Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In Full: Michael Moore's speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Dunfermline: Scotland, better, safer and stronger in UK

Like it says on the tin, the whole speech delivered this morning, which neatly summarises what he's been doing in terms of the Independence debate over the past few months. And reminds us all, that, actually, independence would be a pretty drastic change for a lot of risk and uncertainty. 

The Chambers of Commerce network right across the United Kingdom plays a vital role in growing British businesses. 
I know that the network here in Fife is central to ensuring that the area attracts and supports its local businesses.
It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to talk with you about the measures we are taking to support our economy, and the future that we want to see for you and your businesses in the years ahead. 
There is no doubt that the last few years have been a real challenge for us all: for individuals, for families and for businesses. 
We have experienced an unprecedented global financial crisis; the UK’s largest ever peacetime deficit;  
and a series of external shocks, both in the euro area and to commodity prices, that have continued to make our recovery a challenge. 
Returning the whole of the UK to sustainable and balanced growth was the unifying objective for the two parties who came together in the national interest to form our Coalition Government.
We remain fully focussed on delivering that.
By reducing the deficit, restoring stability and rebalancing the economy we want to equip the UK to compete in the global race.
Recent news has shown that the economy is on the mend and moving from the rescue phase to recovery.
Last week’s UK GDP figures showing 0.6% growth in the three months to June were encouraging – above forecast and double the rate of the first quarter.
We have made substantial progress in our plan to cut the deficit, reduced by a third as a percentage of GDP since we came to power.
And we have seen significant progress over the past year in job creation and reducing unemployment.
To continue to make progress, the UK Government is ensuring the right business environment is in place for you, and for the families and communities who depend on you for their livelihoods.
We are supporting the recovery, reducing taxes remains an important priority – in particular by cutting the main rate of corporation tax to 20%. 
This is helping to deliver on our objective of making the UK’s tax system the most competitive in the G20.
But tax reform is only part of the story. 
It sits alongside the Bank of England’s monetary activism of recent years and our programme of financial sector reform, particularly of the banks, as key components of fixing the economy.
And we are determined to invest in our future, too.
I’ve already mentioned the UK Government’s support for the Queensferry Crossing, a less prosaic name than the previous working title of ‘the Forth Replacement Crossing’.
And the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, too. These are important parts of our investment programme.
But we have also provided over 1.7 billion pounds of additional capital spending power to the Scottish Government since the Spending Review of 2010.
It is for the Scottish Government to invest that money as it sees fit – including in the ‘shovel ready’ projects it has been so keen to promote.
Where responsibility sits with the UK Government, we are working hard to improve Scotland’s infrastructure links with the rest of the UK and to get the construction sector moving again.
In the housing sector, we are introducing the Help to Buy Mortgage Guarantee Scheme, which will offer up to 12 billion of Government guarantees to lenders who provide mortgages to people with a deposit value of between 5 and 20 per cent. 
Helping to make more high loan-to-value mortgages available to potential home-owners who can’t save for the large deposits needed following the financial crisis.
And we have set out a clear industrial strategy to ensure that Government is working with the experts in our key industries: such as construction, renewable, oil and gas and life sciences.
We know that you - and businesses like you, right across the United Kingdom - have been working hard to do your bit too.

We need to keep working together to ensure that the economic recovery gathers strength and is sustained – we are not complacent about the challenges that remain.
The Future of Scotland
In this environment I know that right now all of you remain focussed on addressing the challenges we face day to day.
But aside from that, I know that the next issue on everyone’s minds is ‘what future will Scotland choose in the referendum next year?’
It’s just over 400 days until those of us living here in Scotland will make our biggest ever collective decision. 
It will be a big, bold moment.
Offering us the choice between staying within the most successful partnership of nations the world has seen, or an irreversible decision to leave the United Kingdom and go our own, separate way.
To my mind it will come down to one simple question: which of the alternatives is better for me, my family, and my country?
For me the answer to that is absolutely clear.
As a proud Scot I believe that we can enjoy a better future as a nation if we remain within the United Kingdom family.
With a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong voice in the UK Parliament giving us the best of both worlds
It is clear to me that, as Scots, being part of the United Kingdom gives us greater opportunities; greater security and an unrivalled platform on the world stage.
And I believe all that is worth keeping.
If you focus in on the economy, which I am sure will dominate your thinking, the argument for staying in the UK is a powerful one.
As part of the world’s sixth largest economy, Scotland has strength in numbers - our 5 million people have unfettered access to a highly integrated single market across the UK.
More than 300,000 Scottish businesses can sell goods and services in a domestic market of more than 60 million people. 
And enjoy support from an unparalleled network of embassies and consulates boosting their trade around the world and creating thousands of jobs at home.
We have seen for ourselves the ability of the UK economy to absorb huge financial shocks like the banking crisis which devastated our two largest Scottish banks.
And, as has been debated at length – as part of the UK we have certainty about our shared currency.
Over the last decade and a half we have created a devolution settlement which maintains these inherent advantages of the UK, while developing our decision making here at home at the Scottish Parliament.
Since the landmark creation of the Parliament at Holyrood we have seen it anchored in Scottish public life and seen its powers enhanced – significantly by the Scotland Act of last year which brings major tax and borrowing powers north of the border, in the biggest transfer of financial powers from London to Edinburgh since the Act of Union sent them the other way.

