Lib Dem Autumn Conference: Day 5

So, the final day of Autumn Conference this year. The final day is largely taken up by the party awards and the leader’s speech. In a funny twist I found myself sitting in the front row on the stage behind Nick Clegg for his speech (I’m writing this on the train home, so have yet to find myself on the TV)!

Leader’s Speech

I thought Nick did well. It was clearly a speech aimed at the viewing public rather than those sitting in the auditorium, but then Conference speeches always are. Really, it’s the classic case of “it’s the economy, stupid!”. It will of course be the key issue of the next General Election. But it was of good to see him point to green policies as an essential part of Lib Dem involvement in Government, and key to creating growth .

You do get a very different perspective of the speech from being behind and very close. When Clegg finished and went for the usual handshake with key Ministers, the mass of photographers was incredible, both in numbers and sheer aggression; almost trampling each other to get in the right place for the shot.

Elsewhere

Earlier in the day, the Lib Dems passed three motions. The first, ‘Addressing Underprovision in Mental Health’, built on excellent work by now former Care Services Minister Paul Burstow, and was passed unanimously by the hall.

The second, an emergency motion (where members get to choose two from a list of four topical motions to be debated), saw members overwhelmingly vote in favour of calling on the Government to scrap Conservative plans to unnecessarily loosen planning laws.

This motion was brought by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC) and is a good example of how members or groups within the party can bring their own motions to challenge a leadership decision (or in this case Coalition partner’s) if they feel it incorrect. This also happened on Tuesday with the Secret Courts motion.

Thirdly, the members approved a new housing policy, drawn up by the policy working group over the last year, which called for, amongst other things, a house building programme to build 300,000 houses a year, give local authorities more powers to target rogue landlords, and promote longer tenancies to give renters more security.

Three very worthwhile motions, and three areas where Liberal ideals on localism and equality of opportunity can take a lead, although it was rightly pointed out that good work on mental health provision started under the last Government.

Back to work

So back to office work now, helping local constituents with personal problems. It’s satisfying and worthwhile work, but also good to approach it with the renewed wave of optimism and motivation which Conference always brings.

Lib Dem Autumn Conference, Day 4 – secret courts and civil liberties

Day 4 was possibly the most interesting day yet.

Secret Courts
I’m sure, if you’re reading this, that you’ll have also read that the Lib Dem members battled the leadership by supporting a motion calling for proposals for secret courts in the Justice & Security Bill to be dropped. I fully agreed with this motion and voted with it on the hall, and against the amendment put by Parliamentarians.

But the portrayal of the debate as members versus MPs is not wholly accurate. In fact, supporting the motion were Lord Paul Strasburger, who voted against the Bill in the House of Lords, and Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, both spoke in favour of the motion, reaffirming the liberal value of fair justice and wider civil liberties which for many is a key reason for their membership of the party. Sarah Ludford, in particular, called this an issue we should die in the ditch for.

Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, who have been spearheading the campaign against secret courts, had apparently asked the Conference organisers if she could address the Conference before the vote, which was refused. This has been reported as ‘Lib Dems block Chakrabarti’, in a way which suggests leadership suppressing opposition. This isn’t the case.

I am a proud member of Liberty and a big fan of Chakrabarti, as are many people within the party. But she is not a Liberal Democrat party member, and our policy is created, debated and voted on by members of the party. She had not been denied a right to address members at all – I had seen her four hours before in a well-attended fringe event, her second of the Conference. All members have had a chance to listen to her. Liberty were also handing out leaflets throughout the Conference highlighting their viewpoint and advising delegates how to vote in the debate.

Shami was absolutely within her right to ask, but I think it was correct that she was able to speak in the motion.

I will write another time about civil liberties issues and their effect on future coalitions. Right now, I am about to go into a motion and vote on a new Liberal Democrat housing policy (PDF). The motion itself is on page 55 of the Agenda, with an amendment in the daily update here.

Lib Dem Autumn Conference, Day 3

Excellent day 3 at Lib Dem Conference. The day started with the Lib Dems adopting a policy pushing for greater funding into scientific research, unanimously backed by the entire conference (actually, in fairness, I think one person voted against). After that, another policy motion passed promoting mutuals and employee ownership . A very liberal sart to the morning – reaffirming our beliefs in evidence-based policy and greater employee participation in the running, and success of, their companies.

