Read my blog at Huffington Post

I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

A week's respite care for a million carers

I warmly welcome Nick Clegg’s recent pledge of a week’s funded respite care for the million carers who currently provide more than 50 hours of care per week. I am filled with admiration for all carers, including those who do it for more than 50 hours a week. The least they deserve is a week’s break each year, with respite care funded by the Government. We would fund this by scrapping Labour's botched care proposals and re-allocating the money to this Lib  Dem respite care proposal. This could mean a great deal to many carers living locally in Hendon constituency. In the same speech last Monday, Nick Clegg pledged to establish a commission, with cross-party support, to develop proposals for long-term care of the elderly, which will be tasked to report back within one year.

Details of the policy are set out below:

The Policy in Brief

There are close to five million unpaid carers in England, with a million providing more than 50hrs care each week. Liberal Democrats believe that people who selflessly provide care to their loved ones deserve a break. In most jobs you get paid holidays but for a huge number of carers that simply isn’t an option. We believe that respite care is a lifeline - not just for carers but for whole families. That’s why we will provide a weeks break from caring every year to the million unpaid carers who provide more than 50 hours care each week.

Why is it necessary?

Caring matters deeply to families and individuals but when you are taking care of somebody you also need to think about caring for yourself. The millions of unpaid carers in this country deserve as much support as possible and that is why we will provide a week of guaranteed respite care each year for a million carers who work the longest hours. This also makes financial sense because carers who don’t get a break can often end up suffering health problems themselves. Sustaining the ability of carers to provide the care and support they give to others is of critical importance.

Policy Detail

We will provide a week's respite care to the million carers in England who currently provide more than 50 hours of care every week. Each carer will be entitled to receive a personal budget each year equivalent to the cost of a care homes weekly charge to redeem with whichever local service they choose.

How you use your personal budget will depend on your own circumstances. The money can be used to take one break or a series of breaks, for example: to get someone to take over caring for several weekends while the carer takes a break; payment towards the cost of the person you care for going away leaving you to take a break at home; arranging for someone to look after the person you care for at home while you go away; payment towards the cost of a break for you both together.

Each Local Health Board (currently Primary Care Trusts) will receive a block grant dependent on an assessment of the needs of their local populace and the costs of care in their local area. Local Authorities are already equipped to carry out assessments of the needs of the people requiring care, and the needs of their carers. Once such an assessment has been made and the person is considered to eligible they will be able to apply to their Local Health Board for funding for respite care. By operating the system in this way we hope to encourage improved partnerships between the NHS, social care and third sectors, in looking after the needs of carers.

Costs/Savings

We will provide a week’s respite care to the million carers in England who currently provide more than 50 hours of care every week. The total cost of this scheme will start from 460m in 2010-11 rising to 500m in 2014-15. Some people will not want to take part in the scheme and some will already qualify for respite care through local authority funding. We have therefore assumed a 90% take-up rate for this scheme.

We will pay for this by using the 420m of health funding that the government intends to use for the Personal Care at Home Bill. And we supplement this money with the 100m that has already been allocated by the Department of Health for respite care through the Carers Strategy.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Northern Line confusion must end now

I am pleased to report that Tube Lines has now replied in detail to my email about weekend closures on the Northern Line. I am grateful for this, but having also had another email from London Underground (LU), I have replied to both organisations demanding urgent further clarification. Bluntly, there appear to be blatant contradictions between the emails from Tube Lines and LU. Tube Lines say that they proposed fewer weekend closures, but that LU turned them own. LU say that they are now urging Tube Lines to have fewer weekend closures and that they have no power to turn down proposals from Tube Lines. Read those last two sentences again, and you'll realise what a mess this is. All I want is for this work to be done with far fewer weekend closures than is currently planned, as weekend closures spell misery for people using the Northern Line. Since Tube Lines and LU both claim to want fewer weekend closures, it should be possible to now sort something out. I will update you as soon as I hear from both organisations.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Action on Cuba's human rights record

Following the tragic death on hunger strike of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, I have requested a meeting with the Cuban embassy, to discuss Cuba's appalling human rights record. Something can and must be done to improve the fate of the dissidents being harrassed by the Castro regime, including the 200 prisoners of conscience. The Castro regime's human rights abuses are just as disgusting as any that might be carried out by any fascist regime. My email follows below:
For the attention of: Counsellor (Political Affairs) Mr.Luís Jesús Marrón Oroza

I just telephoned the Cuban Embassy and pressed the button to be put through to your office. It put me through to a mailbox that said it was full. I telephoned again and pressed the button to be put through to the main switchboard. That too took me through to a mailbox that said it was full, so I am writing to the embassy’s general email address, in the hope that somebody is ‘in’ today. Perhaps today is some sort of national holiday in Cuba.

