Friday, November 30, 2012

And what does Popbitch have to say about the Liberal Democrats' Christmas Party?

Well, I never expected an event I attended to end up in a salacious gossip email.

On Tuesday night I was lucky enough to be at the Ministry of Sound for the annual Lib Dems' Christmas Party. It was a fantastic night and a good time was had by all. Generally, I think that what happens at the Ministry of Sound should stay at the Ministry of Sound, although I will say that I feared for one middle aged man, who had better remain nameless although everyone in a 10 foot radius will know who he was, at one point. He seemed to be doing a bit of a bizarre combination of hip-hop, limbo, dad dancing and salsa and I was convinced he'd need either or both hips replaced by the end of the evening. Brave didn't even begin to cover it.

My husband was absolutely disgusted that someone of my camp and cheesy musical taste would be allowed in such an illustrious venue.

It was a great night, but not in any way eventful in times of scandal, which is why I was a little surprised to see it appear in Popbitch this week:
 >> Political party <<
        Lib Dems Gangnam style       

    Ready to hear one of the most
    pitiful things you'll hear all
    season? The Lib Dem MPs were at
    Ministry of Sound for their
    Christmas party this week.
    And were dancing Gangnam Style.

FYI: Nick Clegg only showed up at the
start. He apparently "still looked
sad despite a slight incline at the
corners of his mouth".
I doubt there will be a Christmas party in the whole country this year where the Gangnam style won't be played. This is hardly worthy of report. Given that it was the Ministry of Sound, I should say that we didn't get any of the cheesy Christmas stuff. In fact, as you'd expect, the music was pretty darned good.

Nick Clegg, by the way was in very good form, joking and teasing people. And drinking Tiger beer.

Never in my life did I expect to be sitting in the roped off seats in the VIP area of a nightclub! Anyone could go up there and it was lovely. How the other half live...      

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Shock as politician behaves like a grown-up!

I have to say I was fair chuffed with our boy this afternoon. Nick Clegg showed how to conduct disagreements with your partners in an orderly, respectful and calm fashion. No matter how many times people tried to get him to slag Cameron, who was, by the way, completely out on a limb today, he refused and talked about trying to build a consensus.

I can't, for the life of me, see what the problem is with Leveson's clever proposal for a self regulating body with true independence - ie not full of newspaper editors or chaired by politicians. It seems pretty obvious to me that Cameron is trying to protect the powerful corporate interests that run the media for some reason. Well, protecting powerful vested interests is what Tories do, so we shouldn't be surprised. I really don't get how giving statutory underpinning to a regulatory body the press sets up itself along Leveson's guidelines infringes press freedom in any way. Is the BBC, which is regulated to within an inch of its life, curbed or compromised in any way? Of course not.

Nick was very calm and assured at the Despatch Box, and there was no sign of bad blood between he and the Prime Minister. He said his piece, which you can read in full here and took questions for quite a while, cracking a few jokes about the realities of coalition while he was at it.

He was very clear that the worst that could happen would be for nothing to change and emphasised how important to balance two fundamental liberal principles - the need for a free press holding politicians to account, and the need to protect innocent people from the abuses of powerful vested interests. He talked about how the Irish system was set up by Parliament, reeled off a long list of British newspapers who have Irish editions and said he'd never heard them complaining about an illiberal press environment there.

He wasn't entirely uncritical - saying that Leveson's chapters on using OFCOM as a backstop regulator, and on data protection would need more careful scrutiny.

He also hinted, when pressed by Tories who think he should basically just have done what Cameron wanted, that there may be more double statements in future. I think he has to play his hand wisely on that - but there are no greater issues than secret courts and web snooping where he would do well to set out the distinctive liberal case.

I did a wee Storify thingy to keep the tweets of the occasion together. Near the bottom, there's some wee gems from the Chief Whip.

How the press should be regulated - from a 13 1/2 year old

With just half an hour to go until we finally know what Lord Leveson is going to recommend, I thought you might be interested in my daughter's view on press regulation, elicited on the way to school this morning.

We were talking about the habit tabloids have of getting something wrong, humiliating someone, causing real distress,  in massive front page spreads and publishing the inevitable apologies in amongst the classified ads on page 39.

She suggested that, instead, newspaper editors should have to dress up and make a video apology on You Tube. I guess it's a bit like the 21st century stocks without the rotten fruit. Clearly, she's been watching too much Merlin, but there a certain making the punishment fit the crime thing going on.

Gregor McAbery on Twitter suggested that the victim should be allowed to choose the dressing up costume, which adds another delicious dimension. It makes you wish Kelvin McKenzie and Piers Morgan were still tabloid editors.

I did explain to her that I felt we needed to have consequences that really mattered to the newspapers - so if they were going to play fast and loose with the rules, they would lose the profit they made on that edition.

Two things Lib Dems are doing that make me happy - and one where there's room for improvement

I am heartily delighted that Nick Clegg is to make his own statement on Leveson this afternoon. When there's such a complex mix of abuse of power and freedom issues, we need an unequivocally liberal point of view. The Tories don't like getting in the way of large corporations' power and Labour's authoritarian instincts need to be curbed.

I expect Nick will get it in the neck from all sides but I think it's a very mature way to handle the inevitable disagreements that are going to arise during the course of a coalition. Nick isn't going to come out and call Cameron out for everything, but he'll express his view in clear, calm and respectful terms.

Another thing that made me very happy is the BBC report today which suggests that the Liberal Democrats may not support Draft Communications Data Bill. Julian Huppert has said all along that we would not support a Bill which was not substantially changed. The party will breathe a huge sigh of relief if that happens.

And the area where there's room for improvement? The Justice and Security Bill, containing the provisions for secret courts, was passed by the Lords last night. I don't believe that the amendments passed by the Lords do any more than make a horrendous bill merely bloody awful. Liberal Democrats should be having nothing to do with secret courts and we should insist on that being withdrawn. If you agree, please sign the petition here.

The next stage for this Bill is that it'll go to the Commons. This is where Lib Dem members really need to make their feelings known to our MPs. Please contact every single one you know and tell them why you think we need to get rid of these provisions.

It's great that Nick is getting it so right on Leveson and has got he message on communications data. He must act on secret courts, though. The Party will not cope well with a failure on such an issue of such fundamental importance to us.

Travelling companions

So I'm back after a hectic trip to London, made more chaotic by the inevitable rail delays because of the awful flooding in northern England. Getting there a few hours late is nothing compared to having your home or livelihood threatened or destroyed by rising flood waters.

On Monday I left Edinburgh at 11:30 in order to get to London at 15:54 and on to my meeting at Westminster at 18:00. The weather was dark, wet and gloomy and by the time we arrived in  Newcastle, the conductor's announcements were becoming increasingly pessimistic. Twitter had tales of replacement buses and being decanted off one train and on to another after much hanging around on cold, dark, wet railway stations. It seemed only chaos and misery were ahead.

Very luckily, our train was the one that people were decanted on to. Sadly, there weren't enough seats or luggage room for everyone who joined us.

My seat was at a table with a guy who spent most of the journey going through his iTunes library and ignoring what was going on. Opposite was a very bright and smiley 8 month old baby boy called Cooper, travelling to see  family with his Mum and Granny. They live four doors down from the shop on the Black Isle where we buy our groceries when we're on holiday so it was great to chat about the area and all sorts of other things. Little Cooper was a delight and showed a great deal more patience than many of the adults on the train. I found myself getting riled at one woman who kept telling this toddler she was with that she was going to smack her. The toddler was not even making a noise and was being pretty good, considering. I found the threats of physical violence towards a child much more irritating.

As I was getting ready to leave the train, two hours late in Kings Cross,  I saw a friend of mine, known to some as the Minister for Sinister, slumbering at the other end of the carriage. I thought I'd have a wee bit of fun, so rang his mobile. When he answered, he was completely freaked out by hearing my voice next to him and coming through his phone. He really jumped. I am quite proud of myself for out-creeping him for the first and probably only time ever.

