Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Final version of Equal Citizenship motion

Just as a quick update, after negotiations with the Federal Conference Committee, here is the final version of the Equal Citizenship motion after being amended to meet FCC requirements:

Equal Citizenship: Supporting independence for sick and disabled people 
Conference notes: 
A) The passage of the Welfare Reform Act, particularly:
  • i. Changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
  • ii. The introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) as a
  • replacement for Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is predicated
  • to reduce working age DLA expenditure by 20% by 2015/16, returning
  • expenditure to 2009/10 levels in real terms.
  • iii. The feeling of exclusion from the welfare reform policy development
  • process amongst the disabled community.
  • iv. The conclusions of the report ‘Reversing Recovery’ on the impact of
  • the Welfare Reform Act.
B) The passage of policy motion Employment and Support Allowance and
Work Capability Assessments’ by Autumn Federal Conference 2011.C) The
rise in disability hate crime in recent years as reported in a survey conducted
by the disability charity Scope. 
Conference welcomes: 
A) The introduction of Universal Credit, which ill means test ESA based on
household income rather than the number of hours a claimants partner works,
reducing the number of claimants receiving no means tested ESA.
B) The independent annual reviews of the Work Capability Assessment
(WCA), which determines eligibility for ESA, being conducted by Professor
Malcolm Harrington.
C) The Government’s decision to accept the vast majority of the
recommendations made in the first two annual reviews by Professor
Harrington.
D) The four public consultations held so far on the introduction of PIPs.
E) The Government’s decision to allocate an additional £15 million to the
Access to Work budget as a result of the recommendations of Liz Sayce in
her review of specialist disability employment programmes. 
Conference believes: 
I) That society and government have a duty of care towards sick and disabled
people and that the goals of government policy must be the empowerment of
sick and disabled people in order to tackle and reduce their dependency on
others and, fundamentally, to enable them to enjoy full and equal citizenship.
II) That current welfare policy is failing sick and disabled people and that the
Welfare Reform Act does not do enough to remedy this situation.III) 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 current method of time limiting
of contributory ESA are counterproductive and harmful.
IV) The although a variety of organisation, including private sector
organisations, have a role to play in formulating DWP policy, the last Labour
Government relied too heavily on advice from private companies with a
potential financial interest in the outcomes of polices affecting sick and
disabled people.
V) That policies which force sick and disabled people to be dependent on
others may prevent them from being able to enjoy equal citizenship and leads
to exclusion from society.
VI) That further action by government is required to prevent victimisation of
and discrimination against sick and disabled people by employers.
VII) That more needs to be done in society as a whole to remove barriers to
access to employment, transport and participation as equal citizens. 
Conference therefore calls for: 
1. An independent review of the impact of the Welfare Reform Act.
2. A review of WCA assessment centres to ensure they have adequate disabled
access and easy access by public transport or that mechanisms are in place
to provide home visits or alternative assessment venues.
3. 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.
4. The results of this consultation to be used by the DWP to reform its sickness
and disability policies.
5. Additional support and effort to be targeted at enabling sick and disabled
people to remain in work and at removing barriers of access to work through
expansions of schemes such as the Access to Work Fund.
6. The Government to ensure that it continues to take a balance approach
to the advice it receives, and that it prioritises the advice of organisations
representing sick and disabled people.
7. The Citizen’s Advice and non profit making advice services to receive
increased government funding during the transitional periods for any future
substantial changes to the welfare system.
8. The Government to examine the impact of means-testing and income-related
support elements of disability welfare policy and, when funds allow, to reform
policy to reduce the number of cases where sick and disabled people are
made dependent on partners and carers and to ensure that, where this does
happen, this does not lead to exclusion from society.
9. A public awareness campaign to tackle prejudice and other attitudes
detrimental to the well-being of sick and the disabled people.
What I'd like to ask you to do now, if you're still reading this, is to get in contact with your local Lib Dem MP and/or local party and ask them to back this motion at autumn conference. I know there's a lot more work to do on disability issues but my hope is that this motion can be the start of a new, clear, consistent and liberal vision on how we support sick and disabled people in a 21st century society.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Five reasons to make Vince Cable chancellor

While I know this is pretty much impossible due to David Cameron probably not having the political courage necessary to sack his best friend as chancellor and replace him with a man who is hated by his backbenchers, I'd still like to present the following list of reasons why Vince Cable should take over as chancellor:

1. Vince knows what he's doing

Specifically, he predicted the financial crisis years in advance and warned of the dangers of deregulation at the same time that Osborne was calling for even more deregulation - in addition to which, Cable's been leading the call within government for the kind of radical action (big infrastructure investment, creating more training and apprenticeship programs, economic stimulus directly for the economy rather than for the banks, etc.) that most leading economists have started to call for - if you look at the recent recommendations in the IMF report you'll see that they're advocating pretty much the same things that Vince has been calling for.


