Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Florida holds 12-year-old child in solitary confinement

I heard this story first on Five Live this morning, and read it again here in a Florida on-line newspaper.

The newspaper story doesn't really give the full background to the case, which is pretty horrific. The 12-year-old involved, Cristian Fernandez, killed his 2-year-old brother, and it is for that which he is in jail. However, Cristian's mother was only 12 herself when he was born, and his own father - in his late teens at the time - didn't play any part in Cristian's upbringing in Miami. His mother then got together with the father of her younger son, still living in Miami. The stepfather was abusive to the children, physically, emotionally and sexually, before at some point killing himself. At this point Cristian's mother decided to move away from Miami, and headed north to Jacksonville.

It was at some point after then that Cristian killed his brother.

The prosecutor then decided to try Cristian as an adult for murder - something which, as I recall, still attracts the death penalty in Florida. He's therefore being held in an adult prison, along with adult prisoners - and if you've seen any of Louis Theroux's recent series you'll have an idea what conditions in Florida's adult prisons are like.

The prosecutors seem to think this is OK because he's being held in solitary confinement. A child in solitary confinement? That's bad enough for an adult, but children need to be active and moving about. He's stuck in a 30 square feet cell, only allowed out for 1 hour a day (and there's no certainty that he's been able to have this yet.) The only window is being shaded to stop others looking in (which wouldn't be a problem if he was in a juvenile centre.) His mother is elsewhere in the jail on related manslaughter charges, but prison rules prevent them visiting each other.

The thoughts of the prosecutor? "If I were the parents of a kid charged with petty theft, I would be outraged if someone charged with first-degree murder were there right beside them"

There just doesn't seem to be ant thought for the care of this particular child. Obviously I don't know much about the case itself, but given his background it likely that he carries a degree of emotional damage. I can't believe that a civilised society is prepared to treat its children like this - but then Florida does have a bit of a track record in this. Hopefully by raising this internationally the Florida prosecutors will reconsider - somehow I very much doubt it.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Why minimum alcohol pricing was - and still is - a bad idea

Willie Rennie has today said that he is going to seek support of the party for minimum alcohol pricing. Now, I know Willie has supported this for a number of years, and normally he gets these things right, but this time I have to disagree.

There's a number of reasons why I'm opposed. Firstly, will it actually work? Take the middle-class alcoholic (though he'd not admit it) for whom a whisky or glass of wine after work has become a "crutch", as Tony Blair once put it. Will a price rise affect him? Most likely not – he'll either already buy products above the price limit anyway, or will simply absorb it into his monthly spending.

What about the real, hardened addicted drinkers at the other end of the social scale? History suggests that when the price of drugs go up, it doesn't actually force addicts to turn round and question what they're spending the money on. Instead, they take it from their other expenditures, the addiction forcing them to find a way of getting alcohol. So that means maybe that the kids get one meal a day instead of two, or that their new school uniform is forgone in place of a few bottles of White Lightning. Without support, and without being able to admit suffering, these people will simply become worse off again under this proposal.

And that's the crux. An increase in duty, or a tax otherwise implemented by Westminster, could be allocated to direct help for alcohol problems. That I would support. But instead, the increased profits from the sale of alcohol won't go to help those who suffer from its effect – it will go straight into the profits of the drinks companies and their shareholders' dividends.

In his article on Liberal Democrat Voice, he does make a good point that there is already much legislation in place which needs to be better enforced. So why not do this first? What is it about the legislation around test sales which allows big companies' lawyers to wriggle their clients out of a suspension or withdrawal of licence? Why not spend some time sorting this out and trying what we've got?

If this policy is to be implemented, then there needs to be a discussion with the drinks companies on the excess profits which will be produced. If there's a way, even through a voluntary agreement, whereby the extra profit raised can be used by the Scottish Government for a clear plan to combat alcohol abuse, then I might be able to support this. Without this, though, we will end up in the situation where responsible drinkers are penalised unfairly and problem drinkers don't get the support they badly need because it can't be afforded.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

"The Scheme" - why it made me angry on so many levels

I watched "The Scheme" for the first time last night. I'd missed the original showings last year, but caught up with the original two episodes on iPlayer and saw the final one on TV.

