Sunday, 31 May 2015

Campaign Letter #18: Problem Debt.

Thank you for contacting me regarding the problem of personal debt in this country.   It is a difficult issue and anybody who has fallen into problem debt has my sympathies.

Millions of people all over the UK are struggling with unsustainable levels of debt and it is important that they are given they help and support they need.  The Government has set up the Money Advice Service to provide free and impartial guidance to those struggling with debt or looking for advice on budgeting.  The Money Advice Service is also a major funder of free face-to-face debt advice - you may have already seen the Ask Ma campaign on television.

Young people in particular are vulnerable to the lure of easy answers to financial problems.  That is why it is so important that schools get over the relevancy of things to real life like interest figures.  Some payday lenders offer loans at rates of over 1000% - ridiculous rates which in their adverts they now attempt to avoid  mentioning altogether.

In response to this, Liberal Democrats in Government have given the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the power to cap the cost of payday loans and we have been supporting credit unions by removing unnecessary restrictions on their governance and allocating £38m to the Credit Union Expansion Project.  There are now over a million members of credit unions in the UK.  People have alternatives to payday lenders and we should all be getting that message out there.

If one falls into debt, there are various techniques that an individual may use to limit the damage.  An example from my own history occurred when I returned from a job to find my UK high-street bank had sold my debt (a £10 unauthorised overdraft) to a debt collection agency.  At that time I was living in Norway, so by the time the payment had arrived with the agency, it has missed another deadline and new fees were incurred.  This happened several times, resulting in me paying out far far more than the original tenner.
The situation was finally resolved when I wrote to the agency, informing them that a third payment had been made, it was to be a final payment in full settlement of all outstanding debt.  If I had to make further calls on the matter, these would be invoiced to them at £5 a minute.  If I had to write again, each letter would be invoiced at £50.  Their company would also be liable for any further damage caused to my credit history, should they pursue the issue.  Further contact would be taken as agreement to these terms.
Needless to say, that was the last I heard of it.  It was also the last that particular bank ever heard of me.

While in Government, Liberal Democrats have raised the income tax personal allowance to £10,600, giving over 27 million people a typical yearly tax cut of around £825.  Over 3 million of the lowest earners have been taken out of paying tax altogether.  In the next parliament, we want to go even further and raise the personal allowance to £12,500, giving a further tax cut of around £400 to the average worker.

It’s not just tax changes we’ve made to help those on lower pay.  We have increased the National Minimum Wage from £5.93 in 2010 to £6.50 in 2014/15, meaning someone earning NMW and working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year earns £1,067.40 more a year (pre-tax) than in 2010. From October 2015, we have made sure it will rise again to £6.70, the largest real-terms increase since 2008, and worth another £374.40 a year for someone working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year.

The economic crash under the last Labour Government led to our economy shrinking by 6%. Instead, Liberal Democrats in Government have a credible plan for the economy that has not only resulted in more people in work than ever before, but it is keeping interest rates and inflation down.  The cost of living is falling, meaning nurses and other public sector staff getting a 1% rise this year will benefit in real terms.

To summarise, there are times in all our lives that things go tight and we have to resort to extra credit.  It is really important that our education system alert people to what those interest APR numbers mean and that people understand there are far more options out that than the glossy CGI adverts that are all over daytime television.  Once in debt, there is government advice available from the Money Advice Service (MA) and charitable agencies like the Citizens' Advice (CAB). The Liberal Democrats are working hard to ensure that people, especially the lower paid, have more money in our pockets and a stable, growing economy where it is easier to judge our needs ahead.  If the lenders abuse their position (as has frequently been the case), debt amounts can be capped by law.

If you have further issues or questions, I will be pleased to hear from you.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #17: Housing

Thank you for contacting me about housing.   In Scotland, it is an issue that has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so if I did become your member of parliament in Westminster, my influence would be greater upon the state of housing in England, ironically enough.  The problems that we face within the United Kingdom as a whole are similar however.

In Scotland, according to figures from Shelter Scotland and The Scottish Government, over the past ten years 53,000 council homes have been lost from stock.  Since 1998, a total of 200,000 houses have been lost from the public stock and the decline is continuing.  The building of new council houses over recent years are reducing the rate of decline.  Overall however, with the inclusion of housing rented from Housing Associations, the stock of affordable housing for the past decade has been roughly static, which is also reflected in Scotland's population of about 5.2million people.  With population numbers starting to show a rising trend, obviously pressure will increase on housing stocks in the years to come.

Within the constituency, I am aware that the crash of 2008 all but halted private housing development in its tracks for years.  The Port of Leith Authority seems to have shelved many of its plans, with only small-scale activity around the Western Harbour at this time.  This has not stopped the price of housing rising over large parts of the city in comparison with 2009, forcing many who have recently found work within Edinburgh to commute from surrounding areas.  I also believe that the affordable housing to be linked with the planned redevelopment of the St.James Centre is to be created outside the city centre, again possibly leading to traffic and commuting concerns.

