Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nikki Thomson, 30 December 1967 - 28 June 2012

Many of you will know Nikki Thomson, a lifelong Liberal Democrat who fulfilled many roles in the Party. If you're in Liberal Youth and you've enjoyed Activate weekends, it was Nikki who first set them up way back in the 80s.

It's barely a week since Nikki told us the devastating news that her Cancer was terminal and that palliative care was the only option. That in itself came little more than a week after the official diagnosis. You will understand, then, how shocked her friends and family are to hear that she passed away at 2am this morning. It's been a devastating few week which Nikki dealt with much better than I ever could.

She was a warm, funny woman who did so much for her community and to help other people. I first got to know her on Cix in the mid 1990s. We found ourselves on Training for Trainers together and hit it off in person as well as online. In 1999, Nikki successfully proposed a motion to Liberal Democrat Conference condemning Nestle for the way they marketed their baby milk in Africa and committing the Party not to using their products in HQ.  Nestle put up a fight and took a room in the nearby Sheraton Hotel, determined to put their case to Conference goers. A crowd of us, including Nikki, James Graham and I, went to pay them a wee visit and put our views robustly and politely to them.

After she moved up here from London in 2002, she took a leading role in organising the annual Meadows Festival, which is a superb and busy event. As well as that she studied for an MBA as well as having a really stressful job with the Edinburgh Tenants' Federation where she helped make sure tenants' voices were heard. She worked all hours with groups, advising them and helping them develop the skills to do what they needed to do - which at one point involved them rejecting a housing stock transfer.

In recent years, she'd been seconded to the Council where she worked as a Project Manager making council houses more energy efficient, saving both the environment and people's bank balances. She lived her radical, liberal values in everything she did.

She also sang with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and was a real help to me in encouraging a reluctant Anna to continue with her choir when she was having problems with motivation.

She also blogged occasionally at Nikki's blog. I'm updating what I wrote earlier because something had stuck in my mind about her writing about her choral work and the pleasure and pain it gave her and I couldn't find it. No wonder, cos I'd forgotten the main bit of the piece - it was written about gang culture and how long term investment in group activities for young people in creative and cultural activities could really help young people develop and grow up with a sense of purpose.

Apart from her Nestle triumph, there are another couple of memories I'd like to leave with you.  The first was that 2 days after the devastating 2011 Holyrood elections, she sent me a really intelligent, wise, brutally honest vision for the way forward which I absolutely appreciated. She saw with real clarity exactly what needed to change and was able to express it in exactly the right way at an emotional time.

The second, much happier set of memories was a couple of shows we went to see at the Festival a couple of years ago. The first was stand up comedian Toby Hadoke's Moths Ate My Doctor Who scarf. We were both big Doctor Who fans and we laughed ourselves silly that night - and enjoyed it so much that we went to see Hadoke in his Now I know my BBC show the week after. Two fun filled carefrree nights.

Stephen Glenn has also written beautifully about his memories of Nikki.

Her local Tory councillor has also written about her on his blog, which underlines her position in the local community.

And, finally, Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron made me cry this morning with this touching tribute.
"Very, very sad news. In the days when young Lib Dems and Lib Dems students were separate entities she was an enthusiastic and effective link. I was very fond of her. A proper radical. The party is poorer without her."
We all are. We miss you, Nikki.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Robert Brown: end spin doctors' tyranny and develop principled, practical policies

This is quite long - but bear with it, because every word is worth reading. It's the thoughts of former MSP and Scottish education minister Robert Brown who was in May elected as a Councillor in Rutherglen, near Glasgow.

He sets out what he sees as the way forward, to recovery by looking for new people to develop our policy in line with our principles and talks of the challenge of setting out a left of centre stall for 50 years and then going into coalition with a centre right party.

I feel that I shouldn't try and say any more - just let Robert speak for himself.

Tackling the Policy Problem

At last year’s Social Liberal Forum event, I spoke about the lessons of our catastrophe in the Scottish Parliament elections. I said that there was no substantial reason to vote Liberal Democrat in those elections, that the central strategy and the messages were not up to the job – indeed that there was no obvious strategy, no big ideas, no narrative as to our vision of Scotland, and no grounding in the core values of the Party.

It is true to say that I was hurting – as we were all hurting - from defeat, but I stand by that analysis. In a small way since then, I have tried to do something to change things. Nigel Lindsay and I co-edited a book of essays - The Little Yellow Book – which many of you have been good enough to buy. Some of you have even read it. I have gone back to grass roots, stood as a Council candidate and been elected. This was good for me personally and in demonstrating that Liberal Democrats can relate to local people in the West of Scotland and can win. But, nevertheless, I fear that Liberal Democrat Councillors ought to be declared a protected species.

The Party remains rooted in what one commentator described as “steady pain” in the opinion polls, registering between 7% and 12% on a UK basis since the beginning of 2011. In the local elections in May we registered 6.62% (12.7% in 2007) as compared to 5.2% in 2011(11.3% in 2007), hardly a robust revival.

Politics is hugely unpredictable and very much at the mercy of events. Those events include the independence referendum which I believe the SNP will lose, perhaps quite badly. They include the outcome of the euro-zone crisis, and the progress of the UK economy, but they may include other things totally unforeseen. We sometimes forget that Mrs. Thatcher was done for until the advent of the Falklands War, that Gordon Brown would probably have won an election a year earlier, and that Paddy Ashdown had poll ratings within a margin of error of zero.

