Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Summer Holidays

In an almost vain attempt to catch the last of the summer sun, I am currently on a camping holiday in Devon with my father and my brother. I'm typing this on my laptop sat in a field somewhere south of Exeter with my fingers gradually going numb.

As a result of being on holiday, my blogging activity has decreased somewhat. However, I do have one very important post which will be going up tomorrow and which I'd like to ask any bloggers who read my blog to cross post onto their own blogs.

Anyway, I'll be paying a visit to Guildford on Friday to attend my local party's quiz and pizza night and Saturday service will resume as normal whether my readers want it or not. Hopefully by that point I'll be able to announce that the amendment to the ESA motion will have been submitted to the conference committee who will then decide whether to allow it to be debated.

But right now I am going to go inside the tent and snuggle up in a sleeping bag before I turn into an icicle. Toodle pip.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

ATOS vs Carerwatch Update

Huzzah! The Carerwatch forums are now back online after Atos finally accepted Carerwatch's offer to delete the "libellous post". I'm still not sure how a link to another website can possibly be libellous but there you are.

Anyway, the entire saga is chronicled over on Carerwatch's blog and, in other news, Carerwatch have just launched a campaign on ESA which very much ties in with the motion I authored which Liberal Youth are taking to conference.

The sad thing is that, despite this victory, there is little doubt in my mind that Atos will continue to bully critics into silence as they have the resources to threaten costly legal battles which disability charities and lone bloggers can't hope to match. All in all, Atos remain, in my opinion, a disgusting organisation which should be ashamed of all it is done. If Atos were an individual then I wouldn't p**s on them if they were on fire.

UPDATE: For a brilliant description of why Atos' actions were over the top, unfair and unnecessary, please read this excellent deconstruction here.

Scotland and England

There's a piece in the Guardian today where various leading Scottish writers discuss the future of the union and what independence might mean for Scotland.

I suppose the first kind of thing that strikes me, as an Englishman, is how it's only when I read something like this that I really grasp how different Scotland is. It's obvious that these writers have a different sense of identity to the one that I have and that the people of Scotland and England do have different cultures. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's just something worth being reminded of.

The other thing that strikes me is how all of these writers view Scotland as a more left wing kind of country while viewing England as a more right wing kind of country. Now obviously this ignores the fact that there are plenty of right wingers in Scotland and it could well be down to the Guardian's own bias that all the writers selected are left wing. That said, it is obvious that, as a country, Scotland definitely votes more for more left wing, communitarian, soft socialist policies and that there is a clear contrast between Scottish politics and English politics. This is no doubt partly because the UK parliament sits in Westminster in England and because English MPs make up the vast majority of the members of parliament. It probably doesn't help that the UK media is also based in London so as to be near the centre of government and therefore tends to share the same sort of south east centric sort of viewpoint which leads to very little coverage of Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish affairs in our national newspapers - and this is something which I think is a terrible shame as it does our political system no good to be England-centric.

But at the same time, just as these writers talk about England not really understanding Scotland, they themselves clearly don't understand England. Iain Banks (a writer whose work I greatly enjoy) talks of England continuing to turn rightwards. We are? I know that the Conservatives are the largest party in England, but they still only got 40% of the vote - hardly proof that England is a right wing country when the vast majority of English people voted for left of centre parties.

There's also all this talk of England viewing Scotland as, and I quote, "a self-important, moany cow who was damned lucky to have him, while He tolerates her upkeep, nippy manners and lefty tendencies." Well I don't think that's the case at all. And I do find irritating the view by some of these writers that the English are always moaning about Scotland without justification.

But the fact is that Scotland receives more money per head than England does. And, part of this extra money comes from English taxpayers. The fact that Scotland has used this money to pay for things like free prescriptions and no tuition fees does, understandably, cause resentment in some cases. I think, in many ways, it would not be such an issue were it not for the ludicrous double standards where Scottish and EU students studying in Scotland are entitled to not pay tuition fees but where English and Welsh students have to pay full whack.

So when people say that Scotland has done well out of the union there may be some justification in it. But that also doesn't make up for the fact that the history between England and Scotland has primarily been one of the former attempting to control the latter.

But here we are. Two countries (as I'm only talking about England and Scotland here I'll ignore Wales) sharing the same island, the same border and centuries of intertwined history. Don't forget, Queen Elizabeth is herself descended from a Scottish king who in turn was descended from the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Personally I think we are stronger together. And there certainly isn't any evidence that Scotland's support for the SNP will translate into support for full on independence. Indeed, it has been pointed out that Quebec in Canada spent a long time voting for a nationalist, left wing party, right up until they had got every concession and measure of autonomy short of full independence - at which point they stopped voting for that party to the extent that they were virtually completely wiped out.

I do think it is right that Scotland should have its own devolved government, and I think that we should go further and, in addition to giving Scotland more economic autonomy, should reach a state of affairs where the Scottish parliament is enshrined as part of our unwritten constitution instead of being a body which can, at any moment, be abolished by the Westminster parliament (as is the case at the moment). After all, Scotland and England do have different national cultures and people in every part of the UK should be free to run their own affairs as they decide themselves. And this is why I, and the Liberal Democrats, have spent the past century advocating a federal United Kingdom. In addition to devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we should also have devolution for England as well. How the latter might be achieved is a matter of some debate but it should definitely been brought into being.

I do think Scotland should have the chance to decide whether it should remain part of the UK or pursue its own, independent, destiny, but if they choose independence then I will be sad to see them go. Part of it is nostalgia and part of it is self-interest - after all, a tory government will be more likely without Scotland than with them. But mostly it is a belief that after all our common history, it makes sense for us to work together and benefit from the increased strength that that provides. But ultimately it is Scotland's choice.

