Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Why I support the strikes

This time yesterday I was ambivalent about the strikes. They weren’t, and still aren’t, going to affect me and I could see some sense in the arguments from both sides.

Today, however, I support the strikers.

This sudden shift in opinion is mainly due to Osbourne’s Autumn Budget Statement yesterday in which he announced a two year limit of public pay increases to 1%. Given how high inflation is, that amounts to a pay cut two years running on top of the pay freeze (effectively another pay cut) that public sector workers are already undergoing.

Whilst this will save some money, the choice of this particular way to save money looks to have been made purely to spite the unions for daring to go on strike.

Now, the fact is that public sector pensions are already sustainable. There’s no black hole in the pensions budget which needs to be filled. Despite this, the Tories are telling a lot of public sector workers that they will have to work longer and pay more in order to receive lower pensions. The logic behind this being that people in the private sector have even worse pensions.

Well, that might well be the case. I don’t have the facts at hand to make a detailed comparison. But let’s assume that Osbourne is correct when he says this. That still leaves unanswered the question as to why it is necessary to make everyone equally worse off (apart from the very rich of course) instead of trying to make everyone equally better off. Comparing downwards all the time can only lead to a race to the bottom.

And that's why I think that the unions are right to go on strike. When Osbourne responds to genuine grievances by cutting public sector pay for a lot of people who aren't especially well paid then that simply cannot be called right.

In my opinion, government should be honest about why they’re cutting pensions. They should have the guts to tell public sector workers that they haven’t done anything wrong, that their pensions are unsustainable but the fact is that they need to make them pay more in order to pay down the deficit and bring the country through the economic crisis. That’s what the truth really is and it’s the one thing that no one seems to want to admit.

The unions say the government is cutting pensions because they’re evil tories and the government say they’re cutting pensions because they’re overly generous and unaffordable. None of those claims are true.

Much as I hate it, public sector pensions probably do need to be cut to lower spending. It is unfair but the only alternative I can see is cutting other services even more. But if the government is determined to make people work longer for less then it should at least have the courage to tell them the real reason why.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Osbourne's Autumn Budget Statement

I know everyone's going to be doing this today but I intend to liveblog from my lunchbreak while listening to the Chancellor's autumn budget statement. Sadly I don't have any fancy technology to help with the process so I'm afraid you'll have to keep refreshing your browser between 12:30 and 13:00. After than I'll just update it with a quick addendum and that will be that.

Don't forget, the setting for today's statement are predictions of the UK and the eurozone reentering recession but today is also a day where the markets have lowered the interest rate the UK will pay on government bonds (e.g. borrowed money). So that's the scene and the speech will be starting shortly.

12:32 Osbourne begins by saying how bad things are and that it's the fault of the eurozone and not the government.

Promisng investment and rebalancing the economy, standard guff.

12:33 Osbourne saying that OBR hasn't forecast UK returning to recession  but a slow down in growth which will then improve year on year. These figures could always be revised downwards though...

12:34 But if we do enter recession then it's all the fault of the euro crisis.

Also claiming credit for setting up the independent OBR...

12:35 Predicted low down in growth apparently due to "external factors" such as "unexpected" energy and food price rises.

12:36 And now Osbourne's shovelling more blame onto the last government for "unsustainable growth". Therefore situation is even worse than previously thought.

Now more about how bad it is and how it's all Labour's fault...

12:37 But don't worry, borrowing costs going to fall and therefore the government will spend less on interest rates than predicted

12:38 And this reduction in borrowing cost is only down to the government's action and therefore we'd be in a much worse situation.

12:39 Osbourne's saying that if we change our course then we'll be in a much worse situation.

 Admits that headroom has disappeared but claims credit for allowing headroom.

12:40 Now onto the meat. Effectively dmits that will miss deficit elimination by 2015 but will achieve surplus by 2016

12:42 More cuts coming... savings to be used for economic investment. This includes Clegg's youth job scheme.

12:43 Cuts to public pay and limiting increases to 1% after pay freeze ends. This will be well below inflation. Osbourne says will be better than private sector though.

12:44 Money saved from pay cuts will go back to treasury apart from schools and NHS where the departments will keep the money for use elsewhere.

12:45 Union bashing and telling the unions to call off the strikes. Effectively indicating that government won't change its pay offer.

12:46 Overseas aid budget to be preserved

12:47 Pensions to rise by Lib Dem triple lock

12:47 Disability benefits and child tax credits to also be increased in line with inflation

12:48 But scrapping additional previous plans rises above inflation

Hints at big increases in personal tax allowance (another LD policy) in the budget next year.

12:49 State pension age to be increased to 67 by 2026 - will save £59bn

12:51 Bank of England to be enabled to effectively do more fiscal stimulus through stuff like quantitative easing

12:51 Major programme of credit easing to be announced (leaked in yesterday's papers). Will be payed for by lowering BoE assest purchasing limit for small businesses.

12:52 Will be called national loan guarantee scheme and will be targetted at small businesses. Probably good but all measures like this take a while to see whether it worked or not.

12:53 Initiatives also aimed at medium sized businesses to boost investment in them. Will be increased if they work.

12:54 Osbourne now talking down expectations and not guaranteeing all of them will work. "Don't let the best be enemy of the good" - sounds reasonable to me.

12:54 Funds to boost development where planning permission already exists (targetted at housing marker).

12:55 Interesting stuff about increasing right to buy - each home bought will be replace by a new social house. Sounds reasonable.

12:56 Vickers banking commission report to be published soon. But will block EU financial transaction tax - stupid decision and damaging in the long term.