But, on any view, it is clear that we have a long, hard, haul ahead, and what I want to talk about today is how we inject more vigour into our strategy, how we prepare ourselves for the big opportunities when they come, how we find the magic bullet of future political success – how, in the title of this session, we “tackle the policy problem”/

Political success comes, in my view, from the application of political and organisational/resource drivers to events. Money is a great help, so is favourable media, but the absolutely indispensable things are people and ideas – strongly rooted in a vibrant core set of principles which inspire and motivate.

We badly need to talent spot – to recruit Liberally-minded people to be our Parliamentary and Council candidates, our activists, our ideas people, the bearers of the Liberal Democrat flame. We need to go out and find them in community and interest groups, churches and family contacts. We need to give much more attention to how to attract them, what would motivate them to join, perhaps to the opportunities available to discuss politics and ideas and the future of the world.

Let me put forward some central propositions for consideration:

1.      The first is that attracting new people, and developing a grassroots policy dynamic are two sides of the same coin. The more we are a Party which has exciting ideas, where the membership can influence the agenda, where people feel they count and can make a difference, the more we can appeal to and attract new people. Is this not the essence of what a participative Liberal Democracy is supposed to be about?

2.      The second is that it is time that we ended the tyranny of the spin doctors in our Party – of the pseudo-newspaper, of the Focus leaflet, of the blue envelope, of the massaged campaign slogan. I don’t mean that we should stop campaigning, or not harness proven techniques, far less cease the community politics style of campaign, but that we should pay far more attention to what we are campaigning about. The Party must ultimately be about ideas and leadership – substance more than style.

3.      The third is that we need to restore trust and consistency to our political reputation. This is not just about tuition fees or the NHS. It is about positioning too. We have learnt the hard way that you cannot spend 50 years positioning yourselves solidly on the centre-left, as the radical anti-establishment party, as the party of the future and young people, only to suddenly decide that you really belong in a different part of the political firmament. Should it really be any surprise that a large chunk of our support has upped stumps and left us?

4.      And the fourth proposition is that we absolutely must be able to be in a place which is relevant to people’s big concerns, where our ideas and contribution are central to the debate. Many of us no doubt support electoral reform and House of Lords reform for example, but is it at all wise, after all our other problems, to let the first define our image for half a Parliament and the second for the time that remains?
What are the challenges for us?
Since 1999, in particular, there has been a heavy reliance on Parliamentary staff for policy development, Conference has perhaps had a reduced role and status, we have emptied our policy cupboard and have a dearth of new big ideas.
Firstly, we should note the obvious – that the objects of the Party are to develop and promote policies that lead to the realisation of the values and principles contained in the Preamble – in short, to promote Liberal Democracy.

The Party Constitution also provides for 3 very specific rights -
o   The right of every member to participate in the policy making bodies of the Party
o   The right of the Conference to make policy relevant to Scotland, and
o   The right of the Conference to debate and express opinions on matters of federal policy

So let me make some specific suggestions of what we might do to reinvigorate the Party’s policy mission:


·         We should give far greater weight to encouraging and supporting grass roots debate and policy discussion at local level – Policy suppers or dinners, Moot Groups in someone’s house, pizza and policy nights, debates and resolutions at Local Party meetings

·         The Policy Committee should look at the best ways to make such events successful, exciting and worthwhile. Proper planning is key. This includes how to identify and attract in outside sympathisers, academics with ideas, local opinion leaders, local business people. Maybe one or two Local Parties with experience could be asked to deal with this.

·         The Party should develop training of its membership in how to handle policy development – how to debate, procedures, resolutions, education in the core philosophy of the Party.

It has been my view over some years that the standard of Local Party resolutions, with some honourable exceptions, has been not just bad but woeful. Reinvigoration of local political debate along these lines is surely the main way to improve this.


·         I serve on the Board of a Voluntary Sector body which has recently brought in business advice called Pilotlighters to challenge and improve the focusing of their business, its clarity of mission and its effectiveness. I wonder if we need something like this for the Party.

·         Conference should take seriously its right to debate federal policy, not least in the current situation of being in Government, and allocate at least one slot at each Conference for an effective debate on key Coalition issues. Some of these may from time to time be awkward for the leadership but it is far healthier to have these things discussed than squashed.

·         The Office bearers should establish a permanent Strategy Group – a National Vision Board - to advise the Leader and the Party on the area falling between policy and campaigning which covers positioning, mood music, the development of big ideas, etc.

·         There might perhaps be a Policy Development Plan covering say the next 3 years which tackled key areas of policy systematically, and used the diminished resources of the Party effectively to do this. For example, while groups like the Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Futures, ASLDC, or the Green Liberal Democrats all have their own roles and priorities, they might be agreeable to taking on particular policy areas, perhaps under the direction of a remit from the Policy Committee.

·         There must be a much greater priority to attracting, supporting and training young members in the Universities in particular. It is astonishing how many key activists of today began as Young Liberals years ago. This is a major undertaking, covering Freshers’ fairs, support of Liberal Youth Scotland, perhaps the idea of a Liberal Youth Summer School, and talent spotting and mentoring.
·         We must identify and draw in the talents of sympathetic academics and successful practitioners. Some of these people will be Party members but a function of our ageing membership can be professionals with hobby horses which are 20 years out of date. We must access the best talent but we need the expertise and political nous to challenge and extract from it.  Often this needs to be matched with the political understanding to turn an academic idea into political practicality. I think there is a lot to be said for either a dinner with key people to strike sparks off each other, or asking people to produce papers on discrete topics as a basis for discussion.

