Friday, 30 September 2011

The idiotic Grant Shapps

I'm rather angry at the moment.

This is because the other day I saw the idiotic announcement by the tory Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, that he wanted those with jobs to be given priority in the social housing waiting list. This follows on from Labour's announcement of the same desire at their party conference and, following Grant Shapps anouncement, Westminster council (better known as the council which passed a bye-law effectively making homelessness ilegal) has decided to implement this moronic idea.

Let me just put a scenario to you. You have two families, each with two children. In one family, both parents have a job and, although they are low paid, they at least have some sort of income coming in while they are waiting for social housing.

In the other family, one of the parents is disabled and unable to work. The other parent doesn't have a job as they've left work in order to care for their partner and their children. The only income they have coming in is from benefits and they constantly struggle to make ends meet.

Yet the second family, who are in a much worse situation, will be given much lower priority on the housing list than the first family - even though the first family are more able to manage without social housing.

This idiotic initiative will make life easier for the employed whilst ignoring and punishing the very neediest of people. The welfare system is meant to act as a safety net for those who have fallen on hard times - not punish them for it. But that is exactly what the idiotic Grant Shapps is doing and which Labour is calling for.

We already know that the tories couldn't care less about the poor but you'd think that, given all their rhetoric about "cuts" and defending the poor, Labour might have actually put their money where their mouth is for once. But they haven't. Shame on Grant Shapps and shame on Labour for abandoning the very people that society should be looking after.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Tories sound death-knell for Surrey libraries

A few days ago I blogged about the temporary implosion of the Tory administration on Surrey County Council following the overthrow of their group leader. I also described how procedure meant that the deposed leader, Dr Povey, would remain council leader for the next cabinet meeting and speculated whether enough cabinet members would be left to make it quorate.

Unfortunately there were enough cabinet members to make the meeting quorate. And Dr Povey's last act as leader was to do immeasurable and completely unnecessary damage to libraries across Surrey.

Despite the fact that he knew that a new cabinet and a new leader with new policies would be taking over within a week, and despite the fact that the public gallery was filled with protesters asking the council to reconsider, he and what was left of his cabinet, passed changes which will mean the closure of every single mobile library in the county - the only way many people in the villages can borrow books - and the removal of paid staff at 21 libraries throughout the county.

In short, Surrey's libraries have well and truly been gutted by Povey's decision. What's even more appalling is that the council has a £54 million budget surplus and could easily afford not to cut the library services. The reasons behind these cuts are purely ideological as Povey believes in supporting the "big society" which, in practice, means cutting library services to the bone in order to force volunteers to take over the running of them or see their local library close.

Povey's last act as leader is utterly despicable and exactly what I have come to expect of Surrey council's tory administration. They should be ashamed of themselves and the public should hold them to account for their destruction of Surrey's libraries at the council elections in 2013.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Three good causes

I'm not one of these people who regularly asks their readers to help a good cause in one way or another but recently I've come across three good causes which it would be brilliant if you could help out with. The first two only require a few minutes of your time and I'd like you to please seriously consider donating money to the last one.

The first cause is the Barn Youth Project. This is a youth project in Guildford which has been running for years and which makes a big difference to the lives of lots of young people. They're currently applying for £6,000 from CommunityForce and they will only get it if they get enough votes from members of the public. So please spend a few minutes of your time and vote for them here.

The next cause is the petition for a UK National Defence Medal. This would be a medal awarded to all veterans as recognition of their service to the county. The Ministry of Defence did recently have a consultation on whether to award one but they deliberately kept the consultation secret and short so that veterans would be unable to take part. So please sign the petition for a National Defence Medal here.

The final cause is the "Give a day's pay for Africa appeal" which does exactly what it says on the tin. The DEC is asking people to give a day's pay to help with famine relief in East Africa. So please consider making a donation.

First they ignore you...

I've been reflecting on our situation as a party recently and I was reminded of something. Specifically I was reminded of these old words:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

And, as I thought about them, the more they seemed to apply to the history of the Liberal Democrats.

In the late 80s and most of the 90s we were treated as an irrelevance. There were a few brief headlines due to good polling results around the era of the Alliance, prior to the merger of the Liberals and the SDP, but those polling results, and those headlines, faded following 1983 general election and Thatcher's landslide victory.

So then we went to being ignored, at one point sinking so low in the polls that we technically might not have had any support at all due to the fact that the margin of error in the poll was greater than the percentage of people saying they supported us. Even when we bounced back two years later to win 20 seats in the 1992 general election we were still ignored and seen as an irrelevance.

Following 1997, we started to get occasional media coverage. Journalists would attend our conferences - even if only to write condescending columns where they professed bemusement at our earnestness. Though, in fairness, they never failed to mention when we passed some sort of outlandish policy (such as the policy to lower the age at which teenagers could legally watch porn to the same age as which they could get married - 16).

We were mocked for our support of gay marriage, for our lone opposition to the Iraq War and for our warnings about the state of the economy in 2007. Even in the 2010 general election campaign, when there was the brief Cleggmania, people like Paxman still mocked us for saying we wanted to win the election.

And then we also saw the attacks by the press, the false allegations about Nick Clegg pocketing donations to the party, the headline about David Laws, er, paying the exact amount of tax he was supposed to whilst calling for the tax rate to be increased, the Daily Mail screaming about "NICK CLEGG'S NAZI SLUR ON BRITAIN!"

In fact, there has definitely been a noticeable shift towards attacking us. Although the media tries to ignore us wherever possible (witness the complete lack of coverage of the Lib Dems pointing out that they had opposed Murdoch long before Miliband deemed it fashionable, or Nick Clegg offering a sensibly response to the riots instead of the knee-jerk draconian populism of David Cameron), they also now tend to attack us a lot more as well. The attacks aren't as blatant as those during the general election campaign but they are a lot more frequent.

