Thursday, May 30, 2013

Eep! A full mosque. Let's all panic

There's a wee thing going round Facebook at the moment saying "Should I read the Daily Mail?" And when you click on it, a huge NO appears on your screen.

My life would be a lot better without the Fail to go through of a morning, but I think it's so important that we read the bile it spits out, even when it makes my skin crawl. Which most of it does. There is always something racist, sexist or homophobic in it. It was even implicated this week in hounding Lucy Meadows to her death. Lucy, a teacher, killed herself after media attention focused on her new life as a woman.

It is a vile paper. But lots of people read it and if we are going to present a liberal argument, we need to know what bile they are being fed.

And so to today's edition. It was a barely disguised attempt to make people feel a bit uneasy about Muslims in their midst. Three pictures, side by side. On the edges, two virtually empty churches. In the middle a Mosque full to bursting point. And, shock horror, people were praying in the car park. Now if you read the article, you find out that the capacity of the Mosque is only 100, which is not very much. There are not that many mosques. Conversely, there are lots of churches, lots of denominations. No doubt the Fail office would drown in a sea of bile if it found out, as I did discussing this on Twitter, that some churches and mosques even share the same building, perfectly peaceably.

This is what the Fail does. It fills its pages with a cloud of hate that, on analysis, is made up of no substance whatsoever. It's there to stoke up fear, to make people feel vulnerable. This is why the likes of UKIP get a foothold.

I have been really glad to see our lot being pretty robust recently. Nick Clegg on Call Clegg today being robust on civil liberties and freedom of speech. Vince questioning the Tories' position on immigration at every opportunity. Ed Davey taking on Farage and forensically dissecting his nonsense live on the BBC News Channel. The liberal arguments need to be made time and time again, alongside stronger economy, fairer society and Ed Balls' prawn cocktail charm offensive. I want Nick to keep saying:

I think abhorrent ideologies are best defeated when they are argued against, when they’re demolished and when they’re shown up to be as perverted and corrupt as they are. 


I’m a liberal who passionately believes that moderation, non-violence, open argument is the way to secure our safety.

We all have to. And we have to say it everywhere, amongst all our friends and family in real life, too. And every time one of these horrible messages about immigrants or benefits scroungers gets posted on Facebook, it needs to be challenged.Then we can slam the door on Nigel Farage's toe. And let's face it, if we don't, nobody else will.

Jim Hume MSP launches consultation on measure to ban smoking in vehicles with children present

Liberal Democrat MSP for the South of Scotland Jim Hume this week launched a consultation on his Members' Bill which would see smoking banned in vehicles where children are present. When I initially flagged this up on Liberal Democrat Voice a few weeks ago, there was a mixed reaction to the proposals.

Jim says in the foreword to his consultation document:
Recent research has shown that 17% of 11-16 year olds in the UK are exposed to second-hand smoke more than once a week while in a car with a further 30% indicating exposure once a week or less. These are shocking figures. I believe we can improve on the ban on smoking in public places and places of work, further protecting our children.

Research has found that second-hand tobacco smoke in cars has serious negative health impacts for children, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, coughing, wheezing, asthma and respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Not to mention the known risk of lung cancer from second hand smoke and the fact those exposed to second hand smoke as children are more likely to take up smoking themselves in later life.

Some children have no option but to go into a smoke filled car en route to the school, shops or their sport. I believe we have a moral duty to protect those children from second hand smoke, which will allow children to have the freedom to get the best start in life and go on to lead healthy lives themselves. I believe we need to remove the danger of smoke filled cars and ban smoking in cars when children are present. That is why I am consulting on the intention to bring in a Member’s Bill which will prohibit tobacco smoking in cars when children are present.


The penalty Jim is proposing is similar to that for using a mobile phone while driving - an on the spot fine of £60. There would be no penalty points on a driving licence, though, as you wouldn't have to be driving to be in breach of this offence.

This might ease the concerns of some that a social services investigation would ensue on conviction.

Medical evidence

The document contains 9 pages of hard hitting, credible medical evidence outlining the case for change. In some ways, I think that some of that should be used to create a public awareness campaign on the dangers children face if you smoke in a car near them. If Jim's measure leads to that, surely it will be a big step forward.

Scots have until 30th August to respond to the consultation, which asks 11 questions. One issue that immediately comes to mind is how to raise awareness in other parts of the UK so that visitors to Scotland are aware. You can read the whole document and find out how to respond here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is it time for retailers to lose the lads' mags?