·         The start point for policy development should perhaps be to identify the key questions of highest importance to people and our country in the future – not as easy as it sounds. A few starters for ten:

o   Tackling obscene levels of executive pay
o   A programme to eliminate fuel poverty
o   Developing the successful Colleges campaign issues
o   The future of town and suburban centres
o   Developing Scotland’s competitive advantage
o   A Liberal programme for community empowerment
o   Putting Scottish education back on top
o   Returning to Industrial Democracy
o   A Scottish solution to public sector reform
o   Reclaiming the underclass
o   Equal opportunity for children in care
o   Creating a work and responsibility ethic in our society
o   Security and care in old age
o   Restoring the general interest

·         I am not sure if we now have a proper resource where people can access party manifestos, policy papers, Conference resolutions and the like over say the last 10 years. Local Parties and others need to be able to find out what the current state of play is on a particular topic.
This whole issue of policy, politics, debate and motivation is central to our current challenge. We need to find a new generation of key activists and to re-motivate members and supporters as to the worth and mission of the Party.
At the core though there must be the idea that Liberal Democrat politics are worthwhile, that increasing the influence of people like Willie Rennie is important, and that the whole thing is exciting, enjoyable and stimulating to do. I sometimes feel that the relentless pressure of elections, of leaflet delivery and campaigning, of jumble sales, fundraising and Committee meetings has taken the joy out of politics. We will perhaps all be more appealing if we get it back!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

For pete's sake, Facebook, find yourself some manners!

I've been finding it a bit weird when I've been trying to find people's email addresses on Facebook over the past few days that they've had a special address.

Turns out that it's happened to all of us without us knowing. In order to direct more traffic to the site and therefore generate more advertising revenue, they've allocated us new emails and displayed them on our timelines. All without so much as a tiny bit of warning.

I'm sorry, Facebook, but that's just bloody rude. If you'd sent me a message asking if I'd mind and explaining  to me the benefits of having email integrated into your Facebook message system, I might have been quite happy to let it happen. I suspect it will have advantages for people.

I have, however punished Facebook for their rudeness by hiding this new address from the world and putting my old one back. If you wanted to do the same, MSNBC have very kindly told us how.

In Full: Willie Rennie's speech at Better Together launch

Yesterday, Willie Rennie gave the final speech at the Better Together launch. I love this photo as it shows the lovely view in the background. It was taken, by the way, by Graeme Littlejohn and is reproduced with his permission.

Willie's speech was typically genuine, heartfelt and, equally typically, delivered a kick up the backside at the end, where he challenged people to do something every day to campaign for Scotland to remain within the UK.

Here's the speech in full:

I want to thank each and every person who spoke up here today and in that film  – spoke up for their nation.

They were genuine, heartfelt and optimistic.

For all that, those people are an inspiration.

As you've heard, for some the arguments that matter come from the heart.
They want our UK family to stay together because of their own family stories, because of their own life experience, and because of the common history and experience that binds us together.

For some, the arguments that matter come from the head. They want our UK family to stay together because they know that together our economy is stronger, our country is safer, and our voice in the world is louder.

For some people, most people, it's all of these things. It's about partnership, ambition and optimism.

Whilst it will be a personal decision, your decision is not really just for you it’s for future generations too. It’s a big responsibility to make a decision about what legacy you want to leave for future generations. But it’s a decision we will take together.

So in this campaign, you'll hear why we are safer, stronger, better together.
You'll hear from all three parties here, but much more importantly, you'll hear from individuals from every corner and community of Scotland.

We will take nothing for granted. In the campaign to keep our family together, we will work for every vote. Our opponents will be determined. They are passionate about their cause and will work to win. But I am determined that we will lead a campaign that will match them, and more, with our passion and our effort.

It is a decision that we will take in a few hundred days; but which will have an impact for hundreds of years. We have those days to make the case to keep a stronger Scotland in a united kingdom. For every supporter here this morning, watching online, following on twitter or however you hear this message I have a task for you.
When you wake up each day I want you to ask what you will do this day to keep Scotland stronger in a united kingdom. You could raise funds, deliver leaflets, answer the phones, tweet or whatever you can do.

Because you can do it.

This is for all of us. Scots from every part of our country. Every background. Every community. coming together to work together for a  better Scotland.

Better together.

How much would you pay for Callum Leslie to shut up?

I just want to bring to the attention of a wider audience the fact that Callum Leslie, Council campaign manager, parliamentary candidate and voice of the student airwaves in Edinburgh, is doing a special fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation in memory of our friend Andrew Reeves.

This doesn't involve any actual sweat, but it's a whole month of Callum depriving himself of things he really loves. That's actually quite a long time in this day and age. Callum is not shy at expressing his opinions. So, on Monday 2nd July, he has pledged not to utter a single word all day. I'm sure many of us will have great fun trying to provoke him into doing so - and we should be willing to put our hands in our pockets if we do. Then, for the whole month of July, Callum will do no social networking at all. No Facebook, no Twitter. And, no Takeaways, either.  That's serious. I'm still not sure how I'm going to cope with the separation anxiety!

Finally, on my birthday, the last day of July, his unruly hedge of a beard comes off. I have been assured that the family of sparrows nesting in have been found alternative accommodation.

This is a pretty impressive set of sacrifices for one guy to make.

The arguments to help him towards his £500 target are compelling - and it's payday tomorrow. Go on, it's a good cause. You know you want to. Donate here

Monday, June 25, 2012

Social Liberal Forum Scotland event in tweets

On Saturday, Social Liberal Forum Scotland members met in Glasgow for a day of brainstorming and lectures. I was gutted that illness prevented me from being there but I am promised all sorts of goodies which I will share with you over the next few days.