We arrived at 17:54. My meeting was due to start in Parliament at 18:00. I reckoned that I'd be about half an hour late. I didn't reckon with a queue to get into Parliament that was about half an hour long so I arrived far too late. However, some good chat took place in the pub afterwards so not all was lost. I had never been in St Stephen's pub across the road from Parliament, on the same side of the road as the Westminster tube station. It's lovely - and the very nice young man behind the bar now knows how to pronounce "Glenmorangie" correctly.

I left King's Cross yesterday at 10 am ( having been up till nearly 2 at a fantastic party). On that journey, I was really lucky to have really lovely women to chat to. The three of us seemed to click and were soon putting the world to rights, talking about politics, religion, kids, all sorts. You're not supposed to discuss these controversial things, especially with complete strangers,  but I'm all in favour of it - the more people try to understand each other, even when they disagree, the better, in my book. One was heading up north for work, the other to see family with her gorgeous, dimply, smiley 7 month old, Lennox, who delighted us all. Again we were delayed, by an hour this time and he was just such a sunny, cute little thing who was completely unfazed by his confinement. It also turns out that one of them may have been at Braemar Youth Hostel in 1985 when I had my Summer job there. Small world, or what? Anyway, I am extremely grateful to my travelling companions for making the journey so pleasant.

By the time we arrived in York, there was only one train per hour being allowed in each direction. We were very lucky in that it was our train, with quite a slight delay, which was that one. The people from the 9:30 train had been left on a freezing cold platform to await for our arrival and they then faced a three hour journey north with no seat. I have to say, though, they were

The train fell silent when we passed through the areas worst affected by the flooding in Yorkshire andnear Darlington. Seeing buildings and trees half submerged made us all think about the lives affected. It really was devastating. The Government really has to get a deal on the flood insurance sorted as soon as possible. Going through it is bad enough. Making these people face the prospect, possibly the inevitable prospect, of it happening again without insurance is unthinkable. Our delayed journey is over. Their ordeal is far from it.

I'll tell you some more about what else I got up to in London later. Those who were also at the party can rest easy - what happened at the Ministry of Sound stays at the Ministry of Sound.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Letter from the Leader - Nick Clegg focuses on housing

When I worked for an MP as a caseworker, the main problems I dealt with were tax credits, benefits (where the Government departments concerned were never quick to admit their mistakes) and housing. Every week, we'd have several new cases of people not just wanting a better or bigger or in fact any house at all, but desperately needing it. Four children in a two bedroomed flat doesn't go. And don't get all sniffy about how people shouldn't have children if they can't afford them. What are poor people supposed to do? Forget the hope of family life?That's mean.

Nick Clegg has thus far talked about mental health and childcare in his new series of letters to Liberal Democrat members, two issues of critical importance to people in their everyday lives. This week, he chose housing, writing about his new garden city initiative. I like that while the Tories squabble about Europe, Nick's focussed on making people's lives better.

Here it is in full:

Dear Caron,

I'm writing this as we come to the end of an incredibly hectic week in politics.

The negotiations over the budget in Europe, securing of a much needed ceasefire in Gaza, rising speculation about the upcoming Leveson report. And Ed Davey's important announcement of a landmark coalition deal on low carbon energy that will deliver billions of pounds of investment in clean technology and create thousands of jobs.

But in this letter I want to focus on an issue that wasn't so high on the radar screen, but matters enormously to me: housing. I gave a speech to the National House Building Council (the people who issue guarantees for new homes) on Thursday which brought the numbers into focus for me and made me determined to step up our efforts.

As a country, we have built too few homes for far too long - and the economic and social consequences are massive. Prices out of reach of too many young families. Our economy vulnerable to boom and bust in the housing market. The housing benefit bill spiralling. Homelessness and overcrowding.

All these problems are solvable but only if we think big.

We've been talking about housing in the coalition for well over two years. At every budget and autumn statement we've brought forward new measures. We've reduced red tape and regulation for house builders. We've supported mortgage lending with products to help first time buyers. We're backing housing associations with £10bn of treasury guarantees.

And yet it isn't enough. This year we will probably build just 110,000 homes. If that sounds like a lot to you let me put you straight: it's one of the worst years since the Second World War. When you realise that the population grew by about 270,000 households it's clear it's nowhere near enough.

No wonder prices are out of reach for so many families. The average first time buyer is now 35, and home ownership is falling for the first time in a generation.

The only way out of this crisis is to build our way out.

This week I announced funding of £225m to kick start development at eight sites, each with plans for over 5,000 new homes. But I want to think bigger - much bigger. We can't go on building a home here and a home there and hoping it's enough.

I want us to go back to some of Britain's proud heritage of urban development and build a new generation of "garden cities" - places that will grow, thrive and become part of the fabric of the nation.

Of course development is always controversial. It's right to protect our precious rural landscape and not let England be concreted over. But the point I've been making in government (and there have been some lively debates) is that planning big new settlements is the best way to protect our countryside because the alternative is endless urban sprawl.

Instead of eating away at the green belt, we can build big and even designate new green belt around new towns and cities. I think that’s why even the Telegraph was supportive of the plans I outlined this week.

We could easily build new garden cities totalling a million new homes in the next ten years without building on any green belt, National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And by doing it we could deliver homes people can afford in places they want to live.

We can't do this overnight. Scale and ambition take time. But I believe if we put aside partisan politics and think collectively about the housing needs of the next generation, we could set Britain on track for a major wave of new development, new jobs, and new hope.

Best  wishes,


Nick Clegg

Ps If you want to help our party campaign on this and other issues you can do something to help.  A donation of just £10, or whatever 

Brilliant Brazil thriller for Vettel's hat-trick #f1

The circuit at Interlagos never fails to disappoint. If you have a Formula One championship going down to the wire, what better place to end the season than in a place which seems, like Spa, to have its own micro-climate, where it can, and frequently does, tip it down at a moment' notice. Who can forget Kimi Raikonnen snatching the title from Lewis Hamilton in 2007 and then the next year Hamilton snatched it from Felipe Massa on the last corner.? In 2009, Brawn GP cemented their Constructors' Championship and the world title for Jenson Button after a bit of fairytale year.

So, last week the F1 circus hit town for climax to the season. If Ferrari's Fernando Alonso could win the race with Sebastian Vettel coming fourth or less, the title would be his. It was a long shot, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be him.

Neither championship contender qualified particularly well, but a first lap spin, encouraged by a good whack on the left side which left visible damage, let Vettel in last place while Alonso had a stonkingly good start, pushing his way up to 4th, then 3rd, which would have been enough.

That was all before the heavens opened. By the time the first lot of tyre changes, to intermediates had happened, Vettel had driven his way from last to 6th, which would have been enough to win the world title. The championship undulated between the two of them for the whole race.

One highlight was that Force India's Nico Hulkenberg led the race for a good stint in the middle before being overtaken by Lewis Hamilton. When he tried to re-take the lead, both spun off. The German managed to get going again, but Hamilton's race was over.

Alonso never stopped fighting. The only place handed to him on a plate was when Massa let him pass, but Vettel had a similar courtesy from his mentor Schumacher in his last race. By the last few laps, all Tifosi hopes rested on Jenson Button doing something silly in the rain. As we saw in Montreal in 2011, Jenson doesn't do silly stuff in the rain; he brings the car home.

It's impossible not to like Sebastian Vettel, or to grudge him his 3rd championship. He has the best car, though. Alonso managed to take a vastly inferior specimen within 3 points of the world title.That shows a fantastic talent. My feelings towards the Spaniard have mellowed over time. I wasn't much enamoured by his early rivalry with Schumacher, and then Alonso behaved like a total tube during his brief stay at McLaren. He and Kimi are probably the best drivers on the grid, though.

Here are my breathless tweets from yesterday. I could talk about this all day, but that train to London won't wait for me.

