Friday, February 22, 2013

Irony and the Tory MP #eastleigh

One of the funniest moments of yesterday was listening to Tory MP George Hollingberry talk about how refreshing it was to have politicians who spoke their mind. "Do you want to have robocandidate?" he said.

And he said it without a trace of irony, too.

Who would have thought his comments came as part of the Eastleigh by-election hustings on Radio 5 Live? Here he was, replacing the party's actual candidate in the by-election, Maria Hutchings. Why on earth would the Tories replace a loose cannon of a candidate who has criticised state education with an on-message Cameron crony? Her minders have form for keeping her as far away from the press as possible as Mark Pack reported the other day, for what appear to be obvious reasons. She's not been called the Tories' Sarah Palin for nothing.

This poster was seen circulating round social media yesterday morning and I thought it was worth putting it on here for posterity.

Mike Thornton, the Liberal Democrat candidate, made some excellent points during the hustings, despite being rudely interrupted by host Victoria Derbyshire on numerous occasions, even during his closing statement.

He was very clear that he thought Chris Huhne should apologise for the wrong that he's done. He was very good on both local and national issues, talking about how he had consistently opposed the gravel pits and voted for one responsible and needed housing development in order to save the green space between the towns and villages. He talked about how youth unemployment in Eastleigh had gone down by 20% and how 2100 apprentices had been created in the constituency. He emphasised the tax cuts for ordinary people secured by the Liberal Democrats.

If you have some spare time this weekend, please use it to help Mike Thornton to become Eastleigh's next MP. Wherever you live, you can make a difference to the campaign, whether by phonebanking (which Scottish Liberal Democrats will be doing in Edinburgh tomorrow, or by travelling to Eastleigh and helping deliver leaflets or knock on doors. All the information you need is here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Skype an MP - Mike Crockart launches e-surgeries

Way back in the mists of time, my first awareness of an MP making themselves available to their constituents came through the pages of the John O'Groat Journal. Robert Maclennan, then a Labour MP but soon to join the SDP, held regular "phone-in clinics." This was a sensible approach to dealing with his vast constituency of Caithness and Sutherland. He had the face to face version as well, but the regular phone surgeries, accessed by a freephone number so there was no cost to the constituents,made sense to me.

That was more than 30 years ago. Today, MPs are always looking for new ways to stay in touch with people. When I worked for Willie, we took casework off Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis. Mike Crockart, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, has decided to start holding surgeries via Skype.

The first event will take place on March 28th between 5-6 pm. Anyone who wants to take part will need do contact Mike's office in 0131 339 0339 to be allocated a private appointment.They would then have to download Skype and dial in on the day. I asked what would happen if a session over-ran and the next person dialled in. They simply wouldn't be added to the call until the previous person was finished.

Another thing I discovered was that Mike has done sign language surgeries using  a webcam for deaf constituents.

Introducing the e-surgeries, Mike said:

I know that people are busy and that often they can’t make it along to my surgeries. I want to be as accessible as possible for people who wish to let me now their views and for people who need my help.
For busy parents, business owners and those who live in the more rural parts of my constituency the e-surgeries offer a quick and convenient way to get in touch with me. At the moment those in some rural parts may struggle to secure the broadband speed required for the software, but I am confident that my campaign for better broadband will change that.
I am looking forward to hearing how the surgery goes. I know that Liberal Youth hold a lot of their Execs by Skype so it should work well.  Quite often, you need to hand over documentation when you are asking your MP to deal with something for you but that can be done at a different time or by post or by scanning and emailing them.

The power of the first hour - Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone, are you listening? #firsthour

So, it looks like my post yesterday about the importance of breastfeeding and a missed opportunity for Nick Clegg during his African visit was part of a cleverly crafted plan to build up to the launch of Save the Children's Power of the First Hour campaign which is being launched today.

It was in fact a complete coincidence. I'm still catching up after having Flu and I found out about the new campaign from, of all places, the Daily Mail.

I was glad to see their new report, Superfood for Babies, recommend a very tough line against the antics of the infant formula companies and the tricks they get up to. Measures include:

  • Enshrining the International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk substitutes into each country's law, making violations a civil or criminal offence
  • Health warnings to cover a third of infant formula packaging
  • Transparency so we know which lobbying groups are funded by infant formula manufacturers
  • Personal accountability for adherence to the International Code
  • Strengthen whistleblowing procedures
They make the point that this action has to take place on an international stage. Why would you not  prioritise something that can and will save children's lives?

The report also emphasises the importance of getting babies to the breast in the first hour after birth. That's  isn't a new thing. Babies are generally very wide awake in that hour and primed to expect to find themselves in the vicinity of their mother's breast. If placed on their mother's abdomen after birth, they will crawl there themselves and attach themselves. It's incredible to watch. The colostrum they will get as a reward for their efforts in the first few days is incredibly powerful stuff. It contains antibodies to all sorts of nasties. Save the Children call it "the most potent natural immune system known to science". They estimate that the lives of 95 babies could be saved every hour, 830,000 a year.  I can't show you what 830,000 babies looks like, but look what happened when Save the Children got 95 babies together to illustrate their point. 

Now, the Daily Mail has a slightly different view. They have rolled out Claire Byam Cook,no friend to babies or their mothers, who is very pro regime orientated parenting methods and at best ambivalent towards breastfeeding. Her battle cry is that nobody should be made to feel guilty if they can't breastfeed.

I am one of the most ardent breastfeeding activists you are ever likely to find, and I don't think any woman should ever be made to feel guilty if she experiences problems with breastfeeding to the extent where she gives up. It won't be their fault. However, I don't think it's fair to lie to parents, to tell them that formula is anything like as good as human milk. It isn't. Nowhere even close. And it's the job of governments to ensure that every woman who wants to breastfeed is given the support to do so. It's the Government which needs to kickstart the cultural and organisational change that needs to happen and when they start, it won't change everything overnight. 