Witness the Telegraph waiting to publish its revelations on David Laws' expenses until just after he had become a minister, or its undercover sting operations designed to try and undermine the coalition. Witness the Daily Mail calling Nick Clegg "the most dangerous man in Britain". Witness the Telegraph drag up ancient history about a Lib Dem donor who was convicted of fraud as an attempt to tarnish our reputation - despite the fact that the Electoral Commission ruled that we had accepted the donation in good faith and had done nothing improper.

And, it might just be me, but it seemed to me that the coverage of our conference in Birmingham earlier this month was a lot more sneering and gave a lot less recognition of our achievements and policy proposals than that of the Labour conference. Oh, and please don't get me started on the near daily vitriol in the Sun and the Mirror.

And of course, Labour's first act, even before their conference had properly started, was to announce a policy gimmick on tuition fees with the aim of capturing our supporters. That their policy is flawed and ineffective is beside the point - the key thing to take note of is that attacking us is a significant part of the strategy. Of course with Labour it's understandable. They arrogantly assume that they have a god given right to the votes of everyone who doesn't vote tory and they still can't accept that we didn't meekly jump into their arms to prop up a fourth Labour government during the coalition negotiations. They still haven't got their heads round the idea that we can be a party composed predominantly of centre left supporters and yet view the Labour party with just as much distaste as the tories.

The media's excuse is a bit more depressing and childish. For decades they have been used to the easy analysis of two party politics. That kind of system is easy for them. They don't need to bother finding out the facts and informing people, they can just say "he said, she said" and leave it at that. The transition to a more pluralist politics makes all that much more difficult - the old lazy way of oversimplification and patronising explanations won't work any more. So by scoffing, criticising, sneering and pretending the situation hasn't changed they can kid themselves into thinking that this is just a blip and that at the next election the Lib Dems will implode or fragment and things can get back to business as usual.

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.

There's no denying that the Lib Dems have been bruised over the past year and a half. There's no doubt that we took a hammering in the council elections in May either. But the Lib Dems are far from finished. Behind the scenes the party has been quietly reforming itself. A new headquarters and a new campaign structure. New and powerful election software. While our opponents take pot shots at us we are transforming ourselves into a professional, organised party. At conference the spirit was not of despair but of optimistic determination and unity. A recent poll showed that in marginal constituencies across the country half of voters reported receiving leaflets from the Lib Dems in the past six months - far more than contacted by any other party.

Across the country we are picking ourselves up and carrying on. The May council results were not the death-knell for the party - they were a wake up call.

With the current political situation it does seem highly likely that we will lose seats at the next general election but that was inevitable having gone into coalition - for example, people who voted for us as a protest vote against the government are hardly going to do so now we're in government.

But already we are out on the ground. My local party, for example, recently had a training session on campaigning and people are raring to put the lessons into practice. Already we have plugged the deficit in our internal funds, increased our membership and received more corporate donations than Labour. In short, all the key infrastructure is falling into place. In the long term, we will be stronger than ever and that is the key to winning elections.

So let the media and our political opponents fight us. We're getting ready to fight back on an equal footing. And when we do, we'll win.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Follow that link!

I'm too busy to blog today but fortunately I have a piece appearing on LibDemVoice where I've written the speech on tuition fees which I think our party leader should give at the next general election. So, follow that link!

UPDATE: For some reason my post hasn't appeared yet (12:28pm) so, yeah, this post is somewhat redundant. The article has now been posted on LDV - go and read it!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Surrey County Tories have temporarily imploded

This weekend I popped back over to Guildford to attend the Guildford Lib Dems wider group meeting. I'm very glad I did because it meant I heard this fascinating news: the Tory administration on the county council has temporarily imploded.

You see, the leader of the county council, and the tory group on the council, was Mr Povey - a "strong leader".

He then decided it would be a very good idea to sack one Mr Hodge who was a member of the county council cabinet along with one other cabinet member. Unfortunately, half the tory councillors then rebelled against the sacking of Mr Hodge whilst half the cabinet resigned over the issue.

Long story short, Mr Povey is no longer leader of the tory group and Mr Hodge is.

But, due to procedural rules, Mr Hodge cannot become leader of the council until the next full council meeting. Until then, Mr Povey will remain the leader of the council. And, before the next full council meeting, there will be a routine public council cabinet meeting. Given that half the cabinet has  been sacked, with appointments and probably more sackings due to take place when Mr Hodge becomes council leader, this means that the next cabinet meeting might well consist of just Mr Povey sitting in his chair on his own. Either way, it is certainly possible that the cabinet meeting might not have enough cabinet members in attendance to be quorate and will therefore be unable to make any decisions.

So, all in all, it looks like the next cabinet meeting will be a farce well worth attending and I wish I were able to go and watch it myself. But the bottom line is that, for the next few weeks, the entire tory group on the council will be sorting out who is in the new cabinet and what exactly their policies will be now that there's going to be a new administration which isn't beholden to their last manifesto.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention that the official reason that Mr Povey is no longer leader is because he stepped down to spend more time with his business. Shame that.

Seventh Labour tuition fees policy announced!

Ed Miliband has just promised that a Laboru government would cap university tuition fees at £6,000. It's very interesting to see this new policy though I'm not sure how Labour arrived at it - my guess is they plucked a nice round figure out of thin air.

But, just in order to give some context to Ed's new policy promise, here is a brief history of Labour party tuition fees policy.

1997 - Labour manifesto promises not to introduce fees.
1998 - Labour introduces tuition fees.
2001 - Labour manifesto promises not to increase fees.
2003 - Labour more than doubles tuition fees.
2010, May - Labour enters the election having commissioned the Browne review and committing themselves to support it's recommendations (widely predicted to be unlimited tuition fees).
2010, December - Tuition fees raised to a maximum of £9,000 after Browne review recommends unlimited fees. Ed Miliband states that Labour party policy is to replace fees with a graduate tax.
2011 - Ed Miliband announces that Labour party policy is to support a cap of £6,000.

