Tuesday, 31 March 2009

I'm not a fan of Polly Toynbee...

...but I think her take on the MPs expenses row is spot on.

The real significance of 'Porngate'

Over on Lib Dem Voice yesterday, Alix Mortimer demonstrated how hollow the mantra of 'if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear' actually is in the wake of Jacqui Smith's unfortunate expenses claim.

Although the claim has certainly given us all a good laugh, it does have some political significance. Alix highlighted part of it and I want to look at another aspect of it.

Over the past few months, Jacqui Smith has been busy telling us all that government plans to increase data storage and surveillance and to extend anti-terror laws even further were all perfectly OK really as they were subject to a series of 'safeguards'. Here's a couple of examples.

But I have a simple question for Ms Smith: what sort of safeguards are there against the sort of bone-headed stupidity you and your husband have shown? Him in including the porn films in your expenses claim, you for failing to check it properly - "Darling, what are these 'additional features'?"

Everyone, including public servants, is capable of such stupidity from time to time (the decision to put the details of 26 million child benefit claimants on to two unencrypted CDs springs to mind, for instance). Any safeguards on increasing the power of the state must literally be foolproof or they are worthless.

And more broadly, should we be asking the Guildford Four and the family of Jean Charles de Menezes what safeguards are effective in protecting innocent people in the fevered response to a major terrorist incident? Again, if any safeguards put into place in anti-terror laws would not have prevented either situation, they are worthless.

Ultimately, Jacqui Smith's embarrassment over her husband's viewing habits will fade. But this should be another reminder that the government's pledge that increased state power is all OK because it's in the hands of 'the good guys' who are competent and never act stupidly is somewhat hollow. There are no safeguards against human stupidity.

Monday, 30 March 2009

The easiest job in the world

I can understand how a combined broadband/TV package can be included in an expenses claim. I can even understand how that might mistakenly have included a claim for adult entertainment.

What I can't understand is how the pay TV element can have been paid as a legitimate expense by the parliamentary authorities. They must have the easiest job in the world. Do they actually do any checking of MPs' expenses?

Apparently not, as they don't even bother to check whether somebody claiming that a caravan on Mersea Island is their main residence is maybe exaggerating somewhat. Presumably the parliamentary authorities are operating on the Good Chaps principle - that as all MPs are Good Chaps (even the Chapesses), a Good Chap wouldn't inquire whether a fellow Good Chap is acting in a way that a Good Chap wouldn't.

A full list of Jacqui Smith's expenses does show some interesting items - the £1,000 antique style fireplace or the £550 Habitat stone kitchen sink, for instance. Under no circumstances can these be considered as necessary to fulfil the role of an MP. But they are entirely within the current rules, which bizarrely allow not just the cost of buying a second home, but also the furnishings to go with them.

I don't have a problem with the idea of MPs being allowed funds to buy a second home - let's face it, no Scottish MP would be able to do their job properly if that were banned. But MPs should recognise that they are pretty well paid overall and I don't think it should be seen as too onerous on them to pay for most or all of the furnishings themselves.

I retain the view I expressed a few days ago: that most MPs are hard working and dedicated to doing what they believe is best for their constituents. They are also, on the whole, not venal or corrupt. But for the sake of their own reputations, and for the reputation of Parliament and politics as a whole, they need to get a grip on this and as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

You can't trust the SNP, part 4,937

No, I'm not referring to today's news that teacher numbers in Scotland have fallen by almost a thousand, in contrast to the SNP's pledge in 2007 to maintain teacher numbers. That's just a Gnat manifesto promise and I think we all know by now that they're not meant to be taken seriously.

What I'm actually looking at is the way that some Gnats refuse to accept reality when the Government reverses yet another policy.

Take, for example, the debate on forestry in the Scottish Parliament last week following the abandonment of the Gnats' plan to lease out up to a third of Scotland's forests, and in particular the contribution from Highlands and Islands Gnat member Dave Thomson.

In it, the Edinburgh-based MSP launches an extraordinary tirade against the Lib Dems for supposedly misleading people about the nature of the Government's proposals, claiming they only applied to forests in the south and west of Scotland and that we were scaremongering when we pointed out the effects they could have on forests in the Highlands.

