Monday, December 30, 2013


As many of you will know, I've been a fan of Michael Schumacher ever since he came on the Formula 1 scene in 1991. You can imagine  how I'm feeling this morning as the news from Grenoble sounds ever grimmer.

I know that it's par for the course for news to be progressively scarier in the days following a severe brain trauma. Things get a lot worse before they start to get better. I know from my own experience with a friend that when hope appears lost, recovery can come.

My thoughts are with his wife Corinna and all his family and friends. Let's hope that by the time of his birthday on Friday, we are looking at a much calmer, better prognosis.

I've found the tweets from former Formula 1 doctor Gary Hartstein very helpful in understanding what's going on.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Alison McInnes: Scots law is not safe in the hands of the SNP

As the Scottish Parliament continues to debate the removal of corroboration from our legal system, I thought it would be a good idea to publish Alison McInnes MSP's speech to Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in September which gives a good summary of the arguments why this may not be a good idea. Alison is as committed as I am to ensuring justice for victims of domestic and sexual assault, but she doesn't think that removing corroboration will help.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to move this motion today.

A number of key principles must always underpin any justice system.

·         It must be impartial.
·         It must be proportionate.
·         And it must be fair.

Corroboration is the requirement that each crucial fact in a criminal case – namely that a crime was committed and by the accused - must be supported by two different, but mutually enforcing, pieces of evidence.

Now, ours is the only criminal justice system in Europe to require corroboration. So why should we be precious about it?

For hundreds of years, since the foundations of our Scots law were laid, it has been established that that no individual should be convicted of a crime based on the testimony of a single witness.

But I don’t defend it because of tradition.

Rather, I defend it because it protects against miscarriages of justice. The fact is that the word of one person, regardless of their status or perceived character, is not enough.  Similarly, a sole piece of forensic evidence should not be enough to convict.

You cannot remove this pillar of our justice system, without making the whole structure unstable.

In other jurisdictions, in the absence of a corroboration rule, there are a whole series of checks and balances to protect against wrongful conviction.   

For example, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have

·         greater regulation of police investigations.
·         Preliminary hearings to test the quality of evidence.
·         Judges have the power to exclude poor quality or prejudicial evidence.
·         Unanimous verdicts are required in the first instance.
·         And there are wider grounds for appeal following a verdict that could be deemed unsafe.

We do not have any of these necessary safeguards.

But the SNP intends to remove corroboration without ensuring that there are sufficient alternative safeguards in the trial process to give that protection.

Indeed taken with their other reforms – changes to double jeopardy and proposals on the admissibility of evidence of bad character or previous convictions, and we should be very worried. This is a profound change – sweeping aside centuries of well-established Scottish legal practice.

Conference, Scots Law is not safe in the hands of the Scottish National Party.

In Scotland the Crown prosecutes in the public interest. We must guard against any shift towards prosecuting in the victim’s interest. That would be at odds with our fundamental liberal belief in the need for a robust, transparent and independent justice system.

We need to defend the principle of the presumption of innocence and safeguard against false accusation, wrongful conviction and miscarriages of justice.

The SNP’s proposals will mean that someone could be convicted on the basis of the testimony of just one person, even if five of the fifteen jurors believe that they are innocent.

Witnesses can be honest yet mistaken. Their evidence persuasive but wrong.

And, unfortunately, witnesses do sometimes lie to the police and in court- out of earnest to ensure that the accused is convicted, because of the strength of their convictions or through spite.

I am concerned that scrapping corroboration could mean that false accusations could become more common. The Law Society of Scotland warns that trials could be reduced to “a contest between two competing statements on oath”.

Corroboration should not be seen as a cumbersome requirement that blocks cases being taken to trial.

It does not simply deliver a quantity of evidence. It is ensures the quality of it. It reinforces facts. It confirms facts. It is a way to test the reliability and credibility of evidence. It is key to determining the guilt or otherwise of the accused.

We cannot allow trials to hinge on lesser evidence. Wrongful convictions bring the law into disrepute. Justice Scotland has said the removal of corroboration will risk “justice being undone”.

