The Queen's Speech - some silver linings

There's actually some good stuff in the Queen's speech today - thanks, I have to say, to the Lib Dem involvement in the Coalition.

For several years Vince Cable has been saying that the retail and investment arms of banks should be separated from each other. The kind of banking services that individuals and small businesses use should be protected from the risks associated with high level gambling. It won't prevent people taking risks, if they wish, through the investment sector but the consequences will fall solely on the investors. At last we have promised legislation to bring that about.

Nick Clegg's proposals for flexible parental leave have made it in to the Queen's Speech. Parents will be able to choose for themselves how to split the total parental leave to which they are entitled.

Ed Davey is taking through some excellent environmental policies that had been developed by Chris Huhne, including the Green Investment Bank and the Energy Bill and we are promised legislation for both during the coming year.

Before he took on his new job, Ed was developing the idea of a Groceries Adjudicator to ensure that suppliers are treated fairly by the big supermarkets. That will now happen.

I also like the idea of giving shareholders a vote on directors' pay (though would personally like employees to have that right as well) - another of Vince's proposals.

Then we come to reform of the House of Lords, and the chance to finally implement the agreement made in Westminster over 100 years ago! Tories are claiming that it is a distraction from the measures needed to sort out the economy, but frankly that argument could be used to delay almost any piece of legislation. I really don't understand why they are opposed to a smaller House, having already imposed a smaller House of Commons on us, with all the complex bureaucracy of the Boundaries Review. And today it does seem bizarre to be advocating an upper house consisting largely of those who have found favour with the Government, instead of a body chosen democratically by the people.

The one proposal that I am very unhappy about is the Draft Communications Bill - that is the one that will extend snooping, requiring ISPs to keep full details of every email you send, every message you tweet and every phone call you make. This was going to be pushed through by the Tories a couple of months ago, but Lib Dem intervention has slowed down the process so it will be subjected to greater scrutiny. However, we still need to be vigilant.

"The Work of Local Authorities (1943)"

The British Council has just released an archive of 120 short public information films from the 1940s which you can watch online. They recreate another age - although I have to keep reminding myself that this was what life was like for my parents when I was born.

This film explains local government, at a time when Councils controlled far more services than they do now.  That really was localism. 

See if you can spot the shots of Kingston's Ancient Market and the Guildhall, when the current building was only a few years old.

Local Government (1943) from British Council Film on Vimeo.

Thanks to Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice for unearthing this gem.


My complaint about Sit and Slim is upheld. But what about that wraparound?


I have received lots of comments on my blog posts Lose weight by sitting down? and I have complained to the Advertising Standards Agency about Sit and Slim.  Muriji promote the use of their chairs - at considerable expense - in five locations, one of which is in New Malden, and a number of local people feel they have been misled and ripped off by this company.

Today I feel entirely vindicated - which is definitely a good feeling.  

Three other people (encouraged by my blog) also complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about the adverts by Miruji for Sit and Slim chairs, and the ASA added in some further issues. Altogether they submitted seven different issues to the ASA Council, and the Council upheld all of them.

You can read the judgement here, but in essence it states:

1. The so-called trial at Hellesdon Hospital "did not show that Sit and Slim could result in weight reduction, improve self-esteem, increase confidence, reduce or eliminate aches and pains, facilitate the healing and prevention of injuries or improve sleep" so the claims "had not been substantiated and were misleading".

2. Phrases like 'NHS Hospital trial' were misleading because it "was not NHS-approved or formal research". 

3. The claim that the chair was worth £10,000 was not substantiated.

4. The claim that the Sit and Slim chair could reduce blood pressure breached the rules about advertising health related products.

5. The ads also breached the rules about advertising treatments for obesity.

6. Miruji did not provide documentary evidence that one of the testimonials was genuine.

7. The ads "gave the impression that weight loss would be a direct and inevitable consequence of using the programme itself and that it was unlikely to be clear to readers that any weight reduction would have to come entirely from lifestyle changes that they would have to implement themselves."

The conclusion is very clear.

"The ads must not appear again in their current form."

Muruji are also advised to consult the ASA advice team before creating any more ads.

