Friday, 29 June 2012

End of week Lib Dem euro roundup

Today marks the launch of my new end of week roundup of Liberal Democrat EU news. In particular, I'll be looking at what our Lib Dem MEPs, who sit in the influential ALDE group, are getting up to in the European Parliament.

This week:

Monday

Edward McMillan-Scott, Lib Dem MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, and a Vice President of the European Parliament, welcomed the adoption of a strategic framework on human rights and democracy by the EU’s 27 foreign ministers, saying:
“As the world’s biggest aid donor, the EU has so many tools at its disposal actively to promote human rights and democracy. It is an overdue step in the right direction to increase their effectiveness and visibility through better coordination and a coherent implementation of our policies.”

Tuesday

On International Day Against Torture, Edward McMillan-Scott MEP put the spotlight on China's human rights record and raised the case of Zhang Lianying, a Beijing accountant who was imprisoned for her religious beliefs, who was subjected 50 escalating torture steps used to persuade her to recant and who now lives in the USA.

Another former prisoner of conscience whom McMillan-Scott met in Beijing, Cao Dong, was then imprisoned and tortured until his release in November 2011. However, on June 8 2012 he was re-arrested and McMillan-Scott fears that he is again being tortured somewhere.

Edward said:
“China continues to be the worst perpetrator of torture of its own people. Most of the victims are entirely innocent and are punished for their religious or political beliefs.”

Wednesday

Sharon Bowles, Lib Dem MEP for the South East of England and Chair of European Parliament’s powerful Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, called on the UK government to support a deal on the location of the European Patent Agency - which is the final obstacle to the 40 year long effort to implement a European patent that covers the whole of the single market rather than the current system which requires patents to be registered in European countries separately and at greater cost.

Sharon said:
“The European Parliament has long supported the creation of a single European patent to boost innovation and business opportunities across the EU.

“It is time for Member States to stop blocking the single European patent. We managed to break the stalemate over the language issue. Now it is time to end the deadlock over the European Patent Court’s potential location.

“The proposed compromise to split the new court across three different countries and cities – namely Munich, Paris and London – is a workable solution and will ultimately be a big boost to all involved."
Constitutional expert and Lib Dem MEP Andrew Duff added:
“Agreement on an EU patent has been held up for several decades by linguistic quarrels. We must not prolong this block by geographic jealousy. The interests of British-based science will be well served by reaching agreement on this controversial dossier tomorrow.”
On Friday EU leaders agreed on a location deal at a special summit and, as a result, London will become the home of the life sciences section of the new European Patent Court.


Friday 1:

Fiona Hall, Lib Dem MEP for the North East of England, welcomed the coming into force on the 1st of July new EU caps on roaming charges, negotiated this year.

The new prices caps (excluding VAT) are: 23p per minute to make a call (compared with 28p previously); 6p per minute to receive a call (rather than 9p); 7p to send a text message (compared with 9p); 56p per megabyte (MB) to download data or browse the internet whilst travelling abroad (no previous cap).

Friday 2

Sarah Ludford, Lib Dem MEP for London, called for the EU to clamp down on the trade in torture instruments following an Amnesty International report today showing that torture instruments such as electric-shock belts are being marketed by EU companies while spiked batons are being promoted for sale in the EU and the sale of thumbscrews and leg irons is not banned.

The report follows a successful campaign, co-led by Sarah last year, which closed loopholes under which legitimate ‘dual-use’ pharmaceuticals were also being exported for use in lethal injections in countries like the USA.

Sarah said:
“If the EU’s lead on human rights is to be preserved, the current review must result in changes. The European Commission and EU states need to both enforce existing law effectively and if necessary strengthen it.”

“The only way to fully ensure an end to this shameful trade is to introduce a ‘torture and death penalty end-use’ clause so that even a product not listed can be banned from sale to a particular end-user who intends torture or execution.”

Cuts to disability benefits will cost more than they save

A new report was released on Monday which reveals how, far from saving money, the DWP's cuts to disability benefits will actually destroy thousands of jobs and actually cost the taxpayer more money.

For those interested, the report, Reversing Recovery, can be read here and, reading through it, it's certainly fairly readable and all its calculations seem pretty solid. Which is particularly impressive when you consider that this is a report which was written by disabled people themselves after crowd-sourcing the funding for it (not that this weakens its credibility as the report draws all its figures from impressively independent and reliable sources).

The report reveals that the cuts to Disability Living Allowance will, according to government figures, lead to a 27% drop in the number of disabled people of working age able to access the Motability scheme which allows them to rent cars specially adapted for their disabilities.

This will, in turn, cause the loss of:
  • 30,000 new car sales each year - representing 10% of all new car sales in the UK
  • 3,583 jobs
  • A £342 million contribution to GDP
  • £79 million worth of tax receipts
Ultimately this all adds up to a £421 milllion loss to the economy and to the treasury for the sake of saving £640 million. So from this alone most of the savings made by the DWP will be wiped out through the loss of treasury revenue and increased outgoings in other places.

More importantly, the 280,000 disabled people no longer able to access the Motability scheme often depend on the scheme in order to allow them to travel to work. Without it many of them will lose their jobs and, due to the immense difficulties disabled people face finding work in the first place, many of them will then be forced to stop working all together, thus stop paying taxes, and claim unemployment benefit instead.