Now, it might just be me, and I know that the Lib Dems certainly don't have a good record on fees, but how on earth can Ed Miliband's new policy been taken seriously given that it's Labour's seventh tuition fee policy in fourteen years (a rate of a new policy every two years) and that it's Ed Miliband's second tuition fees policy as party leader?

Oh, and I should point out that, if Labour's £6,000 cap really were implemented (after all, they've never broken a promise on fees) then if a student's starting salary after graduating is under £38,300 there would be absolutely no difference between £6k pa tuition fees and £9k pa tuition fees.

But if their starting salary was more than £38,300 then they would repay less under £6k pa tuition fees.

So well done Ed. Another brilliant progressive policy which totally wouldn't benefit the rich more than the poor. Not.

Friday, 23 September 2011

An apology to the police

So, I've not always been entirely friendly to the police on the blog. In fact, when I think of the posts I have written mentioning the police, they've mostly been fairly critical of the police. And that's because most of those posts have dealt with how the police have handled various protesters and, like all things, it's very easy to criticise when they've got it wrong but rather less blog worthy when they've got it right.

But that's not really fair of me at all. I've always said that the police were like anyone else - that there were good police officers and bad police officers. But, given that I grew up under New Labour, disregard for civil liberties and the database state, I have to confess that I've tended to view the police through the prism of making politically targeted arrests and through clamping down on the right to protest and the right to free speech. And there's no doubt in my mind that this has been done a lot and that, to put it bluntly, a lot of police officers at protests (especially those in London) are thugs. Knowing as I do someone who was part of a peaceful protest containing toddlers which was kettled and shoved by Metropolitan police officers, I think I can safely say that the police do get things quite considerably wrong.

But that's not the case most of the time. Most police officers join the police because they want to serve society and protect it. Most police officers are very decent and very good people who do what is, and always will be, a very difficult job.

Two things recently really made this hit home to me. The first was that I read this anonymous account by a police officer who arrived on the scene of a car crash and had to watch a driver trapped in his car burn to death while being unable to save him. And who then had to put up with members of the public getting short and high-handed with him because the police had closed off the road. It's very moving and it really made me appreciate the kind of things a police officer must see in the line of duty and how it must affect them. That police officers witness and deal with terrible things and then go straight back to work the next day is incredible, quite frankly, and they are a credit both to policing and the nation. That's my opinion anyway.

The other thing was that, because of an incident which occurred last night (I'm not going to link to it, find it yourself if you're that interested), someone was afraid I was suicidal and might be trying to kill myself. They contacted the police and also contacted someone in the party who knew me. As a result, I was woken by a phone call from Edinburgh police concerned about my welfare. This means that they went through the whole process of finding out my phone number and ringing me just to check whether I was okay - and the police didn't have any special interest in me. I was just an ordinary citizen and yet they went through all that time and effort just in case I was feeling suicidal. Wow. That really reminds you just what a job the police do and the time and resources they dedicate to trying to protect or help people.

And then, half an hour later, I got a phone call from Surrey police who, having had the situation explained to them, decided to get Sussex police to send two police officers out to physically check I was okay as well. And, needless to say, the two officers who turned up were very polite and pleasant and friendly - despite the fact that it was the middle of the night.

So, aside from feeling like a complete dick for putting the police and others to all that trouble and concern for nothing, it's really been a big reminder of just what sterling work the police do. And it's certainly made me seriously reconsider my tendency to be suspicious of any police officer I see.

I'm not going to pretend there aren't still bad police officers (I'm still reserving my judgement on the Met after seeing the way they treat peaceful protesters) but the vast majority of them are brilliant people. Quite possibly heroes. And for the first time now I'll mean it wholeheartedly when I say "the vast majority of police officers are good people".

Two final thoughts. My suspicion of the police stems partly from the fact that I never had any proper contact with them before last week. They were this rarely seen but powerful organisation that could arrest you and send you to prison. The heavy-handed arm of the law. They all wore the same uniform and were interchangeable. It was only contact with the police (for example, asking directions from a police officer in Birmingham) that made me realise they weren't this faceless organisation but a group of mostly helpful individuals. The other thought is that I imagine that there are many people who share my earlier suspicion and wariness of the police. I imagine that, like myself, most of those people have never had any contact with a police officer that wasn't related either to being a victim of crime or being a suspect. The police tend to be isolated from our communities now, in cars and police stations, or as an armoured presence at demonstrations. Very rarely do you see them on the streets amongst the communities they serve. And it's that isolation that I think goes a long way to explaining the mistrust of police by many communities in this country. And that's a crying shame because, as I've so recently realised, most police officers don't exist to make life difficult, but to try and do their best to protect and serve society. They might not always get it right but no one is perfect.

So, basically, I've come to realise what a brilliant job the police do. I imagine they get thanked only rarely for what they do so I just want to say a big thank you to all of them. Having come across some occasional police cases at my job (long story, won't go into it) I know that I couldn't cope with a tenth of what they have to handle and I'm so glad that they keep most of us from ever encountering these things. I'm really grateful to them for that and I'm ashamed of my earlier wariness of them.

I'm not dead and sorry

I'm a prize, 100%, utter, f****** bleeding moron.

Basically, I just made a massive cock up. A while ago I decided it would be a good idea to write a "farewell" blogpost which I would constantly rewrite and which would be autoset to publish at some point in the future. The idea being that I would constantly move the publishing date significantly forwards into the future so that it would never get published until I was no longer around to postpone it.

Now, you can guess what happened. It published last night because I forgot about it in the aftermath of conference and catching up with my work. So, yeah, an incredibly stupid idea given that I should have known this sort of thing was a possibility.

I've deleted the post because I'm perfectly well and really, really did not mean for it to publish. I am an utter twat. Aargh. Sorry. Currently overwhelmed by how stupid I've been.

So, if you were one of the people who read that post while it was still online then I am really, really sorry for the distress or concern it may have caused you. And I am glad that someone cared enough to ring me up to find out whether I was alive.

But yeah, I still feel like the world's biggest idiot. So, right now I'm going to go to sleep before I have to get up again in the morning and continue feeling guilty for something so stupid. But, just to make it absolutely clear, I am not, and never will be, suicidal.

