Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Parking on double yellow lines

In the news this week is the story that the Conservatives want to allow parking, for up to fifteen minutes, on double yellow lines and, to do this, they want to order councils not to enforce parking fines for people parking on yellow lines for fifteen minutes or less. The idea being that this will help local shops by letting people stop easily to quickly nip in and out.

Now the Liberal Democrats aren't so keen on this idea while most Conservatives seem to be. I imagine part of this is that Liberal Democrats don't like central government dictating to local government how to run their own affairs.

But more importantly, and something that I very much agree with, is that double yellow lines exist for a reason. Specifically, they exist to stop people parking in places where it is dangerous to do so.

Shops could definitely be helped by less parking restrictions but I can't help but think it might be a better idea to help them by scrapping double yellow lines where they're no longer needed, or introducing short term parking bays, rather than making all double yellow lines useless everywhere.

Friday, 26 July 2013

David Cameron and porn

Our glorious Prime Minister has been thinking about porn
So this past week David Cameron has announced plans to do two things. The first of these is to completely block ‘rape porn’ on the internet by getting search engines to show no results for certain search terms. The second of these is to introduce a nationwide porn filter which will be switched on for everyone by default and which adults will have to actively opt out of if they don’t want the filter on.

That said, the porn filter will apparently have several exemptions. For example, online Page 3 pictures from the Sun will be fine according to Cameron - begging the question of how exactly they’re going to be able to define exactly how much nudity turns a picture from “family friendly newspaper material” to “sick, deviant, hardcore porn”. Of course, I’m sure the Page 3 exemption has nothing at all to do with the fact that the paper is a favourite of many Tory MPs.

Now, the background to all of this is that David Cameron has been under lots of pressure and lobbying by “family” groups to do something to tackle porn and by women’s groups to close a loophole where it’s illegal to possess paper pornography of realistic depictions of rape but not illegal to possess the same material digitally. But I imagine an unspoken aspect of it is that he’s just royally pissed off homophobic  Conservatives by legalising same-sex marriage and this attack on pornography is a way to get them to settle down a bit.

Now closing the loophole on rape porn is something I agree with in principle. I certainly think that genuine depictions of rape, or things deliberately designed to seem like rape, should be illegal. Rape is illegal so having rape porn should be illegal - just like having sex with animals is illegal and having porn of sex with animals is illegal.

The only problem with this though, is that some people, particularly people in the BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism - think Fifty Shades of Grey) community, happen to enjoy consensual sexual roleplay of rape and so, depending on the details of the proposal, this could criminalise BDSM porn and, by extension, a bunch of people who are doing nothing worse than playing some kinky sex games in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

So for me, the ban on rape porn is something I’d very much rather wait to see the details on before I come to judgement on it.

The actual porn filter, however, is something I very much oppose - and which most Lib Dem rank and file members are likely to oppose as well on principle.

The principle which makes us object is basically that freedom (such as the freedom to search the internet without it being filtered) is something that you should have by default and if you lose that freedom it should only be because you’ve either actively decided to give it up or because you’re doing something that harms other people. So the fact that the porn filter is an opt out system rather than an opt in system contravenes that principle.

But personally I also have several practical objections to the filter in addition to principled ones. And, for the sake of being brief, I’ll just quickly list them (a better, fuller article on the practical problems, written by a friend of mine, can be found here):
  1. These kind of filters block things they shouldn’t - for example, they often block LGBT+ information resources, including, in some cases, suicide prevention websites, as being “adult material” despite the fact that a lot of young people struggling with their sexuality might need to read them
  2. They give parents a false sense of security - all it takes to bypass a filter like this is a simple web proxy which kids are bound to end up using to access porn while their parents think that everything’s fine and dandy
  3. They distract from better solutions - the best ways to keep kids from accessing porn is for parents to switch on child safety features on computers, monitor and restrict their kids’ internet usage and to keep the computer in a public space in the house; the danger of a porn filter is that it might discourage parents from bothering to use these other techniques
  4. They place a huge amount of power in unaccountable hands - the proposal at present is for Chinese company Huawei to run the web filter and it will be they who decide exactly what gets banned or not which means that if your website is incorrectly blacklisted then there’s nothing you can do about it.
All of these together are why I think this porn filter is a very bad, very impractical and very illiberal idea. If parents are that bothered about porn they should take it upon themselves to safeguard their children - they shouldn’t be able to force their views on everyone else.

One person described this as being like having a person who’s scared of the dark and, instead of buying a nightlight, campaigning for the entire country to have their lights left on by default in order to stop this person being scared by the dark. And this is a sentiment I can definitely agree with.