Fringe-wise, I went to two interesting fringes. The first was with Paddy Ashdown, discussing the relationship between the party and the voters, digging a bit deeper into opinion polls and people’s attitudes. The second, on a similar theme, focused on the US elections, led by Robert Worcester, the founder of MORI. The insight he provided into American polling data and the differences of depth between people’s opinions, attitudes and values as fascinating.

Afterwards, South West region drinks, getting to listen to some of our local Ministers – Pensions Minister Steve Webb and David Heath, our first Agriculture Minister since 1915, as well as Party President and former leader PAddy Ashdown.

Then an hour and a half long conversation with a stranger on regional action days which I won’t go into here.

Today (Tuesday) kicking off for me with a policy motion on the rehabilitation revolution, looking at restorative justice, and some other things I haven’t quite timetabled in yet.

Back later!

Fascinating fringe on restorative justice

I went to a fascinating fringe event yesterday on restorative justice, and ensuring victims are put at the centre of justice. It was sponsored by the Prison Reform Trust and the Victim Support Trust. There were some statistics about offenders that are terrifying, and highlight some real areas where the justice system, and our health system fail not only victims but also future offenders before they commit a crime.

Javed Khan from the Victim Support Trust said that 67% of offenders arriving at Feltham Young Offenders Institute have an undiagnosed mental health issue. This is a devastating figure and clearly shows that earlier intervention by the state into supporting young people and diagnosing those who have a medical condition could reduce offending and stop young people getting into an early onset spiral of decline.

We also heard from Cllr Margarey Hoxley, from Pendle, about her experience of taking part in restorative justice by meeting her burglar, after the tragic death of her daughter in a car accident. A burglary laptop theft may have seemed minor,  but with the laptop went precious photos and memories of her daughter. The process and experience seemed extremely helpful both to her, in understanding the motives and mindset of the burglar – ultimately drug addiction played a crucial part – and in helping the offender to realise the side effects of his crime. He has now not reoffended in the 14 months since leaving prison.

An awful lot needs to be done in this area. Support for this kind of process is patchy at best in the UK, although it receives overwhelming public support – 88% of people agree with restorative justice, says a Prison Reform Trust poll.

The Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) being elected on November 15th can play a crucial role in ensuring sufficient resources are put into this area, which has real benefits both for victims in dealing with their crime and offenders in preventing them from reoffending. Let’s make sure we get Liberal Democrat PCCs in November, to push forward what is essentially a Liberal idea.

Please have a look at their work:

http://www.victimsupport.org.uk/

http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/

http://www.restorativejustice.org.uk/

Lib Dem Conference: Day 1

A good start to Conference, after finally getting through the traffic from the South West. Some early controversy in the policy motion on Early Years, as an attempt was made to block the motion and send it back for review, due to being deemed muddled and inaccurate. The attempt failed quite heavily, and the motion passed.

The next motion on getting the best out of our schools also had a minor controversy when an attempt to remove a line mentioning the EBacc was also refused. The proposer argued that the Lib Dems as a party have never agreed on an EBacc, or to replace CGSEs. He said that he tried to submit a formal amendment but was refused. The motion passed overwhelmingly in the end.

The Conference Rally was a good success. The theme this year was Jobs, Education, Environment, Tax – and pointed out Lib Dem policies working to improve these areas in Government. Jo Swinson shone in particular, giving a powerful speech on campaigning and getting our message out. And Nick Clegg handled the fun around his apology video with proficient self-deprecation.

No fringe events for me last night as it was dinner with my previous party, Thornbury & Yate, and their excellent Pensions Minister Steve Webb.

This morning a motion has overwhelmingly passed reasserting our opposition as a party to a third runway at Heathrow. Norman Baker, our Transport Minister, rounded on David Cameron for moving on Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers, both 3rd runway opponents, from the Department for Transport.

Am now off to listen to ourParty President, Tim Farron MP, give his speech to the hall.

More later.

My thoughts on the ‘Snooping Law’

The plans floated at the weekend to enable the security services to be able to log every email, phone call and internet hit of UK citizens is an extremely concerning development, and totally at odds with the beliefs of the Liberal Democrats. I’m sure, if you’ve got to my blog, you’ve been following the story and already know the widely-held views of Liberal Democrats members – that the ‘Snooping Law’ as it has been told, flies in the face of liberal views on the amount of knowledge the state should know about its citizens, without justification. I won’t go over old ground.

