Thursday, 26 February 2009

Facebook can cause “MP envy”

More praise for Tom Brake, who has been using Facebook as one of his channels for communicating with constituents:

Emily Bell writes in the Guardian:
“I'm envious of my colleague who can ask her MP, Tom Brakes [sic], to look into matters of irritation at Carshalton station. He does it, and registers that he has on his Facebook status. She feels she has a personal relationship with her MP, something a thousand doorstepping exercises would never achieve.”

Mark posted recently about MPs’ uptake of various internet tools, and the fact that there are many to choose from.

Tom Brake’s use of Facebook is a good example of choosing an appropriate tool and using it, rather than sticking it on the desktop as a trophy. MPs (at least if they’re doing it right) have demanding schedules - but it’s not enough to simply throw social media at the electorate without understanding the interactivity that gives them the name “social.”

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Conservatives split over London Low Emission Zone

Conservative London Assembly Member James Cleverly has (not so cleverly) shown a lack of homework in his blog post discussing Boris Johnson’s intention to suspend the third phase of the Low Emission Zone:
Boris has taken the right decision to hold off with LEZ phase three. Its effectiveness is not known...

He said that there is “no evidence" that the Low Emission Zone improves air quality.

That’s not what Boris said in a press statement on February 2nd:
Although the Low Emission Zone has been successful in tackling the worst polluters, and will continue to play an important role, it is not the right time to press ahead with extending it to include smaller vehicles like vans and minibuses.

Following a meeting of the Environment Committee, which heard expert witnesses highlight the harm that air pollution has on the health of Londoners, Mike Tuffrey (Leader of the Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly) said,
London's air quality is the worst in the UK and one of the worst of Europe's capital cities. London's air pollution is an invisible silent killer of more than 1,000 people each year - a figure five times higher than the number of Londoners killed through traffic accidents. Just because the pollution is rarely visible we cannot stand by and pretend the problem does not exist.

Cleverly claims that the costs to small businesses, were LEZ phase three to go ahead, “would have sent many of them to the wall.” At present London’s air quality harms both the economy and Londoners’ health, through huge medical bills and other costs such as absenteeism, which affect businesses.

Cleverly is a member of the Environment Committee and was there when it heard evidence showing that the lungs of some children in London were prematurely stunted by the air quality in parts of London. Is he discounting this evidence? Does he disagree with the Mayor?

I wonder how this squares with James Cleverly's role as Ambassador for Young People in London?

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Howard Dean to speak at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference

Governor Howard DeanGovernor Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, will be the guest speaker at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Harrogate, 6-8 March 2009.

Howard Dean was a frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2004 when he spoke out against the Iraq war.

Howard set up Democracy for America which focuses on grassroots fundraising and training for local members.

As chairman of the Democrats Howard set up and executed the 50 State Strategy which targeted voters across the US, rather than concentrating on “swing” states. This became a vital part of President Obama’s campaign in the 2008 election.

Packed with policy debates, fringe events, training sessions and keynote speeches, interest in Spring Conference is greater than ever, but there’s still time to register.

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The next six groups to get ID cards?

The Government continues to (micro)chip away with its incremental plan to introduce ID cards to all.

The Home Office has formally applied to widen the scope of ID cards for foreign nationals granted further leave to remain in the UK.

Regulations laid before Parliament last week mean that six more categories of applicant would have to provide their biometrics (fingerprints and photo) from 31 March 2009:

• Academic visitors granted leave for a period exceeding six months
• Visitors for private medical treatment
• Domestic workers in a private household
• United Kingdom ancestry (Covers people who are Commonwealth citizens, have a British grandparent and can demonstrate a link with the UK)
• Retired persons of independent means, and their partners and children
• Sole representatives (Overseas employees recruited by an overseas company to act as their sole representative in the UK)

These groups are expected to join the foreign nationals (students and those applying to remain in the UK on the basis of marriage) who received the first ID cards back in November. The student category is also being widened to include postgraduate doctors and dentists.

So to recap, unless you’re a British worker in a “sensitive” role, or a young adult in 2010, or a foreign national applying for leave to remain and even contribute to the economy, or don’t look old enough to buy alcohol, or are from Manchester then there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Friday, 13 February 2009

£46m to spy on our communications - and we have to pay for it

The Home Office has revealed the cost of capturing our communications data from selected Internet Service Providers - and has also broadened the terms of this to include text messages.

At a total cost of £46.58m over 8 years, the Home Office (i.e. The Taxpayer) “will bear all costs relating to the design, development and installation of Data Retention Facilities with communication companies.”

The communications companies which were consulted (including BT, Cable and Wireless and O2) welcomed the news that they wouldn’t have to foot the bill for retaining data not required for business purposes.

So in return for the Government’s function creep generosity, what do we get and how was it decided?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Potholes and what to do about them

Potholes get a lot of press: they're not glamorous but they are a nuisance.

