Saturday News Review

All eyes on Japan

PM David Cameron said Britain stands ready to help Japan in “any way we can”. Mr Cameron said he had spoken to Foreign Secretary William Hague about Britain’s contribution and what can be done to help British nationals caught up in the disaster. Meanwhile the Queen extended her “heartfelt sympathy” to those affected by the earthquake. Mr Hague convened the emergency Cobra committee in Whitehall and the Foreign Office set up a hotline for British citizens concerned about friends and relatives. – Daily Mirror

Lib Dems set to ‘get used’ to protests

Nick Clegg last night warned Liberal Democrat supporters to “get used” to protesters as he launched an impassioned defence of his party’s record in Government so far. With police in Sheffield gearing up for the largest demonstations South Yorkshire has seen since the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Mr Clegg admitted that his party was more used to being protesters themselves than being protested against. But he called on members to “hold their nerve” and insisted that they were helping to build “a new economy from the rubble of the old”. “It is not easy for us as a party to be the focus of protests,” he said. “Some of our proudest moments have been on marches: against climate change, against child detention, against the illegal war in Iraq. We’ve put down the placards and taken up the reins of power. It’s a big change but it is worth it. You can’t do everything when you are in power, but you can’t do anything when you are not. With power comes protest. We need to get used to it.” Mr Clegg faces a difficult couple of days in Sheffield – the city he represents as an MP – with expected defeats against the leadership on the conference floor and protests outside. Yesterday, South Yorkshire police said the operation to control today’s expected 10,000-strong demonstation by trade unions and students would be the biggest challenge the force had faced since the floods which devastated parts of the county in 2007. “We hope for the best and have planned for the worst,” said Assistant Chief Constable Max Sahota. – the Independent

Nick Clegg has sought to steel his Liberal Democrat activists to face demonstrations outside their party’s spring conference, telling them at the opening rally that being in government meant they must get used to protest. The party, he said, had to realise they had “put down the placards and taken up the reins of power”. Some 3,000 activists, the highest number ever, have registered for the conference in Sheffield, where Clegg is MP for Sheffield Hallam. It is the second since the party entered government, and a test of its ardour for the coalition. Its latest poll rating this weekend was 9%. More than 1,000 police officers are on duty or standby from Friday until Sunday, ready for mass protests targeted at the Lib Dem leader over public spending cuts and his party’s U-turn on student fees. An estimated £2m is being spent to protect the conference; a Lib Dem aide said the police believed “5,000-10,000” protesters may descend on the centre of Sheffield. – the Guardian

Nobody told Evan Harris

This Saturday is decision time for the Liberal Democrats. Will the party back market reforms that put the NHS at risk, or will it listen to the record number of delegates who wish to amend them? The Lib Dems uniquely still allow party members to decide policy, and do so in public. The motion from the leadership at our conference welcomes the declared aspirations of Andrew Lansley’s healthcare reforms, and then seeks to justify them with dodgy statistics that depend more on eating and smoking habits 20 years ago than any previous structural reform. It fails to even start to mount a defence of the marketisation aspects of the health and social care bill, and is unable to identify any true increase in democratic accountability, let alone local control. So it’s no surprise that the amendments Shirley Williams and I have tabled calling for proper accountability and safeguards against privatisation have attracted such support from delegates. Lib Dem health minister Paul Burstow told the Guardian this week he would leave the government if he thought he was “part of a project to bring in a US-style health service”. While I hope this commitment is never tested, it’s worth exploring what it means. First, there is no definition of what “US-style” means here. Perhaps it means a fragmented system of multiple providers with a web of contracts to deliver patient care in a competitive market. That outcome is not only a risk of the current proposals; it is what many in the government and high-ups in the NHS say they actually intend to deliver. I would hate see Paul Burstow or any Lib Dem have to leave office. But I would hate to lose the NHS to untested market reforms even more. By ensuring the bill is amended as his party will tell him today, we can avoid both fates. – Evan Harris, the Guardian

Ed in new squeezed middle call

When I first spoke out last month about the cost-of-living crisis for millions of middle and low earners, there was a hostile response from my political opponents. David Cameron even claimed that cuts in child benefit affected only the well-off. But the truth is that rising costs of living are a huge issue for families, including some of those on incomes of more than £40,000 a year. This week, the Prime Minister finally admitted that the cost of living is “the big issue today”. His problem is that he is still refusing to change policies – such as trebling tuition fees, raising VAT or cutting child benefit and tax credits – which make this crisis worse. He thinks we live in a society where the poorest get some minimal protection and everybody else has to make do. It just shows how out of touch the Tories are. A season ticket for a commuter might run to £5,000, parking at the station hundreds more. Tube fares, after-school clubs, even cups of coffee at the station – these are real costs squeezing millions of families. The growing unfairness in Britain is not just between the richest and the poorest. Those in the middle are also being left behind. That’s got to change. Rather than thinking just about the income of individuals we should be thinking about what an income means for a family or household once it is spread across a whole family. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has done this. And it paints a revealing picture about the real living standards of families in Britain. It shows that while an income of £44,000 a year is very good for an individual who lives on their own or in a couple, the same income if stretched to meet the costs of living for a whole family doesn’t offer that family anything like the same standard of living – Ed Miliband, Evening Standard

Families on incomes as high as £50,000 are feeling the pinch from soaring living costs, Ed Miliband said yesterday. He delivered the warning at the same time as he launched a fresh assault on Government plans to axe child benefit for the middle classes. The Labour leader said the decision to axe the payments for all higher rate taxpayers from 2013 took ‘no account of the real costs of living faced by families once an income is spread across a whole household with maybe two or three children’. Mr Miliband said new research commissioned by the party from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that many middle class families were already feeling the strain financially. – Daily Mail

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