Monday, August 30, 2010

In which I (kind of) disagree with Nick on Paternity Leave

Most babies are cute, but they actually don't come much cuter than Florence Cameron, the Prime Minister's new baby daughter, as the first photos of her showed. I don't often link to the Fail, but there are rare occasions, when they print pictures of beautiful babies, that it's appropriate. She clearly has her daddy wrapped round her little finger, which is exactly how it should be. He looks completely  knackered with great big bags under his eyes. He clearly hasn't had much in the way of sleep but he's utterly besotted! Very touching.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg  is now standing in for David Cameron for a further period as the Prime Minister takes paternity leave.  He told a Q and A meeting in Croydon the other day of the Government's plans to reform parental leave so that it becomes more flexible and interchangeable. This I fully support as it treats families like grown ups and lets them make the decision that is right for their family. He went on to say that being forced to take paternity leave when the baby was just born wasn't fair. Again I agree.

However I will take a bit of issue with this comment:
 "You take two weeks off at the beginning, bluntly, when the baby is barely aware of your existence and you're of least help."
This view has been echoed by Dazmando on Bracknell Blog who said:

I also think it would be better if paternity could be taken at a later date if required, say in 6 months time when it may be more practical to help out as a father (I'm not going to be very good at breast feeding). 

People must have the choice to decide for themselves, but I don't want any dad or impending dad to think he's of no help in the first couple of weeks. I don't know how I would have survived without Bob who was at home with me for 3 weeks when Anna was born.  I will spare you the gory details, but the path to blissful breastfeeding was quite a traumatic one. At one point, he was sterilising various equipment for me every 2 hours so we could get milk into her. He did the washing, the shopping, the cooking and fully supported me as I recovered from giving birth. He was utterly magnificent, I have to say. He was worked pretty much round the clock and we didn't even have any other kids. 

I just felt it was important to emphasise how much dads help in these first few weeks - clearly a lot more than they think.

Having said all of that, I like the way that this new Government is giving people choice in this, rather than the Labour way of "this is how it's going to be, take it or leave it". 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Outdoor nursery's future threatened by hand washing rules

Lucy White enjoys climbing a tree at the Secret Garden (reproduced with permission of Alex White)
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I've written angrily before about common sense being flung out the window when it comes to "child safety". Despite my own over-anxiety as a mum, I realise that swaddling children in red tape is neither sensible nor effective.

I've recently been made aware of another example of over zealousness on this issue and this time it's personal because it affects some of my favourite people in the World.

My friend Alex sends her four year old daughter Evie to an outdoor nursery in Fife called the Secret Garden. Every Thursday, Evie and her classmates walk a mile and a half into the nearby woods and spend the whole day there. Her older sister, Lucy, who's six, went for 6 months before she started school last year. Alex says that she can see the benefits in both girls:
 I've found that they get a whole heap of confidence in themselves from challenging themselves and pushing their boundaries physically in the forest. There's a certain glow and a glint in their eyes that they've both had after a day in the woods, and it's not just a healthy glow from being outdoors - they shine from the inside! Secret Garden is a completly different experience to regular nursery - not only is it permanently outdoors, but it's truly child led, with the staff really just overseeing their activities - it's nomadic too with the children's input into which part of the woods they visit being highly respected.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the Secret Garden's existence is under threat because  Health Protection Scotland  has produced a report which states that children in an outdoor play environment should wash their hands under running water with soap several times a day.  These times include:
 after toiletting and nappy changing; before and after eating anything; before drinking; after sneezing, coughing, or blowing their noses; whenever the hands are visibly dirty; before going home. These seem to me to be guidelines which would be completely impractical in a classroom setting. Can you imagine a teacher with a class of 20 kids having to make sure that they all went off to the toilet to wash their hands with soap every time they coughed or sneezed or blew their nose? How disruptive would that be? The kids would never learn anything.

The thing about the forest is that there aren't many sinks around the place so the staff currently use things like hand gel and wipes to clean the children's hands. Given that they reach their woodland destination on foot, it just would not be either reasonable or practicable to expect them to carry water as well as all the things they need for the day.

For some years now, scientists have been concerned that our obsession with cleanliness, and shielding ourselves from every possible sort of bacteria, can do more harm than good. In order for children's immune systems to develop, they need to be exposed to germs.  

I came across this excellent article from the Guardian from a few weeks ago which makes the case for projects like the Secret Garden,, arguing that our obsession with cleanliness and our anxiety that there's a paedophile behind every tree harms our children because they're not getting the chance to learn about nature or about their ow boundaries. The article quotes naturalist Stephen Moss:
"Nature is a tool,to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves." So climbing a tree, he says, is about "learning how to take responsibility for yourself, and how – crucially – to measure risk for yourself. Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward."
When my husband was a little boy, he spent loads of time playing unsupervised in the forest. He'd disappear after breakfast and return home when he was hungry. He actually went, shock horror, collecting mushrooms because he'd been taught by his mum which were edible and which were poisonous. She was always delighted when he came back with a bag of edible fungi for their breakfast. I strongly suspect that he went from morning till night without washing his hands on more than one occasion.

One of my best friends and her brother were brought up on a farm and they used to disappear off with a picnic in the morning and re-appear at tea-time. They played unsupervised in streams, climbed trees and did all sorts of "dangerous" things that would make many modern parents' hair curl in fright. In contrast, my knowledge of the natural world is shockingly bad partly because I never had those opportunities as a child.

It's in response to concerns such as those expressed by Stephen Moss that the Scottish Government has been supporting the initiatives which encourage outdoor education.  I was amazed to find that there are learning resources which support outdoor learning even at secondary level. Have a look at the depth of information in  this Scottish workshop on biodiversity, suitable for teaching at all ages.

It would be grim if projects such as the Secret Garden, recognised as valuable by one arm of Government, was shut down by another. I think they need to look at the risks in the context of the benefits to the whole child. Otherwise they risk throwing the child out with the hand washing water.

And then there's the issue of parental choice. Alex feels her views, and her ability to assess for herself the risks and benefits involved are not being considered. She's made the decision to send her daughters to this nursery for a reason:
For me, this issue is highly frustrating as I am Evie's parent, I am aware fully of the risks and benefits of the Secret Garden, and I am making the informed choice to send her there. But that appears to count for absolutely nothing!!
I hope that common sense prevails and Health Protection Scotland and the Care Commission do not consign the Secret Garden, and other pioneering facilities like it, to history. I understand that they have a number of experts on their side willing to argue their case, which is encouraging.

If, like me, you want to support the Secret Garden, follow them on Twitter to keep up to date with what's happening and contact them to express support or offer help.

Labour didn't love NHS Direct

There's been a lot of controversy about the Government's decision to close down NHS Direct in England and, as usual, the Labour Party have gone into overdrive to save it.

NHS Direct seems to me to be a very different organisation to NHS 24 which is effectively a triage service for out of hours care in Scotland.  Where NHS Direct appears to just  give advice, NHS 24's nurses will actually book the appointment at the out of hours service, or call an ambulance for you if necessary. The aim is that everyone who needs to be seen out of hours will be examined by a doctor.  Any decisions that affect NHS 24 will be made in Scotland by Scottish ministers. I think that there is a clear case for the service NHS 24 provides in Scotland. The days when every surgery had its own on-call GP are gone for the foreseeable future.