It's a magnificent attack, marred only by one small issue: the official briefing document on the subject makes absolutely no mention of the leasing proposal being confined to the south and west of Scotland. It's quite clear that the leasing plan was one for national consideration.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that Mr Thomson was lying through his teeth. Nor am I going to say that he's obviously so blinded by his hatred for the Lib Dems that he can't even think straight. I'm not even going to suggest that he's too stupid to be an MSP.

But I do think it's quite extraordinary that someone who lives only a few hundred yards from Craig Phadrig forest in Inverness hasn't bothered to keep himself informed about basic issues about the future management of it - and then is daft enough to launch an attack on others when we point out possible problems with his government's proposals.

Mr Thomson, you can be the Gnats' attack dog if you wish. But just make sure you're not barking up the wrong tree in future.

UPDATE: Whoops - delete all instances of 'Thomson' and replace with 'Thompson'. Although some might suggest it's actually the Gnat MSP who's been taking the p.

Alistair Campbell has a point

Just been watching The Culture Show, which this week featured Mark Kermode inviting Alistair Campbell to watch Armando Ianucci's film In The Loop - the big screen version of The Thick Of It. The character of foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker was, of course, famously inspired by Campbell.

It's fair to say that Campbell was rather less impressed with the film than Kermode was. Kermode found it very funny, largely because he accepts its depiction of politics as a venal, corrupt business. By contrast, Campbell felt that the film was largely a cartoon which bore little real relation to the way politics actually operates. He also laid into Kermode for his cynicism.

Now, Campbell probably isn't the best person to make this case, given his role at the heart of a government which took this country to war on a false premise. But he is right to say that the view of politics as a wholly corrupt practice is pretty much without foundation.

Most politicians I know are dedicated, hard-working individuals who genuinely wish to make a difference to the people they represent. I admit that it's mainly Lib Dem politicians that I know, so perhaps my experiences are not entirely representative, but I suspect the same is true of people from all parties. Yes, politicians are human and they make mistakes and quite often they'll say and do things for political convenience, but on the whole they are not corrupt or wholly self-serving.

And that's why I find it difficult to get too worked up about the latest expenses scandals swirling around Westminster. Yes, there will always be a small minority of politicians who seek to exploit their position for their own gain, but most aren't in it for what they can get out of it.

That's not to say there aren't issues which need to be addressed with regard to the regime surrounding MPs' expenses: the cases of Derek Conway, Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty quite clearly shows that there are. Although only the first of those has, so far, been found to have broken the (fairly generous) rules, the public anger that's resulted probably makes the current system untenable.

But any changes to the system must recognise the important role which politicians play and be sufficiently generous to enable people from a wide range of backgrounds to play their part in public life. And while it is right that the loopholes on the second home allowance and on MPs' earnings outside Parliament are tightened, we should recognise that politicians in this country are not wholly venal and corrupt, and in fact are a pretty decent bunch overall. And so, although I never thought I'd find myself saying this, Alistair Campbell has a point.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Scottish Conference: Tavish Scott

Scottish conference concluded, as usual, with the leader's speech.

Tavish Scott gave us a powerful and passionate speech which was largely focused on the economy. I thought it was a pretty decent effort, with strong denunciations of Labour's failures and of the Gnats for their sole focus on promoting independence rather than trying to get the economy sorted.

There were several good lines and a few decent jokes as well, which seemed to go down well with the conference-goers. Tavish got the loudest applause for his demand that the Gnats should drop their demand for an independence referendum, although I don't entirely agree with his stance on that.

But there are a couple of things which irk me very slightly about the speech. One was a stylistic thing. The prompters which Tavish was using were set quite high, meaning that he was talking over our heads and looking away into the far distance. Even on screen, it looks as though he's speaking to someone fairly over our heads rather than to the person watching.

The other slightly annoying thing is not to do with the speech itself, but on our promoting it afterwards. I would have liked to have given you a link to the full speech or embedded a video in this posting but I can't find one. That's possibly something the party needs to address, maybe by finding a willing volunteer who could post it to Youtube or somewhere similar.

But these are just minor criticisms and shouldn't detract from what was a very good speech.