Also, Cllr Robert Brown tweeted throughout the day. With his permission, I have made a Storify thingy which gives the main points of lectures on social liberal values, the Coalition, market and Willie Rennie's speech. Enjoy.

The extra paragraph I'd have put into Willie Rennie's Scotland on Sunday article on independence question

Willie Rennie wrote for yesterday's Scotland on Sunday about the need for clarity in the question put to the Scottish people in the referendum.

His message was simple - that we need a clear, simple question in the referendum and the result must be beyond doubt.

While I would have liked there to be more than one question on the ballot paper, the succession of expert opinion (including the SNP's own favoured expert) has persuaded me that the question of independence must be settled by a simple yes/no question in a stand alone referendum. That doesn't stop the development of a consensus around further devolution of power to Holyrood across businesss, civic society and politics and the working out of a way to implement it, even if that's a second referendum, but the question of independence has to be settled separately.

Willie wrote:

A few months ago, I floated the hypothetical scenario in which 99 per cent of Scots voted for a third option, for example more devolution for Scotland within the UK, and 51 per cent voted for independence.
Under the rules proposed by the nationalists they would say that independence has won. Scotland would be permanently separated from the rest of the UK.
But you don’t have to be a maths whizz to see that this would ignore the views of the vast majority of Scots would have just voted for more powers Scotland within the United Kingdom.
It is simply not credible, or democratic, to get into a situation where the most popular option loses.
And none of the world’s experts on referendums has managed to show how this could be made to work while still honouring the SNP’s promise of a straight yes/no vote on independence.
It's interesting that the drive for two questions seems to have come, bizarrely, from the SNP, who favour independence. Alex Salmond, trying to grab the headlines from the launch of the Better Together campaign today, has apparently, according to the Times (£)  threatened that if he doesn't get his own way in negotiations with the UK Government over the Section 30 order required to make the referendum legal, he'll hold his own illegal poll on the day of the UK General Election in 2015. The SNP's drive for two questions must have something to do with polling evidence that shows that support for independence has fallen since the Yes Scotland campaign was launched last month.

As Willie said, our country's future should be decided, clearly, by the people, and not in Court. Now, I know that he was writing about that specific issue, but I do want him to be talking a little bit about our unique perspective on this debate. As I wrote last year when he set up the Home Rule Commission, we're in favour of devolving powers from as well as to Holyrood. The Better Together campaign, launching today of necessity has to be focused on arguing against independence, but there is room for Willie, outside that umbrella, to talk up our vision. I'd have liked it if he'd added something along the lines of "I'll be part of the Better Together campaign making the case for Scotland to remain in the UK. Beyond that, though, Liberal Democrats are looking at how best to give away power from as well as to Holyrood to make sure that people and communities have more control over the services they need." 

The promotion of the benefits of Scotland staying in the UK are, rightly, being co-ordinated by the Better Together campaign but the individual parties within it have very different ideas about how to continue the process of devolution. Really only the Liberal Democrats are actively talking about it. Mike Moore has been very clear that the Scotland Act is a staging post, not the end of the road and Willie Rennie is on record as saying he no more wants to be dictated from by Edinburgh as London. Sure, unite with the others where we agree on Better Together, but outside that arena, promote our own positive vision.

You can read Willie's article in full here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nick Clegg needs to condemn Cameron's welfare plans

Many Liberal Democrats will have been choking on their Corn Flakes this morning as they read, with horror, David Cameron's plans to slash benefits even further than this year's Welfare Reform Bill. If he had his way, there would be no Housing Benefit payable to anyone under 25. The critical part of the article is, however, this sentence:
Downing Street said they were Conservative plans for after the next general election.
That's all right then. This rubbish isn't going to happen on our watch.

Except.....there are lots of young lives that may be even more ruined than they are already if that shower win the next General Election. Everyone who cares about these things needs to be constructing rational, common sense arguments against such ideas, against the notion perpetuated by the Tories and the right wing press that being out of work and on benefits is the result of some sort of moral failing.

That's why it is really important that Nick Clegg - and it has to be him - condemns these proposals in the strongest language imaginable. The very idea that the under 25s could be stopped from claiming Housing Benefit, which costs £2 bn per year, is particularly ridiculous given that unemployment within that age group is still so disproportionately high. Nick Clegg's £1 bn Youth Contract will help young people get jobs, but that generation is bearing the biggest brunt of the economic crisis.

Not only that, but not all under 25s have a family home where it's safe for them to stay. What about those leaving care, who are ill, whose parents won't let them stay at home, who are fleeing domestic abuse? My daughter will be welcome in our home, which is her home and always will be, but it's not the same for everybody. Cameron clearly doesn't have the first notion about the realities of life for many young people today. The PM's plans will create more homeless young people - and you know  how tough it is to get a job if you're homeless. If people can't provide themselves with a roof over their head, the state has to help them. It's the right thing to do. 

Cameron talked in the Fail on Sunday about the engaged couple who are feeling hard done by because they have to live with their parents while some single mother can just have a baby and get a council house. Maybe that engaged couple should just think that they're lucky to have the sort of family relationship where they can live,comfortably and probably cheaply, at home. They should recognise that not everybody can walk into jobs. They could maybe do with realising that the single mother trapped in a damp, cramped Council flat is not exactly living a bed of roses lifestyle.

As regular readers will know, I cannot accept the parts of the Welfare Reform Act which take benefits away from sick people, at the underlying assumption that they are all faking it until it's proved otherwise. We've all heard of people like Karen Sherlock, who passed away after being told by ATOS that they were fit for work.