In many ways, I prefer the way things are done in Scotland. I think that Scotland has probably got things more right than we do in England. If I didn't identify so strongly as English then I'd probably want to migrate to Scotland. Of course, part of this is the fact that an outsider only sees the good bits and not the bad bits such as sectarianism. But still, Scotland has a lot going for it and I am slightly envious of them.

But first and foremost I am English. What Scotland decides to do is up to them and, if they leave, perhaps it will be a new beginning for those of us in England as people may be finally forced to confront the problems with our political system that delivers a tory majority of seats at the expense of the 60% of us who vote otherwise. So I think things will be interesting no matter what happens, even though I personally doubt that Scotland ever will choose full independence. If nothing else, I think I can be certain that, after 2,000 years, the destinies of the people of England and Scotland will remain intertwined for centuries to come.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Tory Dilemna

Much has been made of the damage being in coalition may or may not do to the Liberal Democrats. I'm not going to argue about that, though I do take encouragement from the fact that the latest ICM poll, the gold standard in terms of accuracy of making predictions, has us up to 17% in its latest telephone poll - a position scarce any different from where we normally are in the electoral cycle.

But I think something that has been underestimated is the damage the coalition might do to the Conservatives. I think a prime example of this is the recent article by Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome which is dripping with a thwarted sense of entitlement that the nasty Lib Dems are stopping the Conservative manifesto being implemented. Needless to say, this has been causing a great deal of cheer amongst Lib Dems as thwarting the Tories nastiest impulses and implementing liberal policies is exactly why we entered coalition in the first place.

But, far more interesting to me than the whinging of the internet's resident Tory boy, is what this indicates about the Conservative party itself. Tim Montgomerie's views are shared by many of the hard right Tory rank and file and by a lot of the, mainly neo-Thatcherite, latest intake of new Tory MPs. These new MPs in particular are the future leaders of the party. Following on their coattails you will also find the generally hard right new generation of young Conservatives who are currently cutting their teeth in local and student politics. These are people who have either grown up or spent their entire adult lives under a New Labour government where the Tories were in the wilderness years.

Given the assumption by many Tories that they have a God given right to rule, it's hardly surprising that this has led to a Conservative base and next generation of MPs that has reinforced its right wing instincts in the face of 13 years of opposition.

But this will cause serious problems for them in the long run. David Cameron is about as moderate and centrist leader as the Conservative party will ever be able to stomach and in government he is, predictably, proving to be far more right wing than he tried to appear in opposition. But this is not enough for the party's right wing who see him as a pro-Europe, pro-human rights, pro-immigration, pro-criminal, closet-liberal traitor. And yet even David Cameron was unable to convince enough people that the Tories had changed to win a majority.

So, given that this is probably the limit as far as the Tories are willing to go towards the centre, what lies in the future for them? At the moment, I see two possible outcomes. The first is that the coalition continues to outrage and alienate the Tory rank and file to the extent that they kick Cameron out and replace him with a more traditional, right-wing Tory leader. All well and good that as then they'll certainly be unable to win a majority and will remain out of power. The other option is that the Tory right wing become so frustrated with coalition that they will begin to desert the party for alternatives should Cameron remain leader or should he be replaced by yet another moderate. The latter scenario would end up stripping the Tory party of many of the activists and donors it needs in order to perform well in elections.

So, in many ways, I think the last election and the subsequent coalition could quite possibly have signalled the end of the possibility of a Conservative majority government ever again. And, I have to say, that would suit me just fine.

Update on bullying Atos

Just as an update on yesterday's post, the "libellous post" that prompted Atos to issue the legal threats that resulted in the shutting down of the Carerwatch support forums has been identified.

You ready for it? Here it is, in the words of Carerwatch:
"It turns out to be a very old post and nothing to do with CarerWatch - only a link to another site."
So, for this one link to one website, hundreds of carers and families of disabled people have been put through huge amounts of stress by having their one support group shut down.

Atos is, as I said yesterday, engaging in utterly disgusting bullying against those unable to fight back.

Thankfully, in the short term, Black Triangle are temporarily hosting a new Carerwatch forum until the situation is resolved and the original forum is brought back online.

In the meantime, all of you can can help make sure the forum is restored as quickly as possible by writing to ATOS, to your MP and to Anne Begg and ask them to help get the group reinstated. And if you blog then please write about this issue on your own blog to up the pressure on Atos to back down.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

ATOS Healthcare are disgusting

As regular readers will be aware, yours truly is currently heavily involved with a motion about the treatment of the sick and disabled that is going forwards to the Lib Dem autumn conference. Essentially the motion is about the Work Capability Assessment which determines whether sick and disabled people get support from the welfare system or not. At the moment it's failing thousands of those in need and putting them through real suffering.

The firm that conducts the assessments on behalf of the government (and who get paid £100 million a year for doing so) are ATOS Healthcare. This is a company whose conduct has been regularly criticised by various investigations and committees looking at the welfare system and who have something of a shabby record when it comes to the way their staff treat disabled people (such as calling them "parasites").

But that's besides the point. You see, as part of my work with the motion, I joined a forum called Carerwatch which is a support group for carers looking after sick or disabled friends and relatives. It's nothing special as forums go, just carers and disabled people talking about how things are going for them, how they're finding the assessment process, and so on.

But a few days ago, the forum was shut down completely by the hosting company. No advanced warning, no nothing. The people who ran the forum didn't even have access to a list of the emails of users so that they could let them know what had happened. They were inundated with emails and phone calls from people in tears who relied on the forum for moral support and as a place to talk about what they were going through.