Increasing banking levy though - not to raise additional money but just to raise amount originally planned.

12:57 Will also clamp down on bank tax loopholes to save £.5 bn a year.

12:58 Announcing a national infrastructure plan - 500 projects to be announced. "Mobilising finance needed to deliver"

Tax cuts mentioned earlier will enable £5bn of public spending on infrastructure apparently.

12:59 Pension funds to provide £20bn of private investment.

13:00 Specifically talking about infrastructure plans which will benefit the north and the midlands. Trying to appeal to Labour voters.

13:00 South West Water prices to be cut significantly. Good news for Lib Dem voting areas...

13:01 Still no third runway to be  built, but more river crossings in London. My ex will like that...

13:02 More stuff about broadband and mobile phone expansion. Boosts for enterprise zones in northern England.


Well, I have to go now. Devil will be in the details so we won't really know what's going on until tomorrow. I like the infrastructure proposals and it's good that disabled and pensioners will benefit but the details of the cuts might dampen my enthusiasm. There's no indication that strikes will be ended soon judging from Osbourne's rhetoric.

Personally, I'm glad he's just announced (13:04) that more will be invested in scientific research and other stuff like that. I think this probably amounts as a signpost to a Plan A+ budget in April  which is what I always thought would happen. The government was always going to find that some of it's cuts and lack of investment would prove politically impossible. Giving up on this slightly was inevitable.

Unfortunately, he's also just signalled (13:06) that he'll water down green measures by £250 million tax relief measures for big polluters. Absolutely idiotic but it will appeal to the tory far right though. I'll miss the rest of his speech but I expect that it'll be a mix of good investment ideas and fairly short sighted red meat for tory backbenchers. Hopefully the Lib Dems will have limited the worst of them though.

I'll probably do more analysis later but I'm pleased that Osbourne has just announced that the worst ideas about limiting workers rights will go to further examination (where they can hopefully kicked into the long grass). Anyway. Got to go now.

As I said, more analysis later.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Big rant from me coming up

I recently read an article by Jenny Willot MP on Lib Dem Voice where she claps herself and the government on the back for obeying the motion we passed at conference by implementing the recommendations of the second Harrington report.

Unfortunately, the motion was about the time limit to ESA, not the Harrington reports. So what Jenny's said is, not to put too fine a point on it, a load of cow dung. In fact, by ignoring the main point of the motion, Jenny's betraying the trust that was placed in her by members of our party when they selected her as, and campaigned for her as, a parliamentary candidate. More importantly, she's ignoring the part of the constitution which, unlike any other party, places the power to make policy in the hands of the members and not the leadership. Given that we've got the word "Democrats" in our party name then that's a pretty fundamental principle that she's breaking.

So, as a result, I've written an angry piece about it which Lib Dem Voice will hopefully publish in the next few days (assuming they don't have any issues with my second draft of it). Which means that, with a bit of luck, they'll soon be another rant of mine floating around the internet. Enjoy :)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A brilliant interview from Tim Farron. But...

There's a really brilliant interview with awesome Tim Farron in the Guardian where he basically says what most Lib Dems are thinking about the Coalition. I can't recommend enough that you go and read it here.

I do, however, have one teensy criticism of what Tim's said:
Q: At the Lib Dem conference, the party passed a motion that could lead the way to the partial decriminalisation of drugs [it said the government should set up a panel to review the drug laws and that it should consider decriminalising the possession of controlled drugs for personal use]. Is that something that will appear in the party manifesto? 
A: That's a good question. It's important we do reflect what the members support. Our view on drugs is that the debate is so witless … politicians don't seem to be able to help themselves but take populist lines on these things, and ill-informed ones.
I've highlighted in italics the bit I disagree with. This isn't a mistake that Tim alone makes as it's the case amongst a lot of our MPs and other important figures in the party. Because the fact is that it's not enough just to "reflect what the members support". Conference, where every member can have an equal say and an equal vote, is sovereign on policy. If the membership decides on a policy then it is the duty of the leadership and our MPs to accept it and advocate it, even if they disagree with it personally. Now, the leadership does have the power to decide what to prioritise in our manifestos, but what Tim's said implies that the leadership only needs to reflect what conference decides. Well that simply isn't good enough. This isn't one of these fiddly little bits that can be ignored, it is vital to our party's constitution and the fundamental ethos of this party that conference and conference only has the final say on policy. And, as someone who is frequently spoken of as a potential future party leader, I hope Tim realises this.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Why the Lib Dems won't be annihilated in 2015

This is one of my series of lunchtime blogposts.

Only a few months ago I was convinced that Nick Clegg would have to be replaced as leader if we were to have any chance of avoiding being slaughtered at the next general election. I also thought such an act would be justly deserved given the way in which he comprehensively mucked up over tuition fees and how damaging his behaviour in government had been to the party - not speaking up for Lib Dem principles, ignoring the membership on issues like the NHS and being seen as a frontman for everything bad that the coalition was doing.

Well, I still don't like Nick Clegg. I still don't think he gets it that the outrage over tuition fees comes not from not delivering on our manifesto policy to abolish fees (which was impossible to deliver in coalition) but from so many of our MPs, himself included, breaking a cast iron, written and signed promise to the electorate to vote against higher fees.

He hasn't yet managed to grasp that his excuses about being in coalition and being forced to compromise on policy simply won't wash with people who, like myself, are angry for an entirely different reason: the matter of integrity and principle.

But, that said, I'm starting to think that much of my assessment of our position as a party and his as leader was, in fact, wrong.