And what's all this nonsense about not being able to breastfeed? You wonder how the species survived for these hundreds of thousands of years before formula companies came along. Every woman can breastfeed if she is given accurate information and decent support. There are very few breastfeeding problems that don't have a breastfeeding solution and those that do exist are incredibly rare. The problem is most mothers don't get the support they need. When I was a breastfeeding counsellor, I was staggered that women were not offered information or suggestions that I would consider basic.Midwives don't have time to properly assess whether the baby is attaching properly and milking the breast successfully in the first crucial days. It's key that problems are identified early and worked upon. Women who give up because of problems should never feel guilty, but they have the right to feel angry if the care they received from health professionals was sub-standard. 

If you read the Save the Children report, you'll see it's all written in terms of empowering women, giving them real choices and the idea of guilt doesn't even come into it. 

There is so much to be done both in this country and internationally, to get more children the human milk that has a very good chance of saving their lives. Isla Fisher went to Brazil to find out how they had reduced infant mortality by increasing breastfeeding rates:

 The lives of a minimum of 95 babies per hour depend on international action.That's why I'm looking to Nick and Lynne to make the case within the government for the UK to lead the way on this. I'm also wondering if we shouldn't update our party policy on this and submit a motion to the Glasgow Federal Conference in September.Anyone fancy helping me write one?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nick Clegg in Africa - a missed opportunity?

Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone went to Africa this week. Shortly after he picked up every banana skin left for him at Deputy Prime Minister's Questions by Labour and the incomparable Peter Bone, and lobbed them back with vigour, he took a flight to Mozambique and Ethiopia.

He was there to highlight the Girls' Education Challenge Fund set up by the Department of International Development. Its aim is to give a million of the world's poorest girls the chance to improve their life chances by giving them access to education. Nick said that this would help them escape HIV, domestic violence and poverty.

African women should be driving  economic growth, not be driven into poverty and dependency. From what I have seen today, I’m convinced that giving girls a good education is the single most effective thing we can do to break the cycle of poverty.
Africa’s recent economic success – growth rates from five to seven per cent – owes much to its women. Sustaining and increasing the pace of growth will depend on them too.
Projects such as this one are getting girls into good quality education and are vital to help African women escape poverty, disease and domestic violence. The girls I have met here are enthusiastic, committed and dedicated to learning. They are clearly the key to unlocking Africa’s potential.
He is absolutely right and this is exactly what we should be doing. His Letter from the Leader told us more about his visit to Africa:

In meetings with leaders from both countries I particularly highlighted the need for global action on tax avoidance and evasion. Developing countries have suffered from this for years but the developed world is now waking up too. Big companies can move quicker and easier than national tax laws and they end up playing us off against each other. Only by working together - developed and developing nations - can we make sure that tax is properly collected and spent on the public services we all need, whatever country we live in.
I also took a business delegation with me because the opportunity for British businesses in Africa are enormous. Seven out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are on the continent and it's part of the job as a Government Minister to make sure they are getting the best access to these booming emerging markets.
I think there's one huge issue he's missing out, though. And it has to do with reining in corporate greed and improving the health of kids. If kids are going to benefit from education, we need to get them through the perilous first five years of life. A Save the Children report last year highlighted the importance of breastfeeding, amongst other things, in that.

There are lots of interventions Governments can make  to support breastfeeding. Some of them are very simple - like making sure babies are put to the breast and encouraged to feed within an hour of birth. Others are much more complex - getting the formula companies to behave. Nestle,and others, for example, is threatening the Government of the Philippines with withdrawal of investment if it does not reduce its regulations on the marketing of infant formula according to Baby Milk Action.

Friday's Guardian carried a horrific report by Zoe Williams on how the antics of the formula companies put babies in danger. Heavens above, a wee bit of horsemeat in our food, which won't harm us, and we all go mad. That's nothing compared to what's happening in Indonesia and elsewhere. The article highlights 20 year old Fifi who was given a sample of formula for her daughter by her midwife of all people.Now she has to spend half her husband's income on formula, but that's not the worst of it:

But at Fifi's home, it became obvious that the sanitation problem towers over this one – 45% of Indonesians have no access to clean water. There are only two places in the capital where anyone can drink from a tap, and that's the American embassy and Jakarta international school. But Fifi can't afford gas to boil water either. She has no kitchen. She has to pay every time she goes to the loo, which is shared between 26 people, and sometimes she cuts a deal with a neighbour where one of them goes to the loo while another has a shower, to save money.
Clean hands, clean utensils, clean bottles, clean anything, it's all a total pipe dream. A paediatrician in a separate Jakartan clinic, Dr Asti Praborini, said: "Selling formula is like the killing fields, in my opinion. The babies will die of diarrhoea and they will die of malnutrition.
The report highlights how formula companies work with midwives to get them to sell their products, flouting the law in the process.It is time that Governments did something about this.Otherwise babies will continue to die unnecessarily of diahorrea and malnutrition. I'd really like to see Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone get some international action going on this.

The countries they visited last week are classified "good" on Save the Children's scale. They still have room for improvement, though. Countries like Malawi and the Solomon Islands where they are putting a lot of effort into encouraging breastfeeding are seeing child mortality rates fall. Obviously.

And it'snot just in the poorer parts of the world where improving breastfeeding rates  makes a difference. You might be interested in this post I wrote last year telling Nick Clegg how action now could both save money and tackle inequality in health, quoting current research which says clearly that:
Breast fed children from lower socio-economic groups had better outcomes than formula fed children from more affluent families.
 It's time to take this issue seriously by making it easier for mothers to breastfeed and clamping down on formula companies both at home and abroad.

Friday, February 15, 2013

It's a lot warmer than 10 years ago

Today is bright and sunny but the morning doesn't have the intense, crisp coldness of 15th February 2003.

How would I know?

That's the day our family discovered its inner peace activist and headed for Glasgow Green to protest against the war in Iraq, which then looked inevitable.

Bob and I wore yellow "not in my name' t-shirts. Anna was 3 and in her buggy. She acquired a plastic dove from somewhere and enthusiastically waved it. She tells me now that my explanation of the war was "rubbish." Like I was going to traumatise a three year old with the harsh reality of war.

We arrived on Glasgow Green at the back of ten and joined an enormous serpentine line of unlikely protesters. On the train we'd met people like us, not your usual marchers, who felt so strongly about the course of action Blair was hell bent on taking.

