Friday, April 18, 2014

A century reached. Not an unbeaten century, as such, but a century no less.

Catching up with events, I was reading Liberal Democrat Voice's latest 'Golden Dozen' and was most gratified to find that my piece on the Nigel Evans case has been included. And that's especially nice as it marks my one hundredth inclusion in that august weekly record of popular/good Liberal Democrat blogging.

It also gives, possibly, a hint as to how blogging has become more popular and more mainstream, in that my fiftieth appearance was reached in the 131st edition, yet it took another two hundred and forty for me to double that.

Ah well, onwards and upwards, I suppose, and congratulations to everyone else who has been included over the course of the past seven or so years.

A nation enters the European Union, walks up to the Commission, and asks for... what, exactly?

The relationship between the British public and the European Union has seldom been a strong one. Decisions by politicians past and present to use Europe as an excuse for inaction or, even more cynically, as a reason for unpopular action, an ill-informed media whose ownership have no desire to see a level of government that might challenge their influence, and a pick-and-mix approach to political integration that leaves the United Kingdom looking insufficiently committed to its partners and overly committed to its citizens are all factors.

It is, of course, made more complex by the fact that we are a big nation, with a glorious past - two world wars, an empire upon which the sun never set, naval domination of the seas and so on - which colours the way we wish to see the world. The advantages of pooling sovereignty are less obvious, the disadvantages glaring and slightly scary to many.

However, if you're a small nation, like Cyprus, or Lithuania, or indeed, most of the members of the European Union, the advantages are many and obvious, the loss of sovereignty - well, how much sovereignty does a small nation really have these days of global trade and investment?

The ability to do trade deals with bigger partners as part of a collective means that you get better terms than you might otherwise get operating independently. As Slovenia, that's probably a given. As the United Kingdom? Well, you might be less easily convinced, especially if, like the overwhelming majority of the population, you know little of international trade negotiations.

As a small nation within a larger collective, Malta has the ability to influence trading standards thus making it easier for its corporate sector to compete within a bigger market whereas, because of its bulk, the United Kingdom might - and I only say might - think that its domestic market is big enough not to have to worry about such considerations. After all, the Americans seem pretty oblivious to such things.

Visa-free travel, access to education in other nations, action on environmental concerns, one could go on and on in terms of potential and perhaps obvious advantages for our smaller partners, and that is exactly why I fear for our future in the European Union. Because, for the British, with our unwillingness to take up the opportunities and our belief, still, in our own power, the advantages aren't so visible, the risks less obvious. All of that, in an environment where politicians and their works are a matter of deep suspicion and distrust, means that making a case for a fairly mysterious institution far away is an uphill battle, especially in the face of a hostile media.

The European Union is not perfect, far from it. But then, how much government is? The European Parliament, with its huge constituencies which make personal contact with your representatives well nigh impossible and an almost total lack of coverage in the British press, has little impact, the institutions are remote and even more impenetrable. And all the while, the focus of our politics is on what 650 or so people do in a bizarre, green-upholstered theatre where protagonists shout at each other and wave bits of paper in some weird performance art version of democracy.

It is no wonder that I fret about the outcome of a referendum - the people will never get to know what it is they risk losing...

Adrift beside an azure sea...

I am, once again, somewhere else, something that will not entirely surprise my regular readers. So, this week, I thought that I would take a leaf out of Jennie's book, and take the blog out of its usual rural comfort zone.

There is a temptation, when blogging, to react to an agenda set by our increasingly useless, vapid national media. And, given their ineptitude, fecklessness and tendency to hunt in packs, it all begins to feel a bit circular. However, I have a week of enforced relative idleness to look forward to, so perhaps I should take the opportunity to give my intellect a gentle run out.

That sounds a little arrogant, put like that. Perhaps a better way of putting it is to use the opportunity to reflect on the world and to offer some thoughts about it. Our busy lives don't always allow for that reflection - mine often doesn't - and I have tremendous admiration for those who seem to have more time and the skill to take advantage.

I have a cold beer, and some madrigals, so...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Just a busy Thursday night in Brussels

I obviously forgot to publish this, so do bear with me...