Every time you go into a supermarket or newsagent to buy a magazine, you are likely to be confronted with the following:
  • A women's section, which contains magazines on, mainly, celebrity froth, sewing, cooking and child-rearing;
  • Everything remotely interesting,like current affairs, photography, fishing, sport, computers and science fiction being displayed elsewhere;
  • Magazines with pictures of half naked women prominently displayed in a way that you can't miss.
What does this tell children about the world in which they are growing up? The message seems to be that women are there to keep everyone else fed (while keeping themselves unrealistically thin, of course), that they aren't or shouldn't be interested in the issues of the day, and they are there to be men's sexual playthings if they are pretty enough.  If they ever watch the news, they will see that it's mostly middle aged white men in suits who are making most of the decisions that affect our lives. Of course, they will also see good stuff from ministers like Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, but there should be more women at higher levels of industry, politics, and the legal profession.

This unequal treatment of women is surely inconsistent with our vision of a liberal society in which "none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity." The range of things which need to be done to redress that balance is wide, and no single campaign alone will achieve it. The shared parental leave arrangements championed by Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson will help alleviate discrimination against women of childbearing age in the workplace. The Body Confidence campaign is already showing results - what would have been acceptable in terms of airbrushing 2 years ago is now not so.

A new campaign launches today aimed at getting supermarkets to remove lads' mags which have on their front covers pictures of scantily clad women. Lose the Lads' Mags, run by UK Feminista and Object Update, warns retailers that by displaying these images, they could be in breach of the Equality Act by failing to protect their employees from sexual harassment. A group of lawyers have written to the Guardian arguing that:
Every mainstream retailer which stocks lads' mags is vulnerable to legal action by staff and, where those publications are visibly on display, by customers. There are, in particular, examples of staff successfully suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work. Such exposure is actionable where it violates the dignity of individual employees or customers, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. We therefore call on such retailers to urgently heed the call to Lose the Lads' Mags.
wrote a post last year asking why men thought it appropriate to get their Nuts out in public, after a flight where the man next to me was reading one of these magazines saying:
When men ostentatiously read stuff like this in public, it's like they're making a huge statement that they see women as simply being there as window dressing, as decoration, as pleasure enhancers rather than their equals. They clearly feel that they have a right to own all the public space. I felt it was so rude of him and it made me feel uncomfortable. Now, I don't have the right to be protected from being offended, and nor am I asking for it, but I think I have every right to express my displeasure at such insensitive and crude behaviour.
We need to look no further than the Government's own Sexualisation of young people review to see that this stuff causes actual harm:
The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. Both the images we consume and the way we consume them are lending credence to the idea that women are there to be used and that men are there to use them.
I doubt that we are going to see a flood of female employees on the minimum wage sue supermarket giants under the Equality Act. However, if this campaign convinces those retailers that they could be vulnerable to legal action, they in turn might convince the publishers to ensure that the front covers of these magazines do not portray women in a demeaning way. At the very least, it will spark a discussion about the effect on society of the way women are so routinely portrayed and reassure women that, actually, the law is on their side.

The prevalence of these magazines is a symptom of a culture that treats women unfairly. We need to tackle the attitudes which enable such a culture to operate. But, if I have recurrent headaches, I don't wait for the outcome of tests to determine and treat the cause before I take a painkiller. In the same way, there is a place for tackling symptoms of sexism, one at a time, whether that's toy retailers selling doctors' sets for boys and nurses' outfits for girls or Disney turning Merida from Brave from active girl to glamorous, curvy, groomed model. These campaigns have been successful. We can but hope that over time we can lose the demeaning images from lads' mags too.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Report on internet pornography highlights need for education, not restriction

One of my biggest concerns in recent years has been the effect of access to easily available internet pornography on the next generation of young people. Every time I ask an expert in the field to reassure me and tell me that I'm panicking too much, they shake their head and tell me that my fears are spot on.
It just takes a couple of clicks to arrive at free videos which depict women in a subjugative role, as little more than receptacles. The language used about those women is demeaning and deeply misogynistic. The expectations of a generation of boys are being guided by their access to this stuff.

The BBC reports on a study commissioned by the Office of the Children's Commissioner in England which recommends that sex education must adapt to take account of the effect of internet pornography and help children develop a resilience to its effects, which they outline as:
It can lead to more sexually permissive attitudes, more casual sex, sex at a younger age, and the belief that women are sex objects with males dominant and females submissive, suggests the study.
There is a correlation between children and young people who use pornography and "risky behaviours" such as anal sex, sex with multiple partners and using alcohol and other drugs during sex, say the authors.
What's also worrying is the gender difference - boys seeks this stuff out, while girls are much more wary of it.

I am pleased that the recommendations of the report emphasise the importance of education, robustly dealing with this stuff. Controversially, it suggests that it should be compulsory in all schools, including faith schools, colleges, private schools and academies. I think that is a very sensible approach to a problem which could ruin young people's lives. If you think I'm being melodramatic, we are already seeing young women put in horrible predicaments after being pressured into sexting. Note that the young men who put pressure on their girlfriends to supply the photos and subsequently breach their trust by distributing them to all and sundry seem to get away without attracting any sort of disapproval.