Scottish Conference: Investigating the 'blood ban'

One feature of Scottish Lib Dem conferences is that there are often small but important debates on a range of policies.

One such came on Sunday morning at Perth with a motion from Liberal Youth Scotland calling for an investigation into whether it's still appropriate for gay and bisexual men to be banned for life from giving blood.

This was a good motion which focused on whether advances in technology mean that a lifetime ban is needed any more. Conference recognised that the most important thing is the security of the blood supply, but that the relevant authorities do need to outline whether a complete ban recognises all the relevant risk factors and whether other risks need to be taken into account for potential blood donors.

Conference supported the motion and Liberal Youth Scotland are to be congratulated on putting it forward.

Scottish Conference: More powers for the Scottish Parliament

One of the things about any conference is that there are usually a few things going on at the same time.

Thus it was that while the conference in Perth debated giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament, I was in a training session. So I can't give you a blow-by-blow account of the debate, although the first couple of speeches were good.

But I am delighted with the policy that conference passed in my absence. It is a radical vision of a powerful Scottish Parliament within a federal Britain. There are new powers proposed for the Scottish Parliament to control drugs policy, energy policy, firearms, human rights and marine policy, as well as a system of shared competence with the UK on issues such as broadcasting and unemployment.

And just as importantly, the policy also includes extending the Scottish Parliament's fiscal powers. Borrowing powers are included and Holyrood would get the power to control a range of taxes, such as income tax, vehicle excise duty, alcohol and tobacco duties and several others. There's a proposal for shared revenues between Holyrood and Westminster for VAT and North Sea oil duties and for Westminster to have sole control over things like national insurance and taxes related to welfare benefits.

This is a bold set of policies and it shows that we can have a much more powerful Scottish Parliament without going down the Gnats' road of a costly and unnecessary break-up of the United Kingdom. I hope we in the Lib Dems campaign hard on them in the run-up to the next elections, both at Westminster and at Holyrood.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Scottish Conference: Vince Cable

As well as taking part in the Q&A session yesterday, Vince Cable also gave a keynote address to the Scottish Conference today.

Vince highlighted that blame for our current economic problems was widely shared: it's not just the bankers, as there were also failures by regulators and by politicians. He very elegantly demolished Gordon Brown's contention that the recession was purely a global problem by highlighting the many things this government had got wrong, chiefly failing to deal with the housing boom by not including house prices in their measures to tackle inflation.

Although the speech was quite sober and downbeat in style, the content was as usual razor-sharp. Vince noted the exceptionally cosy relationship between the Labour government and the world of high finance, going as far as to call this 'corrupt'.

And he also noted the difficulties that an independent Scotland would have had in dealing with the financial crisis by showing that if Scotland had to deal with the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, it would have cost many times the country's GDP to bail it out, leading to Iceland-style economic collapse.

He also said that successive governments had failed to deal with issues relating to poverty and that many of the problems in Scotland were no better than they were during his time as a Glasgow city councillor a few decades ago.

But he warned that if we were to tackle these, then governments would have to be disciplined in their approach to public spending. And that would mean cuts not only to things we're ideologically opposed to such as ID cards, but also some things which aren't bad ideas in themselves - such as child trust funds - but which are probably a lower priority than some other areas.

All in all, Vince showed yet again what a star he is and he got a deserved standing ovation from the conference-goers.

Scottish Conference: The Economy

Greetings from Perth, where the Scottish Liberal Democrats have gathered this weekend for our spring conference.

There's no doubt what the main theme of the conference is: it's the economy, stupid. Yesterday we passed a comprehensive package of policies to get our economy moving again. You can find details of the policy in the conference agenda. By the way, I would have thought that the Scottish Lib Dem website would have had the policies in an easy to find part of their website rather than just on the agenda, but we don't seem to be updating the site to give people live updates, which seems a bit of a wasted opportunity.

The main features of the policy are investment in the green economy, support for small and medium-sized enterprises and cutting taxes for people on low and medium incomes, paid for by shifting the burden of taxation more on to the wealthiest in society and to pollution.

One of the important things about the policy is that it seeks action at a Scottish, UK and European level, as we recognise that no level of government can possibly tackle all the economic issues by itself.