In fact, report quotes Oxford Economics which says:
“The Motability [car] scheme is estimated to enable 12,500 customers and informal carers to get a job, 56,100 to keep a job and in total this is worth £1.2 billion in gross wages per year. “

So, even if you assume that only a small fraction of that £1.2 billion finds its way to the treasury, and even if only some of those 70,000 people are forced to give up work, then it's pretty clear that the overall cost to the taxpayer and the economy of the cuts to DLA will far outweigh the amount of money saved from a benefit which, lest we forget, has a fraud rate of less than half a percent (as opposed to the 5% or so fraud rate of Job Seeker's Allowance). And that's without even mentioning the human hardship the cuts will cause.

The DWP was warned this could be the case at the time and, looking at it now, the figures prove that those warnings were right. And if this is the case with DLA the odds are that you'll find a similar situation with the cuts to other disability benfits.

A sensible department would probably decide to reverse these cuts after reading this report but, given that Ian Duncan Smith is busy off lecturing in America about how wonderful his reforms are and how he certainly showed those layabout scroungers what for, I somehow doubt he'll bother to pay attention to the evidence.

Which is why it still makes me angry that that our Lib Dem MPs didn't listen to disabled people in the first place and didn't block these cuts before they were so entrenched in place that it will now be nigh impossible to reverse them - with the result that, in addition to lives of disabled people being made harder, the taxpayer will now lose a lot of money.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Once again Lib Dem members are treated as an afterthought

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Today Nick Clegg made a public speech on Lords reform. As the BBC puts it:
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has delivered a speech on Lords reform to an audience of young people from a soapbox in Victoria Gardens.
Now, if you watch the video of the speech it's quite clear that the "young people" in question are fairly bored looking Lib Dem staffers and researchrs as well as a few passing members of the public who were walking past and stopped to watch. It is, quite transparently, a media stunt.

I don't take issue with that though. You need media stunts to get attention for your views and a public speech is a fairly good thing to do even if the audience is mostly people who are only there because it's their job to be there.

What I do take issue with, however, is that the first Lib Dem members knew about it was when it appeared on the BBC website. As one Lib Dem member I know pointed out, they were in the area and would have quite liked to have gone to the speech to listen but had absolutely no idea it was taking place.

See, here's the thing. I'd like to think that, given that we're meant to be a democratic party run by the members, those of us who actually pay our membership subscriptions and actually do the legwork which gets MPs and councillors elected could at least have had an email the day before letting us know about the speech so that we could go and listen to it if we were in the area.

Admittedly most members probably wouldn't have been able to, or wanted to, go to a five minute speech in the middle of London but, given that it's a supposedly public speech, which took place in a public place, and that it would only have taken five minutes to send out an email to the membership, it really would have been nice to at least had the option of attending a public speech by our leader.

This isn't so much a problem in and of itself as the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening. Clegg, for example, is going on a national tour to do townhall question and answer sessions with the public - a very good way of connecting with the electorate. But, once again, Lib Dem members found out about this from the news rather than from Lib Dem HQ.

And Danny Alexander gave a very good speech on Lords Reform and other matters to the Electoral Reform Society conference during the week but, once again, Lib Dem members were only told about it after it had taken place and the only way I knew about it in advance is because I'm a member of the ERS and they did let their members know about it in advance.

To me, this illustrates the way that our current leadership and most of the people working in HQ seem to view the membership as an afterthought - if they even remember that we exist at all.

Time and time again they completely ignore us and even as something as simple as letting us know in advance of public speeches by our leader so that we can attend is something they just can't seem bothered to do.

We now have the optimistic sounding Grassroots to Government website which aims at restoring communication between MPs and members (and who exactly was it who decided to climb into ivory towers and mostly ignore us in the first place?) but, aside from an automated welcome message when I joined, has sent out exactly zero emails to the members who have signed up since. How's that for improving communication?

And, after two years of arm twisting by the wonderful Helen Duffet we are now getting the occasional online Q&A with senior MPs - though these are normally in the middle of the working week where normal people can't participate.

Except that, even with these, though we get plenty of emails in advance, for those members who can't watch online (those who, for example, don't have a broadband internet connection) there's absolutely no way they can participate. One longstanding member politely emailed HQ and asked whether there was any chance that she could come and watch the Q&A in person at HQ but was told she couldn't. I mean, it's not like us members who actually pay for the HQ should be allowed inside it should we?

And this grouchiness from me is without even mentioning the persistent tendency of our MPs to ignore conference, the democratic policy making body of the party, and to assume that any discontent amongst the membership is simply either troublemakers or us failing on our part to properly understand and appreciate the wonderful work that our MPs are doing.

Look, we're meant to be a democratically run, membership-led organisation. So could our HQ please at least have the decency to remember that we exist when our leader is giving a public speech?

Monday, 25 June 2012

The day the tories declared war on morality

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice


I like to think of myself as a moral person. I try to live my life without hurting anyone else and showing consideration to others and, where possible, to put myself out of my way to help others. I like to think that I suceed most of the time and hopefully if there is some sort of judgement day then I'll have more in the black than in the red. It's quite an English thing actually. Live and let live, root for the underdog, etc. And, like most things in life, I can blame my parents for this. They raised me to be polite and considerate and to be independent and, most of all, fairly, with the result that I expect the world to be fair as well and get fairly irritated when I see unfairness taking place and no one doing anything to stop it. So that probably explains why I became interested in politics as well but that's a whole other story.

What I want to talk about today is Mr Cameron and his very clever plan (sarcasm) to stop housing benefit for under 25s if his party wins the next general election.

And my immediate response to that is who the hell does he think he is? And how bloody stupid and privileged is he? (The answer to those questions is, respectively "a tory" and "a lot").

