Recent events, both in the US and here, have prompted a wave of reflection about who our society chooses to honour, and who it does not. This debate is not restricted to Bristol, but is countrywide; only a few days ago the Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council announced that there will be a review of all plaques, monuments, statues and street names to ensure they “reflect the city’s values”.
The immediate cause of this reflection was the removal of Edward Colston’s statue by protestors in Bristol. Some are outraged about the way this was done.
As liberal democrats the rule of law is a fundamental principle, central to our beliefs. This does not mean that we should automatically join those outraged by the events in Bristol. As our party President Mark Pack says in his statement on this issue
“What is vital is the equal application of fair laws. And these protests were born out of anger that the law and police treatment have not been equally and fairly applied.”
As Mark points out, in the last 30 years there have been 1,741 deaths following contact with the police in the UK. He notes that this is a problem in itself. But given that black people are twice as likely to die in police custody, he says “the very unsettling reality of the unequal policing of black people is hard to ignore.” This problem is compounded by the fact that there have been no prosecutions of police officers over any of those deaths.
Given this context, it should come as no surprise that these protests have happened now. The spark was the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in the past we have seen protests at deaths at the hands of the police both here and in the US flare up and then die down again, with little impact on the lives of the people experiencing the negative effects of unequal treatment by the law. But this time feels like it may be different.
One thing that is different is the COVID-19 pandemic and its differential impact across our community. Specifically, BAME people made up 16% of all corona virus related deaths in England (up to 28 May). The causes of this are complex and there is as yet no firm evidence about what they are. What is clear though is that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on one part of our community. The outrage expressed in Bristol and across the country is understandable, personal and urgent.
As a party we need to acknowledge that we have not always made enough noise about systemic injustices. It has been too easy for us to fall into the trap of worrying about the rule of law some of the time. This will not be true of all members our party, but for many of us these protests expose an unhappy truth.
The global Black Lives Matter protests are an important historical moment. For those of us who have not questioned our own approach to the application of the rule of law closely enough, this is our chance to listen, reflect and learn. It is our chance to support those leading the campaign and we must be careful not to distract from their work and priorities.
Words however are not enough. We have to look long and hard at our own party. Are the inequalities within wider society reflected in our own structures? We are a party that welcomes debate and diversity of opinion. But do we see this reflected equally within our party? If we don’t, do we know why? And what are we doing to correct these inequalities?
Lewes MP Maria Caulfield has joined forces with Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle to tell the East Sussex Fire Authority that it can ignore the legal requirement to produce a Risk Management Plan. Liberal Democrat Councillor Carolyn Lambert says:
“This is an astonishing action on the part of two elected MPs, one of whom is a government whip. The Conservative government clearly feels that they can play fast and loose with their own rules.
All Fire and Rescue Services have a statutory duty to produce a Risk Management Plan. This is a legal requirement under the Fire Services Act 2004. In April, James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Security, wrote to all Fire and Rescue services emphasizing that work on the IRMP must continue and that a failure to do so could result in government intervention.
The recent inspection report made it clear that the Fire and Rescue Service needed to review and update its Risk Management Plan and experienced professional fire fighters have spent 18 months analysing between 5 and 9 years of data to keep both the public and our fire fighters safe. It is astonishing that these MPs are apparently prepared to put lives at risk by their cavalier attitude to safety”.
Councillor Sarah Osborne adds:
“This is a consultation. No decisions have been taken and no decisions will be taken until the outcome of the consultation has been properly analysed and considered. We will absolutely be considering alternative proposals where these are based on sound evidence”.
Councillor David Tutt comments:
“This Conservative government has consistently reduced funding for all local authorities, including the Fire and Rescue Service. The total government grant for the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has gone down over the last decade from around £15 million in 2010 to just over £3 million in 2020, a reduction of almost 80%. We certainly do need more investment particularly to deal with business safety inspections.
"Maria Caulfield claims that she has offered to speak to the Treasury to get more funding for our Fire and Rescue Service. Has she done so? And how much additional funding has she been able to get?”
Councillor Sean MacLeod who represents Ringmer and Ouse Valley ward on Lewes District Council has joined the Liberal Democrat group on the council. Sean currently sits as an Independent member of the council.
The Liberal Democrats are now the largest group in the Co-Operative Alliance that has been running Lewes District Council since last July.
Sean says: “I have decided to join the Lib Dems for a number of reasons, my passion is around mental health and I think the Lib Dems’ policy around this far outweigh any set out by other parties.