There was a bit of a personal reason too - my wife grew up in the estate round the corner (New Farm) so knew some of the area. She was shocked at how much it had changed.

Firstly, on a political point. There was a scene in one of the episodes where a group of residents were speaking to their Councillors to try to get finance to help reopen the community centre which the Council had closed. What I noticed was that, while residents and council officers were quite happy for their faces to be broadcast clearly, the local councillors appeared to have had their faces blurred! Quite frankly, if, as a Councillor, you can't go in to a meeting in your own ward and be prepared to be photographed then you really shouldn't be a councillor. Incidentally, one of the Councillors for the area, Willie Coffey, is now the SNP MSP for the area. I'll put a link here to the page on the Council website so you can see who they are, although I should point out that there only appeared to be two councillors there and (obviously) as their faces were blurred I can't see who was present.

Secondly, it uncovered a raw underbelly of Scotland which we like to hide. The fact is, all middle-sized towns in Scotland have got an area like Onthank. There are people there, like the family trying to reopen the community centre, trying to make the best of their lives. But for too long we've tended to either forget or simply overlook this and concentrate on describing them as "sink estates".

Some of the people in the documentary clearly couldn't be bothered, but others - for example Marvin, Bullet's owner - seemed to be genuine in wanting to try to change. The thing is, they need support to do that, and need to be steered away from situations where they are again tempted to do drugs and other unsocial behaviours.

This needs investment from Councils, and a bit of thought too. Going back to the community centre, one of the problems the residents encountered was that it was going to cost £50,000 just to get it open, and the Council seemed to have given up on the idea. Now, I'm pretty certain that a bit of research and a bit of nouse could have found this money through grants and other fundraising - I can think of a number of local projects in Fife where this kind of money has been found for similar projects. I can't believe that East Ayrshire don't have similar kinds of funding, or access to similar grants.

We should be promoting community involvement in this way. If people feel part of their community, they're more likely to respect both the community area and the people in it. Councils should give people the ability and support that they need to take ownership of their community, through expertise and, yes, finance. We'll probably never be able to eliminate deprivation entirely, but what we can do is make sure that people have the ability and opportunity to move out of deprivation and on to a more successful, fulfilling life. In a country which prides itself in treating each person equally, we should be roundly embarrassed that there are areas like Onthank in every Scottish town, and ensuring we're improving the lives of people living there.

Legislating in haste - a dangerous step?

The Scottish Government have today announced their proposals to combat sectarianism in Scottish football, with a view to getting the legislation in place before the new season starts at the end of July.

I'm always pretty skeptical about legislation which is drafted in haste. Experience shows that it usually results in the laws being badly drafted, and need to be revisited within a couple of years. The good old Dangerous Dogs Act is the classic example of this.

The devil will be in the detail, but what concerns me is the notion of a new offence of "abuse." This will have to be very carefully worded, otherwise the spectre of fans being arrested for shouting at the referee or opposing players could well be rising.

I welcome the moves, though I am doubtful still about how much legislation will help the situation.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Why can't bigoted idiots stay away from our game?

[This was originally posted before Blogger had its hissy fit a couple of days ago. Now it's back!]

Another three events today sadly showed again the brain dead bigoted idiots rife in certain parts of Scottish football.

First, a Hearts fan is arrested and charged in connection with the assault of Celtic manager Neil Lennon at Tynecastle last night. Then, this morning, two men were arrested in connection with sending bombs to Lennon, Celtic's QC Paul McBride, and Trish Godman, a former MSP and Celtic fan. Finally, this afternoon, another suspicious package arrived at Celtic Park.

I'm an Aberdeen fan. I have no love for either half of the Old Firm (or Hearts, for that matter.) But I know that these idiots aren't representative of either Hearts fans or Rangers fans.

Sectarianism is often referred to as "Scotland's secret shame." Actually, it's not as rife across Scotland as it may be in Glasgow and the West - I grew up in Fife not understanding why the Old Firm couldn't stand each other, had no real idea what an Orange Order march was, or why the "Fields of Athenry" could be seen as anything other than an Irish song. Even so, it does pollute much of Scottish life.