Let me first of all just point out the practical problem with this proposal. It basically says to all young people that, regardless of their circumstances, they should live with their parents until they're 25. Now, aside from the fact that we don't really want a country where young people are still living with and still depending on their parents for another seven years after their 18th birthday, such an idea simply shows just how blindly privileged and thoughtless Cameron is in assuming that everyone even has the option of living with their parents.

What about young people leaving care? What about LGBT+ people who are kicked out of their homes by their parents just because of who they are? What about the people whose parents can't afford to look after their children, not to mention those who would struggle pay additional council tax for having an extra adult in the house? What about young people who are working every hour that god sends and yet still need housing benefit because rents are so high and because there's so little housing available?

The unspoken answer is, according to Mr Cameron's proposals, is that it's their own fault for not being born into a wealthier household. So, inevitably, what we would see if the tories ever manage to implement their policy (which should be never if the people of this country have any sense) is a massive spike in homelessness among young people. And when you're homeless it's very difficult to find a job, even when there are enough jobs to go around and which there aren't at the moment.

So what will happen to all these thousands of young people? People without jobs or homes or hopes of either? Well, inevitably, a lot of them will turn to crime. And a lot more of them will seethe with resentment as they're forced to live in poverty yet can see young people their own age, who were fortunate enough to be born into wealthier families, enjoying and taking for granted the kind of lifestyle that they could only dream of  and knowing that the system is set up in such a way that they will never have any hope of aspiring to that. In short, if you want a repeat of the riots of last year then this one policy is perhaps the best way to do it.

All of which ignores the simple fact that most young people are taxpayers. And we pay our taxes, in part, to provide for the welfare state. I firmly believe that a civilised nation has a duty to make sure that none of its people go hungry, that none of them go homeless, that none of them go without warmth or shelter or any of the other basic necessities of life. And that's why I pay my taxes. I don't grumble about pensioners getting free bus passes or that they use the healthcare system more than I do because I know that one day I could end up depending on those things. And I don't begrudge benefit payments to the disabled or the unemployed because I know that, there but for the grace of god, go I - not to mention that I could very easily find myself in their position completely unexpectedly. In any event, the fact is that our benefit system is one of the stingiest in Europe and that we spend less than half on it today than we did in Thatcher's day. Yep, that's right, Thatcher spent more on more generous benefits than Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron combined.

And so this begs the question as to why the hell Cameron is proposing this nonsense? And the answers simple. It won't affect the kind of people who vote tory. Young people are unlikely to vote anyway and those made homeless by the policy will struggle to even register to vote without even a permanent address. Meanwhile the kind of young people who do vote tory are the ones wealty enough to be unaffected. But, more importantly, it panders to the right wing of his party and to the kind of people who foam at the mouth constantly at the thought of pregnant teenagers being given  support paid for by their taxes, and never bothering to think about all the young people who pay taxes so that they can enjoy a free health service which most young people don't use.

And that whole motivation there is what sums up the reason for my utter contempt of the tories. They are vermin. I have met some nice tories occasionally but as a party they are absolute scum who positively relish demonising and kicking those less fortunate than themselves. They represent the very worst of human nature and I would find it very hard to despise them more than I do now.

Because, fundamentally, the tories are immoral. They don't give a damn about letting other people live their lives. They don't give a damn about looking after or caring about other people as long as they can milk the system for as much as they can get for them and theirs and to hell with everyone else.

And, as a moral person (or at least someone who tries to be a moral person), I can tell you right now that this policy is wrong. It is immoral claptrap which won't achieve anything other than create a generation of homeless people and a crime wave and Lib Dems should not be afraid to say so.

This, more than anything, should be where we draw a clear dividing line between us, a party that stand for the many, and a tory party which only cares about the wealthy few and who are quite happy to ruin thousands of lives to "fix" a problem that exists mainly in their imagination.

Politics should be about morality. The vision that we have for society, a helping hand or an iron fist, should be at the heart of what politics is about. Liberalism should be a crusade for a better society, one where everyone can be sure that, no matter what happens, they will not be abandoned. One where no one is left behind. One where people show compassion and kindness and tolerance towards each other instead of the selfishness, intolerance and contempt for the unfortunate that the tories epitomise.

And, I can tell you right now, that if we don't pick up the torch on this, if we don't take up battle with the foe, with all those who would happily bring about the destruction of all that is best about England then we might as well give up on our principles and embrace the soulless machine politics of Labour. Because it's simply not enough and won't be enough for us just to argue against the technical points of the implementation of the policy, we need to be able to wage war, with fire in our bellies, for the heart and soul of our society and to tackle the tories head on on the very principle of the thing if we ever truly want to see a fair, free and open society.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Is an EU-US free trade agreement on the cards?

Ever since my trip to Strasbourg I've been fortunate enough to be signed up to the mailing list of press releases from Lib Dem MEPs. The press releases make for very interesting reading and if you want to receive them then you just need to contact Angelika, the press officer, via the Lib Dem MEPs website, and she'll be happy to add you to the list of press release recipients. If you're a blogger then you might find it a very useful source of material to blog about.

But the press release I received yesterday was quite momentous. The EU-US High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth (a typically long winded piece of EU nomenclature) has produced an interim report outlining ways of increasing trade between the EU and the US - already the largest trade arrangement in the world which provides both blocs with billions of extra GDP and which supports tens of thousands of jobs.

Now, the report looks at a lot of different options for expanding and increasing transatlantic trade through things like lowering barriers to trade, such as tarrifs, and cooperation on trade regulation to ensure that they're as in line with each other as possible in order to make things simpler for businesses.