And, I highly doubt that Vince would have produced the kind of "omnishambles" budget that Osborne did - something which drastically increased the number of people viewing the government as incompetent.

2. Vince is popular

In a recent poll of the popularity of possible replacement chancellors, Vince Cable came top with 22% favouring him as opposed to the 16% favouring the second place William Hague - given that Cable is generally fairly popular with the public, far more so than Osborne at any rate, making him chancellor could well stabilise the government's falling trustworthiness ratings on the economy.

3. It would show that Cameron is a decisive Prime Minister

Let's face it, Cameron replacing Osborne with Cable would be problematic for him on several levels - it would irritate the hell out of his tory backbenchers (Vince is consistently rated the most unpopular government minister in polls of tory members) and would mean betraying his best friend. But, while this would cause him a lot of problems in the tory party, it would probably increase the number of people rating Cameron as decisive and show that the government was prepared to take radical action. And, if the coalition's decisiveness and economic credibility ratings started to rise, it's quite likely that Cameron would find a lot of his problems with his backbenchers disappear - put bluntly, the tory party (and most political parties in general) will put up with almost anything from their leader as long as they're doing well in the polls.

4. It would give the tories a full-time strategist

One of the biggest criticisms of Osborne, even amongst tories, has been that he's effectively a part-time chancellor as he's also meant to be running the tory party's overall political strategy - with the result that he doesn't have enough time to devote to either job. While Osborne would be very unlikely to want to continue being strategist after being stabbed in the back, one of the main consequences of replacing Osborne as chancellor would be that Cameron would be able to get a full time strategist - something that his party's been sorely lacking as is obvious by the recent lack of any kind of coherent vision from the tories as to what kind of country they want to create.

5. It would let the tories get something from the Lib Dems in return

Getting one of our people as chancellor would obviously be seen as a big coup for the Lib Dems. The chancellor is one of the great offices of state and, as a result, would mean that we'd have to give something up in return. Some tories might look at something like dropping gay marriage or dropping lords reform or having an EU referendum but I think that in reality they'd be more likely to settle with losing Lib Dems from the cabinet instead.

For example, without a hostile Osborne trying to scupper every green measure that comes up, Lib Dems would probably be willing to relinquish the Department of Energy and Climate Change in favour of Ed Davey's tory deputy. Having a tory in charge of energy would soothe a lot of the anti-green tory right whilst also not being too unpalatable to Lib Dems as they'd know that Ed Davey's deputy is actually fairly sensible on green issues and that, with the chancellorship in their hands, they could use that position to continue to enact green measures.

And Cable's former department (Business, Industry and Skills), of course, would also be up for grabs and could quite easily go to either a tory or to a tory-palatable Lib Dem such as David Laws. It would also mean that William Hague would probably be moved from being Foreign Minister to First Secretary to the Treasury, letting a new rising tory star to take over at the Foreign Office and that Cameron would be in a better position to ditch Ken Clarke (who is popular with the Lib Dems but unpopular with tory backbenchers) in favour of someone more to the liking of the tory right.

Some combination of the above, therefore, would probably give the tories back as much influence as they had lost whilst also, and crucially, giving Cameron plenty of ministerial slots to use to shore up support amongst for his leadership amongst the tory grassroots.


Of course in reality Cameron will probably keep Osborne in place to the economic detriment of us all and with negative effects on the government's credibility instead of replacing him with Cable, but a man can dream can't he?

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Foodbanks prove that the welfare state is failing

Last year 88 new foodbanks opened across the UK. According to the Guardian, Britain's biggest foodbank network, the Trussell Trust, says it has doubled the number of food parcels it's issued and is opening new foodbanks at the rate of two a week.

Now, I can't claim to be an expert but I'd have thought that when you get so many people, including large numbers of families with children, depending on charity in order to be able to eat (and I should point out that foodbanks are quite strict in checking that people actually need food) it should be fairly obvious to everyone that the welfare system is badly broken.