I'm not sure that there's much more Rangers & Celtic can do. They've worked hard to try to rid their crowds of these twits, to varying degrees of success - Rangers still have a bit to go and were recently fined by UEFA for fans behaviour. Maybe though, the Scottish football authorities need to look more not at financial penalties, which, frankly, don't affect fans, but instead consider points penalties - 6 or 9 at the minimum. That's a penalty which the fans understand, and which will hurt their pride.

There's been a murdurrrr........

[This was originally posted before Blogger had its hissy fit a couple of days ago. Now it's back!]

"There's been a murder, Sir."

"No' again, Jardine. Where this time?"

"Maryhill, Sir. Up near the canal, behind Firhill. It's a 28 year old male. Media's all over it like a rash."

"Media.... Cause of death?"

"Multiple cuts, Sir. Folks are blaming it on the English."

"Why - I didn't think Alex Salmond was that young."

"Naw, it's no' him. The body's no' that big. Apparently the victim just wasn't popular anymore. Something about not being original enough."

"Did they try to revive him?"

"A bit. They gave him a shot but apparently the damage was too bad. We've got a couple of suspects, though."


"Aye. Some posh bloke called Fellowes. Lives in some place called Downton Abbey."

"Downton Abbey? Wherr's that?"

"Dunno. Apparently it only appears if you're in England and Wales."

"What are you waiting for then, Jardine? Get him in here now..."

[cue dramatic guitar music]

Congratulations Willie!

OK, so it was more of a coronation than an election, but the right guy won. If there was any doubt, I've just heard an interview with Willie on Radio Scotland and it's clear he's really "up for it."

It's a new era then, and time now for the Scottish party to move onwards. We do need to consider carefully where things went wrong and where we go now, learning from mistakes. Willie mentioned in the interview that you can't simply forget about the Coalition - it does affect our lives in Scotland, after all - but I still think we need to be clearer about policies for Scotland where we do things differently and why.

Willie mentioned tonight that "we're all Liberal Democrats" but at the same time, Lord Steel makes the excellent point that the Scottish party is separate from England and is technically independent of the coalition. I know Willie listens, and I hope he'll take this on board.


The Burd has put this post on Better Nation which I think puts quite succinctly the difference between Liberal Democrats in England and Scottish Liberal Democrats. For the record, I think Willie is much more on the Scottish side than the English one!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Scottish football - it's way over the top now...

Before Blogger had its wee brainstorm last week and ate two of my posts (including one on Taggart which I was particularly proud of but can't recreate) I had posted on the idiocy surrounding Scottish football, primarily the Old Firm.

Today, a suspicious package was sent to Cowdenbeath FC addressed to Donald Findlay QC, the club chairman and a former (and well known) vice-chairman of Rangers. Now, I don't think it was particularly clever of an apparently educated man like Mr Findlay to decide to get on stage with Rangers fans and sing various sectarian songs, but I don't think that even he deserves that. Add in to the fact that Cowdenbeath manager Jimmy Nicholl is a former Rangers player, and it just becomes more suspicious.

People who think it's OK to send bombs or bullets through the post simply aren't football fans - they're also pretty well not human. We need to stop thinking of this as "a football problem" and accept that it is one of society. There seems to just be something about Scotland that seems to be happy to let these vermin fester without some form of reproach.

All this "whithering" makes my head hurt...

So I get home tonight looking for a little light relief, only to find an email from my Group chair preparing for a meeting on Saturday by asking me to describe in no more than 10 words "what went wrong?" Aaargh!

Seriously, though, it's good that there's so much opportunity to direct the debate. James Taylor makes some good points here on how Willie could be our John Swinney (although I would hope his time as leader would be a little less riven by factionalism and division within the party and ends a little more successfully.) There are, though, a couple of points where I disagree.

Our targetted seats policy has worked strongly since it was properly developed in the late 1980s / 90s. It also develops a degree of realism about what we as a party can expect to do. Even in the good days, we still weren't gaining huge amounts of votes in the Lanarkshire / Central Scotland heartlands of Labour - I lost my deposit in Motherwell & Wishaw in 2003, despite us generally increasing our vote. In fact, the only time we haven't lost deposits there was in the 2005 General Election, and it was really after that we should have been capitalising.