The report as a whole concludes that a ‘comprehensive transatlantic trade and investment agreement’ is the best option for supporting jobs and promoting growth and competitiveness across the Atlantic.

However, the ALDE group in the European Parliament, which is the bloc in which Lib Dem MEPs sit, has gone a step further. Catherine Bearder MEP, the Lib Dem EU spokesman for international trade, has called for a complete free-trade agreement between the USA and the EU.
“I call on the European Commission and their American counterparts to launch negotiations for a free trade agreement as soon as possible.

As the UK and other EU countries are struggling to find the jobs and growth that our citizens so badly need, we have to look for new ways to stimulate our economy and increase our competitiveness.  
Key to this is trade with non-EU countries through launching free trade agreements. The World Trade Organisation’s negotiations to find a global agreement have come to a halt; we now need to urgently look at a post-Doha agenda to free up trade potential.”

Now the really exciting thing is that the US Chamber of Commerce has estimated that simply eliminating the import tarrifs would generate an extra $180 billion for EU-US GDP. So you can imagine just how much GDP a full-on free trade agreement would generate.

From our perspective in the UK, we account for 22% (£118 billion worth) of total EU-US trade so we'd stand to benefit hugely from any such free trade agreement. Catherine Bearder herself has said:
“The potential benefits for the UK are clear: if we can remove the remaining import tariffs, break-down regulatory barriers and increase access in investment and services, this could be a game-changer for our economy.”
On top of which, it's worth remembering that the EU single market as a whole represents the largest economy in the world and that the USA represents the world's second largest economy. The benefits of such two economies removing all barriers to trade between them could not be understated. In a world where western economies are gradually being eclipsed by developing economies the only way in which western countries are going to be able to remain competitive is through radical moves like this

In particular, if we want a big stimulus package to kick start the spluttering economies of the US and EU countries, there could hardly be a better package than this which, as an added bonus, would cost almost nothing to implement - a few tens of millions of pounds to implement new regulations and the removal of tarrifs as opposed to the tens of billions of pounds of extra GDP that would be generated. It's a no brainer.

And, given that the ALDE group represents the swing vote in the European Parliament, Lib Dems and liberals stand a good chance of actually getting the ball rolling on a free trade agreement - which, in addition to the economic benefits, would represent a triumph of the old liberal principle of free trade as a way to make everyone better off. I'm surprised the media aren't reporting this because, if this does take off, it really would be a game changer, not just for the EU and the US, but for the world economy. And if it does, it will be because Lib Dems put the idea out there.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Gove is an idiot

I've said it before and I'm saying it again. The tories are so incompetent as to be unfit to be in government. And no one epitomises this better than Michael Gove, Education Secretary and a Class A idiot.

Not content with previous wheezes, such as scrapping regulations that prevented teachers from searching pupils of the opposite sex without a witness present (there's no way that could possibly go wrong, could it?), or wasting money in sending every school in the country an additional bible (despite the fact that nearly every school has several dozen bibles already), Gove has managed to outdo himself with an idiotic proposal to completely destroy the education system in England and to ruin the futures of thousands of children by determining their futures with a single exam at age 14 and dividing them permanently into winners and losers for the rest of their education by bringing back O levels and CSEs.

You see, Gove seems to think that the solution to everything is to turn the clock back to his rose-tinted view of the '50s as the pinacle of education. Back when men were men, when children learned poetry by rote and when the peasants knew their place.

Every single policy he comes up with seems based around the idea that we need to disregard every advance in educational theory and teaching methods since his childhood and to go back to the same system that he was educated in on the basis that it worked for him and therefore must obviously work for everyone else.

But, as people like my father, who went to school in the '50s, can tell you, the system that existed back then was not good for most children. The education was shallow and the system quite cheerfully separated children (in theory on talent, in practice on class) into factory fodder and the elite. And it completely failed hundreds of thousands of children who ended up leaving school without any qualifications whatsoever.

Not that that matters to Gove. The reality of how GCSEs actually work, evidence about which teaching methods and which types of exams are most effective matters to him at all. He's convinced, with the typical tory mixture of arrogance and ignorance, that he knows better than the entire teaching profession.

All I can say is thank goodness that we've got Lib Dems in government to kill this off before it can get any further. Because it's quite obvious that Gove probably had the story leaked deliberately and was convinced that the popularity of the magic word "O levels"would make the plans so popular that he could bounce Lib Dems into accepting the plans before anyone could do anything about it.

Fortunately, that plan has backfired:
Mr Clegg said the education secretary's announcement was "self-evidently not policy that has been discussed or agreed within the coalition".
...

"I am not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrap heap."
It's very good to see Clegg show some backbone on this - if only he could also get Gove sacked and replaced with marginally competent then I'd be very happy indeed.

Of course, the truly scary thing is not the existence of a tory this idiotic, they're rather common after all, but rather that he's seriously considered a front runner to be the next tory leader. Which speaks absolute volumes about the state of the tory party when the best approximation to statesmen they can find are Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Tory tantrum on Lords reform is nothing to worry about

On Sunday the Telegraph came out with the following ominous headline:
Nick Clegg's Lords reform plans to be watered down after Tories' anger over Hunt treatment
And then went on to say:
"Nick Clegg’s plans to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate could be watered down after the Conservative MPs expressed fury about Liberal Democrat attacks on embattled Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt."
Now, aside from the telling fact that the tories view as an "attack" any suggestion that Hunt, a minister with serious question marks hanging over him, should, you know, be referred to the regulator of the ministerial code in order to resolve the situation one way or another, and that they clearly are more concerned with protecting one of their own regardless of whether he has done wrong, this does sound somewhat serious.