But it’s not just by milestone Acts of Parliament that powers have been transferred. 
We have seen flexible, responsive arrangements evolve that have allowed economically important powers like the management of our railways come north, while ensuring that when it makes sense to legislate on a pan-UK basis, as we have done in relation to tackling organised crime, we can still do it in Westminster with the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
This ‘best of both worlds’ approach is a real strength for us.

And I believe the settlement will develop further.
For me as a Liberal Democrat, seeing the commitment to further devolution coming from all three parties who support Scotland staying within our United Kingdom is a real milestone in our country’s development.
But before we can take decisions on changes to our devolution settlement we need to take the most fundamental decision: are we in, or are we out?
Scotland Analysis Programme
As the UK Government, our proposition is clear: Scotland should remain the integral part of the United Kingdom that it is, and has been for over the last 300 years.
That is why over the last six months we have set out in great detail on fundamental economic questions what Scotland has as part of the UK and what all of us need to weigh up as we consider our vote.
I recognise that before many people can make their choice they want information, and they want to hear the case for each option.
So far we’ve published four papers in our Scotland Analysis Programme, amounting to over 460 pages of argument and data.
I’ll admit the title isn’t all that catchy – but it reflects a really important point about the way we are approaching this debate.
Analysis.  We are doing the homework,
We are examining the evidence
And we are setting out the facts. 
Our first paper sets out the legal position of Scotland within the United Kingdom – and the legal realities of becoming a separate independent state. 
Because it’s important for us all to be clear that independence means Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. 
And leaving the United Kingdom, means leaving the state that we have built together, with our fellow citizens who live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It means there are no guarantees that an independent Scotland would be a member of international organisations like the EU, NATO, G8 and G20.
A separate Scottish state would need to apply to join these organisations.
For the UN that could be a relatively simple process, but it’s a process that a newly independent state would have to go through none the less.
For other organisations there are detailed negotiations that would be required before an independent Scotland could be a member. 
For the EU that would mean a newly independent Scotland negotiating with 28 existing Member States.
Simultaneously asking for fast-tracked membership, but also apparently expecting favourable terms:
An exemption from the euro;
An opt-out from the Schengen Agreement for the free movement of people; and
An agreement on Scotland’s contribution to the EU budget having left the UK’s rebate behind. 
But it is not just the international implications of leaving the United Kingdom that need to be considered. 
Our second paper in the Scotland analysis series examined in detail the currency arrangement we have, right now,  as part of the United Kingdom, and the options that would be open to an independent Scottish state.
All of the options:
Seeking a formal currency union with the continuing UK state;
Using sterling outside of the UK, like the Isle of Man;
Adopting the Euro;
Or a separate Scottish currency altogether.
None of these options is the same as the shared currency we have now. 
All are sub-optimal – for Scots and Scottish businesses and for the rest of the UK - to the current system we have of a shared pound sterling and a shared Bank of England. 
And as the Chancellor made clear when he launched our currency paper, it is ‘unlikely’ that the continuing UK would choose to have a formal currency union with a separate Scottish state.
We’ve published a paper on our Financial Services sector 
Setting out the importance of the sector to Scotland, where financial services contribute more than 8 per cent of Scottish GDP and support around 7 per cent of Scottish employment. 
And the enormous benefit that this strong Scottish industry gets from being part of the UK financial sector, not least the support that the size and strength of the UK can provide in times of trouble.
We recently produced a fourth paper that examines the benefit of our shared single domestic market.
For whilst the border between England and Scotland means a great deal historically, it means nothing for our businesses large and small that operate across that border on a daily basis:
Whether that be the 300,000 people that travel into or out of Scotland from the rest of the UK each day to work;
Or the lorries that transport goods to and from Scotland providing free unfettered access to a marketplace of 60 million rather than five;
Or the shared infrastructure we have like our broadband networks and energy markets.
Through our work to date, I believe we have established the key facts in the debate.
Independence would mean the end of devolution and Scotland leaving the UK, its institutions and its place in the world;
Independence would mean a fundamental change on currency;
A big change in regulation and the bodies we interact with every day
A big change for our position in Europe;
And – as we’ve seen reported extensively in recent days – some big challenges for our pensions.
Over the autumn period we will develop these and other arguments further.
The other side’s arguments
But we’ve not just been setting out our own case over the past six months. 
We’ve been looking carefully at the arguments from the other side too.
We’ve looked carefully at the Scottish Government’s approach.
And you have to give them credit for some creative thinking about what independence means.
I have always taken it to mean a separate country making its way in the world, choosing new and different policy paths, which the proponents of independence have argued are necessary.
It’s that thirst for change, and recognition of the likely divergences, that lay behind the Chancellor’s thinking when he said that a currency union between the rest of the UK and Scotland was ‘unlikely’.
‘Unlikely’ because the simple truth is that, if we break up the United Kingdom, we will have turned our backs on our shared interests, so that we can instead develop separate interests.
And as everyone in business knows – you can get along very well;
You can be the best of neighbours;
But where you have separate interests you get divergence.
Doing things differently and creating differences is at the heart of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK.
It is the inherent logic of creating a separate Scottish state. 
There is no hiding the upheaval independence would bring
Even if the advocates of independence spend rather a lot of time trying to assure us that all the good things we have as part of the United Kingdom can be maintained under independence – that there will be no change to speak of.
As I say, that’s a creative approach, but it doesn’t really add up, does it?
Those who advocate independence are surely not saying to people in Scotland – vote for independence to keep everything the same as it is now?  
Indeed – even people in the yes camp are starting to question this vision of independence as a pale imitation of what they dream of.
And more to the point, it is something that the Scottish Government cannot faithfully promise or deliver.  Common sense tells us that. 
Looking at the detail of their work throws up more anomalies and contradictions.
We’ve looked at the work of the Scottish Government’s Fiscal Commission. 
The Scottish Government like to highlight the Commission’s finding that keeping the pound would be the best starting point for an independent Scotland – but they refuse to set out their plan B or even what the long-term currency plan is. 
Instead the Scottish Government say that they will unilaterally use sterling regardless – so called ‘sterlingisation’.
But if we then go back to their own Fiscal Commission report, those same economists pointed out the downsides of sterlingisation: no central bank or lender of last resort, no influence over monetary policy – in short this would be, in the Commission’s own words, ‘no long-term solution’
Another group set up by the Scottish Government to review welfare made clear that it was given no guidance about the principles they should work from – so no plan for what the welfare system should look like in a separate Scottish state.

