Thursday, 26 March 2015

Clegg defends Prince Charles' privacy

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said that Prince Charles' letter to government ministers should not be made public - less than half an hour after the Supreme Court ruled they should be.

Speaking to LBC this morning, Clegg said "Do I think that when Prince Charles sent those letters he's entitled to assume that they would remain private? I think he probably is. I think there's a perfectly legitimate role to say at a certain point that correspondence like that, since it was intended to be private, should remain private."

However, minutes prior to this, the Supreme Court decided that letters written by Prince Charles to MPs and ministers between 2004 and 2005 should be released in the public interest. The letters were requested by The Guardian newspaper in 2005, under the Freedom of Information Act, and a decade-long legal dispute followed.

The Supreme Court's decision follows the Attorney General's Office challenging a ruling by the Court of Appeal that it unlawfully stopped the release of the letters.

Nick Clegg's position is interesting because it assumes that anything intended to be private should stay so; however, quite clearly there are times when the public interest is best served by bringing what was intended to be secret into the open. In this case, allegations have been made that Prince Charles attempted to use his influence and privilege to lobby ministers - the principle of privacy should not trump the principle of democracy.

The Supreme Court ruling is actually an excellent constitutional judgement that underlines the fact that Royals should not be immune from transparency - the kind of transparency Nick Clegg so often insists is vital to open, accountable government.

Perhaps, instead of supporting Prince Charles' right to privacy, it might have been more fitting for a Liberal Democrat leader to instead congratulate The Guardian on its outstanding 10-year campaign and recognise the significance of this ruling from the perspective of both transparency in public life and Freedom of Information.

Councillor Mathew Hulbert, Co-Ordinator of Lib Dems For A Republic, says ''I'm really surprised to hear Nick Clegg defending Prince Charles's letters to Ministers remaining private. Charles isn't writing as a private person to his local MP, he's writing to Ministers in his capacity as second in line to the throne. We, therefore, should have a right to know what he's been saying and what his views are. If these letters display an obvious political bias, then all the more reason they should see the light of day, so people can see that their future Monarch is anything but an impartial figure floating above politics!''

My views on fracking

Julian Huppert: "Meeting our climate targets needs
to be at the forefront of our energy policy"
In recent days a number of would-be constituents have asked for my views on fracking.

My opinion on this, as with many other complex policy positions, is to follow the lead of the evidence.

For some time I've had an open mind on this - while being instinctively suspicious and harbouring serious concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of fracking, I've been eager to engage with the proponents of hydraulic fracturing. I'm always willing to listen to expertise.

I'm also willing to listen to our energy minister, Ed Davey. In 2013 he suggested that fracking "is not evil" and "would not endager UK climate targets", suggesting that the "fracking debate has been marred by exaggeration". That said, while Davey is in principle prepared to consent to it providing that stringent safety requirements can be met, he's also expressed criticism of the Conservative Party's belief that fracking has the power to transform the UK economy.

I understand the case for fracking, but after a great deal of consideration I am not convinced by it. Clearly the economic case seems to be a product of political wishful thinking. It is unlikely to be a fabulous route to cheap energy. Also, in relation to my concerns about the safety of fracking, these have actually increased after reading a report from Public Health England, which (while challenging some widely perpetuated myths) demonstrates a definite potential impact on public health.

As a member of the Green Liberal Democrats, I believe our focus should be on greener forms of energyrather than fossil fuel extraction. Julian Huppert MP, recently writing for Lib Dem Voice, argued that "as shown in Nature, a boom in shale gas extraction would likely squeeze out the development of the renewable energy sector. The government’s own report on ‘Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use’ says 'we believe it is credible that shale-gas use would increase both short-term and long-term emissions rates'...Meeting our climate targets needs to be at the forefront of our energy policy." Huppert adds: "future generations will never forgive us if we make a choice that increases carbon emissions and destroys our most important landscapes."

They are my concerns too, and for these reasons - as well as the potential safety risks - my considered view is that I am unable to support fracking.

Lib Dems remain somewhat divided on this, with many (including Tessa Munt MP, who resigned from the government on this issue) openly expressing criticisms of fracking while others are more supportive. In a liberal party, with research into impacts ongoing, that is not too surprising. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen, I would personally not be seeking to introduce fracking - and I'd like to voters of Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill to be aware of that.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Jim Hume's Member's Bill wins government backing

Jim Hume MSP
The Scottish Government has backed a Member’s Bill by Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume to outlaw smoking in a car while children are present. 