My hopes for next season - a scrap for the title between Alonso, Kimi, Webber and Jenson, and a place in next year's Strictly Come Dancing for Michael Schumacher. I'm missing this season already. Roll on Melbourne which, inconveniently, falls on the weekend of Scottish Liberal Democrat conference.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Xmas books for kids is back - please give generously

Last year, the amazing Burd led a project which raised over £3300 to buy books for kids who otherwise wouldn't have them at Christmas.

And she's back this year.

I'm sure she won't mind me copying her words shamelessly:

Last year, together, we bought books for Christmas for 380 vulnerable children and young people in Scotland.  We did this because you helped me raise over £3,300.  All of that is worthy of a very big wow.  And a huge thank you.
So this year, I thought we’d try to do it all again.
Because sadly, there are still children growing up in Scotland without a book of their own.  For some, it’s because their parents are too poor to afford books.  For others, it’s because they leave violent or unsafe homes, often with only what they can carry, and precious things like books get left behind.  Whatever the reason, CHILDREN 1ST – the charity I work for – supports children who have yet to discover the joy of reading – and reading well – and the difference it can make to their lives and their life chances.
This is something CHILDREN 1ST understands well.  We work to support vulnerable families, often from a child’s earliest years, so that their children enjoy happy and healthy, safe and secure childhoods.  Encouraging parents to read with their children, nurturing strong bonds, is part of what we do.  Our counsellors also support sexually and physically abused children to recover from their trauma through play, writing, art and story telling.
And that is how powerful books are.  Helping to heal.  Opening up new worlds and possibilities.  Providing escape and adventure.  And most importantly of all, fun.
I know you know this because you love books and books have helped take you to where you are in life.  Close your eyes and imagine if you had never owned a book, what your life might be like today.  Impossible isn’t it?  Which is why I know you will help the Books for Kids for Christmas appeal again this year.
You can give – here, right now.  Donate £10, gift aid it and half of your donation plus the gift aid goes directly to buying a book for a vulnerable child, with the rest going to CHILDREN 1ST to help towards the costs of supporting vulnerable children and families.
But you can also spread the word by telling, emailing, tweeting, sharing and blogging.  Email me at you’d like to discuss what and how.
The target is the same as last year - £3000 which will allow us to buy books for 300 children. 
Already, we’re nearly half way there, thanks to an amazingly generous donation from the David Cairns Foundation of £1000.  I’ve been saving my pennies too and have put £200 into the pot.  
And we’re starting earlier to give Santa plenty of time to make his deliveries and hopefully, reaching our target and finishing earlier too on 2 December – the end of Book Week Scotland which provides a fitting finale.
I know times are even tougher for folk this year, but if we all give a little, we can achieve a lot.  And by buying books for vulnerable children for Christmas, we can give them a better start in life and help them to build a brighter future for themselves.
Thanks for your support.
PS You can keep up to date with the appeal by – please do drop by! 
And if you’d rather not give online, you can send a cheque payable to CHILDREN 1ST to Kate Higgins, CHILDREN 1ST, 83 Whitehouse Loan, Edinburgh, EH9 1AT
I'd like you to do three things, please:
1. Give whatever you can to this very worthwhile cause here
2. Tell everyone you know, whether in person or on the internet about it and ask them to give too.
3. Put in the comments what your favourite books were when you were a child.
Next week is National Book Week and it would be great if we could help Kate exceed the target before then. Let's get to it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A bad day at the office for Jim Wallace #no2secretcourts

First of all, some words of heartfelt thanks. People like Ros Scott, Sal Brinton, Tim Clement-Jones, Sally Hamwee and Dee Doocey simply don't strike me as the rebellious sort. That Tony Greaves is doesn't make me any less grateful to him, but he is pretty familiar with the grass on that side of the fence. Sixteen of our seventy - ish peers who were around to vote last night in the Lords chose to stick with party policy and vote to delete the secret courts provision from the Justice and Security Bill. That's a tough choice to make and I am grateful to each and every one of them. I was particularly chuffed to see Bob Maclennan in there, who was MP for Caithness and Sutherland where I lived when I first joined the SDP in 1983. The others on my Role of Noble Honour are Lords Hussein, MacDonald, Shipley, Strasburger, Tope, Roberts and Thomas and Baronesses Walmsley and Linklater. Thank you all.  There were some others, by the way, who seemed to have made themselves scarce between the earlier votes and this crucial division, so they didn't vote for the clause to stay in either.

I know exactly why I think it's wrong to have cases decided between a spook, a judge and a state appointed advocate for the defendant/complainant who isn't allowed to tell them of the case against them. I do, however, get a bit scared about writing about it, not being a legal person. My Lib Dem Voice colleague Nick Thornsby has written a hell of a good article for the Guardian on why secret courts are a bad idea. As he says:
It is difficult to comprehend just how fundamental a departure from centuries-old principles this would be. The right to see and hear the evidence of the other side, and subsequently to challenge the veracity or utility of that evidence, forms the basis of our entire civil justice system. The prospect, too, of claimants being told that they have lost their case but not being given any reasons why should send a chill through any believers in fair, open justice.
 The delete vote was the fourth out of five votes. The Government had been pretty heavily defeated on the first three which sought to add safeguards to the Bill. They certainly made it better - but that is a relative term. It was horrific and it's now merely bloody awful. The number of Liberal Democrat peers voting for the Government line was a whole 12. That is not a good day at the office for the man introducing the Bill, Jim Wallace, by any manner of means. If he could only take 11 colleagues with him, that should send enough shock waves through him to make him realise the strength of feeling in the party. Jim was a very good Deputy First Minister, and he should recognise this situation as the parallel to the 1999 Coalition. We had made very specific promises on tuition fees (which we did not implement) and free personal care (which we did bring in). If we had reneged on either of these, the party would have spontaneously combusted. This, I think, is where we are with secret courts, where the only people who seem to have any sort of time for it are those in Parliament. As I said on Lib Dem Voice yesterday, a glance at the list of the 172 party members who signed the letter to the Times shows unanimity across loyalists and the awkward squad, social and economic liberals, Lib Dems the length and breadth of the country. I hope that Jim heeds what he is being told and takes steps to get rid of the secret court provisions once and for all. It is really important for this party that he does.

The Bill is back in the Lords next week before it heads off to the Commons. For the Lib Dems against secret courts campaign, there is a long way to go. Jo Shaw wrote about last night's proceedings here.  If you're a Lib Dem member and you want to support the campaign you can do so by signing the petition here and following the blog or the Facebook page here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A late World Toilet Day post

Yes, I know World Toilet Day was on Monday. I've been poorly and preoccupied by Lib Dem Voice this week so far so I figured better late than never.

I did do a bit of Facebook and Twitter sharing on the right day.

Anyway, if you thought World Toilet Day was some sort of marketing ploy by a DIY chain to sell more toilets, you are wrong.

It's actually an annual event to highlight how many people across the world don't have access to sanitation.

If I've ever been hillwalking and had to "go" outside, I've found it to be an absolute nightmare, but to 1 in 3 women around the world that's just life. Water Aid produced this film to raise awareness of this, to try and bring it home to us what it would be like to be in that situation.

After you've watched it, sign the petition to tell the Government you want them to work to make sure that everyone has somewhere clean and safe to carry out the most basic of bodily functions. If you are on the Water Aid website, you will see that there is a story by Katherine at the side where she tells how women risk rape if they go outside to do the toilet at night time.

Why #womenbishops matters to this atheist

It was what we call these days a facepalm moment when the news came through last night that the Church of England had voted by the tiniest of margins not to allow women to become bishops. The Archbishop had the  clergy on message, but the laity didn't have the required margin. And it would be inaccurate to simply dismiss the laity as misogynist. Some of them thought that the proposal on offer was worse than the status quo in the way it offered "protection" for those poor souls who couldn't bear the thought of a woman in a position of power. Kelvin Holdsworth has some thoughts on this. The wisest and most progressive priest I know wouldn't have been able to vote for the proposals and he explains why here.
The trouble with the measure in England from my point of view is that it was a compromise far too far. It was not a vote for or against women bishops, it was a vote for or against allowing women to become second-class bishops. Churches would have been able to opt out of a female bishop’s care (though not from a male bishop’s care) and request oversight from someone sharing the same theological views. It is the Church of England’s preferred heresy at the moment and it is probably a good thing that it has failed to go any further now though a horrible mess. 
Now, I'd really love to be able to say, ok, Church of England, that's your business. I don't like it, but it's now't to do with me. Sadly, though, it is, for two reasons.