In England, Andrew Lansley has decided that NHS Direct is not the best use of NHS resources and is piloting a new helpline 111 service. Does that sound familiar? I certainly thought I'd heard about it before.

I had. On page 35 of this year's Labour Party manifesto, sits the following paragraph:
"A new, national 111 telephone number will make non emergency services far easier for people to access and book."
So they would have had this running alongside NHS Direct, doing much the same job, would they?  Course not! Yet Andy Burnham accuses Andrew Lansley of being on a "vindictive mission to break up the NHS" when he would have done the same thing himself.

Yet again Labour shamelessly puts bile and headline grabbing before credibility. They are taking people for fools in opposition in much the same way as they did in Government.

I do however, agree with Andrew, that the correct place for this announcment to be made was in Parliament, not the Sunday papers in the middle of the Summer recess.

F1: A Birthday Belgian Bonanza for Mark Webber?

The track at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium  is one of my favourites of the F1 calendar. It's fast and owes much of its lush, green beauty to the frequent rain showers its little micro-climate bestows on it. A weekend at Spa without rain is as unimaginable as going to a Liberal Democrat conference and finding nobody willing to talk about land value taxation.

Spa nearly always throws up surprises. Michael Schumacher has won there from 16th on the grid. He and David Coulthard had their infamous coming together in the rain there. Force India got their first ever pole position and podium there last year and it was the scene of Kimi Raikonnen's only victory of his (hopefully not) last Formula One season in 2009.

At some circuits, being on pole position is as close as you'll ever get to a guarantee of victory. Not so at Spa . That will be very much in the mind of today's pole sitter, Championship leader Mark Webber. He grabbed the 12th Red Bull pole out of 13 of the season in a thrilling session that was livened by rain and the threat of rain.

I am hoping that this might just be Mark Webber's year. I have a lot of respect for him because he knows what it's like to struggle to get somewhere in F1. He knows what it's like to come back from an horrific injury. Of the five main contenders for the Championship, he's the one I want to win. I hesitate to say that because I clearly jinxed Rubens last year.  He's only 4 points clear in the championship at the moment and a win at Spa would certainly stamp his authority on the race for the title.

He will be helped by the fact that drivers have been expressly forbidden from doing what Kimi did last year, sneaking ahead by going on the run-off area round the La Source hairpin, but there are so many variables about Spa where literally anything can, and usually does, happen.  I'm not even prepared to rule out Schumi from the points, racing at one of his favourite tracks, even though he's starting from 21st on the grid because of a 10 place grid drop imposed by the stewards after an incident we just won't talk about in Hungary

Ok, we will talk about it - having seen it, it's not as bad as I expected from all the fuss and I can understand his defence of it. From the media outcry, you'd think that he was the only driver ever to vigorously defend his line. These things happen all the time in F1 - but if your name is Michael Schumacher, they attract much more disapproval. Lewis Hamilton got away with weaving in front of Robert Kubica in Malaysia.

Mark Webber celebrated his 34th birthday on Friday, which actually turned out to be a bit of a dismal one for him in practice. Just as the track started to dry, the session was red flagged because some spectators were apparently dangerously close to it, preveting him from the chance to set a decent time. Let's hope Spa treats him better today.

"Ten Reasons why Gay Marriage is wrong"

I'm following in the footsteps of Stephen and Micheàl in posting this as it's worth sharing.The original came from Will McGarvey who was reposting Mitchell Sturgess on Facebook.  If you know me at all, you'll have realised that it's not quite as the headline suggests.....

01) Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning. 

02) Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall. 

03) Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract. 

04) Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can't marry whites, and divorce is still illegal. 

05) Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed. 

06) Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn't be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren't full yet, and the world needs more children. 

07) Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children. 

08) Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That's why we have only one religion in America. 

09) Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children. 

10) Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven't adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans. 

Re-post this if you believe love makes a marriage.

And as a bit of a Sunday Morning bonus, here's Idina Menzel singing Gorgeous. As she says, if you love somebody, you don't have to answer to anybody.....

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe: Now I Know my BBC - Toby Hadoke

As you'll know if you read my review of Toby Hadoke's Moths ate my Doctor Who scarf, that show inspired me to see his new production, Now I know my BBC.

This was an eloquent and incredibly funny look back at the television shows of my youth. I had thought that it would be a bit of a challenge to the BBC to buck up its ideas. But no, actually, his main point was that we need to appreciate the uniqueness of the BBC, how its public funding means that it has the potential to be properly creative, to not be scared about offending potential advertisers like commercial television. He talked about how it was perfectly entitled to get things wrong - and just because we paid for it didn't mean we had to like every single thing it produced. His thinking had a strong liberal thread running through it, which obviously appealed to me.

This message was delivered within a beautifully crafted hour long journey, taking you from Grange Hill to the Clangers to the Generation Game, Newsround, a very brief mention of Doctor Who, Points of View, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, and beyond, with each being described, for the younger members of the audience, as being like Hollyoaks but....... His description of Howards' Way, and particularly his preoccupation with the apostrophe being in the right place legitimises my own attention to detail on that subject.

I can't say I've thought much about Larry Grayson since I was about Anna's age and it was only last night that the penny finally dropped for me about the significance of his friend Everard's name.

Anyway, all of this was interspersed with anecdotes from his childhood,  joking about how he was bullied at school and about his life as the youngest sibling in a house where there wasn't a huge amount of money. The show ended with a surprising twist which I won't spoil for you, but, like Moths ate my Doctor Who scarf, was very heartwarming and incredibly sensitively done.

Unlike Moths, which was delivered in a spacious auditorium at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, this show took place in a small room in the Underbelly to a much smaller audience.  He was able to command the big stage and cope with the intimacy of the smaller set up, reading the audience very well.

One thing about this show, though, is that, having never seen an episode of Hollyoaks in my life, I now feel almost obliged to watch one. This is not necessarily a good thing but I am absolutely certain that this is a function of the quirky way my mind works and wasn't Toby Hadoke's intention.

It takes someone very talented to be able to deliver a show which makes you laugh, a lot, almost till you cry, encourages you to think and makes you feel all at the same time. It's clear to me that the BBC should give him his own show as soon as possible.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Do you have an embarrassing story to tell?

I have just entered this competition on author Keris Stainton's website in which you have to tell about an embarrassing moment. The best stories, published anonymously to spare the guilty, will be voted for by readers on her blog. An iPod Touch is up for grabs.

I am fairly certain that many of the readers of this blog will have a suitable experience to enter so I thought I'd tell you about it.

As far as the iPod Touch is concerned, I got one in April and although it is slowly reprogramming my brain to want every single Apple product ever made, I'm coping with that. Just. I do love it though - I actually use it more as a web browser than anything else and it's F1 Live Timing application is amazing.

So, if you want the chance of one too, just go and spill the beans on that embarrassing secret. You might even find it therapeutic. Good luck!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The BOTYS - Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year suggestions

So, finally, we've got to the Big One, the Grand Prix, the Cordon Bleu Jaune: the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year.

There are lots of fantastic Lib Dem Blogs out there, but my suggestions for the shortlist are in my opinion the pick of the bunch. They all have different strengths, specialities and reasons to love them.