“I like the fact they are looking at a New Zealand approach focusing on the wellbeing of a nation. Locally I am great friends with many within the party and for me personally I feel comfortable around them which is important for my mental health condition and the fact I feel comfortable around them says a lot.
“Since I have left the Green Party I didn't really know what i was going to do, I have been supported hugely by a number of councillors from all colours of the political spectrum, but my friendships with a number of the Lib Dem members has just continued to grow.
“For me personally this is the right move, and it's not been a quick decision and I've talked long and hard with people around this. l'm really looking forward to continuing to work hard for local residents as a Lib Dem councillor."
James MacCleary, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Lewes District Council, adds: “We are delighted to welcome Sean to our group and to our party. We are growing strongly as a party locally with more members and an excellent performance in December’s General Election where we came so close to defeating the Conservatives.
“Sean is a passionate and committed campaigner who will make a fantastic addition to the Lib Dem team on the council.”
On the morning of Thursday 14 May Maria Caulfield MP shared a post on her twitter account showing an apparent video of an interview with new Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Within hours this video was shown to be deliberately edited to give the appearance of almost the opposite point of view from the one that was actually presented in the full video and may be libellous.
The Lewes Lib Dem parliamentary spokesperson, Oli Henman said:
“Maria Caulfield has shown a very serious error in judgment here, this video was heavily edited to paint a misleading picture of the views of the Leader of the Opposition and undermines trust in politics as a whole. At a time of national emergency, when the country should be coming together to support the whole community, it is shocking to see our MP engaged in political point scoring of the most cynical kind.
Unfortunately this behaviour seems to be part of a pattern of half-truths and downright misinformation from this government. Ms Caulfield herself has previously suspended her social media account during the General Election and has blocked opposition party representatives from asking her tough questions on social media, now more than ever we need representatives who tell the truth. Maria Caulfield must resign.”
The Liberal Democrats are leading a cross-party campaign calling on the Government to support local and independent media through an increased share of public health communications spending.
Writing to the government, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael had warned that although the "All in, All together" campaign had provided public health information as well as advertising revenue for major media groups, local press organisations and individual journalists had raised the Government's lack of support for them.
In a letter to the Government, the cross-party campaign is calling for the Government to pledge a proportionate share of public health advertising spend to local press, meaning both a short-term boost to the Government’s public health communications as well as a long-term investment in protecting and maintaining local media across the United Kingdom.
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said:
"Local press are some of the most trusted sources of news for our communities and we must support them in this challenging time. They are vital to our efforts to respond and recover from the coronavirus and yet they are facing significant financial difficulties.
“This letter is about getting a fair share of government advertising spend for local and independent press, to reflect both their importance in our communities and their financial needs. The Secretary of State for Health has an important role in deciding where these advertising funds go.”
Local campaigner and Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesperson, Oli Henman said:
"Local journalism is an important part of the community in our area. Local outlets such as the Sussex Express and the Argus play a crucial role in not only keeping us all informed about the news in Lewes and the surrounding areas, but they also play an essential role in ensuring accurate information is available locally on the fight against coronavirus and the incredible community response.
"The Government must take action in pledging a proportionate share of public health advertising spend to local media. This will not only provide financial support so that these outlets don't go under during this crisis, but will also ensure that they can continue to provide timely information to the public, which is imperative to slowing the spread of the virus."
Liberal Democrat councillors are calling for safe space to be created for cycling and walking during the lockdown. Many cities across the world have already put in place measures to address the transport implications of the pandemic such as closing roads to motor traffic enabling people to make sure they keep a safe distance.
Cllr Carolyn Lambert says:
“I fully support the need for safe space during the lockdown so that people can get the exercise they need without putting themselves or others at risk. It should be possible to create barriers using existing road traffic cones and so on, just as supermarkets have cordoned off areas of their car parks to allow people to queue safely. I have raised this with the Leader of the County Council and hope that he will feel able to respond positively to this suggestion”.
Councillor Philip Daniel adds:
“It would be really good to put in some measures now to help everyone. If it works successfully, it may be possible to extend this beyond the lockdown period.”
Pictures of the empty streets of Lewes during rush hour courtesy of Tony Parker
Councillor Carolyn Lambert says:
Here is some information for those of you who are self employed:
The Government has announced a new Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. It will pay a taxable grant of 80 per cent of average annual profits over the last 3 years up to £2,500 per month.
The scheme will be open for at least three months, backdated to 1 March 2020. The scheme will provide targeted support for self-employed people with profits up to £50,000 per annum.
