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A big weekend for the NHS and the Liberal Democrats

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I’ve resisted blogging about the Health and Social Care bill so far. I was worried that the rhetoric being thrown about was clouding the situation and I felt content that Lib Dem peers (and others) were putting enough pressure on the Government and placing enough amendments that the worst bits of the bill would be removed.

As I write this blog I am on my way up to our spring conference. I await the results of the emergency motions and the possible 30 minute health debate with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I have felt for some time now that the bill should be dropped.

I ought to state what I don’t think first. I don’t think this bill will privatise the NHS. It won’t destroy the NHS and it won’t be irreversible. I don’t believe that the Labour party really oppose it. They did more to open the NHS to competition than this bill would. Their leadership are being hypocritical and opportunistic. No surprise there. I do however, recognise that many Labour members and supporters genuinely oppose the bill and probably opposed some of their own government’s health reforms.

I oppose the bill for many reasons. I am not clear that it is needed. I worry that competition and markets are seen as the only way to motivate people and provide incentives. Many of the amendments restrain and regulate competition and promote cooperation and efficiency. This is good. I worry that it will not be enough.

At last year’s Social Liberal Forum conference we were warned that the Conservatives and the DoH would find other avenues to marketise the NHS. We were told that the bill was complex and that there were many loopholes and wiggle-room for Lansley. This proved true. We have watched Lib Dem peers (and others) quietly and valiantly bring in sensible amendments and try to focus the bill on improvements and transparency. But all the way along, the Government and Lansley have kept trying different routes to subvert this.

Despite the amendments, I’m not happy about the bill. I don’t trust Lansley and am not sure our leadership have blocked all the holes.

I think the Conservatives have out-manouevered us on the bill. They went for the extreme option so that they could look like the compromisers. Nick Clegg looked to be on the back-foot and should have been more aware of the dangers. Like Tim Farron said recently, the bill should have been dropped or substantially changed much earlier and that those at the top of the party should take the blame for this.

The Government as a whole (but more specifically) Lansley has shown great incompetence in people-management. They are the biggest employers in the country and seem to have alienated most of the health workforce. So many professions oppose or distrust it. It won’t work well if the people meant to implement it, don’t want it. That’s a basic.

The public oppose it, ex-Lib Dem voters oppose it, current Lib Dem voters oppose it more that the other party’s and even a majority of Lib Dem members oppose it. I had the pleasure of chairing a regional conference fringe debate on the bill recently, which included Graham Winyard (who used to be the deputy chief medical officer in the NHS). He warned that the party was sleepwalking into something worse than the tuition fee debacle. Sadly, he has now left the party over this issue.

I don’t think it will ruin the NHS. But it will damage it in its current form, at this time and in this way. It will have profound political consequences for my party. There is no shame is calling for a stop and a rethink. There is no urgency and we shouldn’t let Lansley force us into supporting now. We should reconsult with the professions and public, rebuild a coalition around reforms and try again. I hope the party works towards this at Gateshead.

James Percival – Opinion: Nick Clegg didn’t suck up to Murdoch – that’s why his minions tried to destroy him

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An excellent post on Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday by James Percival.

We must not let this opportunity pass us by

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This last week has seen major developments in the phone hacking scandal and the pressure on News International has reached new highs. The speed and ferocity with which this pressure has built is an indication of the frustration and anger felt by many people at the unrestrained power of some parts of our media. The Murdoch empire is the most visible part of this problem. It appears that some newspapers and journalists stopped at nothing to increase readership and intrude on privacy. The alleged hacking of murder victims and their families is the latest face of disgusting journalistic standards. It’s unfortunate that the all-encompassing intrusion into the lives and privacy of politicians and celebrities, and the distress and fear that it caused, was not enough to shift public opinion against this kind of gutter press, but at least the dam appears to have burst with the latest revelations.

Many people also worry about the power of the Murdoch empire to influence political parties, government and policy. The sight of Tony Blair and David Cameron slavishly sucking up to Murdoch and seemingly doing his bidding was sickening. Cameron’s close relationship with Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Hunt’s willingness to do what News International wants makes great swathes of the public uncomfortable and often angry.