First up, the best blogging elephant in the history of the world's very fluffy diary.

Key strengths: strategic capitalisation and making up funny nicknames for people; explaining things about tax and the economy in a way that's not only comprehensible, but interesting; taking the time to really deeply analyse an argument; a love of Doctor Who.

Specialities: the economy - nobody can explain how to deal with a deficit quite like Millennium. His analysis of the Coalition's first hundred days shows why. Also special aptitude for dealing with the crap that the Fail and its evil brothers and sisters come out with. I loved his report of what his Daddy Richard would have said at the Special Conference on the Coalition:

During the election, we we're attacked – attacked by both other parties – for our policy on immigration, and it was because we allowed them to frame the question, to define immigration as the "problem".

Immigration is NOT the problem – the problem is housing, the problem is jobs, the problem is employers forcing wages down, the problem is pressure on services… immigration is a scape-goat for these things, a convenient excuse from a Labour government that had let down its own voters.

Conference, I live in Tower Hamlets, one of the most diverse Boroughs in the United Kingdom. And, yes, despite lying in the shadow of glittering wealth at Canary Wharf, one of the poorest. Look at our history: Huguenots in Spitalfields, Chinese in Limehouse, Jews in Cable Street, Bangladeshi in Brick Lane… these weren't people coming to "sponge" off us; they were coming to take up the opportunity that a free and Liberal society offered.

David Cameron is being hailed as "the new Disraeli"; when Disraeli was Prime Minister there weren't any Little Englander worries about immigration; people were welcomed for the talents that they could bring.

Britain is built on immigration. We are stronger for immigration, for all those people with get up and go who got up and came here, to these lucky islands.

But it's more personal than that. My partner is Alex Wilcock – you may have heard the cheers for his intervention – and his Mum is a "Non-EU immigrant". If there'd been a cap on immigration, I might never have seen my Alex.

This little pachyderm sums up for me what liberalism is all about. He's been on the shortlist for the last 2 years - will it be 3rd time lucky for the top prize?

I had thought that Mark Thomson's Mark Reckons blog would have been an absolute certainty for the shortlist if not the award before his announcement last week that he was stopping blogging.  He has had a ground-breaking almost 2 years and his absence will leave a huge void.

Key strengths: strong, evidence based posts on controversial subjects like drugs; clear headed stuff on political reform; live Question Time chats; in depth interviews with key people like drugs expert Professor David Nutt.

Specialities: a strong voice in the Blogosphere against blanket prohibition without evidence, particularly in relation to drugs. I still think his post linking MPs' expenses to the safety of their seats, which was picked up by Polly Toynbee, did more to advance the cause of political reform than anything else in my lifetime. And then there was always the fact that his blog contained more common sense per square inch than most.

Here he writes in response to a father, whose child was bitten by a dog, who called for a ban on dogs "anywhere children play". Well, that's plenty of scope for a start, including houses.

Mark's response was to express sympathy for the child's injuries but to then say:

I am sorry for the injuries and distress caused to Mr Evans and his son but I just wonder what he thinks the result of such a ban would be. He already makes it clear that he has dogs and he muzzles them. I expect most law abiding and responsible dog owners already do this anyway.
So what we would be left with are the people who do not give a flying toss about the law or responsibility still letting their dogs off in the play areas. In my experience* these people will just ignore any rules so the result is likely to be that the responsible dog owners find one more place they cannot take their dogs. I also wonder how you would define "where children play".
"Banning" things does not stop them from happening. It does however mean more money being spent on trying to enforce the rules and various other side effects. People should think more carefully before calling for bans.
We are really going to miss his approach and I hope that his circumstances will allow him to resume his blog at some point in the future. He had also become an excellent representative of the liberal viewpoint on the media.

My third choice is going to be Jennie Rigg, which I'm sure will be much to your surprise because I never mention her and I never ever say that she's one of my favourite bloggers and I hang on her every word, do I ? Her blog is plain speaking, often provocative and passionate.

To me her key strength is that she reaches outside the confines of the political blogosphere - she writes for ordinary people, not just political junkies. I liked how she basically did a series of personal tailored manifestos during the election  this one to a friend of her's with no interest in politics. She explains what the Liberal Democrats stand for  in appealing and engaging terms, and she'll tell the Coalition Government exactly what she thinks of it, as she did here in a recent post talking about their crusade on benefit fraudsters:
If ever there was any doubt about the fact that the Golden Rule* (he who has the gold makes the rules) is still fully in force, compare the media coverage of and political rhetoric about the two crimes I mention in the title of this post. Benefit Fraudsters are scum; feckless, worthless criminals; living immorally off our taxes. Tax Evaders are barely mentioned at all, and when they are they are mentioned in the kind of force-of-nature way that rapists are mentioned in victim-blaming discourse...
Her specialities can be summed up as freedom, feminism and fandom. The range of things she can write knowledgably about, though, is enormous -science, law, the reality of living on a low income.  I like her reality checks on the "blokeosphere" and her attempts to change things.

My final suggestion is Cicero whose Songs often scare the living daylights out of me but are prescient warnings of danger ahead. See this prediction on house prices from the start of the year:
The outlook for the UK in 2010 is now as grim as it has been for nearly 40 years. Many argue that the fall in sterling will rescue the economy. Unfortunately British manufacturing now comprises only 11% of the economy and the bulk of economic activity is now in the public sector- all a falling Pound is doing is importing inflation. So in addition to emergency government spending cuts sometime in the mid year, we will see much higher inflation- and a rise in interest rates that will finally undermine the UK housing market. Although self-interested groups have been pointing out that housing has become more "affordable" the fact is that this affordability is based on ultra low interest rates. They fail to note that the historic average Bank of England base rate is 5%. Meanwhile the ratio of price:rent in the UK is still 20% above its long term average. The combination of inevitably rising interest rates and large job losses in the public sector can only mean a significant real fall in house prices. Either the currency will collapse or housing prices will.
His specialities are international affairs, particularly, but not exclusively, affecting Europe in general and those Baltic states he loves so much specifically. In fact, here he can see the positives in Estonia entering the Euro and sets out the challenges ahead for the UK.

He recently predicted a grim future for the US if the right wingers get their way - and the comments his post attracted kind of proved his point.

You have to read his blog from behind a pillow sometimes, but he shows the need for those who believe in a  distinctive, liberal, internationalist future to keep working , not just here but across the world.

So here ends my series of posts on the BOTYs.  Whoever you are going to nominate, don't forget to let Helen Duffett of Liberal Democrat Voice have your e-mailed nominations by tomorrow on

It's my 22nd Wedding Anniversary!

Today is my 22nd wedding anniversary, another year my long suffering husband has put up with me.

Tonight we are going out for dinner, I think to Wagamama.

We met just before Kylie released her first single (I should be so lucky), when Den and Angie were still in EastEnders, when petrol cost  £1.70 a gallon (there are places on the internet that actually tell you that)              and when the Liberals and the SDP were still separate parties - and the SDP were just about to get Robert Maclennan as leader.

These years have passed very quickly............

