Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Angels on pinheads

I came out of the ballot this week for a question to the Prime Minister, so I thought it would be worth asking him about Frenchay Hospital.

Earlier in the Summer, health secretary Alan Johnson had said that where his NHS review implies hospital 'reconfigurations' (ie closures) he will routinely allow an independent review if requested by a local authority health scrutiny committee. Following this announcement, my Lib Dem colleagues on South Glos. health scrutiny initiated precisely such a request. The health secretary has now written back to say we can't have a review because the decision over Frenchay was taken before he made his promise.

I therefore asked the PM today for an independent review. The health secretary leant across to him and hissed that he should decline! The PM said that the medics had looked at the issue of Frenchay and had decided that there didn't need to be a review because it was the right clinical decision. In other words, we don't need a review because we know we are right, and in any case, we've already taken our decision so we won't let it be independently reviewed.

Of course, if they are so confident of the clinical justification for shutting Frenchay, they would have no problem with an independent review - or would they?

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Back to more routine matters...

Travelling back from Westminster today on the train I had one of those journeys that sums up so much that is wrong with our so-called 'public transport' system.

I won't bore you with the late trains, the lack of information, the surly attitude of some of the 'information' staff, or even the decision of Worst Late Western to skip a few major stations just to get to their destination inside the penalty time to avoid having to pay compensation...

What annoyed me most of all was the way two disabled passengers were treated. For some reason both people, who were each using a wheelchair, were being seated in the one 'wheelchair space' in the carriage. There really wasn't room for them so they were in at odd angles and clearly felt not treated in a very dignified way. But they weren't prepared for the tannoy annoucement which said: "We apologise to passengers in Coach H that because of an 'obstruction' in Coach G, they will need to come to the buffet counter for their complimentary drinks". The 'obstruction' in this case was two passengers in wheelchairs.

I suspect most First Great Western passengers are made to feel a bit like an 'obstruction' to the company sometimes, but we don't always hear ourselves described like that over the tannoy.

I'm waiting to hear the Managing Director's response to my complaint about this episode...

The Lib Dem Leadership - a positive decision

After a lot of heart-searching and consulting friends, colleagues and - not least - family, I've finally decided not to stand for election as next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

There are a number of reasons for my decision, but one of the most positive is that I think we already have in the field an excellent potential leader of the party in the shape of Nick Clegg who I will now be backing. I've known Nick for several years and have always been impressed by his sharp mind, his strong presentational skills, his strategic political judgment and also his way with people. I think he is best placed to take the party forward and I look forward to working with him if he is elected to help strengthen our party and take us on to new achievements.

I've talked in depth with Nick about the issues that are particularly important to me, including making sure that our message on public services is distinctive and stresses the importance of fair access for all to quality schools, hospitals and pensions, and I have confidence that he understands and shares those concerns.

On a personal level, it has become clear to me that a campaign and the job of leader would have a huge cost for us as a family based outside London.

I would like to place on record my thanks to the large numbers of MPs, party members, friends and total strangers (!) who have urged me to stand for all their good wishes and encouragement.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Fame at last?

It's been a whirlwind 48 hours since Ming Campbell decided to stand down as leader of the Lib Dems. I think we were all taken aback by the speed of Ming's decision, but I think it reflects with great credit on him that he took the view that with 18 months or more to an election it was a good time to allow the party to elect a new leader to take us through to that election and beyond.

Inevitably, there has been a lot of speculation in the media about who might succeed Ming. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne have been talked about for a long time as potential future leaders, and there are also quite a number of other very capable colleagues who I am sure would also do a good job. I've consulted a few MPs about whether I should throw my hat into the ring, and have been able to establish that if I decided to go for it I would have enough nominations to take part in the contest. I now need to decide whether this would be in the best interests of the party, my constituents and (not least) my family.