After all, despite it being in the manifestoes of all three parties at the last election, Tories are distinctly hostile to Lords reform and Labour are rather lukewarm on the issue and seem likely to back or oppose it on the basis of whatever will give them the most political advantage rather than anything else. So if tory MPs are planning revenge (despite the fact that they agreed to lords reform in the coalition agreement) then there's a chance that the plans could be well and truly scuppered.

Quick, let's read on:
"Officials are understood to be working on plans to ensure that any legislation recognises the primacy of the House of Commons over the second chamber, and that MPs and peers will not represent the same Parliamentary constituencies.
The changes, which will be presented to the Cabinet next week, have emerged after backbench Tory MPs spoke out against the reforms at a stormy meeting of the Conservatives 1922 committee of backbench MPs"
 Hang on, hang on. That's it?

Okay, let me explain something. The House of Commons already has primacy over the second chamber and that was always going to be the case regardless of the outcome of the reforms. So all that the legislation "recognising" this means is that a clause will be inserted to state the bleeding obvious. Also, given that the reformed chamber is proposed to be elected by STV, a multi-member constituency system of proportional representation, and with members serving one off terms of a different length to that of MPs, there was never any proposal for MPs and peers to represent the same constituencies.

So what's happened here? ConservativeHome has run the story, indicating that the grassroots, at least, seem to believe that this is a victory.

Now, I'd guess that there are two possible explanations. The first is that the tory MPs are just so ignorant of the proposals for Lords reform that they've stumbled into demanding things that were already going to happen as a way of getting revenge, a level of stupidity which I wouldn't put pass them, and the second explanation is that someone in either the Lib Dems or in Cameron's circle has managed to trick the tory MPs into thinking that this is a victory for them. If it's the latter then well done to whoever had the genius idea of tricking the tories into thinking that this is a triumph.

Either way, it does raise the rather interesting prospect that a few months down the line we will see tory MPs marching in determined to give the Lib Dems a drubbing and then voting exactly the way Lib Dems want them to before marching out again and boasting of their triumph.

Still, if it gets tories to back a fairly modest reform to inject some much needed democracy into the upper house then I for one will not complain. Though I will probably titter slightly as I watch tories advance the cause of progress while convinced they are doing the opposite.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The FCC needs to get their act together

I just sent the draft motion on Equal Citizenship (the updated version of this draft motion can be found here) off to the Lib Dem Federal Conference Committee (FCC) for drafting advice. This involved emailing the specific email address they have set up to provide drafting advice.

Here's the auto reply email I just got:
The deadline for advice requests on amendments and emergency motions for Newcastle/Gateshead has now passed.

The deadline for amendments and emergency motions to the Newcastle/Gateshead Conference is 13.00 on Tuesday 6th March 2012. They should be sent to motions@libdems.org.uk

The Conference Committee will meet to select which amendments will be taken for debate and which motions will be included in the ballot on the afternoon of 9th March. The Committee's decisions will be made available on the party website.
Here's the problem with that email. The Newcastle/Gateshead conference was our spring conference from the start of this year. So the FCC hasn't updated their auto reply yet despite the fact that the deadline for motions advice for our autumn conference in Brighton is in just three days time.

And this failure to update their auto reply isn't a new problem as I had exactly the same thing happen to me when I submitted a draft motion to them for drafting advice ahead of last autumn conference - the auto reply I received related to the spring conference earlier that year and had not been updated.

On that occasion I ended up mentioning it to the chair of the FCC and they apologised for it and updated the auto reply. But come on, the fact that this has happened two years running doesn't exactly inspire me with confidence and, more importantly, is very unhelpful to people trying to get drafting advice as they're being given information that is six months out of date.

So please FCC, get your act together.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The problem with targeting swing voters


I have very little respect for the kind of people who make up the group that are defined as ‘swing voters’. Be it the ‘Mondeo Man’ or the ‘Worcester Woman’, they form the ever shifting group constantly pandered to by politicians who prefer policy based on focus groups rather than principles. But the only thing that unites the swing voters of at most a few hundred thousand people at each election is not the tenuous demographic connections drawn by marketing experts but simple self-interest.

These are artificial groups who don’t have an ideology. They don’t care much about political principle or what’s best for the country of a whole. All they are is a group of fickle people who will flock to whatever politician offers them the best deal for them personally.

And I find that sickening. Blind, naked self-interest is the toxin which has poisoned human societies since time immemorial. It’s selfish, it’s shortsighted and, more importantly, it doesn’t work and pandering to it doesn’t win elections.

Now, I would do very well if I decided to care only about me and mine. I’m privileged, I’m well educated and I have a high likelihood of being able to easily slot into a well-paid career.

I know that I can expect to live in good areas, that I can expect my children will be able to go to good schools, and for them to have a good education and good career prospects.

So, out of self-interest, the only party I should bother with is one which will give me lots of tax breaks and take money from services I don’t use (such as legal aid or disability benefits) to pay for them. It shouldn’t matter to me what happens to the NHS as I can reasonably expect to be able to afford to go private. And it shouldn’t matter to me what happens in inner city schools and crime ridden neighbourhoods as long as my council tax is kept low, my street kept clean and beggars and poor people swept away to where I don’t have to see them.

That’s self-interest. Who cares about the poor? Who cares about the environment? Who cares that my clothes are made by slave labour in far off countries? Who cares that people are starving for want of the same amount of money I waste on an expensive bottle of wine?