As I said, I am so sorry for all the trouble I've caused :( Please feel free to hurl abuse at me in the comment thread below if you were one of the people who read that post - I deserve it.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

My first autumn conference

So, now that the Lib Dem autumn conference has officially come to an end, it seems like a good idea to talk about my experience of it.

This was my first trip to autumn conference as the only conference I had attended previously was spring conference in Sheffield earlier this year. All in all, the biggest differences I noticed were that the conference venue was bigger, security was lighter - probably due to the introduction of the controversial accreditation process - and the colour scheme for the auditorium was traditional yellow rather than the turquoise of Sheffield.

The inside of the conference venue was a lot like a shopping centre - though this did cause some confusion as it meant the display stands were split over two levels rather than one as they've been previously. Also, for some reason, the Youth Zone was tucked away down a corridor that was very easy to miss which was a slight disappointment.

What I enjoyed most about conference was the atmosphere. As Clegg said in a speech, the Lib Dems are like a large family and that familial atmosphere was definitely tangible throughout conference. I also loved the way I kept on spotting groups of mostly strangers good-naturedly debating some issue or another (usually accreditation) and yet never falling out over it even when they disagreed with each other completely. The official debates were much the same. It was also good to see how, as I've found in the past, the way in which the representatives collectively voted tended to take what I would call the wisest course.

Some highlights were being able to partake in MP and personality spotting, as well as being able to meet some of them. This did lead to my witnessing some amusing cases of mistaken identity though - my favourite was a 12 year old who thought Danny Alexander was George Osbourne. As a matter of fact, that 12 year old  is named Claire and has been a party for longer than I have. She's also rather terrifying as she was born in 1999 - therefore making me feel very old - and because she had just consumed a very large coffee when I met her and was therefore ever so slightly hyper.

As it happens, I ended up being interviewed live along with Claire and another young Lib Dem named Connor for the BBC News four o'clock bulletin - exciting stuff.

In addition to Danny Alexander, I spotted Chris Huhne being interviewed and I also encountered Tim Farron twice - once when entering the conference when I couldn't help exclaiming "It's Tim!" and he said "Hi" as he walked past - and also after the debate on the ESA motion and he said "Well done" as he walked past me on the way to the stage to chair the next debate. Another incident that sticks out is witnessing Lembit Opik chatting up a 20 something female journalist whilst being interviewed by her. I have to say, it reminded me of the time Liberal Youth nearly passed a motion banning Lembit from coming within 200 yards of anyone under the age of 25.

Other elements of conference were, as they always are, great fun. I met, or rather saw, for the first time the "NUKILLER POWER IS AN OFFENCE TO GOD" protester who apparently always attends our conferences but who missed Sheffield. I also got the chance to meet several people I knew from facebook or the blogosphere but whom I'd never actually met in person. Meeting the lovely Caron Lindsay, even if only for a few minutes, was especially pleasant.

I also caught up with Sophie Bridger of Liberal Youth Scotland and, together with Katie Smith, we had a joint nerdgasm over how amazing our new election software was - it also turns out that Katie is the one who came up with the name for it: "Connect".

I also met a 15 year old Liberal Youth girl called Alex who lives in Scotland but comes from England and who intends to be either Chief Whip or the next Alastair Campbell when she grows up. She also spoke to me about her intentions to write a motion about scrapping SATS and I've promised to give her advice on it so I expect you will hear more about this later.

Later, Alex and Sophie introduced me to Alistair Carmichael, MP for the Orkney and Shetland Islands and the Lib Dem Chief Whip. I have to say that he seemed like a very nice person with a good sense of humour. I also met him again on the Sunday and, when Alex spoke to him about her intent to be the next Chief Whip, he joked about the difficulty of killing rivals with rat poison in cocaine (a la House of Cards) and spoke of his preference for shoving them off roofs instead.

On the Saturday night I also missed out on winning the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award for the best new blog but given the victory on ESA the same day, I guess it's proof that one can't have everything in life. Afterwards I tried to sneak off back to my hotel to sleep but was ambushed by former Chair of Liberal Youth, Martin Shapland, and some friends who kidnapped me by force and frogmarched me off to a nightclub which did 50p shots. That was the plan at any rate.

This then led to another highlight of the trip as we then stopped off at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to round up some more people but, as we were leaving, Kim, a fellow Guildford party member (who never comes to meetings meaning that I had made her acquaintance for the first time earlier that day) had the bad luck to trip and fall down two steps and land awkwardly, twisting her ankle through 90 degrees and severely spraining it. Given that I hadn't really wanted to go to the nightclub anyway, I volunteered to be the one to accompany her to the hospital as Kim bravely insisted that everyone else enjoy their evening.

As a result I spent most of the night in A&E and didn't get to bed until 6am in the morning. Mind you, it was much worse for Kim though as she had to put up with pain on top of the boredom and tiredness we both suffered as well as having the hassle of having to use crutches and be booked in for physiotherapy afterwards.   I spoke to her recently on the phone though and apparently her ankle isn't quite as bad as the doctor had first thought. And, on the plus side, at least I got to see a part of Birmingham that most outsiders wouldn't normally get to see. Less positively, it also provided proof of how some parts of the NHS are severely underfunded after all these years which has at least motivated me to take the issue of healthcare more seriously.

Overall though, conference was great fun and I can't wait to go again next year when I'll be able to stay for the full conference period and not just the weekend. Besides, I'll need to go back to replenish my stocks of Lib Dem branded chocolate :)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Victory!

I am typing this on the train home from Lib Dem conference - the conference doesn't finish until Wednesday but I have work on Monday. I am in a fairly ecstatic mood due to the incredible victory we won yesterday in passing the ESA motion along with an amendment to it which strengthened it significantly.

