Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why this Go Sober malarkey, behind the fun and banter and rivalry, actually matters

A long time ago. It's Christmas morning, but nobody's celebrating. The household is pretty frantic because one of its number, as her life nears its end, is really distressed. A phone call. A short time passes and two Macmillan Cancer Support nurses arrive. They know what to do. Every moment of watching someone you love suffer seems to last for about a year, but in reality, in quite a short time, she was calm and comfortable again.

There were some grim moments towards the end of my mother-in-law's life that the passing of more than 20 years has not dimmed that much. You never forget those who supported you during that time and the minor miracles they wrought every day. She died three days later, and the Macmillan team did everything they possibly could to make it all as peaceful as possible.

They'd been involved well before Christmas Day. We all knew how this illness was going to play out and they helped by talking to not just my mother-in-law, but to all of us too, about how we were feeling, suggesting things that might help us and being available when we needed them. We felt that they understood where we were at. Even after she died, they called in on us to see how we were.

I really don't know how on earth we would have coped without the Macmillan team. Even after all this time, writing this down has made my eyes prickle.

Everyone going through the mill with that brutal disease should have the support of these wonderful people. It should be said that it's not just about supporting those who are at the end their lives - they are there for all with Cancer and so many more people now are getting through it these days. I'm sure we all know someone who has been helped by Macmillan.

That is why, more than anything else, that I've been stoking the rivalry between Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael and Sheila Ritchie. Sure, they are both my friends and a month without alcohol is a real test for both of them and I wanted to help make it worth their while, but the cause was a real motivator. That between them, as I write this, they have raised a whisker from £8000 and are the top two in the UK is incredible. Is it too much to hope that they can get into five figures by the end of their quest. Alistair finishes tonight, but Sheila has another 3 days to go as she started late.

Earlier this week, they made exclusive pitches to Liberal Democrat Voice, which I reproduce here. It's payday today for many people. Please give what you can to either Sheila or Alistair. I'm not taking sides because I think they are both brilliant, although I want to see them both safely taking the top two spots.

And perhaps you will join me at 0:01 tomorrow in raising a glass alongside Carmichael in spirit (literally) if not actually with him in person.

Alistair Carmichael: this is a matter of confidence for the leadership

carmichael and teddy bearI have always thought of Lib Dem Voice as a virtual Lib Dem Conference, just without the Glee Club. I found myself musing about how I would persuade conference to support me in my Sober in October challenge. In fact, we all know that the best way to persuade conference of any proposition is to line all parliamentarians up behind the opposite one and then make it an issue of confidence for the leadership. I offer you, therefore the only speech that could swing things in my direction.
The text in square brackets explains what each sentence actually means.
In the best tradition of conference this speech would be delivered by some poor dupe identified by Matthew Hanney as being popular with activists.
Conference, I think it is fair to say that I speak for the entire parliamentary party today when I ask you to donate money to Sheila Ritchie's page.

[We have Farron locked in a cupboard somewhere] 

You have probably read the ridiculous press coverage saying that your support for Sheila is an issue of confidence for the leadership.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

[The press office have been briefing for the past two weeks now that the leader will resign if you vote against him] 

Of course, Alistair Carmichael is a close friend and a good colleague

[I can't stand the man and am delighted to have this chance to stick the boot in] 

This is not personal.

[This is personal] 

Your parliamentary colleagues feel that he has other responsibilities with which to concern himself
[It should have been me! Me, I tell you!!!!] 

We were delighted (if a little surprised) that he undertook this challenge.

[I am quite happy for you to think he is a total lush] 

We all know Sheila

[I think I spoke to her at the Torquay conference of 1993 but I can't be certain]

She is one of the party's characters.

[Everyone in the Scottish Party seems to be terrified of her] 

Malcolm Bruce holds her in the highest regard

[Malcolm Bruce is terrified of her] 
Viking Carmichael croppedAs a lawyer, her legal advice on the implementation of secret courts was invaluable.

[I just made that up] 
Whoever you donate to, the real winner will be Macmillan Cancer Support.

[Inadvertently, I may just have got something right] 

I realise that Gareth Epps wants to move a reference back but I don't think we need spend any time on that.

[This whole exercise has been a total waste of time] 

Thank you for listening, I look forward to the rest of the debate.

[Is the bar open yet?] 

You can donate to Alistair's page here,

Sheila Ritchie: I will do just about anything to beat him

Sheila RitchieThis is all Caron Lindsay’s fault. There I was minding my own business when she tweeted about Alistair Carmichael’s Go Sober challenge. “Hysterical,” I thought.” Incredible,”   thought.” Hilarious!” But no, it was true. The rest is history.
The sponsorship both of us are raising will go to Macmillan Cancer Support. So the fact that, between us we’ve raised over £6000 is amazing. The fact that Alistair hasn’t had a dram for 29 days is utterly remarkable. The fact that I will do just about anything to beat him, is a given!