You see, despite going from being ignored by most of the media to being actively attacked on a regular basis by most of the media, our polling numbers have remained relatively constant. If you take the ICM polling figures (which are the gold standard in terms of accuracy when it comes to actual results in elections) then you'll see we're currently at 14%. Now, that's a massive drop from our general election result of 23% but it's not annihiliation.

A lot of us, myself included, naively assumed that being in government would mean we got equal coverage by the media. We don't though - just as an example, Question Time always has a Labourite and a Conservative on the panel but only has a Lib Dem on the panel once in a while - even when the issues being debated are ones which the Lib Dems have something relative to say: such as when QT debated the Iraq War and voting reform.

So, in the absence of being given a fair chance to get our message across, we can probably assume that at least some of the drop in our support is the standard problem we see between elections. For decades our numbers have dropped between elections and just bumped along and then suddenly risen significantly when the election rolled around and the media were forced to give us equal coverage. That means that our polling position probably isn't as weak as it looks.

Now, whilst I used to think we should get rid of him, I think Clegg's position as leader is pretty strong. The fact is that it's very difficult to dislodge a leader and, even if we did it peacefully, we'd then have a new leader going into a general election with no time for the public to get to know him - hardly the best situation to be in. On the other hand, Clegg, no matter what you think of him, is extremely charismatic and likeable in person. And, given that televised leaders debates at the next election are inevitable then it's not impossible that we could see some form of Cleggmania again.Well, Cleggmania is a bit much - in all probability he'll just be able to win back some lost support as long as he puts up a good performance.

And, let's think about those debates. Cameron will still be leader but he'll have a problem in that his credentials of being a modern, compassionate, progressive conservative will be severely damaged due to tories constantly coming up with some of the most unpopular proposals of the coalition government - such as scrapping employment rights for workers or giving tax cuts to the rich. So at best I think Cameron will only be able to put up an adequate performance in the eyes of the public. And Clegg will always claim to have been acting as brakes on the tories in government. Some people won't buy that but some of them will - and that'll be a little bit more support that comes back to us.

Ed Miliband, on the other hand, will have the biggest problem. He isn't exactly renowned for his debating skills and suffers from having a popularity rating as bad as Clegg's. People just don't seem to warm to him - my father is a case in point. My father is a man who I might normally think would be at least open to listening to what the Labour leader had to say but, in practice, just changes channel when he sees Ed Miliband - because he "can't stand his voice".

So, as I said, in those circumstances it's not at all unlikely that Clegg might well be able to put up a performance that wins us back some of the lost support.

Meanwhile, being in government has led to a much more united party and one which is, despite failures in messaging by the leadership, becoming better at getting its point across and which will be boosted in the general election thanks to the same state-of-the-art election software that played a huge part in getting Obama elected.

And the final thing to bear in mind is the vagaries of our voting system. At the last general election we got a million more votes but lost seats. So, in reality, we have something of a buffer in losing support before we start losing large numbers of seats.

It's always considered foolish to make a prediction about general election results this far out, but, with that proviso, I think it's not just plausible but likely that we will hang on to most of our seats and that we should keep Clegg as leader.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Please sign the sickness and disability petition.

With more and more evidence emerging of DWP policy making being influenced by companies which stand to profit from the erosion of provisions for sick and disabled people, it's vitally important that Lib Dems make a stand against government proposals which will be incredibly damaging to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Just this week there have been proposals to hand responsibility for sickness notes from GPs (who know their patients and their medical history) to panels run by private companies which will have a financial interest in making the process as simplified as possible and therefore more susceptible to potentially devastating errors - it may be cheaper and easier to train someone to fill in a tickbox form than hire an experienced medical professional but the cost to people whose conditions don't fit neatly into boxes will be immeasurable. Personally I think a far better solution is providing better training to GPs but I'm not the one writing the report.

And the reason for this proposal are statistics showing some people are given sickness notes despite not having anything physically wrong with them - completely missing the fact that people can have mental and psychological problems which make them unfit to work.

This week MPs also debated the proposals to cap the amount of money in benefits that people can receive - despite the fact that it will hit disabled households the most given that they, naturally, receive greater amounts of benefits due to having greater need for support than most people.

So this is why it's vitally important that you sign, and get everyone you know, to sign the petition to ask the government to stop and review the impact of benefit changes to sick and disabled people:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

All the big disability charities are backing it, including charities like Scope, MIND and the RNIB. The Greens are backing it and so is Compass. Labour and the Conservatives are ignoring it. So please, please, please sign this petition and ask your friends, colleagues and families to sign it as well.

Thank you.

UPDATE: Turns out that the co-chair of the committee producing the aforementioned report works for an organisation funded by Atos Healthcare - a company which already runs ESA assessments for the government and which would be the logical choice for the "independent body" to handle sick notes.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Government intervention that works

One of the blogs I've been reading recently is Munguin's Republic. One of his recent posts made me stop and think.

You see, in addition to his perfectly justifiable complaint about the BBC apparently not realising Scotland exists when it comes to news reports, the situation he mentions is quite interesting.

You see, in the Western Isles of Scotland, petrol has to be imported from the mainland, which means it costs a lot more - in fact, they've got possibly the most expensive petrol prices in the world. In recognition of these unique circumstances, the government recently waived part of the fuel duty on petrol on the islands in order to bring the prices in line with the mainland. Unfortunately, the petrol stations on the islands all immediately raised their prices by a corresponding amount.

So all that's happened is that the petrol companies are making more money while islanders are stuck paying high prices and the government has lost revenue.

