Trusting in a dog’s eyes and judgement…

I had a delightful reminder of my teenage years this weekend with an encounter with a guide dog and his handler, Andy.

I grew up seeing guide dogs training on the streets of Leamington Spa where I lived as a teenager.  And I was privileged to know one well.  Mumfy was my mother’s friend’s dog.

My mother’s friend, Phyllis, had had guide dogs most of her life.  Blind from the age of three, she had not let her blindness be a disability, living a very full life and now retired she was often out and about with her guide dog.

Talking with Phyllis I realised that her picture of our town, Leamington Spa, was defined by the regular routes she walked.  She could not take ‘short cuts’ from her learned routes, as these were invisible to her.  This revelation inspired a teenage project – building a tactile map of the town which I gave to the Guide Dogs Association to help orientate the many blind people who visited to be trained with their dogs.

Andy explains what Delphi and I will do.

Andy explains what Delphi and I will do.

This weekend, nearly 40 years on, I was reminded of that project by meeting someone who’d used my map when he had first started working for the Guide Dogs for the Blind in his 20s. Andy, accompanied by his outreach dog, Delphi, had a stall in the exhibition area at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool.

And here it was that I had an opportunity to briefly feel a little of the trust that blind people daily place in their dogs as they are guided safely through the invisible, or near-invisible world around them.

With my blindfold on, Andy was great at helping me understand how blind people experience the world differently.  I became very aware of my feet – my only sure contact with the world around me, though the buzz of chatter told me I was not alone.  Walking, guided by Andy, what worried me most?  My concern was walking into something.  For others it might be tripping, or being left, abandoned.  I remembered how, when guiding Phyllis on the few occasions when she didn’t have her dog, she liked to be left with something by her – a wall, chair or other firm object.

Being led by Delphi through the exhibition.

Being led by Delphi through the exhibition.

And then I was guided by Delphi, the demonstration dog.  Andy gave him responsibility for me by taking him round behind me and into his working position on my left.  I held the handle of his harness gently and off we went, among the crowds in the exhibition.

He judged the space needed for both of us, as a driver knows the space needed for his vehicle when driving.  When the way was not clear, he stopped, waiting for an opportunity to continue on.   My concentration was entirely on the harness handle in my hand, holding it gently, feeling the changing pressure to know when I could safely move on or should stop.  It was actually quite an effort to also listen to Andy who was always nearby.

If I were to lose my sight, I can understand how having such a wonderfully trained dog could open up the world.  The handle in one’s hand, and a flank gently by one’s leg gave such a wider connection with the world than that just through the soles of one’s feet.

Looking confident?

Looking confident?

Leading me was second nature to Delphi and I wish now that I’d asked more about how he was trained; trained to judge those distances, to assess for danger and take evasive action, to be patient and so responsible for his human.

A great experience.  Thank you Andy and Delphi.



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A common solution for renewable energy storage and aviation fuel?

Today I was pleased to discuss a common solution for energy storage in the electricity industry and sustainable fuel for the aviation industry.  I hope that this common interest will speed the research and development to make it reality.

I’ve been concerned for a while that as the percentage of electricity generated from renewables – wind, solar, tidal and so on – increases, it will be more and more important to have good energy storage.  At present UK electricity comes mostly from coal, gas and nuclear.  Gas is most flexible, with generating plant being able to be turned on and off in just a few tens of minutes or sometimes less.  Nuclear is least flexible, with slow variation in power generation being more practical than turning them ‘off’.

There have already been times when the sun has been shining and the wind blowing and together with the base load generation, such as nuclear, there has been more power than the electricity grid needed.  To be fair this problem can arise in just parts of the grid because generation and usage is not evenly balanced, but the result is the same.  Either generation must be stopped – such as by shutting down wind turbines, or power needs to be shed.  Ideally this would mean taking power out for storage but it could just be lost in some other way.

Until we have good power storage systems, we’ll find that it is not worth installing sufficient renewable generating capacity to cover all our needs on calm overcast days because the new extra capacity won’t be needed often enough.  So what is the solution to stop being dependent on coal and gas?

Better energy storage – and more responsive loads.