Firstly, I might not be a member of the Church of England, but I do like to challenge discrimination and misogyny wherever it's found. I feel that if it doesn't go unchallenged, it pervades and poisons the whole of society.

Secondly, this Church has a much larger part in our national life than it should have, given that it forms part of the hegemony of the state. It's intertwined into our parliamentary and governmental institutions. Our Head of State (a woman, funnily enough) is head of the Church. The Church has, get this, reserved places in our Parliament. 26 Lords Spiritual make our laws. And we've seen that there can be some pretty tight votes in the House of Lords. Now, I don't think there should be Bishops in the House of Lords anyway. Sadly, the last attempt to get rid of even some of them didn't end so well. Nadine Dorries, I'm looking at you, here, and 90 od of your mates. So, if we are stuck with an appointed upper house for the time being, I think as an interim measure, we should tell the Bishops to sling their hooks if their organisation insists on being institutionally sexist. They either remove the barrier to letting women sit in the Lords, or they leave. It's that simple. It's bad enough that there's no legitimacy, but for there to be active discrimination in the choice of members is beyond the pale. They had the chance to change that and they blew it.

If you agree with that, there is an e-petition to that effect. It says:
The Church of England on 20th Nov 2012 voted not to allow women to be Bishops. Though that is within its rights to do, this should worry the Government as Church of England Bishops are awarded legislative power through seats in the House of Lords.
The Church has chosen to be a sexist organisation by refusing women the right to hold highest leadership positions and therefore should not be allowed automatic seats in the House of Lords, as this clearly does not comply with the spirit of UK Equality law.
We call on the Govt to remove the right of the Church of England to have automatic seats in the House of Lords, in line with its commitments to equality and non-discrimination, set out in the Equality Act (2010) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)
I signed it when it had a couple of hundred signatures this morning. Now there are 1660. If you agree with what it says, sign here.  I certainly don't see why laws I'm expected to live by should be made by people whose organisation actively discriminates against me and the rest of the female population. If 100,000 people signed up, this would have to be debated in Parliament. Let's see if we can get there by Christmas.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Nick Clegg tells us what it was like preparing for PMQs

It's just dawned on me that I never got round to posting Nick Clegg's second Letter from the Leader, which gave an insight into what it was like preparing for PMQs. This was a a performance which was lauded by the press at the time.

I love this kind of behind the scenes stuff. Although I'm kind of disappointed that he didn't let us in on the secret of who played Harriet Harman during the rehearsals.....

Dear Caron,

I want to start writing to you, as a supporter of the Liberal Democrats, regularly and more informally than I have in the past. I want to give you a bit more of an insight into what’s going on behind those Whitehall doors and how we, as Lib Dems, are dealing with the issues and challenges that come up.

Last week I wrote a message to Lib Dem members about childcare, and it had the immediate distinction of being mentioned at Prime Ministers Questions - with the PM abroad I was standing in on Wednesday and Harriet Harman quoted my words about the crippling cost of childcare back at me.

While I have a regular Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament the preparation required for PMQs is a bit greater. This is because Harriet Harman gets six questions not two; there is more time on topical issues than at DPMQs; and, of course more people are watching.

Luckily you get some help in preparing for the bear pit. Downing Street provides a briefing team who bring huge experience, patient good humour, encyclopaedic knowledge of every policy and a depressingly large number of briefing documents to be read and memorised.

PMQs prep team

They are joined by my team, including my PPS Duncan Hames, as we predict questions, come up with jokes and so on. It can be a time consuming process, and it’s easy to see why Tony Blair felt it made sense to shift the two sessions a week Prime Minister’s used to have to face into one, longer, appearance.

The event itself is intense, but fun. I know people watching on TV go cold at the sight of MPs shouting, but it’s only when you visit parliament and see it in full cry that you appreciate the noise made as MPs attempt to make their point. What looks like aggressive shouting on TV is often a genuine attempt to simply be heard.

You can watch my appearance here, but for me a few moments stood out.The first was my exchange with Harriet Harman over the Leveson Report. We don't yet know what Lord Justice Leveson will say, but to me it's blindingly obvious that if he recommends something workable and proportionate we must seek to implement it.

Of course whatever he says will provoke controversy. And there's a difficult balance to strike to make sure that ordinary people are treated fairly by the media while our press remains free, raucous and independent. But I believe we can strike that balance and get agreement across the political parties.

We need to be able to look the parents of Milly Dowler in the eye, and other victims who have had their privacy trampled on, and assure them that in the future there will be a permanently independent system of recourse, sanction and accountability able to act when things go wrong.

Secondly I took the opportunity to once again remind people of our major achievement in cutting income tax for ordinary people. By April next year 24 million people will have received a £550 tax cut thanks to us - we must make sure everyone in Britain knows about this great Liberal Democrat policy.

To find out more about it and what you can do to get our message across go here.A number of you got in touch about last week’s email with many positive comments. Some had suggestions about childcare, others wrote about what they wanted me to cover in future messages. If there’s something you want me to talk about do get in touch here.

Best wishes,


What if Iran talked about holocaust and returning somewhere to the Middle Ages?

Can you just imagine the outcry if Iran's President Ahmadinejad came out with comments like wanting to send somewhere back to the Middle Ages.

What if he talked about inflicting a holocaust on a particular people? And then had his ministers scuttling around saying he didn't quite mean it like that. He really only meant "disaster". Yeah, because inflicting disaster on people is just fine.....

Well, there would be resolutions and murmurings and outrage and endless condemnation. And these things wouldn't be unjustified. That's absolutely no way to talk about anyone. Military objectives driven by destructive emotions are not a good thing.

Except it's not Iran saying these things. It's Israel. About the Palestinians in Gaza. Sure, Hamas shouldn't be firing rockets into Israel, but nor should Israel have such scant regard for the dreadful suffering its disproportionate response is causing.

So, where's the international condemnation? These comments by two Israeli ministers are unacceptable and I want to see Obama, Clegg, Cameron, the EU and the UN calling them out. I won't be holding my breath.

Update: There is, however, something useful you can do. Save the Children say that children are suffering the biggest impact of the Israeli bombardment. They've set up an emergency fund and are making sure that kids in Gaza have clean water and something to eat. Please give here if you can.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Parental leave and mental health feature in Nick's third Letter from the Leader

I've dealt already with my concerns about the first paragraph, but the rest of Nick's third Letter from the Leader was exactly what we need to hear from him. He's long been passionate about making sure people with mental health problems are treated properly and promptly by the NHS and about making sure that parents themselves can choose which of them takes the leave from work when they have a baby.

This has been the week that he's been able to make announcements on both. 

I liked the bit at the bottom which suggested that people should forward the email on to five friends or family. Posting it here will do half that job for me, I guess.

Anyway, here it is in full:

Dear Caron,

In a week when we saw a set of disappointing elections - with hard working Liberal Democrats not getting the results they deserved and turnout slumping to a new low - it's worth remembering what we're achieving in Government.

This week I had the privilege – and I really do mean privilege – to announce a change in government policy that I’ve been working on pretty much since day one in the job. It’s a change that I think will make a difference to the lives of families up and down the country in a big way: shared parental leave.

We’re ending the system where the mother gets a year off and the dad just a paltry two weeks – a system which entrenches the gender divide at home and at work. Instead there will be 54 weeks off for every new set of parents, two weeks protected for the mum, and two for the dad, with the other 50 for them to divide up between them however they choose. They can even take a big chunk of time off together if that’s what suits them best.