I strongly recommend that, if you have the time, you read this article about some of the real life people depending on foodbanks, but if you don't have the time then this case, in particular, drew my attention:
Paul, 33, hasn't had a job since a car accident three years ago damaged his knee and made it hard for him to stand for long stretches; he has now mostly recovered and is looking to return to warehouse work, although he hasn't managed to find any, partly, he thinks, because of the recession and partly because his experience is now a bit out of date. Late last year, he was put on the government's new Work Programme, allocated a slot with the provider Sencia.
"They are supposed to be helping me find work; all they are doing is having me come in and look for jobs on the internet. I could be doing that at home myself. They weren't sending me on any courses," he says. He became rather jaundiced with the system and when his grandmother died in January, he failed to go back. "I missed a few appointments, so my benefits have been sanctioned until December. I wouldn't have done it if I'd known." He has two consecutive six-month sanction periods; most of that time the family gets a hardship payment of £160 a week (a cut of £120 from the £280 they received previously). But for complicated bureaucratic reasons this payment hasn't been made for the past couple of weeks and they have nothing to feed their twin six-year-old sons and their eight-year-old daughter. Sarah is five months pregnant.
Now look, I don't like the idea of people scrounging off the system and I support measures to prevent people from sponging off the taxpayer - but I don't see how it helps anyone for the system to leave a family with young children without enough money to eat through a combination of officials being overzealous with sanctions and administration errors.

Because a system like this, at its heart, robs people of dignity and freedom. It makes them utterly dependent on the system to work properly, to never drop the ball, just in order for them to have the bare essentials needed to survive. And the problem is that the systen doesn't work perfectly. It makes mistakes or people who happen to fall outside the pre-defined conceptions of need are denied support. Hence the need for foodbanks.

And the system needs to work. Leaving things to charity will only lead to a lottery where some people get help and others don't. We shouldn't depend on foodbanks to feed our own - the whole reason we pay tax in the first place is, in part, to make sure that we know that no matter what happens to use we need never fear the very real and life-threatening poverty that was so common less than a century ago. So when foodbanks keep on springing up it should be bloody obvious that that basic principle, that basic promise of the welfare state, has been broken. And it needs to be fixed for the good of everyone.

I can't claim to have some great insight or some genius idea to fix the problem but when, in 21st century Britain, we still have people going hungry, I'd say it's pretty damn obvious that something drastic needs to be done to rememedy the situation, and done quickly to boot.

Of course, if you want a reason as to why the system got like this in the first place, and why there are so many political obstacled to fixing it, then allow me to provide you with two tory perspectives on foodbanks:

Caroline Spellman - foodbanks are "an excellent example" of the big society in action.

Edwina Curry (who doesn't believe that there's anyone in the UK going hungy) - "Are you telling me people in this country are going hungry? Seriously? Seriously?"

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The problem with the "free" market

If you're like me you might well have seen the pictures doing the rounds on social media about the plight of British dairy farmers. They look something like this:

Source: the BBC
And this prompted a discussion on a facebook group which I'm a member of and someone asked why it was that, given the high profit margin of a pint of milk, no one had increased the price paid to the farmers while cutting the retail price and therefore undercutting the supermarkets.

Now, the thing is that this is a fair question. It's exactly what's meant to happen in the marketplace - when you get a company making high profits and underpaying their suppliers then an entrepreneur or a rival comes in and offers the suppliers a higher price and a lower price to consumers, taking business away from the first company and making both the supplier and the consumer better off. That's what's great about capitalism and about competition - it drives innovation and gives consumers better quality products at lower prices.

The problem is, however, that, when it comes to supermarkets, there isn't that kind of competition. People shop at supermarkets for convenience - there might be a shop selling the same milk at a much lower price while paying their suppliers a fairer price but why would the average shopper go there just to buy milk and then have to do their other shopping elsewhere when they could just go and do it all in one go at the supermarket? Sure, they might wind up paying over the odds for milk - but what's an extra 20p or so compared to the convenience of only having to do one shopping trip?

Which means that it's impossible for a small shop to compete with the supermarkets - other than perhaps as a small, niche business. So the only way it would be possible to undercut the supermarkets on milk and compete with them would be if you were another supermarket. But, if the big supermarkets aren't already competing with each other when it comes to milk, competition can only come from a new supermarket chain entering the marketplace and undercutting them - which is nigh impossible due to the way in which existing chains have already sewn up the suppliers and the good store locations between them. And, since no one can enter the market to compete with them, there's no incentive for them to undercut each other on milk by reducing profit margins as it's not going to win them a large number of new customers but would reduce their profits.

So what we're left with is, effectively, a cartel. The supermarkets keep their profits on milk high because they can and consumers and suppliers lose out as a result.

And that's the problem with the libertarian wet dream of a "free" market - by which they mean little to no market regulation at all. Without a sensible level of regulation then you end up with situations like the one we have with milk at the moment where lack of regulation leads to effective or actual cartels which completely undermine the whole concept of competition which is meant to be the best thing about a free market - with the result that everyone else, including smaller businesses, suffers for the sake of a small group of big businesses.

And this, I think, is the key aspect of the role of liberalism when it comes to the markets. As a liberal I believe that the job of the government is to regulate markets in such a way as to produce the kind of level playing field that unregulated markets fail to produce on their own. And, by providing a fair and level playing field it's then possible for competition to take place - to the benefit of everyone - instead of the crony capitalism we see at the moment.