This policy debate was followed by a question and answer session with Scottish Lib Dem finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis, Andy Willox of the Federation of Small Businesses and St Vincent of Threadneedle Street. It was an interesting discussion, although I don't really have the time to go into detail about it. But it served as another means for some of our target seat candidates to say something which will doubtless be reflected in their local papers in due course.

And this morning we had a debate on financial inclusion. We recognise that many poorer people can find it difficult to access affordable credit to pay for some necessities and are often therefore prey to loan sharks and doorstep lenders who charge a high rate of interest such as the Provident.

Conference supported a policy with three main aspects: a call for legislation to ensure a maximum rate of interest which any loan provider can charge, in line with laws in many other European countries; better financial education and support for alternative financial providers such as credit unions. There was also a call for the Post Office to be able to develop a basic banking service which people across the country can access.

As a former credit union secretary I spoke briefly in this debate, highlighting the important role which credit unions can play on this issue, providing low-cost loans and also helping people break the cycle of debt by encouraging saving. But we need to recognise that credit unions also have a patchy coverage across Scotland and many also suffer difficulties in getting enough of their members to take a role in running them, so they are not a magic solution.

But I am delighted that the Lib Dems are addressing issues such as these and coming up with real practical solutions for many of the tough economic issues we face.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Harrogate Conference: Kirsty Williams

I missed new Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams' speech to the conference at Harrogate. But I'd heard it was pretty good, and so I sought it out on the party website just now.

And the reports were right. Kirsty has the makings of a real political star, as she's passionate, intelligent and an excellent speaker. I'm confident that under her leadership, the Welsh Lib Dems will face a bright future.

If, like me, you missed her speech at Harrogate, here it is:

Guardian in a parallel universe?

Today's report in The Guardian about the Lib Dems preparing for a coalition must mean the paper's existing in some sort of alternative universe from me.

At conference in Harrogate, nobody I know was talking about coalitions or deals with other parties. It just wasn't an issue.

It may well be the case that senior people in the party are thinking about how we would react in different scenarios, but planning for how we would react in a given situation is certainly not the same as wanting to achieve that situation. It sounds like prudential planning to me, not coalition-mongering. And I'd be immensely surprised if the scenarios didn't include the possibilities of the Lib Dems opposing a German-style grand coalition, or of some sort of minority government, with or without Lib Dem support.

And there are other reasons for thinking The Guardian's on another planet with this article. It mentions that conference backed £7 billion of spending cuts. Given that the spending plans weren't even discussed, I don't see where Allegra Stratton gets that from.

And she also says that conference backed our current policy on abolishing tuition fees, despite fears from opponents that the £3 billion cost was unaffordable. Really? As I highlighted in one of my reports from Conference, NO amendment seeking to retain tuition fees was discussed and NO speaker made the case that the policy should change. So who were these people that Allegra Stratton refers to?

Allegra Stratton, were you actually in Harrogate?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Harrogate Conference: The Cleggster

Conference rounded off as usual with the Glorious Leader's speech.

Overall I thought Nick deserved an A for his delivery. He is becoming an impressive speaker and, apart from one or two minor stumbles, again gave a powerful and passionate delivery.

In terms of content, though, I think it was probably a B minus. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with it, and indeed much of it was good liberal stuff, including the explicit mention of Europe as being vital to the UK's interests. But I didn't really feel there was an over-arching theme to the speech and I'm not sure there were any really memorable lines. Clegg also made a point that he wasn't including many jokes in the speech, which made it a very serious and earnest affair. Perhaps a couple more touches of humour might have lightened things a bit.

I also have a couple of minor quibbles with what he said. He attacked populism, without making clear what he meant by that. Saying the Iraq war was wrong might well be a populist message, but it can also be a liberal one, for instance. And his attack on populism doesn't really sit easily with his line about the bankers - "Disqualify them now, right now" - which sounded like pure populism to me.

I would also query Nick's assertion that the UK government 'loses' £40 billion a year through tax avoidance. Let's not forget that tax avoidance is about entirely legal means of minimising tax liabilities, so the government has never been entitled to that money in the first place. He probably needed to include a line about how we would simplify the tax system to make tax avoidance harder.

But overall this was a good speech in which Nick clearly set out the main policies that we'll be fighting the next election on. If you want to read the full speech, here it is.