It turned out the reason the forum had been shut down was that Atos lawyers had complained about unspecified "libellous" comments made in the forum to the hosting company who shut down the forum rather than risk being taken to court. The people who ran the forums have written to Atos about it and offered to remove any libellous comments as long as they are told which are the comments in question and Atos have agreed that the site should be restored (subject to conditions) but, as of the time of writing, the forum is still down.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened either. Various other websites that have criticised the way Atos treats disabled people, such as After Atos and Atos Register of Shame, have been forced to shut down in the face of threatened libel proceedings from Atos.

Atos is a £4.4 billion company which, once again, has used bully tactics to silence critics. Carerwatch is currently being very careful with what it says in order to avoid any further problems with Atos but I'm not a part of Carerwatch and I don't have to worry about other people suffering as a result of what I say.

So let me say this plainly and clearly on behalf of all those who might be thinking this but daren't say it themselves. Atos healthcare are bullies and the way they have moved to silence their critics is absolutely disgusting. And if Atos has a problem with me saying that then tough as they won't be able to bully me into silence.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Exams!

This Monday I'm going back to uni to resit an exam. I'm also going to be resitting another exam on Tuesday. Unfortunately, like most politically active students, I'm afraid I spent a little too much time politicking and not quite enough time revising. In fact, as it happens, a lot of my fellow politically active young people can be heard voicing the common refrain of "I would have got a first if it hadn't been for politics!"

The exam I'm resitting on Monday is for the module Electronics VI and I have to confess I probably revised it the least of all the exams as it was the material that I disliked the most. So for the past week I've been revising it (or, rather, not so much revision as "vision") and reminding myself of the numerous forms of procrastination - such as blogging about stuff when I should actually be working on it. Fortunately I've got a much better handle on the material this time round and my only regret is that at resit you can never get more than the pass mark as I've got a feeling that I'd otherwise actually be in with a pretty good shot of getting a good mark in it this time.

But that's definitely a lesson for next time. Next academic year I'll make sure I do the studying first time round instead of ruining my summer holidays with revising for refits. Fortunately it should be easier next time as there shouldn't be any elections to distract me.

So, in conclusion, I think elections should be moved to July. Having them in May interferes with exams. I'll be petitioning Liberal Youth about this issue and I hope to have a motion about it go to spring conference. For more convenient election times! Who's with me?

UPDATE: in case you're interested, I've finished the resits now and they went very well as far as I can make out which is rather a relief.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

I hate Creative Assembly

Right, I utterly hate the computer game company Creative Assembly (the makers of the Total War franchise).

Out of all the games they've produced, the original Medieval Total War (MTW) is widely considered to be the most enjoyable and their are still many, many fans who continue to play this game in preference to the later games in the series. However, MTW has a slight flaw in that it refuses to work on any computer system more advanced than Windows XP.

On Creative Assembly's official forum for the game the very top discussion, one which has been going on for years, is one about this problem and ways to try and fix it - none of which work. And yet, despite all this time and the huge number of people still interested in playing the game, Creative Assembly have yet to fix the problem. I recently started trying to play MTW again because I remembered how much fun it was and I have wasted hours trying to fix the problem with my version of the game.

So, in conclusion, Creative Assembly clearly doesn't give a f*** about it's customers or give any regard to providing anything approaching decent user support. In short, as far as I'm concerned, they can go die in a hole.

My next step, in case you're wondering, is to try and acquire an old PC or laptop running XP - at least that way I might once again be able to play what is otherwise £30 of money down the drain.

Enterprise zones - a brilliant idea

So, I'm pleased to see that the government has just announced the locations of the latest enterprise zones. There are going to be 21 enterprise zones in total and I think they're absolutely brilliant.

Basically an enterprise zone is an area where ultra high speed broadband is provided, where planning regulations are relaxed and where there are business rate and tax breaks worth up to £235,000. The basic idea is that they will attract new business to these enterprise zones and create new wealth and new jobs.

Business have been tried in the past, by Margaret Thatcher, but back then they were mostly ineffective and were more a way for the government to claim they were fostering growth rather than having any real practical value. For example, quite often the enterprise zones simply became retail parks - providing some jobs - but in the process they often put local retailers out of business so the actual net benefit was quite frequently minimal.

It's good to see that this government has apparently learned the lessons from the past. For example, the new enterprise zones are located where there are already some businesses and are going to be set up to encourage manufacturing and technology growth as opposed to just supermarkets.

Another brilliant aspect of this is where they are located. By locating so many of them north of the north-south economic divide then hopefully they'll go some way to restoring the historic economic balance between north and south. I should point out though, that the enterprise zones are only being introduced in England - this is because these kind of growth stimulating measures are devolved matters for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All in all, hopefully these enterprise zones will attract investment and boost local economies across the country. They are exactly the kind of boost the economy need right now. My only regret is that a) there aren't more measures like this and b) that they're only being used now in the bad times when they could have been used in the good years when rebalancing the economy would have been much easier.

Monday, 15 August 2011

In case you had any doubts...

In case you had any lingering doubts, the Potter Blogger is proud to present proof that Guido Fawkes' blog is indeed inhabited by frothing-at-the-mouth, far right wingnuts and racists:


Just in case you missed it, that screenshot shows that, when asked whether David Starkey's comments (in which he asserted that whites were turning black and that black meant crime and any non-criminal black people were actually white) were racist or not, nearly a whopping 70% of Guido Fawkes readers thought they were not. This is despite the fact that there were two other option which would have allowed them to say that the remarks were not racist whilst still disagreeing with you.