At the same time, I announced we’re (finally) going to give parents of adopted children exactly the same rights to request flexible working arrangements of their employers.

These changes have been a long time coming. I remember agreeing the few words in the coalition agreement back in May 2010 about introducing “shared parental leave” and thinking – that’s an easy win. Far from it.

We’ve had submissions and papers and consultations every couple of months since then working out exactly how we create a shared system. We’ve spoken to business to ensure we design rules that won’t be disruptive at work. We’ve spoken to mums’ groups and dads’ groups and children’s groups to make sure the system will work for real family life. I’ve discussed it with my wife Miriam at length too – supporting working women is something she really cares about.

Of course in government, and especially in coalition, you don’t get everything you wish for. I also considered extending protected paternity leave to encourage dads to take more time off. But it isn’t deliverable right now, so that’s one I’ve put in the drawer for our 2015 manifesto.

But it’s so great to see something you’ve been working on for a long time finally see the light of day. It’s like sending your child to school for the first time – well, a bit like that, anyway.

That’s also how I feel about the announcements my colleague Norman Lamb made this week about improving care for people with mental health problems. I remember asking questions at PMQs about this back when we were in opposition, trying to get patients with mental health problems the same rights as people with physical health problems – like limits on how long they had to wait for treatment.

I got so many letters from people who had been waiting literally years to see someone and I was determined to try to do something about it. Now in government, though it’s largely under the radar, we’re putting into practice what we called for then.

Basically we’re making changes to the so-called “Mandate” by which the Health Secretary directs the NHS Commissioning Board, which in turn sets the framework for NHS managers and doctors. We went through all sorts of draft mandates and, after talking it over with David Nicholson, the NHS Chief Executive and Lord Layard, basically the biggest champion of talking therapies in the country, we came to an agreement. Like most things in the NHS it is all oddly technical but what this new “Mandate” means is that, for the first time, mental health patients will have a right to treatment within 18 weeks just like everyone else.

So there you go: More freedom for parents and more rights for people with mental health problems. One week, two changes with a big impact for millions of people. You don't get that in opposition.

Best wishes,



PS I believe shared parental leave and mental health are issues that really matter to huge numbers of people in this country. If you agree, please forward this email to five family and friends who you think might be interested in these issues so they can know about the changes we’re making.

Writing to members about election results - what Nick needs to learn from Tim

Friday was not an easy day for the Liberal Democrats. This was not a surprise. I doubt many of us expected any good news at all. There was, though. We gained five Council seats and held on to three - and some of them were even up north where we're told by Labour and SNP types on social media, nobody will ever vote for us again.

Electing police commissioners was one of these ideas the Tories brought to the Coalition and for a time, the English Liberal Democrats, astoundingly, weren't going to stand any candidates. It's a shame we didn't have a candidate in every seat, but I can understand why paying the £5000 deposit when there wasn't even the opportunity of a freepost to put your case over each vast area might have been off-putting.

Nick Clegg has sent out another of his Letters from the Leader this week which in the main was very good. I'll cover that in a separate post. However, I think he needs to work on his wording when he talks about election results. His team doesn't seem to have learned anything since the poor effort in May. All we got was a brief paragraph at the top:

In a week when we saw a set of disappointing elections - with hard working Liberal Democrats not getting the results they deserved and turnout slumping to a new low - it's worth remembering what we're achieving in Government.
And that's it.

No "thank you" to all our candidates and campaign teams. No recognition of their efforts in the cold November wind and rain. No "this is mid term - it will get better". No "what you've been done is worthwhile." No "when I did my phone banking, I could tell that people are ready to listen to us again." Now, I know perfectly well that Nick is grateful to people. The emails that go out in his name, which I'm not convinced he ever sees, need to reflect that. I can't hear the Nick Clegg I know speaking to me from that paragraph.

Compare and contrast with Tim Farron's missive on Friday. A big tick, by the way, to the people who didn't send it to me because I live in Scotland so it didn't apply. I had to get it from that fount of all knowledge, Lib Dem Voice.  Not that I'm biased about that, of course.

Tim nailed it. And I can hear him say every word of this.

I wanted to put on record the party’s thanks to our candidates in yesterday’s PCC elections, by-elections and Bristol mayoral election.
We had many excellent candidates and teams who worked very hard to fly the flag for our party. I thank them all and I’m sure you would like to do the same.
It was a tough day, and whilst we may not have gained anything the hard work we’ve put in lays the foundations for the challenge ahead.
However I would like to add special congratulations to the teams who helped us hold three local council seats and gain five more yesterday.
I knew when I became a Liberal Democrat I wasn’t picking the easy route in politics. I joined because I believe in liberal values like fairness and justice. I joined because no other party was going to fight for those values.
It’s on tough days like this, I think it’s good to remind ourselves that none of this has changed.
Being in Government has clearly meant that we can get hit by protest votes, but it also means we can deliver meaningful change.
I’m proud of what we’re doing on cutting tax for average workers, creating work opportunities for young people and getting more money into schools that need it the most.
None of that would be happening if we were not in Government.
We need to learn the lessons from painful days like today. We also need to learn how we update and improve our campaigning (there may be some pointers from President Obama’s re-election on that).
That’s the mission ahead for us. The challenge I’m setting today is that in next May’s English local elections, we have something to celebrate again.
Over the years I’ve seen some amazing campaigns fought in this party. I’ll back Liberal Democrat candidates and campaigners in a fight with anyone! We’re the only party with liberal solutions to the problems facing our country.
There are brighter days ahead if we stay strong and fight hard.
Best wishes,Tim Farron MPPresident of the Liberal Democrats
PS Please do take a moment over the weekend to send your wishes to our colleagues who worked so hard on yesterday’s elections. It will make a real difference. And remember, next week the fightback begins.

It was full of empathy, an assurance that the hard work folk had put in was not in vain, and ended with a challenge to get going and work for the elections next May.

Nick couldn't have got all that in, but he could have elaborated a bit and at the very least said thank you. He could have included the Council by-elections, too.

A bit of empathy, gratitude and recognition of people's efforts with a bit of "I'd be interested to know what you did on the ground and what worked and what didn't" would not go amiss. I hope that we don't have to have many more of this kind of email, but if we do, in the future, Nick's team really need to learn from Tim.

Just stop the killing in Gaza

Ok, I've had enough. Will somebody please take Israel by the scruff of the neck and get them told that bombarding Gaza, causing immense suffering and a humanitarian crisis, is just not on. I'm looking at you, Barack Obama and William Hague. Then can they just get all the key players together and not let them out until a peaceful way forward has been found?

Israel needs to understand how its actions have contributed to the current situation over many years. There's no evidence that they are learning anything. If any member of our Government said that our forces wanted to return anywhere to the Middle Ages, then I'd hope they would not only be unequivocally sacked, but made to resign from Parliament as well. That's not the case for the Israeli Minister of the Interior who still appears to have a job after making such a shameful comment about Gaza.

That says to me that the agenda goes way beyond defending Israel from Palestinian violence. In the Middle Ages there was no electricity, technology, antibiotics, surgery to speak of, hospitals, hygiene, education if you weren't rich. How could anyone wish a return to that sort of society on any other human beings? Talking about them with such obvious hatred is not remotely acceptable and surely it should be dawning on the Israeli Government  that treating these people badly is counter-productive. Israel has been getting away with way too much over the last 40 years with impunity because its powerful mates let it. Enough is enough. I just don't want to watch this tortuous cycle of the people of Gaza suffering blockade, bomardment, picking themselves up only for more innocent lives to be lost.

We're not going to get any sort of lasting peace in the region without Israel giving some stuff up and they are going to have to be made to do it. And the only way they will be made to do it is if people like you and I lobby our governments to drive this forward. Write to your MP, to William Hague, take to the streets if there's a protest march near you. It's time to sort this troubled region's problems out once and for all.

Friday, November 16, 2012

But what about Afghanistan's girls, Paddy?

Paddy Ashdown has called for British troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan "quick, neat and soon". It's hard to argue with him about the catalogue of political and international failure to provide the sort of support that could have made a difference.

