Friday, October 07, 2011

Cameron, Debt and why we MUST Teach our Children about Money

This week we hear that David Cameron changed his speech  from “The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households – all of us – paying off the credit card and store card bills,”  to, “The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That’s why households are paying down their credit card and store card bills." An interestingly subtle change as a result of pressure from retailers, with political implications I will return to in another blog!

Joanna Elson from the Money Advice Trust has rightly pointed out, paying off debt too quickly can lead to people getting themselves into deeper financial trouble in the long run. However, as Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert is constantly pointing out - we have educated our children into debt but not about debt. And with UK personal debt levels now topping £1.6 trillion - that lack of understanding and education is surely something that should concern us all.

In all my years of blogging I've never really said much about my work as Youth Policy Adviser at the Money Advice Service and what follows is written in a personal capacity and as a result of a recent debate on Twitter I have been having with Andrew Smith.

I am a strong supporter of Martin Lewis's campaign to get financial education on a statutory footing and he deserves much respect for the way he has mobilised cross party support - an object lesson to us all in how to campaign! The APPG he helped found is now the best supported in parliament, not least because of the equally passionate support for financial education from the APPG's chair, Justin Tomlinson (MP for North Swindon) and financial education charity pfeg. At its launch, it wasn't even standing room only, some MPs, our own Stephen Williams among them, couldn't even get in!

But some people, Andrew Smith among them, clearly don't support Martin's campaign. Andrew and I both left comments on a recent Love Money blog and while I don't like their choice of words (young people should be forced to learn about money) the argument is valid.

It is 7 years now since I took up the role of Youth Policy Adviser at the FSA as part of the Financial Capability Strategy - and it has been a real privilege to work with youth organisations, the financial services industry and government across the UK to work to ensure that young people are supported to manage their money effectively. Now we are the Money Advice Service with a statutory responsibility to help people make sense of their money, helping them not only to make the most of their money, but also to help to prevent them get into situations of unmanageable debt.

We know as a nation that debt is a huge problem - only recently we heard that families are being forced into debt because of the cost of childcare, others are borrowing just to stay on top of their mortgage repayments or rent. So while some of this debt may be seen as inevitable, for some, an inability to manage their money effectively can make matters far worse.

Education is a hot topic at the moment, particularly for those of us as Lib Dems who find ourselves in bed with a coalition partner who has a very different view of what education should be about, Nick Gibb and Michael Gove in particular, pushing for a focus on academic subjects and the English Baccalaureate, unconvinced about subjects like PHSE. But thankfully, there are some enlightened Tory MPs like Justin Tomlinson who understand the importance of schools not only equipping our children with academic skills and knowledge but also the life skills and attitudes to enable them to succeed.

So where I disagree with Andrew Smith? Well I absolutely agree with him that numeracy and literary are essential and it is scandalous that so many of our young people are coming out of school functionally illiterate - it has to be the first priority of any education system to ensure our children can read, write and add up. But, it surely it also has to be part of a rounded education that our children leave school socially functional too? Many employers as well as complaining about young people's illiteracy, complain about their lack of soft skills too. Now Andrew isn't arguing school should just be about the 3 Rs so presumably accepts the curriculum needs to be wider. And actually, the numeracy aspects of Financial Education sit well in Maths - learning how to calculate percentages, add, divide etc becomes much more alive if it is related to the real circumstances in which those skills are needed. But the most important thing a young person needs to know in relation to APR is not how to work it out (almost impossible!) but more importantly that a loan with a HIGH APR costs more than a loan with a LOW APR and that taking out a loan in the first place isn't always the best solution!

And actually, relating learning to real life is proven to increase engagement. At the FSA we did some work on functional skills with some FE colleges and found that where Maths included financial education elements the young people were more successful, more engaged and there was a lower drop out rate. It's not rocket science. Young people, especially those Andrew is concerned about with low levels of literacy, learn best when they can relate that learning to their own experiences. Yes, the curriculum is crowded but frankly if school is not about preparing our children and young people to be effective, engaged and productive citizens I wonder what it is for? You may well learn about the Magna Carta, be able to explain what tectonic plates are, calculate the square root of 9, dissect a mouse, quote Shakespeare.............but all this will fade into insignificance if your lack of ability to manage your money leads you to experience a serious mental health condition, lose your home, causes the break up of your family, or ultimately, in the most extreme circumstances, take your own life.

As is clear - I could bang on about this issue for ever (!) but I just want to leave you with a story and a small task.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a supported housing project in Northern Ireland where we have trained the staff to work with young people around money issues. They introduced me to a young man who had joined them with serious debt problems a few months ago. They worked with him to help him understand his attitudes to money that had lead him to get into debt and helped him draw up and manage a budget. He proudly told me that he had cleared his debts, was saving to visit Scotland for a family party - and had £500 in an ISA! The staff also commented on how much better his mental health was. Now tell me this isn't an important life skill?

And finally, if Cameron is serious about getting the country and individuals out of debt - let's demonstrate to him that we as a nation care more about the financial wellbeing of our children than whether or not we should remove benefits from rioters..........please join the 80,658 of us who support Martin Lewis's epetion calling for compulsory financial education - and please do it now!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tulisa Contostavlos or Nadine Dorries - who would be your choice of Role Model?

Last week I watched "My Mum and Me" the inspirational documentary featuring Tulisa Contostavlos and exploring the challenges faced by young carers. She not only traced her own experience of growing up caring for a mother with schizoaffective disorder but introduced us to other young people in similar circumstances. It certainly struck a chord with me, having grown up with a bi-polar father and having a sister with schizoaffective/bi-polar disorder, I am only too aware of the impact living with someone with a mental health condition has on the whole family. For me, even at 14, it was terrifying when my father had his first "episode", but it only really hit me how terrible it was for my mum when at 18, stationed in Germany, I was sent home to care for the family since my mum had also had a breakdown, having been totally stressed out by watching for the signs of my dad becoming ill. She was always a buffer for all of us children, but even then, I know it had a negative impact on our schooling and sense of security. How can you concentrate on your studies when your father is seriously ill, behaving in a way that is at best unsettling and at worst terrifying? So how much more unsettling and terryfing must if have been for Tulisa, on her own, no father or brothers and sisters for support, being the only one having to deal with her mother's terrifying illness from 11 years old? No wonder it impacted on more than just her schooling!