There was a tv series about 4 years ago where Channel 4 compared porn with reality. It busted a lot of myths and challenged young people's perceptions and expectations by showing them how real bodies looked and how the porn industry worked. That, to me, along with ensuring that our young people grow up knowing what a loving relationship is all about, is much more likely to be effective.

What relevance does this have for the Coalition? They now have to decide what to do with this report. Well, the Tories are more inclined towards  opt-ins and measures to get ISPs to restrict access. That's futile, to be honest. Even if your child is safe at home, they may not be round at their friends' houses. Not only that, but I feel very uneasy about having some piece of software at an ISP tell me that I can't access articles on breastfeeding. I wrote about this last year:
 A ban, though is unworkable. It's much worse to hand over control of what I consider acceptable for my daughter (or me to that matter) to see to the likes of BT or Orange. When I think that sites likeMark Pack's blog have been blocked for having pornographic content by some providers, you see how easily mistakes can be made. While that's a humourous example, I also would not like to think that a teenager looking for advice on safe sex or maybe coming to terms with their own sexuality would not be able to find what they need. I know that there are some things that my daughter would find way too exruciating to talk to me about, so inobtrusively providing her with access to accurate, reliable information is important to me.
I hope that our ministers within the Coalition will press the need fro compulsory, evidence based, quality sex education for all young people. That to me is the most liberal solution.

I also hope that this report will make the men who tell me that I am a humourless, frigid killjoy when I write about these things take notice and realise that we need to take action to deal with the effects of such easy access to pornography, which perseverate long after the initial viewing of the pornography.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Woolwich murder: there are some things we just don't need to know

The violent death of anyone is an enormous tragedy. Yesterday's horrible events in Woolwich were clearly motivated by prejudice and hate. Last October, Anna, Bob and I spent a very wet and cold Saturday evening at a hate crimes vigil where the names of people who had been killed in violent attacks simply because they were gay or disabled were read out. It was a very long list.

Just hearing their names was upsetting. Similarly, knowing that a young man going about his business had been killed in the most brutal manner imaginable makes you feel sickened and totally sympathetic towards the people who loved him.

In many of these cases, there was no blanket news coverage. Those murders went largely unreported. In yesterday's tragedy, we found out too many details, and even official spokespeople used highly unfortunate language. The media coverage was unfortunate to say the least and could have caused more damage.

I have to confess that Iain Dale's LBC radio show is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. This story was unfolding during his drive time show. Although I didn't listen live, I read the blog post he wrote about it later. The post contains some interviews he conducted live on air with eye-witnesses who were understandably very distressed at what they had witnessed and who provided graphic detail of what they had seen. By the time I'd listened to the end of the first interview, I was retching, shaking and pretty upset. This was the account of the ending of a life, which his family might have been listening to. I am sure that he would have had at least one young relative who might have been listening to the radio in their bedroom after school. I just felt it was too much even for an adult to tolerate.

It just felt wrong that someone had had their life stolen in the most public and violent way possible for us all to be party to these awful details.

What was worse, though, was when news outlets started showing the message from the blood-soaked attacker. Why give this character the publicity he clearly sought?

Now, I know that the world of the 24/7 news cycle is competitive but does it always have to be a race to the bottom? Do people have to show something because everybody else has done so? Sometimes less is more. I was frantically looking for somewhere that wasn't playing that menacing message of hate. That's the station I would have chosen to listen to. I really didn't appreciate turning on the Today programme - I mean, the Today programme, the best news programme in all of British Medialand, for heavens sake, to hear that horrible man's voice.

I am not calling here for regulation, or banning, just for a bit of self discipline.

I also think people have to be very careful about the language they use, as Nick Robinson found out. He has had to apologise for using the phrase "of Muslim appearance" in a news bulletin yesterday. I can probably forgive him for having a brain fade moment because, as he explained in a blog today, it was used to him, by a "senior Whitehall source" who was in turn quoting the Police.
 I was told by a senior Whitehall source that the incident was being treated as a suspected terrorist incident and being taken very seriously indeed. This information changed the news from a crime story to something of more significance. The police had, I was told, described the attackers as being "of Muslim appearance" and shouting "Allahu Akbar". On air I directly quoted a senior Whitehall source saying that the police had used that description.
We should maybe wonder how such a phrase got past  three intelligent, and probably privileged, people. Or maybe it was because of their privilege that they just didn't see its potential to cause offence. In any event, Robinson has had the decency to apologise for using it:
 I'm sorry for using a phrase that, on reflection, was both liable to be misinterpreted and to cause offence. Many Muslims were quick to condemn the attack and to distance themselves and their religion from the brutal savagery seen on the streets of Woolwich.
I have some sympathy with Liberal Democrat peer Meral Hussein-Ece when she alluded on Twitter to the injustice of all Muslims being expected to condemn the killing


Nobody goes to David Cameron to ask him to condemn on behalf of all men every horrific example of sexual violence. Nobody expected all Christians to condemn Christian Anders Breivik, the killer of so many young people at Uttoya. The minute any Muslim does something wrong, somehow it's supposed to reflect on all of them, and, even worse, be part of organised terrorism? There's a huge inconsistency there. As liberals, surely we are not going to stand for that. Willie Rennie made the point at First Minister's Questions at Holyrood today that this attack was every bit as painful to the Muslim community as it is to everyone else.

