Wendy Chamberlain on winning back N E Fife and her first 10 months as an MP

I had held off publishing Wendy Chamberlain’s speech delivered to Scottish Conference the other weekend because I had heard that it might be put up on You Tube.

However this hasn’t happened yet and I wanted you to have the chance to read it.

Heartfelt and honest, it’s one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen a parliamentarian deliver at Conference. Wendy talks about how she’s trying to help her constituents through some pretty complex problems and it’s clear how driven she is to get results for them and how much she cares about the injustices they face.

Here is her speech in full. Enjoy.

October 31st, 2019. 

The Early Parliamentary General Election Act was given Royal Assent by the Queen. Parliament was to be dissolved, and the campaign began. 

It’s hard to believe that it was only a year ago today.  A year ago since we all donned our coats and wellies – and headed out for one of the hardest, and certainly the coldest, campaigns of our lives. 

I cam to this office to start my campaigning. North East Fife was the most marginal of marginal seats – I’m sure I don’t need to remind you: just two votes between us and the SNP. It did mean that we had the best bar chart in Lib Dem history!

But it wasn’t just the bar chart. Because it wasn’t just two votes we had to make up. 

In 2019, the SNP vote went up by 7 percent. The bar was as high as it will ever be. I received as many votes as Ming (who I am privileged to follow on from as a Liberal Democrat MP for the seat) did in 2005. His majority was 33% – mine is 3%. 

So how did we get it over the line? There were three key steps. 

First, I was selected early. We had the infrastructure and people in place – and a fantastic team headed up by Kevin Lang and Celyn Ashworth. Celyn is now running Liz Barrett’s Perth by-election campaign and I urge everyone here to support however you can – it’s absolutely winnable. Without them we wouldn’t have won – and we hit the ground running.

That’s exactly the same situation that all of our fantastic candidates who’ve been selected this weekend are in. Many of them have already been campaigning for months. I know they are going to fight an amazing campaign. 

Secondly, we collected lots of data. 

And then, we used that data to be ruthless. We targeted exactly who we needed to – soft Tory and Labour voters. We saw the largest fall in the Conservative vote anywhere in the UK (other than the Speakers seat – which doesn’t really count) and historically low Labour vote too

And that’s how we took back North East Fife for the Liberal Democrats. 

***

Now when you get elected as an MP, the first thing that happens as you leave the stage is that you get handed an envelope with MP on it. 

Inside, there’s a piece of paper with a phone number on it. 

You ring the number, you’re told how to get down to Westminster and you’re informed that your email account is now open for business! 

Immediately, constituents are getting touch – with queries ranging from supertrawlers to dangerous dogs; from Dominic Cummings to trespassing cats.  

In the last ten months, my team have dealt with over 5,000 pieces of casework, ranging from helping the St Andrews Aquarium access funds, to mobile caterers with no income or events to attend, to visa issues for seasonal workers and families; and constituents stuck abroad during the pandemic’s early stages. You name it. 

It’s one of the most important things about being an MP. Making sure that your constituents are given a voice – because if you’re contacting your MP for help, it’s probably because you’ve exhausted every other option. 

So much of what I and my team do is trying to ‘unblock’ things where people are not getting anywhere with the council, or the Scottish Government, or Westminster. 

And sadly, for a lot of my constituents who get in touch, it’s the welfare system that’s the problem. They’re trying to navigate and they are, through no fault of their own, hopelessly stuck. The welfare system is meant to be a safety net – but it’s leaving too many people tied up in knots. 

These people aren’t just any people – they’re our most vulnerable. Our society has to be judged on how it treats the disadvantaged. And so it is a total failure of our government that a great deal of the people who contact me about the benefit system are people with disabilities, who patently should be receiving disability benefits – PIP or ESA – but the Department for Work and Pensions has cruelly denied them.   

In order to qualify for PIP or ESA, you have to take an assessment which essentially determines how severe your disability is. Now this isn’t determined by a medical professional – but by employees of the DWP. 

And it’s a failing system. 

It is depressing, the regularity with which constituents come to me because they’ve ‘failed’ their assessment. And this sets into play a two stage appeal process, with many people having to wait for months, if not years for a tribunal decision – which is odds on to overturn the DWP’s original decision. 

During that whole process, these people are waiting without the financial support that should be entitled to them. 

I am outraged by this system. 

***

This pervasive unfairness is also present in the Universal Credit system. 

One of my constituents wrote to me, let’s call her Moira. 

Moira is a single mother. She works part-time in a care home, earning minimum wage. 