So re-reading Nadine Dorries' self-righteous hypocritical rant against Tulisa becoming an X Factor judge has, I am afraid, initiated a right royal rant of my own! If Nadine was in any position whatsoever to pass judgement on anyone else, even then, what she says is cruel, self serving and ignorant. Her basic, flawed logic is apparently based on her view that no one deserves as second chance........oh, unless your name is Cameron or Coulson of course. So to take her argument to its logical conclusion, Cameron, who in his youth, despite coming from a privileged background, allegedly took drugs and smashed up places, really should never have been allowed to become an MP, let alone Prime Minister?

So this apparent paragon of virtue who pontificates on everyone else without allowing them the right to reply, thinks she can stand in judgement on a young woman who has taken on huge caring responsibilities at an early age, has had mental health issues to deal with herself and still managed to turn her life around? The most ridiculous comment in her blog claims "And for anyone who is even getting near to thinking it's ok, because she has turned her life around and what she is doing is showing teenagers that it's ok to behave badly, because they can turn it around too, let's get real shall we?" Who on earth would make that argument? No-one would argue it's OK to behave badly - but surely those who have been able to turn their lives around should be applauded? Where I do agree with Nadine is that not every young person can become a superstar, but whether we like it or not, many do look to the stars for their role models. What they also need are role models closer to home - sadly with the cuts to the voluntary and local authority youth provision many of those opportunities are being lost. And I haven't seen Nadine argue once against the swingeing cuts Central Beds have made to their Youth and Connexions services who for many young people would have offered just the kind of role models they need.

So, my message to Nadine is please, for once, start putting your money where your mouth is. If you really care about young people, demonstrate it by recognising the support they need and deserve. You clearly care deeply for children before they are born, if only that care and concern extended beyond the womb! I hope you will watch Tulisa's story with just a little compassion and perhaps think twice before judging her, or calling others "nutters" (something you also called me) without a modicum of understanding about the challenges many of our young people face. And I trust having watched it you may have the good grace to apologise.

And to Tulisa I would say thank you. Thank you for being so honest, for admitting to not only what you have done wrong in your life but also for speaking openly about what it is like to grow up caring for a parent with a mental health condition. Thank you for the genuine care and understanding you showed for other young carers and for drawing our attention to a group of young people who so often get ignored because they are not on the streets causing a problem, but dealing with fear, anxiety and isolation on their own. I think you are a fantastic role model and I am delighted that you are using that position to make a real difference to the lives of other young people.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Will Nick Clegg lead the fight for Liberal Values?

The last couple of weeks have strained many of the fault lines in the Coalition that up to now have been more or less papered over. As a party we signed up to a Coalition Agreement that presumably most members could live with (myself excluded of course!) - but a Coalition Agreement in retrospect which was more at fault for what it didn't say than what it did.

So we have had the unedifying spectacle for the last 15 months of our much loved parliamentarians tying themselves in knots to be able to justify their support for Tory policies that stick in the gullet of any self respecting Liberal Democrat - most notably the suicidal support for tuition fees. But up to now most of the issues which have resulted in Lib Dems voting against their consciences, could be seen as of more concern to social liberals and while we may make up the majority of the wider party, as David Laws has pointed out, it is the Orange Bookers who are by far the majority amongst our ministers.

However, now the political ground is shifting - in the wake of the riots our Tory partners are hitting at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Yes, we may have different opinions on economic and social issues, but what absolutely binds us together as a party is our commitment to those liberal values of freedom, civil liberties, equality, human rights, fairness and justice. And it is those values that are under attack as we speak.

So the next few months I guess will be dominated by the political fallout from the riots, Cameron's promise that if it moves he will review it, politicians of all hues competing for the title of "Tough Cookie". Never before has it been more important to stand up for our shared values, however difficult that may be.

There has been a debate recently in the party about which of our policies we should shout about and which we should whisper. Strange as it may seem (:-)) I am in the shout about everything school of thought! When we whisper about the issues we care passionately about but we know don't play well with the likes of the Daily Mail, for example immigration and knee jerk reactions to rioting, all we do is cede the ground to our opponents. When we let the likes of Melanie Phillips blame the "liberal intelligentsia" without pointing her to the facts, we cede the ground. When we try to frame our narrative in the language that talks rough and tough, illiberal, authoritarian counter productive nonsense, we cede the ground.

So I find myself in total agreement with Chris Bowers on Dale & Co arguing that Nick Clegg now has a golden opportunity to promote a truly liberal response to the riots through, amongst other things, using restorative justice to confront the rioters with the consequences of their behaviour. We know that it works, for example in Northern Ireland the combined reoffending rate for youth conferencing in 2006 was 37.7% compared to 70.7% for custodial sentences (see the Prison Reform Trust's excellent report "Making Amends - Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland"). And alongside that, as Chris Bowers has argued, Nick's genuine concern for children and families I trust will mean he takes a far more considered long term view about what needs to happen.

Last year when I raised with Nick my concern about the impact of the cuts on young people during The Conference Question Time, he invited me to hold his feet to the fire if he didn't deliver. Well, he now has an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is - I have everything crossed in optimistic expectation that he will - with the hot coals in reserve if he doesn't!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bring Back National Service............and the Birch........and Zero Tolerance..........and David Blunkett?....and Jack Straw?

The past week has seen a cornucopia of opinion and counter opinion in relation to the shocking events that swept so many cities in this country. From Melanie Phillips blaming the "liberal intelligentsia" (Melanie darling you are SO last season!) or the delightful Nadine Dorries citing the "moral vacuum"....ah yes dear, so that's what you are blaming for your own lack of moral fortitude is it? Now let's check out your alleged behaviour - hmmmm, adultery, lying and stealing? Not bad to be going on with. But of course, you haven't been caught looting Louboutins from Selfridges, no you were able to loot the public purse without breaking a single window! Rather like your millionaire pal George "we're all in this together" Osborne - you just don't get irony! This is in marked contrast it has to be said to the brave and perceptive Peter Oborne, whose analysis in his Telegraph piece this week was characteristically spot on. Ah, now there's a man the right could do well to look to for their moral compass.

