Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A day at the races, and a profitable one at that...

Buying gifts for my parents has become increasingly difficult as the years have passed - they presumably now have everything that they want, and have never wanted that much anyway, so when Ros suggested that I take them to a race meeting at Newmarket, my problem was solved (at least for one year).

So, having agreed a date, I booked a VIP package for the four of us and kept my fingers crossed for the weather.

Three days out, I was not optimistic, as the forecast predicted a series of vicious thunderstorms over west Suffolk but, as Saturday drew closer, things looked more hopeful.

The July Course at Newmarket
That hope was somewhat dampened by the heavy rain that fell as Ros and I drove along the A14 towards Newmarket but, as we arrived at the July Course, the rain had stopped. Driving across the grass as directed by the car park stewards, Ros said, "Isn't that your mother?". It was, and by amazing good fortune, we had arrived within seconds of each other and were parked with just one vehicle between us.

It did begin to rain lightly as we waited for the gates to open but, at 11.50 sharp, we were invited to enter and the rain stopped.

The VIP package is not cheap, but it includes car parking, close to the Premier Enclosure, racecards for each person, entry to the premier enclosure, a table in the Summer House Restaurant all day, champagne and canapes on arrival, a four course dinner, afternoon tea, a hostess to look after you and a nice lady from the Tote to take your bets at your table (and pay out if you win), so we sat down and caught up with each other.

Meanwhile, the sun had come out, and the predicted thunderstorms were holding off. It was time to give some thought to picking horses...

My mother has a tendency to pick horses whose jockeys have green in their colours. As a theory, it apparently works because most of the serious Arab owners include green in their colours, and they can afford good horses. It certainly worked in the first race, as the 16/1 outsider, Balty Boys, came in to win handily. My father, on the other hand, likes to look at the available data. In the second race, he picked Noble Protector, who promptly won at 12/1.

That meant that they would be taking home a profit, regardless of their success or otherwise during the rest of the day. Ros and I weren't being as successful, sadly. I'm like my father - I like to look at the data, even though I understand that it is only guidance - but it wasn't working for me until the fourth, when Athenian won at 5/1. Ros's choice, Lady Horatia, came third, and as we were placing 'each way' bets - half our stake to win, the other half to place - we had now all won something.

It was at this point that I departed from usual practice. In the sixth race, the horse I had initially chosen was scratched, leaving me to pick a replacement at short notice. So, I picked a horse with a liberal theme. And, lo and behold, Liberty Jack romped home at 7/1, before Gold Trail came second in the final race at 4/1, leaving me some £40 up on the day.

My only regret is that I didn't find my theme earlier - What A Party came third at a starting price of 100/1...

Winning always makes a day a little better, but even had our luck not been so good, it was huge fun to spend the day with my parents, and to have the time to chat about a whole range of topics in a relaxed environment.We're going to have to do this again, some time...

If you were holding out the hope that an incoming Labour Government would end austerity...

Party members have endorsed the tough fiscal position Ed Miliband and I have set out. We will balance the books, deliver a surplus on the current budget and get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament.
You can't get plainer than that. With those comments from Ed Balls, the course of the next five years is set. An incoming Labour administration will eliminate the government deficit - £105.8 billion in 2013/14, lest we forget - and run a surplus by the end of the next Parliament, possibly sooner.

Given the optimism priced into the prediction by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that the deficit will be eliminated by 2018/19, based on current plans, it is clear that Labour are going to have to either raise more income, or cut spending further.