UPDATE: One other thing I meant to say. While the criticism of Brown's 'British jobs for British workers' line was well-made, is it really true to say that Brown hasn't challenged protectionism in Europe?

Harrogate Conference: Childcare

How many different ways are there of saying that childcare is A Good Thing And We Should Have More Of It?

Quite a lot, apparently, judging by the debate on the subject at Lib Dem conference. Speaker after speaker lined up to say the proposals for up to 20 hours per week flexible childcare from age 18 months and for parental leave of a total of 19 months, to be split between the parents as they see fit, were a thoroughly good thing.

All in all, that made the debate one of those which covers a quite important subject, but is actually quite dull because everyone's agreeing with each other.

Summing up the debate, my local MP Danny Alexander emphasised that the proposals would cost quite a bit to implement and that tough choices would have to be made on things like cash for new roads (not including the A9, A96 and A82, obviously).

But one thing we need to spell out more clearly is how businesses, particularly small businesses, will be helped with implementing the new childcare proposals. We need to ensure we're not giving our opponents a stick to beat us with in terms of putting new burdens on already struggling small firms.

You can read the full childcare proposals here.

Harrogate Conference: Faith Schools

As part of the debate on our proposals for education, there was much discussion on the issue of faith schools. This is an issue which excites a lot of passion among liberals, with people of faith lining up against committed secularists and plenty of positions in between.

The main proposal was a compromise one which sought to allow people the freedom to choose state-funded faith schools but which sought to abolish schools being able to select pupils on the basis of their faith.

The first amendment was to try and delete all reference to faith schools from the motion, in other words to allow the existing situation with regard to faith schools to continue, with all the potential unfairnesses that implies.

The second amendment sought the abolition of all state-funded faith schools within five years, probably an unrealistic option given that a third of schools in the UK are faith schools. As several speakers pointed out, if you were designing an education system from scratch then it's questionable to what extent you'd have a system of faith schools, but that's not where we are and you can't just wave a magic wand and make the faith schools vanish.

The third alternative was another compromise which sought to make sure that faith schools demonstrate their inclusivity or face the loss of state funding if they don't, with the decision taken at a local level.

Despite, or perhaps because of, having gone to a faith primary school, I'm not a big fan of faith schools. I think in general separating kids out by their religion is not a great idea. Nevertheless, if people do want to choose the option of getting their kids educated at a faith school, that's a choice they should have.

In the end, following an excellent summation speech by Tim Farron MP, I voted for the third amendment, which was successful. However, conference rightly voted down a part of this amendment which would have extended the ability to discriminate on religious grounds to the appointment of senior members of the school's leadership, rather than just those giving religious instruction.

This was an excellent debate and ultimately the correct decision was made.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Harrogate Conference: Howard Dean

Having been disappointed at the last federal conference in Bournemouth that we hadn't had any external speakers, I was delighted to see that this time round Howard Dean was invited to speak.

The former Vermont Governor and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee between 2005 and 2009 gave an excellent speech. He focused on the '50-state' strategy which led to the Democrats becoming far more competitive in places previously regarded as Republican strongholds and helped the Obama campaign win in November. It also helped ensure victories in congressional races such as the Senate seat in Alaska. There are perhaps lessons here for the Lib Dems in moving beyond a strict targeting strategy towards developing the party more widely across the country.

Dean also spoke of the need to talk with people on their own terms, emphasising the way the Obama campaign had reached out to groups previously considered unreachable and talking to them in their own language. He also noted that people tend to vote with their values.

He also outlined some of the challenges the Obama administration is facing, particularly in the international sphere. He noted the need for the USA to act in a multilateral fashion and the importance of direct diplomacy. In doing so, he made the important point that you don't make peace with your friends but with your foes.

All in all, this was a terrific speech from Dean and got him a deserved standing ovation.

Harrogate Conference: The dog that didn't bark

I was delighted that Lib Dem conference decided to retain its policy on abolishing tuition fees in England (they've already been abolished in Scotland, of course).

Or rather, it didn't so much decide it as accept it by acclamation. Despite murmurings earlier in the year that there would be an attempt to reverse our policy, in the end no amendment was discussed on the subject and no speakers made the case that our policy should change.

