Saturday, 31 December 2011

Election results 2015: 40 Lib Dem seats

A week is said to be a long time in politics so it's incredibly foolhardy to make predictions about politics in three to four years' time. However, I'm going to do it anyway.

I predict that in the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems will get around 40 seats in parliament.

This prediction comes from taking the results of the latest ICM poll, putting the results into the UK Polling Report swingometer and then making some adjustments.

I chose ICM because they are the "gold standard" when it comes to polling. They got the vote shares in the 2010 general election almost spot on, likewise with the Scottish 2011 elections and they also got the vote shares in the AV referendum within 0.2% of the actual result.

ICM uses a methodology which includes weighting responses by the liklihood to vote and reallocating half of "don't know" answers to the party they voted for last time. Which methodology pollsters should use remains debatable but in ICM's case it seems to be pretty accurate.

Now, ICM has had the Lib Dems at around 14 or 15% for most of 2011. Overall, things have been pretty consistent with them.

So, what I've done is to take the latest ICM poll (CON 37%, LAB 36% LDEM 15%) and adjusted the figure slightly. I've tried to be fair with the adjustments as they're based on the fact that the Lib Dems still don't get equal news coverage at the moment and therefore can expect their position to improve slightly when the next election comes round and the news media (apart from newspapers) is required to provide balanced coverage. In previous elections this has given the Lib Dems a boost of 5 points or more when it comes to votes actually cast on polling day. To allow for Lib Dem unpopularity caused by going into coalition, I've reduced that boost to 3 points. This means reducing the current position of other groups in the ICM poll as follows:

Conservatives: -1 (A slight loss from 2010, probably realistic as support they've won will be offset by the impact of the unpopularity of cuts and by the fickleness of those swing voters who always vote against the government)
Labour: -1 (Still a big improvement on their 2010 position and allows for a slight loss of support due to protest voters reconsidering Labour as they come under closer scrutiny during the election campaign)
Lib Dems: +3 (As explained above)
Others: -1 (Still leaves them three points higher than they did in 2010)

Once these adjusted figures are put into the swingometer we get the following:



Con Conservative 272 seats (-34)
Lab Labour 310 seats (+52)
LD Liberal Democrats 41 seats (-16)
Other Others 11% 9 seats (-2)
NI Northern Ireland

18 seats (nc)

Now, that's based on a uniform swing on the 2010 election results. But the 2015 general election will most likely be fought on the new boundaries which will see an equalisation of constituency sizes and reduction in the number of seats to 600.

One of the main effect of the boundary changes will be to remove the current bias towards Labour. As you can see from the swingometer, Labour can get less votes than the tories and get more seats. This will also mean that all of the parties get less seats than they have at the moment.

Now, current predictions are that, under the boundary changes (and excluding Wales, as the boundary changes there haven't been published yet) the Lib Dems would get 44 seats if their vote share remained unchanged.

The caveat to this however is that the Lib Dems in particular have a tendency of bucking the national trend where they have MPs. This is called the incumbency effect.

For example, the party president, Tim Farron MP, is notable for being one of the very few MPs in the country who won over half the votes in his constituency, including those who didn't turn out to vote. So that means that over half the population in his constituency support him. Yet his seat is being abolished in the boundary changes and is being split between what is notionally a tory seat and what is notionally a very marginal Labour seat. But Tim has a long, long record of squeezing Labour voters in his seat and persuading them to vote for him and there's no reason why he couldn't do the same in the new seat of Barrow-in-Furness. On top of that, his activists and campaigners who have been moved to the new tory seat are highly likely to travel up to Barrow to campaign for Tim there rather than waste their time in a tory seat that they won't be able to win. So it's highly likely that Tim will remain an MP despite his seat being abolished.

It's not unlikely that the Lib Dems could do similar things throughout the rest of the country, but that's not accounted for in these notional predictions of the impact of the boundary changes. But then again, neither is the Lib Dem loss in support since 2010.

So, as a crude measure to take these effects into account, I'm going to say that they'll pretty much cancel each other out. And that's why I'm going to predict that the Lib Dems, after the impact of the incumbency effect, after the seats in Wales are added to the total, and after the impact of the loss of support, are going to win a minimum of 40 seats in the next general election.

What's very much harder to predict is the totals of seats that Labour and Tories will get. The notional impact of the boundary changes (excluding Wales) would give the Tories 293 seats and Labour 209. Given that both parties are likely to have fairly equal levels of support in 2015 I've decided to split the difference somewhat. This gives both parties about 250 seats each. However, the Tories are likely to stay ahead somewhat in England where they are traditionally stronger than Labour and Labour are likely to stay ahead somewhat in Wales where they are traditionally stronger than the Tories.

Wales is due to lose 10 seats under the boundary review, bringing the total number of seats to 30. I'm going to guess that Labour will continue to get well over half the seats in Wales while the tories are likely to lose most of their gains from the last election due to the combined impact of the seat reductions and of the swing back towards Labour.

It's impossible to hazard a guess of any sort on the exact numbers of seats Labour and the tories are going to get but it's almost certain that neither of them will be able to achieve a majority with their current polling figures. It's also likely that one or both of them will be able to form a majority with the help of the 40+ Lib Dem seats. So this means that, despite our loss in support, the Lib Dems will still be in a position to enter a coalition or a confidence-and-supply agreement which would enable us to continue implementing some Lib Dem policies.

Personally, I think some sort of agreement with Labour would be best, preferably a confidence-and-supply agreement, because that would show that we are capable of working with both of the other parties whereas a second Lib-Tory coalition would risk us losing our identity as an independent party. And a confidence-and-supply agreement would also allow us to get the occasional headline grabbing Lib Dem policy implemented whilst also giving us time in opposition to rebuild our support. That's my personal preference though and the fact is that the outcome of the next election is still very much in the lap of the gods.