One of the funny things about Parliaments is that, in my experience, the "let's go for the drink because the week is over" day isn't a Friday, like it is for most of us, it's a Thursday. In the UK, Parliament doesn't usually sit on a Friday, and the European Parliament seems to be a bit like that too, because Parliamentarians go home on a Friday (assuming that they haven't fled back to their constituencies on a Thursday).

And that's why I find myself in an unusually crowded Place Jourdan, surrounded by young people from across Europe, drinking beer (mostly) and speaking a myriad of languages. I am here for a meeting tomorrow morning, and as it is impossible to get from Stowmarket to Brussels in time for an eleven o'clock meeting - check for yourself if you don't believe me - I am obliged to come early and drink beer on your behalf. Trust me, I am not enjoying it (that might not be entirely true).

So, why am I here? Well, it's been a while since the ALDE Financial Advisory Committee met, so we have gathered to study the audit papers, examine the financial position and consider how things are going in terms of sponsorship and the new financial regulations that have finally made their way through the European Parliament.

Naturally, as a (redacted) official of (redacted), I take a keen interest in how public funds are spent, and given my expertise in the deconstruction of financial records - you knew that all of that training would come in handy for something, didn't you? - this seems like a job for someone like me.

But beer, in this case Grimbergen Blonde, doesn't get drunk on its own, so if you'll excuse me...


Nigel Evans: there always has to be someone at fault?

The verdict is in, and Nigel Evans, the MP for Ribble Valley, has been found not guilty of various charges of sexual misconduct. Presuming that the verdict is the right one, and one should presume that, he is now free to pick up his life where he left off when the charges were laid against him. And whilst I suspect that his life will never be quite the same again, given the unforgiving nature of some people, I can only hope that he is given some space and privacy to come to terms with his experiences.

However, I do note that some of his friends and supporters are suggesting that the Crown Prosecution Service should now be held accountable in some way. Might I suggest that this isn't a very sensible response?

You see, the role of the CPS is to assess accusations of criminality I'm order to decide whether or not it is in the public interest to seek prosecution. Where the charges are especially serious and, on the face of it, the evidence appears credible enough, the public would expect the matter to end up in court in order that it might be tested. In this instance, it seems that the jury felt that Mr Evans's behaviour was foolish or unwise, rather than criminal, and I have to admit that the witnesses, based on the reporting I have read, did not come across as being entirely credible. However, that only emerged through cross-examination and the probing of the defence.

And, if these charges had not been prosecuted, the CPS might well have been accused of a coverup - something that would be bad for justice and, in the long run, probably bad for Mr Evans. He has the advantage of having been cleared, rather than having to suffer death by emerging rumour and media innuendo.

No, if you are a friend of Nigel Evans, you'll be offering him your support, helping him to deal with the aftermath, and helping him to be a little more cautious when it comes to alcohol - one of the factors which appears to have led to the court case. And if he's the person that you think he is, you'll be doing him, and politics, a favour.

My first speech as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport...

I know that the vacancy has already been filled, but what the hell...

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for joining me here today.

Firstly, it is the convention to thank my predecessor for their hard work and to note their achievements in office but, given the circumstances of her passing, you will forgive me if I forego this opportunity.

Second, can I say how pleased I am to have this job. Naturally, you wouldn't expect me to say anything else but I am genuinely pleased to be at DCMS, as it gives me the opportunity to support and promote so many activities that bring joy to our busy lives.

So, what can you expect? Well, as the journalists amongst you will be preparing to ask me about my cultural influences for dissection by your readers, here's a sample of what I like.

On my iPhone, you'll find a couple of Franz Ferdinand albums, a lot of madrigals and quite a lot of keyboard and chamber music. I like football and cricket - I follow Luton Town, Needham Market, my local team, and was a Sussex member for a few years until getting to Hove became too difficult. I 'collect' UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and have travelled as widely as time and money have permitted. So, it will be compulsory madrigal singing in historic sporting arenas from here on in.

A quarter of a century ago, I served on a committee whose aim was to come up with a liberal culture policy for Europe. It wasn't a great success, as we got rather bogged down with the definition of the word 'culture', and it reminds me that, in separating out media and sport from culture, we risk downgrading them. So, each part of my portfolio is important to me, and I rely on you to tell me if I am devoting insufficient time to any aspect.