In fact, in many ways, this is also the same as liberalism's attitude to the role of government in society as a whole - creating a level playing field so that everyone has a fair chance in life, with the rest up to themselves (and also to make sure that no one starves or goes homeless or lacks basic sanitation or medical care of course).

So, the next time someone argues that we should deregulate the markets and that libertarianism, with it's blind, unflinching and misplaced belief in the sacred "unfettered free market" is the answer, I intend to answer by asking them how they think anything other than regulation can tackle problems like the one we face at the moment with the market paying farmers less for their milk than it costs to produce.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Equal Citizenship motion accepted!

Huzzah!

I received an email yesterday informing me of the excellent news that the Equal Citizenship motion on disability welfare issues has been accepted for debate at Lib Dem autumn conference in Brighton.

So I just want to say a big, big thank you to everyone who helped get the motion this far - the next step is going to be lobbying MPs and local parties to get them to vote for the motion in the debate :)

For reference, this is the email I received:
Dear George,
The conference committee decided yesterday to accept your motion for debate at the autumn conference. However, they wished to remove the last line as the FPC has already decided to do a general review of welfare issues. In addition, a number of specific drafting issues were raised by the DWP Parliamentary Committee and the FCC would like these to be addressed as far as possible. 
Perhaps you and [name] could put your heads together in the next week or so to sort these out? 
Best wishes,
So the good news from this is that the Federal Policy Committee will be doing a review of welfare issues - something which is long overdue and which should give people from all across the spectrum to contribute and to come up with something much more comprehensive than a conference policy motion can be.

I don't know what the other specific drafting issues are yet but I'll be sure to blog again once the redrafting has taken place in order to make sure that a final version of it is available.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Good times at the Social Liberal Forum

This Saturday I went to Social Liberal Forum's second annual conference in London (though next year they allegedly intend to move it somewhere less south-east-centric). For those who don't know, the Social Liberal Forum is a group of Lib Dems, founded shortly after the creation of the coalition, to be a "critical friend" to the coalition and to develop and promote social liberal policies within the Lib Dems. It's essentially the closest thing to the centre left faction that the Lib Dems have (even though pretty much everyone in the SLF thinks that "left" is a fairly inaccurate and meaningless term).

And, all I have to say is that the conferences was fricking fun! It was brilliant! It was like a regular Lib Dem conference only without those people in the Lib Dems whom I don't like - with the (dis)honourable exception of Nick Clegg who turned up to give the first annual Beveridge lecture (named after the Liberal peer who wrote the report laying out the foundation of the modern NHS and welfare state).

As far as I'm concerned the speech by Clegg was adequate - loose and general enough that he managed the fairly difficult task of not pissing off an audience that was already fairly hostile or, at the very least, unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. So kudos to whoever wrote the speech for him.

The brief question and answer session that followed, however, left me very dissatisfied with him. I was fortunate enough to get picked and my question was, paraphrasing, something along the lines of:
"In your speech you talked about tackling the giant evils such as poverty and squalor but how does this square with the government cutting disability benefits for thousands of vulnerable people?"
To which his reply was to talk about Disability Living Allowance, effectively saying that with the reassessments those who needed support would get it and we'd have to see what the outcome was. Which makes you wonder if he's ever even heard of Employment and Support Allowance (the modern version of incapacity benefit) and it being time limited, or about the social fund being butchered and dismantled. Because either he knew nothing about the welfare reforms or he was deliberately not talking about the difficult bits of them. And, if as I am fairly confident, it was the former, then quite clearly he doesn't even bother to glance at the motions passed by conference or he would have seen the ESA motion passed last autumn.

Unfortunately I only got the one question so I couldn't follow up to put him on the spot but I guess that's what the Q&A session at autumn conference is for.

But the general consensus among the people I spoke to afterwards, and the consensus among SLFers on twitter, was that Clegg "just doesn't get it" and that he needs to get out the Westminster bubble.

But, aside from Clegg, who dashed off right after his speech because, you know, engaging with members clearly isn't high on his "to do" list, the rest of the conference was good.

There were lots of interesting panel discussions and I met up with some of my favourite people - hat tips to Natasha Chapman, Fiona White, Sue Doughty, Evan Harris, Tom Wood, Kavya Kaushik, and so many, many others. I did also note a socialist whom a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) decided to sneak into the conference as a guest without anyone noticing. Fortunately the worst said socialist did was to steal one of the speakers to come and speak to the debating society at said socialist's uni.

I also managed to get myself conscripted into running in two internal elections (gulp) and finally found the charging zone in time to save my phone but not in time to save my laptop which remained dead for the entire journey home.