Things could also change radically between now and 2015 as unforeseen events can overturn everything in an instance (after all, Thatcher was well on the way to becoming an unpopular, one-term Prime Minister before the Falklands Conflict boosted her popularity to a landslide second term). That said, I think that my key prediction is likely to come true:

At the next election the Lib Dems will win 40 or more seats in parliament.

P.S. I've assumed that Scotland won't vote for independence in a referendum and will instead plump for some sort of devo-max.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Hiatus over

Well, I know I've been a bit quiet lately so I'd just like to take the opportunity this lunch time to inform my loyal reader all my loyal readers that the hiatus is over and I will now begin blogging again with more regularity now that the holidays are out of the way.

That said, unfortunately I can't think of anything to blog about right this minute so I'll just conclude by saying that the most unusual present I received this year was an adoption pack for an Indian elephant that my aunt has adopted on my behalf. Her name is Kiruna (or something like that) and apparently she lives in a national park somewhere in northern India. I can safely say that it is a present I never expected but one that I'm very pleased with all the same.

Incidentally, my cousin's present was the adoption of a tiger. Given that he's already fairly good at fencing, I'm starting to wonder if he's about to become He-Man:

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

I'd like to wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! (And, for the benefit of the fictional PC brigade: happy Winterval as well).

Monday, 19 December 2011

How laws are made - #WRB

This is one of my lunchtime series of blogposts.

Yesterday I was reviewing the progress of the hideously flawed Welfare Reform Bill through the House of Lords and realised that I wasn't entirely sure about what was meant to happen next. Given that I'm something of a political anorak, it suddenly dawned on me that if I didn't understand what was going on then it was highly likely that most people wouldn't understand what was going on either. So this blog post will be dedicated to giving a very brief overview of the way in which parliament passes laws and what this means for the Welfare Reform Bill.

Laws can be written and proposed in either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. A law passed by parliament is called an Act of Parliament while one which hasn't yet been passed is called a Bill.

Procedures differ slightly depending on which House the bill originates in but the basics remain the same. The first stage is the First Reading which is where the bill is formally proposed. It's not voted on at this stage as this is just a formality.

The first test comes at the Second Reading of the bill. At this point a debate and a vote will take place on the principle of the bill. It's very rare for a bill not to be passed at this stage as even people who disagree with the bill will still often vote for it in principle with the intent of amending it later. An example of where this happened is the NHS Reform Bill where Lib Dems who disagreed with a lot of the proposals in the bill still voted for it at the Second Reading so that they could try and amend it later.

After the Second Reading comes the committee stage - this is where the bill is examined and detailed amendments are proposed. This can take quite a while. At the end of it, the bill then enters the Report stage where amendments and the bill as a whole are debated line by line. Finally, the bill will then move onto the Third Reading which will debate and vote on the final version of the bill. If the bill is in the Commons then the votes on amendments will take place at the Report stage - if it's in the Lords then amendments can be voted on and proposed in both the Report stage and the Third Reading.

Assuming the bill is passed, it will then move onto the other House of parliament for the entire process to be repeated again. So if a bill starts in the Commons (such as the Welfare Reform Bill) then it will go all the way through to the Third Reading in the Commons, after which it will be passed to the Lords which will then repeat the same process.

The only time a bill need not go through both Houses of Parliament is if it's a supply bill (e.g. the government's budget) or a confidence bill (e.g. a bill which tests whether the government still has a majority in the House of Commons).

After a bill has made it through the second House then two things can happen. If the second House hasn't made any changes to the bill then it's approved by parliament and goes onto receive Royal Assent and becomes a law. If changes have been made, or the bill has been rejectded entirely, then it has to go back to the House it came from for the entire procedure to be repeated again and the changes either approved, rejected or amended. If the original House rejects the changes, or makes additional changes, then the bill is then sent back to the second House for the same thing to happen there. A bill will ping pong back and forth between the two houses until both of them agree on the same exact text of the bill.

However, the Commons has the option of using the Parliament Act to force through a law without the Lords being able to block or amend it. This is an extremely lengthy and difficult process though, which is why it has only happened in the past for crucial pieces of legislation which the government places a priority on. Most of the time the government will prefer to try and reach some sort of compromise as to try and use the Parliament Act for every bill would tie up parliament so much that only a handful of pieces of legislation would be able to be passed before the next general election.

The Welfare Reform Bill is currently at the Report stage in the Lords and will enter the Third Reading in the new year. As the Lords have already made at least one amendment to it, the bill will have to go back to the Commons. And if the Commons makes any further changes to the bill then it will have to go back to the Lords once again. The long and short of it being that legislative ping pong makes it look like it'll be quite a while before the time limit to ESA gets implemented - assuming it's not scrapped entirely of course.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Texans are an invented people

 This is one of my series of lunchtime blogposts.

The man who looks likely to be Obama's opponent in the 2012 US presidential elections is Newt Gingrich - the man who once closed down the federal government because President Clinton made him sit at the back of a plane.

In an interview, Gingrich thought it would be a good idea to describe the Palestinians as "an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it's tragic".

When challenged over this he then decided to add that "Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists."

Well, Gingrich is an idiot. His entire argument is that Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire and was never a country in its own right and therefore Palestinians are an "invented people".

But the thing is that that can apply to a lot of people: there was never an Argentinian state until it gained indepence from the Spanish Empire, the same with Uruquay and Paraguay and others. A lot of the Balkan nations never existed as independent nations until recently either.

Yet all of them have a national identity. Now, national identity is an invention. It was a concept invented in the 18th and 19th centuries and which has gradually been spreading throughout the world ever since.

So if you're going to use the argument that national identity is an invented concept then you have to apply it equally. So let's look at the biggest example of an "invented people" in history: the Americans.

After all, Americans don't have any single cultural identity or ethnicity to bind them together - they're a mixing pot of every race, culture, religion and creed imaginable. Yet you can hardly say Americans don't have a national identity. But, then again, the USA gained independence from the British so you can say that now they're a nation, they have a national identity.