Ed Miliband continues in his usual opportunistic manner and has jumped onto the bandwagon at the last moment. He has not led on this issue, but merely stuck his head out once he felt it was safe. Miliband is far from brave on this issue and Labour is just as much to blame for handing over power to Murdoch.  In February this year, Miliband’s spin doctor was telling Labour MP’s to lay off Murdoch and not to link phone-hacking with the BSkyB bid. The Guardian reported that Ed Miliband was wary of attacking Murdoch as he saw an opportunity to get back in his good books. Only a few weeks ago, Ed Miliband was joining David Cameron in drinking champagne at News International’s summer party. There have been a few hero’s in Labour’s ranks who have been consistent on this issue and who deserve praise – Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and John Prescott. I don’t agree with them on a lot, but they have been right and brave on this issue.

The position of the Lib Dems has been right and consistent. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne have been critics of the Murdoch press’s power and journalistic tactics for years and have avoided the excessive courting of News International that we have seen from both Labour and the Tories. Vince Cable must have been pleased that he was caught on tape talking about being “at war with Murdoch” and this pleased the Lib Dem troops. I do feel that Clegg could have spoken out more clearly against the appointment of Andy Coulson and I wish Cable had continued his war against Murdoch in the open rather than behind closed doors. But broadly, the Lib Dems have much to be proud about in this affair.

But the momentum has built on this issue and the cross-party alliance needs to use it to change Britain for the good. The power of the Murdoch press and the gutter tactics of some of the other tabloids is a stain on our democracy. It strikes right at the heart of our system of governance and what happens now will have lasting effects. These moments don’t come up freuqently enough. During the banking crisis there was a real chance to make our banking healthy and to stop huge coprporations gambling with the economy. Brown bottled it. He lost the moment and the chance was gone. The banks gained in confidence and began making threats whenever reforms were touted. Now that Ed Miliband has stuck his neck out, it is time for politicians, good journalists and the public at large to reform our press regulatory system and rein in the huge power of Murdoch. I hope we don’t lose the opportunity.

Leaked email reveals nothing new – Lib Dems are still fighting NHS plans

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This article in the Guardian left me feeling confused at first as it did not seem to report anything new. Then I felt happy that the Guardian was continuing it’s recent trend of publishing positive stories about the Lib Dems. If we are seen to be continuing our fight to limit the Lansley plans then so much the better.

Finally I became frustrated at some of the negative comments left under the article. This prompted me to leave the following comment:

“I can’t understand the attacks on the Lib Dems from some comment writers. The Lib Dems have led the charge against the marketisation of the NHS for some time and have made a lot of progress. The original policy had it’s true aims and consequences well hidden. Once the public and Lib Dems started to examine the bill the battles begun

The Lib Dem conference overwhelmingly voted to oppose the majority of the bill. They are the only truly democratic major party in the UK. The leadership are bound by the votes of members. Clegg had to get his act together and put the defence of the NHS above compromise on this. Evan Harris, Shirley Williams and many others set to work analysing the bill, listening to experts and putting in place specific measures to combat the bad parts.

Where were the Labour party? Shouting and heckling from the side-lines with no clear direction. A Labour party that had steadily done more to create a marketised and private NHS during the past years than Lansley would have done. A labour party where many senior members criticised the Govt for not carrying on with Lansley’s Bill!

The Labour party have been highly hypocritical and opportunistic. They started this process and would be pushing the Lansley reforms themselves if in power. Which political party has been consistent, democratic and effective on this issue? The Lib Dems.

There is nothing in this so called “leaked email” that hadn’t been publicly known already. Evan Harris and others warned of the same dangers recently at the Social Liberal Forum, when the press were clearly in attendance.

Some people on the left seem to prefer to relentlessly bash the Lib Dems rather than the Tories or right-wing policies. Bizarre!”

An Uncomfortable Budget

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In my years as a supporter, activist and for a while as a councillor for the Liberal Democrats, I often thought about what a Lib Dem government would do in office. I dreamt of increased social justice, a push to open up Government to the people and reform the political system, of a fair and honest government implementing a balanced and progressive set of policies and with a balanced foreign policy. I supposed I also dreamt that there would be the money to fund this kind of government platform. Coalition politics in the current economic climate were not part of the dream.