Up and down the country, sorry England, sentences are being dished out like smarties. Sentences that on the face of it appear to betray a knee jerk response to a phenomenon that has at least unsettled and at worst shocked us all.

As a party we are committed to evidence based practice, now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate that this is what distinguishes us from our Tory partners. The likes of Phillips and Dorries may, rather like Cameron and May, want to absolve their class from any responsibility by dumping it in part on those immoral nasty liberals, but let's consider the facts. We have had decades of totally illiberal political leadership! Thatcher - liberal? Major - liberal? Blair - liberal? Brown - liberal? Cameron.........ah yes, claimed to be a liberal once, but prick him and does he not bleed pure illiberality?!

So this morning, as the dust of the last turbulent week (is it only a week?) settles - we have the unedifying spectacle of a prime minister, clearly out of his depth, calling've guessed it ZERO TOLERANCE. Oh and then we have that novel idea, being touted in the Express that the real answer is NATIONAL SERVICE (that'll sort them out, give'em some discipline in their joined voluntarily and look at me!). So let's look at what happens after people come out of the armed services - disproportionately homeless, disproportionately street drinkers, disproportionately suffering from mental health conditions. Now if our prime minister's argument is to be extended to its logical conclusion, given that our "feral youth" are the products of dysfunctional parents and a sick society, presumably there are some of our service personnel who are the product of our dysfunctional and sick armed forces??? But, maybe they're right, much better to train our "feral youths" to beat up and kill foreigners in Afghanistan Iraq or Libya than let them loose over here.

Having spent the best part of my life working with and for young people (and scarily that is now a very long time!) I have lived through many moral panics. The last week is no different. And frankly isn't that different from moral panics about youth throughout the ages. Even Socrates described the youth of his day as having contempt for authority, being disrespectful to their elders, tyrannising their teachers. But, what is different in every case is the environment in which such behaviour takes place - the values which people accept or reject - the messages our young people are getting from the society in which they either participate or feel disaffected from. And given this government's belief in "nudge" theory and behavioural economics, it seems extraordinary if they do not consider this as part of what must be a proper inquiry into what happened.

So it seems to me that what this country desperately needs is a truly liberal response to what are clearly complex problems. I may have been a little reticent in expressing my anxieties about the coalition, but surely this is a golden opportunity for us to stand up and challenge so much of this knee-jerk rhetoric? Most of us agree that short sentences don't work, and many Liberal Democrats (including myself) are ambassadors for
Make Justice Work, the campaign which highlights the wastefulness of short term sentences and promotes more intensive community sentencing. We also agree with using restorative justice as an alternative to custodial sentences, surely given what as happened and the evidence of how effective this approach is, our leadership should be making this point? Being faced with the consequences of your criminal behaviour can be not only far more difficult for a young person to cope with, but also is far more likely to get them to reform their ways.

At the moment there is talk of some 3000 arrests and no doubt there will be many more, like Cameron and Johnson in their youth, who will escape justice. Do we honestly believe ALL of these rioters were criminals? Or is it more logical to conclude that there was a hardened criminal element but that many more, particularly young people, were drawn in by the mob mentality? Those young people more than any will be far more likely to respond positively with being confronted with the enormity of the consequences of their behaviour. What's that saying about acting in haste and repenting at leisure? (both young people and politicians). Don't we know that our prisons are universities of crime?

What we need now is true political leadership, a recognition that if we truly are "all in this together" we all have to take some blame for what has happened as well as some responsibility for finding solutions. There are a good few things I disagree with Nick Clegg on (!) and we have had many arguments about, however, my primary reason for supporting his leadership was that I knew him to be a true liberal, I knew that on youth issues in general and youth justice in particular, he absolutely got the need to have a liberal approach. Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes, Lynne Featherstone (another two who absolutely gets it!) and our parliamentary team have never had a better opportunity to show that leadership, to take that opportunity we allegedly joined the coalition to promote - an opportunity to ensure we try that which has never been tried in living memory - that truly liberal response.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Doing Politics Differently? Let's see................

Well - I hadn't realised just how long it is since I blogged! However, this is such an important issue that I have torn myself away from a beautiful white sandy beach in order to mount a last minute attempt to garner support from our MPs for an amendment to tomorrow's Finance Bill - the text of my email below :-

Dear All

I am sure you will remember the emergency banking motion that was passed at conference, in particular calling for:

F) Measures to tackle financial exclusion for individuals and small business, with a Basic Banking Guarantee; a public bank administered through Post Offices; a commitment from high street banks to provide fee-free ATMs within walking distance of all deprived communities; as well as reducing unfair bank, credit card and loan charges.

G) Greater support for local credit unions and mutuals.

(my emphasis)

So you can imagine my dismay when it came to my attention that our party may not support an opposition amendment to the finance bill on Monday which offers an eminently sensible way forward without making any firm commitments - as you will see from the text below:

The Government shall lay before Parliament a review of all taxation measures contained in this Act that are applicable to those judged by the financial services authority (or its successor body) to engage in high cost credit lending. This review shall consider the following matters:
a) The nature of the high cost credit market and the proliferation of lending practices which are detrimental to consumers and or competition in the provision of credit to consumers;
b) The impact that taxation could have on the provision of high cost credit in the UK which is detrimental to consumers and or competition in the provision of credit to consumers;
c) Whether changes to taxation could discourage lending in a manner which is detrimental to consumers and or undermines competition in the provision of credit to consumers;
d) Other measures relevant to the high-cost credit lending sector that may prevent consumer detriment.