Anyway, I was lucky enough to find a good man while very young. He's had to have saint like qualities to share his life not only with headstrong, unpredictable, incredibly scatty me, but also the Liberal Democrats. In their entirety. He's had to learn what it's like to spend holidays at by-elections, to have the electoral cycle dictating every aspect of our lives, to have to discuss whatever has enraged me on the internet at my whim when he'd really rather be watching CSI and to deliver lots of leaflets, stuff lots of envelopes and keep me fed during elections when I've just touched base to eat and sleep. Never underestimate the impact of political activism on normal life. Bob, you are a star! Thank you.

The BOTYS - Best non Liberal Democrat politics blog

We're almost there with BOTY nomination suggestions. The penultimate category is best non Liberal Democrat politics blog.

I am going to repeat last year's nomination, which actually made the shortlist, of J Arthur MacNumpty, whose thoughts are ghost written by SNP activist Will Patterson. In 1000 years time, when the internet as we know it is seen as some ancient anachronism, Will's well written weekly analysis of the workings of the Scottish Parliament in the 21st century will be a valuable and probably unrivalled resource.  He may not have much time for Liberal Democrats, but he is actually very liberal in outlook. He's also as into constitutional geekery as any Liberal Democrat electoral systems expert I know, as this series of posts shows.

Anne McLaughlin is an MSP in Glasgow and Indygal Goes to Holyrood is the latest in a series of blogs she's written. She wears her heart on her sleeve, which I think is a good thing. She has done so much to help Florence and Precious Mhango, the mother and her 10 year old daughter facing deportation and here she writes emotionally about their ordeal.

I'm finding it difficult to find a Labour blog to nominate, because most of them are just annoying me too much at the moment with the varying degrees of hypocrisy and bile they are venting into cyberspace. I would have chosen Yapping Yousuf, but since he graduated earlier this year, and stopped blogging, he's shut down his blog so I can't even link to it. There is always Eric Joyce, though, whose work opposing the Digital Economy Bill will appeal to many Liberal Democrats. Since then, he has formed the All Party Parliamentary Group of which our own Poster Boy on these issues, Julian Huppert, is vice Chair.

 Malc in the Burgh doesn't blog as often as he used to but his thoughtful observations on Scottish and Welsh politics in particular are always welcome. He's an eclectic mix himself, part Green, economically conservative, socially liberal and passionately Nationalist, there's something for everybody. I liked this recent post, where he took apart Labour's Scottish Justice Spokesman over comments he'd made on Megrahi's release.

I guess it's interesting that my nominees are all Scottish - but for those of you from other parts of the UK, this is a chance to have a look around some of the excellent blogs on offer up here.

The BOTYs - suggestions for Best Post on a Liberal Democrat Blog

Ok, readers, this one I'm handing over to you.

There have been thousands of brilliant posts on Liberal Democrat blogs over the past year and to do a retrospective justice, I would have to have kept a record of them all, or at least go through my postings where I'v linked to good articles.

Sorry, but I just don't have the time, so rather than direct your thoughts, I'm going to leave it to you to suggest any postings which have moved or inspired you in the comments and I will nominate them.

If you want any pointers, you might find some ideas by looking at Caron's Corkers

You can also make your own choices, closing date tomorrow, by e-mailing

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

So who's right on Budget, IFS or the Coalition?

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has come out and said that the measures in the Coalition Budget passed in June would hit the poorest hardest and are regressive. This is not what I as a Liberal Democrat want to hear, but how accurate is their assessment?

The Government's side of things is that they think the IFS is being selective, by not factoring in things which boost employment prospects and reductions in Corporation Tax which give an incentive to companies to invest here and create jobs. The difficulty on this one is that there's no real way of measuring what'll happen. The Government is making optimistic assumptions, the IFS pessimistic. I suspect that the eventual outcome will be somewhere between the two.

A point I'd add is that the economy boosting stuff comes in over 4 years so will take longer than that for the full impact to be known - but the changes to things like Housing Benefit come in a lot sooner and their impact are immediate. By the same token, though, there are likely to be further rises in the tax threshold which will take even more than the 800,000 people already taken out of tax by the Coalition. And, again, I can't see any mention of the changes to Capital Gains Tax which have a greater impact on the rich - have they been factored into the IFS figures? Remember Nick Clegg's example about the rich banker paying a lower marginal rate of tax than his cleaner on the minimum wage? That disgraceful inequality is what that change, although it's not all that we wanted, is designed to address.

I wrote at the time that the Budget was eye-wateringly tough in some places, but a lot better than we would have got from the Tories governing alone. I stand by that assessment.

If I could get rid of just one thing from the Budget, it would have to be the removal of 10% of Housing Benefit after a year.  If you live in a Council house with rent of £200 a month, that means another £5 a week you will have to find after a year of struggling. If you can't get a Council House and are in a private let, that could go up to even £10 or £15 a week.

Let me be clear, people on Income Based JSA don't have an extra even £5 a week.

And if you haven't got a job after a year, the chances are it isn't because you're lazy. It's because there are no jobs or the ones that are available are so pathetically paid that you won't actually be able to feed your family and heat your house if you take it.

Oh, and aren't the Labour Party enjoying the IFS Report to the maximum? Well, I'm not going to take any nonsense from people who not only left us with an enormous deficit which makes cutting public spending vital, who made the 10p tax debacle, whose first act in office was to cut benefits for lone parents and who, according to the IFS, increased inequality to record levels during their first 10 years in office. To think that they widened the gap between rich and poor in a decade of some of the most benign economic circumstances of not only my lifetime but my parents' is quite staggering - and something for them to consider before they start throwing insults at the Coalition.

I suspect that we won't know for a while what the exact impact of the Budget will be. I suspect it won't be as bad as the IFS makes out. We also don't know yet what the full scale of  Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms will be and how that will impact on people.  I think there are just too many variables to make a firm prediction at the moment. It's important that we keep a careful eye on all the measures the Coalition is taking and judge them as a whole.

Northern Irish charity helps with Winter Fuel costs

Last week I wrote about  how ridiculous I felt it was that we would get the Winter Fuel Allowance next year when we don't need it. Thinking about it further, I had thought that it would be great if rather than just give the money to charity, if the Government was going to insist on giving it to us, we could actually give it to someone in real need, like a family with a disabled child, for example.

Thanks to Micheál, who commented on the original post, I know that this has already been thought of and put into practice by Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn. His Winter Fuel Trust is looking for donations from anyone who cares about the issue of fuel fuel poverty, but specifically asks older people who don't depend on this money to give it to someone who does.  If there are similar charities in England, Scotland Wales, let me know - if there isn't, then shouldn't someone set one up?

Since I originally drafted this, Micheál has posted this on the same subject.

The BOTYs - Best use of blogging/social networking by a Liberal Democrat.

Last year this award was won by Jo Swinson for the genuine and prolific way she used (and continues to use) Facebook and Twitter, giving a glimpse into her real life as well as her public duties.

This year, I think that it's going to be hard to beat Nick Barlow, Liberal Democrat Colchester Councillor for #nickcleggsfault on Twitter which was his way of dealing with the onslaught of ridiculous tabloid smears on Nick Clegg in the wake of his fantastic performance in the first Leaders' Debate. Within hours, it had caught on and Nick was being blamed for everything from Libby in Neighbours being in a bad mood to Starbucks not having people's favourite muffins.  Humour is always a good response to bile and this one really caught the imagination and was mentioned all over the media, including the BBC News website.