Everyone should have somewhere affordable to live and I strongly support the building of more social and affordable homes in the UK.

Over the past four decades, successive Conservative and Labour Governments have left us with a housing crisis and eroded our stock of social housing. Since 1979, 1.5 million social homes have been lost from the stock, 1.1 million under the Tories and a further 420,000 under Labour.

In contrast, Liberal Democrats in UK Government have worked hard to turn this around. We have built over 170,000 new social and affordable homes in this Parliament and brought a record number of empty homes back into use – over 100,000 since 2010 – reducing them to their lowest level for over a decade. As a result of our work, we will be the first Government for more than thirty years to leave office with more social and affordable homes than we started with. This is a small, but important, step in the right direction, turning around a downward trend that had lasted thirty years.

We have set out plans to boost affordable housing in the next Parliament by building 275,000 more affordable homes by 2020 – the fastest rate of affordable house building for more than 20 years. Going forward, we have set an important long-term target of increasing the rate of house building to 300,000 a year, built to the Zero Carbon standard.

Within the first year of the next Parliament, we will publish a long term plan to set out how we will achieve our goal and appoint a ministerial taskforce on housing to oversee this task. Our plan will include proposals for at least ten new “Garden Cities” in England, in areas where there is local support, providing tens of thousands of high quality new homes with gardens and shared green space, jobs, schools and public transport.

We also want to bring forward more development on unwanted public sector sites through the Homes and Communities Agency, building on the progress we have already made in Government by releasing enough land to build over 103,000 new homes.

Our plans include proposals to help social housing providers, including councils, build more affordable homes to rent, with central government investment and local flexibility within the Housing Revenue Account. We also want to work with housing providers to design new models of affordable housing, to sit alongside the traditional social rented sector. This would include models that offer a path to ownership for low income working families.

It is no good making more affordable housing available if existing stocks are not fit for purpose.  Fuel poverty is a real problem, especially in Scotland.  That is why Liberal Democrats would ensure that all United Kingdom housing levels of insulation and energy efficiency would, by 2030, at least match the current Grade C standards.  Standards for new housing efficiency will also be reviewed and increased.

Councils in England would also be required to allocate land to meet 15 years’ housing need in their local plans and work with councils to pilot techniques for capturing the increase in land value from the granting of planning permission.

In order to help young people to relocate for jobs more easily, the Liberal Democrats would introduce a Help-to Rent scheme, where the deposit required up front by private landlords could be borrowed from government-backed tenancy scheme.  This would be available to first-time renters under the age of thirty.

The housing crisis can be tackled, but we need clear political leadership to be able to achieve this. I am confident that Liberal Democrat plans for the future can build on our encouraging start in Government and deliver the homes Britain needs.

If you have any further comments or questions on this, or any other issue, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letter #16: Christian Persecution

Thank you for your letter on the subject of religious intolerance.

To pick up upon the first topic that you allude to: that of registrars performing same-sex marriage.

To be clear, I support the right of two adults to marry, regardless of their gender.

There is a school of thought that the registrars are employed to uphold the law of the land and their legal remit.  Personally I think that is a rather harsh approach.  I understand that recognition of same-sex marriage is although right, it is also a problem for some in society.  When that person is expected to conduct marriages that they were not expected to perform previously, I think a period of "grandfathering" of contracts should have been considered under these particular circumstances only.  All new and existing registrars should be expected to change to the new laws but those in a small minority who did object being allowed to stay on until their jobs came to a natural end.  I know that is controversial in both ways and is, I repeat, a personal view.

On the broader point, Liberal Democrats believe freedom of religion or belief and freedom not to practice a religion are fundamental and universal human rights. Liberal Democrats will always ensure the promotion and protection of human rights – including freedom of religion – is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy. We will ensure this is the case if we are in the next Government. I condemn religious persecution in any form.

It is a sad reality that where freedom of religion is under threat that generally other freedoms are under attack too. I believe governments across the world must ensure the right conditions so that everyone can freely practice their religion.

The recent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and Africa is very worrying. I’m pleased that the Liberal Democrats in Government have continued to draw attention to and denounce violence and discrimination against individuals and groups because of their beliefs.

We will continue to call for more open and inclusive societies as this is the best way of ensuring security for Christians and other believers. In Government we have worked with the Arab Partnership to strengthen political participation, the rule of law and sustainable and inclusive economic growth. We will continue to do so if we are back in Government.

It is very encouraging that last year UN Member States passed resolutions on freedom of religion or belief and combating intolerance. We have called upon all UN Member States to put these resolutions into practice so that no-one is persecuted or discriminated against on the grounds of their religion or belief. I was proud that in March the UK, alongside our EU partners, sponsored a successful resolution on Freedom of Religion at the UN Human Rights Council.

These resolutions will help countries work together to protect these fundamental human rights. The next Government must ensure these resolutions are put into practice and continue to work alongside the UN and EU and other multilateral organisations to achieve universal freedom of religion.