We waited. And waited. A few games of Tig with Anna kept hypothermia at bay - just. It was quite a moment when we finally started to move, over two hours later.

We may not have succeeded in our aim, but we made our point. I was so glad that our party had done the right thing. It was quite brave to disagree with beware as it could and was, wrongly, portrayed as not supporting the troops. I just hope that if such an issue arises again, our instincts would be just as right.

We never made it all the way to the SECC. Anna had had enough by the time we got about three quarters of the way there so we headed home to thaw out. That was the first of many marches & protests we've been on since.

At the end of 2009, as the Iraq Enquiry was set up, I took part in a BBC website feature in which I recalled the march. You can see it here.

In memory of Reeva Steenkamp

Yesterday, in South Africa, a young woman was fatally shot. 29 year old Reeva Steenkamp had a successful career as a model, most notably with FHM magazine.

Her Twitter account speaks of someone not only enjoying life, but also aware of the problems of others. One  particularly heartbreaking tweet, from Sunday, says:
I woke up in a safe, happy home this morning. Not everyone does. Speak out against the rape of individuals.
We also know from Twitter that Steenkamp planned to wear black today in support "against rape and woman abuse". South Africa has, to put it mildly, a real problem with violence against women which has been highlighted over the past few weeks. She had previously highlighted the funeral of a 17 year old who had been gang raped and murdered with the words "RIP Princess."

It means a great deal when a role model for women takes these issues seriously.

But we haven't heard much about Reeva in the news. It's all been about the man charged with her murder, Oscar Pistorius,a man deemed fit to have a firearm despite previous police involvement over domestic violence. The biggest loser, in all of this, apparently, according to a man on BBC Breakfast, is the paralympic movement. Err,no. A young woman has been murdered. It's a bit more serious than that. The internet and the media are full of inappropriate plays on words - and the Sun has sunk to its usual depths by putting the most scantily clad photo it could find on its front page. And what's been particularly good to see is that our own George Potter was namechecked by John Prescott for complaining to their newsdesk. It's about time that paper found some respect and decorum.

It's not asking too much to expect that the focus should be on the young woman who lost her life in such horrible circumstances.

Who's been messing with my blog?

Yes, I know it's been a while - over a week since I last wrote anything here. Trust me, it's been no fun.

I thought I was coming down with a cold last Thursday. By Friday lunchtime,I was in bed, emerging on Tuesday afternoon after a pretty vicious bout of Flu from which I haven't yet properly recovered.

I do appreciate that having no appetite isn't going to do me any harm. I have plenty in reserve, after all. I still feel pretty wiped out,though.

And while I've been quite literally sweating it out, I discover that my lovely blog has changed beyond all recognition. What happened to my lovely orange layout with Anna's banner? Why has it gone all grey and boring? I hate it and it hasn't happened with my permission.

You'll know that I'm pretty technically useless. Google hasn't helped me. So, can any geeks tell me what's happened and how do I restore my lovely blog to its former glory?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Call Clegg: The one where Boris agreed with Nick

Yes, you couldn't make it up. "Boris from Islington" put a recorded question to Nick Clegg on his LBC phone-in this morning. Apparently the London Mayor will be in the hotseat next week during the recess.

Anyway, this was also the one where Clegg outlined his 3 proudest achievements - cutting taxes for the lowest paid and making the tax system fairer, giving extra money to disadvantaged kids in school, son idea he first wrote about a decade ago and Steve Webb's pensions triple lock, guaranteeing a decent state pension increase.

He also summed up a huge difference between us and the Conservatives thus:
Liberal Democrats are in favour of a fair tax system. Conservatives are not. 
Anyway, here are the tweets of the occasion.

William Hague offers me £2 million

Look what I found in my junk email this morning. The thought of William Hague handing out £2 million to a selection of random individuals via a Hotmail account appealed to my sense of the absurd. 

All I have to do is reply to the email with all my personal info. Aye, right. 


Our ref: BRT/3470/IDR
our ref:..06/02/2013


On Behalf of the British Government,i wish to inform you of your selection as one of the Beneficiary for the on going 2013 British Government Poverty Alleviation and Financial Empowerment Program worldwide. All participants/beneficiaries were selected randomly from Worldwide online networks Directories as a beneficiary of £2,000,000.00 (Two Million, Great British Pounds Sterling).

So, this letter is to officially inform you that two(2) option of payment has been opened for you.
1) Issuance of an ATM Card
2) Bank Wire transfer

Please do indicate your PAYMENT OPTION.

As this office will mail you a Visa/ATM CARD which you will use to withdraw your funds in any ATM MACHINE CENTER or Visa card outlet in the world with a maximum of £5000 GBP daily or our contracted paying bank here in London,United Kingdom will make the transfer to you depending on your OPTION OF PAYMENT you have indicated.Further more,You will be required to re-confirm your Bio-Data as stated below to enable; Rt Hon William Hague MP,Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs,begin in processing your awarded funds.

1) Full names:
2) Address:
3) Country:
4) Nationality:
5) Phone #:
6) Age:  
7) Occupation:
8) Zip Code
9) Sex:
Forward all your details reply to:
Rt Hon William Hague MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Tel:+44 703-592-5923

Mrs. Elaine Rooker Smith.
Liaison Officer On Foreign Payment

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

So that's why 9th February was picked for the Fair Tax Action Day..

This is a really good broadcast - practical and sensitive to the squeeze people feel on their finances at the moment.

And it's a good kick off to the Fair Tax Day of Action on Saturday. Are you going to help? Have you signed up to the Fairer Tax campaign.

If, like me, you're a Kirsty fan, here's the Welsh version.

I will have to find out why there's not a Willie version - maybe we are saving him for the Conference broadcast.

The fairer tax pledge was front and centre in our manifesto. It's something we have delivered in Government and applies across the whole of the UK. Why wouldn't we tell people about it? There are some people in the party who don't really love it, especially in light of the cuts to benefits. But it does make a difference to people on low incomes. The policy itself didn't fall out of the Orange Book - it was proposed by an ordinary member at Conference. And Lizzie Jewkes can be very satisfied that her idea has helped 23 million people.

