Thursday, 14 March 2013

Is Cameron still kowtowing to the press barons?

Now here's something where I completely support Nick. The power of the press to wreck people's lives and to influence our politics remains a scandal that has to be tackled. This is Nick's email to members today:

As you may have seen this morning the Prime Minister has decided to call off the cross-party talks on implementing the Leveson proposals on press regulation.
Throughout the talks I have sought to defend a free press while making sure ordinary people can be protected from unwarranted harassment and bullying by powerful interests in the press.
I was surprised and disappointed when David Cameron told Ed Miliband and myself that he felt there was no chance of us reaching an agreement. The talks had appeared to be progressing well with a genuine desire to come to a solution that would provide a robust, independent press regulator.
There are some issues - such as allowing the press to veto who sits on the independent regulator and whether the regulator should be able to direct newspaper apologies - where I disagreed with the Prime Minister, but these appeared to be issues that could be worked through.
Lord Justice Leveson went to enormous lengths to deliver a considered verdict on the way independent self-regulation of the press should work in the future and then rightly told politicians that the ball was in our court.
I remain determined to meet his challenge and find a workable solution with like-minded members of all parties.
As I said in my statement to the House when the Leveson Report was published:
"We need to get on with this without delay. We owe it to the victims of these scandals, who have already waited too long for us to do the right thing. Too long for an independent press watchdog in which they can put their trust. I am determined we do not make them wait any more."
That remains my view and it remains what I intend to help deliver.

Nick Clegg
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Spring Conference feedback 1 - The Price of Freedom

Terrifically enjoyable, inspiring and useful and only 2 nights’ worth of sleep deprivation but it’s funny: usually at Conference, the media finds a threat to Nick’s leadership whilst members notice nothing serious. This Conference was the reverse.

Whilst there was much optimism and determination, there was a growing unease as well as outright resignations by Sunday. 

There has been much government policy with which it is impossible to agree but it’s usually possible to understand – or at least get a feel for – the intricacies of the issues and negotiating positions for our colleagues in Parliament, in the context of a system and culture which struggles with coalition.  Conference is invaluable in this respect, providing direct & indirect ministerial-to- member communication, formally or informally, of the whys and wherefores of policy positions, a window on to negotiating positions, the hurdles and the unseen wins. 

But with the issue of “secret courts”,   Nick appeared not only to fail to win the argument but to undermine himself by appearing genuinely convinced by his bad case.  

The full arguments are complex, varied and well-rehearsed by a host of lawyers but to pick on a single non-technical issue:  Nick argued in his Q&A session that one reason the government is backing closed material proceedings is to stop the indirect funding of terrorism. To pick at just one thread in the unravelling of that argument, it is an assumption of guilt. On the part of all potential claimants. By the government. In civil cases against the government.  Feeling queasy yet? The protection of civil liberties is such a fundamental value of the LibDems that many regarded this as simply unacceptable from our leader.  

So what is the real back story for this?  When Jo Swinson MP can read out a list of all the things we have stopped, why have we not stopped this? Has there been a strategic decision to cave on this electorally irrelevant issue in exchange for some other policy agreement where there is media and electoral advantage?  What the heck could have been that good?

Or does Nick feel justified by unshareable – and untried - intelligence from the security services regarding previous or probable claimants? As every law student is taught, “hard cases make bad law”.

The issue was also set in the context of the Rennard allegations.  Leaving aside the specifics, my question was whether the perception that one individual had an undemocratic level of power over the careers of fellow party members was correct. People tell me yes but that the situation has changed since the appointment of Tim Gordon as Chief Exec. 

The attitude of the leadership to Conference over secret courts has only added to my growing understanding of the constant vigilance required to build and maintain even an internal party democracy.  

Some further reading on the issues surrounding “secret courts”:

Monday, 4 March 2013

Ringswell Round Up March 4th

Eastleigh – what a result! Steve Webb telling us on Friday about his two days down there campaigning and how he and others of similar ilk got up at 2.55am on Thursday morning to deliver polling day leaflets in 5am dark. He managed to get back to London in time for his first of three pensions events at 10am.

Rennard – more practice on learning how to add my voice to a debate without sounding like I think I know the solution. Hope the systems in place will produce a just result, whatever that happens to be. See a need for a re-think on how to tackle this issue and help both sides understand each other better – will be interesting to see if we manage to make that space, at least within the party.

Education – interesting debate in Bristol on Saturday afternoon. Only signs of political correctness around food in schools, otherwise seemed to be a reasonable range of views and some refreshing thinking from schools and NUT reps. Came away feeling there is hope yet - a very welcome change from the doom and gloom one gets from the media about state education. One chap in audience asked whether we couldn’t assume that qualifications made well-rounded individuals – couldn’t let that one go by, leads me to my rant of the day on measurement below. 