Just to add a couple of things…

Snooping
This is simply a process spying on our private relationships, within our own homes. A person’s private use of technology within their own home should be allowed the same levels of privacy as a citizen’s right to have guests at their home. The Government does not have the right to know who we speak to,  when and for how long. The fact that these interactions take place over electronic media are no different to conversations wholly taking place within the privacy of a citizen’s own home. I understand that the content of conversations would not be monitored, but that is not defence enough. The actual fact of conversations taking place at all should not be recorded.

Difficulties with coalition and Liberal Democrats principles
Being in coalition can be difficult. Clearly there are things which the Coalition Government is doing which do not sit comfortably with my social liberal principles. But I can live with them – sometimes only just – within the context of coalition. There are certain aspects of Conservative policy which do match with degrees of economic liberalism, and I can see merit in what the leadership is trying to achieve, even if I tink they are misguided in certain areas.

I am lucky enough to have a Liberal Democrat MP who, whilst supporting the Coalition, has amongst others opposed individual issues we should not be supporting, such as tuition fees or the NHS Bill.

But one issue where I can was confident that the Coalition would be able to protect is the issue of civil liberties. The Protection of Freedoms Bill has almost passed, which was a terrific step towards redressing the horrific steps against civil liberties perpetrated by Labour during their time in office. Liberal Democrat members also recently reinforced their beliefs in civil liberties and opposition to Labour’s actions at Spring Conference.

Abhorrence of Labour’s record
What makes the introduction of this policy even worse is that, if true, this is the kind of policy Labour would strongly support. The kind of policy which makes the overall idea of a Lib-Lab Coalition as abhorrent to me as a Lib-Con Coalition is to others.

Tim Farron, Lib Dem President, often says that he joined the Liberal Party in opposition to Thatcher, and the damage  he could see her government doing to his community. Well, for our generation, a large proportion of people will have joined the Liberal Democrats, like myself, out of opposition for Labour’s treatment of its citizens, encroachments on civil liberties, restrictions on the right to protest, and support for illegal and unjustified wars. We believe the Liberal Democrats to be the party which stands up for the rights of the citizen to be free from the undue attention of the state machine.

There are many things Liberal Democrats in Government should do, including as part of coalition some things which we are uncomfortable with. But bringing in laws the previous Labour Government would have been proud of, which encroach on the freedom of the citizen, should be a line in the sand. I hope it remains one.

Forcing payment for internships could actually reduce opportunities

My article on internships from Lib Dem Voice this week

There has been plenty of talk recently about the unfairness of Westminster internships and calls for all internships in Parliament and in political parties to be paid. I understand the good intentions behind this argument but am concerned about the effects this could actually have on opportunities.

There are two issues being discussed around internships and it’s important not to get them confused. The first is the issue of informal internships – Daddy getting you an exclusive internship because he plays golf with somebody influential.

This is what Nick Clegg is talking about when he says that “it should be what you know, not who you know”. This is quite right and I agree fully with him. The ambitious youngster who wishes to take on formative work such as this should be able to be accepted on the basis of their own merit.

The second issue is over whether all interns should be paid. I applaud the recent Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme, which aims to provide a certain amount of paid internships in Parliament to help those from underprivileged backgrounds.

But on the whole internships are an investment by an individual in their own future, much like a degree. To force all people to pay interns a wage will only result in reducing the amount of internships available, and actually reducing opportunities for those who seek them.

I have recently completed an unpaid Parliamentary internship with a Liberal Democrat MP at the age of 31, having chosen to change career. Like most interns I only received money for lunch and travel.

Coming from an underprivileged background myself, I received no financial support, and earned the internship on my own merits through previous attainment and demonstrating my abilities volunteering during the General Election campaign. I quit my job in Bristol and moved to London, interning part time and working part time to pay my way. Despite this, I still racked up around £2,000 in debt. But I would do the whole thing again tomorrow at the drop of a hat.

Since then I have been employed (for proper money) both by the Liberal Democrats and soon in a Parliamentary capacity by a Lib Dem MP. I am certain I would not have got either post without previously interning and gaining that invaluable experience.

So if money can be found to provide extra internships for people coming from poorer backgrounds, by all means create more opportunities. But please don’t force payment on organisations and restrict opportunities. It will not help the ambitious amongst us, and I doubt satisfies our liberal ideal that individuals should be free to work to better themselves, regardless of their circumstance or background.