And, surely, delivering on major pledges is the way to show we are worthy of people's trust again.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Neil Gaiman's Calendar of Tales

I have the lovely Kate to thank for alerting me to this. Author Neil Gaiman is writing what he describes as a Calendar of Tales. He's going to write a story for every month based on ideas sent by the likes of you and I. He's got some backing from BlackBerry from this and they have set up a dedicated website where you can take part. Be sure to read the small print - you need to follow BlackBerry on Twitter for your tweet to be eligible.

Anyway, I had a go at answering the questions and I'm copying Kate and sharing my answers with you here.

Why is January so dangerous?

If you can't afford to keep warm, or have nowhere to sleep, January is life threatening

What's the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?

Being part of the team in a spectacular by-election win (Dunfermline, at a time when we had no leader, there was a salacious tabloid tale every half hour and we were in strong Labour territory). February is a good month for the Lib Dems and by-elections. I'm looking at the fab team in Eastleigh.....

What historical figure does March remind you of?

Given my love of phones, it has to be Alexander Graham Bell, who was born in March.

What's your happiest memory of April?

My sister's happy, highland wedding last year

What's the weirdest gift you've been given in May?

A pottery elephant with Jumbo Effort on it as a thank you gift.

Where would you spend the perfect June?

In a farmhouse in the north of Mallorca

What is the most unusual thing you have ever seen in July?

A blog post for National Orgasm Day, which was also my birthday

If August could speak, what would it say?

Enjoy the warmth and freedom of Summer. Cold, dark misery will be here soon.

Tell me something you lost in September that meant a great deal to you.

My loving, kind, tea-drinking, story-telling, dog-loving, highland, smiling, comforting Granny

What mythical creature would you like to meet in October?

A proud, dignified unicorn would brighten any month.

What would you burn in November if you could?

I wish I could turn all my self doubt and lack of confidence into some non polluting fuel

Who would you like to see again in December?

My friend Andrew, who once got into Parliament dressed as Santa Claus.

You have to have it done by 5pm GMT tomorrow, 6th February. Take part here.  Wednesday isn't the end of our involvement, though. If you can draw, once the stories are written, he's looking for illustrators with the idea that they will be made into a calendar for next year.

I really can't wait to see what ideas are chosen and how the project develops.

Another day, another SNP fantasy...

Sometimes you wonder if anyone in the SNP actually does any work at all, or do they just sit around daydreaming about how wonderful life would be under independence?

Today they announce their plans to get from a yes vote (which, with support for independence at 23% is not looking particularly likely to start with) to the day Scotland becomes an independent country.

The referendum takes place in around October next year. By March 2016, just 17 months later, they think they're going to have the apparatus of a new state in place. For heavens sake, it took over 10 months for West Germany to merely absorb East Germany in 1989-90 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a much more complex job to disengage all the things that are built into the UK's structures.It's taking 3 years to sort out the machinery to operate the Scotland Act passed last year.  They reckon they'll have a new constitution in place, they'll have the international situation, including the EU sorted out, they'll have worked out how to operate the state pension - and will they tell us beforehand if what they will pay pensioners is as good as Steve Webb's system? Well, I doubt it. But that's beside the point. Their target is the crazy side of ambitious and as unrealistic as we've come to expect from the SNP. Willie Rennie agrees with me:

The SNP have hopelessly underestimated the scale and complexity of this. They would have to negotiate over 14,000 international treaties, a currency, the division of assets, membership of NATO and the host of international organisations.
Secretary of State Mike Moore has a similar, slightly more verbose but equally robust, view:

"The Scottish Government should be concentrating on the substantive issues of the independence debate rather than endless distractions over process.  Once again, they are devoting their energy to the picture-frame when they don’t have a painting to put in it.  
We haven't even got a date for the referendum, let alone any detail on what independence would mean for people in areas like the economy, welfare, energy and financial services. People in Scotland appreciate the benefits of remaining part of the United Kingdom family and that is why they remain strongly opposed to independence.
We have already been setting out our views in public on the issue of the post-referendum process.  We will spell out further thoughts on this process in our forthcoming analysis papers, including our first paper, in February. Once this has been published, we will be happy to discuss our paper with the Scottish Government.

"To say they will bang all this through in just 16 months is absurd. This will give most people in Scotland the shivers and fuel suspicion that the SNP are just making it up as they go along

How will they have all the data on benefit claimants, pensioners, people on tax credits and those receiving child benefit sorted in such a short time? What about paying our income tax? How's that going to work.We'll need a separate passport office, driving license authority and driving test mechanism. How's that going to work? What happens to the civil servants who are currently employed by the UK Government? Even if the SNP employs them all, what about their pensions and continuous service?

The SNP can't tell us that an independent Scotland will be able to join the EU on exactly the same terms as we have at the moment. That's because it has to the other 27 member states to agree.

The SNP will also have to take Scotland's share of the UK deficit. They will no doubt want to get out of that. How will that be sorted?

In amongst all this there is to be a UK election in May 2015, in the middle of the negotiations.What happens in that instance? Does Scotland vote for MPs who will serve for just 10 months?

The SNP seem to think that if Scotland votes for independence, it would just issue its demands to the UK Government and get its way. That's not quite how it works. The settlement has to be fair to everyone.

There is no way the UK Government should get involved in negotiating these things in advance of the referendum. They can agree the process to be followed, as per the Electoral Commission's advice last week, but they shouldn't do the negotiating. Before the referendum is the time for both sides to make their case.

I find it interesting that having got one process story out of the way - the referendum itself - the SNP immediately open up another  one, something which they will use to try and pick fights with Westminster to try to heighten their case.

I have a better idea for them - tell us what independence actually means, in practical terms, for all Scots.Set it out, tell us how it would work,how it would change our daily lives.

This period should be about vision, the sort of Scotland we want to see. I want to see a Scotland where people are free to make their own choices about their lives, where the state is the servant of the people, not the other way around, where people's human rights are respected, celebrated and valued, where poverty and homelessness are properly tackled, a Scotland which encourages creativity and enterprise, where protection of the environment is a key prioity, where children are valued and loved, where women and girls are respected and enjoy true equality. All of these things can be achieved within a federal UK as far as I'm concerned.