Writing in the Times (£), reported by BBC, the Liberal Democrat peer said that there was nothing more that could be achieved in Afghanistan.
We should have understood that victories on the battlefield are meaningless if you can’t translate them into political progress and better lives for ordinary people. We should have placed more emphasis on political means than military ones, instead of looking to the soldiers to win the war for us. We should have understood the culture and history of Afghanistan instead of imposing an unaffordable Western-style centralised constitution on a country that has been decentralised and tribal for more than a thousand years. And at the end we should have grabbed the best opportunity for a negotiated peace three years ago instead of continuing our blind pursuit of the illusion of outright military victory.
I think what annoys me is that there's all this talk of failure, yet not one single mention of the progress that's been made since 2001 in the position of women and girls. There's still a long way to go, but then girls were banned by law from getting an education. Now, as the BBC reported last month, over 3 million girls go to school.

I went to a fringe meeting at our Birmingham conference last year at which a former Afghan MP spoke. She said that women in Afghanistan were very apprehensive about the international forces leaving and the political pressure for women's rights lessening.She talked about how the military prevent attacks on girls attending school. Some have acid thrown at them.

Human Rights Watch talk about the work still to be done. How there are 400 women in jail in Afghanistan for "moral crimes". Crimes such as being raped, that would be.

I feel really cross that Paddy can't see that 3 million girls being educated is a good thing. How can those girls and the women we've helped by getting rights enshrined in the constitution be so blithely dismissed?  He's not alone. You almost never hear the men who run the world talk about women's rights. I say almost never, but a bit shout out to William Hague for emphasising how important it was for international recognition for the Syrian opposition to not have anything to do with rape or sexual violence. You would think these things should be taken as read, but they often aren't.

I don't know what the answer is. The UN needs to act urgently to protect the position of women and girls in Afghanistan when the NATO forces go. Letting them down and them losing the limited freedoms they've won in the last decade is not something I want to contemplate. So, why don't the men who run this world get together, work out a strategy for the women of Afghanistan and chalk up what has been achieved as a good thing that needs to be held on to.

Poor Angela Constance...#scomnishambles

I really feel for Youth Employment minister Angela Constance. While every other politician in Scotland was living it up in luxury at the posh Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh for the Scottish Politician of the Year awards, she was doing the rounds of the tv studios with Hugh Henry, defending the indefensible - Alex Salmond not just getting the figures on FE funding wrong, but in such smug, pugnacious style.

Sending Angela out there is a sign that not all has gone to seed at SNP Towers. There are still brain cells in there capable of having the odd good idea. It is actually impossible to dislike Angela. She combines intelligence with a genuinely pleasant manner. If they'd sent Mike Russell out there, or Kenny MacAskill, there would have been a very unedifying, massive row. Angela just got on with her impossible task.

Now, Hugh Henry by rights should have wiped the floor with her. He didn't, though. I've never met him so I don't know what he's like in real life, but his manner came across as an unappealing hybrid of dour and smug, sour, perhaps?

Angela took a bit of a novel line on the Scotland Tonight sofa that she didn't dare repeat to Gordon Brewer on Newsnight. She said it was comforting that we had a First Minister who was willing to admit when he was wrong and apologise genuinely for it. Oh, Angela. Comforting is a steaming plate of buttery mashed potato, comforting is chicken soup, or a lovely bar of dark chocolate, or a lambswol shawl or a puppy. Comforting is NOT Alex Salmond in that pin striped suit that makes him look especially shifty being pulled up for getting his facts wrong. Again.

At best, it was a score draw, but I think Angela actually had the edge, despite one major blooper. She said that Salmond's error was in fact tiny considering that the FE budget was £500 billion. Err, no, the entire Scottish budget is £34 billion. She meant million.But I guess it's only a zero, and that's nothing, really... I'm surprised Brewer didn't call her on it

Hugh Henry was doing his damnedest to have a row with Angela, but not getting anywhere because she was not having any of it. He was the one who actually looked defensive as she calmly made her points. I would probably have gone at her with the Kirk Ramsay stuff sooner. I don't have a heart of stone. I can forgive an error with figures, quickly recognised. I have a much bigger problem with Mike Russell's ridiculous over-reaction and abuse of power over the Stow College chairman. There's an argument that he should have made people aware he was recording the proceeedings, but he had a good reason for doing so and he didn't use the information inappropriately. He did not deserve to be put in a position by the Cabinet Secretary from which he had no option but to resign. Had Angela been the Education Secretary, I cannot imagine that she would have done something so ill-judged over one mistake. I'm sure she would have had the good sense to realise that forcing one of your biggest critics out of office is simply not a good look.

There was quite a lot being said on Twitter last night about how if this was Westminster, there would have been a real crisis. Yes, when Gove got his school numbers wrong, there was a huge stooshie but he kept his job after the story rumbled on for a few days. The thing is, mistakes happen in everyday life and as long as you acknowledge them and put things right quickly, that should be an end of it. He got a figure wrong. Nobody died. Move on.

The bigger problem is the culture of this administration which is becoming increasingly out of touch, arrogant and sleekit. Spending thousands of pounds of our hard earned taxes on covering up that you haven't got legal advice you created the impression you had does not show any respect for the people who elected you. What people see is not the debates on late night telly only watched by political geeks. They see that there have been a series of events where the SNP has been seen to say one thing and do another, or get things wrong, or behave with arrogance. They might get away with sending the nicest person they can find out to defend them for a little while, but it won't work indefinitely.

You can watch Newsnight here and Scotland Tonight here. Newsnight is particularly worth watching for its extended coverage of Salmond and Russell's gloatathon on the way from the Chamber after FMQs to the lift where they said, variously, that Labour were silly and that Johann Lamont had failed in what she had tried to do. Ouch!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Scomnishambles: a(nother) day Alex Salmond would rather forget

I probably owe Johann Lamont an apology. I thought she was letting Alex Salmond walk all over her at First Minister's Questions today. She was trying to pull him up on college shambles. He seemed absolutely sure of his figures. Nobody could have been in any doubt that college funding had not been cut, despite what Audit Scotland and the Parliament's own information centre said. What do they know? However, what appeared to be flogging a dead horse was in actual fact giving the First Minister enough rope. She managed to hide what she was doing under a series of scowls. She may have got lucky, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she really did plan a denouement that had Salmond scuttling back to the Chamber later in the afternoon to apologise.

Salmond had been at his blustering best. Another member of the Scottish blogosphere, Ian Smart, got mentioned in dispatches. Salmond quoted Smart on one of Johann Lamont's advisers:
“If there is a more stupid, politically tone deaf, possibly fifth columnist, political adviser than Paul Sinclair then I’ve yet to meet them.”
He enjoyed that moment far more than was decent, too.

So, Ian joins Alex Cole-Hamilton and Andrew Page in the illustrious group of opposition people to have been mentioned by Salmond at FMQs.

Oh, by the way, one feature of today's event was the unedifying spectacle of Stewart Maxwell, the Education Committee Convener who only yesterday was saying that there was no need for an enquiry into Mike Russell's disproprtionate and outrageous behaviour which forced Stow College Chairman Kirk Ramsay into resignation. There was once a time when Holyrood Committees were respected and influential. Now their conveners are given toadying questions by the whips just like everyone else. It's quite pathetic. As Tavish Scott wrote in the Scotsman today, there's not much in the way of Parliamentary scrutiny for this Government.

The afternoon's proceedings kicked off with a fairly smug Point of Order from Hugh Henry and, later, the First Minister had to come back to the Chamber to admit on his and Mike Russell's behalf, that he'd got it wrong. You can watch it all here. And having seen Johann Lamont's response to him, I'm back thinking that she might have got lucky. She's going to need to learn to be pithy.