The scheme will be for those who earn the majority of their income from self-employment and have filed a tax return for 2018/19. According to the Chancellor, 95 per cent of self-employed people will benefit from this scheme. Those self-employed workers who have not yet submitted their tax return will have four weeks to do so. The scheme will be administered by HMRC and it is expected that businesses will be able to receive the grant in early June.
All the Government’s support, and associated guidance, for businesses can be found at businesssupport.gov.uk.
The Money Advice Service also has a helpful list of financial support available to people, which may be of interest to your residents and staff.
Conservative councillors, backed by Labour, voted through a budget which will mean East Sussex residents paying more for County Council services including roads, adult social care, and education. Cllr Philip Daniel, Liberal Democrat Finance spokesperson, explains:
“The Liberal Democrat budget amendment meant charging residents a lower rate of increase in regular council tax for ESCC: 1.50% instead of the Conservatives’ 1.99%. That’s on top of the 2% rise by which the government asks local people to pay the County Council for Adult Social Care. We recognise that many people in the county are in financial hardship. Council Tax rises over five years have been almost double the rise in earnings. They are having to absorb the impact of the cuts made to council services by the Conservative government over the last ten years, are paying increased fees and charges for services and now are facing yet another increase in council tax.
Our budget amendment supported spending on capital projects by capital finance, so that work on roads and buildings refurbishment could go ahead funded from the capital budget not from revenue as the Conservatives have now agreed. This would free up more money for frontline services. Altogether, we proposed £2,523,000 of savings and changes to funding which could be used to support our hard-pressed services, slow the Council Tax increase and start to restructure the Council”.
Councillor David Tutt, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group, comments:
“We have consistently put forward budgets that propose a transformation of the way the council organises itself, including putting the emphasis on staff delivering front-line services rather than on highly paid managers.
We are very concerned at the fragility of the County Council’s finances. Services will now be funded almost entirely from council tax and from business rates. We know that businesses are already struggling. The business rate system needs to be reformed to create a level playing field between High Street stores and on-line traders. One-off pots of money from central government are simply putting a sticking plaster over the gaping holes that the Conservatives have made in local authority services – our roads are not the only thing with huge potholes.
East Sussex County Council already has the 4th highest council tax of any shire county in England (2019/20). £134 million has already been taken out of County Council funds over the last ten years and council tax set by the County Council has risen by 36.92% since 2007 compared with Liberal Democrat run Eastbourne Borough Council where the tax rise over the same period has been 21.07%. We have to ask how long residents can continue to pay for these taxes imposed by the Conservative administration?”.
Oli Henman's letter to the Sussex Express, Jan 2020.
The December election marked a challenging time for our country, for accountability and for democracy. Why would I say that democracy is under threat? Let me explain.
Democracy is about dialogue, it is about listening and engaging, it is about being publicly accountable and being true to your commitments.
As the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Lewes constituency I made it my priority to engage with a wide range of voters, to participate in public debates and to respond to questions via email and social media. I took time to reply and to ensure that my views were accountable to a wide range of fellow residents and I was glad to take part in interviews on the radio and television. This is what democracy means - it is about dialogue and a willingness to listen and respond to other points of view. It is also about being open to finding compromise.
But Conservative candidates did not respond to public scrutiny, they did not take part in key hustings, they did not join debates and they were not accountable to the people they serve. The Lewes candidate withdrew from debates and suspended her social media accounts. Why would she do this if she is keen to champion real democracy?
The Conservative Party across the country adopted similar tactics to reduce public debate and to focus on short populist messages with little real substance behind them. This was not about informing the public or about listening to other points of view. But what is worse is that we have been witnessing cynical misinformation combined with a cavalier disregard for parliamentary conventions and an apparent appetite to limit the independence of the judiciary. This is when we start to understand how our democratic system is being bent out of shape. The British system has always relied on ‘gentleman’s agreements’ and unspoken rules but these rules are increasingly being disregarded by those in power.
Furthermore, in terms of the democratic mandate, our ‘first past the post’ system does not provide a proportional number of seats to the actual number of votes cast. In this constituency the Conservatives won with less than 50% of the votes cast and nationally their vote share was more like 43%. This is not an overwhelming democratic mandate to enact such far reaching reforms. Instead the government should be open to listening to other points of view and recognising the need for inclusive decision-making, if it is truly concerned with bringing the country back together.
It is high time the Conservatives acknowledged that real democracy is about actual dialogue and informed debate not just simple soundbites.