The full text of the version of the motion passed by conference, making it officially Liberal Democrat policy, is as follows:
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 old Assessment procedure, when claimants were assessed using a ‘tick box’ questionnaire, did not take into account the claimant’s medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant.
C. The new Assessment procedure must aim to reduce the number of cases which are overturned on appeal.
D.  That vulnerable cases like this, where a welfare recipient’s income is threatened, should qualify for free legal representation. 
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 greater accuracy in Assessment, particularly for those with fluctuating conditions.
  • c) A less stressful Assessment process.
  • d) People with disabilities getting the support they need.
2.  Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose 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 representation and expert advice, and for Government to reconsider the exclusion of welfare benefits casework such as this from the scope of legal aid.
4.  A presumption that ESA claimants with serious and uncontrollable life-threatening conditions should be allocated to the support group rather than the work related activity group.
5.  A review of ATOS performance in delivering the Medical Services Agreement contract with DWP in respect of the quality of medical assessments.
6.  Effective contract compliance for contractors carrying out ESA eligibility assessments to avoid poor performance, and a presumption that in future ESA eligibility will be carried out by the public sector or non-profit organisations.
Just before I left conference to catch my train, I also attended a meeting between members of the Liberal Youth executive (who sponsored the motion) and representatives from the DBC, a disability organisation. The meeting was in order to work out how best to push the story of the ESA motion in the media and in parliament to ensure the necessary changes are made. Having sat in and contributed, I am positive that there really will be a strong drive to convince parliamentarians of all stripes to support the changes and I am fairly confident of the changes getting made.

Sarah Harding, who made the excellent speech proposing the motion (due to my replacement as the proposer at the start of the week), will be appearing on the BBC in the morning along with Steve Webb, the Lib Dem Pensions Secretary, and possibly a representative of the DBC, in order to discuss the motion as the start of our media campaign.

I also happen to know that 50 out of 57 Lib Dem MPs apparently indicated that they would back the changes in the Commons. This means the focus must now be on the Lords where the changes can be made to the Welfare Reform Bill before it gets passed back to Parliament. And that focus is what Liberal Youth will be working on ahead of the vote in the Lords in two weeks time.

I'd just like to say thank you to the brilliant Sue Marsh and her fellow campaigners. Without them fighting on this issue I would never have known about the dangers of the changes to ESA or been inspired to write a motion to change the situation. They are the real heroes of this and any credit that there may be should definitely go to them.

Finally, in case you're interested, my own speech in the debate on the motion can be found here:

Friday, 16 September 2011

An exceedingly good birthday present

The Total Bollocks Annual Willy Waving Contest (as the excellent Jennie Rigg refers to it), otherwise known as the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011, is currently in the process of slowly publishing the results in the various categories. Today they published the top 100 Liberal Democrat blogs and...

The Potter Blogger came 11th! (jointly held with Peter Black AM) This is definitely a very nice 21st birthday present, coming as it does with a finely crafted button to put on my blog. They haven't made the button available for download yet but as soon as they do then I'll be putting it up here very proudly (I'm an egotist, wot you gonna do abou' it?)

But it is especially welcome given that I only started blogging last November. I never expected to do this well so I's like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who voted for me :)

I'm also pleased to see that Caron Lindsay (probably my favourite Lib Dem blogger) came second out of all the Lib Dem bloggers (first place is inevitably held by LibDemVoice). Another individual who did very well was Andrew Reeves who sadly died earlier this year. I never met Andrew myself but everyone I know says he was a brilliant man and Lib Dem who will be sorely missed. Apparently he was very supportive of my home party of Guildford in the past and it is a fitting tribute that his blog ranked 4th.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Why I won't be proposing the ESA Motion

Before you get alarmed, I should be clear that the ESA motion will still be debated on Saturday, will still face a vote to determine whether it becomes party policy or not and that I will still be backing it one hundred percent.

Instead "proposing" in this case refers to the technical term for the person who makes the opening speech of the debate in favour of the motion. This person is referred to as the "proposer".

I had originally been marked down as the person who would be the proposer but that's now changed because Liberal Youth and I think it's better if the LY Chair, Tom Wood, is the person who acts as proposer given that he needs to build up the media profile necessary in order to keep up pressure on the parliamentary party to ensure the changes are made once the motion passes (and I am so confident that it will that I promise to shave my hair off, tear up my membership card and join the SWP if it doesn't).

Instead, Liberal Youth have promised to throw their weight behind trying to get me a place to speak in the middle of the debate which will allow me to support James Sandbach's excellent amendment in addition to the motion as a whole - something which would have been a bit strange if I was acting as the proposer.

Whilst it would have been nice to have had such a grand platform for my first speech to conference, it's probably best that it's not one which an entire debate rests on. Besides, it's my 21st birthday on Friday and it's a good chance I might still be hungover by the time the motion starts to be debated - that's meant to be a joke, I don't drink to excess and do not advocate. Also kids, don't take drugs and stay in school ;)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

James Sandbach and the amendment to the ESA motion

On Monday morning I received the unfortunate news that the amendment to the ESA motion (written by Sophie Bridger and myself and sponsored by the Guildford Lib Dems) had been rejected on the grounds of accuracy. Personally I think the decision was wrong which is why it is being appealed but the appeal will not be heard until Friday at which point it will prove rather difficult to fit the amendment on to agenda.

This is why I want to pay homage to the brilliant James Sandback. He has been the driving force behind an amendment to the motion which has been accepted and which is on the conference agenda already. Not only that, James has also managed to round up some truly amazing support for the amendment - including Evan Harris who (along with Shirely Williams and Vince Cable) I view as a minor deity.

But even more importantly than that, James' amendment is actually stronger and does more than the amendment which Sophie and I had hoped to bring to the motion.

In fact, here is the text of Sandbach's amendment:
After C. (line 25), insert:D. That vulnerable cases like this, where a welfare recipient’s income is threatened, should qualify for free legal representation. 
Delete 2 (line 35) and insert:
2. Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA.

In 3. (line 36), after ‘representation’ insert: ‘and expert advice, and for Government to reconsider
the exclusion of welfare benefits casework such as this from the scope of legal aid.