And far from recommending radical change it proposed that an independent Scotland should keep the same system as we already have in the UK. 
That’s the system that the Scottish Government like to say is flawed, but their own experts say should carry on under independence.
If we turn to look at one of the most fractious areas of debate, over the oil numbers, this is another area where the Scottish Government lauds the role of independent experts.
But when the independent experts in the Office for Budget Responsibility came up with figures, the Scottish Government didn’t like they cherry-picked the highest, most favourable figures to base their public arguments on. 
Something their own Fiscal Commission warned against doing.
But of course we know from the leaked Scottish Government Cabinet paper that in private they are rather closer to our position on oil numbers and future spending than they care to admit in public.
In private they say that, quote, ‘there is a high degree of uncertainty around future North Sea revenues’… and
‘that Scotland would have a larger net fiscal deficit than the UK
They also acknowledge, and I quote again, that ‘at present HMT and DWP absorb the risk…in future we will assume responsibility for managing such pressure.  This will imply more volatility in overall spending than at present.
I think that is a fair assessment by Scottish Government ministers – it’s just a shame they won’t face up to it in public.
Concluding remarks
I gave a speech at the start of 2013 saying that I wanted this to be the year we moved from process to substance in the independence debate. 
That 2013 had to be the year of evidence and not assertion.
And that is exactly what we, as the UK Government, have done and will continue to do.
We are setting out the benefits we continue to enjoy and the contribution we have made working together for the last 300 years.
And we are setting out the opportunities and prospects that lie ahead if we choose to remain part of the United Kingdom family.
Our Scotland analysis papers are setting out the analysis and facts.
Together they make the positive case for Scotland within the United Kingdom.
We strongly and passionately believe that Scotland is better, safer and stronger within our United Kingdom. 
That’s our case.
We don’t shy away from that – we don’t pretend to be arguing for anything else: we are making the case that we believe in, and we are making it clearly.
And that’s what I am going to be doing throughout the Summer – to groups like yours – right across Scotland.
Making the case that I am proud of.
The case that I believe in.

Thank you for the opportunity to set it out to you here in Dunfermline today.

Thirty memories to celebrate thirty years of Lib Demmery

Today is my birthday. I can barely bring myself to say the great age I've reached, but it does mark a significant milestone for me. Three decades ago today, I joined the SDP.

I hope you'll forgive the narcissistic indulgence, (and if you can't, don't read any further, because it'll be five minutes of your life you won't get back),  but I thought I'd share with you 30 brief snapshots, significant moments of my life as a party member. I'm grateful for the wonderful friends I've made and the battles we've fought together and am raring to go for decades to come. Thanks to all of you who've been part of the story so far, celebrating the joys and supporting through the heartbreak. I hope they'll trigger good memories for you, too.

In no particular order, although I'll start at the beginning:

1. Walking into Alliance HQ in Wick as a 15 year old during the 1983 election for a manifesto and leaving with a bundle of newspapers to deliver. Almost the very first one was thrown on the bonfire by an irate looking woman who turned out to be the local Tory Chairman. It didn't put me off. In fact, in that campaign I ended up getting detention for skipping school to go canvassing...

2. The 1983 election result - what was that about? At least someone close to my age was elected in the neighbouring seat, but, really, only 23 seats when Labour had 2% more and had 186 more. And the Tories tightened their grip on power with fewer votes than 1979. But we won well in Caithness.