As Meral said on the World at One today, we all share the horror of this attack and we all need to stand together and work together to eliminate such brutality and hatred.

The coverage we've had, from media and social media, has not helped. It's whipped up unnecessary fear - and when fear turns to hatred, things get ugly. We need to respond to this with calmness, solidarity and wisdom.

And I leave you with one very clever way of illustrating everything I've just written:

Rennie calls for review after Humza's howler

The Scottish Government has a Minister for External Affairs, whose job it is to represent the Scottish Government on the international stage. This role is currently undertaken by SNP rising star Humza Yousaf.

Humza has spent this week in Doha at the International Forum there. This is an event which discusses key international issues as they affect the Middle East. He has been caught on video telling this international audience of academics, political leaders and intergovernmental organisations that the UK Government wants to leave the European Union. Unfortunately for him, he was caught on video doing it. Have a look at the 6th video down, starting at 2 hrs 6:20 in.
Even at the moment, the United Kingdom Government is wanting the UK to leave the European Union but the Scots wish to remain a part of the European Union.
To try to suggest that the personal views of a couple of Cabinet ministers on how they would vote in a referendum that is not going to happen in this Parliament is the official position of  the UK Government is at best mischievous.

Willie Rennie has called on First Minister Alex Salmond to rein in his errant colleague:
The Minister for External Affairs seems to have deliberately misrepresented UK Government policy.  At no stage has the UK Government stated it wants to leave the European Union.
After comparing the Scottish independence movement with the Arab Spring, Humza Yousaf is morphing into a Scottish version of Johnny English.
It is not fitting for a government minister to misrepresent the position of either of Scotland’s governments on the world stage. This blundering, cavalier style of diplomacy can paint a false picture to international partners and have real implications for our businesses.
The First Minister needs to rein in his minister before he causes any more problems.
He has put down a motion to the Scottish Parliament which calls on the Scottish Government:
to review the way in which it conducts its international relations so that audiences, whether domestic or international, can have confidence that its ministers are giving an accurate and honest statement of the position of other governments.
On the Arab Spring issue, there is a predilection amongst some nationalists to compare their fight for independence to other struggles against brutal regimes. I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago after a comment to that effect was left on here. On this occasion, I think that maybe the pudding was being over-egged a little bit by his critics. After all, he did explicitly say that you couldn't directly compare the two.  I think the rest of his comments were more deserving of further scrutiny. He talked about the need for:
We need to learn more about how we can use digital media as a means of consulting with the youth, to make young people feel more engaged.
Well, maybe - but you could try talking to them as well. The techy stuff is an add-0n. There's nothing as good as actually listening to what they have to say in person.
And I hope he was joking when he said this, on the construction of a new political framework:
More importantly than anything it must be inclusive of women, young people, minorities and even of our opponents.
Wow. Don't get too over-enthusiastic about the idea of political pluralism, there, Humza.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A 13 year old writes about same sex marriage - MPs take note #samesexmarriage

Yesterday Anna told me she'd received full marks for a school essay on same sex marriage. She had been told to write a persuasive essay on any subject of her choice, so she wrote about something she feels really strongly about. With her permission, I'm publishing it below. It would be nice if MPs read it. She is not always tactful, and she challenges deeply held beliefs - but she's pretty perceptive and shows off both compassion and a passionate sense of justice. If you read no further, at least read her conclusion:
A place where same gender couples are treated as legally equal to heterosexuals is a place one step closer to destroying homophobia before it destroys many more lives.
Here's the whole thing:

Marriage can be an important milestone in a person's life, so naturally unmarried people of all ages fantasise about their own wedding - them and their beloved, the perfect bride and groom, committing to each other. Their parents crying through the ceremony, so proud of their baby. No fear of being disowned, nobody to call their relationship "unnatural", "illegitimate" or even morally wrong.

In 2015, same sex marriage is set to be introduced in Scotland, giving any two individuals, regardless of gender the right to get officially married instead of the £"separate but equal" option of civil partnership. While this idea has rounded up a lot of support, those who disagree with it are perhaps the most vocal.