Liberal Democrats believe we must also raise individual cases directly with nations. We will continue to highlight practices and laws that discriminate against people on the basis of their religion or belief. We have already secured improvements through engagement with countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria. We will continue to work with the leaders of different faiths in the UK to increase our understanding of the issues.

Through Liberal International, Liberal Democrats are supporting those campaigning for freedom of belief, like Lebanon’s Future Movement, Egypt’s Democratic Front and even newer movements in the emerging democracies of the Middle East.

I think it is important also not to overlook persecution among friendly states too.  Wherever freedom of belief, non-belief or diversity of belief is threatened or suppressed, then our voice should be heard.  All should be free to practice worship in their own tradition, without harming others and in turn without fear of harm to themselves.

If you have any further issues or points you would like to raise, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats,
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #15: The Ten Pound Minimum Wage

Thank you for your e-mail on the national minimum wage.

Liberal Democrats believe that the success of our growing UK economy must be shared among all workers including those on low wages. We’re proud of our achievements with record numbers of people in work; wages pulling ahead of inflation and a more balanced economy emerging.

Helping low paid workers has been a priority for Liberal Democrats in Government. We fought hard to cut taxes for people on low and middle incomes. Going even further than our manifesto pledge to let people earn £10,000 tax free, we have increased the personal allowance to £10,600. We plan to do even more if in government again raising the personal allowance to at least £12,500, cutting taxes for those on low and middle incomes by around a further £400.

We’ve also ensured above inflation increases in the National Minimum Wage (NMW), with the adult rate due to increase by 20p to 6.70 per hour in October this year. In doing so we’ve worked with the Low Pay Commission to ensure that rises in the NMW don’t risk jobs. But we’ve also been clear that we expect the NMW to rise faster than inflation as the economy grows.

Liberal Democrats want to do even more for low paid workers. We want to see further increases in the National Minimum Wage, see more employers who can afford to do so pay at the Living Wage and put the Living Wage on a stronger footing. To achieve this we would again ask the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage, without damaging employment opportunities. We would continue with this approach, rather than committing to raise the NMW to any set amount.

While all of us wish to see people paid well for their work, many of the nation's small employers simply would not be able to afford the extra pay burden that a £10 minimum wage would impose upon them.  The economy is made up of far more than just international corporations and government public services.

We would also improve enforcement action and clamp down on abuses by employers seeking to avoid paying the minimum wage, reviewing practices such as unpaid internships.  It is important that if a person works, that they are fairly and legally paid for their efforts.

To promote the Living Wage, we would establish an independent review to consult on how to set a fair Living Wage across all sectors. We will pay this Living Wage in all central government departments and their agencies from April 2016, and encourage other public sector employers to do likewise. In particular we would work with local government to promote paying a Living Wage.

It is interesting to note that while the SNP are campaigning to end austerity at Westminster, their ministers at Holyrood want to change public workers' contracts to end weekend pay.  This led to the recent strikes at the National Museum of Scotland.  The change would cut wages of low-paid workers by £7million.  Meanwhile last year, the Scottish Government underspent on our national budget by £440million.

If you have any further issues or questions you would like to raise, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #14: Traidcraft

Thank you so much for contacting me and raising my awareness of Traidcraft.

Liberal Democrats have a proud record of helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.  It is only thanks to the Liberal Democrats in Government that the UK became the first G8 country to meet the 40 year old promise to spend 0.7% of our national income on international aid. This is already helping developing countries to be safer, more stable and prosperous.

It was my Liberal Democrat colleague, Michael Moore MP, who put forward the successful bill to enshrine in law our 0.7% commitment on development aid. UK aid protects 3 million people each year from poverty; has vaccinated 55 million children against preventable diseases and stopped 250,000 new-born babies dying needlessly. It helps more people access anti-AIDS drugs and sent over 10 million children to school last year. Going back on our commitment would cost lives.

As committed internationalists, Liberal Democrats are dedicated to ensuring the UK leads the way in helping other countries tackle tax dodging and unscrupulous companies that abuse workers and communities. Most UK companies operate responsibly abroad but sadly a minority do not. This seriously harms those they should be helping and damages the UK’s reputation.

If I may, I would like to discuss my reaction to the Traidcraft video you asked me to watch.  Such examples arise far too often.  One has to ask through, why is it allowed to occur?  As it said in the video, if such things happened to you and me in the UK, we would have recourse to the law and the companies would be forced to pay compensation and clean up the mess.  Sadly in many nations, the rule of law does not exist in any effective manner.  In order to address this issue, the Department for International Development (DfID) have been helping many developing nations raise their own standards of legislation and enforcement, develop Financial Intelligence Units and continue to work closely with them in order to monitor the activity of UK companies, encouraging them to act in lawful and transparent manner.  The Bribery Act is not restricted to companies just operating in this country but applies also to individuals and UK companies on a global basis.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has currently thirty projects, including in Brazil, Colombia and China, promoting the rule of law and transparency in business dealings.