Now that I don't work for Willie Rennie any more, I am under no obligation to be nice about him. However, I was a great admirer of the way he combined use of Facebook and Twitter to interact with people. He took casework from both and answered questions from constituents all the way through the election.  My favourite moment was a tweet from him during the horrendous snows of January. To put it in context, it was at a time when Fife was in the process of running out of grit for the roads. People on Facebook were, to say the least, quite critical of the Council's performance and Willie had spent a lot of time taking up their concerns and passing on the latest advice. He'd also been pressing John Swinney, the Scottish Minister responsible, to provide more grit for Fife. To say emotions were running high, and understandably so, would not be an exaggeration. So there's Willie, walking round London, tweeting this
has just passed a pile of grit on Westminster Bridge and is tempted to stick it in his bag for the journey back to Fife.
People appreciated this spur of the moment  humour and his Facebook wall was filled with collective laughter.

He also used his Facebook page during that time to keep people informed about school and nursery closures which was very useful to many people.

The online rapport he'd established with people definitely helped  the day his Twitter was hacked, though. It automatically feeds through to Facebook so I woke up one morning to a message from a friend of mine alerting me to the fact that Willie's status was, shall we say, out of character. Readers will be glad to know that I, along with his Facebook friends and Twitter followers responded by taking the mickey, mercilessly.

Another good example of social networking was the integrated Labservatives campaign which covered a blog, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube during the election. I don't know who's responsible for that - I expect someone in the Cowley Street campaigns department, but it was definitely well done. I can't link to it any more as all traces were tactfully removed after the formation of the coalition government, which is a bit of a shame. It may not be eligible for the award as it might be too much of an official party thing, but Gorvid Camerown deserves his swan song.

Vince Cable gets to drive an Aston Martin and chocolate powered car made of carrots!!

I've been a bit worried about Vince Cable recently. Whenever he's been on the Government front bench, he's always looked like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He has the banks to sort out, a weighty challenge, but it's good that there are some perks of the job, all in the name of supporting British business, of course. Last year I posted about his appearance on Desert Island Discs in which he said that his luxury would be an Aston Martin. Yesterday, he got to drive one on a visit to Aston Marton's HQ in Gaydon, Warwickshire. The DBS, as you can see above, is a thing of beauty so I am very, very jealous.

Even this superstar of British engineering wasn't the most exciting car he saw yesterday, though. He also got to drive a Jaguar Limo Green, a British built hybrid car. He also had the chance to get behind the wheel of a third car,  at Jaguar's state of the art research lab in Coventry. This is a racing car with a steering wheel made from carrot fibres and powered by chocolate. Here's a video on this utterly fascinating feat of green technology which can be found on the University of Warwick's You Tube channel here.

I think it's fascinating, even though I am not sure there is such a concept of waste chocolate. I wonder if Mr Lovely Doctor Chocoholic approves of the cocoa bean being turned into biofuel.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The BOTYs - Best blog from a Liberal Democrat holding public office.

This award is all about the blogging efforts of our Parliamentarians and Councillors. It's often difficult to find the time amidst representing constituents, holding down a day job if you're a Councillor, doing the campaigning stuff that will get you re-elected and trying to find some hours to recharge your batteries.  Maintaining a blog on top of all of that can be a real challenge.

My first suggestion as a nominee for this award is Lynne Featherstone. As parliamentary candidate, constituency MP and now a Minister in the Home Office, she has kept going, using her blog not just as a platform to tell people things, but also to engage in a real and genuine dialogue with her readers. Whether she's writing about equality issues, local constituency news or asking her readers what they think about private money going into the Health Service, she shows that the power has not gone to her head and she's still the same person we've all admired all of these years.

Next up is the Hon Lady Mark, Parish Councillor for Creeting St Peter in Suffolk. His many talents include taking us through the sometimes dramatic process of being the Returning Officer for Liberal Youth, trying to encourage open and genuine debate about the Coalition and the future strategy of the party, and keeping us informed of Ros Scott's activities in the Lords. He is very wise and venerable and I always look forward to his Thoughts From the Train. And I didn't mention his beard at all........oh wait....

Cllr Fraser MacPherson in the last week alone has talked about homelessness, the new exam for 4th year secondary pupils, the selection of both candidates for the Dundee seats, and posted us a lovely Bee Gees video to get all nostalgic to.  His frequently updated blog is a must read for constituents and people interested in politics alike.

Cllr Paul Edie is actually eligible for this award and would be a worthy winner. I was desperate to nominate him for the new blogger award, except he started his blog 5 days too early to qualify, much to my annoyance yesterday. I find his blog extremely interesting because he's in charge of Housing and Social Care in Edinburgh which is as you can imagine no easy job. He's been very successful in the role and as well as writing about national issues, he ensures we're all aware of the achievements the Liberal Democrats have made in the City of Edinburgh Council.

Meral Hussein Ece is one of the newest Liberal Democrat peers and a fellow Muser. She hasn't blogged very often in the past year, but when she does, her humanitarian and knowledgable perspective on international affairs is always interesting and welcome. I'm looking forward to more observations on her new role from her.

And there's always the wry and erudite observations of Peter Black on such diverse subjects as amulets protected by angels (you can imagine what he did with that one), Welsh affairs and standing up for Councillors in the face of unnecessary and illiberal interventions from the Standards people.

So there you have it - a talented bunch of people, any one of whom would be a fitting winner. Watch this space for my suggestions for the remaining categories.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The BOTYs - Best new Liberal Democrat Blog suggestions - and a flaw in the rules?

Last week I promised you a few suggestions for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards, to be presented at a glittering, every expense spared ceremony at Party Conference in Liverpool next month.

They will publish their shortlists before Conference, and will make them up from nominations received before the deadline this Friday. You need to e-mail your choices to

The first category I want to feature is that for next new Liberal Democrat blog. I thought I had my nominations for this one all sorted, but Edinburgh Lib Dem Councillor Paul Edie may be wondering why his ears are sore and burny at the moment. It's because I have spent the last ten minutes calling him names of such profanity and depravity that I can't possibly repeat them here. And why? Because he started his excellent blog on 27th August 2009, five days before the date when he'd become eligible, 1st September.

I wonder if there is a bit of a flaw in the system - under the rules,as far as I can see, blogs started in August can never be considered for the Best New Blog award because they miss out on the previous year's because nominations have already closed (and not that they would have had the chance to build up a readership and reputation in a month anyway), and on the next because the cut off date is 1st September. I wonder if this could be revised.

Anyway, Paul's blog is extremely good, reporting on the City of Edinburgh Council's achievements from a Liberal Democrat perspective, and commenting on national issues with the occasional foray into frivolity and football. He would be a worthy winner of the best new blog award.

So too would Jeremy Rowe, who at least waited until October to start his blog, Men in Suits. I like the way he writes with passion, humour and honesty about politics and  very occasionally F1. I hope you note my magnanimity in nominating him after he implied that I was shameless and disgusting..

Nick Thornsby is another new blogger who deserves a mention. He's blogging regularly and was particularly impressive earlier this year on the firestorm created by the Labour Party about the 55% dissolution rule.

