Posts Tagged Liberal Democrats

Facing the future – your chance to shape party policy

Liberal Democrats are generally proud of our democratic policy-making process, and the quality of its content – if sometimes also bemused by its sheer quantity.

Policy documents tend to have imposing but vague titles, inviting a bit of a guessing game as to their real subject, like “The Power to be Different” (local government), or a recent favourite “Are we being served?” (consumer policy).

One where the title definitely fits is “Facing the Future”, one of two policy groups on which I currently serve. The party usually has a general policy review after each General Election. This time we have the additional challenge of the coalition, making developing a distinctive policy programme for the next election more important than ever.

Our remit is not so much to come up with answers as to define the questions that our next round of policy papers should address. I’ve been particularly keen to include questions on responding to climate change, and on the social impact of new technology. Comments welcome by email, by 31st October.

And my other policy working group? It’s the one on information technology and intellectual property, set up in response to the emergency motion I proposed at the Spring 2010 conference, and ably chaired by Cambridge MP (and motion seconder) Julian Huppert. Contributions to the policy debate are welcome by email .
Comments should reach Julian as soon as possible, and no later than 31st October 2010. Fancy names not needed!

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LibDem Blog of the Year nomination – thank you!

This weekend I’ll be off to Liverpool for LibDem conference, leaving Richard in charge of the kittens. Or vice versa.

Conference will be different this year. With LibDems in government, we’ll be mingling with Ministers – once we’ve got past the extra security. Recent conferences had become dominated by candidate training and networking. Now I’m looking forward to having more time to join the debate, and relax with fellow campaigners.

Nothing could have been less relaxed than Spring conference. By the time we got to March 2010, I hadn’t intended to go at all. Then came the campaign on the Digital Economy Bill, and a last minute dash to Birmingham to get our emergency motion passed.

Most of that campaign was done online, using this blog, as well as LibDem Voice, Facebook & Twitter – the medium aligned with the message. Now my blogging’s been shortlisted in the LibDem Blog of the Year awards.

Thank you to everyone who nominated me. Even more reasons to look forward to conference!

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Another busy week – Amnesty, Oxfam, the Packington, and more

Once again, I’ve been too busy to update my blog for a bit. Not for lack of news or views, but lack of time to share them.

So here’s another quick roundup:

I’ve been busy lobbying away on the Digital Economy Bill, including signing a letter to the Guardian and speaking to the Open Rights Group anti-disconnection rally.

I spoke at a public meeting on asylum and immigration issues, organised by the local Amnesty International group. I am a longterm supporter of Amnesty International – I used to host letter writing groups in my home – and I am a Friend of the Refugee Council. During my time as deputy leader of Islington Council, and one of my most enjoyable roles was carrying out the citizenship ceremonies to welcome new citizens to the borough and hearing their very different and often moving stories. So I am keen to support the Let Them Work campaign.

It’s shameful that asylum seekers are kept in poverty, even criminalised, instead of being allowed to work; meanwhile the dehumanising bureaucracy takes years to process their cases while costing us all a fortune. By working asylum seekers, many of them highly-educated, could support themselves and their families, put their skills to service in society, and pay taxes. Jeremy Corbyn MP, who spoke as well, completely agrees with the LibDems on this: unfortunately his Government does not.

I’ve continued my programme of visits to locally-based charities with a interesting meeting with RNID; several members of my family live with hearing loss, and I suffered severe (thankfully temporary) hearing loss for some months a few years ago, so RNID’s work is close to my heart. They do excellent, practical work championing hearing tests, and pressing for sensible access measures, like ensuring that inductive loops actually work. More dramatically, research they are funding could lead to a cure for noise-induced hearing loss.

This week I’ve been popping back and forth to Westminster too. On Saturday I was at the Scout Association’s ‘Virgin Voters’ event, meeting first-time voters and young citizens to hear their views. Top priorities were affordable transport and student funding, as well as concerns about cleaning up politics, climate change, and jobs, that voters of all ages might well share.

On Wednesday, I started the day in Westminster, chairing a meeting for Oxfam on climate change. It’s easy to despair in the face of the challenge of climate change. Communities in some of the poorest nations are already living with droughts or floods – or, in the case of Pakistan, both. Oxfam’s projects there show how you can tackle poverty and work with the grain of local people while tackling climate change too: very inspiring.

