Friday, 30 April 2010


It’s fair game to have a go at politicians at present. You can criticise them for everything from MPs’ expenses to not giving full and honest answers. But there’s a missing element in all this.

The public needs to play its part too. If it wants honest politics, it must be willing to recognise it when it sees it, and give it its due.

Nowhere has this been more clearly on display than over the role immigration is playing in this election.

We in the Liberal Democrats have been aware for a long time about people’s concerns about immigration. I personally don’t feel it’s as much of a threat as others do, and I feel some of the sensationalist media have whipped up a frenzy about foreigners claiming excessive benefits that bears little relation to reality. But sometimes the perception is as important as the reality, so it was something that had to be tackled.

So we tackled it. We set out to assess the current situation, to find out what the extent of the black market – some of it controlled by extremely nasty gangs – really is, and to work out a policy that is fair and makes sense.

What we’ve come up with is a proposal to be stricter with our border controls, and to make permission to come to this country conditional on whether the skills an immigrant can offer are needed in the area he/she wants to work in.

That has gone down very well, but the message has been distorted by how another aspect of our policy has been hijacked by those looking to score cheap points and discredit our ideas. I’m talking about what’s become known as our proposed ‘amnesty’.

We recognise that there are several hundred thousand people in this country who arrived illegally and are working in a shady underworld, often being paid by gangs, frequently in poor and threatening conditions. We’re saying that any of those who have been here for 10 years, speak good English and have no criminal record can apply to become legalised. Even then they wouldn’t have access to benefits for two years. That would mean we find out who a lot of these people are, and they'd start paying tax and contributing to the community.

I share the reservations of many that we’re retrospectively condoning something that was illegal – yes, that goes against the grain. But we have to start from where we are, not where we’d like to be, and our proposals are fair, constructive and make sense.

But now we have people screaming it’s an ‘amnesty’, that it’ll increase our rate of immigration (this has happened in some countries where they have had similar ‘amnesties’ but wouldn’t happen here because of our stricter border controls), and that we’re not listening to people. Instead, people are falling for David Cameron’s unspecified and unrealistic ‘cap’ on immigration, and the threats by both parties to deport immigrants. How can they deport people when they don’t even know where many of them are!

People must make up their own minds about which party best reflects what they stand for. But anyone pining for a better politics must also be willing to accept common sense solutions when presented to them, and not take refuge in a few carefully crafted sound bites that appeal to the heart but have little or no bearing on reality.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


It was Harold Wilson who said 'A week is a long time in politics'. How out of date that now sounds - 90 minutes is the new record after Nick Clegg's performance on Thursday night turned our traditional two-party democracy into a true three-party system.

In her analysis in the Sussex Express of 9 April, Susan King predicted that, of the six constituencies in the Express circulation area, five are likely to return an MP of the same party as last time, with only Eastbourne hanging in the balance. That was a reasonably fair assessment before last Thursday's first televised debate, but it's now looking a little less certain.

This was always a difficult election to call, because no-one could be quite sure how the MPs' expenses and cash for lobbying scandals would play out with the public. With the TV debate having firmly established three-party politics in this country, 'safe' seats are suddenly no longer so safe.

What irritated me about Susan King's otherwise fair analysis of the likely outcomes is that it carried an implicit overtone that it’s not worth voting unless you live in Eastbourne. (Credit incidentally to the Express for printing my complaint in this week's paper when they could have hidden behind a pre-election curfew on candidates' letters.)

But that's missing a very obvious point. Just as Manchester United would start at 0-0 in a cup tie against lowly opposition, so all the candidates in all the constituencies start at zero votes, and a rush of apathy or a last-minute reason to switch allegiance could yet produce some shock results.

With Nick Clegg's performance in the TV debate having changed the nature of the whole campaign, that indicates that, even if Charles Hendry represents Manchester United in our analogy of the Wealden constituency, the Lib Dems aren't a League Two side but from the Championship or even Premier League. And the thought of Wealden having a Lib Dem MP isn't quite so far-fetched as it was at 8.30pm last Thursday.

It would still be a major shock if we won this seat, but the Conservatives are no longer a shoo-in for victory. I have met people who have been very impressed with Nick's performance and who are voting Lib Dem having not originally expected to be. A few thousand of those and we really will have a shock result.

I'm also encouraged by Charles Hendry's own slogan 'Vote for Change'. I hope the Wealden voters take him literally, and vote to change the Wealden MP!

But even for those who believe Wealden won't change this time, there is more reason to vote Lib Dem than normal. The overall popular vote – the total votes cast for each party nationally – could have a strong moral role to play if no single party has an overall majority, so even in the supposedly ‘safe’ seats, there is more reason than usual to vote.

And after all, it’s only our corrupt voting system that renders so many votes apparently worthless in the first place. Hopefully this will be the last general election at which we use this discredited system, so there can never be an excuse again that voting Lib Dem - or any other party for that matter - is a wasted vote.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


This business about Labour’s proposed increase in national insurance contributions, the Conservatives’ ‘promise’ to abolish it, and the ‘support’ of a couple of dozen business leaders for the Tory position is really doing my head in.

And if this is a sign of how the election is going to be fought, then one of the most exciting elections in living memory will soon turn into a tawdry round of bitching over empty promises and shabby tactics.