More responsive loads is a story of its own, and doesn’t related to aviation, so I’m not considering it here.  So storage…

We do some storage now. Dinorwig pump storage system in Wales is one of the most effective and best known.  With two reservoirs, one at the top and one at the bottom of the hill, Dinorwig can quickly generate extra electricity when needed by allowing the water to run down through its turbines – and when there is excess electricity the water can be pumped back up ready to be used again.

We need many more systems that can do this load balancing, and they need to be able to be installed anywhere, not just where there are places with conveniently paired reservoirs.

There are several solutions being explored, including flywheels, heat storage (domestic storage heaters are a simple example of this), batteries and more.  But one I would really like to make progress is combining carbon dioxide and water to form more complex hydrocarbons.

One company which is doing something like this already is Air Fuel Synthesis.  They have a plant in the North East using electricity to make synthetic methanol-based alternatives to petrol and diesel.  If this is used not for burning, but for a chemical feedstock to make long-lasting materials, we could even use this system as a way of extracting carbon dioxide from the air – directly combating climate change.

This sort of process is one of the ways that Sustainable Aviation thinks that air travel can stop being such an environmentally damaging activity.

Alternative sources of fuel for aeroplanes is just one aspect of aviation that this industry lobby group is promoting.  It is also concerned about air pollution, noise and even ground affects of air travel like how people travel to airports.

The recent leaflet from Sustainable Aviation summarising their suggested route to sustainable fuels.

The recent leaflet from Sustainable Aviation summarising their suggested route to sustainable fuels.

At present Sustainable Aviation has identified three alternative sources of aviation fuel coming from biomass, from gasification of waste and forming new fuel in ways similar to that described above.  There are demonstration scale plants somewhere in the world for all of these.

But for me, the most important is the third as this helps do three things. It can take surplus electrical energy and turn it into easily stored chemical energy.  It can extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere helping neutralise climate change, and it enables aircraft to fly without being dependent on fossil fuels.

The Government is currently recruiting for a new technology and innovation ‘Catapult’ centre specialising in energy systems.  This is one area I hope that it will help take forward and make it a commercial reality soon.  This would enable more renewable generating capacity to be installed and the UK to reduce its imports of coal, oil and gas.  And if we are ahead of the game with research and development we’ll be able to sell the products and technologies across the globe.

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Messages from the Sikh Manifesto

The cover of the Sikh Manifesto

The cover of the Sikh Manifesto

On the front of The Sikh Manifesto is a ‘wordcloud’.  Although I can’t see it stated, it seems likely that the cloud is formed from words and phrases coming from the consultation which identified the ten points in the Manifesto.

I received my copy when I attended the Midlands launch at the gurdwara in Smethwick, Birmingham today.  The launch included short speeches to introduce each of the points, and then comments from representatives of the main parties.  There were maybe a total of a dozen MPs or candidates, from all parties, attending – and probably 100 or so people all together – the lecture theatre in the gurdwara was full.

The Manifesto seeks to encourage action within parliament, political parties and among Sikhs.  Sikhs are a relatively young community in Britain, increasing from only 2000 seventy years ago to over 700,000 now, with notable migrations from India and East Africa during the late 1900s.  While Sikhs are well- integrated into many aspects of British society they are under-represented in Parliament and to a lesser extent on local councils.    I think this reflects the societal trend of fewer people engaging in politics: new arrivals seem even less likely to adopt marginal activities than indigenous populations.

If Sikhs can be inspired to get more involved in politics (especially Sikh women, who were seriously under-represented at this launch) then we need to see if this can be applied to the rest of society as well.  We should not think of ‘politicians’ as different to other people, they are only different in that they have chosen to get involved in society in this way.

Several of the priorities in the Manifesto call on the British Government to support actions elsewhere to explain or correct injustices – the 1984 genocide in Amritsar, self-determination, turban-wearing in France.   And there were calls for clear exemptions to be made for the wearing of Sikh turbans and the 5Ks.

TheycameforThese specific Sikh issues remind me of what a privilege it is to live in such a tolerant and inclusive society as the UK is today, but we mustn’t be complacent.  Pastor Martin Niemoller is reported to have pointed out in 1945 we should all look out for everyone.

If we want society to be tolerant of us, we need to ensure it remains tolerant of others too.  If we were to ask other communities to identify where they felt excluded or penalised, then I’m sure that other issues would be forthcoming.