The SNP claim that corroboration is a barrier to justice, particularly for those victims of sexual crimes.  But the research they rely on is scant - a cursory desk top study carried out by the Crown Office. In the absence of clear in-depth evidence, it would be reckless to proceed in blind hope.

Now, Conference, I am sure that you will agree with me that conviction rates for rape remain stubbornly low.

Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly share the aspiration to improve conviction rates.  No one should be beyond the reach of our justice system. We must strive to ensure that the victims of rape, sexual assaults and domestic abuse receive the justice they deserve.

There are a number of ways to tackle that – for example a much more rigorous approach to the gathering of forensic evidence, and we could examine the idea of rape victims being represented by a lawyer in the court, something that happens in Belgium. 

However, contrary to the SNP’s claim, there is a real danger that scrapping corroboration could actually reduce the chances of victims of these crimes securing justice.

We might get more cases into court, but there is no evidence that we would secure any more convictions. The alleged victim could face a much more aggressive cross examination in the absence of supporting evidence. Juries are less likely to convict on the say so of one piece of evidence. More acquittals or not proven verdicts in these cases will not help anyone.

There’s a long list of those who warn against losing this vital safeguard.

·         The Senators of the College of Justice.
·         The Law Society of Scotland.
·         The Faculty of Advocates.
·         Justice Scotland.
·         The Scottish Human Rights Commission

The Justice Secretary would be foolish to ignore all those voices.

Like you, I am proud to say that I joined the Liberal Democrats because I believe in a just, free and fair society.

It is therefore a privilege to be my party’s justice spokesperson, to have the opportunity to champion these values, and to lead the fight against a succession of ill-considered and botched reforms from Kenny MacAskill and the SNP.

In the face of their dogged desire to centralise services, increase ministerial control, and push reforms through without hesitation or due consideration, we need strong liberal voices at Holyrood and across Scotland.

They abolished our local police forces. They are closing our local courts.  And now, through the Criminal Justice Bill, they want to get rid of corroboration.

We are on a slippery slope, not to independence but to injustice. 

If our justice system fails to uphold the right to a fair trial then it also fails to serve victims of crime. It fails to serve Scotland.

I urge members to join me in voting for this motion. Join me in sending a message to the SNP that it cannot cut corners when it is dealing with those issues that matter most to us as Liberal Democrats - justice, freedom and fairness.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Here be many spoilers, so if you haven't watched The Time of the Doctor, do not read any further

I've watched it twice now. And I think I probably need to watch it a few more times before I properly understand it. I can't come out and say that I loved last night's Doctor Who Christmas special. That was never going to be on the cards, though. I've loved Matt Smith as the Doctor, however much I've occasionally been annoyed at the directions his character has taken. That's not his fault, though. He acted the scripts the writers gave him with more flair, quirkiness and originality than even they could possibly have imagined. His last show was always going to be an ordeal, an assault on my emotions. Even 4 years on, I cry whenever I watch David Tennant's regeneration. And 8 years on my reaction to Eccleston's isn't that much easier.

And so we come to Steven Moffat. His ears must have been burning last night. Twitter exploded, evenly split between outrage and adoration for the episode. How very Twitter. I'm quite happy to criticise Moffat and his predecessor as head writer and executive producer Russell T Davies when I think they get it wrong, but let's get a bit of perspective here. 25 years ish ago, Michael Grade took Doctor Who from its safe Saturday tea time slot and put it up against Coronation Street in the hope of killing it once and for all. In 2013, fresh from the triumphant 50th anniversary episode, Doctor Who went up against Corrie on Christmas Day and whipped its backside. And that's down to great writing, great acting and great production values. Moffatt is the guy in charge and he deserves gratitude and credit for his part in the sustained revival of the show I feel in love with when I was just 7 years old.

Just as an aside, I have Corrie recorded and I know I'm going to howl my eyes out at that, too. The authenticity and tenderness which David Neilson and Julie Hesmondhalgh bring to Hayley's terminal cancer storyline is phenomenal. The real mix of emotions, from anger to poignant moments of joy to shock and fear just jump out at all of us.

