Opinion: Gay blood donation ban to be lifted – well, barely

The news broke over the weekend that an announcement is imminent on the policy surrounding the lifetime ban on donating blood for any man who has ever had sex with another man.

The writing on the wall appears to be that gay men who have not had sex for a decade might in future be allowed to give blood.

This decision was the likely outcome of the scientific review into blood donation, when I researched the issue for an op-ed slot on Pod Delusion live. It was one of the things I mocked in front of a live pub audience.

The Advisory Committee for the Safety of Blood, Tissue and Organs (SaBTO) have been looking at the issue for over two years. If you check their website on the NHS pages you can read the minutes of the committee and a number of academic papers they are considering as part of making up their minds.

One of the “compromises” they appear to be coming to is suggesting that gay men who haven’t had gay sex for five years become eligible to donate blood.

This would have the bizarre outcome of putting the NHS in the same situation as the Anglican Church. “We’re absolutely fine with teh gays – just so long as we can be sure that you’re not actually f***ing.”

Will Howells joked at the time that it meant you could redefine “a dry spell” as “taking one for the team” – which made me chuckle then.

But joking aside, this is a disappointing decision.

Whilst it is welcome that a very small number of people might now be able to donate blood who previously were not able, I think this falls short of the sort of action we have seen in other countries, and is a disappointing outcome.

It still means that the vast majority of gay men, the vast majority of whom do not have HIV, will still be unable to donate blood. 19/20 gay men polled would be happy to do so if they were able, and would be happy to contribute to the Blood Service’s perpetual problem of finding enough eligible donors to keep the nation’s crash victims, surgery candidates and post-partum mothers alive.

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Telegraph turns on NUS over fees

Today’s Telegraph reports that the NUS would prefer to remove almost all of the hardship grants than charge higher fees.

The Daily Telegraph has seen emails from Mr Porter and his team in which the NUS leadership urged ministers to cut grants and loans as an alternative to raising tuition fees.

In private talks in October, the NUS tried to persuade ministers at the Department for Business to enact their planned 15 per cent cut in higher education funding without lifting the cap on fees.

I’m not sure this is anything other than an exercise in the dark arts on the day of the tuition fees votes – reading the article, it appears that the NUS responded to a query along the lines of the “here are our unmovable parameters – what would you do?” and given the rock of a rise in a fees and the hard place of removing grants, chose the latter.

But as a number of Lib Dem bloggers have noted, the NUS is more than a little confused on their policy. Millennium Elephant compared the two schemes as follows:

The Coalition proposes that new graduates pay an amount every month proportional to their ability to pay, with additional help for the lowest earners, repayments to be capped at either thirty years or a maximum total payment (“paying off the loan”).

The NUS proposes that graduates pay an amount every month proportional to their ability to pay, with additional help for the lowest earners, repayments to be capped at either twenty-five years or a maximum total payment (“for fairness”).

The five year difference in repayments is because the NUS scheme also means going back to everyone in the UK who has already graduated, regardless of the finance scheme in place at the time, and asking them to pay a graduate contribution also. Is there a register of people with degrees? If not, I’m sure the nation’s graduates are sufficiently masochistic that, on receipt of a letter asking if they had graduated, they’d all reply “Yes! Harder! Tax me harder!”

Caron Lindsay, writing in direct response to today’s Telegraph, points out an additional irony

Look at it this way. We’re being held to account for an NUS pledge which the NUS themselves no longer support. Their scheme, not a million miles from that proposed by the Coalition, was, I’m sure, not drawn up of the back of an envelope overnight. You can tell the close relationship between Labour and the NUS by the sheer number of key NUS figures who’ve made it into Government – like Phil Woolas and Jack Straw. This pledge was never meant to deliver the abolition of fees, it was meant to trap the Liberal Democrats. You can bet your life that if we’d ended up in coalition with Labour, we’d be voting on the NUS scheme tomorrow night. We should never have signed it.

I’m still not sure how those who say we shouldn’t have signed any pledges at the time are quite working their way through the mire. How were our candidates supposed to respond to students? “Yes, our policy is 100% in line with your pledge but GET THAT PEN AWAY FROM ME I’M NOT SIGNING ANYTHING!!” What, really, will our candidates do with pledges next time round?