Afterwards, in true liberal tradition, we all decamped to a nearby pub where we had many interesting discussions - only a handful of them obscene - before I went off to a Japanese restaurant for dinner with some friends where I tried sake for the first time.

And that, I think, sums up the social liberal forum and what being a member of it is about: grumbling about Clegg, interesting debates, meeting friends, talking policy, and alcohol.

P.S. One bit I particularly liked was what one speaker (whose name escapes me) said about what the coalition exist strategy should be: We shouldn't walk out of the coalition, we should keep on irritating the tories until they walk out of the coalition.

P.P.S. The bit I didn't like was that, while most of my favourite people were at the conference, a significant number were in Scotland and unable to attend.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Why I will never stop being angry with Labour

As part of the current twitter storm about the Lords reforms, I got into a "debate" with Sunny Hundal. And I think that one particular segment of the debate sums up very neatly why I will never, ever stop being angry with Labour.


Let's just quickly recap:

The illegal invasion of Iraq, approved by parliament in no small part due the Labour government deliberately lying about weapons of mass destruction, resulted in, according to the Lancet, over 600,000 dead Iraqi civilians and in 4 million people being made refugees. It also destroyed the country's economy, plunged a mostly secular country into sectarian conflict and claimed the lives of 4,777 coalition servicemen and women.

Oh, and it also cost UK and US taxpayers over a trillion dollars.

Ed Miliband making an apology does not make up for that. Not by a long shot. Especially since he was working for the Labour government when it took us into Iraq. And that's the extent of his contrition. In fact, he didn't even use the word "sorry".

All he said was:
"I criticise nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions and I honour our troops who fought and died there. But I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that. 
"Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations. 
"America has drawn a line under Iraq and so must we"
So, no criticism of the people who lied to the nation, no regret for the lives lost but one hell of a desire to draw the line under and move on from something electorally damaging to Labour.

And that's what Sunny's attitude is indicative of. It's nothing unique to Sunny, it's an endemic problem in the Labour party.

Which is why I'm angry with Labour. Saying sorry is not the same thing as being contrite. Saying sorry is meaningless to the thousands of people who quite literally lost everything thanks to Labour's actions. If Labour really was contrite, if they really cared about Iraq then they wouldn't be so arrogant to assume that some meaningless platitudes from Ed Miliband made up for it.

Now, I don't like the NHS bill. I think it's unnecessary and disruptive. But it's not going to destroy the NHS and it's not going to kill thousands of people. And to compare it to the Iraq War, the Iraq bloody War shows just how little of a damn some Labourites give about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.



Also, I loathe the Welfare Reform Act. I still hate the fact that Lib Dem parliamentarians backed it. It will be a dark stain on the party's soul for decades to come. I wouldn't dream of asking people to forget about it and move on until we've apologised for it and actually made an effort to fix the damage it's caused. In fact, that's what I'm currently trying to do with the motion I'm trying to get debated at our autumn conference.

You see, that's how you show contrition. By actually being prepared to stand up, admit you were wrong and do your best to fix it. Making one half-hearted apology and then whining about it being unfair on you every time someone brings up that your party quite literally has blood on its hands just shows, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Labour aren't really sorry, that they don't understand why what they did was wrong and they never will.


And it's that kind of breathtaking arrogance and utter failure to be sorry for the deaths of so many people that epitomises why I will never stop being angry with Labour. For all you've done, and all you could have done Labour, I despise you.

To those who say the Lords ain't broke

One of the comments I've seen made quite often by people who oppose reform of the House of Lords is "if it ain't broke don't fix it". A predictably shallow and intellectually unsound argument but, despite that, I've decided to rant about it :)

So, if you've used that phrase to defend an undemocratic, unaccountable House of Lords then the following is addressed to you (warning contains *quickly checks* one swear word) :

It ain't broke. Are you serious? We have a  chamber stuffed full of failed politicians, appointed by the nepotism of their party leaders, who can get £300 a day, tax free, just for turning up and then going home again, who rebel against the party line much less than MPs and who can't be kicked out even if they commit murder - and you think that isn't broken?

70% of people want an elected house of lords. It's 100 years overdue and anyone who's arguing against it cannot claim to be anything other than an undemocratic defender of unelected, unaccountable privilege and nepotism all for the benefit of failed politicians.

Yes, there are a hell of a lot more important issues facing the country. So why don't opponents of lords reform simply shut the fuck up, vote for it, get it passed without it taking up any more parliamentary time than necessary instead of gumming up the works with filibuster attempts? If you're going to defend the lords then do so but don't pretend you're doing it on anything approaching a reasoned argument. The arguments against lords reform are so mutually contradictory they make the Chuckle Brothers look like veritable sages of wisdom. So if you're going to defend it at least have the honesty to admit that you're doing it in the face of all common sense and all democratic principles. And, at the end of the day, you're going to lose.