Ed Balls has, perhaps, given a clue as to which of those options he prefers when he goes on to say;
But we will get the deficit down more fairly.
Well... yes. But Rachel Reeves has been laying down some of what she means by this as Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions...
A Labour government will introduce a Basic Skills Test to assess all new claimants for Job Seekers Allowance within six weeks of claiming benefits.
Those who don’t have the skills they need for a job will have to take up training alongside their jobsearch or lose their benefits.
Labour’s Basic Skills Test will give the long-term unemployed a better chance of finding a job and will help us to earn our way out of the cost-of-living crisis.
She had already said;
If you increase what you give to some people then presumably you have to reduce it for others. We are not in an environment where there is more money around. It is a difficult thing to achieve.
Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government. If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important.
It is not an either/or question. We would be tougher [than the Conservatives]. If they don't take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit.
So, fairer might not be what you hoped for. There will be compulsion, and there will be those who are worse off after reform of the welfare system, if Ms Reeves is to be believed.

There will also be additional costs to the public sector arising from the insistence that those bidding for government contracts pay the living wage to their employees - although, in fairness, that may well be mitigated by a fall in the amount of benefits paid out to bolster low wages and an increase in tax revenues.

And, of course, the OBR forecasts include the expectation that departmental budgets will be cut further - the expectations for local government and the NHS are already looking gloomy at best - so an incoming Labour Chancellor will need to wave an axe with more enthusiasm than his supporters might think seemly.

So, not much to look forward to for the next five years, is my prediction. And yes, the books may be balanced, but we're all going to have to accept that we'll experience more austerity, and have to take rather more responsibility for what goes on around us. And that goes for politicians and voters alike...

Saturday, July 05, 2014

UPDATED: South Suffolk Liberal Democrats select Grace Weaver as their prospective candidate for 2015

And so to Hadleigh, on a day somewhat confused as to the time of year. Ros drove me through her old County division through heavy rain and bright sunshine to the County Library, where members were gathering to anoint a new Prospective Parliamentary Candidate.

As a Returning Officer, I take a relatively relaxed view as to process, especially when I know the Local Party involved and can be confident that, even if things don't run entirely as planned, applicants won't be disadvantaged. So, the speech phase safely negotiated, when the question and answer session turned into more of a group discussion, I sat back quietly, ready to intervene if required to do so. After all, it is useful for potential candidates to find out how their Local Party thinks and feels.

Eventually, I did feel that I needed to gently remind some members that they were there to question candidates, not each other, but despite that, after an hour, it was time to issue ballot papers and then count them.

Luckily, it wasn't a complex count, and I was able to declare Grace Weaver as the new PPC for South Suffolk. I'm sure that she'll do well, especially as she has strong ties to the area, having been educated in East Bergholt. The Local Party seem to be pleased with their choice, and I look forward to hearing good things from the Stour Valley and the Shotley Peninsula in the months to come...

And Grace herself has now commented on her selection, via Twitter;

Thursday, June 26, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords: the role played by the voluntary and charitable sectors

It was Liberal Democrat debate day in the Lords, and Ros had sought a debate on the voluntary sector, a subject close to her heart, and here is her speech opening the debate

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD):

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce today’s debate, and I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness and my noble friend Lord Newby for selecting this topic on one of two Liberal Democrat debate days. I declare an interest as chair of the National Volunteering Forum, as a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust, and as patron of Ace Anglia, which provides advocacy and support to people with learning disabilities in Suffolk, and of Wings of Hope, which is an educational charity focused on India and Malawi. I very much look forward to hearing from the other 20 noble Lords who will speak in the debate. With all due respect, between us we have many hundreds of years of experience in this sector, and I think the insights today will be very valuable.

What makes this sector so vibrant, so flexible, often challenging and occasionally frustrating, is its very breadth. Charities such as the National Trust, the RSPB and Oxfam are household names. They have hundreds of thousands of members and significant incomes. There are thousands more tiny local charities set up to respond to particular circumstances, sometimes even the plight of one individual who needs help. There are around 161,000 registered charitable organisations, and an estimated 600,000 which are not registered. However, 90% of charitable income is made by the top 10%. I would not want this morning’s debate to go by without paying tribute to the millions of volunteers and family carers who, often under very trying circumstances, display a quiet daily heroism.