But back to Who. Last night's episode, for the hardcore fan, was going to be a very different beast from last month's The Day of the Doctor. In that one, Moffat managed to satisfy fans with lots of in jokes and a secret kept - the appearance of Tom Baker as the Curator - and appeal to new audiences too. That was never really on the cards for the Christmas Special. For a start, he had to tie up the loose ends in stories that some of the fandom didn't like anyway. He did it, although he had to use a pretty big shoehorn at times.

This episode had action, drama, pathos, creepiness and comedy all packed into an emotional adrenaline-filled hour. That bit towards the end when you went from the noise of a battle scene to the poignant and tearful regeneration. We all knew it was coming, but Moffat managed to mess with our heads enough, changing what has become the established pattern of a regeneration so that when Capaldi's head literally popped out of Matt Smith's neck in a flash, we were all surprised. Very clever.

Moffat is a bloody genius. No doubt about that. I do, though, have one huge plea for him in the new series. He has to learn how to write better female characters. Women seem to come in two types in his universe. River or Amy. I mean Tasha Lem was a "hello sweetie" away from being almost a carbon copy of River Song, right down to the alien takeover that she had to fight. And "hey babes" isn't really that far away, is it? I guess the excuse would be that the programming River was subjected to was based on Tasha Lem by the Kovarian line who went back to try to kill the Doctor before he ever arrived in Trenzalore. Not buying it, though. Orla Brady was brilliant, though. Pity she wasn't allowed to age, though, like the Doctor, because you couldn't possibly have a woman doing that, could you?

And then there was Handles, the cyber head he had picked up at the nicely named Maldovar Market, a tribute to the excellent Dorium Maldovar from A Good Man goes to War. Not sure I liked the way the Doctor slapped him when he got irritated, but as things which replace the TARDIS when the ship isn't available go, he was pretty good. A slightly mawkish ending for him, though.

The beginning of the episode was action-packed, although if you are being sensible you have to ask what the earthly point was of the Doctor going aboard all these ships when he knew perfectly well who was on them. But at least we got to see the Doctor in mortal peril from his sworn, ancient enemies.

We now come to the entirely gratuitous nudity.  It was funny on board the TARDIS, but, and this is a big failing of Moffat's Eleventh Doctor, why on earth did he think it was appropriate to turn up at Christmas Dinner with Clara's family in the buff?  The Doctor has learnt enough about humans in a millennium to know that's a pretty serious social gaffe. But then, it's entirely appropriate in a retrospective in which we are saying farewell to this character.

I wonder if, under Capaldi's tenure, we'll be able to have a non-Victoriana Christmas Special. The village of Christmas, snowy and romantic, would have been fine if similar hadn't featured so relentlessly. I mean, the Doctor has the whole of time and space at his disposal, yet what is allowed to depict Christmas is very narrow. Yea, I know he suits that period, but let's ring some changes, please. The truth field was brilliant, though. And the Weeping Angels were incredibly creepy. And did we all laugh at the reversing the polarity bit?

No sooner had the Doctor and Clara arrived than they found the crack that joined up the last 4 years' dots. And then, just like in Mercy, the Doctor appoints himself the Sheriff.

There was a symmetry with the beginning of his tenure, leaving a child waiting again, just like he did with Amelia Pond. And of course he was kept waiting by the TARDIS this time, who had Clara clinging to her in the time vortex.

You have to wonder, though, why when he returned there the second time, with TARDIS in tow, why he didn't just take all the people of Christmas somewhere else and left Trenzalore to the daleks. That would have been way too easy.

Steven Moffat said at last month's 50th anniversary convention that Matt Smith's performance in this episode was the best of any Doctor ever. He was pretty darned good, especially as he aged from young, to old, to ancient.

And what of the time lords? Back, but off-screen back. You can bet your life that the new regeneration cycle is for their benefit, not the Doctor's. Maybe the events of the Day of the Doctor made them nice people, but I'm too much of a cynic to believe that it was done purely out of altruism on hearing Clara's heartfelt plea. The Doctor is their passport back. What will they want him to do for them? There are endless scenarios as to how this could play out. They won't all come back at once, I bet. One or two will get out at a time, with different motivations. And if one nice lot has given the Doctor a new life cycle, what's the chances of another lot doing the same for the Master?