Some of my predecessors have taken a more free market approach towards the portfolio, assuming that quality will attract funding. And, to some extent, that must be true. Successful sports teams attract bigger crowds, more sponsorship etc, whilst popular films, television and music are not short of champions.

However, that does leave an awful lot of culture, in its widest sense, which struggles for recognition and support. I see our role at DCMS as to encourage emerging performers, athletes and other creators, providing opportunities for the public to participate in and experience the wealth of our cultural life and ensuring that we have as diverse a media as we can.

Naturally, this does require money, and there apparently isn't any, a point that Danny Alexander has made to me whilst welcoming me into the Cabinet. So, I'm evidently not going to be Lord Bountiful.

Accordingly, I'm going to have to ensure that we get as much as we can out of a budget which is likely to come under further pressure over the years ahead. That means working across government, with Vince Cable at BIS to make sure that the creative industries aren't overlooked by our trade envoys and when trade missions are sent off. It means providing as much funding as we can for tourism promotion, reaching out to new markets, such as India and China, with their emerging middle classes eager to travel. It also means considering whether tax breaks might help us to retain and grow sectors such as video games. I intend to encourage my civil servants to find imaginative ways of supporting our arts.

That's a flavour of my approach to the job, but now I'd like to throw the floor open to questions...

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Food waste: when you think about it...

I have, as you may have noticed, been thinking about food waste quite a lot lately. And one of the side effects of Ros's inquiry into the subject is that we have become rather more conscious of what we consume.

Now I'm not going to get carried away and suggest that we have reduced our food waste by some dramatic percentage, or that everyone could and should do more, but it is interesting to see how our thought processes have changed. Our fridge doesn't have as much stuff in it - during the week I can shop as I need to, fortunately - and I give a bit more thought to what's already in the fridge or freezer when planning my week. We measure pasta and rice, rather than just throw some into a pan to cook.

And there has been a benefit, in that our shopping bill feels smaller than it did, although, in truth, I haven't done a proper comparison yet.

But, whatever effect it has had on us, I'm loathe to see the Government legislate on the subject, rather that I'd like to see more education as to the potential benefits. Politicians and bureaucrats lecturing the public on the benefits of making soup out of surplus food, or whatever, will only alienate them. On the other hand, getting people to think about their shopping and eating habits might convince some that the benefits of a change of behaviour might be worth the effort.

If wastage levels are as high as have been suggested, there is scope for people to have a bit more money to spare for other things or, better still, to save. Many households have very little financial resilience due to the absence of savings, and if they can be helped by a little information and encouragement to reduce their food bills, it might then reduce their vulnerability to financial shocks.

But it isn't necessarily easy, as the report from Ros and her fellow committee members makes clear. Family life is more complex, many women work and therefore there isn't anyone in the house that has the time to cook and shop as their parents and grandparents did. Families don't eat together as they used to, so multiple different meals might be prepared at different times. The plethora of supermarket offers make decision making more difficult. In short, life is more complex, so the solutions aren't as simple.

BOGOFs have been the focal point of the debate this week, with some loudly protesting that they make it possible to eat, whilst others claim that they're a con. Ironically, the British Retail Consortium claim that supermarkets are moving away from such deals. The truth is hidden in the arithmetic, as it's only if you can calculate what such a deal really costs that you can judge whether it not it really is a good deal.

Hopefully, the coverage will offer an opportunity for some people to make changes that benefit them, whilst Government and everyone in the chain of food production and consumption works to reduce waste levels. With more and more pressure on resources as the global population increases, and as emerging middle classes in countries like India, China and Brazil demand more varied diets, anything we can do to make better use of the food that is produced can only help.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Food waste - another victim of misreporting

It is intriguing sometimes to see how the reporting of a story relates to the facts. Unfortunately, unless you are the subject of the story, or are part of it, you don't get to see how the facts and the reporting diverge. This week, however, I've had a ringside seat for a developing news story - the publication of a House of Lords report on food waste. It's been interesting, if not a little disheartening...

For example, much of the reporting, including Liberal Democrat Voice, claims that the report calls for BOGOFs to be banned, which is funny, because it doesn't. Instead, it calls for the supermarkets to rethink their strategy, as such offers on short life perishables are acknowledged, not least by the supermarkets themselves, to be the cause of significant wastage.