3. That first day, in May 2008, leafletting in sunny Cowdenbeath with Andrew Reeves, Elspeth Finlay and Willie Rennie. Andrew had only moved up to Scotland the day before. There was a lot of laughter involved that day. We didn't know we'd only have him for 3 years.

4. A dark Friday night, all of us on the Shortlisting Committee were tired and grumpy after a gruelling schedule of interviews. We had to wait for another hopeful to arrive. His CV was the most boring thing I've ever read that wasn't a phone book. He was worth waiting for. He blew us away. His name: Nicholas William Peter Clegg.

5. My first council by-election in Aberdeen in 1986. We won!

6. My first ever hangover. The day after #5.

8. Doing front of house in Chesterfield, as apprentice to the mighty Paul Holmes, during the 1997 election. Huge amounts of fun, progress made and we were well looked after by the Italian restaurant next door. Lovely meals on proper plates with actual cutlery.

9. Meeting the legendary Pat Wainwright for the first time at the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995. We spent our Summer holidays there and met lots of people who are still friends now.

10. First ever conference - Paisley 1986. I made a speech, on drugs, which was quoted in the Press and Journal. I think the headline described me as an all-over problem.

11. First ever UK conference speech - Torquay 1993. In favour of allowing Cabinet ministers who weren't in either Lords or Commons. Lots of people said it was good, but it would be almost 20 years until I tried it again, on secret courts this Spring.

12. Seeing a notice up at conference in Harrogate 1992 asking me to go to registration. My mother had been trying to contact me for 2 days to tell me that my lovely niece Laura had been born 6 weeks early. Her 21st birthday is on the Saturday of Conference this year.

13. 1997 election night. Two people watching tv at the count in Chesterfield. One was Tony Benn, who was eating a white chocolate Magnum. The other was me, blubbing tears of joy because we'd get a Scottish Parliament.

14. Being part of the Cix online community of Liberal Democrats, which has given me lifelong friends. I even posted in there when I was in the early stages of labour.

15. My contribution to the last stages of the 1999 Euro elections? Driving home from hospital with new babyAnna on polling day in a car emblazoned with Liberal Democrat posters.

16. The following  Sunday night, lying in bed with said snuggly baby, finding out that the East Midlands had elected its first Liberal parliamentarian since 1931.

17. Winning a by-election in Deepest Bolsover on an otherwise sad day, when John Smith died.

18. Gathering with many others in the sunshine to celebrate Jo Swinson's election in East Dunbartonshire in 2005.

19. The Dunfermline by-election in 2006. Willie Rennie winning in Gordon Brown's back yard was truly spectacular. It was a great campaign, sharing an office with Ed Maxfield, getting through piles of casework. Four years later, we lost, which was horrible, but getting an 8% swing towards us when everyone in Scotland was clinging to Labour like a security blanket was pretty significant. I think we made a difference to people's lives in 4 years and will always be proud of what we did there.

20. The rollercoaster of emotion in May 2010. Heartbreak at losing Dunfermline, Chesterfield and not winning Edinburgh North and Leith and South. Our parliamentary party would have been so enriched by the presence of Willie. Paul, Kevin and Fred. Reeling from that, there was the tension of the Coalition negotiations. Surely we weren't going to end up in Government? I couldn't quite work out how I felt about it all, but was overcome with pride when I saw Nick walk into Downing Street.

21. Thinking that I might try out this blogging lark - my first post in 2006.

22. It was 3 years before Liberal Democrat Voice let me loose on its pages, though. My debut covered the Church of Scotland's debate over gay ministers, which involved a good friend of mine.

23. The slippery slope led to a day's guest editing, a weekly gig and, finally, to my great surprise, being asked to be co-editor this March. My thanks go to the long-suffering team who put up with my ditsiness and frequently save me from myself.

24. Being made the first ever honorary life member of Liberal Youth Scotland. See, I am still young. It's official. And to be a small part of an organisation that is so awesome makes me very proud.

25. My first ever live TV interview, at Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference last year. Very scary, but enjoyably so.

26. Still no idea how it happened, but being elected to the Federal Executive last year. It's been an illuminating experience and has given me more ideas than I have time to put them into practice. But I'll have a go anyway.

27. The Livingston by-election, 2005. A busy campaign where we were the story - the BBC's Brian Taylor pointed out that we had held on to our General Election vote in the face of a squeeze from Labour and SNP. And two of our helpers ended up getting married.

28. All my life, LGBT equality has been important to me. Seeing our people deliver equal marriage, and Willie Rennie and Nick Clegg support it with enthusiasm has been special.

29. The heartbreak of 2011, the worst year so far by a long way. Seeing many friends losing their seats in the Scottish Parliament was very tough. The only bright spot in a horrendous day was sitting on Buchanan Street in the late afternoon sunshine, having just done a BBC Radio Scotland interview, finding out that Willie Rennie had won in Mid Scotland and Fife.