After 3. (line 36), add:4. A presumption that ESA claimants with serious and uncontrollable life-threatening conditions should be allocated to the support group rather than the work related activity group.

5 A review of ATOS performance in delivering the Medical Services Agreement contract with DWP in respect of the quality of medical assessments.

6. Effective contract compliance for contractors carrying out ESA eligibility assessments to avoid poor performance, and a presumption that in future ESA eligibility will be carried out by the public sector or non-profit organisations.
On the issue of time limiting, the contract with Atos and representation for claimants at appeals this amendment is far stronger than the amendment I've been working on. In fact, the only thing not mentioned in Sandbach's amendment is the sanctions and conditionality applied to the Work Related Activity Group (basically sick and disabled people well enough to work face financial penalties at the discretion of an individual at the locak Job Centre unless they attend the same number of interviews and training courses as a completely healthy person). That said, if time limiting is removed then the sanctions on the WRAG will have far less impact.

With regards to James's amendment I also agree wholeheartedly with Caron Lindsay who writes:
"For me, the crucial improvements this amendment makes are: 
"Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA" is much tighter wording and would send a very strong message to our ministers about what we expect of them. If we really are a compassionate society, we do have to ensure that people who are sick are properly supported. 
Free legal representation for claimants who are turned down and can't afford to challenge decisions is absolutely vital. I learned in 4 years as an MP's caseworker that Government agencies make mistakes. They are run by humans, after all, so it happens. That's a given. What they do often, though, is dig their heels in and refuse to admit or rectify their mistakes because they know that in the vast majority of cases, they won't be challenged. Often we had to present them with the evidence and be quite robust on several occasions before they would put things right. It's not a coincidence that the percentage of appeals granted goes up to 70% when people have proper representation. You really have to understand some pretty complex stuff and if you are already struggling with a long term condition, that can be very difficult, if not impossible to do. People are being consigned to a life of poverty, unable to work, yet with no support and unable to fight the bad decision that denied them their benefit. That is wrong and we as Liberal Democrats should stop it happening."
So, all in all, things are very much looking up and I also happen to have it on extremely good authority that the Lib Dem Minister of State for Pensions, Steve Webb, (also a leftie and all round good guy) is firmly behind the motion and very much wants the same changes made to ESA that we do.

So, all in all, a lot of very welcome and very good news.

For any Lib Dem conference attendees reading, the debate on the motion will be at 4.15pm this Saturday and there will be disability campaigners and charities handing out leaflets about it outside conference for most of the day.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

More brilliant ideas from the Lib Dems

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I was on my way to bed when I stumbled across these two articles, both of which I think are prime examples of how the Liberal Democrats, uniquely of the main parties, are prepared to stick their necks out at conference to back radical but effective policy solutions to problems facing this country.

The first story is about brilliant proposals to do with ensuring the media acts responsibly and does not abuse its position of influence and power:
"An emergency motion, due to be published on Wednesday and discussed at [the Liberal Democrat] party conference next week, calls for the fines to be large enough to act as a real deterrent, and change the culture of newspapers in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at News International
The fines would be imposed on newspapers that breached the terms of a new newspaper code. They would also be required to put corrections in more prominent positions than at present.
In line with proposals from the information commissioner, the Lib Dems are also proposing that reporters found guilty of breaching the Data Protection Act on unlawfully obtaining material should be subject to custodial sentences. A previous attempt to make journalists liable to prison sentences was blocked following strong private lobbying by newspaper groups. 
Nick Clegg's party is also proposing that competition authorities should be able to intervene on issues of media plurality not just at the point of a takeover, but also when a newspaper group is gradually increasing its shareholding in a company or its market share."
The second story is to do with tackling the huge drug problem we face as a society by using evidence based methods which actually work rather than the failed ideological ones which successive governments have pursued for decades out of fear of negative tabloid reactions:
"Experts have backed calls to be made at the Liberal Democratsconference this weekend for the decriminalisation of all drugs, saying it would not lead to a surge in drug use.
The UK Drugs Policy Commission, which includes Professor Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, and Dame Ruth Runciman, former chair of the Mental Health Act Commission, among its membership, says it backs the broad thrust of the Lib Dem motion to be debated on Sunday. 
The motion calls for all criminal penalties for personal possession to be scrapped, the introduction of a regulated market in cannabis, and the expansion of heroin maintenance clinics for the most fervent users."
I'm always proud to be a Lib Dem but that's especially true at times like this.

Impact of boundary review on Guildford

So, because I'm rather a sad political wonk with nothing better to do, this morning I decided to sit down and check the impact on my home constituency of Guildford of the boundaries commission initial proposals to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

As it turns out, the changes won't be that big. Basically, Guildford will lose the Ewhurst ward (Waverley Borough) to the Mole Valley Constituency and it will lose the Pilgrims Ward (Guildford Borough) to a new Woking constituency.

These are just the initial proposals of course and will now be subject to two separate consultation where changes can be made and it will also require to be approved by parliament in order to be implemented.

Nevertheless, if we assume the changes to the boundaries go ahead without any further alterations, this is what Guildford would look like:

Am I the only one who thinks this is a very odd shape for a constituency?

Unfortunately, the data available for the 2010 constituency result doesn't include a break down of how each ward voted so I can't give a notional result for the proposed seat. However, I can say that both of the wards which have been removed from the seat are tory voting wards and therefore these changes are likely to be to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats in Guildford. That said, Anne Milton, Guildford's current MP, will probably still have a sizeable majority given her rather depressing success in 2010. One further point I would make is that Cranleigh in the southern part of the constituency has historically shown stronger support for the tories while Guildford has shown stronger support for the Lib Dems. It might be the case that the boundary changes will make this disparity in voting trends even more apparent.