And this I think illustrates a flaw in both the two "either or" models of government intervention.

You see, if you spoke to a conservative about this, they'd say that the government should only intervene by lowering the tax, and that if the companies refused to lower their prices then free market forces would mean another company would open up petrol stations and undercut them. Except, of course, this won't happen since there are only a few big fuel companies and why would they undercut each other when they can all charge the higher price and profit from it?

And if you were to speak to a socialist, they'd probably say that the government should intervene by lowering the tax and then, if the companies refused to lower their prices, by setting up a government pwned petrol company to run the petrol stations and remove the evil forces of capitalism from the land all together. The only problem with this is that it would be immensely expensive, more bureaucratic and inefficient and would be run by civil servants hundreds of miles away from the islands.

This may be exagerrating things slightly, but those are generally the two models of government intervention put forward by Conservatives and Labourites respectively. Either the government should leave it all to the private sector or the government should take over everything. Those are the only two options - or so they'd have you believe anyway.

Personally, I think that there's a third option, drawing on the liberal philosophy. You see, if it were up to me, what I'd do is offer a government loan to the islanders to set up a customer and employee owned co-operative on the island to run its own petrol stations and to compete with the big fuel companies by charging fair prices. And, because it would be based locally and run by local people, it would be far more responsive to their needs. Also, any profits it made would be redistributed amongst the members of the co-operative (i.e. the islanders), as opposed to shareholders and executives profiting from over pricing people living in what is, essentially, a captive market.

And, as it'd be run as a business, it would be far more efficient than a state run company and would be able to make a profit to pay off the government loan. So the taxpayers would get their money back and the islanders would get cheaper fuel prices.

Now that's the model of government intervention I belive in: intervening to empower local communities to take control of their own lives. That's a core part of the liberal philosophy and, in my humble opinion, one far superior to abandoning people to the not-so-tender mercies of unbridled capitalism or subjugating them under the heel of the centralised, overbearing state.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The scandal of the DWP's advisors

This is one of my series of lunchtime blogposts.

WARNING: This blogpost will contain swear words in the last paragraph.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I've spent the past three months taking quite an interest in disability welfare issues. Specifically, I wrote a motion which was passed at Lib Dem conference, becoming party policy, and which called for the government to scrap their planned arbitrary time limit on how long disabled people could receive benefits for and for the government to fix the utterly broken assessment system that was bequeathed to them by the last government.

One of the things that has come from that is that I've learned quite a bit about how the DWP reaches decisions and who advises them when they make those decisions.

And the picture that's emerged is rather disturbing. All the way back in 1994, the DWP hired the Vice-President of the US insurance company Unum, Dr Le Cascio, to sit on the group responsible for designing and enforcing new medical tests for disability benefit claimants.

Now, according to Private Eye:
At the same time, the UK wing of Unum was launching what it boasted was “a
concerted effort to harness the potential” from predicted cuts in benefits,
urging people to protect themselves with a “long-term disability policy from
Unum”.
A year later Private Eye questioned Le Cascio about a potential conflict of interest, which was denied. Fast forward ten years and:
Unum was found guilty in the US of “systematically violating” insurance regulations and fraudulently denying or “low-balling” claims using phony medical reports, misrepresentation
and biased investigations
But despite this, despite Unum being described as an "outlaw company" by the California Department of Insurance Commissioner, and despite a BBC report in 2007 which revealed that internal Unum documents stated that they were driving governmnet policy, Unum's executives have continued to be heavily involved in advising the DWP.

In 2006 Unum executives sat on the panels that devised the Work Capability Assessments  introduced in 2008 and which have an failure rate of 40% (according to official figures). Not only that, but, along with Atos (the company that conducts the assessments) they were the only for-profit companies on the panels. So even if you believe that private companies should be included in governement policy making then why was this cartel of two massive organisations the only companies listened to by the DWP?

In 2001 our old friend Le Cascio:
was a key player at a ground-breaking conference at Woodstock near Oxford, titled “Malingering and Illness Deception”. Malcolm Wicks, Labour work minister at the time, and Mansel Aylward, then chief medical officer at the DWP, were among the 39 delegates.
And, at the same time Unum set up a lobbying group to try to further influence DWP policy.

Then, in 2004, Unum set up a £1.6 million research centre in Cardiff which subsequently received £300,000 of taxpayer's money from the DWP.

According to the Private Eye article from last year:
Unum has been lobbying, sitting on expert groups and hosting meetings at party conferences of all colours ever since. And lo and behold, in May this year, Unum’s then medical officer Prof Michael O’Donnell jumped ship to become chief medical officer at Atos. He barely had time to catch his breath before giving evidence to the Commons committee looking at the welfare reform bill.
Despite all of this, the DWP has repeatedly brushed of enquiries about the relationship with Unum, including one from Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg's health advisor, and has continued to involve Unum with policy making - something which is still happening at the moment. It appears that it doesn't matter which government is in power as the DWP seems to pay more attention to private insurance companies than ministers when making policy.

Meanwhile, the DWP has continued to publish misleading statistics (which are then picked up with glee by the tabloids) such as the claim that 75% of claimants are fit to work - something which was reported by papers as "75% of claimants are scroungers". The DWP has been repeatedly rapped over the knuckles for this by the Office for National Statistics (partly because only 0.5% of claims are deliberate attempts to defraud the benefit system) and yet employment minister, Chris Grayling says he is "bemused by it". Given the recent dramatic rise in disability hate crime then I'd call that criminally irresponsible and callous.