The SNP Government is squandering its reasonably justified reputation for competence and it's now impossible to believe a word Alex Salmond says. To be caught telling not the whole truth once was bad enough, but twice is definitely wrong. How many more times are we going to see Salmond dragged back to the Chamber with his tail between his legs. He said today that Labour had called for everyone's resignation bar his. That, if he carries on the way he is, may only be  a matter of time.

If this were the Obama campaign, someone more technically savvy than I would have Alex Salmond's comments at FMQs and his apology mashed up on You Tube by now.....

My Twitter followers know me so well...a BBC Sports Personality of the Year challenge

I came back after a couple of hours out this afternoon to find a tweet from someone that read quite simply:
What is this, the largest ever odd-one out round? I'm sure @caronmlindsay can spot the odd-one-out.
This turned out to be a series of pictures of possible contenders for BBC Sport Personality of the Year.

I flicked through it apprehensively, scared that I'd have to spontaneously combust if, like last year, there were no women. But of course the BBC weren't that stupid. They missed out Beth Tweddle, though, and Heather Watson and they seem to have forgotten that Katherine Grainger had a partner. Nine out of twenty-three isn't quite good enough, but it's definitely an improvement.

The Olympics has of course given us plenty of potential winners, but there are a few from other sports too. I almost choked on my Earl Grey, though, when I saw that one person had been included. A most undeserving soul, too. Have a look and see if you can work out who I'm talking about.

I was just surprised and quite impressed that someone on Twitter knew me well enough to know what would wind me up, especially as I haven't talked much about this person this year.

The SNP and Freedom of Information

In 2002, the Scottish Parliament passed freedom of information legislation that was much more robust than that passed by Labour in London. Want to take a wild guess why? That's what Lib Dem coalition partners do.

The then SNP opposition ended up voting for the legislation, although they said then that they thought it didn't go far enough. I had a good rummage round the interwebs today and found this from Roseanna Cummingham:

"I think parliament should feel some considerable satisfaction that it is debating a piece of legislation that underlines the difference between this Parliament and Westminster.
"Our freedom of information regime will certainly be much more robust than the Westminster proposals and I've absolutely no doubt campaigners in England and Wales will continue to emulate what we have here in Scotland."
However, Ms Cunningham said the Bill was "not perfect", highlighting three areas where the nationalists wanted to see changes made. These were class exemptions, ministerial vetoes and the cost of accessing information.
Finally, she urged the minister to "force the pace" on implementation of the Bill.
She said: "If they are given three, four or five years, then it is in the nature of things that they will take three, four or five years - that is human nature."
What a big difference 10 years and being in power make!

With the fiasco over the court case over legal advice on EU membership still fresh in our mind, we can also look to the Information Commissioner's scathing verdict on the SNP's record on FOI.

Today, the Scottish Parliament is debating the first stage of a bill which removes some FOI powers, such as publishing correspondence with Royal Family if it's in the public interest. This, apparently, and bizarrely from the SNP, is to bring us into line with the rest of the UK. So, from not going far enough when they were in opposition, they are now taking us backwards.

There are good practical reasons why we need to have a robust FOI system. The culture of secrecy at NHS Ayrshire and Arran was a disgrace and it took great persistence by a nurse to force the issue.

Willie Rennie talked about the importance of FOI at our Conference in Inverness just after Alex Salmond had refused to entertain the idea of widening powers to include arms length organisations like housing associations:

But my fear is that Ayrshire and Arran is only the tip of the iceberg.I think they are institutionally secret. But what about the rest of the public service? We need a Scotland-wide investigation into the practices and procedures of every single NHS board, every police authority and every department of government.
So that we can proudly say that the institutions of our country are honest, open and accountable.
That’s not because it’s nice to do but because it really matters – learning the lessons from patient deaths, rooting out bad government and holding the powerful to account.It may be awkward to those in charge but information and power is safer when it is shared.
That’s why I appeal to the First Minister today to commit to extend the laws to housing associations, PFI companies and the other government bodies that can cut corners and who can dodge and delay.
We deserve to hear from them and I want action from the First Minister to make sure that happens
 While supporting the general principles of the Bill, the Scottish Parliament's Finance Committee had some concerns. 

77. The Committee notes the views expressed by the Cabinet Secretary in evidence. However, the Committee notes the report from Audit Scotland which identifies around 130 major ALEOs and shares the concerns of witnesses set out above.
 78. While the Committee recognises the Scottish Government’s intention to defer consideration of the extension of coverage until the Bill has been considered by Parliament, it invites the Cabinet Secretary to provide details and timings of how the Scottish Government intends to take forward this work and clarify what the options are which she is ‘actively considering’, including the possibility of Stage 2 amendments to section 5 of the 2002 Act. In the light of this response, the Committee will reconsider its position on this issue at Stage 2.
They also don't much like the absolute exemption for Royal Family. 

Ahead of today's debate, Willie Rennie said:
I strongly support the Finance Committee’s calls for the Scottish Government to set out firm plans for the extension of Freedom of Information laws. For too long the SNP has given vague signs of support towards extending freedom of information, but they have yet to set out stall of what they would extend.
There is an increasing anxiety that more and more government funded bodies are escaping scrutiny. We’re supposed to be improving openness and transparency, not secrecy. The Scottish Government must set out how and when it plans to ensure the public’s right to information follows the public pound.

The big issue is that bodies such as the construction company building the new Forth crossing are using large amounts of public money but aren't subject to the same scrutiny as a Government organisation. The same goes with housing associations. A secretive government at national or local level can hive off key decisions and functions to arms length bodies that aren't covered automatically by the legislation. That's not good enough. There has to be a presumption of openness unless there's a very good reason for that not to be the case.

As I write, Nicola Sturgeon has been speaking in the Chamber and has given some encouraging signs that she is prepared to consider extending the powers of the Bill. We'll see how far she is prepared to go when she brings forward the amendments at Stage 2. 

Tavish Scott on SNP "scandal" over Stow

How convenient for the SNP that they managed to get themselves embroiled in another scandal the week that Willie Rennie has no First Minister's Question. I am fairly sure that if he did, he would have asked about the furore surrounding Kirk Ramsay, who was effectively forced out of his position as Chairman of Stow College by Education Secretary Mike Russell.

To give some context, the SNP has been inflicting cuts and mergers on Scotland's FE sector. Kirk Ramsay had opposed them and had kept Stow as a single entity. It's fair to say he had been a robust critic of Mike Russell.

Last week, Russell sent an outraged missive to attendees at a meeting saying that Ramsay had recorded the proceedings and that he no longer had confidence in him, as the Herald reported on Saturday. The way that sounds, it's like a private conversation had been distributed. In fact, Ramsay had recorded Russell's remarks about future college funding made in an on the record briefing to a room full of about 80 people. Ramsay suffers from Tinnitus and so recorded the proceedings to make sure he had an accurate record, something which was completely understandable. And the people he distributed it to were people who were entirely entitled to have that information. It's not like he went running to the press with it.

Now, there's an argument that he should have let people know that he was recording the event. I get that. But an appropriate response, surely, rather than send out an angry, hyperbolic letter would have been a quiet phone call, through an intermediary if necessary to establish the facts and to work out what, if any, action would be desirable. Resignations shouldn't have come anywhere near it.

Mike Russell should not have thrown his weight around demanding resignations. It's none of his business who holds these positions in colleges. He's not in charge of them. But his letter effectively said, publicly, that he could not work with Ramsay and by implication with Stow College while he was there. No wonder Ramsay felt his only option was to fall on his sword. The whole thing has been an atrocious abuse of power by Russell. It's not the first time he has been accused of bullying behaviour, either as last year he was accused of bullying councils into agreeing to a moratorium on school closures. So much for local government.

It's hardly surprising that the opposition parties at Holyrood wanted there to be an investigation. But, with an inbuilt SNP majority, that's not going to happen. In fact, Education Committee Convener Stewart Maxwell said that the facts were not in dispute so no investigation was necessary.  Actually, Mike Russell's reaction and whether it was proportionate or not, and the signal it sends out to everyone else working in the college sector is actually worthy of investigation, I'd say. Holyrood's greatest strength used to be its robust committee system, but if the conveners act as servants of the government, well that's not great, is it?