30. Fast forward to polling night in the Eastleigh by-election. Scottish Liberal Democrat HQ was packed to the gunnels, as it had been through the campaign, with activists phoning. The best thing about this party is that when there really is a crisis, we work together and we deliver the goods.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rennie and Moore secure £35 million Bedroom Tax help

The arguments over the so-called Bedroom Tax have been rehearsed on this site on many occasions and it's been in the news today, with the judgement that it does not discriminate against disabled people.
The Department of Work and Pensions has separately announced extra money to help those worst affected. This will be given to Councils to give to those most in need. I understand that ministers did consider further exemptions but felt that it was fairer to allow councils to make the decisions because they were dealing directly with the tenants concerned and knew more about their circumstances.
The extra money, as the DWP announcement shows, is split 3 ways:
  • £10 million transitional payments to all councils
  • £5 million to fund Discretionary Housing payments in rural areas where there is likely to be no chance of a move to a smaller property
  • A new £20 million Discretionary Housing Payment fund
The fact that this announcement has been made at all is largely down to the efforts of Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie and Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore in persuading Nick Clegg that these measures were badly needed. Willie in particular has worked so hard on this as he promised to do in February when he said:
I am in constant dialogue (with the UK Government) because I've gathered evidence myself, I've seen people who are going to be affected by this. I'll be working to make sure people are not hurt.
He welcomed the news of the extra funding today, saying it was a sensible and responsive move which will help those who have faced  unintended consequences of this policy:
After months of research, listening and detailed discussions about the implementation of housing benefit reform this is a sensible and responsive move that will assist many people.
A key objective of the policy is to incentive people to move to the right sized houses for their needs and to make work pay.  However, with any big change there are unintended consequences.
I know of people who should not be facing additional housing costs as a result of the reforms and I have been determined that changes should be made to the policy to address this issue.
I am grateful for the support of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and MP John Thurso in achieving a doubling of the support fund.
This is significant progress and would not have happened without the intervention of these Liberal Democrats who have built an evidence based case and secured the extra help.

Update: Duncan Stott pointed out on Facebook that Liberal Democrats in Stockport Council have found a very fair way of dealing with this, outlined here on ALDC's blog. Cllr Stuart Bodsworth explains:
Our under-occupancy policy means that as soon as a Stockport Homes resident says they want to downsize, any arrears that are accrued due to their under-occupancy will be isolated. Once they move to smaller accommodation those arrears will be paid off by the hardship fund not by the resident.  Those arrears are not the fault of the resident, they didn’t cause them, they didn’t ask for them and they shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions. That’s a basic principle of natural justice, isn’t it?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

BBC's story on immigration billboards misses the point

Like many Liberal Democrats - actually make that virtually all Liberal Democrats who have commented - I am absolutely fuming about the Government's plans, announced by immigration minister Mark Harper, to send billboards around 6 London boroughs with a message on them urging illegal immigrants to submit themselves for deportation - by text message, it's oh so simple.

This is the sort of thing that could lead to anyone who looks or sounds a little bit foreign, regardless of their immigration status, being harassed, or feeling uncomfortable.

The BBC reported on this today, quoting a Labour Councillor's condemnation of the plan. They didn't include our own Sarah Teather's comments that this amounted to straightforward intimidation which I reported on Liberal Democrat Voice last night.

She was every bit as livid as I am:
This is the latest in a string of Home Office announcements that are designed to make the Government look tough on immigration. But I fear that the only impact this deeply divisive form of politics will have will be to create tension and mistrust towards anyone who looks and sounds foreign.
Instead of trying to grab cheap headlines, the Government would be much better advised to tackle the real issues that undermine confidence in the immigration system. Home Office statistics show that decision making by officials is extremely poor and leads to a quarter of initial decisions to refuse asylum being overturned on appeal. And many of those people who the Government are targeting with these policies are either those whose case has been mishandled by the Home Office, or who Ministers acknowledge cannot be sent home because they wouldn’t be safe.
Vulnerable individuals who are fleeing persecution and violence are treated with disbelief and a complete lack of compassion in a rigid and inhumane system. But rather than tackling these problems head on, Ministers are choosing to once more crank up the anti-migrant rhetoric.These adverts are nothing less than straightforward intimidation and can only have bad consequences for communities like those I represent in Brent, where people from all faiths and races have mixed for decades. We will all be much poorer for it.
I am annoyed that the BBC have quoted only a Labour Councillor. That party has only shame in its record on immigration. Let's remind ourselves:

  • Record backlogs of cases, leaving people in limbo for years;
  • Locking up children for long periods of time in horrible places like Yarl's Wood and Dungavel;
  • Telling gay people that they could just keep quiet about their sexuality;
  • Cruel and degrading treatment of young asylum seekers like Janipher Maseko
At least the coalition has ended child detention but there is a huge way to go to building a fair, humane immigration system. In many ways, such as the almost impossible income requirements for many British citizens to meet if they marry someone from outside the EU, it's got even worse than it was under Labour.