 
If so, then it is not merited, for this is a day of shame for Cuba, owing to the death on hunger strike of the Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8533350.stm). Furthermore, Amnesty International reported, on 17 February 2010 (http://www.amnesty.org/library/info/AMR25/002/2010/en), that: “At least six members of a coalition of Cuban civil society organizations have been detained to prevent them from taking part in events to mark the anniversary of the coalition's foundation. Two are still in detention.”

 
I am emailing to make the following points: 
1.      The detention of political prisoners is a stain on Cuba’s good name – I don’t care how marvellous your country’s health service and literacy rate might be, if your country’s government is locking people up for their political views;  
2.      I wish to be informed of what has happened to the people detained according to the Amnesty report – specifically, could you please inform me whether or not the two people referred to by Amnesty as “still in detention” have been released, or are due to be released? 
3.      I would like to meet someone from the Embassy’s Political Affairs department to discuss the 200 political prisoners who are said (by a Cuban pressure group called the Human Rights Commission) to remain locked up in Cuba, and the harassment of dissidents in your country.  
You may ask why your country’s internal affairs are any of my business. As my grandparents came to Britain as refugees from Nazi oppression, I care deeply about human rights abuses anywhere in the world, so I believe that this is the business of external critics of Cuba like myself. Were Britain ever to start locking up “prisoners of conscience”, I would expect their release to be campaigned for by people overseas, including Cuban Parliamentary candidates – were Cuba ever to have free and fair Parliamentary elections. Indeed, I look forward to the day when opposition parties can operate in Cuba with such freedom that there will be Cuban people equivalent to myself, free to campaign to for election and able to write to foreign embassies about matters of legitimate concern.

 
I look forward to receiving a response to my email (including my request for a meeting) soon.

 
Yours sincerely

 
Matthew Harris

 
Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Hendon

 

Monday, 15 February 2010

Board/JLC: Nick Clegg acted "swiftly and correctly" on Baroness Tonge

The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) have issued a joint statement welcoming Nick Clegg's sacking of Baroness Tonge as the party's health spokesman in the Lords. I am very pleased that the Board and the JLC have issued this statement in response to what I would indeed also call swift and correct action on the part of Nick Clegg.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Sports Minister responds on John Terry

You may recall that I emailed Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe to strongly protest at his inappropriate intervention in the FA's decision-making about John Terry. I have received a reply, below, from Mr Sutcliffe's department. I am amused to see that the email says: "This is a matter for the Football Association and the England management to deal with and not the Government." Yes, that is the point I was making - it was wrong for the Sports Minister to get involved!
Here is the full email:

Dear Mr Harris

Thank you for your e-mail of 1 February to the Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, regarding the issue over the England captaincy.

The role of England captain is one that comes with responsibility. Whoever wears the armband is looked up to by millions of young football fans across the country and has a duty to be a positive role model for the sport.

This is a matter for the Football Association and the England management to deal with and not the Government.

Kind regards

Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Public Engagement & Recognition Unit

Friday, 12 February 2010

Nick Clegg right to sack Baroness Tonge

Nick Clegg has sacked Baroness Tonge as the Lib Dem Health spokeswoman in the House of Lords. I strongly endorse his actions, which make me proud to be a Liberal Democrat. The Jewish Chronicle broke the news of this sacking.

Baroness Tonge had called for an inquiry into allegations that Israeli relief forces had harvested people's organs in Haiti. This grotesque conspiracy theory about Israeli organ trafficking has been commonplace among extremists for some time. It is an echo of the "blood libel" - the antisemitic myth that Jews kill non-Jewish children so as to use their blood in fiendish rituals. The blood libel has echoed down the centuries as a major theme of murderous anti-Jewish hatred, from the Middle Ages to the Holocaust and beyond. Its entry into anti-Israel discourse is an appalling feature of recent years.