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear: the Conservatives’ sums don’t add up. All the political commentators agree this, it’s why Vince Cable was able to land that powerful blow on George Osborne in the ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate last week, and even Tories themselves don’t believe it.

Look back through the records and they’re doing exactly what they said they’d never do – making promises they couldn’t keep. How do they hope to fund the abolition of the rise in national insurance? Through ‘efficiency savings’. But they haven’t identified these savings – it’s just a case of relying on the moanings of a couple of retired civil servants, who say there are various ways of cutting costs. Well there may be, but no-one has worked out how much.

It’s absolutely clear what’s going on. The Conservatives are making a mad dash for a policy that they hope people won’t see through in the four weeks left before the election.

But if that’s shoddy enough, what’s even shoddier is the way a couple of dozen chief executives and a handful of leaders of business associations jumped on a carefully staged bandwagon to ‘support’ the Conservatives’ plans to avoid the NI 1% rise.

It’s clear what happened. They decided they wanted to see a Tory government, and worked out a cunning plan for how to help sway the opinion polls. They waited for Alistair Darling’s budget, picked on something that would make a few headlines, and coordinated their attack to follow on the heels of the Conservatives’ absurd finance.

Frankly it’s gutter politics, and in the days since then, I have looked at the likes of Sainsbury’s, M&S and other names whose chief executives signed up to the letter to The Times in a different light. I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be through the door of those shops in future.

As it happens, my view is to oppose the national insurance increase, but for totally different reasons than any so far cited.

My years of experience in the environmental movement have told me that the best way to attack pollution, climate change and general wastage of resources is to tax those activities and lower the cost of employing people. In other words, you put the tax on polluting transport and unrenewable energy, and reduce employers’ national insurance contributions.

You’d have thought at least one of the chief executives might have seen that, wouldn’t you! They could then have claimed the moral high ground, bolstered David Cameron’s fragile, skin-deep claim to be ‘green’, and looked a little statesmanlike. But that’s the problem with dirty tricks – they get so dirty that you lose sight of what you’re working for, which ought to be a better society.

One of the Liberal Democrats’ four central policies at this election is a revived economy based on taxing the worst activity and releasing the constraints on employment. It’s known in modern shorthand as ‘green jobs’. That’s the reason why the national insurance rise is misguided, and it’s miles removed from George Osborne’s risible faux finances.

Thursday, 1 April 2010


It was the percentage that struck me. Twenty-eight people, who had been arrested by Sussex Police but were later found to have committed no crime, applied for their DNA to be expunged from the police database. Only one request was granted, a rate of 3.6% that put Sussex Police bottom of a national league table of police forces.

So I wrote to the chief constable, asking for an explanation. I made it clear I wasn’t seeking to undermine the great job the police do, but that there were civil liberties at stake and I found the statistic alarming.

That led to me having a meeting with two of the force’s most senior community police officers (I won’t give their names given how close we are to a general election), which just happened to take place the same day the government published its proposed revised guidance on holding DNA samples.

A bit of history here. The government currently allows the police to take DNA samples from anyone they arrest or caution, and to keep those samples ad infinitum. The ad infinitum part has been ruled inadmissible by the European Court for Human Rights, which said – rightly in my view – that the DNA of innocent people could not be kept indefinitely.

So the government now has to propose revised rules, and it’s done so. It wants to keep innocent people’s DNA for six years. To me that’s excessive, and it was described by the Lib Dems’ Home Affairs spokesperson in the Lords, Sally Hamwee, as ‘excessive and potentially illegal’. Another legal challenge could well be in the offing.

In the meantime, what is a poor police force to do? Sussex Police have taken the view that, until the guidance is revised and such guidance is accepted, it will continue to hold DNA samples unless it’s absolutely clear that a person was arrested with no connection to the crime under investigation or any other crime.

This explains the 3.6% – and here’s the rub.

If we want the police to do a job, we need to give them all reasonable means to do it. That includes DNA, and also fingerprinting which seems less emotive but in most respects has the same status as DNA. If you have a case where, say, police are called to a domestic disturbance, there’s a suggestion of violence so they arrest a suspect but no charges are pressed, it’s probably right for that person’s DNA to stay on the record books for a reasonable period of time.

But what happens when you get a case like the Crowborough businessman Sal Miah, who was arrested and later given a caution after attempting to protect his restaurant from youths who tried to break in? The police later apologised and a senior officer said the caution has been revoked and the DNA and fingerprints are being destroyed. But because Mr Miah was cautioned, it isn’t a simple case of destroying the DNA, and until the full process has run its course, his details remain on a database along with convicted criminals.

That’s the bit that doesn’t feel right, but I don’t think we should turn our fire on the police but on the government. They need to give us a workable Crime and Security Bill that allows police to keep the DNA of reasonable suspects for a reasonable time, so the police can do their job and civil liberties can be ensured.

I trust the police. They’re professional, motivated by a desire to solve crime, and while there are occasional cases of police malpractice, they’re the exception, not the rule (they’re newsworthy because they’re so rare). And the vast majority of police officers respect the need for civil liberties to be protected – that’s why sensible government guidelines are a potential win/win in this highly emotive issue.