One bizarre spin-off of being "third favourite as next leader of the Lib Dems" is that for the first time in my life I was 'door-stepped' this morning by a camera crew! Not quite the number of cameras you see outside nightclubs waiting for royalty to emerge - in fact just two people - a man with a very bright light and a television camera and another with a big fluffy microphone. But all the same, it's a bit of a shock when you stumble bleary-eyed from your flat first thing in a morning to have a bright light shining in your face. I dread to think what time they arrived just on the off-chance of catching me as I left.

I'll keep you posted...

Thursday, 11 October 2007

On Internet TV for the first time

Last night I had chance to appear on the internet TV channel 18 Doughty St. for the first time. The channel was started by Tory blogger and former parliamentary candidate Iain Dale. We discussed everything from the pre-Budget statement to flooding and blogging. You never know with these things whether anyone is watching, though I'm assured if you include the subsequent downloads you get up to quite serious numbers. I'll wait to see whether or not I get stopped in Thornbury High Street and asked for my autograph after last night! See what you think of the broadcast here!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

A topsy-turvy world

Just back from the Chamber of the House of Commons listening to Alistair Darling do his first 'pre-Budget statement'. Most striking was the immediate 'damage limitation' of a big hike in the inheritance tax threshold for couples, which will eventually rise to £700,000. Given that six months ago they thought a threshold of just over £300,000 was enough, it's not hard to guess what changed! He also announced (after five years of dithering) tighter tax rules on 'non-domiciles' - ie people who live here but earn some of their money abroad and don't pay UK tax on their foreign earnings. After saying in Parliamentary answers that the Treasury didn't know the figures for these people, they' ve myseteriously become very well-informed about them!

This really is a shocking way to run a country. You make major changes to a tax in a matter of days not because you think it's right but because another party got good poll ratings for their proposals. You spend years refusing to answer questions to MPs about a subject and then make knee-jerk policy on it almost over-night. It's not surprising people are cynical!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Buried Treasure?

I've been speaking today on BBC Radio 4's Moneybox programme - which you can hear here - about pensions. I had a written parliamentary answer that indicated that up to half a million women were just a year or two short on their National Insurance records and as a result get absolutely no basic state pension in their own right at all. I'm highlighting the fact that there is a scheme that allows them to pay their extra years, get a boost to their pension backdated to when they were sixty, and possibly simply get a cheque from the Government for the difference!

Some of these women had a letter about this some years ago but may not have understood it, whilst others were probably never notified at all. As well as alerting people to claim - eg by calling the HMRC National Insurance Deficiency Helpline: 0845 915 5996 (Monday to Friday 8am - 8pm and Saturday 8am - 4pm) - I will be having a meeting with the pensions minister later this month to urge the Government to contact people proactively. For more details on this issue, see my website.

This is how the Daily Mail covered it today.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Should there be a General Election?

Everywhere I go, people ask me if I think there is going to be a General Election. Funnily enough, I think the Prime Minister has still not finally decided. It is clear that everything is being prepared - Iraq statement on Monday, 'pre-Budget' statement on Tuesday - maybe with tax goodies to spike the opposition's guns - and then to the Palace on Tuesday evening. But one poor opinion poll at the weekend after the Tory conference could change all that.

(Incidentally, talking of the Tory conference, I'm amazed at the gullibility of the BBC describing David Cameron's speech as 'unscripted' - if it was unscripted, how come verbatim quotes appeared in this morning's papers as 'David Cameron is expected to say...'!

Anyway, whether or not there is an Election, should there be one?

Some argue that with a new PM we should have an election, and I guess as Tony Blair said he would serve a full term - and didn't - then there's a case for it. And I am certainly perfectly happy to face the electorate whenever an election is called. But on the other hand he has a comfortable working majority, we don't need an election for more than 2 years, and an election will cost approaching £100m just to stage - money that could do a lot of good elsewhere.

So I suspect we will have an election now if the PM is confident he can win it clearly, but I very mcuh doubt that the 'national interest' will have much to do with the calculation.