Mr Hume's proposal, which have received cross-party backing and the support of a number of charities, would see violators charged with a £100 fine in the event of being caught smoking in their vehicle with an under-18 present.

Speaking to Holyrood magazine, Mr Hume said: "I am over the moon. This Bill is about guaranteeing that children in Scotland can have the freedom to go on and lead healthy lives if they choose to. I look forward to working with MSPs from all parties as the Bill progresses." He is optimistic the new legilation will be in place early next year.

Supporters of the bill include the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and ASH Scotland, the national anti-smoking charity, which aims for a "tobacco-free generation" within 20 years.

Mr Hume's bill will bring Scottish legislation in line with that in England and Wales, where smoking in a vehicle with children present will be illegal from October.

There have been the predictable criticisms of nanny-statism and of any law being impossible to enforce in practice (the latter is true, as are many other laws such as those governing the use of mobiles while driving, but that isn't in itself an argument to do nothing) - this represents one further step on the path to a healthier Scotland. The new legislation, when implemented, will not in itself provide the solution, but will undoubtedly lead to a change of culture and ultimately better self-regulation by motorists. It is not a question of an overbearing government chipping away at personal freedoms, but rather one of protecting the freedom and health of children. I fail to see why anyone would believe they should have a right to make children inhale their smoke.

Mr Hume deserves credit for championing this cause, and for highlighting the public health issues related to it.

Nursing Counts - and deserves recognition

In the run-up to this year's General Election, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is asking parliamentary candidates to support its manifesto, Nursing Counts, and to commit to supporting the following priorities:

1.    Improve patient care by ensuring safe staffing levels; giving nurses access to training and; listening to the concerns of staff.
2.    Value nursing by paying a fair wage; stopping the downbanding of nursing experience and; investing in nursing so that future generations aspire to become nurses.
3.    Invest in health and care by guaranteeing no more cuts in the nursing workforce; increasing resources for the community and; implementing workforce planning that reflects the needs of patients. 

It's not a difficult manifesto to sign up to, and the RCN's priorities effectively amount to a request for politicians to give the nursing profession the respect it so obviously deserves. Who does not want fair pay for nurses? Who would argue against creating a sustainable NHS, equipped to meet the needs of patients?

As someone who spent 16 years working in the NHS, some of it at Monklands Hospital, I am more than aware of the importance of the NHS, the efforts of those who work within it and the regrettable effect that government decisions can often have. I am a former UNISON representative (health sector) and have been involved in a number of health campaigns in recent years - crossing swords with Patricia Hewitt and Andy Burnham over their misguided pro-private sector agenda. I am a believer in empowering health professionals rather than in burdening them with centrally-driven political objectives (remember Labour's NHS targets, many of which were utterly ludicrous?).

It shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me that I'm happy to endorse the Nursing Counts priorities, but it might be useful to deal with each of them in turn:

1.    "Improve patient care by ensuring safe staffing levels; giving nurses access to training and; listening to the concerns of staff."

This is absolutely vital. it's so simple and so obvious - yet I know the reality to be very different.

Staffing levels are often unsafe - I say this on the basis of experience. I worked in acute mental health for many years and often situations arose which may have been preventable if staffing levels had been more adequate to the need. If we are to move towards a patient care system that is truly responsive to patient need then we need to have the staff in place - as well as the flexibility to adjust to changing clinical priorities.

Access to training is vital - but it needs to be access to the right training. Again, if we are to respond to patient need, clinical staff need to be able to access the kind of training that will allow them to be more effective at delivering the right care. Nurses have a set number of study days per year, and often this is self-directed study - there are obvious advantages to this. However, non-qualified staff are often overlooked in regards to personal training needs and this needs to be rectified.

Listening to the concerns of staff - as a former UNISON rep this is something I used to actively do. Some of this I would feed back through the relevant channels to hospital managers - who clearly had little interest in acting on those concerns. There need to be better processes for staff to express their concerns, and a more transparent system for them to see if and how their ideas are taken forward.

I'd personally add that far more has to be done to prioritise the concerns of nurses, whose views are so often relegated to being of secondary importance behind those of consultants and the medical profession as a whole. I'd like to find ways of ensuring that nurses have a louder voice; the NHS has given disporportionate significance to the BMA's agenda for too long. And not only nurses, but other allied professionals who are so often overlooked - when David Cameron talked up the benefits of having those with health expertise commissioning NHS services, he predictable was referring predomiantly to doctors (each Clinical Commissioning Group has one registered nurse on it, but the balance of power is clearly skewed towards GPs). Any culture that reinforces the patriarchy of a single profession needs to be radically changed.

