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!