The last 6 weeks have been an unprecedented time in the life of the show and the character. It's strange to think we've had 3 regenerations in that time, all of them different. McGann's to the War Doctor was induced by the Sisterhood of Karn. The War Doctor's to Eccleston took on the form we've become used to, beacons of light streaming from the limbs. That's what we were all expecting. But no. We get the flashy bit, complete with triumphal cry of "Love from Gallifrey, boys," then Clara opens the TARDIS door, not knowing who she's going to meet in there, and it's all familiar. He's young Eleven again. That's when it gets teary. Karen Gillan's brief appearance and "Raggedy man, goodnight" had me howling. Then there was the tenderness of that last "hey" to Clara before Capaldi appeared in a split second.

I was thrilled to hear his Scottish accent as he mouthed off about colour schemes and kidneys. He still seems a bit like Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS, but that will change as we see him properly get in to the role.

I doubt I'll ever be able to say I loved it. My emotions are still wrecked. My hopes are high, though. That's all you really need from a regeneration episode, surely?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

So this is what being a floating voter feels like...

I've never gone into a polling booth wondering how I'd vote. Even that time in 90s Edwinstowe when my choices were Labour and the Tories. There was no way I could ever vote Tory so I crossed my fingers behind my back, clicked my heels three times and ticked the red box. I had to have a shower afterwards but I'd had my say.

Even in party leadership elections, when I've wanted them to be scrabbling for my votes, I make my mind up far too soon then throw myself into the campaign of my chosen one.

But tonight, I approach the Strictly Come Dancing final, for the first time ever, with not a clue of which of the fantastic four finalists I want to win. They are all lovely and they are all very good. I can't wait for 6:30 to come. I just wish they could all win. I feel energised and enthusiastic.

I've only occasionally watched The X Factor or I'm a celebrity this year because I was significantly underwhelmed by the contestants. Neither show grabbed my attention, not even with Vincent from Strictly in the jungle.

I know that tv show polls are not the same as elections but even so, there are lessons here for political parties and referendum campaigns. None of it is rocket science. It's basic stuff around being likeable, engaging and connecting with people. Or not. 

The scratchy, grumpy independence referendum campaign is definitely more X Factor than Strictly. And so will the 2015 election be if we don't all pull up our socks and present a worthwhile choice with some properly radical ideas. 

And now I am going to talk dance with a brief summary of each of the Strictly finalists

Abbey and Alijaz

I never expected to like Abbey, which is really rubbish of me as all I'd heard abut her was viewed through the omnipresent prism of media misogyny. She's lovely, though. Warm, funny, hard-working, talented, she's partnered with a talented choreographer in Alijaz. Their quickstep to Walking on Sunshine was so bright and scrumptious.

Because of her lower profile, she is unlikely to have the core vote available to Natalie (Corrie) and Susanna (BBC). That's ended her up in the dance-off. She has been over-marked at times. Too. 

Natalie and Artem

Natalie gets a lot of stick online cos people think she's a professional dancer. Ballroom and Latin are completely new to her. She is an incredibly funny and pleasant person. She was replying to tweets from me long before she was in Strictly. She's also had some real struggles with illness and injury on the show, missing one week after collapsing in rehearsals. 

Artem's choreography is unique but I don't always like it or the music mash ups he has been known for. I just regret we didn't see their jive. 

I don't think their regular position as judges' favourites helps.

They were, shockingly, in the dance off last week after topping the leader board. I had voted for her every week till then but took the tactical decision to vote for Susanna and Sophie to keep them out of the dance off. I knew if Natalie got into the dance off against anyone, she was guaranteed a win so I needed to keep them out.

Sophie and Brendan

Brendan's choreography has been original and so creative - and difficult. Those lifts in last week's American Smooth were beautiful and showcased Sophie Ellis-Bextor to perfection. 

There is nothing I don't love about this partnership. Sophie's biggest enemy is her nerves but her fragile grace and sense of rhythm are such a delight to watch. There is nothing I wouldn't do to see their Charleston again. They must go through to the final 3.