While I am not saying that everything is splendid, I would wish you to be aware of ongoing efforts to not only improve the behaviour and standards of UK enterprises overseas, but to help other nations raise their own standards so that normal people may have recourse to justice when it is needed.  I can assure you, that as a person who is employed to work on a global basis, companies take every measure to raise with their employees the importance of acting legally and ethically at all times.  The consequences for not doing so can be dire.

I was proud that at last year’s G8 summit the UK reached an agreement with other major countries to crack down on tax dodging by setting up an automatic exchange of information between tax authorities.

In Government, Liberal Democrats have ensured UK companies are held to account wherever they operate.  We have made tackling tax avoidance a top priority and secured a record £23.9 billion from clamping down on tax dodging and fraud.  We need to share these lessons with other countries because we can only tackle the global problem by working together. We are helping developing countries increase their tax revenues by supporting tax capacity projects and working with international organisations such as the African Tax Administration Forum, the World Bank and the OECD to provide technical assistance.

It is fantastic that the Liberal Democrats in Government have ensured that developing countries are protected from exploitative ‘vulture funds’. This is when creditors extract harsh and unfair payments from poor countries.  UK courts will never again be able to be used by vulture funds to exploit poor countries.

To have international credibility we need to ensure our own house is in order. Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced plans to hold businesses to account by cutting down on bogus owners and directors and creating a list of true company owners.

Liberal Democrats are leading the way in getting big businesses to take responsibility and I know we will continue to do so after the next general election. If we are back in Government we will ensure companies pay fair taxes in developing countries and ensure that UK and EU development aid, free trade and investment agreements support environmentally sustainable investment. We would also extend the existing requirement for country-by-country reporting from banks and extractive industries to all UK listed companies.  We would also ensure that the good work already underway in DfID, the FCO and law enforcement agencies will continue.

If you have further comments or questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Liberal Democrats,
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #13: Cycling

Thank you for contacting me about cycling. I have responded to the Vote Bike’s survey and was happy to support all of the measures they are calling for.

As a recent convert to cycling around Edinburgh, for both pleasure and commuting, I know how important it is to raise awareness of the benefits that cycling holds.  Obviously, as city planning is a devolved matter, I cannot make decisions upon this matter directly but you may rely upon my support in encouraging cycling across the entire UK.  Locally, I am particularly keen to see proper cycle paths completed along Leith Walk and Lower Granton Road.  In Edinburgh we have many excellent cycling routes but far more should be done to connect them up fully.

I am proud of the Liberal Democrat record in Government on cycling.  Since 2010, we have invested £588m in cycling, including match funding, almost trebling the investment the last Labour Government made in the previous Parliament. We spent a further £159m in 2012 to create better cycle links for communities, improve cycle facilities at railway stations and create more cycle-friendly layouts at road junctions.

We also introduced a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy to ensure there is a clear plan to support cycling and walking schemes and spell out how they will be paid for. It will also build on the £1.5m we made available to support the Active Travel Consortium to build capacity in local government to deliver local cycling and walking strategies.

Making our roads as safe as possible for cyclists is vital and I want to see more done on road safety and a greater roll-out of Trixi mirrors at busy junctions (which this Government has started), so that more people can be encouraged to ride on our roads with confidence.

Going forward, Liberal Democrats want to implement the measures contained in the Get Britain Cycling report; update planning laws so that all new developments are designed around walking, cycling and public transport; and increase the amount spent per head on cycling to £10 per head within existing budgets.

I see cycling as very much part of the nation's future, both for general fitness but also as a part of reducing pollution in our cities.  I do believe that Edinburgh Council's initiative to restrict most speed limits to 20mph on our roads with also help to make our roads more safe.

If you have any further issues or questions you would like to raise, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #12: Trident

Thank you for your letter on Trident.  Below I will both set out Liberal Democrat and my own thoughts on Trident and nuclear weapons.

Party policy first: The Liberal Democrats are united as being against Trident. As a party,
the majority of members wish to continue along the lines of multi-lateral disarmament and that is current party policy. This means that while it is our policy not to renew Trident, it is party policy
to retain some form of nuclear deterrent.  After this election, we would carry out a review to consider all options, including complete nuclear disarmament, would be on the table.

There is a large minority within the party who support unilateral disarmament, owing to our complete opposition to any ownership of nuclear weapons. I am part of that minority and I have a record of campaigning within the party for a change to our current policy.

To answer your question then, I would vote both against Trident and Britain's continued ownership of any form of nuclear weapons. If elected, I would also use the position to campaign against the
continued ownership by other nuclear-armed nations as well.

I have also stated my views on nuclear weapons on the CND website. I am gravely concerned that the current situation in the Ukraine will be used as justification to continue with the Successor boat project.

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to get in contact.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart.
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letter #11: CAMRA

Thank you for your email.  I too appreciate a good pint.  More to the point though, I appreciate the work that Camra does in promoting small business, and not just with pub landlords and tenants.   Many pubs nowadays are a part of Britain's blooming restaurant and catering sector and let us not forget the many small and excellent breweries that have sprung up around the country.