This sector provides both quality of life services, such as those of the National Trust, and lifesaving services, such as those of the RNLI and the Red Cross. The Society of Friends reminded me of the important role which charities play in the campaign for change, and how important that is at a time when people are increasingly disengaged from party politics. Of course, as we go into the general election next year, I reflect that most of the political activity which is undertaken in this country is done by unpaid volunteers. We should remember that contribution, too. In some cases, the volunteers provide the service, and in others they raise money so that professionals can do their jobs. Charity shops alone raise around £300 million every year for their organisations.

With this variation, finding the right policy framework for all of these circumstances is very difficult to get right, both for government and for regulators such as the Charity Commission. It also makes it quite difficult for the sector to speak with one voice. I will leave it to other noble Lords with more experience to talk in depth about the legal and financial framework for charities. However, I want to start with a few general comments on that aspect, before going on to talk about volunteering, which is the main thrust of what I want to say today.

The total yearly income of the charitable and voluntary sector is £39.2 billion. That is down £700 million on the previous year, largely as a result of reduced public funding. Despite the recession, NCVO says that charitable giving is holding up reasonably well, although anecdotal evidence suggests that organisations are having to work much harder to raise their money. Voluntary organisations are also reporting an increase in demand for their services, and there is now a real question about how long they can afford to do more with less.

The recent cross-party report, Creating an Age of Giving, referred to a civic core of givers, but it refers to the fact that that core is ageing and shrinking. Investment in schemes such as payroll giving and technology that enables text donations, for example, and the use of social media, have proved to be very worthwhile. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government will continue to provide the seed corn money required to develop such schemes.

Gift aid is really important, but the new small donation scheme is looking significantly underspent. Anecdotally, it would appear that that is because it is just too complicated. Will the Government undertake to see whether that is the case and make changes quickly if they need to be made?

UKCF’s Shine a Light research of December last year found that people are nearly twice as likely to feel confident when they give money locally, as opposed to nationally, that it is actually going to help those who need it most. More than half of them would give more and give it locally if giving was easier and they could see the impact of their donation. That is emphasised by the publication, just this morning, of a report by the Charity Commission on public trust and confidence. It makes the same point about people wanting to see how their money is being spent and the impact.

One area where you can best see that at work is in the community foundation movement. Like most shire counties, Suffolk has a community foundation, which supports a wide variety of charity and community projects throughout Suffolk. By making endowment-giving easy, it has provided a sustainable way to support local organisations. Match-funded schemes such as Community First have been a real boost. I hope that the Government will keep that success in mind and work with the community foundations to see how the schemes might be expanded. Recent evidence is showing an increase in local giving and a more thoughtful model of giving, which is a really important part of building a strong civic society.

Of course, what makes the charity sector is the volunteers. The best estimate is that there are about 15.2 million people volunteering every month, so there is clearly an incredible capacity for volunteering in this country, but there are concerns that the volunteer workforce is ageing. People are working longer, caring for very elderly relatives themselves, perhaps even becoming less altruistic, and it is becoming difficult to recruit new volunteers. It takes money to resource organisations and projects specialising in helping people to access volunteering opportunities, but we need to do that to widen the pool from which our volunteers are drawn. For example, the Access to Volunteering fund, piloted in three areas, supported about 7,000 disabled volunteers to become involved. That brought with it reports of improved well-being and significantly reduced isolation.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a researcher who was looking into something called micro-volunteering. Partway through, I realised that what she was actually talking about was what I would have called “doing someone a favour”. In today’s disconnected, slightly impersonal world, that sort of thing is dying out. It seems very odd to people of our generation, but there is a huge role for social media, for example, in making those connections between people, because the old community connections are lessening.

It is also important to recognise that the old model, where volunteers would commit a certain amount of time every week and would do so over a lengthy period is very challenging for a lot of younger volunteers who have work and family commitments. They need more flexible volunteering opportunities. In Suffolk, the 2012 Olympic volunteers have formed a sort of permanent cohort of volunteers who come in and out for all the major events in the county; its success is in its flexibility. New technologies can be really important.