But this attitude isn't surprising when you consider who advises his boss, Ian Duncan-Smith. His two key Special Advisors are both, shall we say "questionable". Susan Squire is one. Until just after the general election she worked for the Taxpayers Alliance, an organisation which fully signs up to the "all disability claimants are workshy scroungers" and which is so right wing that it makes Margaret Thatcher look like a bleeding heart liberal.

Still, Susan Squire seems perfectly normal when you compare her to IDS's other advisor, Phillipa Stroud. This woman is a politician who believes that homosexuality is a "demon" which must be driven out of people through prayer and who set up a church dedicated to doing just that.

Meanwhile, disability charities and organisations such as the CAB are generally only given lip service by the DWP when it comes to involving them in policy making. It's not surprising that the DWP thinks that arbitrarily cutting benefits off to disabled people after 12 months, regardless of their condition, is a good idea when the main people driving policy are right wing nutters and rogue companies with vested interests in milking the public purse for all they can get.

Words cannot easily describe how horrifically DWP policy making seems to be. But perhaps if people like Chris Grayling and IDS actually spoke to some disabled people occasionally, instead of listening to religious and political extremists, then they might actually start to treat sick and disabled people with some basic compassion and dignity, rather than acting like the idiotic, incompetent, heartless cunts that so many tory ministers seem to be.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Potter Blogger's first year

WARNING: This lunch time I've decided to write a self-indulgent, introspective post. Normal service will resume tomorrow with blogpost about the scandal of the people advising the DWP on disability issues.

Last Friday marked exactly one year since I started the Potter Blogger. My first blogpost was about my experience of going on the first tuition fees protest and of my feelings about the subsequent violence.

So, one whole year of blogging. A lot's changed in that year. Over the past 12 months I fell in love for the first time, attended my first Lib Dem conference, campaigned for the doomed Yes to AV campaign, stood and lost in the same council elections which saw the Lib Dems lose over 700 seats, broke up with my girlfriend, finished the second year of university, started my first job, celebrated my 21st birthday and got the ESA motion passed by conference.

All in all, it's been quite a busy year. In that year the Potter Blogger has been something of a success. From 723 pageviews in November 2010, the Potter Blogger reached an all time high of 5,143 in September 2011.

Exams are the sworn enemy of blogging.

This blog also managed to become the 80th most popular political blog (according to wikio) back in September and has held onto since then (for now at least). It was also awarded the title of 11th most popular Lib Dem blog in the annual Total Politics blogging award.

Over the past year I've written 243 blog posts and, looking back at them, there's not one that I'm ashamed of or that I feel embarrased by. As long as I can keep this up in the years ahead then hopefully that should make sure that I don't abandon my principles or become all twisted and cynical.

More broadly, I think I'll always look back on the last year as the year in which I grew up. I don't say that just because I turned 21 in the past year, and I certainly don't think that I haven't got plenty of growing up left to do, but if I compare myself now with the version of me that existed last November then I honestly think that there's a huge difference. This time last year I felt like I was still a teenager and now I feel like an adult, albeit one who's prone to bouts of silliness (not that I think that's a bad thing). I'm also generally much more comfortable - both in my own skin and in socially. For someone with Asperger Syndrome it's certainly nice to feel confident that I can now at least approximate normality in social situation. I think about things more and I'm much better at considering things properly instead of jumping to a black and white conclusion. Hopefully that means I've perhaps gained a little wisdom.

I also think that I can be proud of what I've achieved. Admittedly, I am a proudful person (despite my best attempts to be modest), but I don't think many people my age have ever written a substantial motion on a national issue and gotten it passed near unanimously by conference while also speaking for their first time at conference. Of course the important thing is that the changes called for by the motion do actually get made - but if they do then I think I'll be able to justly proud of my part in the much bigger efforts to protect 3 million vulnerable people from being failed by the system.

In conclusion, I'd like to think that the first year of the Potter Blogger was a good one. As for myself, I feel like a better, more confident person that I was a year ago. I'm young, I'm educated and I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There are lots of problems facing both my country and the world but I'm optimistic that the mistakes of the past decades can be fixed and that the successes of the past decades can be built upon. The Chinese use the phrase "may you live in interesting times" as a curse. Well my generation is certainly living in interesting times but, despite everything, I think that the future is our's to create. And, you know what, I'd like to think that I might be able to play a part in making sure that we do a better job of it than those before us.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Fingers crossed for some sense on fuel prices

This is one of what is becoming a series of blogposts written in half an hour of my lunch break. Hopefully this will force me not to ramble on at ridiculous length.

I was very pleased to see in the news that MPs will be having a parliamentary debate petrol prices.
This is thanks mainly to a petition on the government petition website reaching the requirement of 100,000 signatures. A while back I talked about how I thought that high petrol prices were hurting the economy and how the government needs to lower them. The debate will, according to the BBC, focus mainly on whether or not to scrap Januarys increase in fuel duty but there is also a proposal to scrap the VAT increase on petrol.

All I can say is that it's good that this is being debated in parliament. When people on low incomes are spending a high percentage of their wages on petrol just in order to get around (and let's not forget, the state of the public transport system in this country means that anyone not living in a city does need a car) then it will only lead to them cutting back on spending elsewhere - exactly the opposite of what the economy needs right now.

On top of that, the increase in fuel prices has actually cost the treasury money because people are quite literally being priced off the road and therefore the government gets a lower amount of net tax from petrol sales (not to mention the loss of revenue from road tax, VAT on insurance policies, etc).

So hopefully our MPs will show some sense and at least take measures to keep fuel prices static so at least people won't be burdened with even more demands on their finances at a time when most people have gone without pay increases for three years.