But what about the US states?

Look at Texas, or Iowa, or Ohio, or Indiana. All of these states have strong identities. Yet only Texas was ever an independent nation (and even then only briefly). But you try and tell a Texan. or an Iowan, or an Ohian or a Hoosier that they're an invented people. Yeah, they might have come from all over the world before settling in their respective states but that doesn't stop them from having a strong identity as a state. Iowans will tell you about how they're self-reliant, how they sort out their problems for themselves, Texans will tell you about going to church and family values, and so on with the others.

So if they obviously have their own identity then who the fuck does Gingrich think he is to tell another group of people they can't have their own? Yes, Palestinians are Arabs - but so are the Israelis when you look back far enough. To deny them a national identity simply because of their race means you might as well say that there's no such thing as a Frenchman or an Englishman or a Scotsman or a German because they're all Europeans ethnically.

And as for the terrorist comments - does Gingrich really have nothing other than horse manure for brains?

There are about 4 million people living in the Palestinian territories - anyone who says that every single one of them, right down to the last man, woman, child and newborn baby is a terrorist is an absolute idiot. More than that, they're a bigot. It's exactly that kind of deadly bigotry that led to millions of Jews being killed in the Holocaust. When you say that one group of arbitrarily defined people are bad then it's only a few steps from there to genocide.


Now, I don't want to go into the ins and outs of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because there are faults on both sides. But if you and your family have lived on and owned a piece of land for centuries, which is your only livlihood, imagine how you might react when a foreigner from another continent pitches up and declares that it belongs to them now because their distant ancestors lived in the region and because bad things happened to their people in another country and that if you want to stay then you'll have to become a second class citizen.

Under those circumstances, it's not surprising that some Palestiniant turn to violence against a state that they view as besieging and arbitrarily punishing the inhabitants of Gaza and that is constantly stealing more of their land. And, likewise, it's not surprising that some Israelis take extreme views when their religion has made them a persecuted minority for the best part of two thousand years and when people living in their country are regularly attacked by indiscriminate rocket and suicide attacks originating from people who follow a religion which has not exactly shown historical frienship to Jews.

So for an outsider to wade into a decades old conflict, without any apparent knowledge or understanding of the issue, and to state that one group does not have a right to exist, as they are made up, and that that group are all terrorists anyway is absolutely repugnant.

And, just to turn it the other way round, imagine what would have happened if a politician had got up and said:

"The Jews are an invented people, and they're all terrorists."

Except of course, we don't have to imagine it - a politician once regularly said something similar and he was Adolf Hitler.

So, in conclusion, congratulations to Newt Gingrich for being the kind of idiotic, shit-for-brains, racist moron who makes arguments using the same logic that the Nazis did. Well fucking done.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Help protect disabled people with a single email

Caron's said this better than I can, so I'm crossposting what she said. Please, please act on it:

One of the great things about this party is that ordinary members can get involved in policy making. Look at what Ewan Hoyle's achieved in getting through an evidence based drugs policy as an example. Our raising of the tax threshold policy was the brainchild of WLD member Lizzie Jewkes. Our Conference is the sovereign body of the party and means that we as ordinary members have big say in the direction of the party.

There has never been a more important time to be a member of the party. Now we have a chance to influence what the Government does. This week, I've been asking you to sign George's and my petition asking ministers to make sure that all chemotherapy patients are not hassled by ATOS to do work capability assessments. A couple of months ago, I asked you to write to Lib Dem peers to make sure that they voted in accordance with the motion on Employment and Support Allowance passed at our Birmingham Conference.

The Welfare Reform Bill has been wending its way through the Lords over the past few weeks and the next few days see some critical votes. One of the most iniquitous parts of this legislation is the withdrawal of contributory ESA from people after a year, regardless of their condition. The most compelling argument on this I heard came at Scottish Conference from Ken Reed, the incoming chair of RNIB Scotland:
Ken is a really eloquent speaker and made the clearest argument I've so far heard against the arbitrary time limit for contributory ESA. He asked us all to imagine what it would be like if we lost our sight tomorrow. It would take us 12 months just to get used to life as a blind person. No way would you be ready to get into the job market again.  You can see what he means. Imagine if it happened to you - once you've got over the sheer shock and can get around your own home without incident, there's becoming fluent in Braille to consider. Maybe you could have a look at an introduction to Russian or Chinese to see how quickly your brain could learn to process different symbols properly just to get a smidgen of an idea of what that would be like.
Yet, under the Government's plans, that newly blind person would be left without any ESA after 12 months. The person whose body is wracked from exposure to toxins at almost fatal limits as a result of chemo is unlikely to have recovered. And what of long term conditions from Depression to Crohn's Disease? What's particularly bad is that it's darned hard to get decent treatment for many mental health conditions. Nick Clegg's helped that with an extra £400 million for talking therapies, but it's still not enough.

If you want to see our peers vote in accordance with the policy passed in Birmingham which was very clear that Lib Dems in Government should "oppose arbitrary time limits" then you need to encourage them along that path by writing to them soon. Pick as many as you like at random. Campaigner Sue Marsh, at Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, has suggested a template letter. I think it's vital that our Peers see the strength of feeling amongst our membership on this, so please write yourself and encourage others to do so.

You can take your pick from the list here. If you know them personally, so much the better - the more you can write to the merrier.

These are a crucial series of votes which make a huge difference to sick and disabled people. Please take some time out of your day to e-mail our peers and let our party leadership know how strongly we feel on these issues.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Scottish pandas, Scandinavian salmon and Chinese dissidents

This is one of my series of lunch time blogposts.

I'm ashamed to say that I make a point of not commenting on Scottish affairs - mainly out of ignorance and out of fear of being swamped by cybernats frothing at the mouth at an Englishman daring to tell Scots how to run their lives (in fairness, I do have a regular cybernat visitor in my coment threads already - but he seems fairly tame).