Susanna and Kevin

Susanna Reid from BBC Breakfast and her partner ubiquitously known as Kevin from Grimsby are the pair we can all identify with. They are very down to earth and while their dancing may not be technically perfect but they've given me goosebumps more than anybody else. I love them. 

Good luck to them all. It'll be a brilliant final. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Federal Executive report 9 December 2013

This week's meeting of the Federal Executive could have been a fractious affair as we were discussing both the future of Spring Conference and the future of the interim peers' panel. In the end, it was very consensual and amicable. We also passed next year's Federal Party budget, talked about membership (growing) and the S/AO Group, of which I'm a member, reported on its work. We are trying to develop a tool kit to help S/AOs along the lines that they've been feeding back to us that they would like to see. We're also wanting to be more proactive about communicating with S/AOs and keeping in touch with what they are doing.

Obviously, there are limits to what I can say on a public blog about FE's deliberations, but if you are a party member and you have questions, please contact me privately on Facebook, Twitter (@caronmlindsay) or by email caronsmusingsATgooglemailDOTcom.

Even those who had initially advocated a big change to the format of Spring conference noted that the consensus in the party was opposed. Both Federal Policy Committee and Federal Conference Committee had rejected the idea of reducing the event to one day as had the majority of the responses to the consultation. We decided in the end to look at ways of encouraging digital engagement to allow more people to take part and at ways of reducing costs without altering the format.

I had been very keen that no changes should be made without Conference's say so. It would have been ludicrous for us as FE to have made a decision about Conference in 2016 when there was plenty time to take that to Conference. The point was made, though, that those who couldn't go to Conference wouldn't have a say in that. In all the years I couldn't go to Federal Conference, I never once thought it shouldn't happen. Affordability wasn't the major issue for me, although it was certainly part of the story.

On the interim peers panel, a motion from the FE will be brought to Spring Conference in York. I can't tell you the wording because it's going to be redrafted taking into account the views expressed at the meeting. I think that Sue Doughty's committee have done some excellent work on this, balancing all the views they've had from across the party. They've come up with something that should make the system more democratic and that the leader is more likely to use. I spoke in favour of wording that gave the leader slightly less wiggle room. However, Nick has shown more willing on this than any leader before him and I'm sure that he will embrace the new system once it's up and running. I just wanted to make sure that any future leader would get the message that the party values this method of choosing our peers.I also feel that there is a very strong case for appointing a much greater proportion of women to help redress the appalling imbalances elsewhere.

Anyway, here are mine and others' tweets from the occasion, collected in a nice Storify thingy.

Did Government misrepresent Professor Harrington's view on Employment and Support Allowance rollout?

I've written many times about the problems with the Government's Work Capability Assessment, the tool, implemented by ATOS, used to decide who qualifies for Employment and Support Allowance.

The WCA was first introduced by Labour for new ESA claimants in 2008 and its flaws were immediately clear. It took no account of fluctuating conditions or mental health conditions and even after reviews still bore little resemblance to assessing someone's actual fitness for work.

The Coalition had everyone who was claiming the old Incapacity Assessment put through the Work Capability Assessment. This has led to some really quite appalling decisions. I'm sure many of you will have your own examples, but one which was cited to me was of a man with severe agoraphobia, who hadn't left his home in quarter of a century being pronounced fit for work.

The Government has set great store in claiming that it's been following the recommendations of former independent reviewer Professor Malcolm Harrington. Prominent welfare campaigner Sue Marsh could never understand why Harrington had agreed to a system that he found to be flawed to be rolled out to assess the most complex cases before the changes were implemented. So she decided to do find out - by asking him.

Her post here on her Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog contains, shall we say, inconsistencies between what Tory minister told the Commons in February 2012 and what Harrington told Sue just recently. Have a read and judge for yourself.

