Thursday 27 February 2014

Wake of the Flood

(This is the commentary from Liberator 364, out next week)

 As floodwater inundated some of the most true blue parts of the Thames Valley, David Cameron may have had cause to regret his comment about getting rid of ‘green crap’ from government policy.

‘Crap’, in some cases quite literally, was filling homes in areas that normally back his party, and the public perception in January and February of the government’s flood relief efforts was pretty poor.

Further west, things were if anything even worse, with parts of Somerset under water for months and the Severn Valley inundated yet again.

It is hardly surprising that, when a disaster on this scale hits a country as little used to natural calamities as the UK, the cry goes up “they should do something about it”.

Widescale flooding makes proponents of a ‘small state’ look pretty silly, since only a state could remotely be equipped to provide both immediate relief and long-term resources for flood protection. It also made the Conservatives look pretty silly, as their strictures about lack of resources and spending cuts dissolved as quickly as Somerset Levels with promises that money would be no object in preventing flooding, even if it was not clear what this promise included.

Climate change deniers joined the ranks of those made to look foolish by the bad weather this winter as they went through contortions to explain that two months of the heaviest rain for centuries was pure coincidence and nothing whatever to do with carbon emissions.

But those who say that “something must be done” and that everywhere should be protected from any conceivable flood risk may also have questions to answer as the waters retreat. If homes are built on floodplains, they will be prone to being flooded, and more so with climate change.

How much money should be spent on protecting them? Should this be limitless, as Cameron’s panicked response to the Thames Valley inundation suggested? Or do choices need to be made about where it is sensible and possible to defend, and whether attempting to prevent floods in some places serves no more useful purpose than would trying to resurrect Dunwich or other places lost to erosion on the east coast, where nature is being largely left to take its course.

Little can be done about settlements already built in flood-prone areas – or even below sea level – but something can be done about new building on floodplains. At the very least, it can be insisted that new homes built there are flood resilient – for example, with only garages at ground floor level.

Better still, building on floodplains could be avoided altogether, but that would mean the homes concerned must be built somewhere else.

In areas where scarcity of building land has led to floodplain construction, that might mean building on greenfield sites elsewhere, and accepting that this might be the price of avoiding flooded homes in the future.

How prepared are politicians to say both ‘no’ to spending on flood measures in places that cannot be defended and ‘yes’ to building on nearby areas instead of floodplains?

After all, there’s nothing quite like a threat to build on greenfield sites to get a Focus team swinging into action.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The press misses a big story in Nick Clegg: The Liberal Who Came to Power

I have just listened to the second part of Steve Richards' Radio 4 documentary Nick Clegg: The Liberal Who Came to Power.

The press coverage beforehand concentrated on Jeremy Browne's opposition to the idea of selling ourselves as the party of the centre and on Shirley Williams observation that Nick likes to surround himself with young people, not all of whom are particularly competent - Simon Titley's belligerent youths.

I agree with both, but Shirley Williams said something else important that the pre-broadcast coverage missed.

She said that Nick Clegg has a low opinion of the House of Lords.

I was talking to a peer in London the other week - as one does - and was told that relations between Nick and the Lib Dem group in the Lords are not good. The peers feel they are required to do a lot of hard work to improve the poor (and often illiberal) legislation the Commons sends to them and do not get the recognition from Nick that they deserve.

This poor feeling between Nick and the Lords, I was told, in part explains the poisonous progress of the Rennard affair. Many Lib Dem peers are inclined to stand by one of their own because of it.

This story first appeared on Liberal England - since then I have heard the same story from another source.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Smoke free cars for children

[Guest post by Baroness Tyler]

Debates over banning smoking in cars with children have shown a quite legitimate difference of opinion about how to apply liberal principles in an such an area, as illustrated when Nick Clegg shared his views on Thursday’s Call Clegg.

Much of the ensuing media and blog debate -including on Lib Dem Voice -has focussed on whether it’s right to legislate about what people do in private cars and whether this isn’t too great an intrusion by the  “nanny state” into the private realm. 