2.    "Value nursing by paying a fair wage; stopping the downbanding of nursing experience and; investing in nursing so that future generations aspire to become nurses. "

It's a scandal, isn't it? There have been headlines comparing MPs pay to nurses' pay - but you don't need to go that far to see how little nurses are paid for what they do. Simple comparisons with jobs in the banking sector, the civil service, the police and the armed forces show that nurses are earning less - and these are often unqualified professions.

Unfortunately we live in a society where people are valued largely by how much money they're able to make - as reflected in the financial industries. The next government has to think seriously about how it values the work our nurses do, and I agree that asking for a "fair wage" - i.e. in line with police, armed forces and the civil service is not unreasonable. It's a question not of affordability but of justice. Can we afford not to pay nurses a fair wage?

A fair wage, to my mind, means taking into account the unsociable hours that nurses work - any proposal to cut the current unsocial payments for nurses would amount to a significant reduction in income and should be strongly resisted.

3.    "Invest in health and care by guaranteeing no more cuts in the nursing workforce; increasing resources for the community and; implementing workforce planning that reflects the needs of patients."

It is difficult for a constituency MP to guarantee no further cuts in the nursing workforce. What I can promise is that, if elected, I would not support any such cuts and that I would vote against it (whoever forms the government). We need to be actively finding ways to increase not only staffing numbers but ensuring the right skill mix - the South Staffordshire experience confirmed that some hospitals are not only poorly staffed but left junior staff in positions of responsibility they were ill-equipped to deal with.

I agree that we need to invest more heavily in community resources, as part of moving towards a health system that is preventative rather than reactive. This has to be part of a longer-term plan, which should be evidence-based and focused on addressing local health needs

The aim of every politicians with a genuine interest in health should be the facilitation of an NHS that reflects - and addresses - the needs of patients. Services should be as specialised as necessary and as local as possible. 

I applaud the RCN's initiative and am quite happy to support its manifesto aims, but it's reasonable to point out that health is a devolved matter in Scotland and that many of the decisions affecting how the Scottish NHS (which has always been seperate, founded under a different act of Parliament) works are taken in Holyrood. However, I would seek to work with MPs and MSPs of all parties to ensure that the next five years see advances in our NHS rather than cuts to service provision, and to facilitate a change in culture in which nurses are empowered rather than undermined.
Nurses deserve recognition, respect and a fair deal. That's common sense. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Qurban Hussain deserves our sympathy

Controversy has surrounded Lord Hussain in the last few weeks, since it was revealed that his "son" was smuggled into the UK 23 years ago.

The tabloid press has been keen to highlight the fact that the peer not only brought the Pakistani child not the UK illegally, but also lied about it. He told the British High Commission in Islamabad that the boy was his own and therefore eligible to be a British citizen.

Given the furore, and the predictable reaction from some quarters - including Labour calling for a resignation - a sense of balance and perspective is needed.

Lord Hussain has resigned from all party activity after speaking with party leaders on Saturday. This seems sensible and a proportionate response.

Some facts are usually helpful if we're to cut through the sensationalist headlines and challenge the outrage. In this case, it's clear the incident happened in 1992 - well before Hussain was either a member of the House of Lords or a Lib Dem. There is no question of him abusing his position. Furthermore, he was a member of the Labour party for several years prior to defecting to the Lib Dems in 2003 - so, if Labour really are so "outraged and appalled" perhaps they might wish to tell us what information they had rather than trying to score cheap political points?

There can also be no doubt that Hussain is not acting in the interests of terrorist networks or aiding international criminals - although you might not know that to read some of the headlines. Let the facts speak for themselves: Hussain's wife was asked to adopt a boy in 1990 by a poor family living in Kashmir and to take him to England when he was two years old. Mr and Mrs Hussain did this, and raised him as their own for 21 years. The boy is now 25, a successful graduate and happily married.

Hussain recently told the Daily Mirror: "I know now it is illegal. I realise it was legally wrong but morally it was the right thing to do. The child's mother begged my wife to take him. You have never seen levels of poverty like this family lived in"

Police are now investigating and it is only right that the party allows them to follow the lead of the evidence to reach their conclusions. Whatever the outcome, there can be no disputing Hussain's intentions and to those who have been quick to cast stones I would ask what they would have done if they thought they could have rescued one child from a life of grinding poverty in war-torn Kashmir of the 90s. I'd also ask whether they'd react the same way if Hussain wasn't a politician - are his actions so different from those of Donald Caskie, Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg - or the many others throughout history who have overstepped legal boundaries to save or improve human lives?