However, I was reading Private Eye this lunchtime and I noticed a brief piece about the two Chinese pandas that have arrived at Edinburgh zoo. Although Private Eye neglected to mention that the pandas were drunk within two minutes of arrival (that's a joke by the way) they did mention a few interesting facts.

The first is that the pandas are not a "gift" to Edinburgh zoo as they remain property of the Chinese government - which is why Edinburgh zoo will be paying £1 million+  over ten years to lease the animals.

The second is that the arrival of the pandas coincides neatly with the Scottish and Chinese governments agreeing to export thousands of tons of Scottish salmon to China - something which has meant the expansion of 441 Scottish fish farms with the associated increase in pollution.

The reason for the sudden boom in Scottish salmon exports is the Chinese banning the import of Norwegian salmon following the Nobel Prize Committee deciding to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident and artist Liu Xiaobo.

Whilst it's depressing that the Scottish government is boosting their economy through complicity in China's appalling record on human rights and the suppression of free speech and protest, it's not exactly unique in doing so.

What did strike me though is that, by doing this, the Scottish SNP government are rather sticking two fingers in the air at the Norwegian government's decision not to bow to Chinese pressure to interfere with the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Which is odd given that the SNP have been going on lately about how they want to be much closer to the Scandinavian countries. I won't say anything else now so that at least I'll retain a little bit of a chance of avoiding cybernat wrath.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

An email to Tim Farron about cancer patients

This is one of my series of lunch time blogposts.

I'm afraid I'm going to cheat today. Instead of writing a proper blogpost, I'm just gonna post an email I sent to Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats, yesterday.

You see, yesterday I tweeted Tim about my article on Lib Dem Voice about the government's proposals to force cancer patients to undertake work related activity. Because Tim is so awesome, he replied to my tweet almost immediately and asked me to email him about it. So, below, is the email I sent to him:

------------------------------------------------

Hello,

I tweeted you this article from Lib Dem Voice (http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-government-must-not-force-work-activities-on-cancer-patients-26128.html) and you very kindly said you'd raise the issue with the DoH. As it happens, this issue is actually one governed by the DWP and they're the ones proposing the changes.

Basically, it used to be the case that cancer patients getting chemo intravenously received unconditional support once they'd proved to the DWP they were undergoing the treatment. But radiotherapy patients and patients getting chemo orally were placed in the Work Related Activity Group and were forced to undertake work related activity, such as attending physical interviews with DWP employees, or have their benefits cut, and to undergo medical assessments - despite the fact that radio and oral chemo are just as debilitating and horrible as intravenous chemo.

Macmillan Cancer Support were asked to make recommendation for change on this issue to the Second Year Harrington Report (http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/wca-review-2011.pdf).

The DWP response to the recommendations (http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/wca-review-2011-response.pdf) was to end unconditional support for all cancer patients. Instead, radiotherapy and chemotherapy patients (including those receiving it orally and those receiving it intravenously) will all be forced to undergo medical assessments and will be expected to attend work related interviews. The only good news is that the DWP has said that more of these assessments and work related activity will be made paper based.

This is obviously better than cancer patients having to physically go to assessment centres to undergo the Work Capability Assessment, but it still means that they'll be burdened with form filling in and paperwork, with the threat of financial sanctions hanging over them, when it's obvious that they're sick and really don't need the additional stress.

The DWP's reasoning behind the changes is that to give this group of people unconditional support would prevent those who want to from working or undertaking work related activity but the fact is that those receiving unconditional support have always been entitled to take up work related activity provided by the DWP if they want to.

Macmillan aren't happy about this (http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Aboutus/News/Latest_News/DWPproposestoforcechemotherapypatientstoundergostressfulbenefitchecks.aspx) and, aside from all the ethical and moral reasons for us Lib Dems to want this group of cancer patients to receive unconditional support (which is my primary concern), it could potentially turn into a damaging PR disaster for the government and us as a party by association.

It's be really great if you could try and convince the DWP to change their minds on this issue.

I know that as an MP and Party President you must have a lot on your plate (and that's probably understating matters) but if you could also find a few minutes to read this brief overview of the disability benefits situation (http://thepotterblogger.blogspot.com/2011/12/concise-disability-benefits-fact-sheet.html) as it should give you an idea of the context of the overall situation within which this change is taking place. The time limit, in particular, will hit cancer patients (as well as the sick and disabled in general) and is in fact something which autumn conference opposed by unanimously passing a motion against it.

Thank you so much for your time.

Best Regards,
George Potter

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

An email to the spammers

This is an email to the company that a spambot in the Potter Blogger's comment threads recently linked to:


To support@laws.com

Dear Sir/Madam,

Is the blogspot profile CPSL (http://www.blogger.com/profile/07428876147362609952) anything to do with you? As far as I can tell it appears to be a spam bot which has been leaving links to your website in the comment threads on my blog (http://thepotterblogger.blogspot.com/).

Here is an example of the kind of messages it has been leaving:

CPSL said...
Attorney and Law Firm Information and Directory. Find Legal Information, Laws and local Attorneys. legal advice

If this spam bot is anything to do with you then kindly desist from using it on my blog. It's pretty shoddy as it doesn't even make an attempt to pretend it's related to the blogposts it comments on and it's immediately obvious that it's spam. In any event, there's no point in it as I immediately flag as spam and remove any comments it leaves.

So, aside from being incredibly irritating, it's utterly pointless. As I said, if CPSL is anything to do with you then please keep it away from my blog. And, incidentally, if it is anything to do with you then I think you should know that using spambots is a sign of an utterly pathetic business. If you struggle to attract clients so much that you're forced to rely on spambots then you really have hit rock bottom and you might as well give up and try something of use to society. Such as cleaning sewers.

Yours sincerely,
George Potter

Idle Speculation

This is one of my series of lunchtime blogposts.

Idle speculation and day dreaming is one of my favourite ways of wasting time. And, lucky you, you're about to be introduced to a piece of my groundless, out-of-thin-air, speculation about the new planet recently discovered by astronomers.