I liked another point made by the NUJ rep: he’d been asked recently what could be done to import the DNA of the private system into the state sector, to which his response was, we don’t need your DNA, just your resources.   

Measuring human beings – the assumption that there’s is a direct correlation between academic achievement and well-rounded individuals feels so wrong it’s danger to my heart rate. It ties in with Rennard and politics generally as well as education:  just because we don’t have a yardstick for measuring human qualities like empathy, insight, humour, courage and common sense doesn’t make the things we can measure, like how many facts you know about history or how good your maths is in exam conditions, more important. I still want to know how good GCSE maths helps people look after babies.

Energy Bill – much discussion in Green LibDems over the weekend on our approach to Tim Yeo’s (Conservative Chair of the Climate Change Committee) amendment to include a decarbonisation target. Interesting to see the different arguments brought to the table.I'm changing my comment of "Not much chance of the amendment succeeding" to apparently every hope of the amendment succeeding - depending on who you read -  but agreed it was important LibDem MPs felt able to support it so Emergency Motion to Conference being proposed.  Tim Farron (party president) also supporting a target. Perhaps another lesson in government about working in coalition. Would LibDem support for the amendment undermine Ed Davey in any future negotiations in government? ie he can’t demonstrate that he can bring the party along with him when making a concession. But then, it’s a cross party amendment, proposed by a Conservative – George Osborne equally unable to bring his party along with him, on a point he had won. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Ringswell Roundup

Happy 70th to Barbara! 

I've stuck up my to-do lists and not counting family/domestic things, they settle down into 11 headings - Parish Plan, Energy Group, Boyd Valley, Green LibDems constitution, GLD Conference being the most pressing 5 at the moment.
I haven't heard back from the Dept of Education regarding the issue in my last blog yet and still have to listen to the MoneyBox programme on Child Trust Funds. Will post afterwards on where I'd got to on that. A sample of things over the past few days include: 

Meeting with Therapeutic Media regarding how we can engage more interest and meaningful feedback on the Parish Plan. Love those two - it's possible you can see the sparks flying from our brains when we meet! Dan Shirley came up with a great idea based on TinyHomes - temporary, self-build, skill sharing solution to affordable housing. 

Friday spent at very interesting S Glos training day on Localism. Between that and the LibDem group meeting on the Monday, it's very clear that although astute planning by the S Glos Finance Director some while back has meant we've not yet experienced the swingeing cuts other authorities have, there are difficult times ahead. On top of these, a further £30m has to be taken from the budget over 2015-2018. Given last week's comments from the outgoing CEO of OffGen, it's clearer than ever that it's a no-brainer to use community energy to generate an income to help shield the most vulnerable from the impacts of reduced services and increasing energy prices. Three meetings today and tomorrow on figuring out the what, how's when's and most of all who's of all that.  Thank goodness for Tim Willmott and Tony Kerr. 

Spent Sunday afternoon in Eastleigh where did my Winnie-the-Pooh/political groupie impression with helium filled LibDem balloons behind Mike Thornton (liked him) and Ed Davey. Not entirely convinced of the efficacy of the exercise but it was very entertaining and enabled a brief chat with Ed about community energy, GLD Conference and Tim Yeo's decarbonatisation target amendment to the Energy Bill. 

Earnt £20 gardening. Feeling touchy after hopes raised by a funding link which suggested a grant for social enterprises may be possible but turns out it couldn't be spent on fripperies like people's time, childcare etc. The cumulative effect of the financial opportunity costs on the family due to my involvement in community issues and politics for the past few years is becoming very obvious now - and this is just the edge of the water. But who can complain when we live here and are all healthy? Chatted to a 19 year old girl on Friday who told me she's just had a miscarriage that morning after a week sleeping rough with her boyfriend. S Glos had managed to find her a bed for a couple of nights. 

Managed to sneak out for rare tea with the "girls" yesterday afternoon. Janes C &  B as always on the ball, commenting on the impact of the increasing emphasis on Maths & English GCSEs on our children. Let alone the opportunities open to homeless 19 years who look like they're 14.  

Between them, our children have 8 birthday party invitations in the next fortnight. Gary & I have one. How did that happen??

Thursday, 7 February 2013

School attendance policy

Taking children out of school for family holidays - that classic example of how difficult it is to  balance state protection of the vulnerable and individual freedom - has raised its head again.

I was nosing around on the Department of Education's website to see what the current situation is and came across the following in a letter from the Department's Expert Adviser on Behaviour (Charlie Taylor) to the Secretary of State (Michael Gove) in July 2012:

"Strengthening the regulations on term time holidays

Officials are revising the regulations on when schools can grant leave of absence and will consult on them in the autumn. Subject to Parliamentary approval this change will come into force from September 2013.
The new regulations will address the misconception that parents are entitled to family holidays during term time. Parents will still be able to request leave of absence, but it will be made clear that this should be granted at the head teacher's discretion and only in exceptional circumstances."