One other thing I quite like about this is that it shows that the new petition system is actually working and that parliament will at least listen to the public even if they won't always decide to do what they want. It's certainly a marked improvement on the No. 10 petition website from the Labour era where it didn't matter how popular a petition was as they were all ignored - predictably leading to people not taking the petition website seriously. In short, a typical New Labour example of style over substance.

And that at least I think we can say is a general improvement of this government on the last one. I don't agree with a lot of what this government is doing but at least they've stopped Labour's patronising tradition of spin and vanity projects designed to distract the public and consume a lot of money without doing anything.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A reply to David Babb of 38Degrees

This is one of what is becoming a series of blogposts written in half an hour of my lunch break. Hopefully this will force me not to ramble on at ridiculous length.

The other day I wrote a post about why I'm leaving 38Degrees over it's treatment of disability campaigners.

David Babb from 38Degrees was kind enough to leave a comment on the blogpost but unfortunately it got caught in the spam filters. I've rescued it, but, for those who missed it, here it is in full:
"It's David Babbs from 38 Degrees here. I've just posted the comment below on David Gillon's original blog post (http://davidg-flatout.blogspot.com/2011/11/disabled-people-betrayed-by-38-degrees.html#comments)

We have not "cancelled the results" of a previous poll. We run fresh polls every month or so, quite often with different options if new potential campaign ideas have arisen. This is so that we keep an up to date picture of what 38 Degrees members want to be working on.

You can read more about how 38 Degrees members shape what 38 Degrees campaigns here: http://38degrees.org.uk/pages/faq/

There's a detailed explantion of how the campaign suggestion forum "uservoice" works here: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/suggest-a-campaign

And you can read news stories (and view stats) for past polls here: http://blog.38degrees.org.uk/tag/future-campaigns/


I'm not sure why you think our legal advice confirmed that most of the problems with the NHS legislation have already been resolved. I think our legal team would be quite surprised to read that interpretation!

I am sorry to hear that you have decided to leave 38 Degrees. But that's obviously up to you.

--

My comment on David Gillon's blog:


Hi, it's David Babbs from 38 Degrees here. I am sorry it has taken some time to reply to this debate. The whole 38 Degrees office has been very busy pulling together the latest stage of our NHS campaign which needed to go live today in time for a debate in the House of Lords this Wednesday.

To be honest, not including welfare cuts in this month's member poll was a mistake. The member of the office team in charge of preparing the poll this month was in a car accident last weekend (she will be okay, but it was quite nasty and she's currently still off work). In the scramble to get the poll out in her absence we left a couple of things off by mistake. We couldn’t add an extra issue in half way through as that would have definitely badly skewed all the results.

I don't think the omission actually matters that much in the practice – though I am very sorry for the negative impression it has caused. We have polled the 38 Degrees membership around this issue several times before and I feel pretty sure on the basis of all that information that if we can find a way in which 38 Degrees members can make a real difference to this campaign, they will want to take part. The office team is already actively looking at ways we can contribute to this campaign, and we are in touch with many organisations active in this area. That won’t stop because of this omission.

There are two main reasons why we haven't done more on welfare cuts and their impact on disabled people so far. The first is that we are still only small and can only do a very limited number of things at once. The NHS campaign has been massive, and has been quite a struggle for us to keep on top of it. I wish we had more staff so we could do more. The second issue has been trying to work out where 38 Degrees members could add value to the excellent work already being done by other groups already. We don't want to simply duplicate (or even worse dilute) the great work of groups like Hardest Hit and Broken of Britain. We don't want to just do something for the sake of being seen to do something to.

The implication that we're in some way deliberately skewing the results of polls/ignoring past poll results because of some bias against disabled people is wrong. To be honest I find it a bit upsetting to read this accusation. As we explain on the uservoice forum, where an issue is popular we poll our membership on it in other ways. We don't rely on uservoice alone for two reasons: firstly most 38 Degrees members don't regularly visit so it isn't necessarily representative, and secondly non-members can vote which can skew the results. The DLA issue has been very high on uservoice for some time, which has led to us including it in several member polls since."
Unfortunately I have to disagree with quite a bit of what David Babbs has said.

For starters, he is correct in that they didn't cancel the poll. They started a new monthly one.

But what he doesn't mention is that the issue here stems from the fact that there were two very popular campaign suggestions relating to disability benefits. 38Degrees then agreed to merge the two campaign suggestions given that they were so similar.

However, in the process, thousands of votes were lost. 38Degrees promised to fix this. Months later and, despite repeated promised they would, they still haven't got round to restoring the missing votes. There have been a lot of peope complaining to them about this but they've been brushed off and ignored.

And the fact is that these missing votes, plus subsequent votes in other monthly polls, show that this is a campaign idea that has massive support from 38Degrees members. Despite that, there hasn't been any kind of other consultation with members - which means that the excuse about "not using uservoice alone" is a load of hokum. This is clearly a popular issue yet they haven't even taken baby steps towards looking at potentially running a campaign.

On top of that, if they are so member driven, then why is it that another reason given for not doing the campaign is because they don't want to duplicate the work of other organisations? Believe it or not, more than one organisation campaigning on something is usually more effective than just one. I can't even believe that David Babbs seems to think that they shouldn't campaign on an issue just because someone else is - does that mean they'll be stopping their forests campaign given that the National Trust is also campaigning on the issue?