I think that we need to think of some imaginative way of protesting against these billboards. On the Lib Dem Voice comment thread, Duncan Stott mentioned an idea he'd seen on Twitter - that there be a mass text in to the number at some unspecified time. 

Then we need to think about what we can do at Conference.An emergency motion seems like a good idea. There will be an immigration paper and probable row at Spring Conference, but there's no reason why we can't put forward a motion against this specific abomination now. 

Any other ideas?

ATOS to lose monopoly of Work Cabability Assessments after audit shows up "unacceptable" standard of report

Those of us who are concerned about the fairness of the welfare system often cite the Work Capability Assessment, which claimants of Employment and Support Allowance are required to take. It seems that every few days there's a story in the press reporting how someone has been marked fit for work when it is clearly inappropriate to do so. Yesterday the Daily Record carried the story of a woman who lived just a couple of miles away from me who was told she was fit for work weeks before she died of a brain tumour.
Concerns about the WCA appear to have been vindicated by a Government audit which found 41% of reports sampled to be of an unacceptable standard. As a result of this, the Independent reports, ATOS will lose its monopoly on conducting the tests.
The findings mean the company will be stripped of its monopoly on deciding whether people with disabilities are fit to work. The DWP said the poor quality of the company’s written reports were “contractually unacceptable” and announced on Monday it would be inviting other companies to bid for fresh regional contracts by summer 2014 to help reduce waiting times. Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “This is a direct consequence of three years of appalling contract management by Iain Duncan Smith.”
A few points:

This needs sorting now, not in a year's time

I wonder if anyone in Whitehall actually realises how stressful the thought of an assessment is for the people who have to undergo it. And when the Government itself doesn't have confidence in almost half the reports, it can only make that process harder to endure.
Action is needed now to build confidence in the system.

Liam Byrne has a cheek

You won't find me defending the current WCA because I don't think it has any relevance to actually being able to do a job. I do see the need to have an assessment system, but it must be based on clinical evidence, not a requirement to save money. It should be based on the principle of helping people to work if they are able. You would not think from Liam Byrne's comments that Labour were the people who gave ATOS the contract and introduced the WCA in the first place. We are nowhere near having a fair WCA, but the Coalition, at the urging of Liberal Democrats, has at least improved it from the model they inherited. So, let's not listen to anything Labour has to say on the subject.

We need a WCA which reflects the reality of work

I am, however,  prepared to listen to Richard Hawkes, the Chief Executive of Scope who said:
It’s about time the Government told Atos to smarten up its act.
But, it’s also strikingly clear to disabled people that whole £112 million per year system is broken.
The cost of appeals has skyrocketed, assessors have resigned in disgust, and the test has received criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office. We have also witnessed shocking undercover footage of how ATOS assessors are trained and heard horror stories of disabled people inappropriately found fit to work.
The Government needs to deliver a test that is fit for purpose.
Most disabled people want to work but they face significant barriers, such as a lack of skills and experience, confidence and even negative attitudes from some employers. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) ignores all this. It’s a tick-box test of someone’s medical condition.
If the Government is serious about getting more disabled people into work they need a test that is the start of the process that gives disabled people the specialist, tailored and flexible support they need.
Last year I took a look at the WCA and pointed out some of its intrinsic flaws.
When I was ill for a long time with Glandular Fever, there was no way, at its worst, I could have got from my bed to the bathroom, let alone to work for a whole day. Yet if I completed this form, I'd feel like a fraud because I could have done virtually everything within it. On some days, I could walk 50 metres, although I would have struggled with 200. I could pick up a pound coin, turn the pages of a book, walk up my stairs most of the time if I'd been able to get down them. When I had the energy I could communicate with people, and most of the time I didn't upset them.
I could set my alarm clock (although my husband still can't work the Sky Plus, and he's reasonably healthy so I'm not sure what that proves), I could put the washing machine on no bother, although it could take me half a day to get the energy together to sort the clothes into loads.
Fixing it will take more than just bringing in new companies to administer it. The whole process needs to be rebuilt to be realistic, sensitive and fair.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Liberal Democrat Councillor's tweeting dog Bailey makes headlines.

Many people reading this will be aware that Brentwood Cllr Karen Chilvers offered a home earlier this year to Bailey, a dog destined to be put down. She nursed him back to health and he's now part of her family. Those of us who are friends with Karen on Facebook were treated to Bailey's daily thoughts on life, the universe and everything during his recovery. The Daily Bailey was often humorous and engaging.
Recently, Karen's set up a Twitter account in Bailey's name so that people on there can follow the cute one's progress. @DailyBailey_Dog's profile reads:

Nothing but a pound dog, rescued from death row,
Supposed to stay for Easter, I knew I'd never go!
Many doggies don't survive
I'm lucky -in my home I thrive