Courtesy of the BBC

Kepler22-b or, as I will henceforth refer to it, lizardworld, is nearly two and a half times the size of the Earth, has liquid water on the surface and has an average temperature of 22C.

Now, you might be wondering why I've decided to name it lizardworld. Well, that's because I've been wondering what kind of life might exist there, if life does exis there.

Of course, the only thing we have to go on is Earth's own lifeforms and alien life could be radically different.

But, if we assume life does exist, the first place to look for it would be in the oceans. Algae and plankton are some of the simplest life forms so I guess there might be something similar on lizardworld. And fish of some sort would probably be there and would most likely look something similar to what we have on Earth - that's because the evolution of the body shapes of fish is determined by the bouyancy of water rather than by gravity.

And, if there are fish then it's possible that some of them might have crawled onto land and become amphibians. And, much like on Earth, these amphibians could possibly have evolved into some sort of lizards. They might have different numbers of limbs and eyes (they'd almost certainly have eyes as those have evolved independently in several species on Earth) and it's anyone's guess what their body structure would be like in gravity 2.4 times greater than ours.

But, if these lizards do exist then they'd probably be cold blooded. With an average temperature of 22C (as opposed to 15C on Earth) then there wouldn't be any need for them to adapt to cold temperatures - which would also mean no evolution of anything equivalent to animals.

So, letting my imagination run wild, I'm gonna guess that the dominant life form on lizardworld will be cold blooded lizards. They'll also probably be stumpy and muscular due to the high gravity.

Of course, this is all assuming that they have plants which photosynthesise carbon dioxide to oxygen so that these lizards can breathe. That's assuming they breathe oxygen of course.

Anyway, what my imagination has produced is a balmly planet, with nice sandy beaches and ruled by giant monitor lizards. Although this might sound like a nice place for a holiday, sadly, even if you were to travel at 500 kilometres a second it would still take you over 36,000 years to get there.

On the brightside, this means that no one will be able to disprove my speculation for a while yet :)

Monday, 5 December 2011

Concise disability benefits fact sheet

This is the concise version of the disability benefits fact sheet I produced earlier. Sources are provided in the long version.

Overall, there are 10 million disabled people in the UK, half of whom are over the state pension age. In total, 19% of the working population are disabled. However, 50% of them are in work with another 1.9 million looking for work. They are hindered in the job market by the fact that 23% of disabled people have no qualifications compared to 9% of the rest of the population. These figures are in line with the European average.

4.7%  of government spending is on disability and sickness benefits. This includes £17.2bn on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) which is paid to 1.8 million sick and disabled people to cover the extra costs caused by their conditions - such as the petrol costs of regular hospital visits. It is a working benefit and a significant number of recipients use it to help them remain in work. Approximately £220 million a year of the DLA budget is lost through fraud and error. However, only £60 million of the money lost is due to deliberate fraud. The rest is lost through errors by claimants or errors by the Department of Work and Pensions. This equates to a fraud rate of just 0.5% for DLA.

In contrast, each year the DWP saves a net £70 million due to DLA underpayments. The maximum amount of DLA a disabled person can receive, incidentally, is £125 a week. Proposals by the government to replace DLA with PIP will lead to a 20% cut in funding.

The main form of support for sick or disabled people whose condition prevents them from working is the Employment Support Allowance (ESA). This is worth up to £100 a week. People claiming ESA are placed in two groups. One group receives contributory ESA which is taxed and which they will only be eligible to receive at full rate for a maximum of 12 months, including a 13 week assessment period where they can receive a maximum of only £67.50 a week. After the 12 months has passed, they will be moved into the income-related ESA group which is means tested and withheld completely from anyone with combined household savings (including those of a partner) of more than £16,000.The means test also removes support if the household income is over £7,500 a year.

The assessment which determines which ESA group claimants will be placed in are carried out by a private company, Atos, which employs assessors who are not required to have any specialist knowledge of the conditions they are assessing. Atos had influence in the development of DWP disability benefit policy.

The assessment itself, the WCA, works on a tick box system. Out of WCA decisions appealed, 40% are overturned, indicating a high inaccuracy rate. The WCA does not properly take into account time variant conditions and many disabled people are stuck in a revolving door where they are found fit to work by the WCA, have the decision overturned on appeal and are called in for another WCA which once again finds them fit to work. Additionally, a large number of the WCA assessment centres lack disabled access.

The WCA also determines whether people belong in the Support or WRAG groups of ESA. Those in the WRAG, which can include cancer patients undergoing radio and chemotherapy, are required to undertake 'work related activity' or face financial sanctions.

The DWP recently proposed halting all ESA payments for claimants who appeal WCA or sanction decisions for the entirety of the appeals process.

Over the past two years reports of disability hate crime have risen by 75%. Disability hate crime includes people being spat on, physically attacked, verbally abused and being thrown out of wheelchairs. More generally, two thirds of British adults admit to actively avoiding disabled people. This situation has been fuelled, at least in part, by a significant increase in the use of pejorative language such as "scroungers" and "fiddlers" by the media when referring to benefits claimants. There have also been a large number of widely reported, inaccurate stories which have made such claims as that the cost of disability benefit fraud is £1 billion, that all 1.5 million households on disability benefits are scroungers and that 70% or 75% are 'perfectly' fit to work. None of these figures are accurate and, for example, the 70% figure comes from including people such as cancer patients as 'fit to work'.

Finally, here is a link to a blogpost which in turn contains links to many terrifying and horrific of what disability hate crime actually means in reality. Please take a few minutes to read them.

NOTE: This was updated on 20/01/12 with some minor changes to make the wording slightly clearer.

Disability benefits fact sheet

This post was prompted by the frankly terrifying level of ignorance and the buying into of myths about disability benefits by some of my fellow Lib Dems. Hopefully this post will go some way towards dispelling ignorance about a vital issue.


