Author Archives: Prateek Buch

Opinion: troubling times in the jobs market

Despite uncertainty over the statistics (don’t worry, this isn’t a post about p-values and standard deviations), we can say with some confidence (say, 95%) that the UK jobs market remains in a volatile state with many people out of work or underemployed. With public sector jobs being shed rapidly as a result of austerity measures, and the private sector unable or unwilling to create more jobs than it sheds due to falling demand (going against Chancellor George Osborne’s  expectations), the net result is a devastating lack of work for millions of people, …

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Opinion: Lynne Featherstone’s defence of evidence-based translational medicine is welcome

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The sparsely-attended adjournment debate on Wednesday secured by Conservative MP David Amess, saw a rare thing – a genuine discussion based around the merits of peer-reviewed scientific research and a robust defence of an evidence-based approach to translational medicine from Lib Dem Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone. For a biology nerd interested in the application of scientific knowledge to public policy it had all the ingredients of a pre-Christmas gift – I can fully recommend the Hansard transcript for a full picture (yes, I am that sad…).

Mr. Amess has some track record of Parliamentary campaigning against animal cruelty, …

Posted in Europe / International and Op-eds | Tagged , , , , and | 1 Comment

Opinion: Shareholders start to flex their muscle on high pay in banks

The Association of British Insurers, whose members are significant shareholders in UK banks, has written of its concern over remuneration in the banking sector in the most stern terms. The ABI’s Director General Otto Thoresen has highlighted the

need for all banks to fundamentally restructure their remuneration practices.

This follows on from the independent High Pay Commission’s report into executive remuneration, which emphasised the need for shareholders to play an activist role in setting top pay – the letter appears to be a first step towards a large number …

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Conference gets its wish – drug policy review announced

Liberal Democrats are always looking for distinctive ways to show that the party is making a difference in government – things we can proudly point to and say “look, we made this happen.” This week’s announcement that the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is to launch a new inquiry into drugs policy is one that activists, MPs and Peers alike can rightly point to as an example of the positive influence Lib Dems have on public policy.

There is now widespread recognition that the UK’s drugs laws are ineffective and expensive, with MPs of all parties signing …

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Opinion: Lib Dems should welcome and put into practice most of the High Pay Commission’s recommendations

Some bald statistics before the ranting begins: In 1979 the top 0.1% of earners took home 1.3% of the national income; by 2007 this had grown to 6.5%. In 1979 the top 1% took home 5.93% of the national income; by 2007 this had grown to 14.5%. In 1979 the top 10% took home 28.4% of the national income; by 2007 this had grown to 40%. In 2010 alone, executive pay in FTSE 100 companies went up by an average of 49%, against a 2.7% rise amongst employees in these firms. Top bosses now take home nearly 7% of total …

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Opinion: Why is the BBC so bad at putting links in science stories?

The BBC’s failure to link properly to the original sources of its stories, especially those relating to developments in science and healthcare, may be just be a personal bugbear, and you may well be blissfully unaware of or affected by it, but do indulge me as I think this matters!

For some time now the likes of medic and writer Ben Goldacre have expressed real concern at the underwhelming way the BBC uses hyperlinks on its website. Specifically, when the BBC website carries a story based on papers published in academic journals, clicking their ‘related internet links’ sends the …

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Opinion: Dr. Balls makes the right diagnosis, offers the same old failed prescriptions

Leading commentators on the political economy must have been flattered to hear many of their principles and policies given lip service by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls this week in his speech to the Labour party conference. Flattered only to be deceived, sadly, as lip service is all he paid; underneath the rhetorical support for a reformed political economy promoted by the likes of Will Hutton, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Ha-Joon Chang and others, Balls’ prescription for the UK economy amounts to little more than tinkering with the same old policy levers that haven’t worked in the past.

Mr. …

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Opinion: Privacy and investigative journalism – a balancing act

The recent phone hacking scandal has thrown into sharp relief a corrupt nexus: between media organisations (I use the plural advisedly) that consider themselves above the law; a craven police culture that makes it effectively so; and a body politic so in thrall to that same media power it’s unable to distance itself from those responsible for illegal activity, much less hold the press to account. As enquiry after enquiry ensues, we seek the reform of the press, of the police and of politics, the need for which has rarely been clearer; we must also seek to strike a balance …

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Opinion: This is the Social Liberal moment

After months of planning, and not inconsiderate last-minute scrambling, the Social Liberal Forum’s first ever conference took place at City University on Saturday; envisioned by Hackney’s Geoff Payne and put into action by the outstanding team he led, the conference (#SLFconf on Twitter) was a massive success from so many perspectives.

