have to look at what’s happening as a whole. One of Nick Clegg’s great interests is improving mental health. It was the subject  of his first major speech as leader and he’s put £400 million in England into introducing talking therapies. Alison McInnes, our health spokesperson up here raised concerns the other week about the number of people being prescribed anti-depressants. Nearly 400,000 people are claiming ESA due to Depression. If some of them can be brought back to health and then work, surely that has to be a good thing. The Liberal Democrats have consistently throughout a long history spoken up for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. Our hearts are in the right place and we are doing a lot of good things. Freeing people from “poverty ignorance and conformity is hard wired into our DNA. Our ministers are good people and I have a huge amount of confidence in Steve Webb, our guy in the Dept of Work and Pensions.
 Our job as party members is to ensure that our parliamentarians know how we feel about these issues, that they have any evidence about how the system is working or not. My concerns about the benefits system and its fairness are not going to be totally resolved by this Bill, however much it is amended and we need to continue to be vigilant, looking out for how it affects people. And what I’d say to RNIB is that if you go to one of our lot with evidence of a problem, I know it’ll be properly listened to and they will try to do something about it. Steve Webb told our Conference in Birmingham that: working to deliver an affordable social security system which supports those most in need, gives a leg up into work for those who can work, and builds a solid foundation for a secure retirement That’s what we’re aiming for – I hope we’ll see a system that reflects those values.


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