But I don’t believe in that. I believe that if there’s a child dying needlessly in pain and that they can be saved for less than the price of a cup of coffee then I shouldn’t begrudge them that money. I believe that if I see someone else being ill-treated then I have a duty to intervene, to try and stop the injustice. I believe that I have a duty to do my best for society as a whole and to strive to make sure that everyone will ultimately have the same education and opportunities that I had. I don’t want to be privileged. My prosperity is not diminished by letting other people have the same prosperity. My rights aren’t diminished by giving others rights as well.

Which is why it’s generally pointless appealing to swing voters. If you deliberately pursue the votes of people who only care about themselves then you’re just wasting your time. Because as soon as you try to do something which benefits people other than themselves then they’ll lose interest in you and your party and switch to the next slick policy salesman. And they’ll certainly never become ideologically committed to a party and back it through thick and thin.

And this is why I despair of the marketing and messaging people who seem to be in charge of the strategy of all the main political parties. I wish that they’d have the guts to make policies based entirely on the basis of their principles and then take those policies to the country. After all, if every party keeps on offering the same thing it’s not really surprising that people are so apathetic towards party politics.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What are 'problem families'?

The government has decided to spend £450 million on tackling the problem of what are variously referred to as  the 120,000 "problem" or "troubled" families in the UK who allegedly cost us £9 billion a year.

So who are these problem families?

Well, according to the government a family is a problem family if they meet at least five of the following criteria:

a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

So, as the Guardian points out:
"In so far as can be gleaned, the 120,000 families whose feral ways Mr Pickles and the prime minister like pointing to were totted up using outdated surveys concerned not with the school skiving, crime and loutishness that dominated yesterday's spin. It seems instead that in and among the indicators used for that figure were disability, long-term illness and poor housing. These data are, in other words, a gauge of who is vulnerable and not who is troubled, still less troublesome."
So these people who Eric Pickles and the press are villifying aren't in fact drunken louts who commit crimes and ruin neighbourhoods, these are people in great difficulty. Of course, people who meet the criteria could also genuinely cause problems but just because you have a disability which prevents you from working, have a low income, don't have enough money to buy new clothes and have a leaking roof, does not mean you deserve to be described as "louts", "irresponsible", "druggies", "scroungers" or "feckless".

And these are the people who will now face a government led witch hunt and inquisition into every aspect of their lives for their "crimes" - with a supporting role plaid by right wing tabloids who will ceaselessly hunt for one extreme example of a problem family and then trumpet that as proof that all the others are vermin. It's sickening.

Oh, and on top of that, it turns out that the figures used to come up with the figure of 120,000 troubled families are eight years old and very, very flaky. In fact, Factcheck says:
In reporting on the supposed 120,000 'problem' families, both the media and Government ministers seem to have fundamentally misunderstood what the number tells us. Rather than this being an identifiable group "in trouble or causing trouble", this figure refers to the number of families identified as having a number of social or economic difficulties or disadvantages.

When it comes to the cost to the taxpayer of providing services to these families, there are also significant questions that need to be answered before we can have confidence in the £9 billion figure. While DCLG have said that analysis done by colleagues in the Department for Education formed the foundations of its estimate, a closer look at the DfE's work shows that it actually concerns only part of this group of families, the minority with 'problem' child behaviour.
And all of the above put together is why I consider the tories to be lower than vermin. It's because time and time again they come up with policies which seem determined to find the most vulnerable people they can and then repeatedly kick them in the gut all the while telling them that it's their own fault and seeking praise in the tabloids for doing it. They're bullies, plain and simple. And not only bullies but also bloody stupid bullies who can't even manage to get their figures right.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Writing another motion

So, it's that time of year again when I sit down in front of a computer and, after much hair pulling, finally come up with a first draft of a policy motion for Lib Dem federal conference.

Once again, I've ended up drafting something on sickness and disability policy - mainly because the Welfare Reform Act is a horrific piece of legislation which will destroy lives which Lib Dem parliamentarians have ended up supporting because we don't have any real policies on sickness and disability and so ended up going along with a tory policy because we didn't have any alternatives of our own to suggest.

So what I'm hoping is that I can bring to conference and get passed a motion which lays out some red lines on welfare policy that can be adopted for the next general election and give us something to work with in any coalition negotiations in 2015 or beyond. It might be too late to change this government's welfare policy but at least we might be able to make sure that the next government with Lib Dems in it can undo the damage caused and create a system that actually supports the sick and the disabled properly.

And, without further ado, here's the first draft of the policy motion I've written. It still needs to be sent off for drafting advice and it still needs lots of input from other people to improve it (not to mention enough people to support it that it can actually get debated at conference) but hopefully it's a start.

Equal Citizenship: sickness and disability policy post 2015

Conference notes:
  1. The passage of the Welfare Reform Act, particularly:
    1. Changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
    2. The introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) as a replacement for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for people of working age and that the introduction of PIPs is expected to cut the DLA budget by 20%.
    3. The feeling of exclusion from the welfare reform policy development process amongst the disabled community - as highlighted by the report ‘Responsible Reform’.
    4. The conclusions of ‘Reversing From Reform: the hidden economic costs of welfare reform’ on the impact of the Welfare Reform Act.
    5. The use of the ‘biopsychosocial’ model of disability by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
  2. The Harrington Reports reviewing the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which determines eligibility for ESA.
  3. The passage of policy motion F6  ‘Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments’ by Autumn Federal Conference 2011.
  4. The presence, both historical and present, of executives of organisations such as Unum UK on the DWP’s technical working groups and other bodies which influence DWP policy on sickness and disability.
  5. The continued barriers to access to public transport for the disabled and poor rates of improvement in this area.
  6. The rise in disability hate crime in recent years as reported in a survey conducted by the disability charity Scope.
  7. The principles of ‘equal citizenship’ as expressed in the strategic policy plan  ‘Equal Citizenship’ by the National Disability Council of the Netherlands.