Liberal Democrats at the Sikh Manifesto launch.  Lee Dargue, Harjinder Singh, Lucy Care, Parmjit Singh Gill and John Hemming MP

Liberal Democrats at the Sikh Manifesto launch; Lee Dargue, Harjinder Singh, Lucy Care, Parmjit Singh Gill and John Hemming MP

Sometimes inclusivity may be achieved differently.  Two of the points included a desire to identify Sikhs separately in the 2021 census and a call for more Sikh schools.  Is the answer more separate categories, or more choice within categories?  I seem to remember writing ‘Quaker’ onto my census form to identify myself better.

And I’d like every school to be an inclusive school, giving our children the opportunity to mix with others of all races and religions (or none).  Historically we have many more Christian-sponsored schools than from other faiths, but the ethos is set as much by the governors and staff as by a label.  Perhaps removing labels is part of the answer here?

The final issue was a worry experienced across all communities; keeping our children, especially teenage girls, safe from sexual ‘grooming’ by predatory men.   It is great that we are talking about this, but more action is needed too.  It is up to everyone to be aware and spot the signs – and know who to tell.  Then the police can arrest the perpetrators and victims can get help.  We need to make sure people – including parents, other girls, family and friends – have the confidence and knowledge to recognise and report this activity and so help keep all our children safe.

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick, Birmingham

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick, Birmingham

Returning to the Manifesto cover, many of the phrases would probably be endorsed by lots of groups; ‘no discrimination’, ‘everyone is equal’, ‘honest’, ‘compassionate’…  However two resonated particularly with me as a Quaker; ‘See God in All’ and ‘Respects all Paths’.  The equivalent Quaker phrases would be ‘Recognise that of God in everyone’ and ‘Seek the Light from wherever it may come’.

With this in mind, I spent 10 minutes or so sitting quietly in the calm of the prayer hall before catching my train back to Derby.


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Political thoughts 1 – the NHS and schools

The NHS is a valuable service for us all, and an efficient provider of excellent health services.  The UK is rightly proud of this national institution.  I would hope no political party would seek to damage the NHS.  However, that doesn’t mean it should never change.

When the NHS began in 1948, medicine was very different. Treatments we take for granted like scans, hip and knee replacements and many childhood vaccines didn’t exist. More people died from injuries at work or exposure to smog and other pollution. The NHS has rightly changed as our needs and medical technology change, but not all changes have been good.

For me, one of the most worrying was the move to ‘Trust status’ for both hospitals and other NHS services. Although still publicly funded, this became a way to expect parts of the NHS to stand – and fall – alone.

Derby has a bright new hospital, run by an NHS Trust.  The hospital was built, and is owned, though by a private business under a ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI) set up by Labour.  Over its lifetime, its cost will be paid many times over in rent and service charges, lining shareholders’ pockets with NHS money that could have gone to treat patients.

Labour gave schools similar treatment.  They continued Conservative work to make schools ‘standalone’ and new buildings were provided using this same PFI process. This means many schools also rent their new buildings, draining money away from teaching and making changes to buildings complex and expensive.

We now have Academies, Foundation Schools, University Technical Colleges and Free Schools, in buildings owned by the school, the council or private shareholders.  They have different rules and different ways of funding them, but does this help pupils?

A recent report from an all-party committee of MPs said ‘No’.

Liberal Democrats are fighting the privatisation of what should be public.  The recent announcement of funding for new school buildings, including Bemrose and Cavendish Close Infant School in Derby, was real money – not permission to borrow.  Liberal Democrats believe that wherever possible we should pay for what we want up front, not build up debt for the future, unless we can save money overall by investing now to cut costs or increase income.

Even with only one in ten MPs, after 4½ years of Lib Dems in Government it is possible to see Lib Dem priorities in action.  Lib Dem influence in government has slowed down NHS privatisation compared to the previous four years under Labour. And in spite of Conservative wishes, Lib Dems have given people on low incomes tax cuts, while more tax is being taken from the wealthiest in society than under Labour.

Like many people, I have children.  I don’t want to make them pay off our debts for all their lives, but I do want them to live in a fair society with good public services supported by a strong economy providing opportunities for everyone.

In government, Lib Dems are helping to balance the country’s books while still investing for the future.  In government again, Lib Dems will borrow less than Labour and cut less that the Conservatives, helping to achieve that vision for all.

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