I felt that, while many Liberal Democrats, including Paddy Ashdown, opposed parts of the Act, there was too much adoption of the moralising Tory rhetoric from senior Liberal Democrats like Danny Alexander. This was, I think, a mistake. We should have taken the opportunity to show our different approach. People who are ill should be supported, but parking people on benefits who could otherwise be happily working is highly illiberal. It's not good for anyone, least of all those who want to work but can't because their family would be a lot worse off if they did. The welfare system should not be an instrument of punishment, it should be an instrument of enablement where people are given the help they need, tailored to suit them, to get into work without losing out while making sure that those who can't work are looked after.

Cameron's plans give us an insight into what the Tories governing alone would have done if they hadn't had the Liberal Democrats holding them back. However unhappy many of us are with the changes, we need to at least acknowledge that.

I won't be happy, though, until I hear Nick Clegg say that Cameron's words are Tory plans, we think they're wrong and would not support them. As I write, Danny Alexander has made me very cross. Speakingon the Sunday Politics, he said he was relaxed about Cameron setting out his party's agenda, which is fair enough, but then he said that there needs to be further debate about the welfare system once the reforms bed in.This is simply not good enough. Removing a critical benefit from young people without considering their circumstances is just plain wrong and we should not hold back in our condemnation of it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Police are letting me go to Liberal Democrat Conference

Last night I was reminded by e-mail that the deadline for registering for Autumn Lib Dem Conference in Brighton at the cheapest rate runs out at midnight tonight. Seriously, it's cheap if you do it now, so don't bother reading the rest of this post right now - go ahead and do it here.  It is literally the most fun you could ever have with or without clothes. It's wild, intense, it's like a family reunion, there is just everything to love about it. I missed it for 13 years and now I'm back. You can even hear Tim Farron sing the same song and Paddy Ashdown tell the same joke every single year. All this and you get to make policy for the leadership to ignore if they feel like it to shape our party's future. 

Yes, accreditation sucks. It is offensive to any liberal soul. I take the view that I don't want our policy making to be confined to only those who are ok with it. Good old fashioned liberal bloody-mindedness insists I go.

I am particularly annoyed that the only reason I get to go is because the Police say I can. What surprised me was that the process was so fast this year, though. It literally took weeks for the Police to give me the all clear last year. This time it took hours. And the accompanying e-mail was a bit more tactful. Last year I literally heaved as I read that the Police had approved me. This year, somebody's learned a lesson. The e-mail simply says:
Dear Caron
Thank you for registering for conference. We are emailing you to let you know that your registration has been fully processed and the accreditation process has been completed.If you haven't booked your accommodation yet click here to book via our accommodation partner Visit Brighton.

The conference agenda and directory will be sent to you in two separate mailings in August. Your conference pass will be sent to you in late August/early September. Please contact us on the email address below if your pass has not arrived by Wednesday 12th September.
A bit of me is disappointed though. I wanted to see what would have happened if I'd been turned down. Would the Three Wise Men, Farron, Wiseman and Gordon, have let me in? Would you lot have run a campaign to get me admitted? Or would I just have had to stay at home and watch it on the telly, crying into my chardonnay?

The accreditation controversy is not over yet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm looking forward to lots of fun in Brighton, but also lots of intelligent, passionate and reasoned debate about where our party should be going. 2015 will be upon us before we know it and we'd better be prepared. If you're a party member, come and join in and be part of that. Them in the Bubble need to listen to and take note of the party grassroots - and we need to listen to them too and try to grab their ankles and gently pull them back to reality when they need it. Conference is where we do that and we need you there. Don't forget the cheap rate ends at midnight.

A phone call to strike fear into my heart......

This week has been pretty rubbish, really. Nothing serious for us - although people I care about are going through pretty hellish circumstances which makes what I'm about to write so trivial. But then what would this blog be if it didn't have its minutiae of moans and trash?

I was very evil last week and made Anna go to school when she had a cold. My rationale was that if she had the energy to argue about whether she should go to school, she was well enough. I'm sure that sort of attitude in the Middle Ages that would have made me the person who said something like "well, I can't tell if she's a witch. Let's just throw her in the water and see what happens." I'm not proud of it.

This week has been a different story. She's had a hell of a cough, a sore throat and been completely wiped out by the bug that's going round the school on top of her cold - and she's kindly passed that on to me. I was fine Monday morning. Monday afternoon, I'm sitting with her on the sofa and suddenly I get all shivery. Cue an hour and a half's total zonkedness and since then I've felt varying shades of pathetic. Feel free to give me your sympathy. I seem to be on the mend now, though, although I thought that on Wednesday and ended up going to the supermarket. It took me till this morning to recover from that exertion.

We also have from time to time two extra children to take and pick up from school and the like. When I say take, the younger one most often goes with my lovely friend who lives up the road and I take the older one to a different school with Anna. My lovely friends have been taking her this week too while I've been ill and Anna's been off.

So, this morning I phoned a friend, got distracted for longer than I meant and then realised that the school had texted me to tell me that Anna wasn't in and there had been no explanation from me. I had phoned in every other day this week but had forgotten today. Just as I was about to phone, my mobile rang. It was the other child's mother, from work, beside herself because she'd had a similar message about her daughter. She'd phoned the school and they were clear that she wasn't there.

Now, I hadn't actually seen her get into my friend's car this morning, but I was sure she must have done. And these are not just random parents, these are some of my best friends and I'd trust them with my life. If she hadn't turned up at their house, all of 20 seconds away, I'm absolutely sure they would have told me. Even though you know all this rationally, the panic just imagines all kinds of scenarios. In my mind, she had either run away or been kidnapped. Her mother, understandably, was in just as much of a panic.  Just a few years ago, a wee boy was murdered after being dropped off at school by his mum on her way to work. After that, they put in a GroupCall system which alerts parents automatically by text if their child isn't at school.