The same crap arguments being recycled today in defence of unaccountable privilege are the same arguments rolled out against abolishing the rotten boroughs, against extending the right to vote, against giving primacy to the commons and against giving women the right to vote. Every single meaningful reform in the history of this country, every single reform that paved the way to our modern society, has been obtained only though lengthy battle against die-hard opposition from hypocrites and two-faced dinosaurs. But those battles were won all the same. Democracy won, again, and again and again. Democracy will come to the lords sooner or later and posterity will rightly judge the opponents of reform the same way they judge the misogynists of the 20th century and the divine-right-to-rule aristocrats of the 19th century. And if the opponents of reform had any decency, any shred of credibility or concern for the well being of this country and its people then they would get out the way and cease their ridiculous efforts to stop the people of Britain being able to decide who governs Britain. End of.

Update: for those looking for a guide to what the Lords reforms actually are, in order to cut through the squabbling politicians, here's one I made earlier.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

End of week euro round up 07/07/12

This is my end of week round up of Liberal Democrat EU news - particularly what our MEPs, who sit in the influential ALDE group, are getting up to in the European Parliament. All stories are courtesy of Angelika Schneider at libdemmeps.com

Monday

Sir Graham Watson, Lib Dem MEP for the South West, responded to the speech by Liam Fox, in which he called for an immediate renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU, by calling on tories to come clean on the alternatives to EU membership saying:
"This is a desperate move by a discredited Tory to bang the populist drum to try to revitalise an ailing political career. 
"As usual, a lot of hot air is being blown but with few precise proposals. Does Mr Fox wish to see us form a Norway style relationship, where we would lose our rebate, pay £3.5 billion a year into a pot to access the single market but have no say on the directives that we would have to conform to in order to trade freely? Or perhaps a customs union, similar to Turkey, where specific goods would be tariff free but not services and where again, all directives agreed by the others without our input would have to be implemented into UK law in order to trade."
Tuesday


Bill Newton Dunn, Lib Dem MEP for the East Midlands, criticised an alliance of Labour, Green and UKIP MEPs who voted against giving greater powers to EU customs authorities to tackle counterfeit goods.

Phil Bennion, Lib Dem MEP for the West Midlands, described as "madness" a rejected proposal by Green MEPs to force all vehicles over 1.5 tonnes carrying goods to install digital tachographs which he said would have caused "mayhem" for millions of self-employed drivers, such as farmers and plumbers.

Wednesday

As Cyprus took up their presidency of the EU for the next six months, Sir Graham Watson MEP, in his role as President of the European Liberal Democrat Party (ELDR), referring to the issues facing the presidency (such as budget talks, the EU’s roadmap 2050 and talks on bank supervision and sovereign debt) said that “Cyprus cannot lead by size or strength, so they must lead by example".


Bigger news came in the form of the overwhelming vote in the European Parliament to reject the Anti Counterfeiting Agreement (ACTA), spelling the end of the treaty. ACTA had been attacked heavily by civil liberties campaigners for the way they said it infringed online freedoms. And, commenting on the 478 to 39 vote, Catherine Bearder, Lib Dem MEP for the South East, said that:
"Today’s rejection of ACTA sends out a clear message that civil liberties and civil society must be taken into account in the fight against counterfeiting and piracy."

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Equal Citizenship motion submitted to the FCC

Huzzah!

Thanks to the support of Islington Lib Dems and 13 Lib Dem conference reps, the Equal Citizenship motion has been submitted today to the Federal Conference Committee to be considered for debate at this year's autumn conference in Brighton.

I'd just like to say a massive thank you to everyone who helped get the motion this far as now we just need to keep our fingers crossed that it gets accepted for debate.

For those who are interested, this is the final draft of the motion:

Equal Citizenship: Updating sickness and disability policy for 2015

Conference notes:
A) The passage of the Welfare Reform Act, particularly:
i. Changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
ii. The introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) as a replacement for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for people of working age which is expected to cut the DLA budget by 20%.
iii. The feeling of exclusion from the welfare reform policy development process amongst the disabled community.
iv. The conclusions of the report ‘Reversing Recovery’ on the impact of the Welfare Reform Act.
B) The Harrington Reports reviewing the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which determines eligibility for ESA.
C) The passage of policy motion F6  ‘Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments’ by Autumn Federal Conference 2011.
D) The presence 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.
F) The rise in disability hate crime in recent years as reported in a survey conducted by the disability charity Scope.

