Saturday, 29 December 2007

Women's Pensions - the saga continues

Last Summer the Government was defeated in the House of Lords on the Pensions Bill in an amendment tabled by Patricia Hollis - one of their own former pensions ministers. She was arguing that women who retire before 2010 (when more generous pension rules come in) should have more flexibility to fill gaps in their pension record. The Government didn't like her amendment but persuaded her to withdraw it with a promise that they would come up with something better. After six months of thinking about it, they've now announced in the House of Lords that they can't think of a way to do it. Patricia Hollis is understandably furious and is threatening further defeats.

Jackie Ashley wrote a Guardian article about this on Christmas Eve, which I very much agred with. In response I wrote a letter to the Guardian which they published on 27th December. I pointed out that even now there are many women who could fill gaps in their records on very favourable terms, and the Government knows precisely who they are, but is refusing to tell them! I think this is outrageous, and in my spare time (!) from being the Lib Dems' new environment spokesperson I will keep gnawing away at the Government over this in the New Year.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Back from Never-Never Land

What an exciting 36 hours. First I was declared a non-person by Facebook who decided I was impersonating an MP (no jokes please). Then a group was started to convince the world that I was real and within a few hours had over 200 members. One of our local team even wrote a song to the tune of 'once in Royal David's City':

Once upon a time in England
Stood a very good MP
His election was a landslide
It's North Avon History
But now his very existence
Has encountered resistance
He has helped us all and gladly
Now we come to rescue Steve
Facebook friends, unite and stand up
To make everyone believe
Steve is real, so tell your president
Give him back to North Avon Residents
And one day, in the near future
All this will feel like a dream
Steve will have his Facebook friends back
And Lib Dem's will reign supreme
Until then, we'll do our best
To keep up our Facebook protest!

Against such overwhelming odds, Facebook had to capitulate and I'm back!

Facebook think I'm an impostor!

I have an identity crisis.

I had a message yesterday from Facebook to say that my account had been disabled. The standard online message says this is either for a serious of small misdemeanours or one 'egregious' breach of the rules. I had no idea what I might have done, so I messaged them to query and have been told that my site is a fake and that it is a breach of their rules not to give a genuine first name and last name. They say that their decision is final and that my account will not be re-activated! Given that I've been one of the main evangelists for Facebook at Westminster, this is, to say the least, frustrating. Also, the thought of starting again and re-contacting my 2,500+ friends doesn't thrill me...

So my Christmas quiz question is - how do I prove to Facebook that I am who I say I am?!

After all, I have a strong suspicion that the Facebook site of Queen Elizabeth I is not entirely genuine, but that seems to have escaped the notice of the censors....

UPDATE - my friends have kindly started a Facebook group to get me readmitted - please visit and join here!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

A very different carol service

One of the high spots of Christmas (apart from my own children's nativity plays etc., of course!) is the Christmas service at Ashfield Young Offenders Institution in my constituency. We learned this afternoon that Ashfield is the 'largest juvenile prison in Europe' (not my constituency's proudest boast I guess..) and it has been turned around in recent years under the unique leadership of governor Vicky O'Dea. To give you a flavour, she introduced the service by pointing out to some of the young offenders all the mayors etc. on the front row with their 'bling' and wondered if they'd 'been on the rob'! They in turn responded really well both to her and to the Chaplain - Nick the Vic in the Nick (if you see what I mean) - who had a great rapport with the boys.

The service itself included Bible readings - with some of the boys clearly overcoming nerves at standing in front of a big crowd of dignitaries - personal testimonies (with some very powerful stories of their lives to date and of their experience of faith) and some rousing carol singing. I've never heard quite such a raucous 'Away in a Manger', nor 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks' sung to the tune of Ilkley Moor Bah Tat [try it - it works really well if you repeat the lines in the right places].

All in all, a very unconventional service, but one that filled me with hope about what can be achieved when people who have gone off the rails are not written off but are given some encouragement and value.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Not quite such an early start

This morning I paid my annual pre-Christmas visit to sorting offices in Thornbury and in Yate in my constituency. I've always admired the folk who deliver our post for getting up so early in the morning and going out in all kinds of weather, so it's the least I can do to say thank you in person at this time of year. (Photo shows me with Phil Lear at the Yate sorting office this morning - people assume that all our post is sorted by machine, but the final sort is very much a manual process, as you can see!)

This year was a bit different, because the Royal Mail said there was no point going in until about 0715. Reason being that because the mail is not arriving at the major sorting offices until later it is not getting out to the local sorting offices until later in the morning. I imagined that people would be glad of an extra hour in bed (I know I would) but most people didn't like the new hours. Many said they had spent years getting up very early and preferred to rise early and finish early. They also pointed out that going out later in the day means more getting stuck in traffic and homes and businesses getting their post later.

Two other issues came up as I went round chatting. One was the real resentment about the way that competitors like TNT can handle bulk mail and get the profitable work, but then hand it back to the Royal Mail for the most expensive 'final mile' up to people's front doors. There was not much sympathy that it was allegedly TNT who lost the Government's child benefit data discs.

The other issue was the Royal Mail pension scheme. The story seems to be that in the good years the company took a contributions 'holiday' but now there is a huge hole in the scheme so money is being poured into the pension scheme which puts the business under even greater financial pressure. As a result there are plans to change pension benefits to the detriment of long-serving workers, which seems especially unfair. I recognise that pension scheme rules sometimes need to change, but it is never right to change them for those who are approaching retirement and have built their retirement planning on the basis of one set of rules.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Progress on broadband

Some years ago one of the big issues in my postbag was the lack of broadband internet access across the constituency. When telephone exchanges were initially 'broadband-enabled' it tended to be the big centres of population that were upgraded first, which in our area meant the Yate/Sodbury exchange and the Almondsbury exchange which served Aztec West etc. Even towns the size of Thornbury were down the queue.

A change of heart at BT led to them launching a scheme whereby people could register their interest in broadband and once an exchange had reached a 'trigger point' of interested local residents it would be upgraded. Eventually all the local exchanges were upgraded in this way.

However, there are still pockets where it is not possible to get broadband, especially where houses are simply a very long way away from the exchange. One area that has been having problems was the rural area around Hill and Nupdown, and residents (notably Thomas Jenner-Fust - pictured) had been pressing BT for action for a long while. I got involved earlier this year alongside the residents and we were delighted when BT promised a sizeable sum (running into hundreds of thousands of pounds) to improve the local network in the area in order to remove the barriers to broadband.

To their credit, last Thursday evening (Nov 29) BT sent no fewer than four senior people to come to a packed meeting at Hill village hall (though it is a small hall!) to explain exactly what they would be doing and when, and to answer residents' questions. If everything goes smoothly it should be the case that by late Spring / early Summer households in the area will finally be able to get on to broadband.

Mind you, I'm already hearing that the 'next generation' of high-speed broadband is starting to be rolled out (including in some other countries) and I have a slight feeling of deja vu about lobbying to get our area upgraded fast...