If you don't have the patience to read all of this, I'm compiling a separate, concise fact sheet.

Spending on disability benefits

In 20010/11 of £691.7bn of government spending, £32.8bn, or 4.7%, was spent on disability and sickness benefits. This figure includes £17.2bn on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) + Attendance Allowance (an associated benefit) and £7.8 on the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) which is replacing Incapacity Benefit (IB) and Income Support (IS) - the latter of which represents the remaining £7.8bn of spending.

ESA, DLA and the Mobility Allowance are benefits only available to the long term sick and disabled. This is because Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) paid to people by their employer for up to 28 weeks if they are sick and unable to work. Only after this point do long term sickness benefits kick in.

In 2009/10, government expenditure on ESA was £2.84bn. Of this, £1.17bn was spent on Contributory ESA and £1.67bn was spent on Income Related ESA. The overall purpose of ESA is to support people who are unable to work due to long term sickness or disability.

Contributory ESA is paid to those who have made sufficient national insurance contributions and is taxable. This requirement  is waved for those who become unfit for work before the age of 20 (25 in some cases). Income-related ESA is means tested, non-taxable and will not be paid to anyone who has household savings of more than £16,000.

When someone claims ESA there is a 13 week assessment period period where claimants have to undergo various tests and assessments, including the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). During this time, they are paid a reduced rate of ESA of a maximum of £67.50 a week. The highest amount available to someone who has passed the assessments is £99.85 a week.

DLA is a payment made to people to cover the extra costs of long term illness or disability and is received by 1.8 million people. DLA is split into a care component and a mobility component. Someone eligible for the highest rate of both components would receive a total of £125 a week. 1.8 million

DLA is currently in the process of being replaced by PIPs which will be modelled on the ESA assessment system described below. This is intended to cut 20% off spending on DLA. 20% of those on DLA are expected to be ineligible for PIPs.

Number of people claiming disability benefits

People with disabilities
  1. There are over 6.9 million disabled people of working age which represents 19% of the working population.
  2. There are over 10 million disabled people in Britain, of whom 5 million are over state pension age.
  3. There are two million people with sight problems in the UK.
Families with disabled children
  1. There are 770,00 disabled children under the age of 16 in the UK. That equates to 1 child in 20.
  2. Only 8% of families get services from their local social services.
  3. It costs up to three times as much to raise a disabled child as it does to raise a child without disabilities.
Disability and employment
  1. There are currently 1.3 million disabled people in the UK who are available for and want to work.
  2. Only half of disabled people of working age are in work (50%), compared with 80% of non disabled people.
  3. 23% of disabled people have no qualifications compared to 9% of non disabled people.
  4. Nearly one in five people of working age (7 million, or 18.6%) in Great Britain have a disability.
Disability benefit fraud


Official statistics for DLA show that £220m was lost 2009/10 through t fraud and error. Following a DWP press release, a figure which has been quoted in the press is £1bn. The £1bn figure is the total cost of disability benefit fraud and error over the six years from 2004 to 2010.

An official breakdown of the figures showed that, of the £220m, £70m was lost through mistakes by claimants, £90 million was lost through mistakes by the DWP and £60m was lost through deliberate fraud.

Given that the total spending on DLA, and the associated benefit AA, in 2009/10 was £11.8bn, this equates to a fraud rate of just 0.5%.

Additionally, in 2009/10, the government saved £290m through underpayments caused by error. When you take into account the cost of overpayments through error (£220m) this meant that the government saved a net £70m through accidental underpayments - ten million pounds more than the cost of deliberate fraud.

ESA and the WCA


Eligibility for Employment Support Allowance is primarily determined through an assessment process of which the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) plays a key role. WCAs are conducted on behalf of the government by the private IT company Atos Healthcare which has been involved in forming DWP welfare policy. This contract is worth £805m over a ten year period.

The WCAs entail a form which a claimant is required to fill in with details of their condition and an interview with a Health Professional. The Health Professionals employed by Atos consist of doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. They are not required to have any special knowledge of the conditions they assess as their job in the interview is to check the claimant's answers against a computer generated questionnaire. The questionnaire consists of various "descriptors". If a claimant matches a particular descriptor then they receive points. If a claimant gains more than 15 points in the WCA then they are deemed eligible for ESA.

The WCA has been criticised over the inaccuracy of the assessments. Claimants are able to appeal their assessment decisions at an Independent Tribunal. Of those assessment decisions which make it to appeal, 40% are overturned. Where the Citizen's Advice Bureau provides advice and support to claimants going to appeal, 70% of decisions are overturned.

The WCA also determines whether a claimant belongs in the Support group or Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA. Those in the WRAG are required to adhere to strict work-related conditions in order to continue receiving the benefit in full and face financial sanctions if they do not. The conditions may involve attending 'work-focused' interviews.

Government proposals about ESA include time limiting contributory ESA to 12 month (including the 13 week assessment phase where it is paid at a lower rate) after which claimants will be automatically moved into the Work Related Activity Group.

Government proposals on ESA


Government proposals about ESA include time limiting contributory ESA to 12 month (including the 13 week assessment phase where it is paid at a lower rate) after which claimants will be automatically moved into the Work Related Activity Group and required to undertake work related activities. This is a cause for concern as the time limit of 12 months has been arbitrarily selected and is not based on whether a claimant is capable of undertaking work related activity or not.

Other proposals are halting all payment of ESA to claimants while they are appealing against the WCA or against WRAG sanctions and to remove the exemption from work related activity of cancer patients undergoing radio or chemotherapy.

Negative media coverage


One tabloid headline this September said that there were four million scrounging families in Britain. As was pointed out, for this figure to make sense, it has to include all the 1.5 million households living on disability benefits. This is an example of how sick and disabled are painted as scroungers by the media.