In just a couple of months, Rachel Olgeirrson has written some incisive posts on such issues as Sheffield Forgemasters (from a position of knowledge as she comes from Sheffield), the death of David Kelly and this on the 2 week Cancer target, written from her hospital bed as she was being treated for Leukaemia.

Watch this space for some more nominations for the other categories over the next few days.

Law Society investigates solicitor over missing miners' compensation

Yesterday's Scotland on Sunday reported that Glasgow solicitor Paul McConville is being investigated over claims that his firm, McConville O'Neill, failed to pass on compensation payments it received to clients.  The firm specialised in compensation claims for miners for such conditions such as Vibration White Finger.

The Labour Government set up a system whereby claims from miners were dealt with through a series of schemes. Usually claim handlers from Capita processed them and made offers of compensation. This saved miners from having to take action in separate court cases.

I know a little bit about this because former Dunfermline and West Fife MP Willie Rennie spent several years working on constituents' behalf. Two were featured earlier this year in a Dunfermline Press report. Willie described the way they had been treated as an "outrageous betrayal of two hard working miners." One of them, Andy Hunter, found out that £12600 had been paid to McConville O'Neill for him from Capita in 2008 and he has never received it.

Willie had asked the Labour Government to write directly to all the miners who had claimed compensation through McConville O'Neill to tell them what had happened to their claim and whether any money had been paid to the law firm on their behalf. That to me seems to be a sensible first step, so that people would be aware if the solicitors had either missed a vital deadline, or would be able to complain themselves if they had not received any compensation but nothing was done. It's the only real way to properly identify the extent of the problem and provide the Law Society with all the evidence it needs to consider for its investigation.

It is appalling that, without Willie's intevention, the men he helped may never have discovered the true state of affairs with their case as they couldn't correspond directly with the Government as they only recognised their solicitors and those solicitors were not communicating properly with them. It seems to me that enough warning bells were sounding about this and I think the Labour Government should have made more of an attempt to investigate them properly at the time.

There are clearly questions to be answered and the money paid by the Government to McConville O'Neill needs to be accounted for. I think there are enough questions to merit the Government taking action as they are the only people who know who all the former miners represented by the firm are. Willie asked for more people to come forward but there's only so much that individual newspaper reports can do - a letter from the Government to every miner affected would have much more of an impact.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stephen Glenn goes over the sea to Ireland

At around now, assuming that he hasn't overslept, my friend and fellow West Lothian Lib Dem and blogger Stephen Glenn will be heading back to Northern Ireland for the next few months.

The next series of Strictly just won't be the same without him on the other sofa commenting on the attractiveness and attributes of the competitors technical qualities of the dancing.

Stephen has been a part of our lives now for 8 years and we will really miss him. So will the Scottish Liberal Democrats for all the work he's done and the hundreds of thousands of leaflets he's delivered, very often putting the party above his own health. He's worked in Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Falkirk, Livingston (during the by-election especially), Dunfermline, Glenrothes, Edinburgh South and Edinburgh North and Leith. Much of our friendship has been punctuated by me driving him to various parts of the country, giving him a large bag of leaflets and refusing to take him home until he's delivered them.

Anna gets on really well with him. One day last year when I was ill, he spent 3 hours keeping her amused while I slept. When I got up, they had not only created a whole new country, but written down its laws and drawn a picture of it. He's inspired her inner geek and encouraged her to read Hitchhiker.

Of course we'll keep in touch by electronic means - and the friendly rivalry between us as bloggers will continue, but we'll all miss having him around.

So, Stephen, good luck in this new phase of your life and, as they say, haste ye back.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe: Moths ate my Doctor Who scarf, Toby Hadoke

Call myself a Doctor Who fan? Well, yes, I do, but it strikes me as incredibly remiss of me to never have heard of Toby Hadoke until a couple of weeks ago when my friend Nikki invited me to see his Doctor Who related satirical show.  "Moths ate my Doctor Who scarf" returned to the fringe for one night only last night.

We met up for some wine and a chat in the Mercat gastropub, which, since the demise of the Caledonian Ale House (pesky trams) has become a favourite haunt for Liberal Democrats as it's just down the road from Party HQ. I did manage to freak Nikki out a bit when I mentioned that maybe it was time to start taking Anna to Doctor Who conventions. She could not hide the scared look on her face.

The show took place in the very auditorium of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre where Nikki had proposed the motion which committed the party to boycotting Nestle products way back in 1999. It was lovely to return, for the first time since, to the scene of that very sweet victory. Just as an aside, I threw a bit of a strop when I found a tub of Nescafe in Clifton Terrace when I moved up - and during the years I was there on a regular basis, that did not happen again.....

In the hour and a quarter we were in there, I hardly ever stopped laughing. While a knowledge of Doctor Who enhances your enjoyment, the show works on its own as a humorous account of growing up in the 80s, and a critique, amongst other things, of modern television and politics. You kind of knew where the joke comparing Autons and Girls Aloud was going (think manufactured plastic people), but that didn't diminish the effect. There was a collective feeling that it was appropriate that Hadoke's childhood bully is now a BNP councillor and the joke about George Galloway was subtle and very well done......

One of my favourite bits was when he expressed how angry he was when Jon Pertwee died to hear news reports talk about shaky scenery and shakier acting. He has watched every single episode, many times over and stated categorically that in over 18000 minutes, there was only two instances, covering 7.5 seconds where the scenery actually wobbled.

Another observation about modern television also rang true - instead of doing something creative with a tv slot, it's all too common to produce shows which look back at the times when people were creative, and take the mickey out of them.

I doubt Jennie will be pleased that he described her favourite Doctor, Colin Baker, as looking like a rainbow had vomited on Van der Valk, but may take comfort from the fact that Baker himself did a cameo in the CD version of the show.

The part that really tugged at all my heart strings was his description of how his son has come to share his Doctor Who obsession as I've had a similar experience with Anna. I'm not going to give too much away about it, but it was beautifully done and provided a heart-warming end to the performance.

Nikki said that it was pretty much the same show as she'd seen before - but was delighted that David Tennant had provided a couple of voiceovers.

Hadoke provided an intelligent, original, poignant and incredibly funny look at the impact of this show on his whole life. I enjoyed it so much that I'm going to see his new show, I've added his blog to my blogroll and I've bought the CD of Moths because I think Anna will love it.

I wonder if he's done the Comedy Club for Kids - I think he'd be very good at adapting his material for a younger audience too.

I'll leave you with the song which played at the end of the show last night - which some of you will remember from back in the day but others will associate with the episode Love and Monsters, featuring Peter Kay and a group of people searching for the Doctor,which can be found here on You Tube.

Something missing in Blackpool Cenotaph Court Case

The details of the Court case in which Wendy Lewis was prosecuted on public decency offences for actions near the Cenotaph in Blackpool as reported in today's Telegraph make grim reading.  There is clearly no excuse for such behaviour. Unfortunately, alcohol related disruption and violence happens in every town across Britain most nights of the week.

One thing struck me, though, about this case. Wendy Lewis was due to be sentenced for urinating on the Cenotaph and then performing a sex act  while very drunk earlier this year.  She clearly didn't do the sex bit on her own - but what became of the man involved, who, surely, was equally complicit? He was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, but later released, his anonymity intact,  while she has been branded the most disgusting person in Britain by the tabloid press.