Tavish Scott, who's recently returned to the front line as Liberal Democrat spokesman for transport, rural affairs and sport, was asked about this on Politics Scotland yesterday afternoon. He said that it was a scandal that Maxwell had refused to hold an enquiry. A Parliamentary disgrace, he called it. Tavish has always been good at going through the SNP like a dose of salts and cutting through their bovine scatology. It's good to have him back in a high profile role.

He's written a column for today's Scotsman on the row:
When a minister gets to the point where he starts to throw his weight around and forces a resignation then he and his government look out of touch and arrogant. The Ramsay saga is that moment – for the SNP and Mike Russell.
Parliament, he said, had effectively been neutered by the SNP Government:
 Parliament is neutered by the SNP’s absolute majority. The government stopped the European committee investigating the EU and an independent Scotland. Opposition MSPs cite numerous cases of the Nationalist majority on committees being used to mitigate any criticism of the government. In the 2007-11 parliament, when the SNP was in a minority government, thefinance secretary paid considerable heed to committee recommendations on spending. Now the government uses its committee majority to block any opposition proposal.
What's that phrase about power corrupting? Sadly, the Scottish Government seems to be living proof of that statement. While the Coalition at Westminster has ensured that Parliament has more power, the SNP treats the Parliament like a minor inconvenience.

Going back to FMQs, today, I have little confidence that Johann Lamont or Ruth Davidson will be any more effective than they usually are. The EU legal advice scandal had just erupted the last time Willie didn't have a question and the Herald said his absence was noticed.
His absence was keenly felt after Labour's Johann Lamont failed to land a serious blow, and Tory Ruth Davidson shot herself in the foot.
The shine is coming off the SNP Government in fairly spectacular fashion as they get way too big for their boots.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Clegg on parental leave: Equality's promise must not end at 30

Today is one of those days when I am so glad we are in Government. So glad that we have a leader who understands the realities of 21st century family life and who doesn't just leave it to the girls to talk about childcare.So glad that he is in a position to make a real difference, to give families a proper choice.

Nick Clegg has announced a radical shake up in parental leave. Note, I say parental leave, not maternity leave. This is because there is no assumption that the woman will take more than the first two weeks. After that, it's up to parents to decide for themselves who, if anyone, stays home to look after a new baby. Not only that, but men will, for the first time, have a right to time off to go to two ante natal appointments, which are most likely to be the scans. And, on top of that, he's recognised that babies don't need any less care because they're adopted and so has equalised the entitlements for parental leave.

This, to me, is what liberalism is all about - removing barriers to personal freedom. Why on earth should the state make a value judgement that only the mother should be entitled to time off when a child is born? If it were my choice, then I'd be the one who took the leave, but why should other people be constrained to that?

The beauty of Nick's proposals is that everyone wins. Parents win because they have more choice. Employers win because they have happier employees and have more chance of keeping talented women who might otherwise end up leaving because of the inflexibility of the current system. Of course, it's a no brainer that if you have happier employees, they work better.

Let's have a look at what Nick had to say in his speech making the announcement this morning. You can read the whole thing here on the Deputy Prime Minister's website.

Our economy needs women working

Despite rising since the 1960s, female employment has stalled over the last decade.  It is, however, a problem we can no longer afford.  Just as working women drove up living standards in the latter half of the 20th Century, after the Second World War... The evidence suggests that living standards in the first half of the 21st Century will need to be driven by working women once again.
So this absence of women from our economy is costing us dearly.  If the United Kingdom had, for example, the same proportion of female entrepreneurs as the United States...We would see an extra £42bn on GDP.
Women in this country are now better qualified than men....
...The problem comes down to a whole range of clapped out rules and arrangements: Whether that’s the balance between maternity and paternity leave;  Or the childcare that’s available;  Or the way our tax and welfare systems don’t fully reward part-time work. Arrangements which assume that families are still comprised of one bread winner and one homemaker; Mum in the kitchen; dad in the office.Even though the reality is that, in many families, both parents work...Often juggling busy lives... Often working part-time...Often without relatives or friends close by who can help out. 

Why is it a problem?

 ...whichever way you look at it, the solution ends up being the mother doing more of the caring, and the father doing more of the earning. 
She gets the year long maternity leave; After that, the expectation is she’ll continue to be the primary carer – so she’s the one who goes part-time. That, very often, means she ends up on lower pay, with fewer chances for promotion... And it’s at exactly this point that the pay gap begins to widen – and just last week two separate reports reminded us what a problem that still is.
Then, as time passes, as more children arrive, women get caught in a kind of cycle: Have a baby, work less, so earn less. Earn less and – because childcare costs so much, because your partner is now earning more than you – work less.
Even when the children are grown up, working full time isn’t possible for many women. With the population living longer, we’ve seen the emergence of the so-called sandwich generation: Women who spend their thirties raising young children...And their fifties caring for elderly parents. And for single mothers it can be even harder. 
They have a greater need to go to work, but much less help at home ......It’s heartbreaking to see fathers missing out on being with their children. It’s heartbreaking to watch women lower their ambitions for themselves.Equality’s promise must not end at 30. 

So, what are we going to do about it? 

I can announce today that, from 2015, the UK will shift to an entirely new system of flexible parental leave. 
Under the new rules, a mother will be able to trigger flexible leave at any point – if and when she feels ready.
That means that whatever time is left to run on her original year can be taken by her partner instead. Or they can chop up the remaining time between them – taking it in turns. Or they can take time off together – whatever suits them. 
The only rule is that no more than 12 months can be taken in total; With no more than 9 months at guaranteed pay.
And, of course, couples will need to be open with their employers, giving them proper notice.

Dads will have a right to go to two ante-natal appointments

You can kind of tell Nick's done this...
So that they can be more involved from the earliest stages of pregnancy.  Lots of fathers will tell you that these moments are when it can start to feel real for them.  Whether that’s at the 12 week scan – the first time they see their child on a screen. Or a bit further down the track – when they can find out if they’re having a girl or a boy. 

Discrimination against adoptive parents will end

Right now, you have to be in post for 6 months before you're entitled to leave for an adopted child and get less pay. Nick's plan will give adoptive parents equal rights.

Flexible working for all

At the moment, people with children under 16 can request changes to their working pattern to help care for them. That's fine, as far as it goes, but what happens if your children are older. Maybe you want to help look after your grandchildren when they are growing up. Maybe you have parents who need looking after. Flexible working can help you bring much needed balance to all the demands on you. It's good for employers, too. Employers win, too, as this 2007 BIS study shows. Flexible working creates a productive and motivated workforce, saves employers money from reduced absenteeism and lower turnover costs, and allows them to retain highly skilled staff. 

Never miss an opportunity to mention the tax threshold going up because of the Liberal Democrats

Nick never knowingly misses an opportunity to mention that Liberal Democrats have cut taxes for low and middle earners. He did this today. He also mentioned how the Coalition is extending free nursery provision to the most deprived two year olds to give them the best start in life and reduce childcare costs:
The Coalition has delivered 15 free hours a week in a nursery or with a childminder for all three and four year olds. 
We said we’d provide those hours to 2 year olds from the most-hard pressed homes, too.  So the 20% at the bottom of the income ladder. And we’re going to go further – extending it to cover around 40%. 

A practical, radical leader

I've been slightly annoyed to see some commentators say that this is Nick pushing for women's votes post Obama. Well, you can't make up a policy initiative like this in a week. In fact, this has been Liberal Democrat policy since 2009 when Conference passed the Real Women policy paper.

Nick didn't write that paper, but he's been pivotal in developing the ideas within it. On issues like childcare, making sure disadvantaged kids get extra money to help with their education, mental health, things which have a huge impact on everyday life, Nick has come up with practical, relevant and radical ideas. 

For Liberal Democrats, this is a huge achievement and something that shows that we are making lives better, giving people more choice and opportunity. We should be very proud of our leader. 


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