In February, following the release of DWP statistics, several media outlets reported that 1.8 million people, or 70%, receiving Incapacity Benefit were fit to work. The figures come from two research projects where IB claimants were reassessed under the criteria of the ESA assessments. These found that 29.6% were found fit to work immediately. The 70% figure came from combining this figure with the 39% who were found to belong in the WRAG. At that time, claimants were placed in the WRAG if they were:
“Suffering from a life threatening disease in relation to which there is medical evidence that the disease is uncontrollable”.
“An in-patient in a hospital or similar institution”.
“[Receiving] regular weekly treatment by way of by way of haemodyalisis or chronic renal failure”
“Receiving treatment by way of intravenous, intraperitoneal or intrathecal chemotherapy;”
This does not equate to everyone in the WRAG being fit to work. Despite this, media coverage, as recorded by Factcheck, described them as fit to work with the Daily Mail in particular using the phrase "perfectly" fit to work.

Following another DWP press release, it was also reported widely in the media that three quarters, or 887,000, of ESA claimants were 'fit to work.' However, 428,800 of these withdrew their claims prior to assessment - given the 13 week assessment period some of these withdrawals will be due to people recovering enough to be fit to work. When the number who appealed decisions, and the appeal success rate, are taken into account, the actual proportion found fit to work was 57%.

It is also worth bearing in mind that all those who previously received IB are being migrated onto ESA via the WCA. ESA was designed to be stricter than IB so the high proportion found fit to work is not necessarily surprising.

More generally, a recent report found a significant increase in both the coverage of disability benefit fraud and in the use of pejorative terms towards disabled people by the media.

Disability hate crime


Disability hate crime in the UK has risen by 75% in the past two years. According to Scope, this is partly due to the vilification of people on welfare by the tabloids. Additionally, two thirds of adults admitted actively avoiding disabled people.

#Occupy protesters are terrorists

This is one of my series of lunchtime blogposts.

This is why we need a Lib Dem Home Secretary.

Today we have the wonderful revelation that the City of London police have labelled #occupy protesters as a "domestic threat". Here's the "Terrorism/Extremism Update" letter where they do so:


In quite literally the same breath as talking about the threat from Al Qaeda and the IRA (terrorist organisations which have killed thousands of people between them) the police also talk about the "domestic threat" from a protest that has so far managed such heinous attacks on our way of life such as annoying the clergy and taking a prolonged camping trip in central London.

This is both chilling and disgusting.

In this country we are fortunate enough to have a strong tradition of freedom and liberty, built up over a thousand years. And every single liberty, every single right - from the right to speak your mind to the right not to be kidnapped and tortured by the police - was fought for and won through relentless struggle that was frequently met with violence and repression from the authorities.

We are not China. We are not Belarus. We are not Nazi Germany. We have rights and one of the most vital of those rights is the right to protest. Likening citizens to murdereds like Al Qaeda purely for activism is nothing less than an utter assault on the right to protest.

Activisim is a brilliant thing. I'm an activist. Everyone in a political party or a charity or a pressure group is engaging in activism. Activism is what builds a strong society, where people feel involved and feel that they have a stake in society. The kind of paranoia that views this as a threat is potentially deadly. It is not a thousand miles away from the thinking that led to the mass imprisonment, torture and execution of protestors in authoritarian regimes throughout human history.

We should be beyond that. Have we learnt nothing from the semi-police state that New Labour created? One where everyone was a suspect and where an attitude of "if you're innocent you shouldn't have anything to hide" prevailed. Except that attitude led to the imprisonment of the innocent. Right now, literally right now, there are men under permanent house arrest, with no prospect of appeal or even a trial, for the crime of being in a house where ricin was being produced. Except there was no ricin. The intelligence that ricin was being produced came from an anonymous tip off and not one shred of evidence to back up that suspicion has ever been produced. Yet, because of that, innocent men are facing life imprisonment without ever having been found guilty in court.

That is exactly the attitude that the paranoia in the above letter leads to. To all liberals this should be utterly abhorrent. Yet, because we have a Home Secretary just as idiotic, just as authoritarian just as contemptuous of fundamental British liberties as her New Labour predecessors, this paranoia is allowed to continue and allowed to fester and gnaw at the heart of the men with truncheons and tasers and guns who are supposed to defend those liberties. But instead they are turned into a suspicious organisation where anyone who dares to stand out from the crowd is a suspect as threatening as Bin Laden.

That is what we have come to.

I'd hope that our Lib Dem ministers will do something about this. I'd hope that they'd tell the Home Secretart to fuck off and stop the police from treating peaceful protesters as terrorist suspects. I'd hope that they'd convince the police of how wrong it is to send out letters to the public where activism is conflated with terrorism.

I doubt it though. Too many of our ministers seem to have turned to snivelling cowards whenever matters of principle are involved. I really, really hope I'm wrong but, from where I stand, I can't see any reason to be optimistic.

Hat tip to Lib Con.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Latest from the DWP: F*** cancer patients

Caron Lindsay and I have set up a petition against an utterly disgusting decision by the DWP to force cancer patients undergoing radio and chemotherapy to attend work related interviews, despite the fact someone undergoing that kind of treatment often will be physically unable to do so, and face financial penalties if they don't.

As someone whose mother died of cancer, I can tell you first hand just what an impact chemo and radiotherapy can have. The last thing cancer patients need is extra stress and hassle while fighting for their lives.

So that's why I'd ask you to sign this petition to get the government to change it's mind. I'd also suggest you go and read Caron's other suggestions on how you can contact Lib Dem ministers to get them to put pressure on the government on this issue.