Firstly, there was the interest generated by having two Cabinet Ministers and the Party’s Deputy Leader speaking – Vince Cable’s speech was carried live by the BBC and Sky news was also filming throughout the day. Of course the Ministers were a significant draw, but the packed-out audience was …

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Opinion: We don’t need Labour’s Plan B – we need a Lib Dem Plan C

Senior economists have expressed alarm at the Coalition Government’s economic strategy – coinciding with the publication of gloomy figures, criticism came from sources as varied as the likes of David Blanchflower, to Sunday’s warning over the direction of travel from a wide array of experts in the Observer. As we ponder the need for alternatives to the Coalition’s policies, a Plan B, let’s recap how Plan A came about.

The Conservative party have always equated this crisis with the government’s budget deficit. Their economic narrative, unchanged since well before the election, has been clear; public profligacy under Labour …

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Opinion: Hackney debates NHS

You would expect that the electoral disaster faced by the Lib Dems last Thursday, with hundreds of councillors losing their seats and the referendum on fairer Votes comprehensively lost, would have overshadowed the weekend’s political activity. Not so in Hackney, where the local party and friends gathered in the sunshine to discuss the apposite question, “what is happening to our NHS?” First to address the issues around the government’s proposed reforms was health Minister Paul Burstow, and in fairness he did begin by paying tribute to the hard-working activists who had to deal with …

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Opinion: If State multiculturalism has failed, what should take its place?

Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on security and tackling terrorism in Munich in has re-ignited a debate over whether ethnic and racial segregation is the root cause of so-called home-grown terrorism, in particular the species that manifested itself so tragically on July 7th 2005 in London. Given my ethnicity (I’m the UK-born son of Hindu Indian immigrants) you may expect me to be apoplectic over the tone and content of Cameron’s rhetoric; at least I should be according to Labour’s Sadiq Khan MP, who accused the PM of ‘writing propaganda for the English Defence League.’ Yet I find …

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Opinion: the capabilities of ‘Alarm Clock Britain’

The more observant amongst you will recall a very similar headline to the one above, under which was an excellent article by Johnny LeVan Gilroy discussing Nick Clegg’s appeal to ‘Alarm Clock Britain.’

Although I found Johnny’s post really interesting, I must admit to feeling a twinge of disappointment – not at the vital discussion of the party’s positioning, but that the word ‘capabilities’ in Johnny’s title referred to those of our party, and not to those of the residents (constituents? stakeholders? members?) of Nick’s new target demographic.

My lament isn’t meant as a criticism of Johnny’s article, nor …

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Opinion: Liberal Democrats in government are protecting free speech and other cherished civil liberties

The Institute for Government was the setting for Deputy Prime Minister’s keynote address on the Coalition Government’s plans for protecting civil liberties – and for those of us keen to see Britain’s tarnished international reputation on personal freedoms restored, Nick Clegg’s speech was enough to brighten even the most dismal of days.

Nick began with a nice touch, telling us why his belief in civil liberties sprang from an upbringing that “made sure that my brothers and sister and I grew up certain of one thing: you must never take your freedom for granted.” This personal insight helped set …

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Opinion: Control Orders – our (not very thin) Red Line?

You don’t usually raise an eyebrow when Lib Dems stand up for civil liberties – it’s what we do, it’s what we are. We even know that there are liberal-minded Tories (you, stop sniggering…) with whom the greatest common ground we share is on defending the freedoms, rights and liberties we enjoy; just look at the civil liberties paragraphs in the Coalition agreement.

It is right, however, to raise an eyebrow – possibly both – at the widely anticipated rebellion over whether to retain or rescind control orders for terrorist suspects; not just at the timing, coming so soon after …

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Opinion: Perspective – my thoughts on the Liberal Democrat conference

Oblivion; rebellion; split; tension. Words that the media reporting on the recent Lib Dem conference – and gosh weren’t there a lot of cameras, reporters and microphones present? – used both before and during the last few days in Liverpool – and crucially, words that were largely conspicuous by their absence inside the arena. Not a surprise given that large parts of the media, and the pubic too perhaps, is still coping with having a democratic, pluralist party at the heart of government. My word of the week, in contrast is perspective – and here’s why.

Paul Reynolds has written

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Opinion: Nanny no more – a real test of the Coalition

It was inevitable, it had to happen at some point, the honeymoon couldn’t last forever (insert any other clichés you’d like to add); the Coalition government, drenched in soft summery praise in its opening weeks – enough to spark a nauseating case of cognitive dissonance in the case of Martin Kettle’s latest offering – had to face a stern test of its unity sooner or later, and now we have it. But I’m not talking about the referendum on electoral reform, nor about cuts to public services or even the VAT rise. No, I’m talking about Turkey Twizzlers, fizzy …

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Opinion: The counterfactuals seal the deal for a Lib-Con coalition

Allow me to indulge the personal for a moment. I was brought up in Eccles, a solidly Labour-voting suburb of Manchester (the seat hasn’t changed hands in the post-war era), by Labour-voting parents, and even gave my first vote to the Labour party, although I stopped short of ever becoming a party member. I say this because I want the reader to appreciate that I come to the Liberal Democrats firmly from the left of the political spectrum, which may make what follows a little remarkable.