Baroness Tonge's suggestion that the Haiti organ smear is sufficiciently credible as to merit an inquiry is totally incompatible with Liberal Democrat values. That's why Nick Clegg has sacked her, and I commend him for  doing so. Nick Clegg has been absolutely clear in calling her comments "wrong, distasteful and provocative".

I am proud to have been quoted in the Jewish Chronicle's initial coverage of this story, making clear my utter condemnation of Baroness Tonge's comments.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A response from Tube Lines

I am pleased to report that someone at Tube Lines has emailed to say that I can now expect a response to my emails "as soon as possible". I appreciate this and I look forward to hearing from Tube Lines more fully soon.

London Underground responds, but where is Tube Lines?

Last week, I emailed London Underground and Tube Lines, as reported in the Hendon Times (if you click the link and scroll down) about the planned programme of weekend closures on the Northern Line. These closures will enormously inconvenience passengers and there are surely other ways of doing this work. I called for the release of Tube Lines' "optioneering" document - the document justifying Tube Lines' decision to go for this option, rather than other options which could include fewer weekend closures. I strongly assume that such a document exists, based on my own experience of working for a utility company. London Underground has helpfully replied and that full correspondence is here (here also is London Underground's Current Northern Line Closure Programme, which they have sent me). But I have yet to hear from Tube Lines; I have copied them in to my emails to London Underground and would strongly request a reply soon. Tube Lines must treat London Underground's passengers as their passengers. We deserve to see all the options that were considered when Tube Lines was planning this work. Tube Lines must publicly justify their arguments for these closures.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Sir Alan Beith's letter in The Independent

As a Vice-Chairman of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI), I was delighted to see a letter from LDFI's President, Sir Alan Beith MP, in yesterday's Independent. Sir Alan, a former Lib Dem Deputy Leader, eloquently expresses the case for a two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike:

Sanctions against Israel will not help

Lord Phillips is right to demand attention for the awful plight of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants (Opinion, 1 February), but his analysis misses some key points.

Egypt has closed its own border with Gaza because it does not want its own security threatened by the Hamas regime which controls the Strip. Neither do other moderate Arab nations such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.


The Palestinian Authority chaired by Mahmoud Abbas fears what would happen if Hamas – which demands the total destruction of Israel – is allowed to reinforce its weapons arsenal and dig in further. It could be the death-knell for the Palestinian Authority's declared goal of two states.

Gaza shows the shocking reality of the very limited capability and will of the international community, including its inability to stop arms smuggling. It was the tangible and demonstrated danger to Israel's own people – not Lord Phillips's odd suggestion that Israelis suffer "genetic insecurity" – which led to last year's bloodshed. It was eight years of rocket attacks on Israel's civilian communities, an onslaught to which any country would have had to respond.

Amnesty recently found Hamas had engaged in a "deadly campaign of abductions, killings, torture and death threats against those they accuse of 'collaborating with' Israel".

That Gaza is suffering is not in dispute, and Israel is not blameless – indeed, it is taking action against two military officers for misconduct in the recent conflict. But there will be no solution without real talks which deal with harsh realities; and the international community has to get the parties to the table. Economic sanctions against Israel, which Andrew Phillips recommends, will do nothing to bring either the Israelis or Hamas to a recognition of what they need to do. They are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.

Sir Alan Beith MP
House of Commons


Friday, 5 February 2010

Media alert: Political discussion on JNET Radio

On Thursday evening, I was live for an hour on the excellent political discussion programme on JNET, an online Jewish radio station. I thoroughly enjoyed this stimulating debate, which is everything that a radio discussion programme should be. The programme's repeated from 12pm on Friday 5 February; I'm on from about 1pm and I highly recommend listening. We had a lively discussion about a range of topics (including Israel) on which I was able to give a Lib Dem perspective. I obviously haven't heard it yet, having been on it live, but I do feel that it was a great opportunity to demonstrate the qualities that I believe I have as a candidate and potential MP - why not listen and judge for yourselves?

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Tube Lines must PROVE they have no other option

If someone offered to upgrade your shower, but said that you couldn’t use it for 82 weekends while the upgrade’s being done, would you say yes? Thank you, Gordon Brown, for creating the Public Private Partnership mess that governs London Underground. The Liberal Democrats advocated a bond issue instead, but Gordon knew better, of course. Hence the fiasco of the huge tranche of weekend and evening Northern Line closures announced this week by Tube Lines.