There was a time when the public, private and charity sector all had separate but very well understood roles. The picture is now much more complex and the lines between them are really quite blurred. Some of these developments have welcome aspects, but there are challenges. One of the most difficult issues facing the sector is the use by government of volunteering as part of unemployment policy. As I said before, we can all accept that volunteering can play a really important part in getting unemployed people out of the house, learning new skills and generally increasing their self-esteem. However, there is sometimes a question of compulsion. Someone who is made to volunteer in order to get their benefits is not a volunteer, and we should not call them one. These are work placements, and we have to understand that it makes life quite tricky for the existing volunteers to be working alongside people who are there only under duress.

Secondly, the Government need to remember that charities and voluntary organisations do not have an unlimited capacity to absorb volunteer labour wherever it comes from. There are too many reports of jobcentres simply sending people along to voluntary organisations with no thought as to how the organisation is actually going to use them. The voluntary organisations themselves need enough professional staff to be able to manage volunteers effectively, even when they are welcome.

All this is made very complicated by the increasing use of the third sector to deliver public services. Current estimates are that the contracts are worth just over £11 billion. I am in favour of this development, but we have to recognise that it limits the ability of the charity or voluntary organisation to set its own priorities. What happens then is that gaps in service begin to appear. It also compromises the perception of the public about the charity as independent of government. That has come out very clearly in the report published by the Charity Commission today: when a charity becomes dependent on public contracts for its survival, its independence can be jeopardised.

I shall make one or two points on the question of tendering for public services and the issues facing charities that wish to participate. First, the bidding process is often based on driving down price, which usually means labour costs. Most voluntary organisations do not pay their staff particularly well, but they do want to be fair. They want to pay the living wage and give their staff decent terms and conditions, but it is often difficult for them because they are competing with the private sector, which has no compunction about the use of zero-hours contracts or short-term contracts or with paying less than the living wage. Quite often the third sector is heavily disadvantaged when it comes to tendering. It is not just a moral question; evidence from the Living Wage Commission demonstrates that the Treasury could save more than £3.6 billion per year if everyone was paid the living wage. I wonder whether it is the business of the public sector to be discouraging the voluntary and charitable sector, which treats its workers well, by favouring the private sector.

Too often the relationship between the voluntary sector and the statutory commissioners is “us and them”; the commissioners are very controlling and do not really look at value or service delivery; it is really just about the money. Of course, when budgets are so pressed and when financial survival, territorial ambitions and all these things come into play, we can see why this might happen, but I think it is time for the Government to review it. Government and local government are major commissioners of services from the charity sector, so I support the NCVO call for a review of public sector markets to see whether they are still fit for purpose. A lot more training is needed for commissioners to ensure that when they say that service users’ needs must come first, it actually means something and is genuinely reflected in procedures. That means that we have to talk to the users. That is one reason I became patron of Ace Anglia in Suffolk: it provides advocacy for people with learning disabilities. It is really important to have a dialogue with people when tendering for the services that are going to affect them. Too often, it is either all about the money or it is about a superficial judgment of what people might like. You actually have to talk to people.

Sam Younger, just before he left the Charity Commission said:
There is too much duplication in the charity sector and too many charities are inefficient and poorly managed. Too many people set up a new charity without establishing whether there is a genuine need or whether another charity is doing similar work … the result is duplication and inefficiency … especially in an environment where charities are competing for resources.
That is the dilemma. When you look at it like that, from a strategic point of view, what he says makes absolute sense: there is not enough money to go around so duplication is a luxury that we cannot afford. However, if you look at it from the bottom up, from the point of view of individuals, there are many examples of where, collectively, the private, public and even voluntary sectors are simply failing to meet their needs. When that happens, the obvious response is to set up a new charity. That is why something like 2,500 new charities are being set up every year.