Finally, if you're still not convinced, I suggest you read the following from Sue Marsh about the DWP's decision:
"You know how I often point out the fact that if you have IV chemotherapy you qualify for unconditional ESA support, but if you take chemo orally, you don't? 
Yup, it's that tough. Despite the fact oral chemo or radiotherapy can be just as physically devastating as IV, one meant you got unconditional support, the other meant you had to attend work related interviews!! Yup, seriously. No, I'm not making it up. 
As you can imagine, Macmillan Cancer Support campaigned pretty hard on this issue, pointing out that the system was clearly unfair. 
Well, after due consideration, the government appear to agree. It is, they conclude, clearly unfair that the scrounging IV chemo and radio patients are getting off scott free. Therefore, the government suggest they will all now have to face work related interviews. 
Yup, seriously. Yes, you did read that right. 
Anyone undergoing chemo or radiotherapy for cancer should not be considered unfit for work, according to the government. (Unless they have less than 6 months to live, great ole softies that they are) 
I can't even think of a snappy conclusion. I literally do not know how to put that into words.
If however, the government are actively looking for ways to create the biggest PR disaster of all time, then surely this will be a top contender?"

Let's scrap road tax

One of the (many) things readers might not know about me is that I was born in Brussels. Or, as I put it to eurosceptic tories, I come from the EU and I'm here to eat your house prices.

Now, one of the interesting things about Belgium (which, for the geographically impaired, is the country in which Brussels is located) is that they don't have road tax. And, therefore, they don't have road tax discs in cars.

What they do have, however, are insurance discs. While looking much like road tax discs, insurance discs confirm that the car is insured and contain basic details of the insurance policy. As you may imagine, this makes it very easy to spot uninsured cars and also makes it easier to get another driver's insurance details in the event of an accident.

I happen to think that we would do well to emulate the Belgians in this area (if we started emulating Belgian beer manufacture then that would be an added bonus).

If it were up to me, I'd scrap road tax completely. I'd then increase insurance tax for vehicles in order to make up for the lost revenue. But some of the money from the increased insurance tax should be used to replace road tax discs with insurance tax discs.

At the moment, there is a tendency among some wealthy people not to bother with insurance. They're not likely to get caught and, if they are, then paying the fine is cheaper than buying the insurance in the first place.

The problem of uninsured drivers is a big one and one which will only get bigger. Personally, I think a scheme along the lines of the Belgian one would be a good step forwards. In fact, I'm even considering putting it forward as a motion to spring conference. Any thoughts on the idea? Please feel free to comment.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Are the Lib Dems really doomed because of the autumn budget statement?

Ugh. You go away for a few days and suddenly all sorts of interesting stuff happens without you around to blog about it. How will the world survive?

But seriously. Having got back I've seen some speculation how the announcement that deficit elimination won't be completed until 2017 will tie the Lib Dems into the tories and permanent destruction.

Well, sorry, but that just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Yes, eliminating the deficit will mean that we have to go into the next election with £30 billion of cuts/tax rises in our manifesto. But so will Labour and so will the Conservatives.

This won't make things much different from the last election. All the major parties were agreed on the need for deficit reduction but there were huge differences on how they proposed going about it.

At the next election, the tories will no doubt put forwards a manifesto based on cutting public services, cutting taxes for the rich, cutting employment rights and selling national assets off on the cheap. In contrast to the usual tory idiocy, and the economic incompetence of Labour, it won't be hard to offer our own, credible alternative.

For example, there's already an ongoing project to work out how we as a party would like the tax system to look in 2020 and then working backwards to find out the changes we could make to get us there. Lib Dem tax priorities have long been orientated towards a redistribution of the tax burden - specifically towards taxing unearned wealth a lot more and earned wealth a lot less. This is a fundamental part of the belief in fairness that has underpinned two centuries of liberal philosophy.

Now, I don't know about you, but I think that a manifesto that promised, for example, significant increases in the personal tax allowance and a reduction of VAT paid for by an increase in taxes on land and property (after all, income can be moved into tax havens but land can't) would be rather popular. Maybe one which also promoted green issues by investing more in the green economy and in new green taxes which would be countered by cutting taxes elsewhere.

The fact is that £30 billion of savings can be found in a variety of ways. And there's also room for varying the time scale. We could say that, now the economy is improving, we can afford to slow down deficit reduction in order to reduce the burden on people. I'm not saying we should, but it just shows that being committed to eliminating the deficit doesn't mean our manifesto has to be identical to the tories'.

The other argument some have been making is that Ed Miliband will refuse to work with Nick Clegg in the event of another hung parliament and therefore necessity will force us to stick with the tories in some sort of electoral pact. Again, this is a load of nonsense.

The fact is that sticking close to the tories would mean a wipeout of most of our seats in the south east where we often depend on Labour supporters tactically voting for us. And Clegg, whatever you might think of him, isn't stupid.

I've blogged before about how I think that ditching Clegg ahead of the next election would be detrimental to us. But there's no reason he can't do a Gordon Brown and resign after the general election if that's what it takes to make a coalition work. After all, Clegg's already had an immensely successful career and, what with a minister's pension, a previous career in lobbying and the knowledge that he'd always be a likely candidate for a job with the EU Commission, I can't see any reason why he'd be determined to cling steadfastedly to a path that would be damaging to his party when instead he could leave frontline politics and be able to spend much more time with his family (something which, by all accounts, is important to him) while probably earning more money.

That's the cold hearted, cynical calculation of course. Personally, I really dislike a lot of Clegg's politics, but I still think that he has the best interests of the party at heart and I doubt he'd try to stay leader if it meant destroying the Lib Dem claim to the centre ground.

And let's consider a few options shall we? It's perfectly feasible that after the next election, if there's a hung parliament, we could: a) stay neutral, treating each piece of legislation on a case by case basis, compromising in order to achieve Lib Dem priorities whilst remaining unaligned, b) have a formal confidence and supply agreement with another party which would allows us to either keep or replace our leader as we saw fit, or c) enter a full blown coalition with another party, if necessary holding a leadership election while our Deputy Leader in the House of Commons filled the role of DPM into our next leader had been chosen.

It'd be foolish to pretend that the worsened economic situation and the impossibility of eliminating the deficit before 2015 has made our job as a party harder. But only someone utterly ignorant of the way our party can function would assume it automatically means our extinction.