It may interest you to know that the Pub Code, designed to protect tenants of big pub companies from abuses like inflated rent and excessive beer pricing is a Liberal Democrat initiative, spearheaded in the last parliament by Greg Mulholland MP.   More information may be found here:

Sadly, as of this time, the Scottish Government has not acted upon this Liberal Democrat initiative.

I am old enough to remember Watney's Red Barrel.  I therefore fully appreciate the improvements that have taken place since the 1970s and Camra's role in the process.

When offered the opportunity to support the Camra election manifesto, I have taken it without hesitation.  You will therefore already find my name on Camra's list of supportive parliamentary candidates.

I therefore hope that the Liberal Democrats can rely upon your support now and in the future.

Kindest regards,

Martin Veart
Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letter #10: Sex workers.

Thank you for writing to me on this important issue.

Sex work is a reality and will always continue to be so: no matter how much some in society wish it were otherwise.  It is the role of government to work with reality, and of an MP to represent and help all of their constituents, no matter profession or background.

Like me, doubtless you read the report in the Edinburgh Evening News of the recent raids on local saunas.    It seems that the police and council have turned away from the policy of harm reduction and have turned towards crackdowns on those involved in the trade.  I agree with the view of the sex workers' charity SCOT-PEP that such heavy-handed action is destructive and will increase the dangers that sex workers face.

The Liberal Democrat party are against the criminalisation of sex workers and are also against the Nordic system of criminalising clients.  We believe that the best way for those involved in the industry is to organise themselves, that the government has no business as to what occurs between consenting adults and that the government role is therefore reduced to preventing harm.  That police in Edinburgh are using the presence of condoms as evidence is obviously very damaging to public health in general and the wellbeing of workers in particular.  This represents a change in policy and is a direct result of the formation of Police Scotland by the SNP government.  This has led to the policing practices of Glasgow being instigated across the country, much to the detriment of policing overall in Scotland.

As a party we are aware of the New Zealand study on sex work and support its findings.  The Liberal Democrats want violence against sex workers to be treated as a hate crime. In 2011, Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone announced a 12-month national pilot scheme to protect sex workers and encourage them to report violent incidents.  We want to create an atmosphere for those engaged in sex work are not threatened by either police or government bodies, and feel that they can turn to the authorities when they themselves are victims of crime and abuse, or need help and advice on health issues.

Nobody should ever be forced into sex work under any circumstances. The full and informed consent of individuals involved in sex work is paramount. We are also determined to clamp down on all other forms of exploitation and end the illegal trafficking of women into this country by organised criminal gangs. Last month, the Coalition Government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015. This will help to strengthen our response to human trafficking and various forms of modern slavery and exploitation.

I strongly believe that the safety of sex workers should be the overriding priority of any future changes to policy in this area. We should continue to press for changes that will ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of sex workers.

I hope that I have answered your question as to both my own outlook and the party's fully but if you have further issues you would like to discuss, please do contact me.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #9: Statistics.

Thank you for contacting me regarding the Royal Statistical Society’s Data Manifesto.

You need not have any concern as to my appreciation of the importance of statistics.  As a geology graduate, geophysical engineer and planner, I know the valuable of accurate data only too well.  When I heard of the Royal Statistical Society Data Manifesto, I actually sought them out on Twitter, asking to be signed up.

In the realm of politics, national statistics are an absolutely essential tool for politicians and the public. They let us all know everything from the number of people in work to the number of people coming in and out of the country. Not only are statistics crucial for policymakers, but they can be used to hold the Government to account.

Despite having some grounding already, I will happily attend one of the statistics workshops you highlight if I am elected to Parliament in May.  One has to be modest of one's own abilities in any mathematical-based subject and there is always new things to learn.  Any tool that enables a person to gain more insight should be gladly received.

I agree that it is very important for policymakers to have a good grasp of statistics and, fortunately, MPs and Ministers are well-served by people who are experts in handling statistics.  MPs and their staff are able to use the highly respected specialists in the House of Commons Library, who are able to provide assistance on a plethora of statistics. The Library is impartial and politically neutral. When they provide information, we can be sure it is accurate and unbiased.

Ministers have access to the politically neutral Civil Service, with its hundreds of statistics specialists, while the Office of National Statistics are always happy to make themselves available to MPs and their staff if they have questions about any of the information they release.

A short time before national statistics are released to the public, a handful of very senior Ministers and civil servants in the relevant Government department are provided with the data. I appreciate why some people are concerned about this, but it is an important procedure.  When, for example, unemployment statistics are released every month, the democratically accountable Ministers and the officials who support them are expected to respond immediately to the implications of those statistics, both in public and in Parliament. Given that we expect answers immediately to our questions, I think it is sensible that a few very senior members of the Government are given sight of them first to enable them to prepare effectively.

On a more personal note, I think it is a shame when politicians do not accept facts which are inconvenient to their own views.  When facts become mere ammunition for argument, we all end up being the losers.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats,
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #8: Water and Sanitation.