He’s raided the Parliamentary Party, the House of Lords, and he’s even had the kitty money off the Tory Whips.  MY donors are ordinary hardworking people.  I did snag a Labour Peer, but it was pure accident.
Megan croppedSee, my problem is that this is a man who, single handedly, keeps the party afloat  with his sparkling wit and repartee at conference  financial appeals. Admittedly, he probably has a wee bit more help from the cratur there than he’s had this month. So I’m relying on you good Liberals to keep the playing field level. None of this “noblesse oblige” stuff.  He may THINK he’s a Party Grandee, now he’s Secretary of State, but he needs a) more money (his, not Macmillan’s) and b) more corpulence. Really.

I know fine that Alistair’s network is greater and richer than mine but I HATE being beaten. Give generously, and remember, just because he SAYS he’s the underdog, doesn’t make it so.

Does anyone not know someone helped by Macmillan nurses?  They were wonderful to my dad. And it seems to me that cancer is becoming hugely more prevalent. Rarely a day goes by without my hearing about someone it affects.  Some of you may have read the story my friend Kathy put on one of my Go Sober posts. The fact is, that in the UK, we are bloody lucky to have Macmillan. So dig a little deeper folks. Truth be told, at this point, I don't care which of us you give it to. 

But it would be nice to see Lib Dems in 1st and 2nd places, eh?

 You can donate to Sheila's page here

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lib Dem Federal Executive report - 28 October 2013

Last night's Federal Executive meeting was a little strange. It must have been even stranger for Tim Farron who had to chair a meeting of 30 or so people when some were in the room, some were on the phone and a few more were on the internet, their webcams being projected onto the screen in Liberal Democrat HQ. Which was fine until I put my iPad down for a minute and it slipped down the back of the sofa amid, no doubt, all sorts of rubbish. I hope nobody was watching too closely.

Last night's agenda was busy. We talked about membership - increasing, in some areas exponentially, diversity engagement, the coming year's budget. Don Foster, the new chief whip, came in and gave the political update, telling us that Liberal Democrat MPs and peers are working hard to deliver Lib Dem priorities on the Immigration and Lobbying bills. We also fed back to him that we felt more needed to be done for people on low incomes who were really struggling and he took that on board.

One good thing to come out of a Twitter conversation we were having on engaging membership is a plan to do a skills audit of our members in the first part of next year. We have some very talented people in our party and we maybe need to invite them to share their knowledge and experience with us. For example, I know someone who has experience in video production, something that could be very useful to us in the months ahead.

I created a Storify thingy of (mainly) mine and Daisy Cooper's tweets. If you have any questions, ask away.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dear Daily Mail, if a man is left in charge of his own child, he is parenting, not babysitting

One of my most re-tweeted comments ever. Must have struck a nerve. Or maybe Mitch Benn retweeting it helped:

In the hour since I posted it, my phone has gone a bit mad, beeping every few seconds, with retweets from men and women. Nobody would ever suggest a woman looking over her own child was babysitting, but for some reason parenting can be viewed as an opt-in, part-time occupation for men.

Why does this idea that women do the parenting and men help out when they feel like it persist in the second decade of the 21st century? I know so many families where Dad swans in and out when he pleases, continues with his own interests unfettered by childcare duties. The only exception to this seems to be when the mother is going out to work, although she will normally prepare meals, do the housework and otherwise make sure life is comfortable for everyone before she goes out. Dad, on the other hand, if he fancies going to some sporting event or participating, just gets on with it and the family has to reorganise their lives around him, however inconvenient it may be. Mum's interests, if she has time to pursue any, conversely, have to fit in with everyone else.

Caroline Page responded to my tweet by making this very valid point too.

The Daily Fail has form on promoting the idea that men can just pass on responsibility for looking after their children. In July 2011, Quentin Letts wrote an article entitled:
Hen-pecked Cleggy should tell his wife that running the country matters more than the school run
 And, no, I'm not going to link to such utter rubbish.

It makes me wonder. Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson have long championed and are now implementing changes to parental leave which enable couples to decide for themselves how they split parental, not maternity, leave between them. That will make it much more of a level playing field for women at work and maybe at home as well, driving cultural change as well as giving parents more choice. It will only make sense, though, where women earn more than men. What about those who don't. We need to think more about how we make sure that equality isn't just linked to economic contribution.