There's something not quite right about that. This has put me in mind to re-read Eve was Framed, Helena Kennedy's excellent book which, amongst other things, shows how women are likely to be dealt with much more severely than men in the judicial system for similar offences.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why drug addicts should continue to receive benefits

I don't have any specialist knowledge of drug addiction. There have been people in our family who have been alcoholics, so I know something of the horrors of that particular addiction for the person affected and those around them.  I know how that however lucid and rational and determined to stop the alcoholic can be one moment, when that craving for the next drink takes over, it takes a huge effort to overcome it.

One of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen was a painting by that person. It depicts a woman, her face showing the strain of the conflict raging within her as she stares at the glass in front of her. The title of the painting is simply "To drink, or not to drink."

I find it disappointing to see the BBC reporting that the Home Office is considering resurrecting a Labour plan (so no pretending they oppose it from them, please) to remove welfare benefits from drug addicts who refuse to attend a "treatment awareness programme." While recognising that addicts who are still taking drugs often have lives  too chaotic to enable them to seek work is a good thing, withdrawal of benefits under any circumstances is not.

Does the Home Office not get that people lose families, jobs, dignity and self respect through addiction? Someone in the grip of an addiction is unlikely to be rational enough to comply with such an ordinance - or even if they intend to the day before, something can happen that sets them off course. So they lose their benefits, and possibly with that their home.

What earthly good does it do to have seriously ill people sleeping in the streets? Or in some nomadic existence between homeless shelters, unable to have any base or space of their own? Without being able to feed themselves?  Does the Home Office think that someone in that position will just think "Oh, I'd better go on that course then?". I wish it worked like that, but, sadly, it doesn't.

I'm sure that this isn't the only example of this kind of thing happening, but I remember hearing of a young man, released from prison, where he was sent in the Summer, in the grip of Winter, on a Friday afternoon, with nowhere to go. The Council's homeless people could only offer him a hostel which he knew wouldn't be good for him so he felt he couldn't accept it. He had very little money. He was back on drugs by the end of the weekend and back inside within a few weeks. He might have come out with the motivation to stay clean, but the circumstances in which he found himself made it practically very difficult for him.

Withdrawal of benefit, apart from in my mind being inhumane and morally wrong, is not likely to save much money either - because whatever you save from the benefits, you lose much more in the criminal or health services.

Drug addiction is not a lifestyle choice. It can be overcome, but that takes the person to be at the right time in their life and a lot of specialist support. You would think that everyone who wants to get proper drug rehab treatment would be able to get it - but demand in this regard greatly exceeds supply.

What we're saying when we offer state help with a small amount of money and accommodation to those who need it is that we as a society think that this is the minimum a human being needs - note the word needs - to live. If we withdraw that safety net, we are surely treating people as sub human because we take away from them something vital. And that's before you even start working out whether the current level of benefits does actually meet people's needs.

And if you start with drug addicts, where do you go from there? Oh, she's fat, she's limiting her employment chances and could be a drain on the NHS - let's take her benefits away unless she loses 2lb a week". "He smokes - why are we paying for that? Let's reduce his Job Seekers Allowance."  With our right wing tabloid press, it's very much another day, another scapegoat, so don't think that couldn't happen.

Yes, there are pressures to reduce public spending - but we also, as a country, at least in the sort of liberal society I want to see where, as the preamble to our Constitution says "no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity", have an obligation to provide state help to those who have no income without moralising in any way about their situation.  This proposal ought to be put back under the stone where it was found. It's important to recognise, also, that this is being consulted on at the moment and I'm sure that those specialist organisations helping addicts will have their say.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do you want to work for Iain Dale?

I actually wrote this this afternoon and scheduled it for later - before I realised that Iain was talking about universal benefits on his LBC Show and I decided to phone in and take part in the discussion, talking about how my husband and I don't need Winter Fuel Allowance and shouldn't get it, and why raising children benefits all of society therefore it's in the State's interests to share some of the costs involved, cos kids sure don't come cheap.

The one they call the egregious Tory Tosser is looking for an Executive Assistant, as his Twitter feed announced to the world this afternoon. The job ad itself made me laugh - it is well put together and pulls no punches about what is expected of the successful applicant:

This role would be ideal for a recent graduate who is looking to make a career in politics or the media and has great organisational skills. You will serve as Iain’s eyes and ears, arranging meetings, providing Iain with relevant information in a wide range of areas, making travel and accommodation arrangements, acting as a gatekeeper, researching issues ahead of media appearances, drafting articles, ensuring Iain is well briefed ahead of all meetings and, from time to time, mind-reading!

And then you have to be "confident and able to accept criticism"

However, you do get the chance to get your retaliation for any future criticism in first as part of the application process involves submitting a "250-500 word critique of Iain’s political blog". 

Because I like to see the good in everyone, I assume that he's trying to find someone with a robust enough character to work well with him, but also to tell him when he's talking bollocks.

Nowhere in the ad does it say you have to be a Tory. I can think of loads of Liberal Democrats who have all the skills for this role and would bring an appropriate amount of irreverence and humour to it. 

If you don't fancy that job, there's another, as an online writer for Total Politics. I have to be honest and say that since I took out my subscription to the rag in February this year, I have thoroughly enjoyed every single issue. It does have everything the political junkie wants, in a range of formats, from interviews to masterclasses to gossipy snippets. However Anna looked through a couple of issues and said there were too many men in suits in it. Can you change that? 

A Voyage Round my Blogroll - Part the Fifth

It's time for the next gripping instalment of my journey round my BlogRoll, so you can learn a bit more about the people whose blogs I read regularly.

Cicero's Songs is a must read for me, particularly about international affairs and when I need to understand how international finance works. I was at university with the author and I was completely in awe of how someone just a year or so older than me could have such an amazing grasp of the way the world works when I first met him. He is even more passionate now about the Baltic states and writes here about Estonia's preparations to enter the Euro. And I loved his riposte to the US Senator who thinks his Committee can summon anyone it likes to testify about the Lockerbie Bombing.

Red Meg isn't nearly as fearsome as she sounds, but she does write very well. She chaired a hustings where Stephen was a candidate during the General Election. He siaid that she did so very fairly and he had no idea that she was a Labour supporter until they met at a subsequent event. Anyway, we have since become acquainted on Twitter and where we often differ on policy, we are at one on the important issues of Colin Firth and chocolate.  We do, however, agree on the failure of the CPS to prosecute anyone in relation to the events surrounding Ian Tomlinson'sdeath, a decision I find startling.

Cllr Fraser MacPherson has built an amazing campaign team in Dundee since his surprise election to the Council  just short of 9 years ago. I love the way his blog veers from local events, like this notice about roadworks in his ward to having a well deserved go at the SNP both locally and nationally and then all of a sudden he'll give us some music to chill out to.

I first came across Rachel Olgeirsson on Twitter and I was delighted that she started her own blog recently. She comes from Sheffield and had a good go at the Labour Party for its vitriol over the Sheffield Forgemasters issue.