I find it slightly odd that the people who wanted to accept tuition fees didn't put their case forward for discussion by conference. Did they realise it would be a forlorn debate as the party would vote overwhelmingly in favour of our current policy? Or are they keeping their powder dry for a future occasion.

Either way, the right decision was made and Lib Dems can be proud that we still oppose the disincentive to going on into higher education that tuition fees represent. We are still the only major party bopposed to tuition fees and I hope we will continue to make as much of this policy at the next election as we did last time.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Referendum issue won't go away

The news today that Labour and the Tories will both be supporting a Lib Dem amendment in the Scottish Parliament to prevent any referendum on independence before the next Holyrood elections in 2011 is somewhat worrying.

Now, I'm not one of those, such as Lib Dem MSP John Farquhar Munro, who think that a referendum should be held immediately to 'clear the air'. But I think it is futile not to recognise that a referendum probably does need to be held at some stage. Saying that a referendum can't happen in this parliament seems somewhat arbitrary.

It's also of concern to those of us who want the Scottish Parliament to have significant additional powers - in particular over finance - but who believe that independence would be damaging. I had hoped that the Calman Commission might come up with some radical proposals to enhance devolution and it would only be right that such proposals be put before the Scottish people in a referendum, with independence as an alternative option. However, if a referendum of any kind is not going to happen, that may indicate that Calman is going to be rather tamer than some of us might wish.

As I've argued before
, a referendum should only be held when there are concrete proposals on the table for both independence and an enhanced devolution settlement. If that doesn't happen before 2011, then it's fine to continue opposing a referendum. But if there are such proposals, then a referendum should be held.

And it's absurd to think that this is an issue that's just going to go away.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Why the Aberdeenshire expulsions would be unjust

Ruaraidh Dobson has a posting defending the Scottish Lib Dems' Executive's decision to suspend three Aberdeenshire councillors - Paul Johnston, Debra Storr and Sam Coull - and to start expulsion proceedings.

I wish to explain why Ruaraidh is, to use his own phrase 'dead wrong' about this matter. I believe that expelling the three councillors would be utterly unjust and that they have been the victims of a vendetta carried out by senior members of the Aberdeenshire council Lib Dem group.

And to do that, I believe it would be helpful to give a timeline of some of the major facts and incidents which have led to the current mess. Of course, as an outsider, I don't know every detail of what has happened and there may be some things I am not aware of, so this may only be a partial account, but I believe it will give a flavour of why the decision to expel the three councillors would be unjust.

November 27, 2006: American billionaire Donald Trump unveils plans for a golf and housing development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire.

March 30, 2007: The formal planning application is submitted.

September 11, 2007: Aberdeenshire planning officials recommend approval of the proposals.

November 20, 2007: The Formartine Area Committee of Aberdeenshire Council approves the application.

November 29, 2007: After an extensive debate, Lib Dem councillor Martin Ford uses his casting vote as chairman of the council's Infrastructure Services Committee to reject the application. The vote was between refusing the application or deferring it to allow further negotiation, although Trump has indicated he is unwilling to negotiate. The decision causes a stir around the world

November 30, 2007: Lib Dem councillor Debra Storr claims she was assaulted after having voted against the application.

December 3, 2007: Donald Trump announces he will not be launching an appeal against the refusal of the development.

December 4, 2007: Scottish ministers decide to call in the application.

December 5, 2007: It is announced that there is to be a vote of no confidence in Martin Ford as chairman of the ISC.

December 12, 2007: Although there are no allegations of any wrongdoing on his part, Martin Ford is removed from his position as chairman of the ISC. A majority of Lib Dem councillors fail to support him. Martin is subsequently removed from other positions allocated by the Lib Dem Group. He says this was done without authority from the Lib Dem group and without even informing him in advance.

April 7, 2008: An attempt is made to expel Martin Ford from the Lib Dem group. The motion is withdrawn.

June 10, 2008: The public inquiry into the Trump development begins. Cllrs Johnston, Ford and Storr submit their views that the decision to reject the application should be upheld.

June 29, 2008: Lib Dem councillor Paul Johnston makes comments about Trump having been given a £5m 'sweetener'. Fellow councillors take exception to these comments. Although he insists he has done nothing wrong, Cllr Johnston agrees to refer himself to the Standards Commission to allow them to investigate.