I know that the intention behind these moves is to try to maximise children's exam results but I have a deep-seated disquiet with it. Marshfield friends will remember how this issue arose when the primary school changed their discretionary authorised absence policy (a concept which Mr Taylor disapproves of) from 10 to 5 days.  I won't rehearse all the reasons why 30 out of  the 31 parents we spoke to then disliked the policy change. Not yet.

I've sent in Freedom of Information Act requests to see understand the consultation process, the results, the proposed changes to the regulations and the process involved in it becoming law. I missed the consultation first time round - did anyone else hear about it?

Click here to link to the full report, response and progress report of the Taylor Report on improving school  attendance.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Getting Serious

I joined the LibDems in 2009, following a conversation with Steve Webb MP on an entirely different subject, feeling claustrophic, cynical, disoriented and stripped of hope. 

Claustropobic because both government policy and the cultural tone it set gave me a sense that one wasn't allowed to do anything if it were not explicitly permitted. That there was a single, proper way of parenting, eating, education, thinking to which one was being pushed to conform. 

Cynical because the expenses scandal reinforced the perception that politicians were only in it for themselves and yet disoriented following a talk by, of all people, Zac Goldsmith where his description of his experience even with the broadsheets left me with the sense of being in a hall of mirrors, unable to rely on  any of the images of the world the media presented.

And hopeless. There are New Labour achievements which I think were a great step forward - Northern Ireland, corporate social responsibility, the social enterprise agenda spring to mind. But these were outweighed by my experiences, whether in trying to achieve the laudable aims for Community Services Partnerships where Treasury control-freakery strangled the policy baby or in the voluntary sector where siloed thinking by funders stifled innovation. Further there was the lack of long term thinking - the pensions and energy issues for example were exacerbated by a reluctance to make electorally difficult decisions. That's without Iraq, child detention and ID cards. But most of all I think what killed my hope for the future was the sense of a complete and utter capitulation to the City and the existing economic model. If the left accepted that democracy has little sway over capitalism, what hope for all those of us who want an economy which reflects our values rather than dictates them? 

So what did I find in the LibDems? Idealism grounded by a membership embedded in its communities and sectors; open, welcoming, hard-working, committed; incredibly tolerant of newcomers with a propensity to put their foot in their mouth, a culture of debating and consensus rather than head-to-head macho battles and yet hardened fighters. No airs and graces, no sense that government rank makes a person any different from any other member or any member of the public. Yes, flawed people and flawed systems because people are just people, and yes, mistakes because what I have seen is complexity beyond human capability - politics covers every person and every subject. It is insoluble. There are no correct or easy answers. only the values and intelligence you bring to tackling the questions. 

I'm well aware that my impressions of the other parties are based for the most part on what I read, see and hear through the media.  I suspect I would find a reasonable amount of commonality at the Conferences and certainly with many individuals. But for me the LibDems constitutional protection from imprisonment by conformity and the fact that it actually practices democracy, so that ordinary members to make policy and run the party, places clear water between it and the other two main parties. 

In short, my membership of the LibDems has been like getting out of a small car after a long journey, destination dictated by the driver. I've taken large gulps of fresh air (even if at times it's buffeting winds!) and stretched, taken a good look around and been encouraged to stretch my wings. My sense of freedom, purpose and hope have returned and I feel supported as if by family.

So thank you everyone – inside and out of the party - for your support and inspiration so far. It’s time now for me to make a real commitment.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Remember this?

Thought I ought to include my moment of "bravery" from Sheffield in 2011. As I said at the time, it's easy to be brave with a metal fence in front of you and 20 policemen behind you - providing of course, it's not the policemen you're worried about.

