Thursday, 30 June 2011

Why the teachers' strike is pointless

I'm afraid to say that I think the teachers' strike is rather pointless and ineffectual. I'm not going to make a judgement on whether they're right to strike or not because I don't actually have an opinion either way.

However, consider the date they're striking on. It's nearly the end of term. Children have already sat their exams. All the strike does is ensure schools stay closed at a time of year when no teaching takes place anyway and when most schools replace classes with end of year festivities. So the actual impact of the strikes on childrens' education is almost imperceptible.

Similarly, the fact that the summer holidays are approaching severely limits the potential for future strike action. After all, if teachers go on strike during the holiday, it's going to have very little affect on the education system.

So the only time a strike becomes viable again is in September in the new academic year. This might actually be the reason why the government published its pension proposals when it did - the time teachers have to strike is limited and then there are going to be three months when striking is pointless. And, if teachers do strike again in September then the government will probably be hoping that people will have forgotten about the reason for the strike over the past three months and instead public sympathy will be against the people disrupting the start of the new school year.

I don't pretend to know what action, if any, the teachers should take over the pension changes - all I think is that striking is not the course of action they need to take.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Context

There's a report for the think tank Demos out recently. In it it has some interesting findings about attitudes towards Britain's treatment of gay people. One of the findings is that 47% of muslims agreed with the statement "I am proud of how Britain treats gay people". However, just under 20% disagreed with the statement - something which, predictably, has had the denizens of ConservativeHome complaining about muslims and how they don't fit in with our culture and whether they should be treated as British or not and all sorts of other islamophobic comments.

So, I think it's time for some context.

Muslims make up less than 3% of the UK's population. 20% of 3% is 0.6%. So muslims who disagree with equality for homosexuals make up 0.6% of the population. Contrast this with the 5% of the population who voted for the BNP at the general election - a party which is known (amongst other unpleasant traits) for it's opposition to equal rights for homosexuals. 0.6% of the population versus 5% of the population. I think I know which group I'm more worried about.

And, incidentally, I said all of the above in a comment on ConservativeHome. For some reason it didn't get published. Odd that.

England is to be abolished!

Or so Richard Littlejohn writing in the Mail today would have you believe. Here's the piece of drivel that's his excuse for an article (don't worry, you can follow the link without giving the Daily Mail any user traffic).

In it he brings up the old story that England is to be broken up with parts of it being merged with other European countries. What he's referring to is the Arcmanche region, shown on the map below.


Littlejohn rants and raves and practically froths at the mouth over this attempt to force southern England and northern France into one entity. Just look at the picture above (taken from Littlejohn's article), read the caption: "The new European administrative area". Reading this you could be forgiven for believing everything that Littlejohn says is true. And, as final proof, Littlejohn mentions at the start of the article that this has been denied as a "myth" by the EU and therefore it must be true.

Bullshit. Absolute, fucking bullshit.

Where do I begin pointing out the inaccuracies in this? Right, well, for starters this isn't something new. This story has already been mentioned once by the Mail earlier this year and I remember this same story being used by the Mail and the Telegraph back when I was still doing my GCSEs (so at least four years ago) and the Conservative party complained about it in an official document five years ago. But the story is even older than that. You see, this "new" administrative area was in fact set up in 1996. But, fair play to the Mail, it was re-established in 2005 so you could say it is only five years old. I fail to see how that counts as new though.

Ah, I hear you say, so it's not new, but surely you've just admitted it is an administrative district. Well no. You see, what ArcManche actually is is a network of councils along the coasts of the English Channel. The idea being to promote better relations and to help them work together to boost tourism. After all, my native Sussex is called 1066 country, but William the Conqueror set sail from the northern coast of France - surely that counts as 1066 country as well? Or there are things like the Bayeux tapestry - woven by English Saxons but displayed in Bayeux cathedral in France. Or St Michael's mount - both of them. Twin, off shore islands accessible only by causeway off of southern England and northern France respectively. Each sharing the same name and with an abbey built on them by the same monks in the same style out of the same stone. So obviously there's lots of scope for using that common history to boost tourism. And there are also all these things like cross channel school trips that benefit from councils working together.

But is it an administrative district? No. Because each council is obviously its own administrative district. That's why they're councils in the bleeding first place. And, if you look at the map you can see that some of the councils aren't members and one is only an associate member. So clearly they're not being forced into this at all if they're able to choose not be members in the first place.