There has, of course, been progress since my childhood where my mum worked full time and my dad did very little in the way of either childcare or housework, but we're nowhere near where we need to be. Women's lives are still lacking many of the freedoms that men take for granted, even here, a top 20 nation for gender equality. We need to look at what we can learn from those above us in the list.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Back to the '70s - both sides at Grangemouth need to grow up and get real

Men shouting at each other, not trying to find any common ground, each escalating the disagreement with every utterance. That's how it is with the Grangemouth dispute and both sides are, from what I can see, as bad as each other.

Grangemouth is a huge oil refinery and petrochemicals plant in central Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Forth. It's role in supplying Scotland's petrol stations is crucial. Yet, bizarrely, it's the management who are keeping the plant shut down because the Unite trade union wouldn't guarantee that there would be no further strike action this Winter. It's an odd response to the cancellation of the 48 hour strike which had been planned for last weekend.

There's a lot going on here. Plant owners Ineos has said that the plant will need significant investment from Government in order to survive beyond 2017. It's certainly not doing much to make its case at the moment.

Unite, on the other hand, are being just as bad, refusing out of hand to accept changes to terms and conditions. Let's be clear, Grangemouth is no minimum wage enterprise. Its skilled workforce is pretty well off. A job (since removed) on the Ineos website a few days ago offered a top salary of up to £69,000 for a mechanical engineer who would get guaranteed overtime and guaranteed bonuses on top of that. Ineos want to institute a pay freeze and make changes to pension provisions. Like many others, they are moving from a final salary to a career average.

The changes the company want to make are not far off what many other employers, many of them in the public sector, have been doing. It's a sign of the times and straitened circumstances in which we live. It's not ideal, but maybe we need to inject a bit of realism into this.There is clear room for compromise and both sides need to try to find it.

There are few things I find more frustrating than seeing a truculent trade union and an intransigent management kick lumps out of each other on the media. As usual in these circumstances, I observe that we've really only seen men on the airwaves and every time they open their mouths, it seems to escalate the dispute a bit, their words being as flammable as their product.

A few years ago, when the nursery nurses went on strike, yet another example of male dominated trade unions letting down low paid female staff), I and other mums at the nursery reacted to the media spat between unions and management by creating Parents against strike action and organising colourful demos outside Council HQ and at picket lines. We were interviewed on the radio at the time. What annoyed us was that the two sides were not round a table talking while our kids were being deprived of our education. The two parties to the dispute were exhibiting the sort of behaviour that, rightly, wouldn't have been tolerated from the 3 and 4 year old kids caught up in it all.

And so it is now. Ineos are bad, but Unite's actions let them away with it. Like the miners in the 1980s, they play right into the hands of the management. The unions generally seem to be more bothered about rehashing the battles of the 70s and 80s than actually contributing to a long term, sustainable settlement.

Here's what needs to happen. Ineos needs to fire up the plant again. Then, both sides need to get themselves round a table, with some skilled mediators, and get on with sorting out the dispute. The way they are behaving at the moment is not likely to grab public sympathy for either side, especially when so many people on much lesser salaries are already feeling the pain of pay freezes or real terms cuts with rising living costs.

There are ways to manage change within an organisation. It's best done in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect and where people feel that at least if unpleasant things are going to happen, it's all being done fairly and inclusively. Ineos are not alone in getting it all so spectacularly wrong, sadly.

Friday, October 18, 2013

My Today programme debut talking about Jo Swinson and saying we should all look out for each other.

At 8:20 this morning I made my first ever foray into the world of the Today programme, talking about something that should never really have been a story - the fuss over Jo Swinson's lack of a seat at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

If you look at who did most of the kicking up of fuss, the Daily Mail, then their track record on women is not the best, as I wrote on Liberal Democrat Voice last night.

What was getting quite worrying is that Jo Swinson's views were not being properly represented. She does not think that offering a seat to a pregnant woman is sexist and she tweeted so last night.

The way Twitter was going on, you'd think she'd said quite the opposite. I could just imagine playing Trivial Pursuit in 10 years' time and finding a question "Which Equalities Minister said it was sexist to offer a seat to a pregnant woman?" and then getting all enraged like Ross did over his sandwich in Friends.

Even today, when there was no possible excuse to do so, Cristina Odone published a highly uncharitable piece in the Telegraph entitled "Does Jo Swinson hate women?" in which she repeated the false assertion. Two tweets from me just to make things clear:

But back to the point. I'd gone to bed last night when I noticed a tweet from the Today programme asking me to ring them. After a bit of going back and forth with midnight phone calls and me sneaking downstairs and firing up my laptop because I couldn't remember my Skype name, it was arranged that I'd take part in a discussion with James Forsyth, the Political Editor of the Spectator.

It was actually quite a good natured discussion. James and I were not far away from each other. The only difference I could see was that I didn't think our lot were being deliberately rude because I reckoned they were all looking away from Jo towards the pantomime at the other end of the Chamber. I didn't, by the way, get to slip in that in Scotland and Wales we have modern parliaments where every member has their own desk, and we don't have the antiquated voting system that involves standing in a lobby for much longer than Jo was standing at Question Time.