There have been celebrations this week, a welcome chance to unwind after canvassing: on Saturday, I joined the Zimmers party for lead singer Alf Carretta’s birthday. On Tuesday we were marking 50 years of the Islington Society. On Wednesday night, the party was for Bob Gilbert, the much-loved green guru of Islington, who is taking early retirement from the Council to be a fulltime Dad and writer. And on Thursday I was celebrating the completion of phase 1 of the Packington estate. Beautiful canalside flats, all for local tenants from the old Packingon Square, a great achievement by the residents in partnership with Hyde Housing and Rydon.

Thursday also marked the end of an era, with the last Islington Council meeting before the local elections on 6 May. There are many good councillors retiring, including my colleagues Lucy Watt, Ruth Polling and former leader James Kempton. But the real sadness is the death of Councillor Donna Boffa, just a week ago. She was an amazing woman, who, in her short life, did what all politicians should aspire to do: make a difference. My tribute to her will be online soon.

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Liberal Democrat frontbench statement on the Digital Economy Bill

There’s been a lot of noise about the apparent lack of noise from LibDem MPs on the Digital Economy Bill (which in classic Labour style is about to be railroaded through the Commons).

Like many others, I’ve been lobbying away on this topic and am glad to have now received this statement from Don Foster and the Lib Dem Department of Culture, Media and Sport team (bold bits are my emphases):


The Digital Economy Bill is wide ranging and covers not just illegal file sharing and downloads from illegal websites, but issues such as a new remit for Channel 4, the classification of computer games, plans for switchover to digital radio and the future of regional news on ITV. We believe that these other parts of the Bill are extremely important and must be allowed to go into law.

We understand, however, that the proposals relating to website blocking and file sharing are controversial. Many people have expressed fears that the Bill will be rushed into law without proper examination.

We recognise the significant damage to the creative industries of downloading from illegal websites and initially sought measures to address this. However, there has been limited time for consultation and very little time before final decisions are made. We, therefore, do not believe that measures to address site blocking can reasonably be included in the Digital Economy Bill and we will not support any such measures.

There has been much longer and wider debate about actions to address illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. The Liberal Democrats are unconvinced of the merits of measures such as temporary account suspension or bandwidth throttling. This is why we have amended the Bill to ensure that they cannot be introduced without proper consultation and not until evidence has been produced to prove that they are the best available option. We also want to ensure that any measures will be subject to maximum scrutiny in parliament and that it will be possible to change them before a final decision is made.
The passing of the Bill will only be the start of a long process with many stages and many more opportunities for scrutiny. Indeed, the controversial parts of the Bill will need to be scrutinised and voted upon by the next parliament before they can be brought into law. Liberal Democrats MPs would not support these sections of the Bill without this process.

Already we have helped ensure significant changes to the Bill so that “technical measures” such as account suspension or bandwidth reduction will never be possible unless;
1. copyright infringers are notified by letter, without any risk of their internet connection being affected, for at least a year
2. an evaluation of the effectiveness of such “soft measures” is undertaken
3. an evaluation of the need for, and likely effectiveness of, technical measures has been completed
4. further consultation has taken place
5. proposed legislation is brought before parliament for decision, and
6. any process to disconnect users explicitly assumes their innocence until they are proven guilty

We have also urged the music, film and videogames industries to work more urgently to develop easy and affordable ways to legally access their products in the hope that, combined with “soft measures” and an effective education campaign, disconnection is never required.

Liberal Democrats have agreed at their Spring Conference to establish a working party to address these issues. With at least a year before there will be any attempt to introduce “technical measures”, this will provide an opportunity for the party to consider the outcome of research into the effectiveness of the “soft measures” (letter writing).

However, despite the changes we have helped to achieve, we believe that there is still more to do in respect of the proposed system for tackling peer-to-peer file-sharing. We will take further action in the Commons to improve the legislation. For instance,

We believe there is inadequate protection in the Bill for schools, libraries, universities and other businesses offering internet access to the public.

When the Bill is passed, Ofcom will have to draw up a code regulating how the notifications system works. We do not think Ofcom will have enough time to draw up this code. If the public are to have confidence in the new system, Ofcom will need more than the six months it is given by the Bill.