So, in conclusion, absolute proof that Guido Fawkes readers are racist fuckwits. No doubt this is stating the obvious but I imagine some people might find it nice to finally have proof of what they've long suspected.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

I'm ashamed to be British

Well, the title of this post speaks for itself. I don't know if you're wondering about why I'm ashamed to be British at the moment but, given that this post is going to be an explanation of why, then I'm going to assume you are.

I'm not ashamed of the rioting, as damaging for our reputation as that was, because it was crime committed by a vanishingly small percentage of the population and I would say that the response to the riots (such as the brilliant #riotcleanup) by the people of this country as a whole has been something to be proud of.

No, I'm ashamed by the way the "rioters" are being treated. Now, there are those rioters who've committed serious crimes, theft, property damage and who have terrorised people. They've got no sympathy from me and I'm certainly not going to excuse what they did.

But, reading the newspapers yesterday I was appalled. At the moment the rioters are being put through fast-tracked courts. The cells at the courts are full. Any account of the situation at the courts at the moment will tell you that its virtually chaos. Lawyers don't even know if their clients have arrived and suspects are often brought before magistrates without even having a chance to discuss their defence with their lawyer first. I remember seeing a quote saying that "due process has to be done". Well I'm sure that due process is being done but with fast track cases like these where defendants have almost no time to prepare their defence this is not justice. And justice is what our courts should be trying to deliver. So that's the first reason I'm ashamed.

The second reason I'm ashamed is because of the sentences being handed out. Now, there are those defendants who definitely deserve stiff punishments. I'm thinking of the female university student who'd finished her second year of university, achieved straight As in her A levels and who was found with thousands of pounds worth of stolen electrical goods in her car. She has no excuse for her actions and I hope she gets a stiff prison sentence for it. And there's the girl who was "excited about going to participate in a riot", who smashed up shops as part of a gang of youths, who threw stones at police and who smirked in court when asked, twice, by her father, to apologise for her actions. These kind of people deserve punishment for what they've done.

But you get the other cases where utterly stupid sentences are handed out. You've got the 15 year old GCSE student facing a criminal conviction for stealing 15 packets of wine gums and 21 Yorkie bars from a smashed up shop. What are his prospects going to be like now? He certainly won't be able to get a decent job. He might be utterly ashamed of a one-off moment of stupidity but he'll be paying for it for the rest of his life. He'll never be able to get a well paying job. In all probability he'll never be able to turn his life around now. He might never have been likely to become seriously involved in crime before but I guarantee you that once he's got a criminal record that chance will shoot up.

And there's the college student one year through a two year electrical engineering course. He was on his way home from visiting his girlfriend when he saw a smashed up Lidl and stole a £3.50 pack of bottled water. He'd never been involved in crime before, he came from a good family and he told the court that he had “got caught up in the moment” and was “incredibly ashamed”. So here's a young man who made a serious mistake and deeply regrets it. He's never done anything like this before so you'd think, okay, give him a stiff community sentence cleaning up the damage he's done to teach him a lesson and then let him get on with his life.

But nope. The magistrate sentenced him to six months. The magistrate's idea of leniency was that, because of his "good" background, the young man wouldn't be sent on to the Crown Court which could give him a much longer sentence. Now, a six month sentence means that he won't be able to finish his course at college. Any future employers will just see "six months in prison for rioting" on his record and won't touch him with a barge pole. His entire future is now, in all probability, ruined. What kind of chances will he have when he gets out of prison? And while he's in prison he'll be surrounded by hardened criminals. In all probability, when he gets out he'll find that the easiest path is to turn to crime. And, thanks to his stay in prison, he'll have the skills for committing crime as well.

A lot of these sentences are just making things worse. They are based purely on a knee-jerk vengeance mentality that will pass down harsh punishments in the short term and fuel even more crime in the long term. And then you get the morons calling for all the rioters to lose any benefits they receive and be evicted from their homes. If parliament is stupid enough to actually make that happen then what do you think the outcome will be? Do you really think that the kind of people who participated in property damage and stealing, now finding themselves without a home and without a means to feed themselves will say "fair cop, this is my own fault and I deserve this"?

Of course not. In all probability they'll turn to crime as the only way to support themselves. Either that or work in the black economy. Either way, it'll just make things worse for them, their neighbours and our society as a whole.

This utterly short sighted reactionary response to the riots is probably the most stupid thing I've ever seen. By all means lets punish the rioters but let's do so proportionately and lets use the opportunity to try and make as many of them productive members of society as possible.

But we won't. We'll just make the situation worse through baying for blood.

David Cameron's right to say that some parts of society are not just broken but sick. But I doubt the sick parts of society are the parts he thought they were.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

How to deal with the riots

Contrary to what some right wing nutters would have you believe (I'm talking to you Melanie Phillips you sour old hag), liberalism is not in favour of preventing the police from dealing with the rioters. Liberalism is about "the right to do as you please as long as you do not cause a nuisance to anyone else" - to paraphrase Milton. So here's a properly liberal solution on how to deal with the riots.

Stage 1 - Immediate
Police should restore order as swiftly as possible, if necessary with back up from the army. However, water cannons and rubber bullets are probably inadvisable as the former have been known to permanently blind people and the latter have been responsible for the deaths of 9 youths in the UK already. Some elements of the army, on the other hand, have been trained in riot control though, given their lack of powers to perform arrests, they would be most useful as a "presence" on the streets to discourage trouble.

Stage 2 - Within the next week
Once order is restored, the police should immediately begin rebuilding bridges with communities. After all, the  trigger, though not the cause, of these riots was the shooting of Mr Duggan. It was a lack of trust in the police and possible mishandling of the subsequent peaceful protest that led to the first riot. Subsequent riots were almost certainly hooligans and criminals taking advantage of the situation but they only did so after they had seen people "get away" with the first riot.