Conference believes:
  1. That society and government have a duty of care towards the sick and the disabled and that the goals of government policy should be the empowerment of the sick and disabled to tackle and reduce dependency on others and, fundamentally, to enable them to enjoy full, equal citizenship.
  2. That certain aspects of DWP policy are detrimental to these goals and, more broadly, that the DWP’s use of the biopsychosocial model is detrimental to the wellbeing of the sick and disabled and to the development of effective welfare policy.
  3. That companies such as Unum UK have a financial interest in the outcome of welfare policy and that their involvement with the development of said policy creates a conflict of interest and that this conflict of interest has lead to successive reforms of DWP policy which have been detrimental to the wellbeing of the sick and disabled.
  4. That current welfare policy is failing the sick and disabled and that the Welfare Reform Act does not do enough to improve this situation. In particular:
  5. That sick and disabled people unable to work or unable to find employment should be supported by the welfare system for as long as they are unable to work or find employment and that mechanisms such as the time limiting of contributory ESA are counterproductive and harmful.
  6. That being dependent on relatives, partners and friends increases the vulnerability of sick and disabled people to abuse.
  7. That more needs to be done to remove barriers to access to employment, transport and participation in society as a whole.

Conference therefore calls for:
  1. The DWP to end its use of the biopsychosocial model of disability and for the social model of disability, which focuses on treatment of the sick and disabled as equals and the removal of barriers to equal citizenship, to be used as the future basis of welfare policy regarding the sick and the disabled.
  2. An independent review of the impact of the Welfare Reform Act to be set up.
  3. An immediate end to WCA assessment centres without disabled access and which lack easy access by public transport.
  4. The establishment of a public consultation on the assessment mechanisms for DLA, ESA and PIPs, with special emphasis on eligibility for support for those with time variant conditions.
  5. The results of this consultation to be used by the DWP to reform its sickness and disability policies.
  6. Additional support and effort to be targeted at enabling the sick and disabled to remain in work and at removing barriers of access to work through expansions of schemes such as the Access to Work Fund.
  7. Means-testing and income-related support elements of disability welfare policy to be reformed to end situations where sick and disabled people are made wholly dependent on partners and carers and therefore made more vulnerable to abuse.
  8. A greater emphasis to be placed on ensuring the delivery of improved access to public transport for the disabled.
  9. A greater effort to be made throughout society on tackling prejudice and other attitudes detrimental to the wellbeing of the sick and the disabled.

Note: 'Reversing From Reform' is a report which won't be published for another two weeks but which I've been lucky enough to see an embargoed version of. But because it's embargoed for another fortnight that's all I can say about it.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A narrative for Liberal Democrats

One consistently highlighted problem with Lib Dem campaigning is the lack of a consistent narrative, or 'story' to tell about what we stand for.

To put it bluntly, people find it hard to remember lists of policies and successes and failures and generally vote based on their perceptions of a party. And the perceptions that people have of political parties is generally shaped by the stories that parties tell about themselves and the stories that other people tell about them.

For example, the tories tell a story about themselves where they're economically responsible,tough on crime and immigration and on scroungers (generally tough on anything that's unpopular) and contrast that with what they claim is the weakness of their opponents on these issues.

Labour, on the other hand, tell a story where they care about social justice, are champions for the poor and the working class and where they are the defenders of much loved public institutions like the NHS, and contrast with this with what they claim are their opponents' desires to destroy all these things.

Lib Dems, however, don't really have a narrative. So what I'd like to do is to spell out my own narrative for the Lib Dems and to outline the kind of story I think that we should be telling people:
"Put bluntly, we believe in fairness.
We believe in balancing the books and tackling today's problems, such as the economy and climate change, so that we don't pass them onto our children.
We believe in creating a level playing field and in education to give everyone an equal chance to succeed or fail on their own merits, such as by putting billions of pounds into improving education for pupils from deprived backgrounds.
We believe in making sure that there's always a safety net available for those who end up facing hard times, such as by protecting workers' rights and giving a fair deal to pensioners.
And we believe in fighting injustice by giving people the means to stand up for themselves through taking power away from bullying beuracracies and unaccountable politicians and giving it back to ordinary people.
That's what we mean by fairness and that's what we stand for."
Or, as a shorter version.
"We believe in prudent public finances, in tackling today's problems, such as climate change, so that they aren't passed onto our children, in making sure that everyone is given a fair chance, in life, in providing a helping hand in times of hardship and in fighting injustice."
Or, as an even shorter version.
"Fair with the budget and fair for ordinary people."

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Slavery - now sponsored by HM Government

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

WARNING: The second half of this post contains swearing.

This government is now supporting slavery. In Britain.

See, during the lovely boat ride up the Thames for the Queen, there had to be stewards for the event. You know, people who had to keep on eye on things, make sure people got to where they were meant to be, etc.

And, because this was such a big event, £1.5 million  of public money was put aside to pay for the cost of stewarding the event.

Except the people doing the stewarding weren't paid. Instead, unemployed jobseekers were bussed in by coach the in the middle of the night and required to sleep under London Bridge, of all places, in cold and wet conditions, before getting up in the morning and doing a 14 hour shift of stewarding - a shift length which I'm pretty sure breaches employment law.