In fact, the image which the article uses comes from the main page of the ArcManche website. Right above the image it has the following description of what ArcManche is:
"Arc Manche is a geographical area made up of the British and French territories bordering or in the English Channel. 
Since 2003 the Arc Manche has also become a political project resting on an informal and voluntary network of local authorities who can use the network to share best practices, coordinate initiatives and pull together project ideas to draw in EU funding, 
In October 2005 the Arc Manche Assembly was created to improve the visibility of the network."
Now, Littlejohn also talks about a waste of money. Well, who knows, money might well be being wasted. But counties on the south coast generally rely on tourism for most of their local economies - spending small sums of money to boost tourism doesn't sound like that bad an idea to me. And, let us not forget, this is Richard Littlejohn we're talking about here. A man who is notorious for never fact checking his stories. After all, he once wrote an article complaining about an immigrant gypsy mother that had named her baby Obama. Only, as it turns out, the mother was in fact a cat and Obama was one of six kittens.

So, let me spell it out so clearly that even someone of Littlejohn's limited mental capacity can understand it: This story is not true. It has no basis in fact and is an old, old story which has been recycled on far too many occasions.

I would like to pretend that this is just a one off blip in an otherwise fine newspaper but it's not. The Mail is a rag so terrible and biased that I would be ashamed to wipe my arse with it. All it ever does is spread lies, misinformation and myths. It's sole business strategy depends on shit stirring and scaring/enraging people about evil bogeymen such as immigrants, gypsies, the EU, Labour, feminists, muslims and god knows what else.

As far as I'm concerned Richard Littlejohn is scum. Utter, utter scum. And I'd say so to his face as well. A man like him, who gets paid £250,000 a year for writing bullshit stories about the collapse of Britain from his home in sunny Florida could at least have the decency to fact check his stories before writing them. I did. All it took was googling "arcmanche" and reading the wikipedia article that came up. It only took thirty seconds.

And this is what really pisses me off about Littlejohn. He doesn't fact check because it doesn't matter to him. All he cares about is writing his column to wind people up so that he can keep drawing his fat cheque. He's not a journalist, he's a troll. A professional troll paid to wind people up. And yes, I know he's succeeded in my case but that's only because I saw that the moronic, cretinous fuckers over on ConservativeHome had decided to link to it as though it was a real story.

At times like this I despair at the state of this country, I really do.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Boris and Ken: a plague on both their houses

So, Ken Livingstone has decided to call the Lib Dems a "venal sub-species".

Now it's a shame he said that, for three reasons.
  1. It's an idiotic thing to say as Lib Dem second preferences will be crucial in determining whether it is Boris or Ken who wins the 2012 London mayoral election.
  2. It's an incredibly nasty and insulting thing to say which has put me off Ken completely. Which is a shame because:
  3. I used to prefer Ken to Boris Johnson. Mainly because the latter's record as mayor consists mainly of breaking promises, ignoring everyone who disagrees with him and hiking up fares at a rate far above inflation, hitting the poorest people in London the hardest.
So, unfortunately for Ken, unless he apologises (which I doubt) I imagine he's just lost any sympathy he had from Lib Dems and as a result will probably lose the mayoral contest.

Well, fine by me. As far as I'm concerned, it's a plague on both their houses for Boris and Ken.

So, fuck it, I'm backing Lembit.*

* This statement is not to be quoted. Any favourable references to Lembit are only to be taken seriously in the event he is selected as our candidate for London Mayor and does a good job at it. At no point should this be taken as an endorsement of the Cheeky Girls.

Massive data leak at Guildford borough council

It's recently come to my attention that, a fortnight or so ago, there was a massive breach of data security at Guildford borough council.

My understanding is that emails containing the council records of hundreds (if not thousands) of people were sent to the wrong people instead of the people who the records were about. Perhaps most gratingly for the council, this incident occurred just days after a glowing report on the council's data security by an outside inspector had been published.

Apparently the data leak occurred simply because some council official selected the wrong mailing list when sending out the emails. Now, call me over cautious, but I would have thought that when you've got emails containing that amount of personal data you'd have some sort of system in place to double check before the emails are sent that they're going to the correct people.

I imagine the council will have acted to alert the people affected as soon as possible but in a case like this the real test will be in what measures are taken to prevent the incident from happening again. If I find out what measures have (or have not) been taken then I'll be sure to do an update about them.

Monday, 20 June 2011

What a difference 3 years make

Back in 2008 the Lib Dem autumn conference was held in Bournemouth. One of the members of the media attending was the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts. At the time he wrote this charming article about the conference.