Stage 3 -  Within the next month
Those arrested and convicted as a result of their involvement in the riots should be dealt with. They should be given stiff community sentences (not sent to prison at our expense) and forced to fix the damage they've caused. They should be confronted with the people who's lives have been disrupted and, in some cases, ruined by the trouble they've caused. Simultaneously, there should be a thorough and swift investigation into the events which led to the riots in order to reassure communities that justice will be done with regards to the death of Mr Duggan.

Stage 4 - Over the next few years
The government, the police and local councils should begin seriously tackling the social causes that made this whole situation possible. The rioters are responsible for their actions and should be punished, but the only reason there were so many young people involved in criminal gangs and ready to go on a rampage is because of deep-rooted underlying social problems. There's a good explanation of some of these problems here but the basic cause is communities where generations have not shared in the increased prosperity in the good times and have been abandoned without opportunities for local people leading to so many young people becoming convinced that crime is the easiest and best choice for a career, a view which, coupled with resentment of the rest of society, leads them to the attitude where they're perfectly happy to smash things up and destroy other people's livelihoods. Unless these underlying issues are dealt with then these kind of scenes will happen once again in the future. It is up to this government to act, where previous ones have not, to ensure that the scenes we've seen this week are never repeated ever again.

That's what needs to be done, in my opinion, and it would be great if we could see a Lib Dem minister come out and actually say all that - doing that would quite probably help to nail this myth that liberals are rubbish when it comes to crime

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Amendment to ESA motion

As I mentioned the other day, the debate and vote on the ESA motion will be happening on the 17th of September at 16.15. You can find the text of the motion in the conference agenda on page 16.

Unfortunately, this means that some of the changes suggested by campaigners won't be mentioned in the motion. This was a result of the time limit and the text of the motion in the agenda can't be altered now, even by the sponsors, Liberal Youth.

HOWEVER, the good news is that the text of the motion can still be altered by an official amendment to the motion. The procedure for conference is that the proposer of the motion speaks first and then the proposers of any amendments speak. Obviously I can't propose both the amendment and the motion but I've co-authored an amendment with Sophie Bridger and she's said she's willing to be the person who speaks as the proposer of the amendment in the debate. This will leave me free to speak as the proposer of the motion overall and I also intend to include in my speech a statement supporting the amendment. I should also point out that the amendment will hopefully be officially sponsored by my local party (sponsoring is required for the amendment to be considered to go on the agenda). Confused yet?

Anyway, the text of the amendment is here and here's how the motion will read if the amendment is approved by conference (and I see no reason why it won't be):

Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments

Conference notes:
i) That eligibility for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) benefit is determined by the
Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) which are currently carried out by Atos Healthcare, a private company.
ii) That currently 70% of assessed rejections which go to appeal are subsequently overturned, though the appeal success rate is lower for claimants without representation.
iii) That the way in which WCAs are conducted has been criticised by Parliamentary Inquiries and by the Tribunal Judiciary.
iv) That the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition Government has stated its aims to support people who are fit to work move off state benefits and into work and support those currently unable to work to prepare for work in the future.
v) The on-going reviews of Work Capability Assessments led by Professor Malcolm Harrington, which have made recommendations on how the WCA process can be improved.
vi) That the Government has so far implemented the vast majority of the recommendations made by Professor Malcolm Harrington.
vii) The Government’s Welfare Reform Bill proposals to simplify the appeals process for claimants.

Conference believes that:
A. It is the duty of a compassionate society and government to provide the necessary support for those who are unable to support themselves.
B. The new Work Capability Assessment has been shown to be inaccurate and "not fit for purpose".
C.  Any medical assessments should be carried out only by trained medical professionals who are accountable to official medical bodies such as the GMC or the RCN.
D.  A system where 70% of decisions are overturned at appeal is not cost effective due to the high cost of holding appeal tribunals and the associated administration costs.
E. The current 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 have the scope to properly take account of the claimant's medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant.
F. Sanctions are inappropriate and unnecessary for the sick and the disabled.

Conference calls for:
1. The Government to continue to implement Professor Harrington’s recommendations on reforming the WCA as a priority, in addition to an emphasis on:
a) Clearer Assessment criteria and descriptors, to make it more apparent under what circumstances ESA is paid.
b) Ensuring all medical components of Work Capability Assessments are undertaken by fully trained professionals, including those who understand mental health and fluctuating and complex conditions.
c) A less stressful Assessment process.
d) People with disabilities getting the support they need.
e) Sanctions and conditionality to be removed from the Work Related Activity Group.
2. Opposition to an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA.
3. All ESA claimants going to appeal to be given access to adequate support and legal representation.

Monday, 8 August 2011

ESA motion update

The agenda for autumn conference has just been published online and the good news is that the ESA motion is to be debated at 4.15 on a Saturday - a great slot so hopefully there'll be a decent turnout to listen to the debate and vote on the motion.

The bad news is that, despite my best efforts, the changes I hoped to get made to the motion have not been included. However, the president of Liberal Youth Scotland, Sophie Bridger, is currently helping me draft an amendment to the motion to include the changes. These changes are based on the advice of seasoned campaigners on this issue from the sick and disabled community and I see no reason why conference won't include the amendment. Obviously the amendment is currently a work in progress (though I'll publish it on here as soon as I can) but the main changes it makes are correcting some grammatical errors and reintroducing an emphasis on ensuring that assessments are carried out only by qualified medical professionals and on ensuring that the appeals process is speeded up with claimants being given access to support and legal representation.