If that's the case, then it makes me even angrier than I was already about the treatment of our most vulnerable sick and disabled people. I know of one friend whose benefit was stopped as they had had ESA for more than a year and was told they were fit for work. It was patently clear that they were not. Over a year on, a subsequent ATOS medical has decided that they should be in the support group. Ok, so they made the right decision, but my friend doesn't get that year of poverty and stress back.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Autumn Statement - 5 quick thoughts from me

I don't pretend to be an economist so don't expect any commentary on debts or deficits from me. I want to take a very quick look at some of the practical aspects of the Chancellor's Autumn Statement.

I'm not taking any marriage tax break

If Liberal Democrats hadn't allowed the Tories their awful marriage tax break, we'd have been breaking the Coalition Agreement in the same way as the Tories did over Lords Reform. I would have preferred we hadn't agreed to it in the first place. We won't be voting for it, at least but that's no small comfort to seeing £700 million that could be used so much more effectively (see Don't Judge my Family's wonderful Advent calendar) being frittered away as a sop to the Tory right.

My husband and I could benefit from this, but we have decided that we won't because it's insulting and discriminatory.

Priority housing status for workers is meaningless if there are no houses

So, if you need to move to take a job and you live in social housing, you'll get priority on the lists. We'll leave to the side the fact that you may be jumping the queue ahead of people who have been waiting for years for a house that meets their needs. Priority status means nothing though if there isn't enough social housing. Councils already can't house the people with high priority. How on earth does Osborne expect them to be able to house workers?

I'll grant you that the Coalition has made a start on ensuring more affordable housing is being built, and Liberal Democrats have policy that would result in 25,000 more council houses being built in England. This is a drop in the ocean to what's required. It's about time all parties stopped being so timid and worked together to make sure that in 21st century Britain everyone has access to a decent home. That surely isn't too much to ask.

Scotland gains - but will the SNP government put its new money where its mouth is?

Scotland is to get an extra £308 million over the next two years. The SNP Government could choose to spend it on the childcare it says is so critical but they would only be able to do after independence. Well, they have the power to do it already. It's over to them. Alistair Carmichael made that pretty clear that the choice was theirs:
The Scottish Government can now plan to spend this money in line with its priorities.  The rest of the UK is already ahead of Scotland in providing childcare support, free school meals and, with this Autumn Statement, support for the high street too so that the shops we value and rely on get a little money back to help them succeed.
 The Scottish Government has been given the money to do these things too.  They can match the help that families and businesses are getting in other parts of the UK. They could crack on with childcare package they announced last week, but are making conditional on a yes vote to independence.  They can do these things, or they can spend the money elsewhere.  These are the choices that they must make.
Let's just say I'm not going to be holding my breath.

More measures to help young people into work

Employers' National Insurance Contributions will be abolished for under 21s. This is a good thing. I'd have liked to have seen it accompanied, though, by equalisation of the national minimum wage. Often, under 21s do exactly the same work as those over 21, yet their is a £2.59 per hour difference in what they are paid. But, of course, these large profitable companies that employ young people on the minimum wage couldn't possibly afford that, could they?

And while we're on young people, Osborne did make a lot of the fact that the applications for university from people from poorer backgrounds were at highest level. This issue is painful for us, and rightly so, but the assertions from Labour that no poor young person would ever be able to go to university again were clearly nonsense.

Why do MPs have to behave like brats?

If you aren't a political anorak, chances are the only time you'll see the House of Commons on tv is for the big set-piece occasions like Prime Minister's Questions, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. You are therefore likely to come away with the idea that MPs are a bunch of rude, uncouth, loud, unpleasant brats who can't just sit nicely and listen to what is being said. As Nick Robinson said on the Daily Politics, it's done on purpose to put the speaker off, to make them look all red-faced and flustered. Ed Balls was dying on his backside perfectly well without the rabble from the braying Tories.

Seriously, though, people think that politicians are like that all the time when actually, when you take them out of that bear pit, most of them are decent human beings who you could happily have a pint with. It's not good for politics when they behave like that. The economy isn't just about numbers and debts and deficits. What they are discussing has a direct effect on people's lives in many ways every single day, whether it's the amount of pay they take home, or how much it costs them to fill their car or heat their homes. The very least they could do is take it seriously, especially when so many people are really struggling. MPs should think about this the next time they descend into juvenile banter.
Again, I won't be holding my breath.


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