It's even attracted the attention of the BBC.
I am a bit of a mad dog woman," said Ms Chilvers, who is also on the authority's licensing committee. "But being a politician a lot of people think we're all middle aged men in suits.I want to show we can be quite normal and have dogs.
Bailey even helped Karen campaign during May's elections, as I noted in my Letter to the Leader at Easter.
But the most heartwarming sty is that of little Bailey. He's a wee shih-tsu who's just been fostered by Brentwood Councillor Karen Chilvers. He told Facebook:
"Well, as Caron Lindsay knows, I have been out delivering leaflets with my Fosty Mum. It was cold but I enjoyed telling people about being liberal because I got a chance because of nice fair-minded people. I do think it would be nice if someone had offered us a cup of tea along the way though!"He wants us all to be aware that his foster brother Louis has been out on a ward walk with his Mum. And it was snowing!
Bailey's adventures are clearly captivating his 330 or so followers - and if that means that more people in Brentwood feel able to approach Karen, then so much the better. And what I think is particularly good is that he hasn't let fame go to his head, and spares a thought for where he came from:

Catherine Tate's top tips: Be nice to everyone and don't be late. With added Doctor Who geekery

Catherine Tate? On a politics site?  Really?

Well, this is a lovely Summer Saturday morning, Parliament has just broken up for its holidays, so I just thought I'd do something a little bit different. You can tell me to take a running jump if you like, and this is something I would only ever do sparingly, but I thought I'd give it a try. Please don't worry. My fixations with Doctor Who, Strictly and F1 will be confined to my own blog.

A few weeks ago, I missed both the Social Liberal Forum Scottish conference and the British Grand Prix to spend the weekend in Birmingham at a Doctor Who convention. While it was officially my daughter's birthday treat, you will know that it was hardly an ordeal for me to have to accompany her.

For the first time ever, Catherine Tate, who played David Tennant's Doctor's companion Donna Noble in the 2008 series appeared at a convention. We were looking forward to asking her questions, not just about Doctor Who but about her long and successful comedy career which has recently included being on the US Office.

These celebs certainly earn their money at conventions. They have to stay smiling through hundreds of photos with individual fans, and then spend hours signing all sorts of memorabilia. After all of that, she gave a one hour talk to close the convention.

I noticed later in the day that this bloke, who looked like a grumpier version of Adrian Chiles, was hanging around her. I wondered if he was security or something. As I wrote on my own blog, shows how much I know about celebrity gossip. What struck us throughout the day was how very down to earth she was. She seemed genuinely amazed that people had come to see her and thanked everyone for waiting in the enormous queues. I saw her wandering around the hotel by herself, too, with no entourage.

When she came on stage, she forgot to take water with her and went back and got it herself. I do like a big star who keeps it real.

"It didn't occur to me people would watch"

By the time she came on to Doctor Who, Tate was already a very Big Name. After drama college, chosen because it was where her school drama teacher had gone, she had had a few television parts. Apparently The Bill was good for a job a year aspiring London actors. You had to have a 9 month gap between episodes, but it gave her the chance to play a few different characters. She chose to go into stand up comedy because she thought it was better to "create her own work." Winning the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival led to her being offered her own tv show, but she fitted in a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in between.

With characteristic modesty, she said that it never occurred to her that people would watch her show. Observing people, creating characters and dialogue is very much how her brain works. She certainly found inspiration for her characters in her own social circle, but she says that if you changed their hairstyle, they wouldn't recognise themselves. One relative was convinced a particular character was based on them because the hair was the same, while another friend, whose habits she'd copied almost exactly, didn't recognise herself because of a radically different coiffure.

She famously gave her teenage character Lauren a confrontation with Tony Blair for Comic Relief in 2007. She described Blair as "one of the finest comic actors of his generation."

"A script I knew I couldn't better"

Tate was invited to co-star in the 2006 Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion, playing a shouty bride who finds herself in David Tennant's TARDIS on the way to her wedding. It was the only secret the production team of new Who has successfully kept - although it was very nearly let out of the bag by Catherine herself. She's been booked into a Cardiff hotel under an assumed name, but she had forgotten what it was. When she hesitated, the receptionist suggested her room might be booked under "Catherine Tate".

She was "completely blindsided" by the offer to be the full time companion. She says she'd been invited to meet the team under the guise of doing a biopic of Margaret Thatcher.

She says that working with David Tennant was "joyous." Knowing that he was going to be in the make up truck up 5:30 am was a motivator to get her out of bed, despite the gruelling schedule and Wales, as she put it, "not having the friendliest climate."

When you write, you do have an urge to tinker in other people's work, but she never felt the need to interfere with the lines Russell T Davies wrote, despite the fact that he was very collaborative. She knew she couldn't better the script.

She worked with Tennant in two different settings, as Donna and the Doctor and later in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. In the former role, there was no romance whatsoever, but in the latter, these warring characters end up as reluctant lovers. She prefers theatre to television as there's much more time to establish and investigate the relationship between the characters and you get the instant feedback of the audience.

"Be nice to everyone, don't be late, learn your lines"

Her tips for aspiring actors wouldn't be out of place in a political environment, although a lifetime of being late hasn't hurt Shirley Williams or Simon Hughes. She said it's important to treat people well, not just for altruistic reasons as "You never know what runner will bite you in the arse in 10 years' time when they're a producer."