UPDATE: Despite my inability to do it, the Guardian have managed to work out notional results for constituencies. According to them, Anne Milton would have a majority of 7,472 on the new boundaries (310 votes less than at present). The Lib Dems would have 871 fewer votes and the Tories would have 1,181 less votes. So, as I said, a slight benefit to the Lib Dems. But a net gain of 310 votes is statistically insignificant in a seat where 55,567 people voted last time. Basically, it'll be business as usual for Guildford.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The best way we can honour the dead of 9 /11

Ten years after 9/11 I am sure that thee best way to honour the dead of 9/11 and the dead of the War on Terror is to make sure that they did not die in vain.  And  we do that by not allowing terrorists, or the threat of terrorism, to change our lives by scaring us into abandoning the civil liberties, free speech and democracy which make us better than the terrorists in the first place.

In that context, I find that this song, made by a man who was detained for travelling to Afghanistan to star in a film about a terror suspect sent to Guantanamo Bay, is a powerful reminder of how much damage we allowed fear to cause to our society.


Saturday, 10 September 2011

Some things the tories would rather you forget about

So, I've been busy with work this week and will be busy this weekend as well which means I don't have time for a proper blog post. So instead I am proud to present this series of funny videos which also contain things that the tories would very much hope you forget.

The first two videos are genuinely hilarious mockery of the tories, but also contain information relating to a rather disgraceful affair which happened in my patch and involves not one, not two, but three current tory MPs - two of them government ministers:


And here's the second one:



And finally, here are some timely words from David Cameron on the NHS:

Monday, 5 September 2011

Great news on the ESA Amendment!

Today I got two bits of very welcome news- one of them was expected but the other was a delightful surprise.

The first bit of good news was that the amendment Sophie Bridger and I have written to the ESA motion was submitted to the Federal Conference Committee today by Guildford Liberal Democrats who are kindly sponsoring it. This now means that the FCC will formally consider whether to allow the amendment to be placed on the agenda for the debate on the original motion itself. Under the circumstances, I can't see any grounds for blocking a debate on an amendment so that stage should be something of a formality.

For those interested, here's what the motion would look like if the amendment were passed by conference.

The other bit of good news is that another amendment to the motion has been submitted. I knew nothing about this one until today but it seems to have almost identical intentions to the amendment Sophie and I have written. Now, this does mean that the two amendments could potentially clash with each other, so I'm speaking to the people behind the other amendment to try and resolve the situation, but the great thing is that other people cared enough about the motion to try and strengthen it with an amendment. And the truly awesome part is that one of the people behind the other amendment is Dr Evan Harris, a former Lib Dem MP and all round good guy who has been incredibly effective at fighting the bad things the tories have been trying to do in the coalition such as the NHS reforms. And, given that he's behind the amendment, then he must also support the motion as well! As such, this means that we finally have a "big beast" on our side - exactly the kind of thing that greatly strengthens the chance of a motion being passed!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Why the silence?

Documents found by Amnesty International in the offices of Gaddaffi's former foreign minister and head of Libyan intelligence. Moussa Koussa, have revealed that, under the last Labour government, MI6 provided Gaddaffi's regime with details of Libyan dissidents living in the UK.

Now this was a regime which was known for torturing and murdering anyone even suspected of opposing the regime. This was a regime which was perfectly happy to target the family members of people they couldn't get directly - such as people living beyond their reach in the UK.

On top of this, MI6 actually wrote a speech for Gaddaffi back in 2004 for when he was having talks with Tony Blair. And it's also been revealed that the CIA sent Libyan dissidents to Gaddaffi to be tortured, as well as sending Libyan security services "questions" they wanted asking. It's also been alleged by one of the Libyan rebel's military commanders that he was taken overseas to Thailand by the CIA and tortured by them at the Libyan regime's request. The latter was part of the programme of rendition that the UK supported and collaborated in by allowing rendition flights to use our airspace.

And what rendition really means is "kidnap people, take them overseas to countries where torture is legal and then torture them until we get a confession".

Obviously, a government which used torture and murder by its enemies (namely Saddam) as a pretext for invasion, is utterly hypocritical and disgusting for not only tolerating but outright colluding in the same activities by its allies.

Of course, no one should be shocked to discover that this was what the New Labour government got up to. After all, they were quite happy to support locking British citizens up for 90 days without being charged, told what they were accused of or having their relatives told where they were so it's hardly surprising that they were happy to aid in doing a lot worse in foreign countries.

But what's really despicable about this whole episode is the silence over it. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has said that he can't comment on events that occurred under a previous government - comments which might well have been intended to dodge blame for the fact that Britain took in the man behind the torture in Libya, Moussa Koussa, back in March before allowing him to move to the safety of Qatar.

Now, what William Hague should have said, if he had had any decency or courage, would have been to say "I cannot comment on events that took place under a previous government, however, we take allegations of these sort very seriously and will be setting up an immediate enquiry to investigate the truth of these allegations and will take serious action should these allegations be proved to be true."

But, you know, Hague is a tory so we can't really expect much from him. And it's hardly surprising that the Labour leadership have been keeping silent given that a) it was their party which sanctioned this whilst in government and b) that most of them were ministers in the government responsible for this.

So, the reaction from the political class is to be expected, even if their silence is shameful and disgusting. But what truly irritates me is the silence from the Left.

Yes, you know, the self-proclaimed Left. Not the Lib Dem left because the Left have declared that Lib Dems are all traitors and were never really Left in the first place. I'm talking about the mainly Labourite Left that proclaimed how disgusted they were with Blair and New Labour and how, as a result, you shouldn't really blame Labour for all these things because the government which did all these nasty things with the votes of the Left wasn't really a proper Labour government.

So, given their disgust with Blairism, and their general distaste for things such as the Iraq War, and their loudly proclaimed support of the rebel cause in Libya, why is is that I have not seen one, not one, major left wing blog talk about this? Liberal Conspiracy, Labour List, Left Foot Forwards, every single one prominent Labour leaning, Left blogs which were critical of Blair's foreign policy and supportive of the Libyan rebels, and yet none of them has even mentioned the revelation that our last government aided and abetted in the torture of the people whose struggle for freedom that they proclaim to support.