The number one reason for an individual to hold "traditional" (read: homophobic) marriage values is that their religion forbids it. The the infamous Leviticus 18:22 that may homophobic Christians love to call on. "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is an abomination." Upon hearing these words, every rational human being should be able to constantly pick out the holes in this flawed and overused quote. The first being that the Bible is a very old book that was not originally written in English and this particular verse can be translated in several different ways, eg elderly men not lying with young boys. The second is that some of the laws of the Old Testament are invalid. The same people who condemn homosexuality are rarely seen forcing victims of rape to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) or killing those who work on Sundays (Exodus 35:2). While the Bible can provide solace and teach some wonderful lessons, some early books are not to be taken word for word.

However the most important reason religious arguments fall apart in this case is this: In the UK, we are not a theocracy. While everyone has the right to use their religious beliefs to govern their own life, it is not fair to use your religion to restrict someone else. It is not an exercise of religious freedom to try and prevent marriage equality. If you disapprove of same gender marriages, the noble thing to do would be to let those involved in such marriages live their lives in peace. Your homophobia cannot be justified by religion, your bigotry is no less awful with a quote from a holy book.

Unfortunately, religious reasons are just a small section of the motivation behind people's closed-mindedness. One of the other frequently used arguments is perhaps even more preposterous, even more illogical, and it is this: most couples of the same gender cannot have children. 

While this can tie in with religious arguments "Go forth and multiply, Genesis 9:7) it is often just used on its own. It is difficult to see why this argument is so often used without a religious statement when  a simple look at some statistics render it entirely invalid: over 900 million people in the world are starving. There are over 15,000 children in care in Scotland alone. In a world with so many people and not enough resources, or rather not enough co-operation from wealthy countries to share said resources), surely having a child is not the sole reason a marriage is formed - and f people who cannot have biological children wish to adopt, they are helping an already existent life instead of creating a new one.

Discussing whether a couple can have children or not in relation to marriage equality makes even less sense when you consider the real facts. A menopausal woman or infertile person can still get married, the possibility of a child is never picked on in these cases. Besides, many couples marry and do not desire children, whereas many children re born to unmarried parents, proving that marriage and reproduction are by no means mutually inclusive.

This argument falls apart again when you realise that just because the two people of the same gender cannot get married to each other, they are not immediately going to leave each other to enter a heterosexual relationship and have children. The two people will stay together anyway so allowing them to marry will not prevent the births of any children.

Many will say that as civil partnership exists as a near identical alternative for couples of the same gender, granting them the right to marry is not necessary. While it is true that the same benefits are granted to couples in a civil partnership, marriage holds certain emotional and cultural significance and connotations. Young children dream of one day getting married, not getting "civilly partnered". 

Another reason it is harmful to separate them into two different institutions is that many people will try to delegitimise a civil partnership by saying it is not a true marriage and does not count. This could be very hurtful to the civilly partnered couple and would give people more reason to say bigoted things about how same gender couples cannot truly get married and therefore their relationships do not count.

In any case, the concept of "separate but equal" has proven itself to be a flawed argument many times throughout history. Separate does not mean equal. Calling it equal is something only the accepted, privileged people can say safely, while the other group feels inadequate, like their "equal" separate thing is a rip-off of the original.

There is one argument in particular that does not even try to try its utter and blatant homophobia and the people who use it do not seem to realise how harmful the thing they are saying is. I am of course referring to the argument that marriage equality would "promote the homosexual lifestyle" and make people accept same gender couples as normal. This argument is often used by closed minded people who cannot grasp that how people are able to express their relationships does not revolve around one individuals personal views.

This argument, along with "gay people are disgusting and unnatural" has no basis. All these arguments can be easily exposed as illogical and heterosexist with no back-up for the argument whatsoever. I could just as easily say that society's unwavering acceptance of marriage between one man and one woman suggests an "heterosexual lifestyle" and give no reasons why this is a bad thing but still oppose such marriages.

Apart from the obvious homophobia, this argument perpetuates that sexual and romantic orientation is a choice and excludes bisexual people in same gender couples.

In conclusion, marriage equality is certainly a good idea because it would improve the general quality of life for same gender couples while those it doe not directly affect would suffer no ill effects. It would make the institution of marriage fairer and contribute to reducing prejudice by normalising same gender relationships. Theo only arguments against this are from self-centred individuals who cannot respect the rights of other people to be treated equally. A place where same gender couples are treated as legally equal to heterosexuals is a place one step closer to destroying homophobia before it destroys many more lives.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My open letter to Liberal Democrat MPs on same sex marriage - it's not about you, it's about fairness and equality

This is what I've spent the morning drafting and sending to Liberal Democrat MPs on the same sex marriage bill. I've sent it to everyone unless I know for sure that they are wholeheartedly and enthusiastically supporting the Bill and not voting for any of the Tory Wrecking Muppetry.

I have had two replies so far - one from Malcolm Bruce, who can't be at Westminster today but who supports the Bill, and from David Heath's office, confirming his support.


I’m writing to ask you to enthusiastically support the same sex marriage bill today.