I was actually sent a copy of the judgment on Thursday 19th April, embargoed until today. The judgement became operative on the day before that and Miruji would have had sight of it earlier in the week.

So you can imagine my surprise at finding a four page advertorial for Sit and Slim wrapped around  the Kingston Guardian dated 19th April. The ad repeated all the claims that were trashed by the ASA. The company must have known that the judgement was imminent and decided to have one last go.

I phoned ASA about the wraparound, and they talked about the lead time for preparing and placing an ad in the local press, so could not criticise them. Of course, they will take action if any new ads appear in the future.

However, the company's website still makes many of the claims that have been criticised by the ASA. (I won't do them a favour by providing a link to the website from my blog, but you know how to Google)

I've also passed all my information on to the Surrey Comet/Kingston Guardian, so I hope they will cover the story soon.



Diary of a Games volunteer - McDonald's this time

According to Private Eye I'm not allowed to write this. They claim that LOCOG has "banned volunteers working at the Games from making Facebook posts", and since this is going to be reposted on Facebook maybe I am in danger of disciplinary action. (What form could that take, I wonder?)

On Friday I got a chance to check what the rules were at my latest training session, and the truth was both realistic and unsensational. Of course they can't stop us from chatting online about the Games and our roles in it, but we are asked not to reveal operational details. That sounds like normal business practice to me, especially in an area where security is important.

What LOCOG is getting heavy about is brand protection, and volunteers (aka Games Makers) have been asked to be sensitive to the branding issues. You have probably heard that the O2 will be renamed the North Greenwich Arena for the Games. All traces of its owner's branding will be removed so as not to undermine BT which is an "Official Olympic Partner". I really can't get too bothered about this; after all, commercial sponsorship is essential. 

And that is why I found myself at McDonald's University in East Finchley last Friday.

It is easy to scoff at McDonald's (though that would definitely attract the brand police). However it does have an excellent reputation for its staff training programmes, which was why it was chosen as the training provider for Games volunteers.

But "University"?  Surely the definition of a University is a chartered institution that is empowered to offer its own degrees. It turns out that the training centre does offer foundation degrees accredited by Manchester Metropolitan University, and the courses are free to staff. That is to be applauded, but, as a former FE lecturer who taught on foundation degree courses, I just feel that McDonald's credibility in work-based training would be enhanced if it made slightly more modest claims.

Anyway, I was there for half a day of training with fellow Events Services Team Leaders. Now I had imagined that most of the Games volunteers would live in London, so I was pretty surprised at the number of fellow volunteers who had travelled, at their own expense, from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Cumbria, the West Country and other parts of the UK to attend the training.

I also learnt that many of the LOCOG paid employees are Games veterans, having worked at previous summer and winter Olympics and Paralympics. It was quite reassuring to know that not everything was being invented from scratch!

The training was well-designed, varied and useful - and this time I did get some chocolate, provided by the Official Snack Provider of the Games.



Demos: "Religious people are more likely to be politically progressive"

This is a copy of an article that I have posted on Lib Dem Voice.

It seems appropriate on Easter Day to report the findings of the report entitled Faithful Citizens by the think tank Demos.

I have been embarrassed and saddened by the portrayal of "the church" as bigoted and homophobic recently, and this research helps to counterbalance that impression. Demos' report implies that people of faith are more likely to share Liberal Democrat values than to hold the conservative fundamentalist views often described in the media.

13% of citizens claim to belong to a church or other religious organisation, so these findings refer to believers across all the faiths in the UK, although Christians are by far the largest group.

The summary of the report states:

"People of faith are likely to be a vital base of support for any future election-winning progressive coalition. Our research suggests that religious citizens in the UK are more likely to be civically engaged and politically active than their non-religious counterparts. They are also more likely to hold progressive political values on a number of important political and economic questions at the heart of twenty-first-century policy. Despite the trend of decreasing religiosity in the UK, religion remains important to a broad range of active and engaged citizens – and so it must to politicians."