During Covid, she was not eligible for furlough but decided to apply for Universal Credit, especially given that she was caring for her child during lockdown. 

The way you are assessed to see if you qualify for Universal Credit is over a 31 day period – this is called the assessment period. If you earn too much during that time, then you don’t qualify.

The Universal Credit website doesn’t inform you that the opening of your account triggers the date for your assessment period – and this date cannot be changed. 

Moira told me: 

“…[I]t has been catastrophic for my finances and my mental health, that the day I opened an account, initially in order to access advice, I would be laying down a disastrous timetable from which I am not allowed to return…

“Had I opened up an account a few days before or after, my assessment period would not make such ridiculous and simplistic claims about my monthly income. Because of the arbitrary and illogical assessment period dates, two monthly wages regularly fall into one assessment period, when is then idiotically calculated as a monthly income. There is no recourse for putting this to rights.”

Moira is paid on the last Friday of every month – so 3 or 4 times a year, two wages will fall into the same assessment period.

And when that happens, the DWP calculates that Harriet is receiving too much money to be eligible for Universal Credit – even though the second of her two wages is for next month’s bills only. 

To make matters worse, the DWP then notify the Council – who cancel Harriet’s linked benefits – her council tax reduction and free school meal grants – every time this happens. 

Moira said that the system has been “disastrous” for her. She’s paid her rent and council tax for years with no problems – but now she faces “huge debts”. It’s causing her “huge anxiety and depression”. 

The only official advice when she reported the issue? Contact her MP. 

There is something perverse that MPs are called up to assist people who are struggling to get by in a failing system – when it is MPs who legislate to put that system in place in the first place. 

*** 

About a month ago, I was contacted by another constituent called John. 

John wrote to me:

“Dear Wendy,

I received a very disappointing letter this morning from the DWP addressed to my wife. She died earlier this year. The letter, which is understandably an automated one, notifies that her entitlement to ESA is now zero. 

This letter should have acknowledged that she had died and been addressed to me. I called the department and spoke to an adviser who was very sympathetic and apologetic but confirmed that they are powerless to change the content of these automated letters. I was told in the eleven years that she has worked at DWP they have been unable to get the IT work necessary to change these letters because of ‘cutbacks’.

I can’t believe that such a clumsy and uncompassionate flaw cannot be easily rectified within the existing budget…I wonder if the DWP Minister is aware that this is happening and whether there is anything you can do to bring it to their attention to prevent unnecessary distress to others in the future.”

I was so angry when I read John’s letter. 

Going through the trauma of losing a loved one is difficult enough in and of itself. 

Those moments, which all of us have gone through, are the moments when the government should be at its most supportive. 

Yet when John was at his most vulnerable, our safety net did not support him. The impersonal, careless, even callous correspondence that he received from the DWP caused him yet more distress – just as it will have caused pain to tens of thousands of people over the last decade.

But rather than fix the IT problem that causes these automated letters, and allow grieving families to retain their dignity, our government is allowing the letters to be sent out.

That is not right. That cannot continue. 

In September, I was made Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Work and Pensions. 

And in that role, I am going to fight for both Moira and John.

I am making it my mission to take up these cases, and any others I hear of, and to campaign, to petition the DWP, to write to Therese Coffey until these injustices are stopped. 

 

***

These injustices are what motivates me. It’s what drove me into politics in the first place. When I was a police officer, I saw first-hand the challenges faced by the most vulnerable in our society, and the failing of the processes that are there to assist them. 

Now, as a Member of Parliament, I am going to fight against this unfairness and combat this ill treatment. I want to make sure that everyone is given the best possible opportunities in life to make the most of their talents. 

As Liberal Democrats, we need to make this a reality – in the DWP, in our education system, or, as my friend and our leader Ed Davey is campaigning for, for our carers. 

For if we focus on eliminating these injustices which ordinary people face, then we will be able to have a distinctive offer: we will be advocating politics which improves people’s lives. 

How different is that, from the politics of nationalism we see in Westminster; in Holyrood, and further afield? 

That form of politics is not easy to defeat – we all remember the general election campaign last year. False promises, divisive rhetoric, references to a glorious past; the interference of an alien ‘other’. It’s seductive.

But such politics will always fail. Because at the end of the day, those fanciful dreams do nothing to improve the lives of real people. 

In fact, they damage them. 

This pre-occupation with ‘sovereignty’ – at Westminster, and in Scotland – distracts from the problems that my constituents are having, many of which have been exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic. Regardless of your political viewpoint, debating constitutional affairs at this time serves no one well. When we do come out the other side of the pandemic, and we will, the focus needs to be on that pathway to recovery. 