I’m a huge fan of marriage. In August, my husband and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and it pains me that many of our friends, who love each other just as much as we do and whose relationship has been just as enduring, do not have the chance to have their union recognised in an equal way.

I’ve been incredibly proud of how our MSPs and Willie Rennie have championed its cause in Scotland, and have stood up to the churches who have been unreasonable in the demands that they have made and deeply offensive in the language that they have used.

I don’t want to take up too much of your inbox, but here is why I’d like you to support the Bill:

It’s the most liberal outcome

Couples are free to marry if they wish to do so.

Religious organisations don’t have to marry same sex couples if they don’t believe in doing so.

That’s a win for everyone, with all rights respected. If anything the balance is too much in favour of religious organisations. They have more than enough protections – not just belt and braces, but superglue, stapes and sellotape too.

Liberals are here to curb the excesses of powerful organisations

So, church and religious leaders want to stop less powerful people having rights which do no harm to anybody? Are we going to allow that to happen? Seriously? It’s the very essence of liberalism to protect people from this sort of stuff. Our default position as liberals should be to protect and respect individual choice where no harm is done to others. I hope none of you would ever try to assert that two people making a lifelong commitment to each other is in any way harmful to the rest of society.

And, of course, all religious organisations have LGBT members, and the evidence suggests that a significant proportion, even a majority of church members do not agree with the stance taken by their leaders.

Imagine some arbitrary legal obstacle to your relationship

My husband is 16 years older than me. I often wonder how I would feel if there was some arbitrary law saying there couldn’t be more than 10 years between husband and wife. I think how much we would have lost. Ok, we could have stayed together, or taken an option for couples like us which would really just encourage discrimination against us, but it’s not the same. A distinction on grounds of sexual orientation is just as silly. Why would you pass up the chance to enact full equality?

What other inalienable rights would you want to have a referendum on?

I am really hoping that you are not considering voting for the amendment calling for a referendum before legislation. Would you do the same on the death penalty? Or to remove the right to join a trade union? Or to remove human rights from criminals? Equality is not negotiable.

Don’t vote for “son of Section 28”

That amendment on schools would entrench and enshrine discrimination against LGBT people in exactly the same way as Section 28 did. Please do not vote for it.

Exemptions for registrars

Why should public servants be exempted from providing a service that is legal to access? If they don’t approve of same sex civil marriage, then they shouldn’t be registrars. It’s quite simple. You’d soon rightly tell BNP members where to go, in no uncertain terms, if they demanded exemption from marrying people from different ethnic origins. Why would you even consider exemptions for those who object to same sex couples?

Extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples

I personally don’t have any objection in principle to this, but, and it’s a big but, why would the same group of Tories who proposed the rest of the daft amendments be proposing this? Tories are supposedly in favour of marriage above all else, so why muddy the waters in this way? This smells of an attempt to wreck and I think should be avoided at all costs.

It’s not about you and what you believe about same sex marriage

For me, this is a fundamental issue of liberalism and equality. It doesn’t actually matter what your own view on same sex marriage is. A vote in favour of this Bill is a vote that is entirely consistent with our principles as a party and I hope that you will support it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Willie Rennie: highlights of his first two years as Scottish Liberal Democrat leader

It's two years today since Willie Rennie was elected Scottish Liberal Democrat leader. It's sunny today, as it was then. I remarked at the time that 17th May was the first day it hadn't rained since the SNP had won their overall majority.

Here are some of the highlights of his first two years in the job:

The first interview - I was there in North Queensferry when he kicked off his leadership in the sunshine. At that point it had rained every day since the Nationalists had won their overall majority.

He was soon calling out Alex Salmond for attacking a senior Supreme Court judge.

Then he spent 24 hours with carer Clare Lally - and he still keeps in touch with her and her family.

Urging Alex Salmond to meet the Dalai Lama instead of pandering to the Chinese Government. Not to mention meeting the Dalai Lama himself and subsequently sending him a DVD of the Reverend I M Jolly to explain the meaning of the word "dour"!

Making Salmond squirm over the First Minister's pandering to Murdoch.

I have a feeling he won't be on Donald Trump's Christmas Card list any time soon.

His successful fight for extra college funding secured praise from the NUS of all people.

Now, he's fighting for Scotland's poorest two year olds to get 15 hours of nursery a week to give them the best start in life.

In two years, he's travelled the length and breadth of Scotland many times over to enthuse and motivate activists. He's stood up to vested interests trying to wield more than their fair share of power at others' expense. He's fought for children and young people and tried to focus thinking on the serious issues facing Scotland. No, that's not the independence referendum, it's caring for an aging population and reducing poverty.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

EDMwatch #1: animals, Sir Alex, Diabetes and VAT on tabloids

I thought it might be a good idea to introduce a new feature for the start of the shiny new parliamentary session - a regular look at the Early Day Motions tabled by MPs. These are basically House of Commons petition and are used to raise awareness of an issue. One of the biggest elements of an MP's postbag or inbox is a pile of requests from supporters of a particular organisation or charity to sign a particular EDM. As a rule, ministers don't sign EDMs.