In recent days I’ve read so many diatribes against a perceived betrayal from those that have …

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Opinion: An open letter to Lord Adonis

Dear Lord Adonis (may I call you Andrew…?),

I read with interest your views on the similarities between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It is with grace that Lib Dems accept your praise for Liberal politicians of the past, from Gladstone to Keynes and Beveridge via Lloyd George – many thanks for the history lesson, much appreciated. In return, most Liberal Democrats have no trouble acknowledging that in your 13 years in power, New Labour has introduced some progressive measures, including legislation on civil partnerships, the Freedom of Information Act and some constitutional and Parliamentary reforms (we shall revisit the …

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Evidence-based policy – MPs call for an end to homeopathy on the NHS

It isn’t often that Members of Parliament are praised, vilified as they are over their expenses, point-scoring and deference to vested interests. Yet this week has seen a moment of real clarity in Westminster, a true demonstration of how our elected leaders can exercise critical thinking and formulate policy based on objective, rational evidence – and all this over some tiny sugar pills.

Monday saw the publication of Evidence Check: Homeopathy, a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology committee (full report available as a PDF here). This report followed months of taking …

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Opinion: A Liberal NHS

As people who know me well will tell you, I’ve always been something of an idealist, daydreaming about some abstract political philosophy whilst everyone else deals with more pragmatic concerns – or ‘living in the real world’ as I believe it’s known. I make this point as what I’m about to write alludes to an apparent confluence – potentially at least – of strands of abstract political thought and practical everyday policy that I believe should gain prominence as the general election approaches.

First of all let’s deal with the practicalities (unusual for me but there you go…). Earlier this month …

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Opinion: The Nutt affair – or, the thin line between evidence and policy

Firstly, a disclaimer: I am a scientist, who is also interested in governance and politics, so the following post may come across as somewhat heated. Apologies, but I do feel that the recent furore over Prof. David Nutt’s sacking as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) goes right to the heart of why I took up both science and politics as profession and interest respectively.

We begin with Prof. Nutt’s most recent criticism of the government’s drugs policy, which attracted headlines for claiming that alcohol, despite being legal and freely available, was more harmful than the Class A narcotic ecstasy (MDMA). At first sight this may seem like an outlandish statement to make, but the evidence, collated by Prof. Nutt, suggests otherwise; granted, the recent publication from Nutt’s The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) at King’s College London wasn’t peer-reviewed, but the methodologies used to calculate his ‘harm index’ were so, and published in one of the most respected medical journals, The Lancet in 2007 (the full article is behind a paywall, contact me if you want the pdf…). Just to repeat this – using what seems to me to be a robust method, taking into account everything from physical harm to the user to social harms at large, ecstasy does indeed seem to be less dangerous than alcohol, and it’s using this tried and tested method of enquiry that Nutt used to conclude that cannabis should remain a class C drug.

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Conference fringe: Defending free speech – keep libel laws out of science

With a harsh economic recession continuing to bite, with Westminster politics remaining in the doldrums and with a global climate change summit fast approaching, legal action taken against a science writer may be far down your priority list as party conference season approaches. And yet, the British Chiropractic Association’s attempts to silence Simon Singh’s critical comments reveal fundamental flaws in Britain’s libel law, and threaten to undermine the freedom of expression that insulates us from the very worst consequences of public and private sector failures.

It is in this context that I invite all Lib Dem Voice readers to attend a fringe event I’ve organised at this year’s conference. The event is entitled Defending free speech – keep libel laws out of science, and will take place in the Marriott Highcliff Hotel’s Blandford Syndicate room 3 at 13.00.

We will hear an illustrious panel of speakers discussing how legal threats are being used to suppress scientific debate, and how Britain’s libel laws must be reformed:

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A tale of two recessions

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Dickens may well have been writing about 18th century France, but it’s likely that historians looking back at 2009 would conclude something similar about our current economic predicament.

In the midst of a recession triggered by a financial crisis, the economy at large has been in decline in the UK for five quarters. The knock-on effects of the credit crunch, brought on largely by unsustainable and deregulated banking speculation, have been dire; bail-outs in the billions which, according to Vince Cable’s sage analysis, “privatise profits and nationalise losses“; job …

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Opinion: Forget ‘flipping,’ moats and duck houses – this constitutional crisis is a glorious opportunity

Duck houses, £2,000 televisions, moat cleaning – the additional cost allowance (ACA) has cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds and several MPs their jobs, but it just may prove to be the trigger for widespread governmental reform that progressives have long argued for.