Clearly there are distinctions between what appears morally right and the law. While Hussain has acted outwith the parameters of the law, there may be grounds for accepting this as a common law adoption, or "private fostering". He was acting compassionately in the interests of someone else, someone who now has life opportunities that would otherwise have been denied.

Right or wrong? - it's not for me to make a judgement. That is precisely the point. No-one (and certainly not the Labour Party or the tabloid media) should make a moral judgement on Lord Hussain. He deserves our sympathy rather than our derision.

I for one am already tired of the denigrating of politicians by the (usually) London-based media - which is often far less honest than those it targets.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Lib Dems discuss Trident motion

Tim Farron, Kevin White and Kate Hudson

Lib Dems Against Trident, formed last year to advocate opposition to Trident and a like-for-like replacement, organised a fringe meeting at Spring Conference – at which the guest speakers were Kate Hudson (CND Chair) and Tim Farron MP.

Kevin White, the founder of Lib Dems Against Trident opened the meeting, which was well attended. He emphasised the group’s aim to ensure a motion on Trident is debated at federal conference in Bournemouth later this year and added that, while much will depend on the outcome of the General Election, two draft motions had been prepared for consideration.

Both of these would call for Trident to be scrapped and not replaced. 

Kate Hudson: "[Trident] is not a military weapon,
but a political weapon."
Kate followed up with a comment on the Liberal Democrats’ history on Trident. She argued that in 2010, we took the lead on the political conversation with Nick Clegg in particular gaining credibility forhis stance on the issue.  But those now daring to put Trident back on the agenda are the Greens and the Nationalists, who have managed to eclipse the Lib Dems in the public consciousness as anti-Trident advocates.

There is a challenge for the Lib Dems – and it’s one we have to be brave enough to accept. 

Kate also tackled some of the usual pro-Trident arguments, including the need to retain an ineffective nuclear arsenal to keep “Britain’s place at the table”. She was keen to discredit this, pointing to Germany’s influence in spite of not having its own nuclear weapons, and also asking what “status” is preserved by holding on to outdated weaponry. “What status does it give in the eyes of the vast majority of nations who have no desire for nuclear weapons?” she asked.

Kate also emphasised the level of military expertise that is in support of scrapping Trident. “It is not a military weapon, but a political weapon” she explained, before arguing that Trident does not meet the UK’s security needs. No-one present disagreed. 

She made the case for the non-replacement of Trident in a clear and categorical way, which I expected from the chair of CND. After that, Kevin opened up the floor to questions and discussion. Very quickly debate focussed on whether the unilateral approach was workable: would a unilateralist motion win support of the party as a whole? Could a gradualist approach be more likely to win over those who are opposed to Trident but are uncomfortable with unilateralism? 

Toby Fenwick proposed a "middle way"
Toby Fenwick, from Centre Forum, admitted that Trident is no deterrent at all. However, he championed an alternative motion that sought a “middle way” providing for alternatives and for eventual multilateral disarmament. Toby advocated a longer-term view, not only to keep on board those who were uneasy about “leaping down the nuclear ladder in a single step” but to “Stop Trident while allowing the party to stay united.” He proposed a commitment to scrapping Trident while referring the question of alternatives to a working group “to bring recommendations on future UK nuclear weapons policy no later than Autumn Conference 2016. ..and may propose any policy from unilateral nuclear disarmament and immediate UK military nuclear denuclearization to the lowest cost dual role nuclear force to meet the 1982 Duff-Mason minimum deterrence criteria. The working group may not recommend any submarine based nuclear options, foreclosing any return to Trident.”

David Grace: has multilateralism failed?
This was supported by some present but many clearly were more enamoured with an unequivocal “No trident, no replacement” kind of motion. The Chair of Green Liberal Democrats felt that there would be few difficulties in the party adopting a unilateral approach; David Grace, Chair of Lib Dems for Peace and Security, asked whether multilateralism had failed in relation to (for example) Putin’s Russia.

Simon Foster, a politics lecturer and former Bournemouth councillor, pointed to the possible aftermath of the General Election. The Liberal Democrats need to be able to stand up and speak out against Trident renewal in the event of a Lab/SNP confidence and supply arrangement, he insisted. He also proposed that, should a leadership election be forthcoming after May, Lib Dems against Trident must ensure that Trident is made an issue that no candidate can ignore.

At this moment, by pure coincidence, Tim Farron entered the room. 