It seems to suit the SNP to stick the argument to process and the evil Westminster coalition. That's lazy and not what the people of Scotland require of them. I find it quite sad in a way - it's been 306 years since the Act of Union. They've had all that time, and they've been particularly active over the past half a century, to define exactly what an independent Scotland would look like. It looks like their vision is all froth and no substance.Given that the UK Government has a whole series of papers on the advantages of the union coming, the SNP and Yes Scotland will have to up their game. Don't just take my word for it. Jim Sillars, a former SNP MP had some direct words for them in an article in the Times at the weekend. He said:

I do not believe it’s possible to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote without having the bible — all the questions that are asked, all the answers that are needed — on the things that matter most to people.
Unless they sit down now and have the humility to reassess why it’s gone wrong, and then start making the necessary readjustments, then we’re in trouble. We’re going to lose.

My letter asking my MP to vote for equal(ish) marriage

If you're a regular reader of this blog, there's a tiny chance you might have formed the impression that I'm totally in favour of allowing couples who love each other to get married. End of.

The Bill on offer in the House of Commons today doesn't quite deliver that, but it's a huge step in the right direction. 

I have written to my MP, Graeme Morrice, to ask him to support the Bill. Here's what I said. I'll let you know what he says. To be honest, I'd be very surprised if he was voting against, but he still needs to be told how I feel.

Dear Graeme
Just a quick note to say that I hope you will support the bill to allow couples of the same sex to get married. This affects so many of my friends. I don’t see why their love is any different to the love I share with my husband and it is so unfair that the state doesn’t recognise it in the same way.
There are things that need to be amended about this bill – I, personally, would prefer there not to be a specific exclusion for the Church of England and Church of Wales, and there are real issues re the marriages of transgender people. I hope that these can be dealt with as it progresses through Parliament.
I often wonder how it would feel if there were some arbitrary law saying that you couldn’t marry someone more than 10 years older than you. That would have stopped me from spending 25 happy years of marriage with my lovely husband. Our failure to allow couples of the same sex to marry is quite disgraceful and must end.
To those who suggest that redefining marriage is something that we shouldn’t be doing, it’s only 150 years since a married woman had the right to have her own property. In fact, only 20 years ago, judges were saying that men couldn’t rape their wives, something which has thankfully been changed. Marriage has changed, a great deal, and for the better. This bill enhances marriage and I hope that you will vote for it enthusiastically today.
Best wishes

Update: Well, that was fast. It took Graeme Morrice just 79 minutes to confirm that he will be supporting the  Bill tonight. Excellent stuff. I'm not particularly surprised, but the other side fill MPs' inboxes with their views, so it's important to get some balance in there. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Some brief thoughts on Chris Huhne

It's just over a year since Chris Huhne and his former wife Vicky Pryce were charged with perverting the course of justice and Chris Huhne resigned from the Cabinet. Today, as the case came to trial, Chris Huhne dramatically changed his plea, only entered for the first time last week, to guilty.

This means that he will be sentenced some time after the conclusion of the proceedings against Pryce. He said that he would be stepping down as an MP.

I am not going to say too much about the incident concerned as it's still the subject of a criminal trial. I do want to say a couple of things about my Lib Dem colleagues though.

It pained me to see Olly Grender apologise to Guido Fawkes for defending Huhne. Olly is a decent, fair-minded person who was clearly abiding by the principles of innocent until proven guilty. Guido today published a photo of Huhne with rifle sights superimposed on him, and is gloating about this a lot too much.

Nobody who defended Huhne should feel that they have anything to apologise for. They did what was fair and right at the time, in good faith.

The fantastic team of councillors and campaigners we have in Eastleigh have bucked all the trends over the last few years. They have made gains when we've taken big hits in other parts of the country.

They are bound to feel a sense of shock today but their hard work over decades has laid a very solid foundation that is not centred on one person alone. There is a formidable team of councillors and campaigners who are well liked and respected. Chris Huhne, elected in 2005, was a relative latecomer to a well established fighting force.

For all his flaws, nobody can doubt that he was a very hard working local MP who got on very well with the local team. Council leader Keith House acknowledged his work as MP earlier today. I would put a link but am on a train with very dodgy wifi and intermittent 3G.

House leads a team that puts maximum effort into everything they do. I have a great deal of faith in them. Today will not be an easy day for them. They won't wallow, though and the best thing any of us can do to support them is to offer them our help on the doorsteps of Eastleigh in the months to come.

Can we have a stronger line against marriage tax breaks, please?

I am very pleased to see that Nick Clegg has spoken out about how stupid the Tories' plans for marriage tax breaks are. He's done that consistently over the last 3 years, most recently on last week's Call Clegg LBC show. 

What I'm not so chuffed about is the line put about by a "senior Liberal Democrat source" in today's Times  (£) which says that the Government couldn't introduce a marriage tax break before we got to a tax threshold of £10,000.

Well, it's guaranteed we're going to get there anyway, as I showed way back in December. The legislation already exists to make sure it'll happen without George Osborne's help.

When our people are briefing the press on this issue, they need to reinforce Nick's points about how silly it is to put up taxes for single people and people who aren't married.

And, anyway, if the Government's got half a billion a year going begging, then, I would suggest, there are plenty better uses for it. Sorting out the bedroom tax fiasco for a start.....

But, seriously, Nick has made a good case against marriage tax breaks. Let's just stick with what he says without appearing to negotiate on the pages of the Times.
You don’t need the taxman to tell you whether you should get married or not,“And you certainly, I don’t think, need the taxman to tell you that you’re going to pay higher taxes because either you’re not in a relationship or you’re not married.

Willie Rennie challenges SNP on post-independence welfare

Last week the SNP Government held debate in the Scottish Parliament on the effects of the changes the UK Government have made to Child Benefit. Of all the welfare reforms, this is the one I have least difficulty with because it affects people with a household income of more than £50,000 a year.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon moved a motion that
 recognises that it is only through the full powers of independence that it can properly protect the universal benefits that produce fair and equitable outcomes.
The thing is, she wasn't able to give any assurances that under independence, Child Benefit would be restored to everyone. The motion was a sloppy one, something you'd only put before a Parliament where you have a majority of compliant backbenchers. It's embarrassingly poor.