There are two clear issues for me - firstly - the preamble to our constitution which clearly states that “no-one should be enslaved by poverty”. As a party we seem to be continually flying in the face of that aspiration and getting to grips with legal loan sharks seems to me the least we could do. In fact not only would there be no cost to the public purse in doing so, ultimately it could cost the state less as fewer people would be dealing with the consequences of unmanageable debt - in particular the impact it has on both mental health and relationships (and as I understand it the Tories are very keen on preventing family breakdown - debt being one of the key issues). There is surely a clear and present need, given the disproportionate impact of the recession and “austerity measures” on the poorest in our society - to do what we can through regulation, to protect them. As some of you will know my day job is working for the Money Advice Service (formerly part of the FSA) so I am acutely aware of the need for preventative measures, such as education and advice as well as access to free ATMs, Basic Bank Accounts and reasonable credit as provided by credit unions. However, these are not the whole answer, the fact is that most people only seek advice once they have a problem. I understand the arguments about regulation forcing people into the arms of illegal loan sharks, however, there is no evidence for or against this and surely this is not an argument against the above amendment which calls only for a review.

Secondly, I have a real concern that to reject this amendment flies in the face of all we have been saying about a new kind of politics, why is consensus such a problem? Surely we agree with the sentiments of this amendment, it is in line with party policy, so to reject it merely because it is an opposition amendment risks us being portrayed as mealy mouthed opportunists - caring more about party politics than the people I know we all got into politics to speak up for, those people whose lives are constantly blighted by these ruthless money lenders.

I am presuming there is a strong whip on Monday - but I fear that rejecting this amendment will prove to be yet another indication of just how disconnected the parliamentary party is becoming from the grass roots of the party, who will not understand why we can’t support amendments that are in line with party policy and are not ruled out or in by the Coalition Agreement. In my humble opinion, if we lose our integrity we risk losing our soul.

Anyways, I have said my piece for what it’s worth! I appreciate how difficult it is for all of you at the moment, in particular being continually faced with having to choose between holding your collective noses and voting for things you don’t believe in, or risking upsetting valued colleagues by defying the Coalition position - but I hope on this issue you will feel able to take a stand.

With best wishes


Friday, March 25, 2011

Is Nick Clegg a Lib Dem?

That's the difficult question I asked myself this morning on reading of Nick's overheard comments to David Cameron yesterday. "If we keep doing this we won't find anything to bloody disagree on in the bloody leadership debates" It may have been said in jest, but like many jokes it perhaps comes closer to the truth than we would like to believe.

Despite my feelings about the Coalition I have not changed my personal regard for Nick, just as I have Tory and Labour pals I am really fond of, I still regard him as a good, brave and liberal person, with whom I still agree on many things...........however............(how did you know there would be a however?!) his overheard comments yesterday disturbed me more than anything that has happened since the Coalition was formed. If he honestly cannot think of any differences with Cameron it gives the lie to the leadership argument that what we have landed up with in terms of Coalition policy is a compromise and the inevitable consequence of not being in power on our own - yeah right!

I understand from someone who was there at the time, that Nick allegedly decided to join the Lib Dems only because he didn't like the Tory position on Europe and LGBT issues. OK, there are many in our party who may quite comfortable in a more liberal Tory party, but they are not the majority. The preample to our constitution which sets out our values clearly, the fact that 2/3rds of our party see themselves as on the left, just a cursory glance at our manifesto and our reams of policy papers - demonstrates that we are not a right wing party. Do we really believe that had Paddy or Charles or Simon Hughes been leader at the moment they could have made such a comment - even in jest? I don't think so.

So, my question is a genuine one, yes Nick is a liberal to his fingertips - that's why I supported him - but is he a liberal democrat one?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gill Dye - A Personal Tribute to a Remarkable Woman

In my life I have had the privilege of knowing some amazing and inspirational people. On 14th February we lost one of the most amazing, my friend Gill Dye. It has taken me this long to feel able to write something, partly because it has been so painful to do so, but also because I so want what I say to do her justice. Most people will never have heard of her, she got on with her mission quietly but with the kind of determination that moves mountains. Despite her failing health, she convinced us all that she would get better, having battled against cancer the damage to her lungs was limiting her life, but not, we believed wrongly, cutting it short. When just before Christmas she was told she wouldn't be able to fly again she was devastated but then began working out alternative routes to get to her beloved Israel/Palestine. As someone at her funeral on Thursday remarked, if pure will power could keep someone alive Gill would have lived forever! Not just because she loved life, but more importantly because she had so much more to do and who else was there who would do it?

Simon Hughes, Patrick Hall, Elias Chacour, Gill Dye, Alistair Burt - Elijah Trust Westminster 2007

As a friend Gill was someone who would never judge you, would be that listening ear regardless of her suffering. You always felt that she put your pain before hers. The only time she ever chastised me was over the height of my heels - reminding me that a time would come when I would have to settle for sensible shoes - although I had to remind her that on the three occasions I went flying while we were on a trip to Israel - I was wearing flats at the time!

Gill was a remarkable woman on so many levels, her faith had a depth that I have never encountered in anyone else. Her suffering both emotionally - losing her husband Peter and her son Jon over the past 7 years - and physically, battling cancer herself, was dwarfed only by the depth of suffering she felt for the Palestinian people. And yet that suffering which would have shaken the faith of many, just made her stronger and more of a witness to the love of God. Gill was Director of Elijah Trust and as such was an advocate not just for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but for their brothers and sisters in the occupied territories. While I was preparing what I wanted to say on behalf of the trustees of Elijah Trust at her funeral - I came across an email exchange which for me summed her up. She had written in some detail to the members of Labour Friends of Israel about the attack on Gaza, urging them to be true friends of Israel and tell their friend that what they were doing was not only wrong but counter productive. One response, from Eric Joyce MP suggested "In truth, I suspect that your intention in all of this is simply to feel good about yourself. Can I suggest you take up carpet bowls instead." Clearly she rattled his cage! What he had failed to understand was that Gill, like many of us, had come from a Christian Zionist background, along with her husband Peter, a Baptist Minister, she had travelled a long painful road to a realisation that there could be no peace without justice and that a system which oppressed others and denied them justice and equality was totally at odds with her faith.