But, we also can’t get away from the fact that Scots will be going to the polls in May for the Scottish Parliament elections. If you listen to the SNP, they’ll tell you they’re responsible for devolving the welfare system to Scotland. But they’re so pre-occupied with independence, it just gets delayed and delayed. There’s total incompetence, and the results do not make for happy reading.

Alex Massey said this in The Times earlier this week: 

“In the end, the SNP stands for a soft-focus, identity-based form of politics in which the promulgation of a distinct Scottish political sensibility stands in for, indeed replaces, any record of distinctive achievement. 

Voters, judging their government kindly, are happy enough with this. But if the electorate do not hold political parties to account they should not be surprised if those parties duck the really tough issues. If failure is not punished at the ballot box, more failure is all but guaranteed.” 

People’s lives are not going to get better under the SNP. So it’s up to us. We need to take up that cause. 

***

And as a new MP, I want to see an end to unfairness, ill treatment and injustice that is pervasive in the political culture where I work, in Westminster. 

I am the new Chief Whip – and I want to pay tribute to my predecessor Alistair, who pulled off a very tough job at a time when Parliamentary margins were as thin as they’ll ever be. 

In my role, I want to ensure that the Liberal Democrats are not just fighting against injustice across the country – but we’re living out our values as an employer. 

And as more than an employer – Liberal Democrats need to be the best political party not just to work for, but to volunteer for – to stand as a candidate for, to get involved with. We cannot afford to turn talented people away. 

This week, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, called for a kinder politics. I am going to play my part to make sure that becomes central to the political culture in Westminster. I am already taking steps. That’s why I organised unconscious bias training. 

It’s why I’ve engaged with our staff reps to reform our complaints system to ensure it is independent of a small parliamentary party.

That’s why I’m working with the new Head of Member Engagement in Westminster to ensure everyone, MPs and their staff, know what supports are available to them. 

But it’s also about making sure that our Parliamentary party engages with the wider party, and its organisations – many of whom are here today. 

I want to hear what you have to say. 

When we campaign, and where we succeed, it’s often on the basis that every Liberal Democrat MP will make a difference. That Liberal Democrats are local champions, fighting for their communities. That we do not take people for granted. 

And that is exactly how it should be. I know that when my friend, and MSP for North East Fife, Willie Rennie, holds the seat next year, it’ll be because our constituents know he’s going to make sure their voices are heard. 

One of my missions is to make sure that this same approach – of making a difference, of listening, of not taking people for granted – is at the very centre of our party’s institutions. So that as we embark on another election campaign, people are happy, people are treated with respect. Respect breeds success. 

***

Because it might be a year since the 2019 general election campaign began. Since that awful moment when, just before I went up to the stage for my count, I was told the devastating news that Jo had lost her seat. The knowledge that there would be 4 Scottish Liberal Democrats taking up their seats at Westminster, when there should have been 5. 

 

But now, we must take the lessons we learned from last year, like those of North East Fife, and look forward to the Scottish Parliament elections which are just six months and six days away. 

 

I know that we can be that alternative to the SNP and the Conservatives – not just in how we fight for justice in a politics which has lost its way, but in the way we campaign.

 

I know that when we meet back at Autumn Conference in 2021, we will be able to celebrate all the new and talented Liberal Democrat MSPs who have taken up their seats. 

 

And I know that is the most important step – increasing our representation, because that’s how we deliver real change to people’s lives. That’s how I can turn around to my constituents, to Moira and to John, and tell them the Liberal Democrats have fixed those problems in the welfare system. 

 

That is worth fighting for. 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in News.
Advert

14 Comments

  • I’ve much respect for Wendy, but must remind her which party cooperated and voted for the introduction of,

    “This pervasive unfairness also present in the Universal Credit system”, and,

    “In order to qualify for PIP or ESA, you have to take an assessment which essentially determines how severe your disability is. Now this isn’t determined by a medical professional – but by employees of the DWP. And it’s a failing system”.

  • @David Raw

    The Labour government introduced ESA work capability assessments around about 08/09.

  • Tony Greaves 22nd Nov '20 - 5:51pm

    UC was a great hope when it was first put forward, to unify so many complicated and conflicting benefits. The problem was essentially two-fold. It was botched by Tory Ministers (IDS and Co) when our back was turned (the deal in the DWP was that Steve Webb was left to sort out pensions while the Tories did the rest); and it was introduced at the same time as there were cuts in the total benefit budget. If you are introducing a new system like that you have to accept it will cost more because (among other things) you have to build in protections. But we are where we are and we have to campaign on what there is and stop looking back.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Nov '20 - 7:08pm

    Sunday’s headlines include a PM thinking about a reshuffle, including the Home Secretary. It has happened before and a junior minister knocked on the door and said he could simplify the task, because he wanted the job that others did not want. Come IN !!
    Please talk to me, Roy Jenkins.
    So, advice to the current PM. Consider the Junior Ministers.