The most remarkable thing about it is the tone of the language used. For starters, it was headlined: In their trainspotter voices the LibDem activists discuss what to do in power.

And have a read of this extract:
"Opinion pollsters suggest that their share of the vote has shrivelled and that they are seen as the most Left-wing of the main parties. Many of their MPs could be facing oblivion. 
Are the activists worried? Don't seem it. Are they jittery? No. 
They puddle on, serene, earnest, discussing in their trainspotter voices what they intend to do when they win the general election. 
'We will gain seats!' squawked a turkey-necked MP called Richard Younger-Ross. With his head of curls he could be the singer Gilbert O'Sullivan. 
Gain seats? Yes dear, of course you are. Now how about a nice slice of fruitcake and something wet and warm in that cup before we take you back to the nursing home?"
See how patronising it is? How certain he was that the Lib Dems were a mildly curious and eccentric irrelevance that would never hold any significance?

Well, look at us now. A party of government with seats in the cabinet. A party implementing 75% of its manifesto. A unified party without the low level civil war currently rumbling merrily along in the Labour party or the constant outbursts of discontent from of the kind Cameron gets from the Conservative backbenchers.

People underestimated us in the past. Even now they blithely assure themselves that we will sink into irrelevance at the next general election, signalling a return to two party politics. But we succeeded. Decades of hard work carried us through the dark days of a parliamentary party with only five members to a party in government. We will probably suffer a setback in 2015, that is true, but we will survive and we will emerge stronger than ever. We are tenacious. Quentin Letts thought two years before the general election that we would lose seats. Now he's living under a government with Lib Dem ministers in it.

And that's the most important lesson of this coalition. The Lib Dems cannot be written off, we cannot be ignored and we cannot be dismissed as an irrelevance. People will try of course, but it will only make them more embarrassed when we succeed once again.

The Lib Dems have spent decades defying predictions of doom and surpassing expectations. It's in our blood. And in 2015, I'm certain we'll do it again.

What if Labour has lost its Scottish heartlands?

I'm very pleased to say that I've just got a piece published over on UberPolitics. In it I discuss the reasons why Labour might have lost their Scottish heartlands and what the impact might be if that is the case. So please do go and read it.

But the other reason I'm writing this post is to tell you about UberPolitics. It's a new online political magazine/blog. The key difference between it and all the other political magazines and blogs on the web is that UberPolitics doesn't have an agenda. It doesn't come from a particular editorial viewpoint. Instead, it seeks opinion pieces and analysis from people from all over the political spectrum and it labels them accordingly. For example, my political viewpoint is given as Liberal. I think it's a brilliant concept and I definitely intend to become a regular reader (and hopefully writer).

Friday, 17 June 2011

I'm back! - with bad news for the tories

Hello everyone. The Potter Blogger is now officially back. I've been very busy lately with my second year exams which ended yesterday. Now all I have to worry about is: setting up Surrey Liberal Youth, writing enough blogposts this month to stop the blog from falling in the rankings, find a job for my placement year, rewrite my CV, get a motion submitted for autumn conference, celebrate the summer solstice, catch up on my emails, pack my stuff up ready to move house by the end of June, go to a job interview, tidy my room, finish reading a Song of Fire and Ice, organise e-campaigning for the local party, work on a secret project to be revealed at a later date and take up a position as a volunteer writer for a new online political magazine. (Full disclosure: the first paragraph of this post has now turned into my to do list)

But enough about all that. Right now I have the first of a series of pieces on the (mis)fortunes of the tories on Guildford borough council. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

You see, one of the current scandals afflicting local councils is the amount of money spent by council staff and councillors using the councils credit cards - a system which allows people given the credit cards to charge things to the council instead of paying for them themselves. Now, there's nothing wrong with this when it's used for reasonable expenses - but unfortunately it's massively open to abuse. And abuse of these credit cards at councils up and down the country has been well documented.

The funny thing is though, that details of how much has been spent is available to the public through freedom of information requests. And I happen to know that a Lib Dem councillor is planning to ask Guildford borough council exactly how much has been spent using these credit cards.

Given that the tories have been in power for over eight years, and have a record of being fiscally irresponsible, I imagine that there's going to be a lot of unpleasant revelations for them - and given that they've been in charge, the buck stops with them - especially when it comes to councillor spending using the credit cards. So, I'd suggest that the tories start considering how they're going to spin this - because it's almost certain that there will be at least one or two abuses which become headline grabbing for the local press. They might also want to think how they'll justify this expenditure when they've been busy cutting services for the most vulnerable people in Guildford - especially the elderly.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Where I've been

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I haven't posted anything on here in a while which may have come either as a disappointment or a blessed relief depending on who you are.