Targetting allows us to aim scarce resources in areas where we have an established support. Come 2016, we'll need to concentrate hard on winning back seats like NE Fife, Edinburgh Western and the Aberdeenshire ones, and simply won't be able to spend much more than the deposit cash on the likes of Cowdenbeath. In many ways, this will be easier than gaining seats on the list because there's more of a base already there and the list vote was generally worse than on the list.

I understand also James' points about "what gets measured gets done" but one thing the party has become increasingly guilty of in recent years is asking more and more of members, many of whom will also have day jobs or families to balance against what they want to do for the party. If the party was to start saying "we need to double the number of leaflets delivered" there has to be some thought for people who are going to do it. One thing which Willie is excellent at is bringing in new activists -he certainly did in Dunfermline - but he can't do this across all of Scotland on his own!

If there are to be changes to the party in Scotland, though, it's essential that this is opened out to all members and not left to "senior party members" or party committees to decide. Personally, I still think a conference is the way to go on this - preferably soon, before the summer holidays, but if not then at the time of the October conference.

Anyway, I'm off to try to summarise all that in 10 words. Or I might just try to master quantum physics before bedtime tonight - that might be easier....

Friday, 13 May 2011

Willie Rennie for Scottish Leader

I was delighted to sign Willie's nomination forms for the leadership of the Scottish Liberal Democrats the other day. Within about an hour or so of Tavish Scott's resignation, I had posted on Facebook saying that Willie should stand.

I've worked pretty closely with Willie over the last 5 years or so; three of them as a Councillor for an area covered by his constituency. There's two things about Willie which really stand out - his energy, and his ability to connect with the man on the street.

Sometimes, Willie can seem almost like a hyperactive child - certainly, during his election campaigns, he was on the go from early morning until late evening, and even when not on the stump he was working a 6 or 7 day week as an MP, knocking on doors and talking to people across the Dunfermline & West Fife constituency. Maybe it comes from the coal-carrying training, but he really does have the ability to keep people going!

He is also brilliant at talking and connecting with people. He has quite a personal style - for a politician, I think people really relate to him and think "this is a guy I can talk to openly." He's as comfortable talking to workers knocking off from Rosyth dockyard as he is talking to the Babcock senior management, for example. 

Both of these are things which the Scottish Liberal Democrats need right now. His energy and enthusiasm will be vital in reinvigorating what is, frankly, a bit of a demoralised party. His personality will connect directly with people, getting our message across in a way which I think we've not really done recently.

I know that nominations don't close until Monday, but I can't really see past Willie for the time being. I'm really excited about the potential for his leadership and am looking forward to his election.

Should the Treasury release the tax figures for Scotland now?

If / when there is a referendum on independence (I'm not convinced that Salmond is actually serious about having one) one of the key debating points will be the income from taxation and general points on the economy. This will be vital in many ways to both sides of the argument - to the pro-independence supporters to prove that independence if viable, and to the pro-Union supporters to prove the opposite.

In my opinion, it's vital that these are released early by the Treasury, and they will have to both be and be seen to be independently verified (though since it's a UK function releasing the figures, there'll have to be some trust there and even I can see the problems with this.) The Treasury has always ducked the questions on the economy, but I'd like to see these facts issued now and regularly updated so that the debate over the next few months / years is properly informed and educated.

Incidentally, I had a conversation recently with someone who used to work closely with a well-known and prominent economist. This economist was prevented from going public because of his employment, but he was insistent that he could prove that Scotland could be viable as an independent country. Now, I'm not in favour of independence, and neither was the person I spoke to, but the economist concerned is sufficiently high in stature that you do start to question whether it might be possible. If the Treasury were to release the information now, it would at least give economists and academics time to review and consider their impact.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Still not sure Nick quite gets it....

Nick Clegg's speech to the National Liberal Club today was supposed to be the start of the new "muscular liberalism" in the Coalition. In itself, the speech isn't too controversial. There were, though, two blindingly obvious things which I think were missing.

Nick clearly still doesn't get the problem about tuition fees. The reason people have attacked the party isn't just because of the policy itself. It's because we promised one thing, then did another. It was the hypocrisy, the broken promises, which we were supposed to be above. Never mind the fact that the change itself may or may not have been better than what was there before. Nick is correct in saying that both the Tories and Labour supported tuition fees, and we'd never get the full policy through. So why not stick to our guns, and let them form a one-off coalition in favour?