As I said at the beginning, the picture is complex and in many ways is getting more so. However, and I think that we would all agree with this, everywhere across the country we see volunteers, charities and community groups of all sizes taking an active role in addressing the problems of their area, building communities and campaigning for change. They are building a stronger civil society and a new social economy, and we should do everything that we can to help them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Is David Ruffley a fit person to represent me in Parliament? Only the local Conservatives can decide...

Today's news that our local Member of Parliament, David Ruffley, accepted a caution for common assault three months ago after attacking his then partner, is his second unfortunate incident in this Parliament, following his apparent attempted suicide just a month after his re-election in 2010. Then, I was entirely sympathetic, especially given that very few people would throw themselves under a train unless they were very troubled indeed. However, this time, I really can't be.

Firstly, violence can never be acceptable, except in self-defence (and even then it has to be proportionate) and it is especially heinous when the victim is someone likely to be more vulnerable.

Secondly, should someone with a tendency to abuse people be in a position of authority? Heavens, even Guido Fawkes, that well known whatever the opposite of a shrinking violet is, thinks that something should be done about him.

There is a catch, in that the Bury St Edmunds constituency is a pretty safe Conservative seat - the Liberal Democrats are in a fairly distant second place, and Labour are absolutely nowhere - no County councillors, just three District councillors. And, given the usual inability of local voters to punish miscreants - so many of the worst expenses offenders survived, after all - the chances are that, should he be the Conservative candidate next year, he'll be re-elected.

So, the only real hope is that the local Conservative Association will act. It's a pretty slim hope though, given the comment of its Chair, Andrew Speed;
We are sure it has been a very difficult time for both of them. But the incident in March was dealt with by the police at the time and no further action was required.
It doesn't look as though they'll be made to act either, if this spokesman from Conservative Party headquarters is to be believed;
This matter was investigated by police and dealt with by them at the time.
 I guess the last word should be left to David Ruffley himself though;
... too often domestic violence is a taboo subject and although one incident of domestic violence is one too many... We must do all we can to stamp out this despicable crime which can ruin lives and shatter families.
I wonder what has changed over the past seven years... 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dear Nick, would you mind awfully keeping out of the disciplinary process?

I note that, according to the media, Nick Clegg is being called upon to expel Mike Hancock from the Party, in just the same way that he was called upon to expel Chris Rennard from the Party not so long ago. And, regardless of the offence, I have the same advice for him and the Leader's Office - stay well out of it, and offer no comment other than to confirm that the matter is in the hands of those whose hands it should be in.

You see, the Leader has no more say in the disciplinary processes of the Party than you or I, a point made abundantly clear by the disciplinary aspects of its membership rules. He (in this instance) can, however, distort or damage the process by merely expressing an opinion, and we can already see how well that has gone. All that has happened is that the media have been allowed to control the agenda, and given their disdain for due process, and frequently expressed dislike of the Liberal Democrats, it can hardly be said that they have justice at heart.

In both of the cases noted above, the Leader's Office have responded by trying to manage the story - badly. All that has been achieved is to inflate the story to being one of leadership, and they don't intend him to come out of it looking good. Instead, had he said, "A complaint has been made against X and, in accordance with the constitution of the Liberal Democrats, a disciplinary process has been initiated. I look forward to the matter being handled in accordance with the Party's rules, and await the result of their deliberations.", the matter could have been properly investigated, a judgement reached and disciplinary action taken as appropriate.

But in a world where the distance to the political horizon can be measured in minutes rather than years, the temptation to treat each situation as a media test to be 'managed' leads too many key people to react rather than respond. And, given the apparent disconnect between the leadership and the voluntary leadership - the very people who manage, amongst other things, the disciplinary processes of the Party - the scope for unhelpful interference is almost unbounded.

You see, the advantage of having published rules and processes is that they deal with most situations, and provide a framework for action where they don't. They won't satisfy everyone - some people only want one outcome and don't always care how they attain it - but they will usually reach a verdict that is in accordance with natural justice and can be justified on the basis of the evidence. Of course, they aren't designed to deal with certain types of cases - issues pertaining to legality, for example - as the full range of investigative powers is not available and nor would we want them to be. But, if my memory serves, that's what the police and Crown Prosecution Service are for.