Anyway, what seemed like an age later, but in reality was less than 10 minutes, the school had phoned again to say that she was there after all. Her mother and I have never quite been so relieved in our lives. She'd just been late for her first class and hadn't been marked in. It was a heart-stopping moment that probably took 10 years off my life, but I'd rather that they made that error than something had gone wrong and we didn't know until the end of the day. It's also good that they register the children in every class these days so you couldn't get away with what certain of my year used to do - get marked in at registration and then disappear.

Anyway, that all caused a bit of an adrenaline rush from which I'm rapidly crashing now. Must be time for another cup of tea.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

SNP is putting self interest before human rights - Rennie #dontpandatoChina

First Minister Alex Salmond loves to meet international dignitaries and world leaders. Every chance he gets, he's off playing a larger than life role on the international stage. Just last weekend, he was in Los Angeles promoting Scottish business and schmoozing with celebrities at  a film premiere.  It's all the more surprising, then, that he can't find a space in his diary to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits Scotland this week. This is in stark contrast to the reception the exiled Tibetan Spiritual Leader received in 2004 when he addressed the Parliament and met the then First Minister and other party leaders. Just today, the Dalai Lama has addressed a meeting in the Westminster Parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are away at the G20 and Rio+20 but they met him last month and just put up with the inevitable strop from the Chinese Government.

Could it be that Salmond's discourtesy has something to do with a visit he  received at Bute House two weeks ago from the Chinese Consul-General as reported in The Times (£). We know from reports in the Independent and the Courier  that the Chinese authorities have been visiting local councils from Leeds to Inverness  to discuss their involvement in the Dalai Lama's visit. Only SNP-run Dundee City Council and the First Minister seem to have taken any notice of them. The Lord Provost has apparently suffered a bereavement and is unable to attend the Dalai Lama's event, but the Council has thus far failed to provide a replacement speaker.

Liberal Democrat stalwart and former Scottish Chief Executive Andy Myles described Salmond's decision as cynical realpolitik and political cowardice, adding:
On behalf of Scotland, I want my First Minister to offer honour and succour and support to a man who leads his people, in exile, through a very real and terrible destruction of their way of life by a supposed neighbour nation. He does it, also, by advocating non-violence. He should be respected and supported by the SNP, as much, if not more than, anybody else. He is a true fighter for freedom. So why the cold shoulder?
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has urged Alex Salmond and Dundee City Council to meet the Dalai Lama and not to pander to the Chinese authorities.
This is a missed opportunity. By failing to meet with the globally respected spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the First Minister may leave the impression that he is more concerned with pandering to the diktat of the Chinese government than promoting human rights. We ignore China’s human rights record at our peril. I appreciate that China would be sensitive about such a meeting but the First Minister should stand up for what’s important.
Last week we saw the First Minister continue to defend Mr Murdoch’s Empire. This week we are seeing his obsession with powerful people continue.
Dundee City Council need to speak at and fully support the event or we will conclude they have been nobbled by the Chinese government. The SNP have put their interests above human rights.
Amnesty Scotland have said that " it seems that economics trump human rights when it comes to Scotland's growing relationship with the world's second largest economy."

Facebook page has been set up for those who want to urge the Scottish Government to officially welcome the Dalai Lama and you can also tweet your views using the hashtag #dontpandatoChina which refers to the two pandas currently on loan to Edinburgh Zoo from China.

It seems strange that Alex Salmond, who will be in Scotland while the Dalai Lama is visiting, cannot find the time to meet him. Scotland prides itself on being country committed to democracy and human rights and we expect our First Minister to reflect those values.

Amnesty Scotland disappointed that Scottish Government is not meeting Dalai Lama #dontpandatoChina

I asked on Monday why on earth Alex Salmond wouldn't meet the Dalai Lama. It now seems worse than I had anticipated as Dundee City Council have gone at best lukewarm over an event they were supposed to be full partners in. It appears that the Chinese Consul-General has sent the boys round, not only to Bute House, but to Edinburgh, Dundee and Highland Council too, to express their displeasure.

Amnesty Scotland's director, Shabnum Mustapha, has issued this statement today, expressing Amnesty's concern over the Scottish Government and Dundee Council's snubs to the Tibetan Spiritual Leader:
It is appalling and very worrying if Dundee City Council has ‘withdrawn’ its support for the Dalai Lama’s visit to its city due to pressure from the Chinese Government.

Amnesty has again and again highlighted China’s questionable human rights record, including its continued restriction on freedom of expression – and it seems that this censorship has now reached our shores. To think that our own publicly-elected officials would bow to pressure of this kind is unthinkable, and we would urge Dundee City Council to reconsider their decision.
It is also very disappointing that it appears no-one from the Scottish Government, including the First Minister, is able to welcome the Dalai Lama as he embarks on his visit to Scotland.

His visit to our country should serve as yet another opportunity for our government to put the spotlight on human rights abuses in China. Instead it seems that economics trump human rights when it comes to Scotland's growing relationship with the world's second largest economy.

The Scottish Government should be welcoming this opportunity to support the Dalai Lama, an important spiritual figure who symbolises the movement for non-violent self-determination for an oppressed people.