Thank you for contacting me about improving water and sanitation in the developing world.

At the start of the letter, the rhetorical point was raised whether I could imagine our homes without a good toilet.  I have used a spade on the steppes of Kazakstan,  caught parasites in Uganda, food poisoning in Mauritania, and have been caught short in a dockyard in Angola.  All because of the lack of available of clean water and poor hygiene standards.  Yes, I fully understand the value of clean water, soap and sanitation.

Access to clean and safe water, sanitation and hygiene are among the most basic of human rights. It is dreadfully disappointing that in 2014 one in three people around the world still do not have access to a proper toilet, while almost 800 million can’t access clean water. This crisis has claimed the lives of more than ten million children below the age of five since 2000.  I had access to good doctors and medicine.  Many of those who live with such a situation have neither.

I care passionately about international development issues, and Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for decades to ensure that the UK does what it should to help the world’s poorest. That’s why we have ensured that the Coalition Government strongly endorsed the recommendations of the high-level panel on the post-2015 development framework, which proposed ambitious targets for water and sanitation services, as well as for water efficiency and waste water treatment. We want to see water and sanitation feature prominently in the UK’s own work going forward, and the post-2015 development framework, and I am confident that it will.

Separately, Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder has been working hard on sanitation issues in the European Parliament. She officially launched the European Toilet Declaration, calling on all EU countries to back a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal aiming to enable universal access to basic drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

In Government, Lib Dems have ensured that the UK spent 0.7% of our national income on the world’s poor for the first time, becoming the first G8 nation to meet this 40 year old promise. Now my Lib Dem Colleague Michael Moore is using his Private Members’ Bill to ensure this goal moves from a target to a legal requirement.

By boosting our spending on the world’s poorest, we are able to provide access to clean drinking water, improve access to effective sanitation and provide basic hygiene education for 60 million people by 2015. This help comes on top of £5.8 million provided by the Coalition Government to WaterAid for work around the world providing people with clean water, safe toilets and hygiene education.

The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on water was met in 2012, by halving the number of people who don’t have access to safe drinking water. More than two billion more people now have better access to water than they did twenty years ago. However, 750 million people still don’t have access to clean water, and though the MDG on water has been met, the MDG on sanitation is still a long way from following suit. Some regions, including Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are unlikely to meet either of these targets, so there’s still a lot of work to do.

Liberal Democrats in Government have honoured our 2010 manifesto commitment to prioritise health and education spending programmes that promote gender equality, reduce mortality, restrict the spread of major disease and supply basic needs like clean water. We are determined to keep up this record and do even more in the next Parliament, which is why continuing to deliver the 0.7% GNI target for development spending and ensuring that the post-2015 development goals leave no one behind were important commitments in our recent pre-manifesto.

Thanks once again for your enquiry.  For me it brought back some memories I would rather forget.  It is good that I should not though.  Owing to my own experiences, you can rest assured that I take the matter with the upmost seriousness.

If you have any other points or issues you wish to raise, please get in contact.  I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letter #7. Sexism.

Thank you for your letter asking what I would do to tackle sexism.

Addressing the issue of sexism should not be a party issue but rather one of simple common decency and mutual respect.  Some things though have to be carried out by government and sometimes new laws are required.  While in government, the Liberal Democrats have been active in tackling gender inequality:

In Government, Lynne Featherstone secured £40 million to support victims of domestic violence and a further £10 million specifically for women’s refuges.

We’ve introduced a new offence of domestic abuse – of coercive and controlling behaviour – because this kind of abuse can do as much harm as physical violence

Forced marriage has been criminalised, new stalking laws introduced and we have introduced a new law to tackle revenge porn.

Lynne has also championed the cause of girls at risk of FGM at home and abroad. Thanks to her efforts the law has been changed to better protect girls at risk and improve awareness among health professionals and reporting among the public.  Cultural tradition should never be an excuse for inflicting real and lasting harm upon a young girl.

 In addressing stereotypical roles, the Liberal Democrats have also introduced shared parental leave.  For too long childcare and upbringing has been seen as purely a woman's role.  This should not be.  Shared parental leave gives the freedom for families greater opportunity to share childcare equally; enriching the family experience for everybody.

All this is a good start for Liberal Democrats in government but it is just that:  there is so much more to be done in tackling inequality in society.  For more on this subject, I can do no better than suggest you read (or watch) MP Jo Swinson's excellent speech, made during the Liberal Democrat Spring conference.

I realise though I have not, as yet, answered your question directly:  "What would you do to tackle sexism?"  In light of the 2012 UN assessment on the progress of women towards top jobs, including that of MPs, I am personally in favour of quota systems, as previously introduced for company boards in Norway.  Just this year Germany followed suit and introduced a thirty percent quota for boardrooms.  It is sad that it is necessary, but necessary it is.  I would back the same measures, for both UK boardrooms and for my own party in terms of MP selection and have already argued for such within the party.  I realise that, as I am white, male and middle-aged so it must seem that I am some kind of turkey that looks forward to Christmas.  In order to reach gender equality within society more quickly, it is the right thing to do.  Thus logic dictates I must back such measures.