I also said that it was a pity that, out of all the things Jo had done this week, this fleeting moment was what we were all talking about. I mean, she's done stuff about getting more women into science and technology, to penalise rogue employers who lose at tribunals, to speaking at a conference on shared parental leave to working on consumer rights. She also fitted in a campaign trip to Dunfermline where the only sign of her pregnancy was that people were actually sometimes able to keep up with her as she knocked on doors.

I was asked people were worried about offering seats to women for fear of being branded sexist. I said that the world would be a better place if we all showed each other a bit of empathy and looked to see if others needed our seat more. I also said that when I was pregnant, the time I most needed a seat was during the first 3 months when I was hit by nausea and exhaustion when I didn't have a bump. I open doors for anybody and I give up my seat if there is someone around us who needs it more.

Anyway, you can listen to the whole thing here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Carmichael welcomes UK Government's tax cut for 70,000 Scottish businesses

Today the UK Government unveils its National Insurance Contributions Bill which will give a £2000 a year tax cut to around 70,000 Scottish businesses and will take 35,000 out of paying Employers' NICs altogether. This picture from the Treasury explains all about it:

New Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael welcomed the move, saying:
Small businesses are the engine room of our communities and the economy in Scotland.  For them, a £2,000 per year tax cut will be a welcome boost, I hope. It will in fact cut the need for some 35,000 Scottish businesses to pay national insurance contributions at all.

I hope this will send a signal to the business community that we are on their side and want to see them play the fullest part in re-building our economy.

Sexual risk orders: something liberals should be worried about?

Over the next two days, the Commons will complete its debates on the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. Liberty have already expressed concern about some of the measures within it:
The Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill proposes to replace existing orders (such as ASBOs) with a new  generation of injunctions which are easier to obtain, harder to comply with and have harsher penalties. The Bill would also introduce unfair double punishment for the vulnerable, as social tenants and their families will face mandatory eviction for breaching a term of an injunction. Other measures in the Bill include some restrictions on Schedule 7 stop and search powers which, while welcome, unfortunately come nowhere near addressing the dangerous breadth and intrusiveness of these powers. The Bill also weakens key safeguards in our already heavily-criticised extradition system by removing the automatic right of appeal against extradition orders.
In July our own Andy Boddington expressed his concerns about the effects of the bill on the right to public protest.

However, last week, the Government announced that it was giving the Police sweeping new powers to restrict the activities of people they suspect to be at risk of sexually abusing children, even if they have not been charged with an offence. Those affected could find themselves being prohibited from foreign travel, have their internet use restricted and be forbidden from being alone with a child under 16. These are huge and major restrictions of liberty and could be imposed on people who have not been charged or found guilty of an offence.

It's not a new idea. Labour brought in the first generation of such orders in 2003. Reading the actual legislation worried me a bit. Here's one of the things that put you at risk of being put under one of these orders:
giving a child anything that relates to sexual activity or contains a reference to such activity;
It's pretty sloppy wording. I gave my daughter not exactly this book, but one of its predecessors as part of what I would think any reasonable person would consider essential education. Come to think of it, I've encouraged her to read some good works of fiction, like Della says OMG by Keris Stainton which very sensitively explore some of the questions young people have as they're growing up. I'm a huge fan of that book, actually, because it has some very clear themes about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. I don't think anyone has been subjected to an order for something like this, but if we value our liberty we shouldn't be allowing such wording into our laws.

It worries me that these new updated orders could be placed on people who don't present a threat to children with very little scrutiny and possibility for appeal. If the Police think someone has done something, why not charge them with it? If they are grooming a child online, then there will be the evidence to prove it, for example.

Zoe O'Connell blogged about this on Complicity the other day, highlighting just some of the problems that could arise:
In other words, you can have one of these orders slapped on you because the police don’t like you. The restrictions on the person who is unfortunate to receive such an order are quite severe. That’s particularly true in this day and age of the internet use clause as it’s not even possible to claim some benefits without internet access.
She draws a stark conclusion:
It probably goes without saying that likely targets of such orders include sex workers, those involved in consensual BDSM and anyone trans. (Particularly in the wake of McNally – imagine a “You must out yourself to anyone you meet” order) This would apply even if the activities you engage in would not be considered unlawful by a jury, because the police only need to convince a magistrate you might pose a risk.
Basically, round up the usual suspects.
I am not persuaded that these orders protect any more children, but I do worry that they could pose a risk to the liberty of innocent people. The debate on this is supposed to run until 7 pm tonight. You can watch on BBC Parliament or via Parliament TV online.


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