Let’s not focus on the minutiae of who claimed what, and think instead of the wider consequences of this crisis. We must recognise that this ugly episode is but a symptom of a more fundamental failure of governance in the UK, and at the same time represents a glorious opportunity to reform an electoral system rotting from its very core.

So while it is a scandal that Sir Peter Viggers claimed over £1,600 for a duck shelter or that Shahid Malik MP rents a house at a fraction of market cost, many within our party and outwith will be quietly pleased that a sub-set of Parliamentarians have presented reformers with a near-perfect storm: public disaffection with a government coupled with visceral anger at the wider political economy.

To put it bluntly, the ‘Malik defence’ (also known as, and I paraphrase, “I didn’t break any rules so technically I did nothing wrong”) and the ‘Kirkbride defence’ (aka “it never crossed my mind that I was in the wrong until the press exposed my faux pas”) simply won’t wash. The public is hungry for more, much more.

This is the message that Nick Clegg has so eloquently sets out in his Guardian article laced with both fury at Westminster’s myriad failings and optimism at the transformed political landscape before us. The early debate over a response to the exposure of MPs’ conduct largely revolved around how to stop future abuses of the expenses system, perhaps a whisper or two about a snap election to purge the corrupt and refresh the Commons.

Indeed, David Cameron set out his vision for change this week, in what is rapidly becoming a stirring forum on the future direction of British politics, as part of The Guardian’s New Politics debate. But take a closer look at what Cameron wrote, and note what he missed out – his attempt to cast himself as a great reformer, as the saviour of government at a time of undeniable crisis, falls short of what is required.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 3 Comments

Opinion: Postal Ballot – to save the Post Office we need to revisit the cooperative movement

Saving the local Post Office from closure, and the Royal Mail from privatisation, has long been a serious issue on the campaign trail for traditionalists and progressives alike.

At this time – when private banks have ceased lending to sound customers and many urban and rural areas are excluded altogether from essential public utility services – these causes take on a more acute tone. At the risk of schadenfreude at Labour’s calamitous handling of these essential institutions, let’s examine just how the government’s proposals for the postal service fail to deliver (apologies, I couldn’t help it!).

Hardly anyone would deny that the Royal Mail faces pressure to modernise and to compete with commercial services, and that to keep pace with an ever-changing communications landscape some restructuring is required. The question is how this is best achieved, how to prioritise disparate facets of the service from universal postal coverage to banking and civil services.

According to the accepted Westminster doctrine, established some 15 years ago and remaining today, competition is the key. Ask the Royal Mail to compete for business with private sector providers and its efficiency will increase, the customer will win.

The problem is, private sector providers are able to cherry-pick juicy corporate contracts and profitable speciality deliveries, leaving the public sector to ensure that Mrs. Jones’ birthday card gets from Weston-super-Mare to Wick on time and intact. Not only this, the underfunded Royal Mail has little capacity to invest in modern infrastructure and facilities.

As befits the current administration, their response is to part-privatise the Royal Mail and sell off hundreds of Post Offices, hoping that the private sector will still serve communities whilst turning a handy profit. Unsurprisingly this is not a popular proposal; so much so that as many as 150 Labour MPs are expected to vote against their own party’s policy, risking turmoil for an already beleaguered leadership.

As far as the Conservatives are concerned Labour’s policy doesn’t go far enough, some Tory MPs favouring a complete sell-off; however they may still support a part-privatisation in the knowledge that they can always complete the job themselves in a few months time.

To avoid the embarrassment of relying on Tory votes to pass this reform into law, a desperate Downing Street scramble has unfolded in the last few days, with Compass chair Neal Lawson apparently failing to get the rebel MPs to agree on a not-for-profit model for the Royal Mail along the lines of Network Rail. Without this compromise the government must steel itself for defeat, potentially scuppering the chances of both postal reform and of Gordon Brown lasting until next June as PM.

So what of the Liberal Democrats – how would we do things differently?

Posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters | Tagged | 12 Comments

Opinion: Just how free are we?

In print, on television and radio, online, in lecture theatres and in town squares up and down the country, we are seeing a resurgence of an ailing art; public debate is back, and this time it’s polemic. How to recalibrate capitalism in the wake of recession; how to ensure whatever emerges has less impact on the environment; how a lasting peace can be achieved in the Middle East; these issues and more are being pored over with a renewed vigour.

To that end we should be proud to live in a country that leaves us free to express our opinions; free …

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