Lest we fall into the trap of thinking that sexism is just an issue for Westminster and The City, here in Scotland we have an uphill battle too.  In a recent survey of public bodies by the Scottish Review, out of fifty two, twenty nine were identified has have male-weighted boards, and a further eight, including VisitScotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, had boardrooms dominated by men.  The worst offender is the Highlands and Islands Enterprise board with a sole female board member.  Gender equality is a UK-wide issue and has to be fought for on all fronts.

I wish to convey in this letter how personal the issue of sexism is to me.  In life, we all appear to have different roles, depending upon the observer's point of view.  Too often, it is the surface view that is given the only consideration and there is the start of sexism.  All of us must work to ensure, through education and example, that perception does not stop at the surface.  In my life I have people that are important to me and, as a husband, father and simply as a human being, it is inconceivable that I should want less for them than for myself.  So if there should be trouble in their lives, following violence or sexual abuse, they should be able to access easily the help that is needed.  Thus the same help should be easily accessible to every woman.  Likewise should those close to me be valued less because of their gender?  Of course not.  Therefore no person should be disadvantaged owing to gender.

It is my hope, therefore, that you are now reassured that I take the issue of gender equality seriously and you may rely upon both my own efforts, and those of the Liberal Democrats, in undertaking the work to be done in making Britain a fairer place to live.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Edinburgh North and Leith,
Liberal Democrats

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Campaign Letters #5: Israel and Palestine

Thank you for writing to me about the human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Between 2008 and 2012 I was a frequent visitor to Israel, employed as part of an offshore energy project, so some of my opinions will be at variance with Liberal Democrat party policy. I shall point out the differences as they occur.

 The Liberal Democrats are committed to seeing a negotiated peace settlement, with two-state solution to the conflict. However, both sides will need to make some significant compromises to ensure the rights of people from both communities are respected. Liberal Democrats in Government have been working hard to ensure that the UK continues to play its part in the pursuit of peace. We have supported direct negotiations between the two sides, provided £122m over four years to help the Palestinian Authority develop and £107m worth of essential services to vulnerable refugee communities.

 After seeing the country, I personally feel that on the Israeli side, there is no intention to either commit to or deliver a two-state solution. As an example is the proposed location of the Palestinian Authority's International Airport. It is to be sited near the town of Netanya, which is on the Mediterranean coast. When I expressed surprise at this, I was further informed that Israel intended to keep control over both people and goods passing into any separate Palestinian state. It is therefore clear that a two-state solution is an impossibility.

 Where does that leave us? The state of Israel is a reality and is to be accepted upon that basis. Since the Oslo Accord, land has continued to have been annexed by illegal (but state-supported) Israeli settlements, leaving the areas remaining in Palestinian hands isolated and unviable. The only way forward I can see is to call for equal rights and equality before the laws for all people that live in Israel and the West Bank. I would have no problem if Israel were to recognise and apply the law, with impartiality, to all people within its original borders, the West Bank and Gaza. The recent elections, where Benjamin Netanyahu shamelessly rallied the Israeli right by claiming bus-loads of Arabs were being shipped to polling stations to vote, shows that such an aspiration is almost as difficult to achieve as the much promoted two-state solution.

 In response to the specific questions that you pose: I urge the UK Government to uphold the principles of equality, human rights and international law in all its relations and dealings with Israel.

Yes - as I have made clear above. Israel should have both the rights and responsibilities of any state and should not be accorded any unique status. Liberal Democrats in Government have put human rights and international law at the centre of our foreign policy. These are some of our core values and we would only join a government if they were at the heart of our relationship with Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and every other country around the world.

 I consider the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal and unjustifiable.

Yes - as stated above. These settlements are illegal and they make finding a two-state peace settlement even harder - personally I would say impossible. At the Liberal Democrat conference last October we passed a motion which called for the UK to “apply continued pressure on the Israeli Government to cease its illegal acquisition of land in the West Bank.”

 Do you agree that one of the first acts of the next UK Government should be the recognition of Palestine? Liberal Democrats believe the UK Government should encourage the EU to recognise the State of Palestine. When MPs voted on recognising Palestine I was delighted to see Liberal Democrat MPs overwhelmingly supported it. The UK Government has said it will continue to support a negotiated two-state solution and will work with other countries to secure one. The government said they look forward to recognising a democratic, sovereign and viable Palestinian state when it will help the peace process most. I now believe the time for such a two-state solution to have passed. To answer your question directly, I don't know. I have looked with interest at Swedish recognition of Palestine and acknowledge it is a welcome boast for the cause of an oppressed people. What practical aid such a move is able to bring, that I am not so certain of.

 Do you agree that the blockade on Gaza should be lifted immediately?