The reason for this silence is twofold. First of all, I'm right in the middle of my second year exams and revising like mad with little time to write. Secondly, all the time I have had to write has been spent working on a motion for the Lib Dem Autumn Conference. This motion is about the Employment Support Allowance and the assessment process for claimants. So, in lieu of a proper post, I'm going to cheat and post the current draft of the motion in its entirety. So, without further ado, here it is:
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Motion on Employment Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments

Conference notes that the Government has stated an aim to move people off Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and into work. The ESA aim is part of a target, in light of the crisis involving public finances, to make savings of £11 billion to the welfare budget over the time-frame of this Parliament. As part of this, 3.5 million people on ESA are and will be undergoing reassessment over a three year period starting from 2011.

Conference further notes that:

  • a) Work Capability Assessments determining eligibility for ESA are carried out by the private company Atos Healthcare.
  • b)  It is reported that Atos Healthcare is paid on a target based system where they earn more for every claimant assessed fit to be removed from claiming ESA and back into work.
  • c) 70% of case rejection decisions by Atos assessments which go to appeal are overturned.
  • d) The appeal success rate is much higher for those with representation than those without.
  • e) The way in which work capability assessments are conducted have been regularly criticised by Parliamentary Inquiries and by the Tribunal Judiciary.
  • f)  Anecdotal evidence shows that many faulty assessments are made, especially with relation to time variant disabilities such as mental illnesses.
  • g)  The new Assessment procedure, whereby claimants are assessed by the use of a computer-generated questionnaire in which the Assessor uses a "tick box" technique, does not taken into account the claimant's medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant.
  • h) The estimated rate of fraud for ESA is 5% and deliberate fraud is estimated to cost no more than £25 million in year.
  • i) Several claimants have committed suicide as a result of the stressful and distressing assessment process.

Conference believes that:

  • a) It is the duty of a compassionate society and the Government to provide the necessary support for those who are unable to support themselves.
  • b) The new Assessment procedure, whereby claimants are assessed by the use of a computer-generated questionnaire in which the Assessor uses the "tick box" technique, is "not fit for purpose" as it does not take into account the claimant's medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant. This factual medical evidence is totally discounted.
  • c) That the Work Capability Assessment is inaccurate, as evidenced by the high successful appeal rate, and fails to take into account the wide and various range of disabilities claimants may have.
  • d)  Any medical assessments should be carried out by trained medical professionals and that the regular criticism of Atos Healthcare over assessments shows that they are unfit to perform them.
  • e) Whilst recognising the understandable need to remove false claimants from the system, Conference believes that it is wrong to have a system where the primary focus is on keeping people from claiming the benefit and treating every claimant as a potential fraudster, rather than a focus on ensuring that the most vulnerable get the support they need.
  • f) A system where 70% of decisions are overturned at appeal is not cost effective due to the high cost of holding appeal tribunals and associated administration costs.

Conference criticises ministers and other official spokesmen for using misleading statistics which feed the misconception that the majority of claimants are benefits scroungers, for confusing DSA with IB/ESA and for presenting those in the work-related group are fit to work.

Conference also criticises the media (and the press in particular) for perpetuating the myth of work-shy scroungers and for distorting the facts in order to support the myth. Conference believes that this myth damages public sympathy for many of those who genuinely deserve it.

Conference, therefore, resolves to require our Parliamentary Party to:

  • a) Call for all medical components of Work Capability Assessments to be undertaken by the NHS which, in most cases, will be the body which diagnosed claimants in the first place.
  • b) More broadly to call for an overhaul of the entire assessment process with a focus on ensuring greater accuracy in assessment, a less stressful assessment process and on ensuring that the disabled get the support they need, rather than on saving money.
  • c) Call for any new or revised assessment process to take into account the claimant's medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant.
  • d) Support and call for the scrapping of the arbitrary time limit on the length claimants can claim ESA if they are put into the work related activity group.
  • e) Call for the assessment criteria to be made clearer so that claimants and society in general understand what constitutes an illness which is so debilitating as to warrant ESA being paid.
  • f) Campaign for the appeal process to be speeded up and for all claimants going to appeal to be given access to adequate representation.
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I just wish to point out that one of my ulterior motives for posting this here is to attract support for the motion and also to ask for feedback. So if there's anyone reading this with an interest in the subject who'd like to suggest changes to the motion, or if there are any conference reps willing to back it, please let me know in the comment threads. Cheers.