Their research findings showed that:

  • "Religious people in the UK are more likely than non-religious people to volunteer regularly in their local community, to feel a greater sense of belonging to their local community and Britain, and to have higher levels of trust in other people and social institutions. They are also more likely to feel they can influence decisions locally and nationally.
  • Religious people are more likely than non-religious people to engage in volunteering in their local community, and to take decision-making roles in committees and through local leadership forums, such as being a councillor, school governor or magistrate.
  • Religious people who said that their religion was very important to their sense of identity were more likely than those who said it was not important to their identity to be civically engaged and to give to charity via their place of worship."

On specific issues they found that 55% of the members of religious organisations placed  themselves on the political left or centre left. They were also more likely to value equality over liberty and were less likely to hold a negative attitude towards immigrants.

I am a case in point.  I was brought up in a Baptist family, where the theology was liberal and the work ethic was strong. I grew up with the values of liberty (the early Baptists were persecuted for their beliefs, so freedom of belief and freedom of speech are among their founding principles),  equality (because all people are equal in the sight of God) and service to the community (because Jesus told us to love our neighbour) . So I found a natural political home within a party which shared those fundamental values.

So we should not be afraid to acknowledge the fact that many members of the Liberal Democrats, like me, joined the party because of, not in spite of, their faith.

May I wish a blessed Easter to all readers who are celebrating this great Christian festival today, and a happy holiday weekend to everyone.

David Walter

Some very sad news for Kingston Liberal Democrats - and for the wider party. David Walter, who served as Chair of the local party for four years, lost his battle against cancer and died yesterday.

David handed over the role to me, with his usual grace and courtesy, at the beginning of last year.

Beyond Kingston, he served the Liberal Democrats as Director of Communications, following a career in journalism and television production.

I have written a tribute to David on Liberal Democrat Voice - although 'written' only applies to a couple of paragraphs, as most of it was penned by Chris Rennard, the former Chief Exec of the party (now Lord Rennard), and by Peter Grender, President of Kingston Lib Dems.

We will miss him.

Diary of a Games volunteer - over to Hackney

Some random facts I've learnt about the Games:

The marathon was fixed at 26.2 miles in 1908 because that was the distance of the route from Windsor Castle to the Royal Box in the OIympic Stadium in White City.

Both the modern Olympics and the Paralympics were born in the UK. Pierre de Coubertin was invited to the Much Wenlock Olympian Annual Games (which still take place every year) and he was inspired to found the International Olympic Committtee. The Paralympic Games began in Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948. Hence Wenlock and Mandeville, the names of the two mascots (but you knew that, anyway).

Great Britain has won 1426 medals in the Paralympics, second only to the USA.

Volunteers at the London Games will receive over a million hours of training.

And I had my first taste of what that training would be like yesterday - the orientation session last month focused on contextual knowledge rather than skill development - when I made my way over to Hackney Community College. LOCOG has taken over a whole wing of the college for several months, branding it with their own banners and large photos, and even renaming the rooms after Olympic venues. My training was in St Moritz.

The organisation, as ever, was excellent. I joined fifty other people who, like me, had been assigned to the role of Events Services Team Leader, and we spent an intensive eight hours learning what our tasks would be.

Events Services are responsible for the Front of House functions at venues, so much of it was not unlike the usher's job at the Rose Theatre. At the ExCel Centre my team will be checking tickets, showing people to their seats, and generally watching out for any needs that spectators might have. They will also control access to the areas where spectators can't go to.

But the sheer scale of the event means that tasks are far more complex than they ever are in the theatre.  Just think of all the different groups of people, besides spectators, who will be in the venue - athletes, trainers, sports officials, members of national Olympics/Paralympics Committees, medical teams, catering staff, cleaners, broadcasters, press, contractors, sponsors, security staff, interpreters, government ministers, maintenance staff, volunteers - all of whom will be entitled to go to specific areas and carry out specific tasks.

We spent quite a while looking at equalities issues through scenarios. For example, what should you do if someone asks you where the toilets are but you're not sure whether they are male or female?  What should you do if you find it difficult to understand the speech of someone with a disability?

As a trainer myself, I was impressed by the quality of the training, but I was surprised to be given a City and Guilds certificate at the end. Apparently it could lead to a new career!


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