Yes The UK Ambassador in Israel has been raising this with senior Israeli Government officials since the ceasefire in Gaza last summer. We have been calling for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted and for trade routes to be reopened. The UK has also been working with the EU and UN to put pressure on Israel for this to happen, while recognising their legitimate security concerns.

 Do you agree that we should stop trade with Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land, and stop settlement goods being sold in Britain?
No Putting trade sanctions on Israeli goods will only make achieving a peaceful solution much harder. I think the Government is right to support the voluntary guidelines so that customers can identify whether goods come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and make a decision for themselves if they want to buy them.

 Do you agree that the EU Israel Association Agreement should be suspended until Israel meets its human rights obligations? No The EU-Israel Association Agreement allows the EU to regularly raise human rights concerns with Israel and work to address these. However, I think the EU should review its Association Agreement to consider whether Israel continues to uphold peace and human rights.

 Do you agree that the government should stop supplying arms to Israel until it complies with international law? Yes Israel has also been listed as a country of concern in the UK Government’s Human Rights and Democracy Report and Liberal Democrats believe that there should be a presumption of denial when considering whether to grant arms export licenses for equipment bound for countries that are listed in that report.
I would go further. It is my firm belief that the whole economy, not just of Israel but the entire region, is based upon war. Every arms export to the area continues to fuel the conflict. If I may be blunt, during my time in Israel, I have never encountered so many arms dealers in my life! From the financiers organising the capital, the technical experts and the sales teams, the business of war is fully represented.

 Before finishing, I think it is only fair that I mention also the stresses upon the average Israeli citizen too. I found Israel to be a very suppressed state on many levels, with very high degree of surveillance by the authorities upon its citizens. Although discussion and debate are wide ranging, actual attempts to deviate from expectation, such as conscientious objection, are punishable either by prison or by being declared of unfit mental state, meaning, for example, the withdrawal of one's driving licence and financial independence.
 The cost of housing and inability of many Israeli young to afford a roof over their head, led to widespread protest while I was there, and may also be a driving force in Israeli settlement of the West Bank. When considering the outrages routinely visited upon Palestinians, it is sometimes easy to forget that not all Israelis back their government's policies on human rights and relations with their neighbouring states.

 My fundamental position is to be against all violence, whoever the perpetrator; for equality of human rights and enforcement of the rule of law: regardless of birth, ethnicity or religion.

 Yours sincerely,
 Martin Veart
 Scottish Liberal Democrats,
 Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letters #4: Amnesty International and Human Rights.

Thank you for your email concerning support for Amnesty International, the Human Rights Act, and supporting victims of torture and injustice around the world.

Please be reassured: I have already met with Edinburgh Amnesty, signed the pledges and tweeted my support.  The Liberal Democrats stand for human rights and stand up for them in the face of power, so have no problem giving this wonderful organisation our wholehearted endorsement.

I could end my letter to you here.  I shall not.

While in office, Lynn Featherstone worked tirelessly on a campaign to end female genital mutilation within a generation.  Liberal Democrats thwarted Theresa May's attempts to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights: a body created by Winston Churchill with the view of unifying Europe under a code of universal decency.

I could again end my letter here. Again I shall not.

I have spent now twenty years travelling the world's continents.  In Kazakhstan one could not discuss the president unless to praise him.  The same in Baku.  In Equatorial Guinea, I was in the capital Malabo when the entire population were summoned to the football stadium to hear the president's speech.  One had to be in the hospital in order to be exempted.  In Russia a few years back, I was there when the Duma passed the law that made it a criminal offence to accuse state officials of corruption, owing to the distress it brought upon individuals so accused and their families.  In Israel, I was waiting for a technician to to flown to the rig in order to fix the air conditioning.  He was refused permission to travel by the young security staff at Haifa airport, owing to him being an Israeli Arab.  In Qatar, I attended a health and safety seminar: only to hear that on the construction sites for the 2020 World Cup, an average of ten workers a week are dying owing to the lax standards there.

I really could go on at length: believe me.  It is one thing to voice support, quite another to know why it is so vitally important to do so.

When I hold up this sign, I know exactly why I am doing it.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Campaign Letters #3: Equal Marriage

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

I am intensely proud to represent a party that believes in equality of rights for all people and accepts people as they really are, and not how others would wish them to be.  I see the role of the Liberal Democrats as bringing out the best in all people.  

From time in immemorial, the institute of marriage has been seen as a good thing in all societies.  If two people wish to dedicate their lives to each other, based upon the tenants of mutual love and respect, this is something that should be recognised and applauded by society, and not condemned.  If two people of the same sex feel this way about each other, that in no way stops or denigrates the marriage and partnership of a man and a woman who feel the same intensity of love.

To me, it is a matter of both human rights and of all enjoying the greater stability that the institution of marriage brings to society as a whole.

If my arguments cannot convince you otherwise, and since you have brought the name of God into the discussion, I fear that they may not be able to, then may I suggest you study the manifestoes of the other parties and I hope you find somebody more suitable to represent your views.

Kindest regards,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.