Whilst some of the debate in the Lords this week addressed that point, much of it was to do with whether such a ban would be enforceable.  Indeed the Government argued against it – and then lost the vote – not so much on the grounds of the desirability of such a ban but on its workability.

For some months I have been working with a group of cross party backbench peers in the Lords and a coalition of charities on all this. We tabled amendments in the Children and Families Bill to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco products and to ban smoking in cars when children are present. We were absolutely delighted when – in response to our cross party amendment which received widespread support across the House at Committee Stage – the Government changed its position and at Report Stage tabled its own amendment introducing enabling legislation for standardised packaging, following an independent review of the evidence base by Sir Cyril Chantler.
I recently had the privilege of meeting with Nicola Roxon, the former Australian Minister for Health who was instrumental in the implementation of standardised packaging in Australia. She explained the beneficial impact that standardised packaging was having in no longer portraying smoking to young people as cool, glamorous and a “must have” accessory, but a much less desirable- and truthful – image. This is already starting to reduce take up, critically as part of a wider tobacco control strategy.   
That’s why I’m pleased that the Government is now introducing at Third Reading this Wednesday new amendments on proxy purchasing and requiring an age of sale of 18 for e-cigarettes. We’ve got the makings of a really good tobacco control package here, but a ban on smoking in cars with children would strengthen that strategy.

Banning smoking in cars with children is above all a child protection measure – a noble liberal ideal - and the very reason we were debating it as part of the Children and Families Bill.

As a nation we have come to recognise the harm that passive smoking can do, and we have made laudable strides in tackling its effects, banning smoking in public spaces, on public transport and in work vehicles.

There is one glaring omission though – every day, children across England are exposed to dangerously high levels of smoke when travelling in the family car – more than 430,000 children every week according to the British Lung Foundation. 

It seems an unjust anomaly, especially as those we are excluding from protection are among the most vulnerable in society, those who may be too young to understand the risks of passive smoking, or feel unable to ask the adult they’re travelling with to stop.

In the debates so far we often hear people talking about the so-called “rights of smokers” – but who is speaking up for the rights of the child?  Yes every parent can smoke if they want to, but surely every child should have the right to be in a safe environment.

Being exposed to smoking in the car is different to being exposed in the home; the space is more confined and children cannot move away from the smoke, which is far more concentrated and therefore toxic than in the home. 

Children often have little or no control over the smoking behaviour or adults around them. The health statistics also speak for themselves – 165,000 new cases of disease among children each year (such as asthma, bronchitis and reduced lung function) as a direct result of being exposed to second-hand smoke.

What parent would want to expose their child to such a toxic atmosphere with long-term adverse effects on their health? The answer is of course very few. There is huge public support for this ban. A recent survey found that 80% of the public support this ban and 86% of children.

On enforcement the police already have a number of duties relating to private vehicles, including the need to monitor the wearing of seatbelts, the intoxication levels of the driver, the use of mobile phones and the use of child safety seats and restraints. It’s worth noting that the latter - another child protection measure, is being enforced relatively successfully.

In Australia, seven out of eight states have adopted legislation banning smoking in cars when children are present. Queensland, Southern Australia and Western Australia use a combination of police and tobacco control officers to enforce the law, which is carried out alongside existing vehicle monitoring duties and hence doesn’t create an additional drain on police resources. This could well provide the basis for a feasible model in the UK. In short where there’s a political will, there’s a way.

Others have argued that we should rely on public education campaigns rather than legislation. But as was demonstrated with seatbelt-wearing, efforts to inform and change behaviour are far more effective when backed by legislation. Indeed seat belt wearing rages increased in the UK from 25% to an amazing 91% after legislation was introduced alongside public awareness campaigns.

I’m glad that MPs will be given a free vote when this comes back to the Commons and hope that they send a message, loud and clear, that it is not acceptable to expose your children to second-hand smoke in the car. And I hope Nick changes his mind too.