So, all in all, things haven't worked out perfectly but I see no reason why we can't fix them before things go to conference. As I said, I'll be posting the text of the amendment on here as soon as I can so please do check back if you're interested.

Vote for the Potter Blogger!

You! Yes you, sitting at your computer having clicked this link by mistake! I need your help!

Total Politics Blog Awards for 2011 are now open and I need your votes!

All you need to do is click this link and cast your vote for the Potter Blogger!

Rules:


  1. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. The higher you rank a blog or author, the higher up they will appear in the aggregated results. You must enter a minimum of five names for your vote to count. If you don’t want to enter more than five, just write ‘blank’ in the remaining boxes. Every box must have some text in for the vote to be submitted successfully.
  2. Only submit your vote once. If you vote more than once, it won’t be counted.
  3. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents and based on UK politics are eligible.
  4. Anonymous votes left in the comments on the Total Politicswebsite or emailed to members of staff will not count. You must submit your vote via the survey and you must enter a valid email address when you do so.
  5. Do not publish a list of ten blogs on your site and try to persuade readers to vote for them. Any duplicate voting of this nature will be disallowed.

You will also need to vote for at least other blogs so, if you're looking for ideas, I suggest you check my blog roll down on the left hand side. All of the people there are excellent bloggers so please have a look and give them some of your votes as well. I especially recommend Caron Lindsay.

So please vote for me! If I do well I might well reward my fans with a one off, exclusive, picture of me in a swimming costume. Actually, on second thoughts I won't as that would probably work as a disincentive...

Anyways, there will be some sort of special incentive posted on my blog if I do well. So vote for me! Vote now! Vote now! Vote before I start sending you leaflets or giving speeches!

Modern Liberal Democrat heroes: Sophie Bridger

So, I've decided to start doing an occasional piece where I'll name one of my personal Liberal Democrat heroes who is actually still alive and not some long dead figure such as Beveridge.

The hero I'm talking about today is Sophie Bridger. Sophie Bridger is the current President of Liberal Youth Scotland (also known as "that girl with the placards") and recently stood as the Lib Dem candidate in the Inverclyde parliamentary by-election.

The reason I consider Sophie Bridger to be a hero of mine is because she appears to be made up of 90% awesome and 10% real ale. More seriously, she put in a brilliant performance in the Inverclyde by-election despite everyone knowing that in all likelihood she would suffer a crushing defeat simply because of the political history of the area and the national reputation of the Lib Dems at that time. Yet she took on the task cheerfully and energetically despite the fact that the task that faced her would have daunted many much older and much more experience candidates.

Her performance was nothing less than stellar. I think the highlight of her campaign was her appearance on the candidates debate on STV. She was honest, forthright, to the point and incredibly effective. She forced the Tory candidate to admit that Lib Dems had made the government fairer and, when the Labour candidate, McKenzie, asked Sophie about knife crime and then proceeded to harangue and heckle her before she answered, she simply gave him a look and said "Do you want to lecture me, Iain, or do you want me to answer your question?" And then she followed up her brilliant put down by answering the question brilliantly and completely demolishing the Labour policy on knife crime. Most admirably of all, when she was asked a question she didn't know the answer to, instead of trying to dodge it like most politicians would, she admitted that she didn't know - probably the first time I've ever seen such honesty from a politician on TV.

There's a whole lot more about her campaign to be found over on Caron's Musings and if you read it, which I urge you to do, it's very obvious what a driven, principled and decent person she is.

Of course, what's also really impressed me is her support for my motion on ESA. Not only did she write a piece for Lib Dem Voice supporting the motion, she also sent me an email this morning expressing her support  for the motion and her willingness to help get any necessary additional changes to the wording of it made.

All in all, she's an absolutely brilliant liberal, is a wonderful example to all the young people in the party, and, more generally, an example to everyone in the party when it comes to being a principled and stalwart defender of Lib Dem beliefs who excels at making a liberal voice heard, even in difficult times such as these.

Finally, I think Caron Lindsay's description of Sophie sums her up absolutely brilliantly and far better than I can:
"Persuasive, intelligent and articulate, 20 year old Sophie has shown really strong leadership skills within LYS and has made an excellent and constructive contribution to the Scottish party executive in just a few meetings. She's very likeable and has very cool head."
And, of course, one final reason to admire Sophie is her love for decent beer and real ale. Something which, in my opinion, and more than anything else, is the foundation of liberalism.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

On being a patriotic liberal

I consider myself a patriot. I'm also a social liberal and a member of the Liberal Democrats. There is a tendency among many, especially on the right, to see patriotism and liberalism as mutually incompatible. They are wrong.

Liberalism is an internationalist philosophy which believes in universal values (such as universal human rights) and as such is against the idea of people creating self defined groups and then extolling the superiority of that group over all others. So, if you define patriotism as "my country, right or wrong" and "my country is the best in the world and all other nationalities are inferior" then you are quite right in thinking that patriotism is incompatible with liberalism.

However, that is not how I define patriotism.

My parents were both English and they were British nationals. And, although I was born abroad, I grew up, and have spent most of my life, in England. I am English. And I don't consider being English a matter of ethnicity. If I look at people in my age group I can see people of every conceivable ethnic background and yet in their habits, cultural references, viewpoints, idols, irritants and pretty much everything else which defines one culture from another, they are no different from me. They are just as English as I am.