I always knew that this budget was going to be a difficult one. We are in the middle of the biggest recession for decades, one where many banks only survived the crisis because the Government (and so the taxpayer) bailed them out. I was pleasantly surprised to see a progressive Lib Dem influence on the budget not only being implemented, but being trumpeted by George Osborne as well. There is much to like about this budget:

– The raising of the tax threshold, taking 850,000 low paid workers completely out of Income Tax.
– The increase in Capital Gains Tax is an important move to a fairer tax system.
– A levy on banks.
– Pay rises for state employees only for the lowest paid.
– The intention to introduce a maximum 20:1 pay ratio for the highest and lowest paid state employees.

These are good progressive measures that were not (as far as I am aware) Conservative policy, and so are as a result of the Liberal Democrat influence. I have been disappointed by the media reaction to these measures. They have almost ignored them, instead focussing on the negative aspects of the budget.

There is also a lot in this budget that does not make me feel comfortable. The rise in VAT is a tax rise that could well impact more heavily on the poorest in society. Sure, it is not levied on many basic commodities, but will affect the spending of those on benefits and low wages. The Times indicated in February that both the Conservatives and the Labour party were mulling an increase in VAT to 20% to help pay for the deficit. The Labour MPs slugging it out to be the next leader happily attack the VAT rise, while it seems that they were willing to do the same thing in power. Personally, I would have preferred a rise in Income Tax instead, even though I would probably pay more that way. Income Tax is a true progressive method of gathering money.

My second major problem with the budget is the scale of the public sector cuts highlighted by the chancellor. Sure, the country has run out of money and cuts are needed. But cuts of 15%-35% being bandied around could be horrific. I will wait and see what transpires on this issue and will reserve my judgement.

Overall, the budget is better that what a Conservative Government would have put forward, and has important elements of fairness included. I do not buy the squeals of anger from Labour politicians as I feel that they would be making the same decisions and probably making similar choices. Labour’s record in recent tears has been to ignore fairness for fear of angering the right wing media. The coalition has been able to push forward progressive policies where Labour could not.

Call for criminal investigation

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David Howarth has called for a full-scale criminal investigation into the alleged police assault that might have led to a man dieing.

Other blogs on the subject from Lib Dem voice

Police filmed assaulting man who died

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The Guardian obtained footage of an apparent assault on Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests. The information in the press and media indicate that Mr Tomlinson was not involved in the protests, was not challenging the police and was assaulted in an unprovoked attack. ITN report

We all know that major events like the G20 meeting frequently attract protests in which wide-scale damage to property occurs. We also know that the police often become the target of provocation by a small minority of protesters, with bottles and other objects being thrown at them. The police have an unenviable job of keeping the peace and preventing violence in these situations.

No all the facts are known yet and a full investigation is needed. The incident appears to show a police officer unhindered by any restraints and confident that what he does will be supported by the authorities. What is known is that many people are becoming angry at a perceived pattern of abuse of power that the public is becoming less and less tolerant of.

Since the September 11th attacks, the UK government has steadily handed over more and more powers to the police in the name of fighting terrorism. Many of the laws they have created give wide discretion to the police to act as they see fit. We regularly see stories in the media of protests banned or limited under police powers, of local authorities using powers created to stop organised crime and terrorism for relatively minor offences and people arrested by the police under suspicion of terrorist offences and released without charge. Only recently the police were found to be acting incorrectly in preventing the press from taking photographs during the protests – We were wrong, says the met.

I believe that New Labour under Blair and now Brown have been steadily removing important checks and balances in the way power is restrained. They have given powers to enforcement agencies that are too indiscriminate and with inadequate limits. Little thought seems to have been given on how these powers can be monitored for abuse and New Labour’s assumption appears to be that all powers will be used wisely and in the public interest. I think that they have done this for two reasons; firstly to appear tough and decisive to the right-wing popular media in order to secure voters who might think about voting Conservative; and because their leaders have found it difficult to shake off their control-freak, authoritarian mentality. Both of these factors were born of the strong drive not to repeat the failures of the past where Labour has been portrayed as split and unable to control their own party.

For years we have seen the Government steamroller opposition and criticism to the destruction of liberties, claiming that opponents are too soft, naive or liberal. The culture they have engendered have created a fertile breeding ground for abuses of power. In every organisation there are people who go too far and take matters into their own hands, and I’m sure that most police officers generally work hard to uphold the law and protect the public. But if you keep drafting illiberal laws with inadequate restraints, you provide an excuse for those few bad apples that bring shame upon their colleagues.

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