Simon Foster wants Trident to become a key issue
in the event of a leadership contest
Tim outlined his own opposition to Trident and indicated that he had, in the past, been a member of CND. He began his contribution by challenging the “Thatcherite lie” of multilateralism versus unilateralism. He praised Liberal Democrats for preventing the current government pushing ahead with a like-for-like renewal and suggested that even scaling back Trident would represent a huge step forward. 

Clearly there is a moral case for scrapping what is euphemistically referred to as a nuclear deterrent, but Tim argued that the substantive issue “is not just about doing what’s morally right...but making intelligent use of our budget.” He also sought to highlight the fact that the Liberal Democrats remain “the most pro-disarmament of the main parties”, which is certainly true but perhaps doesn’t help those of us directly challenging the SNP. Tim added that he favoured strengthening our military.

Tim Farron: "Lib Dems are the most
pro-disarmament of the main parties"
Tim will undoubtedly be a key asset in assuring any proposed anti-Trident motion is successful, but the fact that he seemed to broadly favour Toby’s approach provides some food for thought. 

In summary, it was a very positive meeting and clearly the group is determined to ensure that the party commits itself to an abolitionist position on Trident in the near future, with both like-for-like and submarine-based replacements being ruled out. Thanks to Kevin (and others) for facilitating the event, and to Kate and Tim for their thoughtful contributions.

Further information on Lib Dems Against Trident can be found on their facebook page.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Clegg rules out SNP deal

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg today used a speech at party conference in Liverpool to rule out the prospect of a formal coalition deal with the SNP.

"So let me be clear", said Clegg, "just like we would not put UKIP in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain - a country they want to rip apart. It's just not going to happen."

This statement of the obvious seems to be generating a curious debate on social media, receiving praise and vilification in equal measure. And yet it seems - to me - an unremarkable decision to make.

Of course Clegg is playing to the gallery to some degree and he should be careful not to come across as yet another unionist bashing the SNP, which ultimately (as we've seen) only plays into their hands. But the substance of the statement - that a formal partnership with the SNP is unattainable and undesirable - makes perfect sense.

This is not a repeat of the misguided decision, in 2007, not to enter into coalition talks with the SNP in Holyrood on the basis that the independence referendum was a red line issue. I've explained, elsewhere, why I think that was wrong - certainly the wisdom of that decision can be questioned given the fact that the referendum became reality. That was a refusal to even countenance the idea of collaboration with the SNP on the basis of their raison d'etre, foolishly sending out a message that we only deal with Labour. What Nick Clegg is saying here is quite different.

He may as well have said that after the General Election the law of gravity will continue to work, that Scotland will continue to experience its fair share of rainy weather or that the English cricket team will still be useless at the one-day game.

This, lest anyone should forget, is a Westminster General Election. The SNP - quite rightly in my view - as a matter of principle do not vote in Westminster on matters reserved to Holyrood. They have not involved themselves in issues pertaining only to England, Wales and/or Northern Ireland. It has been pointed out to me that recently Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that SNP MPs may vote more widely than this in the future as there are very few "English" issues that don't affect Scotland in some way, either directly or indirectly; there can be no escaping however that the SNP's focus is not on governing Britain. Why should the SNP wish to do so?

Equally, why would any leader of the Liberal Democrats be seeking a three-party coalition? It would be notoriously difficult to make work and has to be the least desirable outcome from his perspective.

I can't imagine the SNP, whatever the media may wish to speculate, is remotely interested in any coalition. I am sure they are considering the various opportunities that a hung parliament, in which they held the balance of power, may provide - including informal deals. But they have no aspirations of being part of the UK government in Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon will not be worried about this rejection from Nick Clegg - instead, she'll have her mind on winning as many seats in the election as possible. No doubt Clegg has similar objectives.

Possible supply and confidence deals involving the SNP may make for an intriguing prospect, but realistically speaking these would not involve the Liberal Democrats in any three-way arrangement.

It's the kind of story the media love - which is a pity because, after a positive three-day conference there is so much more that can, and should, be being said about the Lib Dems (our fantastic mental health policy being a prime example).

The odds of an SNP-Lib Dem alliance with either the Conservatives or Labour Parties were always remote on account of both the required electoral arithmetic and the practicalities of making it work. The truth is that the SNP have no such desire to undermine themselves by governing the UK, and anyone believing that they would either as an extremely limited grasp of political reality or works for the Daily Mail (which are, self-evidently, not mutually exclusive).

More interestingly, while he accused Nigel Farage's party of "offering...division and blame" Clegg didn't say whether he'd put UKIP in charge of Britain. Which frankly seems a scarier prospect...