You would think, wouldn't you, that MPs could just sign them with a click of the mouse, but as far as I know, they actually have to print it out, physically sign it and take it to the Table Office. You wouldn't necessarily expect our Parliament to get all 21st century about anything, but this could be an easy way of saving work.

Anyway, I intend to look at the most popular EDMs each week, those brought forward by Liberal Democrats and any others that catch my eye. MPs are pretty prolific with these things.  The session isn't even a week old, and already 71 have been tabled, ranging from the worthy and uncontroversial to the hyperlocal to the ridiculous.

The race to be number 1 of the new session was won by Falkirk's independent MP, Eric Joyce with a series of motions on international development issues. This was number 1:
That this House commends the Government and opposition parties on their continued commitment to international development aid; recognises that in challenging economic times such expenditure must be continuously justified to the UK public; welcomes the change in emphasis towards enabling developing nations to grow their own economies and move away from reliance on aid; further recognises the crucial role of good relations with partner nations in the developing world; congratulates non-governmental organisations on their work to date; and urges UK investors to work with new prospects in the developing world.

Most popular

This week the honour is shared between EDM 8, in support of Yorkhill Children's Charity (a Glasgow Children's hospital) and EDM 55 on childcare ratios by some Labour MPs. Nick Clegg was way ahead of them. They have 14 signatures each.

They are closely followed by a couple of motions on religious liberty or the lack of it, in the Middle East, several on Diabetes, smoke detectors and, interestingly, EDM 43 on the fire service in England to be required by law to respond to serious flooding incidents. You would have thought that this was already in place, but apparently not.

The three on Sir Alex Ferguson, though, have failed to ignite MPs, attracting just 10 signatures between them. The biggest surprise was George Galloway describe him as the Greatest Living Scotsman. For someone of his monumental ego, that's humility!

Liberal Democrat highlights

Adrian Sanders has been busy. He's filed no fewer than 11 EDMs on subjects as diverse on the effect of sending reductions on seaside resorts, particularly welfare reform changes, to racehorse safety, applying minimum standards to all races in the UK. Actually, I'm wondering if he can do that - isn't animal welfare devolved to Scotland and Wales? He certainly seems to know that from his motion on a close season for hare shooting to protect nursing mothers!  Oh, and he wants to impose extra darkness on Scotland, too. so excuse me while I frown in his direction.

John Leech's EDM 30 calls for a pardon for Alan Turing and EDM 33 calls for action on homophobic chanting at football grounds:
That this House welcomes the report from the Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters' Club (BHASC), along with the Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN), that details evidence and a log of the level of homophobic chanting at both home and away matches; recognises the extent of the problem when Brighton fans have been subjected to homophobic abuse by at least 72 per cent of opponents they have faced this season; agrees with the report that, although chants range from what would be considered to be mild to much more offensive, if these words relating to a person's sexuality were replaced with words relating to someone's race or skin colour, appropriate action would be taken; further recognises the good work both the BHASC and the GFSN have done in highlighting this problem; and calls for the clubs, the football authorities, the police and relevant authorities to work with them to eradicate this abuse.
He also wants to see 17 year olds given protections in police custody.

John Hemming welcomes a new practice direction on secret jailings for contempt of court, Bob Smith on the importance of the oil and gas industry and Malcolm Bruce congratulates the first deaf sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Mike Hancock has two - on travel for young people and animal experts.

Silly motion of the week

Let's face it, when you have a George Galloway, there is plenty of scope. Probably the daftest of his crop is the idea that tabloid newspapers should attract VAT:
That this House urges the Government to impose VAT on daily and Sunday tabloid newspapers which are principally in the entertainment industry rather than the news business; and believes that such a measure could bring in an estimated revenue of £3 billion a year to HM Treasury which could be used for house-building and infrastructural measures to stimulate the economy.
The idea that the government should tax expression and opinion that it doesn't like is not a healthy one.
I know you don't really need more reason to procrastinate on the internet, but you can see the whole list here. What are your favourites?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Quentin Letts calls Miriam Gonzalez Durantez a "castanet clacker"

You expect Quentin Letts to be unpleasant and spit bile at Nick Clegg at every opportunity. It's not nice and almost never accurate, but it's what passes for right wing political commentary in this country.

His frequent attacks on Nick's wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, are also umpleasant and unjustified. But today's was actually racist. He referred to Nick's "castanet clacker" Spanish wife.

Article 12 of the Editors' Code of Practice is pretty clear on discrimination:


i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

It's clear to me that Letts' description of Miriam falls foul of both points. And, frankly, I'm not just going to stand by and let him racially abuse anybody. I am shocked that this got past the editorial team at the Mail, too.