October 2, 2008: Aberdeenshire Council passes a motion condemning Cllr Johnston for his comments. The Lib Dem group had agreed to note that the matter was being investigated by the Standards Commission and that as they were the appropriate body to investigate the matter, the council should not express an opinion on the matter. However, Lib Dem group leader Anne Robertson moves the successful motion, apparently after consulting the Conservative group, the Lib Dems' partners in the ruling coalition. Cllr Storr, seconded by Cllr Ford, moves an amendment supporting the original Lib Dem line.

November 3, 2008: The Trump application is approved by the Scottish government.

November 17, 2008: The Lib Dem group on Aberdeenshire Council votes to expel Debra Storr from the group for the 'crime' of having moved an amendment against the position of the Lib Dem group leader.

November 18, 2008: Having not yet been told of the vote to expel her, Cllr Storr announces her resignation from the Lib Dem group.

November 23, 2008: Martin Ford annnounces he will no longer attend meetings of the Lib Dem group, in protest at the decision to expel Debra Storr.

January 9, 2009: Paul Johnston is exonerated by the Standards Commission over his 'sweetener' comments.

January 22, 2009: The Lib Dem group on Aberdeenshire Council refuses to attach a note to the minutes of the October meeting noting that Paul Johnston had been exonerated, despite officer advice that it was perfectly feasible to do so.

January 23, 2009: Cllrs Ford, Johnston and Coull decide to leave the Lib Dem group. Together with Debra Storr, they form the Democratic Independent Group. Their standing orders explicitly state that they will not have a political whip.

January 27, 2009: Martin Ford resigns from the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

February 14, 2009: The four members of the DIG support an amendment to the Aberdeenshire Council budget which was proposed by the Lib Dem/Tory administration.

February 28, 2009: The Scottish Lib Dem Executive agrees to suspend Cllrs Storr, Johnston and Coull from membership and to initiate proceedings towards their expulsion.

And that brings us to where we are today. There are quite a few other things I could have mentioned about how the four councillors feel they have been bullied or victimised by leading members of the Aberdeenshire Lib Dem group, but I thought I'd keep this to largely established facts. But even looking at those, I think there is ample evidence to suggest that Cllrs Ford, Storr, Johnston and Coull have been the subject of a vendetta against them, based on their opposition to the Trump development. Ruaraidh, and other members of the Scottish Executive, I hope you you read this and consider whether your support for the expulsion of the Aberdeenshire Three is justified.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Booze and price: the evidence

Is there a scientific relationship between the price of booze and its consumption? I ask because during a radio discussion on the Scottish Government's proposals to introduce a minimum price for booze, an expert insisted there was.

This intrigued me, as I thought the picture was far more mixed than he was admitting. Certainly there is some support for his view, such as this one which highlights that there is indeed a reduction of consumption when the price goes up.

But that only relates to overall consumption. This study suggests that increasing the price of booze will have little impact on binge drinking. This one, meanwhile, suggests there is a gender difference between men and women, with men being far less affected by price changes in terms of their binge drinking than women are, although for both the demand for booze is relatively inelastic. It should be noted that the study is of college students only.

Let us assume that all three studies are accurate. What conclusions can we draw? Well, the most obvious one has to be that raising the price of booze will reduce overall consumption of alcohol - but mainly for moderate drinkers and women. Male binge drinkers are less likely to respond to price signals.

Indeed, the evidence that price does little to affect binge drinking is quite significant. As the ever-reliable Wikipedia notes, there is a tradition of binge drinking in Scandinavian countries, despite the historically high prices and restricted availability of alcohol. In southern Europe, by contrast, binge drinking is much less common, despite the relative cheapness of alcohol.

That's why today's proposals from the Scottish Government are largely irrelevant to the issue of tackling Scotland's drinking culture. Yes, the introduction of minimum prices will certainly have an effect on consumption, but only at the margins. And it's unlikely to do anything to tackle the uncomfortable fact that too many people in our society drink to get drunk. Until people learn how to drink responsibly, laws on booze are not going to make much difference. And we are currently a long, long way from that.

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