Labour List's main article is about Alistair Darling's biography, Liberal Conspiracy's is about abortion, Left Foot Forwards' about how the dissolution of the Scottish tories will help Salmond. But nothing about these extraordinary revelations despite them being exactly the kind of thing they would jump on if, and this might just be me being cynical, the people responsible had not been a Labour government.

Now, in fairness, they might be intending to post pieces about it, their silence so far might just be a case of waiting to get round to it. But why? Why is it that they have stayed silent so far when the Observer is talking about it and when this should, by rights, be a major national scandal? The only major online blog I have seen even reporting this news is LibDemVoice.

So, this is my question to the online Left: why the silence?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The sick way Britain treats her sick and disabled

This is an article I wrote for the conference edition of the Liberator, but, due to my stupidity, I missed the deadline for submission. This article concerns the utterly disgusting way in which sick and disabled people are treated in this country and I sincerely implore everyone who reads this to share this article with their friends and any Lib Dem members or representatives they know. If any bloggers are reading this then please consider crossposting it or linking to it on your own blog. Thank you.

The main form of support which sick and disabled people receive, is called the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) which is the successor to the old Incapacity Benefit (IB). This is to help with their living costs, which tend to be much higher than those of able bodied people - the cost of petrol for regular hospital trips can quickly add up, for example.

The current system of determining eligibility for support originates with Labour who created a system based on the (incorrect) assumption that the many of those receiving IB were perfectly healthy due to Thatcher moving people onto it during the 80s in order to massage the unemployment figures.

But, while it is true that the number of people receiving IB had remained mostly static at around 3 million for twenty years, the people on it have changed. It is years since able bodied people were deliberately moved onto IB and most of them had died by the time the system was overhauled. The reason the number of claimants had remained static was because both medicine and diagnoses had improved so that people who would have died or gone undiagnosed in the past were now on the system when they hadn’t been before.

Yet this one, utterly flawed assumption, was used as the basis of the last government’s treatment of those on IB. Under the auspices of Labour’s James Purnell, a system was created whereby those seeking to claim IB had to go through an assessment process run by the private French IT company Atos.

The assessment process developed works on the basis of an interview. In this interview, claimants are asked a series of questions by interviewers reading off a points-based, tick-box system on their screen. The system offers a selection of possible answers and the interviewer has to choose the one which best fits the claimants answer. The problem is that the people who designed the assessment did not have medical knowledge of all the conditions possible, nor does the test even begin to take into account the time variant nature of many conditions.

People with time variant conditions, such as disability campaigner Sue Marsh, can’t, on her worst days, get out of bed, can't walk at all, can't eat, vomits every twenty minutes and has to shove needles into herself every 2-4 hours to control the pain and nausea. Yet, on a good day, she might actually be well enough to do most of the things an able bodied person can. But the test only concerns itself with the ability of claimants to complete basic physical tasks on the day - if Sue were assessed on one of her rare good days then she’d be deemed as needing no support whatsoever despite the fact that most days she’s in near constant pain and lacks the strength to even go on a short walk by herself. The system utterly fails people like Sue, who has recently received an assessment decision letter telling her she is perfectly healthy. And it’s not just Sue, I know of a man in a wheelchair who was classed as being as capable of moving about as an able bodied person and of a man with terminal cancer who was told he was fit to work then died three months later.

This horrendous flaw is compounded by the fact the assessment does not at any point consider the medical history of claimants. A claimant can have been diagnosed by the best medical minds on the planet and none of that would matter as no medical evidence is taken into account during the assessment process.

The new coalition government has recently replaced IB with ESA and all those on IB are now being migrated to ESA with the assumption that some of them will fail to qualify and that the welfare bill will be reduced. The DWP is already encouraging that expectation by the recent, and utterly false claim, that 75% of all those being assessed for ESA are fit to work - a figure which the Office for National Statistics has described as “misleading”.

The assessment system for ESA is identical, in all major aspects, to the assessment system for IB. Because of the flaws in the old system, appeal tribunals were set up for those dissatisfied with the decisions made by Atos. On average, 40% of decisions appealed are overturned at tribunal and this rises to 70% when those appealing are given aid and advice from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau - an organisation which is stringently critical of the flawed way in which the system operates. The cost of the appeal system has been increasing rapidly as more and more people successfully appeal incorrect decisions.

This increased cost is on top of the £100 million cost of the Atos contract - a contract which does not include any fines for the extra cost to the taxpayer when Atos get a decision wrong. But the estimated cost of fraud with regards to ESA is £25 million. So, in addition to human cost on the sick and disabled of these flaws, the system doesn’t even save money. In fact, the only cases of fraud identified so far have been discovered by special investigation teams. This is because deliberate fraudsters know how to play the system while the genuine sick and disabled do not.

On top of that, those found eligible for ESA only receive it for a maximum of 12 months if they have made a national insurance payment in the past three years - so if someone has held a job before becoming sick or disabled then they can only have support for a year. After that, the assumption is that they will have recovered and should be able to work and support themselves.

The only way they can become eligible for support again is if they end up in a situation with total assets worth less than £7,500. Only once they have entered destitution does the system consider helping them again.

And as for those put in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), who are put in a half way house between being fit as a fiddle and eligible for ESA, they receive partial ESA - but only subject to strict conditions that they meet exactly the same kind of requirements as able bodied unemployed people. They are expected to attend several interviews a week and meet other, similar conditions, or face stiff financial sanctions. But these are not healthy unemployed people, these are people with severe medical conditions and disabilities who need support to help them find and apply for the kind of work they are capable of doing. They need a helping hand but are made to jump through hoops or face strict punishments instead.

I wish I were making all of this up, but I’m not. The system which is supposed to support our sick and disabled really is like this. The most vulnerable people in our society really are dependent on a system as flawed and uncaring as this. A Liberal Youth sponsored motion which deals with this very issue will be debated at Lib Dem Autumn Conference on Saturday the 17th of September and I urge any Lib Dems reading this to lobby their reps to attend the debate and to back both the motion and the amendment.