What frustrates me personally most of all in all the mess surrounding this issue is the sort of internal, party democracy issue that won’t wash with the protesting hordes because it takes more than a minute to explain. But our party policy, voted on at conference by party members still stands. Over several years, many attempts from leaders within the Lib Dems to remove our policy of free tertiary education were defeated by our grass roots. The left within the party, fearing that it would not make it to our most recent manifesto organised themselves to ensure the party committees charged with writing the policy contained enough people of the right left views to maintain our policy into the 2010 manifesto. And yet this organisation within the party was not enough to see our strongly held views implemented by the party in government. And still the grassroots party has options. We could bankrupt our own party by demanding a special conference. I don’t dare think how much blood there will be on the carpet at our next scheduled conference in Nick Clegg’s backyard. And there is still the nuclear option of 75 quorate local parties demanding a new leadership battle.

As I write, John Leech MP has just concluded his intervention in the debate by telling the House of Commons he has no doubts that had the Labour party still been in government, they would have implemented the Browne Review themselves. I share his cynicism. The Labour party care nothing for students beyond embarrassing the government. When I cast my eyes over the short list of Labour candidates who signed the NUS pledge [XLS file], there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between those who signed it and and those who were fighting off a credible challenge from the Liberal Democrats. The Labour party don’t care about student finance, as their history in government shows quite clearly, they are merely able to use it opportunistically to humiliate the Lib Dems. The Conservatives needed their arms twisting to amend the Browne review into something even the IFS can call progressive. Ultimately, William Cullerne Brown has it right:

For students, there is a counter-intuitive conclusion. If you lean to the progressive side (as presumably most of the protesters do) and want to make a difference, which party should you join? Join Labour and you know you will be turning yourself into cannon fodder. Join the Lib Dems and it is now clear that you really can make a difference. Hang the effigies by all means. But Clegg’s despair is in fact a great reason to get one of those yellow membership cards.

In his article on these pages on Sunday, David Allen suggested the tuition fee vote might be sufficient to bring down the government. From May to December, we have had the imponderable question about what difference the Lib Dems are making. Are the concessions we have drawn from the Coalition worth the price we are paying, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the voting public? At least if the government falls, and the Liberal Democrats are annihilated at a subsequent general election, we would find out the answer. The Labour party would have to put away the onions that give them their crocodile tears, write on their blank sheet of paper, and finally get the balls to decide which of their unaffordable schemes they would actually save. Or we would see what untempered Conservatism looks like. Is the pyrrhic victory worth it?

* Alex Foster is a contributing editor at Lib Dem Voice, and received a grant for the first of his degrees. His second degree was a part time MA and as such he financed up front fees from part time work. You can decide for yourself if Film Studies MA was worth the money by reading his academic writing.

Opinion: Cameron’s vision for local government is bleak

Last week’s Local Government Association conference was addressed on its final day by three representatives from Westminster who’d made the journey northwards to Harrogate to face the serried ranks of senior local government councillors and officers.

The Lib Dems were represented by Vince Cable MP, given an early morning slot that not everyone got to. He was warmly received by all those who were there, in any case, which may represent that it was just the Lib Dem LGA group present. His speech covered his history as a councillor himself in the early 1970s when local government had greater discretion – but when many of his colleagues had ended up in prison as a result of decisions they had taken. He covered how localism has come to mean different things to the different parties and how we are all proponents of localism, but mean different things by it:

There is the ‘localism’ which involves strengthening the autonomy of schools, colleges and other bodies by stripping local authorities of their role. There is the localism which really means individual choice at the expense of local community choice. There is localism in the form of regional devolution; devolution to local authorities; and devolution within local authorities. I want to talk about localism in the traditional sense of decentralisation to local communities and their elected councils: not just because I am talking to you but because I believe it is right, and an urgent priority. That is what my party means by localism though I am not sure it is true of our opponents.

Cllr Tim Ball has the full text of Vince Cable’s speech; and Iain Browne of Birkdale Focus gives an account and his reaction to it.

Labour sent their new-in-post Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to the antepenultimate slot of the day. Twitter’s CllrTim thought the Tory and Lib Dem groups had been warned to stay away, and indeed the hall was pitifully empty by the time he took to the podium. I’m sure that rather than any organised boycott, delegates were aware the minister had been in post scant minutes, would have little new to say, and were aware of how hellish it is to leave Harrogate in peak traffic.

As it was, John Denham gave a good round up of the current awful state of Government policy in regards to local government. He even defended the Comprehensive Area Assessment, Labour’s latest wheeze for Whitehall to inspect Town Halls and bestow them with red and green flags (red flags being bad, much to the chagrin of some of my Labour colleagues in Nottingham). Earlier in the day, Vince Cable had promised to remove almost all of the inspection process and save some £800m.

Finally David Cameron, who bounded onto the stage just before lunch to a packed auditorium. The Conservatives control the LGA as they have the majority of the nation’s councillors, and so they were there in number. Contrasted with the other speakers, Cameron has never been a councillor himself. But he has spoken to the LGA three times, and he knows what buttons to press.