She seemed to enjoy her first convention. I hope she does some more because she is so interesting and funny. If you get the chance to see her interviewed like this, don't pass it up.

And now for the Doctor Who geekery

She loved playing Donna, a character who developed so much during the series, but the heartbreaking thing is that when we leave her, she's learned nothing as her mind has been wiped. She said the most poignant and hardest to portray moment was when Donna as the Doctor/Donna realised that she wouldn't survive unless he had no memory of the Doctor. She said the Doctor and Donna were both better people as a result of the time they'd spent together. She reckons Donna would have found Matt Smith's Doctor frustrating as she wouldn't be able to wind him up. And as for the 9th Doctor, well, he and Donna would have bristled and it would have been a race to see who pushed who out of the TARDIS.

She said she didn't know much about Doctor Who - but she actually does. Certainly she's more into it than Billie Piper, who really didn't have much of a clue when we saw her in December.

She talked about not really understanding the techno-geekery in the scripts and would just ask David if they were going to be chased by aliens that day.

I really, really hope that the BBC don't ask her to suggest people for the next Doctor. It seriously is not the role for Janette Krankie. She said that Matt Smith had been brilliant. It had been no mean feat to take over from David. 

Asked about her favourite companion, she said, to the approval of the room, Sarah Jane. She spoke about working with Lis Sladen, and described her as "a beautiful person, so youthful, ethereal" who had been utterly bowled over by the second chance to play the character. 

And the monster she's most scared of? The Vashta Nerada as the enemy is far scarier if you can't see it and can't hear it. The line which scared her most was "It's not in every shadow, but it could be in any one."

Spare a thought for poor Les, a lovely guy from Scotland, who called her Karen by mistake. She showed no mercy, teasingly calling him practically every name under the sun. Not Adrian, though.

Catherine was a superb convention guest and I hope she does more in the future.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dancing Queen, carnations and Nick Clegg - a snippet of the Equal Marriage vigil

I had half wanted to come down to London with Anna yesterday to be outside the House of Lords when the Same Sex Marriage Bill cleared its final hurdle there.We decided against it as we've been away so much recently, so it's lovely to have this wee snapshot of the event.

Nick paid tribute to Lynne Featherstone, Ed Fordham and Liz Barker and all the others who have helped make the Bill a reality. We as a party owe him a huge thank you for his vocal and steadfast support, the first party leader to unequivocally support equal marriage.

There is a much longer Liberal Democrat Roll of Honour on this issue, of people who have been working away behind the scenes for years - people like Dave Page, Holly Matthies and the rest of LGBT + Lib Dems. Liberal Youth Scotland who made this Scottish policy.

It's great to see equal marriage pass in England. Scotland, with an even better bill, shouldn't be far behind.

Anyway, enjoy the merriment from last night.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

To anyone who thinks that women shouldn't breastfeed in public

If you are the sort of idiot who would intimidate a mother on a train, telling her to go and feed her baby in the toilet, watch this and get over your ignorance.

I hope the tearoom manager who screamed across the room at me to "stop doing that in case a man came in and got embarrassed" watches it too.The irony is that she had The Sun newspaper on hand for her customers to read, so it was fine for someone to show the naked breasts on Page 3 around the place, but not to look at the back of a baby's head.

Thankfully Chantelle Nicholls, the mother in last week's story and I were confident enough to stand our ground. I hate to think that anyone might be scared off from going out or feeding their babies in public.

If anybody is in any doubt, the Scottish Parliament protected the right to breastfeed in 2005, and the Equality Act followed suit for the rest of the UK in 2010. Nobody can, by law, stop you.

The problem is that we tend to find out about infringements after the event, after the damage has been done. Companies suffer no consequences as a result of their employee's bad behaviour. Northern Rail says that the incident highlights a need to inform employees about the Equality Act - but who will check that this has been done?

In my view, the conductor who abused Chantelle should have been disciplined, sacked if necessary. At the very least, he should have been sent to eat his lunch in a train toilet. His behaviour was unacceptable and a mere apology from Northern Rail isn't enough.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Revealed: my ignorance of celebrity gossip.....

I am not as well informed as I used to be about who's with who...

I was at the Starfury Return to the 11th Hour Doctor Who convention in Birmingham this weekend which happened to be Catherine Tate's first ever convention.

She was brilliant - funny, insightful and so genuinely appreciative of the fans. I will type up my copious notes from her session later, but I just wanted to share with you one little thing.

While she was giving her talk, a bloke I hadn't seen all weekend was sitting at the side of the stage. I had no idea who he was. In fact, I even wondered if he was a security guy. I had clocked, though, that he looked like a grumpier version of Adrian Chiles.

I didn't waste too much attention to him, concentrating on Catherine and the other guests.

Well, how was I to know that Catherine Tate and Adrian Chiles had been an item for 9 months or more....? I mean it's not even on Wikipedia, for goodness' sake. Just every tabloid newspaper known to man.

Good luck to them both. It's fair to say that the Doctor Who universe is pretty well disposed to Catherine, so if she's happy, so are we.


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