Throughout China, freedom of expression continues to be restricted by the authorities and re-education through labour camps continue to operate. And the Chinese government has displayed increasingly repressive behaviour in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lest we forget - Argyll and Bute's communications disaster

Now that the NeverSeconds blog is back up and running, I thought it would be useful to remind you of Argyll and Bute's disastrous statement last Friday which amounted to throwing petrol on the fire. It's an example of incompetence of the highest order. As I wrote on Friday, though, unhappy employees rarely produce good work, so it's vital that Argyll and Bute Council address the problems within their comms department. 

By depicting a 9 year old's reviews, which, after all, gave an average of 7.59 out of 10 for the meals she'd had, as an "unwarranted attack", the Council had run out of credibility by the end of the first sentence. The whole thing is a passive aggressive self justifying whinge. It's hardly as though Martha was responsible for the headline in the Daily Record which so upset the dinner ladies. A bit of thought could have seen them quietly reassured rather than used as pawns in a publicity war.

This statement will, no doubt, be used in training courses on media management as an example of how not to do things for years to come.  

The good news about this social media storm is that  Martha has now raised not far off £84000 for Mary's Meals, meaning that a whole new kitchen will be built in Malawi. All's well that ends well, as they say. 

Statement on school meals from Argyll and Bute Council
Published Date: 
 15 Jun 2012 - 10:53
Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs. The Council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils however this escalation means we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing. In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.
There have been discussions between senior council staff and Martha’s father however, despite an acknowledgement that the media coverage has produced these unwarranted attacks, he intimated that he would continue with the blog.
The council has had no complaints for the last two years about the quality of school meals other than one from the Payne family received on 6 June and there have been no changes to the service on offer since the introduction of the blog.
Pupils have a daily choice of two meals from a menu which is designed with pupils, parents and teachers. Our summer menu is about to be launched and includes main course choices like meat or vegetarian lasagne served with carrots and garlic bread or chicken pie with puff pastry, mashed potato and mixed vegetables.
Pupils can choose from at least two meals every day. They pay £2 for two courses and this could be a starter and a main or a main and a desert. Each meal comes with milk or water. Pupils can have as much salad and bread as they want. Salad, vegetables, fruit, yoghurt and cheese options are available every day. These are standing options and are not a result of any changes in response to the blog site.
As part of the curriculum for excellence, pupils in all our schools are regularly taught about healthy eating and at lunch breaks staff encourage pupils to make good choices from what is on offer. We use a system called ‘Nutmeg’ to make sure everything is nutritionally balanced. Our staff also get nutrition awareness training so they know how to provide a good healthy meal. There is portion sized guidance which we adhere to and it is matched to the age of the child so they get the right amount of food. Second portions would mean too many calories for pupils.
In Lochgilphead Primary School we are piloting a new pre-ordering scheme which is designed to encourage class discussion around meal choices and also improves the accuracy of meal choices. The pupils use a touch screen to select their lunch option and the data is downloaded in the kitchen so they know how many portions of each meal are required. As they place their order, the pupils are given a coloured band which relates to their meal choice that day. They wear it during the morning, and at lunchtime they hand it to the catering assistant, who will give them the corresponding meal.
The council’s focus is now on supporting the school in the education of young people in Argyll and Bute.

Making paying for sex illegal won't end the abuse of women

Rhoda Grant MSP today gives evidence to Holyrood's Justice Committee regarding her Private Members' Bill which aims to make paying for sex illegal. I'll look at the issue in more depth when I don't feel completely floored by a nasty bug but some brief thoughts to be going on with.

I am not convinced that criminalising the process will actually help those men and women who are exploited by others and forced into prostitution with no control over what they do or how they do it. The people who do that trafficking, exploiting and abuse are the people who need to be locked up. Given that they are not usually keeping to the letter of the law in other areas of their lives, a ban on paying for sex is hardly likely to put them off.

If you are a young woman (or man)  who's been trafficked by one of these nasty pieces of work, you are unlikely to speak a huge amount of English. I wonder if Rhoda Grant's law would have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for you to seek help once you are trapped within that world. After all, if they were told it was illegal and they'd go to jail, even if that were not the case, if they complained...

Sweden took this step in 1999 and there are mixed reports of its success. I'm not sure how much we can compare the situations in both countries, though. What struck me was one study where they said that the number of men paying for sex had dropped from 13.6% to 8%. I wonder how accurate that was given that the first time they were confessing to a legal act, and the second time to an illegal one. That surely has to distort the figures.

I have to confess that I am pretty conflicted - in most cases, prostitution as it is currently practised is an act of violence against women (and also men) so it's difficult not to have sympathy with what Rhoda Grant is saying. It's an occupation you rarely participate in if you have the economic choice and those who do often have drug and mental health issues as well. Equally, in most cases, drug dealing is an exploitative act aimed at keeping customers in dependence and subjugation. Prohibition hasn't worked in the latter area, so why would it work in the sex industry? The people who need locking up are the men (and, let's face it, they almost always are men) who abuse and exploit the vulnerable by forcing them into prostitution.

I think we need to look at ways of getting ourselves a much healthier attitude to sex in this country. The easy availability of internet porn in which women are portrayed as mere receptacles will only make the idea that women who provide sexual services are not human even more commonly held- a view which was prevalent amongst punters even before.  I think we actually do need to educate and discuss rather than ban  - which is why I've always been against this talk of automatically barring certain websites and people having to opt in to access them. It might protect your child in your home, but not when they're round at their mates. The best form of protection from damage is education and information, frankly.