I have no real optimism that lessons will be learnt from this - there are those who, when push comes to shove, don't really like the idea of internal party democracy, or due process unless it suits. But that doesn't mean that an aging bureaucrat like me can't wish for rather more respect for those who, like me believe that respect for the rule of law is a basic underpinning of liberalism in a democratic society.

It hasn't been a good week for the Valladares nation...

At one point, I did try to find a few famous people who share my relatively unusual surname. It wasn't a very successful effort, as the name is obscure at best. But four years ago, Noel Valladares became possibly the most famous Valladares of recent years, as the Honduran goalkeeper in the 2010 World Cup.

Sadly, they lost their first two games, against Chile and Spain, and although he was the man of the match in their final game, against Switzerland, his performance merely denied the Swiss a possible place in the last sixteen - a two goal winning margin would have seen them through.

However, the plucky Hondurans made it through qualifying again this time, and drew a place in Group H with Ecuador, France and Switzerland. And this time, Noel was the captain. History tells that he was unlucky enough to score an own goal which, whilst it confused Jonathan Pearce no end, and was the first instance of goalline technology being decisive in determining whether or not a goal had been scored, it wasn't a moment he will want to remember. Losing 3-0 to France wouldn't have helped, either.

The Hondurans did at least score against Ecuador, but that only kept the score down to 1-2, as Hondurans extended their winless run in World Cup finals tournaments to eight (three draws, five defeats). Despite that, they're still in the competition, albeit by their fingertips. A win against Switzerland, combined with a French win over Ecuador might be enough. It's at least more hope than England have...

Monday, June 16, 2014

Me and the guanaco, we're probably both a bit bemused...

So, here I am at the other part of Berlin Zoo, Tierpark Berlin, the former East Berlin Zoo. It is slightly unusual, in that there is a cemetery tucked away in the woods, and an anti-fascism memorial faces one of the exhibits. It also has just a hint of communism, in that the animals are scattered about with long walks between them, as if to give the impression that there is more here to see than there actually is. It is very peaceful though.

The other thing about the zoo, on a more positive note, is that the enclosures are rather bigger. Yes, they probably could be bigger, but by the standards of most zoos, they're still pretty impressive.

The other thing about the Tierpark is that it doesn't seem very commercial. Unlike Zoo Berlin's main site, there aren't many opportunities to buy junk food, or plush toys, or anything really. There doesn't appear to be an opportunity to watch various exciting animals being fed. It's almost as though someone has said, "Alright, we'll round up some animals in one place and people can look at them if they want. Just don't ask us to get involved beyond that.".

Funnily enough, the guanaco across from where I'm sitting appears to be deep in thought too. At least it doesn't have a plane to catch later...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A dreadlocked harpist, a Catalan soprano and a night to remember in Potsdam

I am, I freely admit, not entirely 'down with the kids'. I listen to very little radio, watch very little culture on television, attend very few live performances.

And, when I do listen to music, it is seldom mainstream. I like madrigals, I enjoy chamber music, which doubtless puts me in a fairly small minority, one that might under normal circumstances be termed 'elitist'. I was extremely fortunate, though I didn't know it at the time, to have been exposed to classical music at my North London comprehensive by teachers who thought that it was part of a proper education.

And tonight, I am reminded just how much joy can be had from live performance, as I hum, slightly wistfully, one of the tunes from this evening's concert of Catalan songs at the Nikolaisaal in Potsdam. The performers, Nuria Rial, a Catalan soprano, and L'Arpeggiata, an early music ensemble led by Christina Pluhar, came to my attention quite by chance when I was searching You Tube for performances of 'Zefiro Torna' by Monteverdi - there are two different works with the same name to complicate matters.