Conference believes:
I) That society and government have a duty of care towards sick and disabled people and that the goals of government policy must be the empowerment of sick and disabled people in order to tackle and reduce their dependency on others and, fundamentally, to enable them to enjoy full and equal citizenship.
II) That current welfare policy is failing sick and disabled people and that the Welfare Reform Act does not do enough to remedy this situation.
III) That businesses such as Unum UK have a financial interest in the outcome of welfare policy and that their conflict of interest has led to successive reforms of DWP policy which have been detrimental to the well-being of sick and disabled people.
IV) 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.
V) That welfare policies which force sick and disabled people to be dependent on others prevents them from being able to enjoy equal citizenship and leads to exclusion from society.
VI) That further positive action by government is required to prevent victimisation of and discrimination against sick and disabled people by employers.
VII) That more needs to be done in society as a whole to remove barriers to access to employment, transport and participation as equal citizens.

Conference therefore calls for:
  1. An independent review of the impact of the Welfare Reform Act.
  2. An immediate end to WCA assessment centres without disabled access and which lack easy access by public transport.
  3. 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.
  4. The results of this consultation to be used by the DWP to reform its sickness and disability policies.
  5. Additional support and effort to be targeted at enabling sick and disabled people to remain in work and at removing barriers of access to work through expansion of schemes such as the Access to Work Fund.
  6. The Citizen’s Advice and non profit making advice services to receive increased government funding during the transitional periods for any future substantial changes to the welfare system.
  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.
  8. A public awareness campaign to tackle prejudice and other attitudes detrimental to the well-being of sick and the disabled people.
  9. For the Federal Policy Committee to establish a working policy group on sickness and disability issues.

Meeting Professor Harrington

Yesterday I went to London to attend a meeting in Portcullis House where Professor Harrington, the man charged with reviewing the Work Capability Assessment which determines eligibility for incapacity benefit, was being asked questions by various members of the House of Lords welfare committee and miscellaneous others (e.g. me).

The meeting took place under Chatham House rules - which mean that no one at the meeting is allowed to disclose what was said at the meeting or even who attended. The reason for this is because politicians are a paranoid lot and generally refuse to speak plainly unless they can be guaranteed that someone won't quote them in an unfavourable manner.

In this particular case I don't really think Chatham House rules were necessary in this case but the conditions of being invited to the meeting (and I was only there as a guest of the Lib Dem Disability Association) are that you have to follow the rules or otherwise you won't be invited in future.

So, though I can't go into details of the meeting I can say that I left the meeting feeling very optimistic about the future WCA and confident that Professor Harrington is definitely the right man for the job. That's all I can say right now but I should be able to give a bit more detail in two to three weeks time after the DWP has approved a two paragraph summary of the meeting.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Calling all voting reps to back Equal Citizenship!

This is a shout out to all Lib Dem federal conference voting reps to urgently request your help. Don't worry, it's nothing too arduous - I just need to find four more voting reps to sponsor a motion.

The motion in question can be found here.

I've written the motion to try and flesh out our disability policy and our welfare policy so that we have something a bit more substantial in our manifesto when we go into 2015. At the moment our welfare and disability policy is basically just a couple of paragraphs of good intentions but no concrete ideas. And the only time disabled people are mentioned at all in our pocket guide to policy is in one paragraph where we propose making the winter fuel allowance to disabled people. Admirable, but not really adequate if it's our sole policy on such a big issue.

So the motion I've written is trying to go a little bit of the way towards giving us a few concrete policy ideas in this area. At the core of it is the idea of Equal Citizenship - of making sure that disabled people and the long term ill are empowered to be able to enjoy full and equal participation in the society, something which the rest of us take for granted.

But the deadline for submitting a motion for debate at this year's autumn conference in Brighton is this Wednesday. That means there's just one day left to gather the required 10 voting reps in order to get the policy debated.

I've already got six seven voting reps so I only need four three more. But time is absolutely of the essence. If you're a voting rep, please get in contact with your name, your local party and your membership number so I can add you to the list of sponsors.

If you're not a voting rep but still a Lib Dem then please forward this to any voting reps you know to see if they'd be willing to back it please.

For contact purposes, here's email: wpotter[dot]george[at]gmail[dot]com

As I said, time is of the essence so, if you're interested in sponsoring the motion, please try and get in touch by this (Tuesday) evening at the latest.

And, to anyone who's reading this, please retweet it and share it as widely as possible. The last major Lib Dem policy motion on disability was in 1999 - thirteen years later it's definitely time for us to debate disability again and to make sure that we have policies which remain up to date and relevant.

At the end of the day, we can't claim to be a serious party of government without at least a semi-detailed welfare policy. This motion is far from being the solution but would at least give us something to talk about in 2015 and the motion making it to conference would at least give us the chance to properly debate welfare policy - something which is probably well overdue.