Prostitution is far from being the only way in which bad men exploit and abuse vulnerable women. I'm not sure that the model of the sex industry here necessarily fits in with Sweden's where they've had a history of being more open about sex. While I get what Rhoda Grant is trying to do, I'm far from convinced its implementation would actually help those trapped in a horrible, degrading humiliating, abusive, violent world.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Glasgow Subway photo ban dropped

Great to see that common sense has prevailed and plans to ban photography on Glasgow subway have been dropped. Flash photography won't be allowed for safety reasons, which is fair enough. Argyll and Bute Council could learn from the way SPT behaved on this. The person operating their Twitter account was very switched on and took a lot of heat out of the situation very early on by engaging with people and encouraging them to submit their views. Willie Rennie, who opposed the ban from the beginning, thanked the eagle eyed people who spotted this in the first place.
It shouldn’t have taken a public consultation for Strathclyde Partnership Board to realise the absurdity of their ban plans. Had it not been for eagle-eyed photography enthusiasts, this bye-law may have been passed without the public realising.
It goes to show that those in authority need watching and their actions must be closely scrutinised. Social networking and the Internet helped spread the word and encourage people to respond to the consultation.

Why won't Scottish Government say if phones were hacked?

Scotland's top civil servant Sir Peter Housden is unlikely to have Willie Rennie on his Christmas card list, particularly as the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader has complained about him so many times.

Even so, Sir Peter's non committal reply to Willie Rennie's legitimate concerns over whether Scottish Government phones had been hacked by newspapers is astonishing. If they hadn't been, why on earth not say so?

His assertion that

Operation Rubicon is an ongoing investigation in which, for operational reasons, disclosure of information has been highly restricted. Even the fact of whether Scottish Government telephones have been hacked has the potential to compromise the investigation.
seems a bit weird to me. The logical conclusion is that if my house was burgled, then me writing just the fact that I'd been burgled on here would compromise a police investigation? I really don't get that. And if that's the case, has former Sunday Times journalist and now aide to Alex Salmond Joan McAlpine already compromised the investigation by revealing in her Daily Record column that her phone may have been hacked?  I don't really see how, frankly.

Liberal Democrats believe in Government being as open and transparent as possible. Things shouldn't be kept secret unless there is a very good reason. Willie Rennie had this to say in response to Sir Peter Housden's letter:

It seems clear to me that Scottish Government phones have been hacked. Sir Peter could easily have told me that the Scottish Government had not become a victim. Telling me nothing had happened would not have jeopardised any police investigation - but he didn't.
If the phones have been hacked it may have had a serious impact on national security or commercial confidentiality.
Parliament is perfectly capable of handling such information without compromising any police investigation. In fact Parliament has a responsibility and duty if such a breach has occurred.
Others, including an MSP, have been open about being hacked. Sir Peter needs to explain why the Government can't be open too. Sir Peter said he could not give me a full answer as it may undermine Operation Rubicon. Yet those who have revealed that they have been phone hacked have not been accused of undermining the inquiry.
Sir Peter Housden should come clean about whether Scottish Government phones have been hacked. There is no reason not to. After all, Alex Salmond was able to tell the Leveson Inquiry last week that he hadn't been hacked. Why the secrecy? And, why, especially, if no phones were hacked, can he just not say so?

For information, the correspondence between Willie Rennie and Sir Peter Housden is published in full below.

From Willie to Sir Peter Housden:

Dear Sir Peter,

I am writing to ask whether any Scottish Government phones have been subject to phone hacking. The First Minister has so far failed to answer questions directed to him in the Scottish Parliament about whether his own phone was hacked, arguing that he will not disclose this information until he appears at the Leveson inquiry.

I believe that refusing to answer such questions shows contempt for the Scottish Parliament to which he is accountable as First Minister. Nevertheless, whether or not the First Minister chooses to answer questions about his own phone, I believe that the Scottish people have a right to know now whether their Scottish Government has been subject to phone hacking.

There are potentially serious implications should Scottish Government phones have been hacked as ministers and senior officials could have received messages concerning matters of national security or emergency planning. There is therefore a wider interest in whether this information has been kept safe.

I’d be grateful if you could disclose whether any official Scottish Government phones have been hacked. If official phones have been compromised, has the government taken steps to mitigate any damage that could potentially have been caused?

I understand that Strathclyde Police is currently investigating allegations of phone hacking in Scotland and I am also writing to them with the same question. What discussion have you had with officers leading Operation Rubicon to ascertain whether the Scottish Government has been subject to phone hacking?

I look forward to receiving your response.

Yours sincerely,

Willie Rennie MSP, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

Sir Peter's reply:

13 June 2012

I refer to your letter of 18 May, received on 21 May, asking whether Scottish Government
telephones have been subject to phone hacking.

As I think you understand there is an over-riding need not to compromise the work of the
Leveson Inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson made it explicit in a public address on 15 May that a
public debate on the subject matter of a witness's evidence may make it make it difficult or
even impossible for the Inquiry to take evidence from that witness in a fair and impartial

In addition the question of whether any Scottish Government telephones have been hacked
falls squarely within the remit of Operation Rubicon. You will I think be aware that the remit
of Operation Rubicon is (i) to examine aspects of the evidence presented during the Tommy
Sheridan perjury trial and (ii) to examine specific claims of phone hacking and breaches of
data protection in Scotland. Operation Rubicon is an ongoing investigation in which, for
operational reasons, disclosure of information has been highly restricted. Even the fact of
whether Scottish Government telephones have been hacked has the potential to
compromise the investigation.

Further, the disclosure of that information, together with the public debate that disclosure
might engender, might allow persons subsequently charged with any offences arising out of
the police investigation to argue that pre-trial publicity has prejudiced their right to a fair trial.
You will appreciate that in these circumstances I am unable to provide you with the
information you seek.


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