The hidden costs of pushing parents to conform

Published on LibDemVoice 31st Jan 2013:
I heard odd things yesterday. Talk of getting women back into the workplace by subsidising childcare for allparents – and this after means testing child benefit.
Then someone proposed that all child carers should have good GCSE Maths & English whilst increasing ratios! How did the human race survive before academic qualifications? Here we have another narrowing of work opportunities for people who are not so hot at academic stuff.
To add to my indignation, I heard someone say on the radio that only working parents provide a positive role model  for children and that “non-working” parents don’t contribute to the economy.
I tried not to take this personally.  Apparently, nothing I do counts towards the key indicator of national success until I go shopping or pay a bill, neither of which tally with my personal success indicators.
I’d love to read proposals on helping parents avoid being financially pressured into returning to work, together with an assessment of the key role unpaid parents (UPs) play in their families, their communities and society.
Here’s my take,  based on 15 years’ experience, working full-time, part-time and at home, of the value UPs bring.  I’m not saying that every family should have a UP. I do, however, want to see us put as much effort into making full-time parenting financially feasible and as socially acceptable as we put into back-to-work policies, so that parents can make a genuine choice. There’s more to national success than GDP  and more to people’s quality of life than their finances.
Most of all, it’s not government’s place to rate one parenting model above another.
UPs, along with retired people and local trades people create the cohesive web of our communities. Has anyone worked out the reduced policing, health, social services and other costs associated with a strong community?
Our local pre-school facility was built and is run by volunteers. Immense effort goes into keeping the costs as low as possible and the hours as long as possible for working parents. The majority of actively involved parents were UPs.
There is a freedom in being a UP.  It can be hard, when , exhausted from having to deal with everything on an emotional level, you look around the chaotic house and think “All I have to show for a full day’s work is that my children are still alive – and frankly even that was touch and go today!”  However, although you won’t be as financially well off, there can also be a greater freedom to follow your own interests. It is a space which working people often find only in retirement.
A small selection of things which happened here because of UPs exploring their interests: a sustainability project, free music theory lessons, and a ward swing to the Lib Dems in 2010’s local government election.
I’ve learnt more about human nature,  how things work and networking in the past 8 years as a UP than in all my working life. My children get to see that they and the things I care about are as important as earning money for the sake of it.
I don’t think it’s right for government to give higher value to working parents. There is no right answer, just what works for your family and a liberal approach is to encourage and celebrate different approaches.
If you'd like to see the comments this generated, please go to:

What's Your Prism

Hello, world.

I'll start this blog with my first and most articles published on LibDem Voice - and avoid the temptation to edit! 

This from September 2011: What's Your Prism 

The perennial question cropped up again the other day, on the beach this time: “What do the LibDems stand for?” I replied that the Tories and Labour view British society through the same prism of class or socio-economic groups, but that the LibDems see individuals.
We don’t believe that your gender, the colour of your skin, religion, social background, the number of parents you have, your weight or body shape or ability, your education level or bank balance say anything at all about your compassion, your willingness to get involved in your community, your intelligence, your wisdom, your sense of humour, your creativity, your common sense, how content you are, the strength of your relationships, whether people smile when you come in to the room, your latent talents or your courage.
“Ah” came the reply. “But is that what the LibDems think or is that just you?”
And I was surprised to find myself a bit stymied. After all, that is what all LibDems think, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Let’s assume it is. Because if it is, there are some things we could be doing to free ourselves of the general sense that all policies from all parties look like educated middle class people trying to do things to other people who are less fortunate than themselves (for their own good of course).
First we could be banging the drum about the ideological difference between us and the other two parties and not just our policies and achievements in government – and finding a “one liner” to crystalise that difference. Any advance on my prism line much appreciated.
We shouldn’t be afraid of spelling out an ideology; of painting a very big picture. After all, policies are just a means to an end: what’s our end and how is it different?
So when it comes to Nick’s speech at Conference I hope he concentrates not on appealing to groups such as “alarm clock Britain” but on spelling out what we actually mean by the points he makes in his foreword to “Facing the Future” – our faith in people, distribution of power, capacity of the individual to make the lives they choose and our optimistic forward view.
In a rapidly changing world, we need to promote a vision of our society which makes sense to everyone and to which they are more likely to actively want to subscribe. And we should be looking voters in the eye and saying “we see you, not the boxes you tick”.
There is a holistic positive picture of Britain to be drawn, one where we have evolved a system which enables us to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘thus far and no further’ to bankers, journalists, MPs, rioters. We have a society in which people do not face famine or horror as a matter of routine. We face huge questions but we are equal to the challenge. We are not a country in decline, we are dealing with accelerating change in social evolution and international development but we have a framework of values, the basis of which is the sanctity of human life, the rule of law and democratic government, which has seen us through thus far and which will continue to see us through.
The other things we could be doing when writing and communicating our policies is to be mindful of the subliminal messages which go along with them and how we balance the much policied freedoms from poverty and ignorance with the freedom from conformity. For instance if academic education is so important, are we saying those who are less educated are worth less? If social mobility is so desirable, does this mean the community you are from is undesirable? (And what’s the impact of social mobility on community breakdown?)
Most of all, if people need empowering it must be because they have no power: a personal bugbear – please, please can we stop trying to empower people and instead tell them that in a democracy, they already have the power? We believe our role is to ensure they understand what it is, how to exercise it and remove any barriers but the power is already theirs: legally we are all equal and each vote carries the same weight.
We’ve all been looking through the Tory and Labour prism for too long. Let’s tell people what the world looks like through ours.