Many of the promises he made to councillors were welcome, if they can be believed. Like Vince, he promised less regulation and fewer inspections; an end to the Standards Board and an end to top-down reorganisations.

But the quid pro quo of the greater powers and the higher responsibilities was that a Tory government will give no more money to councils. Any further improvement or achievement will have to come as a zero sum game. His model for this was the supermarkets, and he mocked Labour’s view that cuts in expenditure necessarily lead to cuts in services by calling on the slogans our supermarkets use:

“Good food costs more at Sainsbury’s”.

“At Tesco every little bit doesn’t so much as help – in fact it’d be a 10 per cent cut in the quality of the food”.

Asda wouldn’t boast “permanently low prices – but “permanently more and more cuts in quality and service”.

But to use the supermarkets as the model for local government in the future is a deeply depressing outlook. Those low prices come from an almost monopolistic market position that local councils can never have and from an abysmal, abusive relationship with suppliers that is not a model for anyone, least of all local authorities. I well remember my student and summer work in supermarkets. They were not not the decentralised beacons of autonomy Cameron earlier said he wanted for local government: I can remember night shifts restocking shelves based on a map from head office that showed precisely what went where and hanging advertising banners from the roof based on diagrams from HQ. Even our interactions with customers on the checkouts were precisely defined: opening all conversations with references to loyalty cards with the threat of mystery shoppers to enforce it; the tills monitoring our transaction speeds and getting operators to tap in data on the shopfloor – QUEUE LENGTH??

And the spectre of less money is one that will resonate with those who were in local government during the last Conservative government. My council chamber frequently resonates with the sound of waxing lyrical along themes of schools starved of capital investment, where boilers failed and roofs leaked; of roads in states of disrepair for decades; of the one investment in transport for an entire year, a single set of traffic lights (long since removed as pedestrianisation swept in).

Dave’s final point however was an interesting exercise in transparency pinned around a phrase of “Google Government”. His idea was that councils should make available everything they spend their money on, after a model of Windsor and Maidenhead who make public every item of expenditure over £500. (Mind you, I have looked at their website, and can’t immediately see where they are doing this). The idea is that bloggers, opposition activists and councillors can more immediately hold councils for account for the spending decisions they make – and even that providers can undercut each other in a savage, dog-eat-dog frenzy that leads to local government paying you to empty your bin.

This has begun to begin in Nottingham and there are already local bloggers – some staffed by disgruntled ex-council employees who know where the bodies are buried – who are fast becoming thorns in the sides of the City Council. One of their key tools is FOI legislation, and the handy portal What Do They Know. So maybe Google governance has traction. But in £500 increments? Nottingham City Council now spends over £1bn a year – who has the stones to inspect up to two million expenditure entries? And how are we to meaningfully publish that? And ultimately – is it the sort of top-down imposition that Cameron opened his speech by saying he would abolish?

Alex Foster is a councillor in Nottingham City and attended the LGA conference for the first time last week.

EDM126 and the dead cat bounce

Today in a spare moment, I have been dealing with post that arrived some time ago and has mounted up. Papers that arrive in clear plastic envelopes and are clearly non-urgent are carefully filed until I have enough spare time to deal with them properly. Amongst those are Total Politics, What’s Brewing? and Lib Dem News (although that at least arrives in an environmentally and post office-friendly C5 brown paper envelope). When I came to deal with the pile, I also found a mailing from last year from the Cats Protection League including raffle tickets that had to be returned by mid-December. Whoops.

Whilst I was going through all these envelopes – and for the most part recycling them unread, sorry! – I found a headline on the Cats Prot mailing that caught my eye: MPs call for action.

The story was about an EDM tabled in the last Parliament calling for action from local authorities – so as a councillor, I was hooked from the start. The rather gruesome EDM pointed out that local authorities are responsible for removing from the road the bodies of animals killed in traffic accidents. Then the EDM called on local authorities to invest in microchip scanners so that they could check to see whether those animals were cared-for pets with registered owners.

It does make sense. If your cat is killed on the road, unless it happens right outside your house, you may never know. So all you know is that your cat has wandered off and not returned. If your local council were to find your cat, the chances are you’d never hear about it. So urging authorities to invest a very small amount in microchip scanners could do a fair bit for the peace of mind of the owners of missing pets.

The initial EDM referred to in the magazine closed when Parliament changed session last November, but the campaign has been resurrected in the new Parliamentary session as EDM 126, tabled by our own Mike Hancock MP. The new EDM has not yet attracted as many signatures as its predecessor, so do urge your own MP to sign it if you agree, and if you’re fortunate enough to also be a councillor, why not find out what your authority does about this issue?