Peter and Gill founded Elijah Trust as a result of reading "Blood Brothers" and meeting with "Abuna" Elias Chacour . Abuna, now Melkite Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and Galilee, says in his tribute to Gill -

"She was very special to me, close to my heart and devoted to our projects of
education. You know in the past years the Elijah Trust which she headed
efficiently till she became physically weak. This trust has been very
helpful in building the Miriam Bawardi Elementary School for 985 children.

She used to come to the school as if she were coming to her own family. We
always felt that she is so far from the Holy land; we wanted her to be
closer. Now she is very close to our memory, to our heart."

And Elijah Trust also supports the work of Mossawa and the Committee for Educational Guidance for Arab Students

Jafar Farah, Director of Mossawa said of Gill -

"From the moment we met with Gill, we knew she was a special woman. Her interest and commitment to us as both an organisation and as the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel was always strong and evident in her concern for us. Even during her difficult times in the past 2 years, she still maintained contact and tried to find ways for our issues to be heard.

On the professional level, Gill and the Elijah Trust are not just friends, but allies for justice and peace in our region. Over the years they presented our issues to church communities as well as political leaders and NGOs in the UK.

As friends and family, we will find a way to commemorate Gill here in Haifa. Her love for us was never faltering, and we will miss her visits and the care we felt while she was with us."

And Sofi Dalal from SEGAS -

"Gill, when no-one believed in us, you helped revitalize our work. Thanks you and to your efforts as the Director of the Elijah Trust, you supported our dormitories, and today we have 30 Arab students safely living in our dorms which you helped to renovate or these students and generations to come. We saw in you a giving soul that gave love to all those around you. You took us into your heart and we took you into our hearts."

There is no doubt Gill has left a lasting legacy, both physically and spiritually. For those of us left behind our challenge is to seek to take on her mantle. To ensure that her work continues and that in seeking to build peace in Israel/Palestine the important role the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel can play is fully utilized. That will surely be the most fitting memorial for such an exceptional woman.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Labour and me....sitting on the bed not clambering into it!

I have already had a little flak on Twitter following the Guardian article this morning. Being unable to explain myself in less than 140 characters..........(why use 1 character when 100 will do??!) I decided to resort to my blog. I have made no secret of my despair about the coalition, despair that has only deepened and widened as each day it seems another Liberal Democrat value is demolished and replaced with a realignment of our values to be more Toryesque. Yesterday being a case in point, the suggestion that the wonderful Matthew Oakeshott had to go because he had spoken against Lib Dem policy - er no - it was COALITION policy he had spoken against not Lib Dem policy and I am deeply concerned that this will happen more and more.

We know that talks are already underway with the Tories about Coalition 2 - and to be honest, when our two parties are working so closely together, it is inevitable. Those whose political instincts sit more comfortably with the Tories and are quite comfortable snuggling up in their bed, of course will want the Coalition to continue beyond the next election...........but it may not...........and some of us hope and pray it won't! The chances are we will be in the reverse situation of last year's election - and even if it isn't, we can't preach the politics of pluralism while choosing only to engage with one party. Thankfully I think Nick Clegg gets this, he is after all a pragmatist. He has been meeting with Ed Milliband and rightly so. If we win the AV referendum and move towards the possibility of PR it becomes even more important.

It seems to me that one of the problems of the current arrangement is that coalition politics sits more comfortably with a proportional electoral system. With more parties across a wider spectrum, coalitions become more comfortable - for example in the Netherlands with VVD more at ease with the right wing parties and D66 with the left. I don't think, with 68% of our party seeing themselves as on the left, it would be unjustified to suggest that as a party we would have been more comfortable with Labour, particularly under Ed Milliband who seems to get the need to liberalise his party. Be that as it may, I honestly believe that it will be political suicide if we are seen to be hitching our wagon to the Tories with no notion that we would ever get "unhitched"! And a "talk to the hand cos the face aint listening" approach to Labour is not only infantile it is stupid.

So my reasons for getting involved in this are clear. Firstly, because I love my party (and all of those of you in it, even if we don't agree on everything!) and I want to preserve it and all it stands for. Secondly because I love my fellow citizens (well most of them!) and the whole reason for me ever getting involved in politics was to change things - particularly for young people. So if I can influence ANYONE who has the potential to change things for the better and improve the life chances of our children and young people I WILL DO SO - end of!!!!! And to demonstrate the truth of that I have been speaking to one of the Tory youth advisers this very morning. I am sure there will still be some of you tut tutting - I guess my reaction has to be *whatever* you continue to do what you believe is right and I will continue to do what I believe is right. Let's never lose sight however, of our ultimate declared objective - namely to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society.......where no one should be enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity. Yep.......that's exactly what I am seeking to do!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dear Nick, The Lib Dems are more than the sum of their Front Bench

Overnight there have been two stories which have had some of us rather exercised. When an issue has me on the same page as Lord Bonkers, the party leadership really ought to be worried! I have never made any secret of my opposition to the coalition, Jonathan is a supporter, but now even he finds himself questioning the dismissal of Matthew Oakeshott. For me, I think the most disturbing part of this story is the quote Jonathan cites from a party spokesperson "Both Lord Oakeshott and the party leadership agreed he could not speak for the party when he did not support the party's policy"..............ah, so now we get the measure of what is happening, Lib Dem policy is being conflated with coalition policy. It's all a bit Animal Farmish for me, before we know it we will all have morphed into pigs, I mean Tories.........and any of us who won't will find ourselves off to the knackers yard with Boxer! Actually Matthew Oakeshott, did support party policy, like Vince Cable used to, like Danny Alexander used to. I have some sympathy for frontbenchers who can't really come out against their government, but Matthew was not a minister, if he can't speak out who can? As a member of FPC I sit on two of the "Parliamentary Policy" committees - my understanding of the rationale for those committees was that those committees in general and their co-chairs in particular, were there to ensure party policy remained distinctive within parliament and that they were the standard bearers for our policy. Last night's events should really put the wind up the lot of us.