Of course, given that both Labour and the Conservatives are very much in favour of this kind of state interference and meddling in people’s private lives I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposals all go ahead - the Lib Dems might intervene to water down certain elements of them but I doubt it's something Lib Dem MPs are willing to start a big battle over.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Time to ditch our nukes

So last week (you know, that time when only most of the news coverage was of the royal baby rather than all of the news coverage) the review of alternatives to Trident was published. Trident being our nuclear weapon system.

The review came about because Trident needs renewing at a cost of £20 to £100 billion and the Lib Dems oppose the renewal of it. So this review is meant to come up with nice alternatives which prove we can have our cake and eat it - the ability to start world war three and pay next to nothing for it.

Unfortunately, the review has proved that if you want a full time nuclear deterrent then you have to have Trident. The only alternative is to have a part time nuclear deterrent which will cost almost nearly as much as a full time deterrent.

So, now that's nicely established, can we please just scrap our nuclear weapons altogether? At the very least can we make that Lib Dem policy?

For decades the Liberal Democrats have had to put up with a bloody stupid, decades old compromise which basically involved the leadership (who were terrified of being seen as a bunch of hippies who weren't serious about national security) and most of the membership (who actually wanted us to get rid of our nuclear weapons completely) agreeing that we'd just oppose renewing our current nuclear weapon system when the time came.

Well the time's come and we can't dodge the issue any more. Either it's Trident or it's nothing.

And, given that we are no longer in a cold war, given that anyone crazy enough in the modern world to use nuclear weapons isn't likely to be deterred by the thought of retaliation, given that we're still protected by NATO and given that it would be a monumental crime to ever use them to slaughter millions of innocent civilians, please could we just have the guts to grow up and say that we think we shouldn't have nuclear weapons at all.

We don't need them, the money could be spent better elsewhere (such as on our conventional armed forces) so lets just be honest about the fact and publicly admit what most people in the party believe already. It's not like our current position has fooled anyone into thinking we're not closet unilateralists anyway.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

We need a cumulative impact assessment

Here's an article I wrote for Lib Dem Voice:

With the Conservative ring-fencing of 40% plus of the welfare budget because it goes to a section of society which disproportionately votes Conservative (e.g. pensioners), it should come as no surprise to anyone that the forcing of all welfare cuts onto the remainder of recipients has hurt a lot of people.

Amongst those most badly effected are disabled people. Contributory Employment and Support Allowance (formerly known as incapacity benefit) has been time limited to one year. Disability Living Allowance is being replaced by Personal Independence Payments and will have been cut by 20% by 2015. Social care services are being cut by local councils as the money available from central government reduces. And many other services and forms of support have also been affected – such as the Independent Living Fund and the Social Fund.

Now each of these, on its own, doesn’t necessarily sound too bad. But, to use an analogy, if you take away a schoolchild’s textbook on its on then they could probably still learn from their teacher. Likewise if you were to take away their exercise book, or their desk, alone. But if you take away all of these together then the schoolchild would find it very hard to learn at all.

And this is the problem facing disabled people. If you’re disabled then you might need disability living allowance for transport so you can do things like go to the hairdresser or the social club and to get to your GP and hospital appointments. You might have a carer from social services to help you get dressed and washed each day because you can’t on your own. You might rely on housing benefit so you can afford to live somewhere close to family and friends who can help you with cooking meals when you can’t cope on your own.

Take away any of these on their own and you would struggle, but you could probably cope. Take away all of them together and you’ll end up hungry, isolated and trapped in your own home. And that is what I, and many others fear, is currently happening to vulnerable people who need support and don’t have anywhere to turn to.

When each of the cuts to services and support which disabled people use were made the government conducted impact assessments and, on the basis of these, parliament supported the cuts. But these assessments only looked at each cut in isolation. No one stopped to look at what the combined effect of them all would be.

That’s why I hope Lib Dem MPs will back the motion calling for a cumulative impact assessment of the impact of cuts on disabled people this Wednesday 10th of July at 4pm. This would enable us to properly understand the full combined impact of these changes and give us a better picture of what is happening.

It may be that the cumulative impact of these cuts on disabled people turns out to be something we’re happy with, or something that we can stomach at least. Or it could turn out to be something we consider absolutely unacceptable. But right now we don’t know one way or the other. That’s why we need a cumulative impact assessment – at least then we can look at the whole picture and come to a conclusion one way or another. But right now policy is being made with stabs in the dark. And that can never be wise.