We have already opposed – and helped defeat – government proposals to give itself powers to change copyright law almost at will. We will oppose any attempt to reinstate such powers in the Commons.

Our goal is to support the creative industries while at the same time fully acknowledging the issues of rights and freedoms for the individual that arise as internet technology advances.

There are some who believe that no action should be taken to address the problems caused by copyright infringements on the internet. While we accept that the initial proposals from the government and the much later proposals in respect of website blocking went too far, we do not believe that the problems can be ignored.

A report published on 17th March 2010 predicted that a quarter of a million jobs in the UK’s creative industries could be lost by 2015 if current trends in online piracy continue.

Commenting on it, Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, said: “The results of the study stress that the growth of unauthorised file-sharing, downloading and streaming of copyrighted works and recorded performances is a major threat to the creative industries in terms of loss of employment and revenues. The scale of the problem is truly frightening now – let alone in the future if no firm actions against illegal file-sharing are taken.”

Our goal is to support the creative industries while at the same time fully acknowledging the issues of rights and freedoms for the individual that arise as internet technology advances. In other words action should only be taken if it is appropriate, proportionate and necessary in a democratic society.

This won’t satisfy all the critics of the Digital Economy Bill, but at last we have the keenly-awaited clear assurance that Liberal Democrat MPs, as a party, will vote against web-blocking.

This is good news and continues to set us apart from the other main parties.

For more of my reaction, see my piece over on Liberal Democrat Voice.

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‘Freedom, creativity and the internet’ debate to go ahead tomorrow

I got the glad tidings by phone at 11am but have not had the chance to sit down and blog about it until now. I have however been busy in my constituency, counting cats and playing ‘Where’s Wally’, of which maybe more anon.

Anyway, I am now back in Birmingham, where my colleague Ruth Polling had the foresight to book a twin room, in which I am now busy refining my speech procrastinating by blogging.

Mark Pack has helpfully outlined the process thus far, including some positive noises from the LibDem front bench.

The Federal Conference Committee did give our original motion a fair hearing but asked for it to be shortened and tidied up, to comply better with the definition of an emergency motion. That was a blessing in disguise as it enabled us to add in a request for a party policy working group on the topic, which is long overdue (as the events precipitating this debate have shown only too clearly).

So the revised text which I’ll be proposing tomorrow is as follows:

Emergency motion 1

Submitting organisation: 21 Voting Representatives

Mover: Bridget Fox
Summation: Julian Huppert

Freedom, creativity & the internet

Conference notes with concern amendment 120a to the Digital Economy Bill which facilitates website-blocking for alleged copyright infringement and which was passed on 3 March 2010.

Conference however welcomes the stand of Liberal Democrat MEPs against website-blocking and the secrecy of the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations, condemned by the European Data Protection Supervisor for endangering internet users’ fundamental rights.

Conference believes that this amendment to the Digital Economy Bill

a)would alter UK copyright law in a way which would permit courts to order the blocking of websites following legal action by rights-holders

b)would be open to widespread anti-competitive and civil liberties abuses, as the experience with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act illustrates

c)could have a chilling effect on the internet, freedom of expression, competition and innovation as Internet Service Providers take down and/or block websites to avoid facing the costs of legal action

d)may be illegal under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and other EU law

Conference condemns

a)website-blocking and disconnecting internet connections as a response to copyright infringement

b)the threat to the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals and businesses from the monitoring of their internet activity, the potential blocking of their websites and the potential termination of their internet connections, which could lead to the closure of internet hotspots and open wifi operated by small businesses, local councils, universities, libraries and others

c)the Digital Economy Bill for focusing on illegal filesharing rather than on nurturing creativity and innovative business models

Conference supports

a)the principle of net neutrality, through which all content, sites and platforms are treated equally by user access networks participating in the Internet

b)the rights of creators and performers to be rewarded for their work in a way that is fair, proportionate and appropriate to the medium

Conference therefore opposes excessive regulatory attempts to monitor, control and limit internet access or internet publication, whether at local, national, European or global level.