I won't be holding my breath for anything to come of this, but it's such a clear example of racism that it cannot go unchallenged. So, I have complained to the Press Complaints Commission. 

There is much that is objectionable in Quentin Letts' article. That's just Quentin Letts. If you read something he's written and don't feel like you need a shower afterwards, then there's something wrong.  But this crossed a line. 

You'll note I haven't linked to it. You can find it yourself if you wish, but I'm not going to spend the currency of the internet on this disgraceful piece. 

He also, by the way, has a go at Nick Clegg for being an atheist, saying he "is not a man troubled by fears of how he may some day be judged." Is facing the electorate in 2015 not judgement enough?

Anyway, if you agree with me that Letts' comments about Miriam were racist, please feel free to complain to the PCC too. I can't see any wiggle room for the Mail here and I'm not going to stand by and let them away with it.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Sunshine and pandas. Is Summer really here at last?

So, I bunked off on Tuesday. I'd always half intended to, especially as it was a school holiday, and an opportunity to spend some time with Anna, but the fantastic weather meant that the laptop stayed firmly switched off and we headed off to the zoo.

Earlier, I'd woken with a start. Maybe it was the unfamiliar surroundings. I'm not used to waking in my parents' spare room, seeing as we live just a few minutes' away, but we are staying here with my wonderful niece Laura, who's down for her uni exams. Anyway, I woke up thinking I should have been in London the day before for Federal Executive. Once I'd hit the roof with horror, it slowly dawned on me that not even someone with Tim Farron's work ethic would summon us on a bank holiday the week after the elections.

It was lovely sitting outside on my parents' patio having breakfast. We don't get a lot of sunshine up here - and what little we've had this year has been accompanied by a goosebump inducing chill. This was real hot stuff, though. Anna and I decided to go to the zoo while Laura was sitting her exam. We hadn't been since last Summer so we hadn't seen the new penguin enclosure.

We were surprised to be offered panda viewing tickets for half an hour after we arrived. You normally have to book them online in advance, but there had been a cancellation, apparently. So, after checking in with the flamingoes - we both love their chilled out pinkness and when Anna was little I made up a series of stories about the adventures of one of them, Florence - we headed to the panda house. We weren't full of expectation - when we've seen them at lunchtime before, they've always been asleep. We've never had much from Yang Guang. He was sitting with his back to us the first time. The second he was asleep on his little trolley thing. He woke up, saw people there and turned over in a very grumpy manner reminiscent of the way I pull the duvet over my head in the morning, in futile denial of the need to get up. The third time he had his wee bout of man flu.

On Tuesday, though, he was very lively and the picture of charm. He ate his bamboo, he moved around and even went outside, where he treated us, if that's the appropriate word to a panda handstand. This is not as cute as you might think. Not when it involves him doing the toilet when he's in position.

Tian Tian was sleeping when she went in, totally starfished on her pile of bamboo, showing off the shaven patch on her abdomen from her recent artificial insemination. She then woke up and gave herself a rush of blood to the head by hanging off the platform.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with penguin watching and ice cream before we headed home. I hope we have more Summer to look forward to as it's clouded over and become a good deal colder since....

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Some nationalists need to get a grip - you can't compare UK with brutal occupation of Latvia

I wrote this post yesterday on Liberal Democrat Voice about the implementation of the Scotland Act. 

I was slightly perplexed to see this comment appear:
I am assuming you would not agree that Latvia and Russia, for example, are “better together”?
Clearly not, but you cannot compare a brutal occupation and a mutually beneficial, legitimate union. Perhaps a little history lesson is in order.

Let's have a look at the recent history of Latvia from
The uncompromising effort of the regime to transform the country into a typical Soviet bailiwick compounded the devastation of the war. Severe political repression accompanied radical socioeconomic change. Extreme Russification numbed national cultural life. Several waves of mass deportation—of at least 140,000 people—to northern Russia and Siberia occurred, most notably in 1949 in connection with a campaign to collectivize agriculture. 
It's hardly the same thing as a union entered into peacefully and mutually and which has served Scotland well.

From Better Together's Facebook yesterday:
It is 306 years today since the Act of Union came into effect. Over those three centuries we have achieved so much together. Our thinkers and inventors created the modern world. Our writers and artists have inspired billions across the globe. We fought together to defeat fascism. We have married, traded, shared failures and triumphs, all together. We can make history again next year by renewing the world's most successful union.
The UK isn't perfect. We need proper home rule in Scotland and a fairer voting system and wider political reform at UK level wouldn't go amiss. It's the best option for us now, though, by a long way. If you believe in independence of course you are not going to see it that way. That's fine. But please don't spread the idea that we are unwillingly occupied by some sort of repressive regime, because that's just ridiculous.


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