I once read a fascinating anthropological study of the English entitled Watching the English. I can't recommend it enough. It covers, amusingly and in detail, every aspect of English culture and what it means to be English. It talks about such subconscious yet universal English behaviours such as queuing - for example, if you're in a queue at a canteen and you see something off to one side and go to pick it up, when you return to the queue you'll glance at the person you were previously standing in front of and, without a single word being exchanged, you'll ascertain whether you're allowed to rejoin the queue or have to go to the back of it.

And all of these identifiers, all of these cultural traits, aren't something defined by ethnicity. They're something that people who grow up in this country know and instinctively adopt without ever being conscious of doing so. It's just the unwritten rules of culture and society which we learn as we grow up. Ethnicity doesn't come into it and I've found that's been born out just by looking at the people around me. People who follow the English culture (which, like all cultures, is subtly evolving and changing over time) are themselves English. End of.

So, having established that I don't view ethnicity as anything to do with being English, where does the patriotism come in? Well, when people believe that their country is the best and that all others are inferior, that is what I call nationalism. And, taken to extremes, it is one of the most dangerous and fundamentalist political philosophies possible.

Now, I'm proud of this country. I'm concious of being part of a culture which dates back and has evolved over a thousand years. I'm proud that that culture is one which has been enriched by immigration time and time again over those thousand years. I'm proud that it is one which tends to have a live and let live philosophy which doesn't try and force everyone to abide by the same rigid code.

And I love this country as well. England is part of me. I grew up here, and as much as I enjoy foreign holidays, I know I'll never feel home anywhere else. The history of this country, from invasion to civil wars to republic to restoration of the monarchy to parliamentary democracy, is my history. For better and for worse, all of that history has shaped our culture which has, in turn, shaped me as I grew up. Wherever I go, I'll never forget what it feels like to be in England, to be home. I'll never forget that hodgepodge of memories and experiences that make up what I think of as England. Fish and chips, Tudor cottages, the rolling hills of the countryside, the bustling, shining and grimy metropolis that is London, the smell of salt and seaweed and fish on the beach at Rye, the white cliffs, the M25 in rush hour, chicken korma, moaning about the weather, the oak trees in the forests, the sheep on the farms and all the rest. That is my England and I will never belong anywhere else.

So I love this country, and I love how being patriotic for us also includes grumbling about how bad it is but being incredibly irritated when foreigners criticise it. But that doesn't equate to blind support for my country. If, for example, a fascist regime came to power I would view it as my patriotic duty to resist what I would consider a pollution of what makes England England. For me, patriotism isn't incompatible with objecting to our treatment of certain groups in society, or our foreign policy, for me they are all wrapped up in the same thing.

Patriotism is the love of your country. And I love this country. And because I want it to be a place which deserves the love of all its people, I am also a liberal who campaigns to try and change things to make the country better. For me, that is what patriotism is about and I am proud to be a patriot*.


* - For the sake of clarity, when I talk about patriotism I consider myself to be an English patriot and, because England is part of the United Kingdom, I also support the United Kingdom and believe in the same rights and protection for all of its inhabitants. But the UK is a fundamentally political union of several countries, each with their own culture, and so I don't feel the same attachment to the Union as I do to England.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Nearly there!

Huzzah! After a slight dip during the period when I was busy revising for exams, my blog has climbed to an unprecedented height in the wikio rankings!

In short, the Potter Blogger is now, according to wikio, the 103rd most popular politics blog in the UK!

If you look to the right hand side of the page you should see this:


It's a shame I couldn't make it into the top one hundred but hopefully I'll manage that next time.

Of course, I'm not one of those egotistical, competitive types who obsesses over doing well in the rankings. Oh no, of course not. I just check the rankings because I, um... Oh look, a squirrel!

*runs away*

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Policy briefing on ESA motion published

I've just received a copy of Liberal Youth's policy briefing on the ESA and WCA motion (drafted by yours truly) which they are sponsoring at autumn conference.

The motion has changed somewhat from the version I reproduced in my recent blogpost on the issue. The new text is 80 -90% the same with most of the changes being mostly aesthetic and reflecting new developments since the motion was drafted.

I'm also pleased to see that it includes Liberal Youth's reasons for supporting the motion, the personal view of Liberal Youth's president and details of support already received. There's also a mention of a meeting scheduled to take place between LY representatives and ministers at the DWP where they anticipate getting support for the motion. Personally I'm a little sceptical about that last bit as I imagine that, based on his past record, Chris Grayling will give plenty of warm words but won't budge an inch on anything concrete unless it saves money but it's still a step forwards.

In order to make it more widely accessible, I've converted it into google docs format and published the policy briefing here.

Rebuttal to Labour's pension claims

Party Reptile has come up with an excellent rebuttal to Labour's claims that the switch in pension increases from RPI to CPI is wrong:
18 November 2010
Labour rallies against permanent RPI-CPI switch
Labour Shadow pensions minister Rachel Reeves says the opposition party will oppose a permanent switch in pensions indexation from RPI to CPI.

28 July 2011
Labour’s pension fund swings from red to black
The shift from red to black has been largely inspired by the government’s change last summer from RPI to CPI inflation on pension increases for public sector staff. Labour, although obviously a private organisation, has followed suit.

A ready-made rebuttal to Labour’s opposition on pensions.
Quite.

Bloody Telegraph

Grr. Bloody Telegraph.

Today they've run a story entitled:
Voters doubtful on David Cameron's aid policy 
Fewer than half of voters believe that the government should be giving hundreds of millions of pounds in aid to overseas countries during a time of austerity in Britain, Downing Street's own research has found.
Now this is fundamentally dishonest.

Voters were asked whether they agreed with the statement that "even as we deal with out deficit, Britain is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we should be proud that we’re continuing our commitment to international development.” In total 48 per cent agreed with that statement and 38 disagreed, while the remaining 14 per cent did not know.