Conference calls on the Federal Policy Committee to commission a new policy working group to draw up a full policy paper on Information Technology and related aspects of intellectual property which should, in particular, consider:

1.Reform of copyright legislation to allow fair use and to release from copyright protection works which are no longer available legally or whose authors cannot be identified (orphan works).

2.The ‘common carrier’ concept, under which internet service providers would not be liable for material that they may carry unknowingly on their networks.

3.The creation of a level playing field between the traditional, copyright-based business model and alternative business models which may rely on personal copying and legal filesharing.

I’m delighted that we’ve still got the ‘meat’ of our motion, and that we’ve added in that policy group bit. It may not mean much to the wider world, but it ensures that the party can’t simply pass this motion and think ‘job done’.

I really should get back to my speech now, but will just pause to thank the fabulous #ldsavenet team who have got us thus far: motion drafter Obhi Chatterjee, Julian Huppert whose one minute wonder of a speech today persuaded conference to prioritise our motion, plus Mike Cooper, David Wright, David Matthewman, the LibDem Voice team, and everyone who has enthusiastically talked, texted and tweeted to get this issue debated.

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Digital Economy Bill and web-blocking: the debate continues

The emergency motion to LibDem conference on ‘Freedom, creativity and the internet’ has passed its first hurdle, having been approved by our Federal Conference Committee for debate.

Although slightly shortened to meet the criteria for emergency motions, it’s added a request for a proper policy working group on the issues, which if passed means we can get a decent IT policy going forward.

Still two stages to go. Just as potential candidates have to go on the approved list, then get selected for a seat, before fighting an election, so our motion now has to get selected before conference has a chance to debate it.

That selection takes place later today, in a conference vote just before 11am. I will be pounding the streets of Islington, awaiting the verdict from Birmingham, while my colleague Julian Huppert speaks up for our motion at conference.

Last night I was up in Brum myself, promoting our motion in particular, and the idea that LibDems should stand up against authoritarianism in general, at the LibDem Voice fringe meeting. It was great to have LibDem Chief Whip Paul Burstow acknowledge the good work behind our motion, and to hear him urge conference reps to turn up and vote for it.

The centrepiece of the meeting was the launch of the new ‘Rank your MP’ site – or, as Alex Wilcock mischeviously renamed it, ‘How rank is your MP?’. It looks at how liberal or authoritarian your MP’s voting record is. In an age where traditional party political loyalties break down and people are passionate on individual issues, this is great way to help floating voters pin down where their MPs are coming from.

If our motion wins today’s vote, I’ll be coming back to Birmingham to debate it on Sunday morning. That high-speed rail link can’t come soon enough….

Earlier in the week I was debating the web-blocking bill, plus issues as diverse as hung parliaments and the future of Royal Mail, without having to leave the constituency. Not a local hustings, but the House of Comments podcast, convened by Mark Thompson of MarkReckons.

It’s yet another example of the liberating power of the internet that our panel could meet and debate from many locations on equal terms, in my case from the comfort of the Islington LibDem office. This led to an unintentional comedy moment as some of our returning canvassers were greeted by me waving a handwritten “I’m on air!” sign, and had to resort to impromptu mime.

Mark Thompson was webcasting again this week, debating the role of the internet in elections as part of the panel for a Savvy Citizens debate, which makes for interesting listening. The ‘Savvy Citizens’ initiative helps people become savvier in how they use information in today’s information society. Peers take note.

Actually our peers have been taking note and there is already some movement.

We should not underestimate the power of online campaigning to change thinking on single issues, and to mobilise groups of people on particular causes. Our emergency motion is proof of that, with LibDem campaigners all over the UK and beyond working to make it happen.

For me, campaigning on the doorstep is still as important as campaigning on the laptop, which is why I’ll be back out on the streets of N1 today. And hoping for the call to summon me back to Brum tomorrow.

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Rebel, rebel! Open letters* on Digital Economy Bill now online

The open letter I co-ordinated from LibDem PPCs (objecting to the LibDem backed Lords’ amendments to the Digital Economy Bill) is now up online.

We could probably have got 50 signatures or more – apologies to those who were not included initially – but time was of the essence. I felt it was urgent and important to get an alternative LibDem view on the record, given the intense criticism the Lords’ amendments were attracting.

If you’d told me a few days ago that I would be fomenting rebellion in my party, I wouldn’t have believed you: so what changed?