Sarah Green is one of the lovely people on Twitter who helps to make F1 weekends so enjoyable. She is an even bigger Michael Schumacher fan than I am and recently realised her 16 year old dream to meet him - and look what she got.......... She is also a huge fan of lots of things that interest me, including Doctor Who and Twilight.  She is probably more than a little bit responsible for my recent conversion to the Apple way of doing things, having ignited my iPad envy. Here she is talking about her's on the radio.

Lib Dem Jim Hume campaigns against Dovesdale Incinerator

A long, long time ago, I had a boyfriend who lived in a tranquil corner of rural Lanarkshire, near Strathaven, so I spent a bit of time in the area.

I'm not very pleased to hear that a whopping big incinerator is proposed for part of that beautiful countryside, a move which seems to fly in the face of local planning policy.

However, I am relieved to see that Jim Hume, Liberal Democrat MSP for the South of Scotland is helping the campaign against this proposal for a number of reasons:

  • it's in the countryside, on greenbelt, near an organic dairy farm and in the middle of agricultural land.
  • the incinerator would be near ancient woodland and a site of special scientific interest and a conservation area
As if that wasn't enough, there's also the fact that we should be reducing our waste, not burning it.

He has said that he thinks the incinerator goes against the Scottish Government's own zero waste plan:

“Whilst there may be some small place in the grand scheme of waste reduction, recycling and disposal for energy from waste plants, they should only be used for the small percentage of waste that can only be processed in this way and only where there is a proven, direct and significant energy benefit.
“They certainly should not be seen as a quick fix to the landfill problem.
”It seems to be quite clear that in this particular case, the proposal breaches local planning policies and is not an appropriate development for the countryside. Indeed, the Scottish Government's own Zero Waste Plan states that ‘potential sites should only include industrial areas; degraded, contaminated or derelict land; working and worked out quarries; sites that have the potential to maximise the potential for the re-use of waste heat through co-location with potential heat users; existing or redundant sites or buildings that can be easily adapted; existing waste management sites, or sites that were previously occupied by waste management facilities’.
“People might argue that the Dovesdale site's easy access to the main road infrastructure is a justification for this application, but local planning policy breaches should certainly not be overshadowed by roadside convenience."

Jim Hume and the local action group are asking local residents to send objections to South Lanarkshire Council - all the details are on the Action Group Against Dovesdale Incinerator's website - and in addition, Jim has started a petition against it which you can sign here.

The deadline for objections is rapidly approaching according to AGADI so if you oppose this developmet and you live in the area, please act quickly.

National Archives publish Victorian Poor Law records

Way back in 1985, I wrote my dissertation for my Certificate of Sixth Year Studies History paper on Poverty and the Poor Law, charting the circumstances behind the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and its implementation.  I remember being both heartbroken and outraged at some of the stories I read, thinking at the time how my dogs led a better life than many of the Victorian poor.

Today's tabloid narrative, which stigmatises benefits claimants, virtually all of whom are trying to do the best for their families, is nothing new when you consider how in Victorian times some considered inactivity and poverty as a moral failing.

Those feelings of heartbreak and outrage resurfaced today when I had a quick look round the material released today by the National Archives which includes correspondence from a number of Poor Law Unions in England and Wales.

Because we lived for 11 years in North Nottinghamshire, I decided to look at Mansfield's records first. I came across a letter from the local Poor Law Union to the Poor Law Commissioners in London concerning a George Riley. He had 4 children and his wife had recently died "after a severe illness, leaving him in a poor or destitute state."

The Commissioners granted what was termed "outdoor relief" - which meant food, basically, but no accommodation for a period of one month. Chillingly, they said that if further help was needed after that, then some of his children could be admitted to the harsh world of the workhouse.

I don't think our current benefits system provides enough help for those in most need, but a month's basic assistance before you lose your kids, on top of losing your wife, is just brutal and inhumane.

When I have more time, I will look more closely. All of the items are free to download and they provide a real  insight into the lives of people like George Riley. I wish I knew what had become of him and his 4 children. I'd like to think that they got through it and he was able to find work to support his family again.

Catholic adoption charity fails in attempt to discriminate against gay people

I'm very pleased to see that the Catholic adoption charity Catholic Care has failed in its attempt to be granted an exemption from equality laws as the BBC reports. It wanted to be able to refuse to place a child with gay couples on the basis of its religious beliefs.

I would have been pretty outraged if the ruling had gone the other way - it's not for organisations to pick and choose which laws apply to it. The state has no right to regulate religious belief - but when religious organisations are offering services, or acting as employers, then they should have to abide by the same laws as everyone else.

Imagine if the owners of a supermarket or pub chain decided they were followers of a new religion, let's call it the Church of Mammon, and said that its beliefs conflicted with the need to pay their workers the minimum wage, or give them paid holiday, or maternity leave. They would never get away with it. Catholic Care's move amounted to the same sort of thing.

It's nice when common sense prevails.....

Tax Credit Office fails again........

In my opinion, the Tax Credit Office is second only to the Home Office in the running for worst Government agency. Both organisations cause unnecessary misery to too many people.

This morning I've seen that they've been up to their old tricks again. A friend of mine, who's a single parent, received a letter yesterday morning telling her that because she had failed to renew her tax credit claim by the deadline of 31st July, not only would the payments upon which she relies heavily immediately stop, but she would have to repay every penny she'd received since the start of the new tax year in April. 

The thing is, she had renewed her claim, in time, but because of a backlog at the Tax Credit Office in processing it, the computer thought she hadn't and automatically stopped her payments and sent her a letter which scared the living daylights out of her. That letter was dated 6th August when in fact they'd processed her renewal on 5th. I know from experience that sometimes their computer takes 24 hours to catch up with itself.

Yes, I know mistakes happen, and these sorts of things can be easily resolved by a simple phone call. 

Of course they can - if you can get through, given that many other people are likely to have received the same sort of spine chilling letter. It took my friend close on 100 calls to speak to someone who told her that the letter had been sent in error. Each call lasted a minimum of 30 seconds and all of them cost her money.

Many people these days don't have landlines. Most mobiles charge a small fortune for dialling 0845 numbers - and I reckon that my friend would have had to shell out at least a tenner for the privilege of being told that all lines were busy and could she call back later.

It is surely not beyond the wit of the Tax Credit Office to organise themselves a bit better. They know that the deadline is 31st July and they presumably know how big their backlog is. Surely to goodness it can't take much more than flicking a button to ensure that this sort of error doesn't happen. If you know the backlog is 5 days, why not set the system so that it doesn't start sending the letters out for 10 days, or even 15? These errors happen every single year and it's about time something was done to stop them. 

In my view, the Tax Credit Office should reimburse every single person who has spent money trying to get through as a result of receiving these letters in error. Many of them don't have the flexibility in their budgets to cope with that sort of unexpected, unnecessary charge.

George Osborne and Danny Alexander, two of the Coalition's leading lights, have government responsibility for the Tax Credit Office. I know that they will be a wee bit busy with the Spending Review at the moment, but they really need to get someone on to sorting out the TCO so that this sort of shambles stops happening.

And I don't want to hear one single Labour person attacking the Government for this new error - there's only so much of the brown smelly stuff left behind by predecessors that it can clean up in 14 weeks. The TCO, as designed and implemented by Labour, just doesn't work. I hope that we eventually go back to the old system of fixed payments for six months, which is much easier for those who depend on them.


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