But, when I discovered that, by utter chance, that they would be performing at the Potsdam Sanssouci Festival whilst I was in Berlin, what else was I to do but get myself a ticket (the story of which, in itself, deserves a post)?

I must tell you, dear reader, that the effort was well worth it, for I had the good fortune to watch a group of amazing musicians clearly enjoying themselves in an equally amazing performance space, performing music that ran the gamut from solemnity to cheer and which, at times felt almost like 'early jazz'.

I was also reminded that classical music is not just the preserve of the somewhat more mature. The harpist, a young woman with decorated dreadlocks, was in no way out of place, and looked as though she was thoroughly enjoying herself. The audience clearly liked her too, as she received very warm applause during the five curtain calls and two encores that the audience demanded.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening - if only they would come to Snape...

Musings on the misuse of language - it's a matter of scale

I was on my way to Potsdam this evening, when I was shaken from my gaze out of the window by the announcement of our next halt, Wannsee.

It's quite a pretty place, on the bank of a largish lake, but is perhaps famous for being the location for what is probably the most infamous planning and administrative meeting in history. For those who have not studied history, it was at Wannsee that the 'Final Solution' to the Nazis' 'Jewish problem' was agreed, leading to the deaths of millions of people whose sole mistake was to be deemed to be of a religion determined to be a threat to the German race.

In our political discourse, we often see the word 'evil' used in an almost throwaway manner - the Guardian's comments sections are riddled with it, usually aimed as an individual politician, or a political party, or a specific policy, as though it is intended to cause pain and suffering, perhaps death, to those affected. And, of course, it isn't. We simply don't live in a country like that, and even those perceived to be on the lunatic fringe of British politics wouldn't publicly call for such consequences.

Most, if not all, mainstream politicians understand that, especially when money is tight, there will be those who lose out because of the impact of a policy decision. Sometimes, they are so blinded by ideology that they fail to consider, or do not want to consider, the negative impact of their legislative and administrative acts. But it is seldom deliberate, or made where they know that there is a less damaging option.

And yet we continue to bandy around the 'E' word because it seems improbable at best that our opponents do what they do because they think it best, because their solution fits within a philosophical underpinning that is broadly consistent.

So, if I might be so bold to ask, the next time you look to cast accusations of evilness, remember this - there is real evil in this world, where almost unimaginable cruelty is inflicted on people because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have done nothing to merit it. That, my friends, is evil and we shouldn't belittle it by lumping it together with the politics of austerity.

From station to station...

Travelling across Europe by train, I am always reminded of Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express", a tribute to the notion of international travel well before the emergence of low-cost airlines that allow you to travel across Europe at a price our parents could not have imagined. I have to admit though, that I still cling to the notion of a means of travel less banal than Ryanair and less inconvenient than having to beat my way out of the city, check in an hour or more before my departure time, wait for my luggage at the other end, and then beat my way back into the city again.

And so, yesterday morning, I checked out of my hotel in Brussels and, forty minutes later, was in my comfortable first class seat as my ICE train to Köln pulled out of platform 4 at Gare du Midi. It is, it must be said, a very pleasant experience, with a steward to bring you drinks and snacks at your seat at reasonable prices. And, if you sit in the 'quiet zone' in the front carriage, you can see through the driver's cabin as the train dashes through the countryside.

At Köln, the staff at the Deutsche Bahn lounge will even bring you free beer and soup to sustain you between trains. It is all very civilised.

Köln to Berlin's Hauptbahnhof is just four hours and thirty minutes without ever really getting up to high speed, but a mid-afternoon ice cream meets the need for a sugar hit, and you get to see places like Wolfsburg, which you would never see if you flew instead. Admittedly, Wolfsburg appears to be an enormous Volkswagen factory with a town (with a decent football team) attached, but you can't have everything.

And, at the end of it all, Berlin, a city with so much to see and do. I'm here to visit the zoo, take in a concert at the Potsdam Sanssouci Festival, eat pork and drink beer. The sun is shining, and I can see an okapi, so if you'll excuse me...