Now, it is reasonable enough that David says that 38Degrees doesn't have the resources to run lots of campaigns. But let's be honest, a lot of their activities involve writing petitions and getting people to sign them and to also write to MPs or peers. That isn't particularly intensive given that all it requires is sending out emails to their members and that there are lots of disabled people who would leap at the chance to volunteer to help with this by actually doing the research to write the petition and all that other stuff that might otherwise consume 38Degrees resources.

And, given that this issue was more popular with their members even than the NHS, why is it that they can't spare the resources for disabled people but can spare the resources for three separate campaigns on wildlife in general, forests and badgers? Are you really telling me that those all necessitate a separate, dedicated campaign each while 2 million disabled people don't even deserve one?

Finally, with regards to the legal advice produced by the NHS, here's a very good analysis of what the advice actually said and how it's been misrepresented by 38Degrees. Basically, one of the big things 38Degrees has been campaigning against (and frightening people about) is the "opening of the NHS to competition law" in a manner they say will be just as though the NHS were a utility like gas or electricity. But, when you actually look at the bill, you can see that there is no change between the current competition regime and the one used in the NHS bill.

The other thing they're tearing their hair out over is the removal of the "duty to provide". But again, in point of fact, the only significant change is replacing the current Primary Care Trusts (which currently have the "duty to provide") with GP consortiums (which will have an identical "duty to provide").

Now, I don't agree with the NHS bill in its entirety and, overall, I think it's a massive waste of time and resources. However, the way 38Degrees presents the issues over the NHS reforms is misleading and fosters misunderstanding. So you'll have to excuse me if I also disagree with David Babbs over their legal advice.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Buy expensive presents or your kids will hate you!

This is one of what is becoming something of a series of blogposts written in half an hour of my lunch break. Hopefully this will force me not to ramble on at ridiculous length.

What follows is Littlewood's Christmas Advert:


For those of you unable to watch it, the basic premise of the advert is a bunch of children performing a nativity play where they talk about their "lovely, lovely" mothers who are "wicked" because they've bought christmas presents such as an Xbox, a HTC phone and an Optimus Prime toy. There then follows an exhortation to go to Littlewoods stores for great gift ideas.

Now, I'm not by any means a kill joy but this advert is literally sickening. Much to my annoyance, it keeps on coming on the radio and whenever it does I find myself forced to turn it off - that's how nauseating I find it.

What the advert boils down to is emotional blackmail. If you buy your children really expensive presents for christmas then they'll think you're awesome. Implied of course is that if you don't spend hundreds of pounds on expensive gifts then you're a bad parent.

Well, I don't know about everyone else but when I was a kid I did get some expensive presents. And I won't pretend I didn't like getting them. But the novelty usually wore off after a few days and then the games were ignored. What I really loved as a kid was having both my parents around for christmas and spending time with me. That's what children want for christmas, they want to feel loved by their parents.

Alternatively you could do as the advert suggests and work long hours to save up the £600 or so that the presents mentioned woulc cost. But while you're working long hours your children won't have you around. Or you could buy them on credit and load yourself up with debt just to pay for some presents that your kids will forget about after a couple of months.

And this is what really makes me hate the consumerist message pushed in adverts like the Littlewoods one. They urge people to spend money they can't afford to buy things they don't need in order to make their children like them. And, by pushing this message, more children will find themselves with parents to busy working to spend time with them and more families will find themselves loaded up with debt this christmas.

More broadly this is the problem with our economic model. What we've effectively done is create an economy and society which knows the price of everything but values nothing.

So, if you really need to be told, don't waste your money on expensive presents. Spend time with your kids instead - that's all they really want for christmas.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Why I've left 38Degrees

I joined the online campaign organisation 38Degrees well over a year ago. But yesterday I finally made the decision to leave.

For a while now I've been a bit exasperated by the way 38Degrees has been behaving. For example, inundating individual members of the House of Lords with exactly the same email from thousands of 38Degrees members is exactly the wrong way to get them to listen to concerns about legislation and exactly the right way to get them to just delete all of the emails without reading them.

On top of that, during their campaign against the NHS reforms they commissioned detailed legal advice which reviewed the NHS reforms. The legal advice came back and said that most of the problems 38Degrees were campaigning against (such as the idea that the NHS would be privatised) weren't actually an issue as changes to the legislation had already resolved them.

But instead of listening to this advice, 38Degrees kept on sending out emails to their members (such as me) saying that the NHS was about to be privatised. And then they launched this massive campaign to get the House of Lords to reject the legislation as soon as it reached them. But that's not how it works, if a parliamentarian objects to legislation they'll still vote to allow it to be debated as that then allows the legislation to be amended to tackle the problems that they're concerned about. And so, predictably, a lot of the peers who were inundated with emails claiming that allowing the NHS reforms to be debated would mean the end of the NHS decided to just ignore any future emails from 38Degrees as they knew that what was being said in them wasn't true at all.

So that was my first beef with them. But I still stuck with them, signing petitions when I agreed with the campaign issue.

But yesterday I found out about something which really pissed me off. You see, 38Degrees members get to vote to decide what to campaign on. There's this huge list of issues suggested by members and the ones which get the most votes become official campaigns.

Well, in the last vote, the issue that came top was the cuts to benefits for disabled people - something that will cause real hardship for thousands of people who will be unable to cope with it. But, instead of campaigning on this issue, 38Degrees cancelled all the results and started the voting again from scratch, and this time they got the answer they wanted - the NHS reforms emerged as the top campaign issue.

Now, I don't object to them campaigning on the NHS, but it is a disgrace that they ignored the plight of around 2 million long term sick and disabled while happily campaigning to protect a few trees from being sold off to private companies.