  • neil sandison 22nd Nov '20 - 10:52pm

    Wendy is right what set out to be a reformed benefit system has been completely undermined by tory cuts its overall budget and a massive autocratic computerised system
    I have a long term medical disability . I am clearly eligible and my claim has been determined .But since then I have been deluged with letters which you can tell are automated requests for duplicate information with significant deductions of up to 70% for small works pensions from any ESA you may receive . The aim appears to be an agenda to drive you away from claiming or receiving any support by attrition . This is why we need a new Beverage 2 to give those with health disabilities back their self respect and away from the Victorian workhouse ethos the conservatives seem hell bent on re-introducing

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Nov '20 - 8:50am

    Ming was a Liberal’s Liberal, giving thanks to a bye-election winner in Glasgow Hillhead whose own seat was in danger at the time. He set a high standard and was badly treated by ageism “Have you seen his sock suspenders?”

  • David Garlick 23rd Nov '20 - 10:54am

    Thank you Caron for this ispirational read. My sort of Liberal Democrat and what a great MP.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Nov '20 - 11:02am

    We need more diversity in our MPs. Take the challenge from John Alderdice.
    Nowadays he would be an MP as others have from the APNI.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_McQueen_(director)

  • Ruth is correct. Although a few Lib Dems some (John Leech, Annette Brook, Dan Rogerson) did complain about ATOS work capability Assessments in Pip and Universal Credit below, there was no positive outcome or change. See Hansard below :

    “Atos Work Capability Assessments – Hansardhansard.parliament.uk › commons › debates › AtosWork Capability Assessments … 17 Jan 2013 — Outcome :
    “That this House has considered the matter of Atos work capability assessments. ..”

    Rubbing salt in the wound, I gather the English party even considered outsourcing and hiring ATOS to run its membership services five months after the Party’s earlier defenestration.

    “www.markpack.org.uk › “Hello-I’m-from-Atos-and-I’m-calling about your membership”
    8 Oct 2015 — The English Liberal Democrats strategy paper contains a mix of sensible and highly risky proposals for reforms to the way the Lib Dems…”

    Unfortunately people do spot these things…. it’s about trust and veracity. Until the Party comes clean and faces up to 2010-15 it will never get out of the current morass.

  • Paul Barker 24th Nov '20 - 5:50pm

    We will never Know why our Voters were so (editor: expletive meaning “hacked off” deleted) by The Coalition because no-one did the neccesary deep Polling at the time.
    However we do know that our support started falling rapidly from the moment we entered Government so we can be fairly sure that the details of what we did werent a major factor.
    We also know from Polling before the 2010 Election that most of our own Voters didnt want us in Government & that looks like the “Smoking Gun”. We did something – Enter Government – that most of those who Voted for us didnt expect or want so its not surprising that they abandoned us.
    We have to expect the same Result if we join a Coalition with Labour in 2024. Lets not do it.

  • @ Paul Barker Have you looked at the polls after Danny Alexander inflicted the public sector pay freeze, the NHS ‘Reforms’ were announced, and the Welfare cuts were announced ?

    Our core voters in local government, the NHS and the care sectors deserted in droves…… and they haven’t come back.

  • Paul Barker – working with Labour does not have the same negative effect as working with the real enemy which was catastrophic eg coalition in Scotland and Lib Lab pact was nowhere near as damaging as 2015. Key thing is to have the cushion of a core vote who stick with is due to our internationalist liberal individual rights based values.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Nov '20 - 1:58pm

    It wasn’t coalition per se that did for us, not even coalition with the Tories. What caused our collapse was conducting the coalition as a love-in, when it should have been done as a business arrangement. Because we failed to differentiate ourselves from the senior coalition partner until far too late, voters failed to see the difference between us and the Tories. This applies both to voters who didn’t like the Coalition (who went over to Labour) and those who did (who went over to the Tories because they saw that as a vote for continuation of the Coalition, and they saw no reason to vote for us instead of the Tories). Had the coalition been conducted in a more arms-length manner (no rose garden press conferences, stronger differentiation, separate blocks on the government benches) we’d probably still have lost seats in 2015, but on nothing like the scale on which we actually did.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

    No recent comment found.