During that period they had to get dressed into their security gear in public, had no access to toilets for 24 hours and were then sent of to a "swampy" campsite afterwards by way of accomodation.

And here's the crucial thing, 50 of the people doing the stewarding were given apprentice wages, which work out at about £2.80 an hour. But 30 of the people doing the stewarding weren't paid a penny. They were expected to do this for the chance of possibly getting a low paid stewarding position at the London Olympics. Except, when they originally signed up for the stewarding they were told that they'd be getting paid - it was only when they were on the coach that they were told it was unpaid and that if they refused to do it they wouldn't be eligible for a paid job at the Olympics.

So whose pockets the £1.5 million of public money allocated for stewarding went into we don't know - but it certainly wasn't the poor buggers doing the stewarding (50 people at £2.80 an hour for 14 hours plus 30 people working for free for 14 hours equals £1960 - not much out of £1.5 million).

UPDATE: Obviously there were probably more than 80 people doing stewarding - but, as Liberal Conspiracy has revealed, there are big questions where the money went to given that some people hired to do stewarding were dropped at the last minute, possibly because of the unpaid people doing the work instead.

Now, do you know what it's called when people are duped into working long hours, in rubbish accomodation and without adequate sanitation, without getting paid? That's right, it's called slavery.

Or, as this government likes to call it, the welfare to work programme.

So, and apologies for the swearing, WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE LIB DEMS DOING LETTING THE TORIES DO THINGS LIKE THIS?

There has been plenty, plenty of information about how the welfare to work programme is flawed and lets companies make millions while bullying unemployed people and those too sick to work into working for free - taking paid jobs out of the economy at the same time. If our MPs don't know about this then it's only because they've deliberately ignored what the people affected by this have been trying to tell them for the past two years.

So, if you're a Lib Dem reading this, and you don't think that a government with Lib Dems in it should be complicit in slavery, then kindly share this as widely as possible and hit Lib Dig in the top right hand corner of this post to make sure as many people see this as possible.

I am absolutely fuming. If any of our MPs happen to read this perhaps they'd care to explain to me how the fuck I'm meant to be out on the doorstep and being "coalition positive" when I know that the government's made it possible for things like this to happen? I want to support the coalition, I want to be proud of what we've achieved - so why don't you stop making it quite so fucking hard?

Hat-tip to the Guardian for uncovering this story.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Are the tories unfit for government?

Are the tories unfit to be in government?

That's a question I've been asking myself lately and I've come to the conclusion that the answer is yes.

And I should empahsises that the question isn't about the tories' policies - even though I find their policies and ideologies abhorrent that doesn't necessarily mean they're unfit for government. After all, democracy is all about the fact that, even if you find a group's views abhorrent, they are still entitled to a fair share of power if enough people vote for them.

So when I say that the tories are unfit to be in government I mean it in the sense of their competence - or, rather, their lack of it.

Let's consider all the big gaffes that this government has made:
  • Attempting to sell off the forests and then having to perform a u-turn - Tory minister Caroline Spellman
  • Causing a fuel crisis over a fuel strike which never even took place - Tory minister Francis Maude
  • Cutting the tax rate for the wealthiest by 5p at a time of massive austerity and hardship for ordinary people and causing a PR disaster through poor presentation - Tory minister George Osborne
  • Taking your best friend on you on official government trips and allowing him to present himself as an MoD advisor - former Tory minister Liam Fox (who resigned over this gaffe)
  • Befriending and communicating on an incredibly frequent basis with News International lobbyists while ruling on the BSkyB takeover bid and while News International was being investigated for ciminal behaviour - (nearly former) Tory minister Jeremy Hunt
  • Appointing a man in charge during the hacking at the News of the World (later charged with perjury) as your communications advisor and then having to sack him as details of phone hacking emerged - tory Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Introducing a pasty tax which was predictably perceived with outrage as being a petty tax from out of touch politicians and then having to perform a u-turn - Tory minister George Osborne
  • Introducing a cap on donations to charities, bringing massively disastrous PR, and then having to perform a u-turn - Tory minister George Osborne
  • Writing a report for the government proposing the scrapping of labour protection laws - Tory policy advisor and donor Lord Beecroft
The list just goes on and on and on. Bungle after bungle of petty mistakes and gaffes which cause massively bad PR and force what are perceived as humiliating retreats and u-turns. None of these elephant traps which the government has blundered into were necessary or unforeseeable and all of them were over relatively small matters which shouldn't have been that significant in the great scheme of things.

And, when you consider that these have all been specifically tory failures - Lib Dem ministers have, in contrast, avoided mistakes of this nature.

And what this screams to me is incompetence - and, from what I can tell, a lot of tory grassroots members are thinking the same thing. This isn't about poor policies, it's about blundering when it comes to picking which battles to fight and massive cock ups in presenting tory ideas. The cut in the 50p tax rate was never going to be popular but at least Osborne could have made more of an effort to point out that they would be taking money off the wealthy in other ways and that everyone else would benefit by the increase in the income tax threshold.

So that's what's led me to conclude that the tories are unfit for government. It seems like the current crop of tory ministers aren't just inexperienced in government (after all, the Lib Dems have no experience of government and we've managed to avoid such blunders) but that they also operate with a strange mixture of arrogance and ignorance which is what leads them into these idiotic mistakes. And, regardless of their political viewpoint, someone who manages to start and lose a damaging political battle over pasties, for god's sake, really is horrendously unsuited to being in government.