The SNP are very good at telling us how evil any government in London is. What they are not so good at is telling us how independence actually makes this better. They might like to pretend that under independence, money would grow on trees and Scotland would be insulated from every global economic catastrophe, but nobody really believes that. I'd be surprised if all of them do. The SNP has its hands on many levers of power up here - they have complete control over housing yet there still aren't enough homes for those in need. Oh, sorry, I forgot, that's the local council's fault...

Anyway, Willie Rennie had a good go at challenging Sturgeon last Thursday, trying to get something of substance out of her and showing that the SNP's case was far from proven. His speech contains many Liberal Democrat themes - that strong economy in fair society thing again. There's also a very Willie phrase, something which is for him the most important thing - enabling people to get up and get on in life. You do not need independence to achieve those aims. Here's his speech in full:

We know what the SNP does not like: it takes every opportunity to focus on the Westminster Government’s ills. It takes up copious amounts of parliamentary time focusing not on the SNP Government’s responsibilities, but on another Government’s responsibilities and duties. From an almost lofty position, it likes to complain and commentate, but it rarely provides solutions. Everybody would admit that that is a tough task, and the purpose of our amendment is to allow SNP members to set out what they would like the Scottish welfare state to look like. They can tell us which benefits will be cut, which will be increased and which will remain unchanged. They can also tell us whether they would add £2.5 billion to the budget that an independent Scotland would inherit.

From ministers’ rhetoric—I have numerous quotes here—I assume that the full £2.5 billion will be restored immediately.

The debate is timely, given that the SNP’s welfare commission was launched earlier this month and, apparently, will report in the next couple of months. I am sure that commission members would welcome contributions from those on the SNP benches on whether benefits will be cut, which benefits will be prioritised and which will be deprioritised. I am sure that they would welcome SNP members’ deliberations, which could feed into their conclusions.

Benefit recipients will also want to hear from the SNP about what its priorities will be for an independent Scotland’s welfare budget. They will want to know that the SNP’s actions will match the rhetoric. 

SNP members—ministers likewise—have said on numerous occasions that they want reform and simplification of the welfare system, but I have not heard from them one single example of a reform.

I am sure that members will take the opportunity today to tell us.

I am also sure that the SNP’s fiscal commission, too, would welcome SNP members’ comments on how they plan to restore £2.5 billion to the welfare budget. The commission has been tasked with bringing a degree of fiscal credibility to the SNP’s plans for independence. That credibility will be very important as it will impact directly on credit ratings, the cost of borrowing and the sustainability of an independent Scotland’s finances.

I am curious about whether the fiscal commission will meet the welfare commission to ensure a degree of consistency across the numerous commissions that the SNP is setting up. After all, we will want coherence, which previous commissions have lacked, with a commission saying one thing and ministers saying something completely different. That might change this afternoon, but I am not sure whether the Deputy First Minister’s speech indicates that it will. I do not think that the SNP is going to tell us which benefits will be prioritised or deprioritised. Who will be the winners and losers? We did not hear a single word about that from the Deputy First Minister.

I think that, this afternoon, SNP members will seek to prejudge the outcome of the welfare commission’s work and will, as they have done with many other advisers that they have recruited, ignore its conclusions. They have already made up their minds what they do not like—and they do not like to face up to the reality of having to live within their finances. There will be a lack of consistency between fiscal responsibility and their welfare commission. We need costed plans, not uncosted rhetoric.

To be fair, we Liberal Democrats favour a strong economy and a fair society that gives everyone a chance to get on. That is why we have cut taxes for those on low or middle incomes, increased the state pension and introduced a £1 billion youth contract while at the same time—this is critical—restoring the public finances to create the conditions for growth.

We must make it absolutely clear that under Labour the welfare state increased by 40 per cent at a time of considerable economic growth. In the 10 years before 2010, the costs increased from £132 billion to £192 billion. That is simply not sustainable.

We reject the rhetoric of the skivers and the strivers—I say to Drew Smith that we have never embraced and do not favour that terminology. We want an enabling society that allows people to get up and get on. SNP members should take the opportunity this afternoon not just to criticise the UK Government but to set out their plans in detail. If they do not match their actions to their rhetoric, I do not think that they deserve to be trusted.

I move amendment S4M-05521.2, to leave out from “with concern” to end and insert:

“the position on child benefit in the UK; further notes that the Scottish Government has established a working group to advise it on what welfare policies it would be able to afford in the event of independence; believes that it would be sensible for people in Scotland to wait for the conclusion of that review before accepting any assurances from Scottish ministers on this matter; notes that statements have been made by Scottish Government ministers and supporters implying that a full £2.5 billion will be added to the welfare and benefits bill of Scotland after independence; notes that this figure does not include any costing for additional welfare benefits to be recommended for groups such as carers; awaits with interest the details on how such a bill and the additions will be accommodated within the estimated resources of an independent Scotland; in particular, waits to see if an immediate priority will be set out to restore child benefit to those earning over £60,000 in an independent Scotland; believes that, if the full figure of £2.5 billion is not part of costed plans, that would imply that some welfare changes are not proposed for reversal and believes that those should be clearly set out by the expert group, and further notes that the UK Government will have cut the tax bill for a family of two people on modest incomes by around £5,000 over the period.”

Willie Rennie takes up Bedroom Tax issue with Danny Alexander

"I am in constant dialogue (with the UK Government) because I've gathered evidence myself, I've seen people who are going to be affected by this. I'll be working to make sure people are not hurt."
So said Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie about the problems associated with the so-called Bedroom Tax on yesterday's Sunday Politics Scotland.  In April, Housing Benefit will be allocated on the basis of the size of properties you are judged to need by a number of pretty inflexible and unfair criteria. For example, a divorced dad who has a spare bedroom for when his kids come to stay will lose out. As will disabled people who need a spare room for carers or equipment. And then there was the case raised at PMQs last week about a mum who stands to lose out because her son is serving in Afghanistan.