On Wednesday morning, I got an email from Cory Doctorow raising concern about the LibDem backed Lords’ amendments to the Digital Economy Bill. A few hours later, I got a tweet from Adam Priest, an Islington resident, on the same topic. I’ve met both Cory and Adam and know of their passion and expertise on freedom in the digital age. I sent each holding replies and went to check out the detail on the issue.

I knew there were concerns about New Labour’s draconian proposals, and that LibDems were trying to amend them, but that’s hardly news. What I’d not realised is that the amendments were not the great protection for freedom and the underdog that we’d expect from our party.

Checking online to see what the issues were exposed a huge range of anger and disbelief from people who would otherwise be our core supporters. People who were freedom-loving, tech-savvy and thought LibDems were too. I contacted other PPCs via one of our internal listservers and found that several were also getting challenged on this.

By teatime, Tim Clement-Jones had posted an explanatory piece on party supporters’ site LibDemVoice, but rather than appease critics, it was attracting a flood of criticism. And this was just a small sample of the outraged comments on Twitter, blogs and chatrooms. Criticism, some of it fair criticsim, was round the world before the rebuttal had got its boots on.

Both the concerns and the way people expressed them were firmly grounded in the digital age; with respect, it seemed that our peers were not.

I wasn’t happy and decided to put a posting on this blog so I could point other constituents to my position; I put that up on Thursday morning and linked to it on Twitter. I also encouraged Cory to contribute to the debate on LibDem Voice. I thought I’d done my bit, and then turned my attention to my dayjob.

But it was clear that it was not just individual LibDems’ positions that were under scrutiny but the party’s stance. We needed action as well as words. Some members were trying to mobilise an emergency motion for our forthcoming conference. Meanwhile fellow PPCs were talking about urgent letters to the leader, the papers, and more. We wanted to make a positive contribution, making our real concerns clear, without adding to the anger already out there. I volunteered to draft something, as I’d already written about it on my blog. That was the hour-formerly-known-as-lunch occupied.

Bizarrely in the middle of this I had a call from the Whips’ Office in the Lords; but nothing to do with the Bill. They needed to find a speaker for a London hustings that night, could I do it? A couple of messages on Facebook and I’d lined up the wonderful Jonathan Fryer for the hustings. By the way, I asked, were the Lords aware we weren’t at all happy with the DEB amendments? Don’t worry, I was told, a briefing would be going out later today. (In fact you can read an interview with Tim Clement-Jones here). Politely, I said it wasn’t a clarification of the position we needed, but a change.

Meanwhile, messages were flooding in on the PPC list. We went for two letters, an open one for LibDem Voice and LibDem News, and a more robust private one for Nick. We were desperate to get something out there urgently, so I set a deadline to get signatures to me by the end of the afternoon. I got the letters sent off – and within minutes had a sympathetic acknowledgement from the Leader’s office. Watch this space.

I then returned to what I’d planned to do at lunchtime – finishing a written report to a local residents’ association about a range of planning and transport issues they’d raised with me. It was tempting to spend the evening in the warm, online, but that’s not actually what my campaigning is all about. So slightly belatedly I caught up with one of our canvassing teams, pounding the streets of Holloway. And came home to find the open letter online and some positive reaction too.

*While I’ve been writing this, we’ve have another open letter from the Parliamentary team acknowledging our concerns.

The letter includes these statements:

“The Liberal Democrats believe passionately in the neutrality of the web; neutrality as far as free speech is concerned and neutrality as far as independence from government is concerned. Indeed, dating back to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act the Liberal Democrats have been committed to ensuring the maximum possible freedom on the internet. That remains our position….

“… [We] acknowledge that with the shortness of time available and need to work with other parties to defeat the Government and remove Clause 17, it may be that the wording agreed at this stage can no doubt be improved. And opportunities exist to achieve this.

“Liberal Democrats will continue to seek to do all we can to ensure that the rights and freedoms of internet users are protected to the maximum possible extent. The team from both Houses have invited some leading bloggers and the Open Rights Group as well as representatives from key members of the industry to a round table to work out how we can best make this happen.”

Sounds like a result!

Like so many of my fellow campaigners, I went into politics to make a difference. Thank you to everyone who helped with this initiative.

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