UPDATE: Success! I now have 13 voting reps backing the motion so there shouldn't be any obstacle to submitting the motion to the Federal Conference Committee tomorrow. A big thank you to everyone who helped :)

UPDATE 2: The motion has just been submitted to the FCC. I'll do a blogpost later this afternoon with all the details. In the meantime, thanks very much to everyone who's helped get the motion this fa :)

Monday, 2 July 2012

Time for English devolution

Even before I joined the Lib Dems I was a passionate believer in devolution for England. And having joined the Lib Dems and coming across the federalist principles that the party believes in has made me even more convinced of the need for English devolution.

As it stands, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all have devolved governments with varying degrees of power. I think this is an excellent thing. As a liberal I believe that all power should be devolved to the lowest possible level so that people can run their own lives.

The problem is, however, that the English get none of the benefits in devolution. Devolved governments tend to be much more responsive to the needs of their area - while one big centralised government by its very nature can't be aware of and account for the varying needs of different parts of the country. So in Scotland and Wales prescription charges have been abolished, for example, and there are lots more resources devoted to isolated, impoverished communities that the UK government would have missed and, did in fact miss for decades. Despite that, however, the UK remains the most centralised state in all of Europe - which is saying something when you consider that tiny countries like Luxembourg have less centralisation than we do.

There's also what's referred to as the West Lothian Question - which basically boils down to the anomaly that, because of devolution, Scottish MPs can vote on laws which only affect England but English MPs can't vote on laws which only affect Scotland.

I used to think that an English Parliament, with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, was the answer. However, I then came across people who pointed out that an English Parliament would be so big (Scotland has a population of five million, England has a population of fifty million) that it would effectively take away all of the work from the UK parliament and leave it with nothing to do.

And that's without mentioning that England is so big that an English Parliament would still have most of the problems of centralisation which we already have. The only thing it would fix is the West Lothian Question - and I'm not sure that that's worth the expense of an entire new tier of politicians.

The last government toyed with the idea of Regional Assemblies but the only one they managed to set up was the London Assembly (which is essentially irrelevant as the Mayor holds most of the power) and their attempt to create regional assemblies in the rest of England was rejected by voters in a referendum in the North East. And, to be honest, I don't blame the voters for rejecting the regional assemblies. They would have had very limited powers and would have covered areas far too large to have any kind of coherent identity - and I'd argue that coherent national identities are precisely what make the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies so successful. And of course, a large criticism of the regional assemblies, even from supporters of English devolution, was that they would effectively split up England and remove its identity as a single country.

So here's my idea for a solution. Given the size of England a parliament is impractical. And attempts to break the country up into artificial regions will fail because no one identifies with the artificial boundaries that they represent. Therefore I think what we need is to break England up into smaller areas which already have local identities and which have populations of a size where devolution becomes practical - not too big and not too small.

What I'd like to see is for the ceremonial counties of England (Sussex instead of East and West Sussex and Brighton and Hove, Yorkshire instead of the current fragments of it, etc.) to be restored and reunited with existing county councils being abolished. Instead, they would be replaced by new County Assemblies with powers on a par with that of the Welsh Assembly and be elected by proportional representation in the form of STV in order to make sure that demographics couldn't allow any one political party a stranglehold on power (at present, pretty much every county council is tory run and has been for decades despite them getting less than half of the vote).

The assemblies could probably make do with the same number of members that the county councils have already so somewhere like my native Sussex would have an assembly of 164 assembly members which would be enough to make sure that every area and community was adequately represented.

The big question would be what would happen to existing local authorities such as local borough/district councils - not to mention the unitary councils in some places. In my opinion the simplest thing to do would be to keep the district and borough councils (basically the same thing with different names) as they are and then to rename the unitary councils but also grant all of their powers to district and borough councils. This is, of course, under the assumption that cities would be part of the county assemblies - something which I think would be a good idea as it would be rather anomalous for every city to just end up surrounded by a doughnut county which, in terms of governance, would be completely separate.

To me, the appeal of county assemblies is that it would make things truly responsive to local people. We could see local democratic control of health services and education and policing and educational development. It would also help revive the county identities and traditions that have nearly died out.

And, above all, it would finally give us a truly federal United Kingdom. When we consider that the US state of New Hampshire has a population no larger than that of most English ceremonial counties.

But, this is just my opinion. I'd be very curious as to what you think.

For reference, the current powers of the Welsh Assembly are as follows:
  • Agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural development
  • Ancient monuments and historic buildings
  • Culture
  • Economic development
  • Education and training
  • Environment
  • Fire and rescue services and promotion of fire safety
  • Food
  • Health and health services
  • Highways and transport
  • Housing
  • Local government
  • Public administration
  • Social welfare
  • Sport and recreation
  • Tourism
  • Town and country planning
  • Water and flood defence
  • Welsh language