I was Willie's caseworker when he was MP for Dunfermline so I know a fair bit about how he works. He's very good at understanding the practical realities of policies so I expect that he will have given ministers real evidence and also some reasonable, sensible and helpful recommendations as to how they should proceed to resolve the problems this measure creates. In the same way he's worked constructively with the SNP on minimum alcohol pricing and the budget, he'll be working with UK ministers to try to get them to change things to help vulnerable people.

It's really important that these measures get changed. Even if it were possible for some people to move into smaller properties, it's not as if councils and housing associations have them to hand out. Because of earlier cuts to Housing Benefit, a lot of the new build one bedroom flats in the private sector are out of reach to someone on a low income so there is, literally, nowhere for them to go.

Those who are going to be affected by this should know that they have Willie on their side. I would expect his views to be well received Liberal Democrats in the Government, too. Let's just hope that that's enough to make a difference before it's too late.

You can see the whole Sunday politics report and debate here.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sidse Babett Knudsen "shocked" by Borgen international success

Well, it's not every day you get to see the star of one of your favourite tv shows of all time just a few feet in front of you.

And here she is, resplendent in tartan, with her glasses on her head:

Sidse Babett Knudsen, the actress who plays Birgitte Nyborg, the Danish Prime Minister in the political drama Borgen was in Edinburgh today to promote the DVD boxset of the first two seasons of the programme.

Initially there was only going to be one showing of the last 2 episodes of Season 2 followed by a Q & A with Sidse, but demand was so great they had to put on 3 separate shows. I went along to the first, at 11am this morning when many people were watching Sidse reviewing the papers on Sky News.

I've never been in a cinema before when there's been applause at the end of a showing of what was effectively a tv repeat. I won't give you any spoilers, but the audience clearly felt the episodes were a fitting conclusion to series 2.

Sidse told the audience that she had been shocked by Borgen's international success and stunned that politicians (like Nicola Sturgeon) were mad keen on it.

She attributed its success to the fact that it was made by a publicly funded broadcaster, who had prioritised it, given it the best writers and directors. She said there was no product placement and no adverts in it - but we see Apple logos all the time.

She added that they'd been lucky with the timing of the show in Denmark. Politicians were reasonably well thought of and there was a strong female candidate for Prime Minister who eventually got the job.

Asked if she had learned anything about politics from her portrayal of Nyborg, she said that she had been surprised at how the media were such active players in the political system. She said that she was offended by talk of politics being a game and politicians being chess pieces when they were in fact human. She talked about how Borgen brought drama, the conflict of idealism and cynicism as well as psychology and emotions.

The third series of Borgen, she says, will be its last. It was originally planned as a two season story so the new series, yet to be shown here, is very different.

Sidse was amused when someone asked  if, to be likeable in a tv series, the politicians had to be from the liberal left, like Nyborg and Jed Bartlet before her. Apparently, before a word of Borgen had been written, the right wing were dissing the idea of the series,saying it would be full of "red bastards".

Birgitte Nyborg is, she says, the most cerebral character she's ever played. She loves doing different things - she's done scary productions and loves comedy and "stupid" things.

Oh, I should mention that, predictably, it took about 30 seconds for someone to ask her about Scottish independence - and she very diplomatically declined to give a view.

I'm all Borgened out now, having watched 5 episodes in the last 20 hours. That's not a bad condition to be in so don't consider that a complaint.

Dear Nick - please sort out the secret courts mess - our message, in volume, over time

I suggested earlier this week that those of us who oppose secret courts should reply to Nick Clegg's Letter from the Leader this weekend, asking him to withdraw Liberal Democrat support from a measure that all the evidence suggests is illiberal and unfair.

I was pleased when Jo Shaw, one of the co-founders of the Liberal Democrats against secret courts  campaign, reinforced that in a campaign email to supporters. If enough of us do that, then somebody at HQ will take note and pass on our concerns. Yes, we'll all get an automated reply saying that Nick can't reply to us personally (although on this issue, he should), but the responses will all be seen by human beings who should pass on our concerns. Let's get this message to him, in volume, over the next day or so. 

I sent my email to Nick this morning and this is what it says:

Dear Nick
First of all, thank you for all the work you have done on the issues of childcare and parental leave. You talk often these days of the Liberal Democrat vision of a strong economy in a fair society enabling people to get on in life and these vitally important measures help to deliver on all three. Seeing Liberal Democrat policies being implemented, from Steve Webb’s work on pensions to raising of the tax threshold, which was, after all, an idea from an ordinary member of the party, to the pupil premium is great and something that we can be very proud of as a party.
There is, however, real concern across the whole party about the issue of Part II of the Justice and Security Bill. I know a lot of people and, so far, I’ve found nobody who isn’t a parliamentarian who has a good word to say about it. The Federal Conference, the sovereign body of the Party, voted overwhelmingly against it in September. One of the reasons we’re liberals is that we believe in protecting people from abuse by the large, powerful institutions whether they be corporations or the state. By refusing one party to a legal proceeding the chance to see and respond to the evidence against them, we fail spectacularly to uphold that key principle. We skew the system heavily in favour of the state. Even if the Government accepted all the JCHR amendments (and I can’t for the life of me understand why it doesn’t), I don’t think this Bill is acceptable.
This Bill will make it easier for Governments to be complicit in torture and kidnap. It makes it easier to hide official wrongdoing. If we’d had CMPs, would the families of the two pilots wrongly blamed for the 1994 chinook helicopter crash have been able to clear their names?
I find it deeply worrying that it’s a Tory, Andrew Tyrie, who is making all the running on this issue, who’s produced a report saying that this legislation is wrong. Even the Labour party, who were no friends of civil liberties in government, has said they’ll vote against this bill if the JCHR amendments aren’t incorporated. If ever we needed to be a strong liberal voice, it’s now.
In the light of Andrew Tyrie’s report, I think it’s important that you stand up for liberal values within the coalition and say that it’s time to reconsider Part II of the Bill. Secret courts do not represent who we are as Liberal Democrats and it’s deeply uncomfortable to be associated with them. Please can you sort this out. I don’t expect you to go through a 5 year term and not make any mistakes – but this is a big one that you need to put right.
Caron Lindsay

Will you do the same? You don't have to say anything more than "Nick - say no to secret courts, please". 