I have emailed senior managers at the Northern Line and Tube Lines asking to see Tube Lines’ “optioneering” document for its forthcoming work on the Northern Line. Such a document would list several options for carrying out the work, explaining the cost/benefit of each option and recommending one of them. It is standard practice to produce an optioneering document on projects like this. Tube Lines say they have no option but to close the Northern Line for so long. Well, prove it – release the optioneering document listing all the options that you considered before picking this one. Anything less is an insult to passengers. I fear that Tube Lines may have simply gone for the cheapest option for themselves, rather than weighting cost against other factors. These closures will grossly inconvenience passengers. Surely there is another way?
Here is my email to the General Manager of the Northern Line, with Tube Lines copied in:
Dear Pat Hansberry
I hope that you are well. I write regarding the latest news about the Northern Line, i.e. that it is to close on 82 weekends from March while the Tube Lines consortium carries out engineering works, in addition to a breathtaking 16 months of weekday early closures from July. The Standard reports that Tube Lines’ work is to install a new signalling system to allow trains to run more frequently. In other words, it’s an “upgrade”. Is such an upgrade really worth it, if it is going to involve so many closures? Why not instead maintain the current service, rather than upgrade it at the cost of so much inconvenience for passengers? People are not crying out for an upgrade; they are instead crying out for the existing service to run reliably (which it usually does, apart from when someone decides to close it for engineering work).
I appreciate that it is Gordon Brown, and not Transport for London, that created the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement under which Tube Lines operates (the Liberal Democrats correctly advised Mr Brown to go for a bond issue rather than a PPP, but he wouldn’t listen). Having myself previously worked for a utility company, I know that Tube Lines will have produced an “optioneering” document setting the different ways in which to carry out this engineering work. The document will have set out each option and its costs/benefits, before recommending which one go to for. Assuming that this document was shared with London Underground, I would like to invite you to please put it in the public domain, starting by emailing me a copy. That way, passengers can judge for themselves whether Tube Lines really has no option but to institute so many closures, or whether they have simply gone for the option that cheapest for themselves, without balancing cost against other considerations.
I have copied in Tubelines, in the hope that their Chief Executive, Dean Finch, might also wish to reply.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Close fight forecast in Hendon

On 27 January, the Hendon Times reported that Hendon's Conservative candidate:
"faces current Labour MP Andrew Dismore and Lib Dem rival Matthew Harris for the seat, which is predicted to be one of the tightest parliamentary contests at the next general election."
It could indeed be tight, so every vote will count. Our borough of Barnet's neighbours include Brent and Haringey, both of which have elected Liberal Democrat MPs, so it has to be possible that Hendon can do likewise. I look forward to speaking to as many local people as possible over the coming weeks and if you have any questions, etc, then do please email me on matthew@barnetlibdems.org.uk and I'll be pleased to hear from you.

Monday, 1 February 2010

My email to Gerry Sutcliffe: Sports Minister's "improper pressure" on FA

I have tonight emailed Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe to utterly condemn his interference in the FA's decision-making about England football captain John Terry. My email reads:
Along with many others, I believe that it is grossly inappropriate for you, as Sports Minister, to intervene in this situation. I have never met Mr Terry or anyone else involved in the newspapers’ recent stories about his private life. I do not see why the alleged state of his marriage is my business or yours. I know little and care less about the content of these stories about Mr Terry, and am depressed by the extent to which newspapers are focusing on it, when there are surely more important matters to report than gossip about a footballer’s private life.

This country is not a tinpot dictatorship in which the Sports Minister gets to choose the national football captain. This is England, a country in which people would rather that the Sports Minister focused on the spiralling Olympic budget than on tabloid tittle-tattle about a sportsman. The stories about Mr Terry may or may not be true. But that is a matter for Mr Terry, those close to him and his employers, not for you as Sports Minister. I trust that Fabio Capello and the Football Association will reach their own decisions without regard to improper pressure from your office.
Many past politicians have themselves had messy private lives (real or alleged) without having to resign from government, including the late Robin Cook – was it OK for an alleged adulterer to be Foreign Secretary, but not to be the England football captain? Besides, in the current climate, can politicians really occupy the moral high ground in the wake of the expenses row?