And then there is the letter, headlining the news this morning, from the 91 leading Lib Dem councillors, raising legitimate concerns but then being warned by Andrew Stunnell to effectively put up or shut up. Sadly he demonstrates his disconnect from the party by arguing that these councillors should "stop fighting amongst themselves" DON'T think they are fighting among themselves, quite the opposite, they appear to be agreeing with each other! And therein lies my is the FRONT BENCH who appear to have lost touch with the grassroots. It reminds me of my army days when pals got promoted and suddenly "went native" and forgot where they had come from. Or the brilliant colleagues I have known who got into management and suddenly saw their erstwhile co workers as the problem and started implementing the very policies they had argued against as practitioners. Andrew Stunnell would do well to listen to these front line councillors - an Egyptian "you can make bricks without straw" mentality is unfair and unwise and frankly counter-productive. One wonders for example whether in Norfolk the cost of getting rid of their youth service will end up costing them far more in the long run.

Yes coalition involves compromise but not subjugation - a lesson that our front bench would be well advised to learn, and learn quickly.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Equidistancing Ourselves

Throughout my - more years than I care to remember - in the Lib Dems, there has been a lot of chat about "Equidistance" - the need to ensure that we are neatly deposited somewhere between Labour and Tory in order to squeeze votes from both and, presumably, to be available to both if needed.

There is a legitimate argument that we should not allow ourselves to be defined by others…….I would agree, but in this brave new world the position surely has to be that we must be seen to be able to work as part of a Labour as well as a Tory coalition. To be perfectly frank, as Tim Montgomerie has pointed out on his blog, 68% of the party see themselves as centre left, social as opposed to economic liberals, so for two thirds of us the current sleeping arrangements are a tad uncomfortable!

Be that as it may, the reality is that we are where we are, a place where our leadership seem relatively comfortable, but a place where many of us are all to conscious of the lumps and bumps in the bed and wondering if we would be far happier in our own deliciously comfortable bed, or in someone else's?! And because our current sleeping arrangements allow for a certain amount of pillow talk with our new partner…….the consequent reality is that discussion about future policy direction inevitably involves them. And therein lies the rub. While we are snuggled up with the Tories, how can we truly be seen to be equidistant? While we rubbish Labour at every opportunity and seem to be meekly submitting to the Tories' every whim, how can we any longer make a case for being equidistant? It seems to me that the only way we can do that is to ensure that we keep the lines of communication well and truly open to the other parties. If we are committed to ushering in a new kind of politics, however much the current arrangements make me want to throw up, we surely have to be prepared to talk to everyone? If coalition politics is about the art of the possible, about finding common ground and pushing forward together on it, the fact is that as a party we do now, and I trust always will have, more in common with Labour.

For that reason I totally support the work Richard Grayson has been doing in bridge building. Frankly I don't see a problem in talking to anyone, including the Tories, if there is a possibility to make life better for the people we aspire to represent. Anyone who has served in local government knows that to be the case. If we have an opportunity to challenge and influence the policy of others it can only be for the good. So I think the criticisms of Richard are unfounded, illiberal and frankly counter productive – coming mainly from people who actually would be a lot happier it we morphed into a centre right party.

I, like Richard, am staying because this is my party too, because, the PARTY hasn't changed, because eventually we will get our party back. At the moment we may be a centre left party lead by the centre right, but that doesn't mean we don't continue to fight for those things we believe are important, those values enshrined in the preamble to our constitution. And I, like Richard, am more than happy to keep the communication channels open to Labour, to shut those channels down is, frankly, to risk our ultimate absorption into the Tory Party and the virtual extinction of all we hold dear.

What I still love about Nick Clegg!

Oh...........the highs and lows of being a political anorak! From despair to hope to.............?

I feel a bit like someone who has been given a big bowl of beastly bugs to eat, washed down with a glass of the finest champagne! What do you do?

So, in the midst of serious concerns about the lumps and bumps of the coalition futon...........Nick Clegg delivers - and big time - on a real commitment to improve mental health services for young people.

Long suffering readers will know that the issue of mental health services is one that is close to my heart, having grown up with a bi-polar father and having been to hell and back with my sister over the past few years. It has been bad enough for her, but for young people the service has been patchy at best and non existent at worst. A young man I worked with some years ago and am still in touch with, a young man who turned up at my office one day with rope marks on his neck where he had tried to hang himself, recently told me about his experience in prison. Having been bullied and threatened inside he told me he would rather still be there as "at least they were helping me with my mental health issues".

I know this is an issue that is close to Nick's heart and he gets how important it is to identify problems early, he has been justifiably angry at the way the last government were happy to send our service men and women into illegal wars, but far less willing to ensure they had the right mental health care on their return. So full marks to him and Paul Burstow for what is a brilliant achievement!

However (you knew there would be a however?!) I must urge Nick to recognise how important it is to have an holistic approach. It's the "ambulance at the bottom or fence at the top of the cliff" scenario. For example - as the Princes' Trust Macquarie Index demonstrates, being NEET (Not in Education Employment or Training) has a devastating impact on our young people's mental health with 48% reporting problems. We know that being in debt has an impact on people's mental health. My genuine fear is that the £400m will be swallowed up by increased demand as a direct result of the government's lack of ability to carry out robust impact assessments of their decisions as well as failing to consider any cost benefit analysis.

So my message to Nick is this. I know your heart is in the right place, I'd just like to see more evidence of it connecting to your head! Let's please use this opportunity in government to question knee-jerk decisions that pull the rug from under our young people's feet. What is the point of trumpeting this additional funding if other decisions you are party to increase our young people's poor mental health? Why increase tuition fees, abolish EMA, cut the Future Jobs Fund, slash benefits, abolish the Financial Inclusion Fund, decimate the Youth Service, cut funding to vital youth information advice and counselling services............etc., without any prior consideration of what you put in their place? And how does any of this reflect our declared values that " one should be enslaved by poverty (or) ignorance...."?

As a party we allegedly chose to enter this coalition "in the national interest". Sadly, my fear is, that what is happening is driven not by the national interest, but by the short term political interests of the Tory party and their buddies. If this government REALLY cared about the long term interests of this nation they would be prepared to consider the long term needs of our most vulnerable children and young people and protect both the services and the income they rely on.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Sharks are circling - but is it the Lib Dems they will ultimately devour?

OK….I have good days and bad days… happens to be a bit of a bad day……to be a Lib Dem.