So, if you do the normal thing and exclude the don't knows, you find that the great British public back  the government's policy on protecting overseas aid spending by a margin of 56% to 44%. Now that's a comfortable majority of voters agreeing with David Cameron (and the Lib Dems who've prevented the tory right from scrapping that promise).

Which of course means that the Daily Telegraph headline is a load of utter cow dung - they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts in order to prop up support for their own editorial narrative. The Telegraph likes to represent itself as a "quality" broadsheet but as far as I can tell it's nothing more than the same type of stuff as written in the Daily Mail only with better presentation and designed to appeal to city types.

This kind of thing makes my blood boil. Journalists and newspapers should spend their time finding out facts and informing the public instead of making up a narrative and then twist the facts to support it.

So, in conclusion: Dear headline writers at the Daily Telegraph, Kindly go die in a hole. Thank you.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

How to cope with the end of empire: a guide for Americans

With the news that the US congress has just raised the debt ceiling, and committed the nation to severe spending cuts without raising a cent of extra revenue, mere hours before it would have faced defaulting on its debt. Nations around the world, including Russia and China, are criticising the US for inflicting upon themselves an entirely unnecessary crisis which could have destroyed the entire world's economy. The damage done to America's reputation, coupled with the massively destructive impending spending cuts which will take money out of the economy and gut the defence budget, has pretty much signalled the downfall of the American empire.

So, being a Brit, who comes from a country that knows everything there is to know about the national trauma caused by the loss of superpower status and empire, I've decided to compile this handy guide for Americans on what to expect and how to cope with the loss of empire.

10. Start studying geography

As you cease to be the most powerful country in the world, what other countries are doing becomes more important - in order to cope with this it helps to be able to locate said countries on the world map.

As you do so you can expect to see your knowledge of the world go from this:

You mean there's more to the world than this?

To this:

Eh, close enough.

9. Start studying history

As America realises that its glory days are behind it you can expect to see and hear lots of people arguing about where it all went wrong and talking about how much better things were in the past - if you don't know your national history then you'll feel left out in dinner table discussions.

Sadly the American Revolution was fought with muskets and not patriotic robots.
As it turns out, telling people how "George Washington's robots slaughtered the redcoats with their laser eyes" will earn you nothing but scorn and pity.

8. "Those were the good old days"

Get used to hearing this phrase as you'll start hearing it on a regular basis from anyone who is more than five years older than you. Once you get over the age of fifty you will be legally required to use this phrase at least once a day.

Pictured: "the good old days"

If your future self tries to say that things are actually better with personal hovercars and sex robots then you can expect to be stabbed viciously by an old lady with her knitting needles.

Seriously. Don't argue with old people. They're evil.

7. Tea - start drinking it

Historians widely believe that if it were not for the calming effects of a cup of tea, Britain would have collapsed into anarchy and cannibalism upon learning of Indian independence. The Romans didn't have tea to help them with the loss of their empire and look where they ended up: Mussolini and Berlusconi.

Basically, without tea you'll probably end up with Glenn Beck  as President, followed by Hugh Heffner.

Not pictured: presidential material

6. Hope you like male voice choirs

Because the loss of empire often triggers an instinct to burrow deep under the ground where you'll be safe from the cruel world above.This will usually lead to the discovery of coal reserves which will lead to a vast growth in coal mining as an industry. Obviously, this will entail a large increase in the number of people working in mines. Usually associated with this is the development of a mining culture with such elements as funny accents, male voice choirs and a love of phallus shaped vegetables.

The Welsh: a side effect of national decline?

5. Learn to like "saucy" humour

Following the loss of empire, Britain saw an epidemic of Carry On films filled with innuendo (in your end-o), sexism and puns. I hope you'll learn to like it because thirty years from now you'll still be watching the films as cable networks will put them on whenever they have a gap in their schedules.

You'll be seeing this facial expression a lot

4. The first female President!

Prepare to have an American equivalent of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first ever female leader, who subsequently turned out to be a satanic robot that fed off the tears of children [citation needed].

Here Thatcher is pictured part way through
 changing into her true form.
The upside is that Thatcher is the only known method of eliminating the coal miners mentioned earlier. As a bonus, she comes with extra police brutality - meaning that at least one fine American tradition will continue for years to come!

3. Beware Canada

As the empire fell apart, Britain had to deal with Irish terrorists blowing things up in an attempt to get control Northern Ireland. The American equivalent will most likely be Canadians blowing up McDonalds in order to try and gain control of Alaska.

"We will destroy you ay."
The best way of dealing with this is to ignore them and gain vengeance by not buying maple syrup, thereby ruining their economy.

2. Get ready to gain independence to your vassals

Based on my calculations, Puerto Rico, Panama, Australia, Iraq, Texas and Afghanistan will all desert you in favour of following their own destiny. Much like children, you can expect at least one of them to fall for a crazy political ideology, become addicted to crack and then ask you for money to help pay for a back street abortion.

This is where Puerto Rico will probably
end up working.

1. Fight for Hawaii

In the 1980s the Argentinians invaded the Falklands, a few tiny islands which remained part of the British Empire because no one had remembered they existed long enough to grant them independence. The invasion led to a short and bloody war where hundreds died but where the stiff upper lip was successfully preserved.

Little mentioned but equally important, the stiff upper moustache did not survive the war.
All of England mourned.

If you want to avoid going down that path then you're going to need to station an army in Hawaii to prevent the Mexicans from taking it from you. Be ready to show them you're still boss.
    Look at him. He's just waiting for the chance to steal your grass skirts.