As far as I'm concerned, 38Degrees has lost its way. And I'm not going to have any part in it any more.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Futility

So, yesterday I caught the tail end of the BBC "documentary" (given the utter lack of facts in the program it's necessary to use quotation marks) on benefit fraud. If you read this you'll see just how inaccurate and distorting the program was - for example, claiming that benefit fraud cost £22 billion when it only costs £4 billion, a fraud rate of about 0.5%.

And because of programs like this propagating myths about benefit fraud being widespread, when in reality it has been falling for years, its not surprising that disability hate crime is on the increase, that politicians are cutting benefits to people who need it on the basis of what they read in the Mail rather than medical evidence and that you have MPs suggesting that disabled people not be protected under minimum wage legislation.

It's utterly despicable.

And, predictably, all this got me angry.

But now it all just feels so futile. What can I do about it? I can write to the beeb to complain but they'll just ignore it. And even if they accepted they'd completely broken any basic journalistic standards (which they have) then what would they do about it? Maybe have a retraction somewhere on the BBC website which no one would ever read? And meanwhile thousands of people will have seen the trailers for the show or even the show itself and never know that it was utterly wrong.

And journalists in right wing newspapers will still hold it up as proof that we need to be even tougher on scrounging scum like people with MS or mental illnesses.

And the DWP and politicians will continue to progress with their twisted agendas to save money at the expense of the most vulnerable, ignoring any voices of opposition. I mean, sure, I managed to get a motion passed. But has the party leadership taken it seriously? Nope. The best we've got is Liberal Youth lobbying individual peers and, if we're lucky, those peers might decide to change government legislation. That's all we can hope for. There's no chance in hell of any top down change to the government's reforms - they'll stick with them even in the face of mass suffering by disabled people rather than admit they were wrong.

But, let's say we manage to get the motion implemented. Big whoop. We'll still have to fight the next idiotic and damaging government initiative a few months down the line.

And I'm healthy! I'm not a sick or disabled person who's actively under threat because of attitudes like that in the BBC program and in the government. Imagine how much worse this sense of powerlessness must be for them!

So here I am, with very little ability to change anything. The only way I'll ever be able to make real change is if I enter politics properly. But I'm at uni now. If I wait until I've finished my course I'll have missed the next general election. Assuming it'll take two or three attempts before I get elected (if ever) that means a ten to twenty year wait before I'd ever be in a position to change things. And that's depressing. Because in that ten to twenty years disabled people will continue to be victimised by our media, our government and our twisted society which thinks it's acceptable to hurl abuse at disabled people simply for the crime of being born.

This whole affair has made me more determined than ever to try and enter politics to do something about it but it's an utter fucking disgrace that people like me feel it necessary to do so just in order to get basic human decency in the treatment of our most vulnerable.

And, incidentally, if the BBC thinks I'll ever buy a tv license while it continues to produce such lying bullshit then they've got another think coming.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Jenny Willot needs to do more

What prompts the title of this post is a recent and disappointingly brief statement by Jenny Willot in her capacity as Co-Chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary committee on the Department of Work and Pensions.

In it she says the following:
"The Government, assisted by Professor Harrington, have made great strides towards improving the WCA but it's important that we go even further.
"The WCA has been so poor for so long and many sick and disabled people have been terrified by horror stories about the way Atos work and some of the ludicrous decisions they have made. We need not only to improve the system, but also to restore the faith of people that the system will treat them fairly.
"This means ensuring that the assessment process is fit for purpose, but also providing better training for DWP decision makers and Atos assessors so that claimants and the public can trust that decisions are sound and everyone gets a fair hearing."
The system which she is talking about is one which the government is forcing 1.8 million people through. But it is an inhumane system. A system which bullies disabled people and leaves them living in fear. One which makes them feel guilty for being forced to claim and which denies them dignity, hope and self-respect. which denies them dignity, hope and self-respect. A system which has caused mental health problems and suicides amongst people going through it - purely due to the fear and the stress.

When we opposed child detention it was because of maybe a few hundred cases of inhumane treatment, trauma, both mental and physical and suicides in vulnerable people at the mercy of the state. That was a brilliant thing for us to do and I cannot describe how proud I am that we spoke out against it and put an end to it.

But what is happening with the sickness and disability benefits system is far worse. In this case we are not talking about a few hundreds of cases of inhumane treatment, trauma or suicide. We are talking about thousands.

The fact that vulnerable people are even considering suicide because of the way they are treated is a national disgrace. These people deserve support. They deserve compassion. They deserve far better than a few mildly critical remarks about the system by Jenny Willot where she says that disabled people have been terrified by "horror stories" rather than the acknowledging that most of them are justly terrified by their own experiences.

I don't have anything against Jenny Willot in particular, but she knows full well what the situation is really like. She knows full well the problems with it and she knows that party policy on this is far stronger than merely saying that "more training" is needed. And, above all, she must know that the system is so flawed that the government's reforms will only make things worse.

Now, sooner or later a story about inhumane treatment of disabled people at the hands of the welfare system will make headline news. When it does we will rightly be blamed for allowing it to happen.

I say rightly because, if people like Jenny don't attack this with the same vigour they did child detention, then we will be condoning it through our silence. I don't know if Jenny's working behind the scenes on this, but if this brief statement is the best she can manage publicly then it doesn't matter. The only think that can really create the momentum for real change is top politicians speaking out about this appalling issue.

Staying silent about this is shameful. We have to speak out on this issue. When people are dying, silence and cowardice cannot be alllowed to be an option.