It also resulted in the silly situation where some of our Scottish MPs were voting for an increase in the cap in England whilst later campaigning in Scotland against any tuition fees at all. That was just wrong.

But what people want is for us just to apologise. Elton John may have described it as the hardest word, but is it so difficult to say "sorry"? I'm not sure we'll really be able to move on until we do.

Nick also simply forgot Scotland. Now, I know that the losses in England were bad. But, as Caron Lindsay points out here a wee bit of thanks to the MSPs who lost seats wouldn't have gone amiss. People like Iain Smith, Ross Finnie, and Jim Tolson, who have all given much, much longer service to the party than many (including Nick) and who have seen us through the hard times before.

So, nothing bad in the speech, just underwhelming. Maybe there's another one coming. Just as long as it isn't allowing people to buy places at universities. Now, what numpty thought of that one.....

[added later]

Jennie Rigg puts the whole point on tuition fees brilliantly here. One day, I shall blog as well.....

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Max Mosley & privacy laws

Max Mosley doesn't seem to me to be the kind of person I'd choose to spend time with. His time at the FIA led to continuous battles with Bernie Ecclestone and the F1 teams, mainly around his own attempts to build a fiefdom. Does that mean, though, that he doesn't have the right to a private life?

We've seen recently a spate of 'superinjunctions' taken by celebrities, and also other actions to prevent publication of potentially damaging stories, including one preventing publication of details of an industial tribunal. Now, I don't have a problem with publishing stories where there is a clear public interest. So, neither the politician who parades his family on photocalls while having a girlfriend on the side, nor the celebrity who works for an anti-drug campaign yet sniffs coke on a night out should feel safe from the media.

But where there's no hypocrisy, corruption, or criminality, I don't think we should pry. It would be great to think that this could be done without legislation, but the press has shown over many years that it isn't really capable of self-regulation in this way as the need to sell papers inevitably holds sway.

In general, what Max Mosley gets up to in his spare time, and what damage it does to his marriage, is of no real concern to me - likewise the footballer and the Big Brother star, or the actor and the prostitute. If the press really think that they can self-regulate, then let's see it working. Let's have a clear definition of 'public interest' from the Press Complaints Commission so we all know where we stand, and - when a paper gets it wrong - clear apologies which are equally prominent to the original story with no distracting features alongside.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Monday after the Friday before...

The quote at the top of this blog - and the idea for its title - comes from a speech made by former Scottish Liberal Party Leader Sir Russell Johnston, and was posted on Facebook over the weekend. It's pretty apt, I thought.

Friday was probably the worst day in the 20 or so years I've been active in politics. If there'd been something that had been the fault of any of our MSPs, then it would have been understandable. Instead, the election showed the effect that the English-based media had on us, and add in some pretty shoddy reporting in Scotland and there really wasn't much hope. It also sent a pretty clear message from Scotland to England - we don't like what the coalition is doing

I didn't think Tavish had to resign. I'm not sure that there's much more he could have done to keep the campaign on track. But if he felt that he couldn't do it, or didn't want to, then fair enough. So where do we go from here? How do we climb the mountain?

Well, firstly we need a new leader who understands the concerns members have about the coalition. He or she needs to be able to express their distance from London when needed. And he or she needs to be able to communicate directly with the people, explaining policy in a way they understand. Personally, I hope Willie Rennie stands and gets the job - I know from working with him in Fife that he has all these qualities in bucketloads.

We also need to look at the party. Do we continue as we are, or do we have to consider other models to get our distinctively Scottish agenda across? Should we consider a looser arrangement with the English party,like the CDU/CSU in Germany, or do we go for a wholescale split, and set up like the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland? To paraphrase Sir Russell again, can we change the bottle without changing the taste of
the whisky?

I'm confident we'll fight back. We've been here before, and we still have the knowledge and expertise to battle on. With the right leader and a strong team of councillors and MPs, there's still something to
work with.

Finally, I don't intend this blog to be a really heavy, deep political one - there's enough of that already. At least, though, it'll give me the chance to rant a bit about things in writing!