It's important that he gets the strength of feeling in the party on this issue. We can't give up on it, or a fundamental change to our legal system will put justice out of reach for people the Government have wronged. As Jo Shaw keeps saying, Kafka was a warning, not a manual. 

Oh and once you've done that, if you live in the constituency of a Liberal Democrat MP, please could you email them and find out their position on this Bill. I am significantly unimpressed that so few have responded to Lib Dems against secret courts - and even more so at those who won't respond to those who are not constituents. I think our parliamentarians do have some sort of obligation to account for their actions to party members. After all, they wouldn't be in their jobs without us. 

Friday, February 01, 2013

Doctor Who 30 day fandom challenge - Day 30: How do you become a Doctor Who fan?

Well, we're finally at the end of the 30 day marathon - although I still owe you a gif. I'm sure this won't be the last time I write about Who this year, however, not with the big 50 fast approaching. By the way, if you haven't already been there, go and check out the new BBC 50th anniversary website.

And so to the question? It's a bit weird because I don't think there's any other thing you need to do to call yourself a fan than watch and love the show. I've only watched it on tv - I haven't read all the books, or listened to all the radio stuff from the intervening years between McCoy and Eccleston, but I kind of like that I have that to come when I'm old and infirm.

I suspect the true interpretation of that question is how I became a fan. It only took one episode, the right one - the first episode of Robot. I just loved Sarah Jane and the Fourth Doctor.I wanted to be Sarah Jane and that was pretty much the end of it. Or the beginning. And I never, ever got to watch it at home because my parents don't like it. So I'd hope against hope that they wouldn't arrive to pick me up from my Grandma's (where I went most Saturday afternoons) until it was over. More often than not, they came in the middle or sometimes before it even started. I guess I grew up always wanting more. And then when I did get my own house and my own telly, they cancelled it. And so I wanted more again.

Now I have regular fresh supplies - and I still want more. I love the values, I love the characters, the comedy, the tension and the action. I love the wondering how on earth the writers are going to extricate themselves from the latest cliffhanger.

I've really enjoyed the nostalgia that this challenge has encouraged in me. I have spent many hours on You Tube, watching clips and interviews. On the back of it, I've bought a good few more DVDs to add to the collection.

I am going to enjoy every single moment in the build up to the 50th anniversary in November. From the new series which starts on 30th March to Starfury's Return to the Eleventh Hour with Karen Gillan AND Caitlin Blackwood, Karen's cousin who played young Amy.

So, thanks for sticking with me for the whole 30 days.

Les Miserables - where I literally dreamed a dream

Anna and I went to see Les Miserables last Saturday. I had never seen the stage show. All I really knew was that it was about poor people in Paris around the time of the French Revolution and that I dreamed a dream, Susan Boyle's anthem,was in it.

The film is pretty powerful. It's death every which way through the tragedies of brutal warfare or enduring poverty. Slow deaths sudden deaths punctuate the cat and mouse pursuit of Jean Vaijean by his jailer Javert. The amoral Thenardiers, played with just the right mix of evil and comedy by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, add some very dark humour to the proceedings.

I have a confession to make. The cinema was warm, and I'd had a large glass of merlot at lunchtime. So, sadly, I slept through most of Anne Hathway's Fantine. I can tell you that she died well, but when she was singing I dreamed a dream, I was, well, dreaming. I feel bad about that. I do need to go back and see the film again because that was a pretty iconic bit to miss out. Fantine's was the death that affected me the most, as she had to make arrangements for the child she'd been forced to leave.

For me, though, the standout performance was Samantha Barks. Eponine is quite a complex character. She's  clearly had a hell of an upbringing courtesy of her parents, the Thenardiers, but she ends up a mature, compassionate, loving person who is able not to give in to ward off bitterness and revenge.. She managed to convey her heartbreak and anger at her unrequited love for Marius and the inner conflict it creates with authenticity and tenderness.

Russell Crowe's singing was not the best but I still think the way he portrayed Javert's dogged and dogmatic pursuit of Vaijean was excellent.

The photography was amazing - the location shots incredible, particularly in Javert's last scene.

The conclusion was needlessly melancholic and sentimental - although I guess they had to live up to the title and the book on which it was based.

I came out of the cinema feeling sad, angry at the needless brutality and loss and waste of life portrayed on screen but yet glad I'd seen such strong performances. I'd like to see the stage show next. Anna and I are planning a wee trip to London...

BBC stoop to new Question Time low...

The BBC doesn't give enough representation to Liberal Democrats on Question Time. We've known that for some time. And the weeks when we don't have anybody on the panel often coincide with a time when we have a different point of view to offer. 

Last night, though, I was particularly annoyed because, despite having no Lib Dem in the room, they allowed a very personal question about Nick Clegg's choice of secondary education for his son. Like it's any of our business.

Decisions about children's schooling are stressful enough. The memories are still fresh enough for me to make me shudder. 

Nick Clegg's son has two parents who will decide together what schooling is best for him. Whatever they decide will displease somebody as soon as it becomes public knowledge. They can't win. All they can do is pick a school where he will thrive, where he'll learn well and be happy. If they had any other consideration, they would be failing as parents. 

Every parent will understand how difficult and stressful these decisions around education can be and they'll understand the drive to find somewhere that meets your child's needs. Liberal Democrats don't have policy against private education, nor has Nick Clegg criticised anyone for sending their child to private schools. 

For Question Time to make an issue of something in Nick Clegg's personal life when there's nobody there from his side to stand up for him, to put that liberal point of view that celebrates diversity and enabling people to make the choices that work for them.

And while we're at it, let's just take a look at what Nick Clegg's input into our education system- whatever decision he and Miriam make for their son, let's not forget that it's he has driven the scheme that gives extra money to kids from deprived backgrounds in school and he has made sure that the poorest 2 year olds get the best start in life by getting the chance to go to nursery. We can talk about his public record, but his private, family decisions really should be off limits. 

And Question Time should not be making an issue of a private decision in such an unfair way.


Related Posts with Thumbnails