And they get worse in bad weather.

There was an interesting film on BBC London news last night: One of the people interviewed was Malcolm Simms of the Asphalt Industry Alliance who said,
“If you’ve got an existing defect, cracks in the surface, water will get in, penetrate, as it freezes it expands and blows the existing materials apart.”

The report also said that there were 258,000 potholes across London last year, which averages 7,800 per council, at a cost of £72 per hole.

They cause expensive damage to vehicles' suspension and wheelrims and unseat many an unsuspecting cyclist. The holes that pose as innocent puddles are the worst (I know)!

If you see a pothole in Redbridge you can report it easily via Redbridge i, the council's website, using the Citizen Report facility. (You can also report a range of other problems including dog fouling and graffiti.)

I visit the website a lot on my PC, but I've found that when I want to report problems as soon as I see them in the street, using my BlackBerry, my device crashes.

I've spoken to a helpful web assistant at Redbridge Council, who says he'll look into why this is happening and get it fixed.

Clive Andrews from the National Cyclists organisation CTC (and a Twitter friend) also recommended the website FillThatHole for reporting potholes.

Your council wants you to report these things, as there are more of us than Councillors and officers, so we have eyes everywhere!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Lessons from London's snow travel chaos

An inquiry is to be held into why London’s public transport network was brought to a virtual standstill by last week’s snow.

The London Assembly Transport Committee will meet Transport for London representatives this Thursday (12th February) to examine whether lessons can be learned from the events of the last few days.

Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat Assembly Member, is the vice chair of the committee, and has already raised questions about the transport problems experienced by Londoners as a result of the weather:

"Basic questions need to be asked, such as why some underground lines were able to stay open, when others closed or had such a pitiful service?

“Also why is it that the Dockland Light Railway could maintain its service when so many railway lines were completely closed? Questions also need to be asked as to whether London buses would have been running far sooner if there had been better co-ordination between Transport for London and the boroughs?

"And while everyone accepts that the weather will cause some disruption to services surely more could have been done to ensure all commuters and travellers had access to accurate and timely information about the services that were available."

You can read the full details of what the session will cover in the committee's press release.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Secrecy row over MPs’ foreign trips

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, has blocked the release of details about MPs’ foreign trips with the British Council.

From The Telegraph:
Since February 2007, 12 MPs have travelled overseas with the British Council to destinations including Thailand, India and Malawi, often at a cost of thousands of pounds.

MPs must normally declare any hospitality they receive from outside organisations, and the British Council does not appear on a list of bodies whose gifts are exempt from the requirement.

When The Sunday Telegraph used the Freedom of Information Act to ask the Commons authorities why the trips were not being declared, Mr Martin stepped in and took the highly unusual step of signing a special certificate preventing the release of any information about how the decision was reached.

The document, headed 'The Certificate', cites Parliamentary privilege as the reason to impose secrecy. It even halts any further investigation by Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, who would normally have the power to intervene.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said, "The Speaker's decision to issue the certificate is pretty extraordinary and regrettable. If the House has genuine objections to the information being released than it should be prepared to fight its case before the Information Commissioner."

Mark Hunter, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheadle said, "MPs cannot be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act that they themselves have passed."

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Government to follow me on holiday? Give me a break!

News today of yet another way for us to surrender our personal lives to the Government, while the Government doesn’t reciprocate.

A new database is being built, to store all Britons’ international travel details, including passengers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card details, seat reservations, itineraries, and possibly details of travel companions.

While our travel details will be reported and logged, the Home Office wants to keep the location of their surveillance centre a secret. Believed to be in Wythenshawe, Manchester, staff are supposed to refer to it only as “ a new operations centre in the northwest.”

The Sunday Times has the story:

Under the scheme, once a person buys a ticket to travel to or from the UK by air, sea or rail, the carrier will deliver that person’s data to the agency.

The data is then checked against various watchlists to identify those involved in abuse of UK immigration laws, serious and organised crime, and terrorism.

At the moment limited information about selected routes and travellers is kept on the pilot database run by the agency at an office in Hounslow, west London. In future, all such data will automatically be sent in bulk to the new database, instead of being released in response to specific requests by the authorities.

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Steve Webb MP in “Facebook surgery” first

Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat MP for Northavon, held a “drop in surgery” with a difference this morning - on social networking website Facebook.

He’d advertised the time in advance, to his 3,867 Facebook friends: “Steve will be online on Facebook Chat tomorrow (Thursday) between 11 and 11.30am. Log on and chat if you want to raise anything with me.”

This morning around 200 of them - a mixture of constituents, party members and others - were online for the chat session. Steve likened the experience to “one of those plate-spinning acts that you see on variety shows on the TV”. (Fortunately, he types fast!)

Shortly afterwards, I spoke to Steve, who declared the experiment a success. I asked him why he chose Facebook’s live chat facility.