I understand that coalition is about compromise and the art of the possible – honest – I do. What I don't understand is when we sign up to stuff that is totally contrary to what we say are our values. Does the preamble to our constitution count for absolutely nothing now? Er……."no one should be enslaved by poverty" was the bit I was particularly thinking about. So can someone explain to me why we think it is OK, at a time when our coalition policies are pushing more and more people into debt – we are cutting the Financial Inclusion Fund that pays for debt advisers and access to affordable credit? Why oh why is our parliamentary party apparently not supporting Stella Creasy's Credit Regulation motion on Thursday morning when it is absolutely in line with both the Coalition Agreement and party policy?

I quote: "The Government believes that action is needed to protect consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, and to promote greater competition across the economy. We need to promote more responsible corporate and consumer behaviour through greater transparency and by harnessing the insights from behavioural economics and social psychology.

  • We will give regulators new powers to define and ban excessive interest rates on credit and store cards; "

and also

"We will introduce stronger consumer protections, including measures to end unfair bank and financial transaction charges."

Coalition Agreement 2010

And our own policy:

"....A statutory duty to be imposed on all lenders to lend responsibly, giving borrowers a statutory right of action in cases where there has been irresponsible lending.
Consumer protection to be strengthened with stronger penalties for those who mis-sell financial products using aggressive selling practices; with a statutory maximum interest rate to protect vulnerable groups from predatory loan sharks and doorstep lending."

Reforming the Financial Sector - Policy Motion Spring '10

And then there is our Consumer Manifesto:

"Credit and store cards can be similarly harmful with high interest rates and hidden fees. Average
credit card rates are currently at a high of 18.8% and for some people they are as high as 60% or
70%. Extortionate rates are charged to those who can least afford it, putting people already
struggling into a spiral of debt. While it is fair that card providers should be able to adjust their
rates to reflect who they are lending to, many credit cards go well beyond this.

The Liberal Democrats believe that these charges are unfair and would address the situation by:

• Putting a cap on interest rates credit and store card providers are able to charge. In
order to define what this rate should be we will consult with industry and consumer

And what does Stella's motion say?

"That this House notes with alarm recent evidence showing a fourfold increase in the use of payday lending since the beginning of the recession and that high cost credit lenders advanced approximately £7.5 billion to low and middle income consumers in 2008 alone; recognises the problems of financial exclusion, lack of financial and debt management education, lack of price competitiveness in the unsecured lending market and the near monopoly positions of many large lenders which contribute to the high costs of borrowing; considers that without action these factors could worsen family debt, poverty and financial difficulties to the detriment of the economic recovery; therefore calls upon the Government to introduce, alongside measures to increase access to affordable credit, regulatory powers that put in place a range of caps on prices in areas of the market in unsecured lending which are non price-competitive, likely to cause detriment to consumers or where there is evidence of irresponsible practice; and believes that such caps should take account of the desirability of maintaining access to affordable and responsible credit, the likely impact on the supply of credit and the cost of enforcement, that they should be regularly reviewed and that they should use the total cost of credit, calculated on a yearly basis, to ensure that lender avoidance and distortions in price are prevented."

Really.........what's not to like? What is out of kilter with our own and coalition policy? Who's playing games here? Or have we been got at by those in the industry who stand to lose out from this? Are we being lead by the nose to become a party of the haves rather than the have nots? Will our party election broadcast next year feature Nick Clegg walking through ripped up copies of the preamble to our constitution? Seriously, please my fellow Lib Dems, get a grip, continue to fight for what you say you believe in. Simon Hughes told the Fabian Society a couple of weeks ago that the progressives were "alive and kicking" in the party.........well some of us are feeling decidedly unwell at the moment and we need the medicine of seeing our parliamentary party fight for party policy, especially if it is in the Coalition Agreement, if we are to pull round!

Monday evening I attended a fantastic event – the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education. It wasn't standing room only, there wasn't standing room - even Stephen Williams couldn't get in! And the attraction? One Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert. I've never seen so many MPs in such awe – all queuing up to have their pix taken with him . And the word is that this is the biggest APPG ever, with 141 parliamentarians already signed up. Martin Lewis was clear and unequivocal – debt is a killer. People commit suicide because of debt. We have to educate our children and young people to be able to understand and manage their money and as he said "It's a national disgrace that in the 20 years since student loans launched we've educated our youth into debt, but never about debt. Now as tuition fees are getting bigger and some will pay commercial rates of interest for them, we simply can't let students take this debt out unless they know how it works."

This genuinely cross party group has Justin Tomlinson, Stella Creasy and our own Duncan Hames as co-chairs. All have been rightly working together to support Stella's motion. Surely this is not a party political issue? Surely all of us baulk at the idea of people paying ridiculous rates of interest of 444% apr? And what about Wonga – at over 2000%apr????! Surely, in times of austerity, more than ever, we need to be doing all we can to prevent people getting into unmanageable debt? Am I being unreasonable? So WHY in the name of everything decent and true, can't our MPs support this sensible motion as is?

I trust like me you will be horrified. If you are and have one of our esteemed Lib Dems as your MP – please, please contact them now to ask them to support this motion. If we are to escape from this coalition with even a shred of credibility then this is one of the shreds I would hope to escape with.

.......PS, if you want a less ranty perspective? SLF supports the motion!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Guest Blog Post - Jeremy Ambache

Following my posts last week about Jeremy's resignation he has written more about his reasons for leaving the party - concerned that we seem to be obsessed with tactics rather than policy issues -

Firstly thanks Linda for featuring my decision to leave the party on your 'Lindylooz Muze' blog. I do appreciate the kind things that you have written about my contribution to the party over the last 30-years!

I have just cancelled my accommodation booked for the March Sheffield conference. And I will miss the Lib Dem Conference particularly for two main reasons:

  1. the excellent level of debate of the important political issues facing the country


  2. the friendships made over many years.

I have read the comments on your earlier posts and I am disappointed that people writing in seem more interested in 'tactical issues' (like the positioning of the Lib Dems) rather than the more important (in my view) political issues. The most important is the way the cuts that are going to affect individuals and communities right across the country.

In my view many aspects of the cuts will particularly affect less well off people and those who are 'less able'- in their everyday lives. The cuts will affect those on benefit and those who are most vulnerable and rely on 'services'. The government is planning to cut some 25% of many services over the next 4 years. This will drastically reduce vital 'services' that include:

Benefits / schools / special education support services / early years childcare / job training / social housing / libraries / Care services (from birth to old age) / mental health services / drug services / alcohol services / police / youth services and Connexions / probation/ leisure and culture and the whole of the voluntary sector!

In my view these cuts will hit those who are poor and least able (and the most deprived communities) most severely. Also, I think that there will be a huge social cost from these cuts for individuals and local communities.

Many people will know that Nick Clegg has repeatedly said that he is concerned about the 'public health statistic' that some people live 7+years less long in the most deprived ward in Sheffield compared to the most affluent ward. Nick has said that he is committed to reversing this; but sadly the proposed cuts are likely to make the longevity / mortality differences even greater!

I think the other major social policy problem will be in the 'disorganisation' of the NHS - as a result of the radical shake up planned. I worked with others in the party to draft our policy on the NHS, which was agreed at the 2008 Conference. We agreed no major reorganisation; so did the Tories, and so did the coalition agreement! Yet Messrs Lansley and Burstow have decided otherwise. They have not listened to wider consultation with many of us (including the Doctors, Nurses, NHS confederation) who replied to the NHS White paper consultation this autumn. The planned reorganisation (to GP commissioning consortia and a national commissioning board) will waste many £millions and cause massive uncertainty within the NHS. On top of the impact of the cuts this will disadvantage those with long-term health conditions and those in the most deprived areas – including the ward in Sheffield where people have the shortest life expectancy.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Jeremy Ambache Resigns Update.............

My original blog was hurried as I have also been enjoying the delights of the Bavarian winter! But since Jeremy has given me permission to reproduce his email to colleagues, I thought it was important to include this. I honestly believe that if our leadership do not listen to him and others, like Richard Huzzey, we are facing a bleak future. The sad thing is that people like Jeremy become so much part of our furniture that we take them for granted - can you imagine a conference without him? For me he has always been an encouraging smile or comment at conference, someone who I know absolutely sings from the same hymn sheet and he is hardly someone who would have the same accolade as me for being "that troublemaker" or worse!

Jeremy's email in full:

I am writing to you as one of my Lib Dem friends to explain why I am leaving the party. However, I do hope friendship will transcend party affiliation!

I am writing to let you know I have just cancelled my membership of the Liberal Democrats after 30 years (Lib Dems and formerly SDP). This has been a difficult decision for me not least because I have many good friends within the party – and I wish you all well.

I have come to the conclusion that the Social Democrat wing of the party (now more usually referred to as Social / Liberal) is not represented by the leadership of the party. I do not find the party's previous commitment to 'social justice' and greater equality is represented by our government Ministers - and I have written to Nick Clegg saying just that!

The key policies area that I do not accept are being promoted effectively by our Lib Dem Minister are:

  • Education – Ministers are not following the party line on 'free schools' and tuition fees
  • NHS re-organisation and consequent uncertainty and chaos (both the Lib Dems and Tory's promised no major top down reorganisation)
  • Benefits cuts - to Housing, Children and Disabled benefits (many experts predict more homelessness, hardship and rise in child poverty)
  • Budget and Local Government cuts - too rapid deficit reduction and consequent huge public service cuts (these are likely to hit the poorest hardest, including young and old)

I personally am committed to grass roots local community politics – so I consider all of the above is of key importance.

I do wish you well for the future,

All best wishes,


I am well aware that there are many in our party who are perfectly content with the current arrangement and I understand that, if I was on the right of the party I would also no doubt be delighted. But, we are first and foremost a social liberal party - our policy reflects that - and we neglect that position at our peril. To be perfectly frank I am beginning to wonder if a "two state" solution is the best option? As in the Netherlands, maybe a D66/VVD type split is the only answer to ensure that liberalism in one form or another survives. At the moment it feels like when a couple continually papers over the cracks in order to save a relationship when ultimately everyone knows their relationship is doomed. So am I being unduly pessimistic? Should I be buoyed up by Nick Clegg's enthusiasm for the project and Simon Hughes' insistence that without us in government things would be much worse? Well, like Jeremy, I am finding it increasingly difficult to deal with. As I said yesterday, I am not about to take flight (sorry!) I think our party is still worth fighting for, so frankly even if it's a fight to the death.........I'm still in it to win it and I hope Jeremy and others who feel like us may think the potential gain is worth the current pain.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Jeremy Ambache Resigns

Last night I received a very sad email, it was from Jeremy Ambache to let me know that he has resigned from the party. Doubly sad I guess because he, unlike me, supported the coalition. As someone who has devoted 30 years to the party his decision has not been taken lightly and cannot be dismissed as a fit of pique. Whether those on the right who are extremely comfortable with the way things are going, like it or not, as others have pointed out 68% of the membership see themselves as on the left of the spectrum and yet we find ourselves with a right wing leadership, even contemplating it seems, pacts with the Tories.

While I fully appreciate all Jeremy's concerns about the kind of decisions we are now party to and the lack of political leadership from our cabinet members, I have to say my personal view remains that I have to stay and fight for the values which lead me to join the party in the first place - I haven´t changed - the party hasn´t changed, but it will beyond recognition if we lose our core activist base. The fact is however much we trumpet the very real successes we have achieved in government, they are a bit like the bunch of flowers the abusing partner brings when he has punched his "loved one" in the face! Its difficult to see the good because of the damage that has been done and until our leadership gets that no amount of shouting about what we have achieved will have any impact at all.

2011 is going to be a tough year - ít may all end in tears, but for the moment I trust, however unbearable some of what is being done in our name is, enough of us will hang in there and see us through what hopefully will turn out to be a blip in the party´s history.

In the meantime I thank Jeremy for all he has done for this party and his community, I know he will continue to work for the things he believes in and I trust maybe one day, our party will again be a home for him.