And it becomes clear that journalists and reporters don't really have, or make, time to do any real research other than a scan of a summary. Entertainingly, Iain Dale, interviewing Ros on LBC this morning, asked if this would impact on his use of Radox, in response to which Ros merely noted that Radox wasn't food. I'm not sure that I would have been quite so courteous...

It also demonstrates that, too often, the media feed off of each other, so a mistake made in an early report is simply transmitted on to more and more people, leading to misinformation and misunderstanding.

Reassuringly, those people who understand the real issues, from the National Farmers Union to FareShare UK, have broadly welcomed the report. Hopefully, this will lead to some concrete action to reduce wastage levels and provide a steer to the authorities in terms of what might be done.


@BaronessRos in the Lords: the scandal of food waste

Yesterday saw the publication of a House of Lords report on food waste, an event which might not usually be the cause of great excitement. However, this report was the result of six months of work by the Lords EU Sub-Committee D, chaired by Ros, and given the importance of the subject, there was some media interest.

So, late last week, Ros had done some pre-recorded interviews for the BBC and Sky News, and been interviewed for a lengthy piece in the Independent on Sunday - all good stuff.

And what are the findings?
  • At least 90 million tonnes of food is wasted across the EU each year, representing a financial and environmental loss of resources. The 15 million tonnes of food wasted in the UK each year equates to a financial loss to business of at least £5 billion per year. Environmentally, the carbon footprint of worldwide food waste is equivalent to twice the global greenhouse gas emission of all road transportation in the United States.
  • Efforts across the EU to reduce food waste are ‘fragmented and untargeted’ and the new European Commission, to be established in November, should publish a five-year strategy on food waste prevention within six months of taking office.
  • Retailers, and in particular the big supermarkets who dominate food sales in the UK, should act more responsibly in limiting food waste by both farmers and consumers. In particular, supermarkets should move away from incentives such as ‘buy one get one free’ for certain types of produce, which may result in more food waste at home. They should also work harder to avoid cancelling orders of food that has already been grown by producers a practice which leads to unsold, but perfectly edible, food being ploughed back into the fields or left unharvested. It is estimated that millions of tonnes of food is wasted annually in this way.
  • There should be Government action to encourage retailers to redistribute unsold food, where safe, for human and animal consumption rather than to be recycled via anaerobic digestion. VAT rates could be amended and tax breaks offered to encourage supermarkets to donate edible unsold food to food banks rather sending it to be composted. This would form part of a refocussing of EU policy in this area away from a ‘waste hierarchy’ toward a ‘food use hierarchy’ that stresses the use by humans of food initially intended for human consumption.
  • The review on legislation regarding the feeding of food waste to animals is welcomed. The transfer of human food waste to animals should, however, only take place if scientific evidence establishes that it is safe to do so.
The full text of the report can be viewed here (PDF) or here (HTML).

The exquisite torture of exams is at an end...

I have, for more than a year now, been in training for my new role, the one I can't talk about here. It has been surprisingly stressful, with four sets of examinations to pass, a library of reading material to absorb and more homework exercises than I can remember. However, it is now pretty much over, as I received the news that I had passed the final set of exams on Friday.

It is a strange feeling having survived, having lived with the unnerving knowledge that, if any exam is failed twice, your promotion is withdrawn and you are returned to your old job - even more troubling in my case as mine was subsequently abolished.

I've been thrown together with a group of strangers for the duration of my studies, gathering every week or fortnight to pool our mutual bewilderment and confusion and to share the delight or dejection of individual exam passes or fails. Over the months, we've developed friendships, encouraged each other, even occasionally drowned our sorrows together. It's been fun - well, mostly - and I've learned from the experience.

And now, we go our separate ways, tasked with... Actually, I can't say, but I have every confidence that they will do my employers proud.

So, wish us luck - you'll want us to succeed!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Needham Market 1, Ware 0 - my day as a sponsor

Nowadays, modern sport is much more financially complex than ever before. Professional athletes are better paid, and gate receipts alone seldom cover costs, which is why additional fundraising has become a vital part of sports administration. The most successful teams raise millions through shirt sponsorship, stadium naming rights, merchandising and partnership arrangements - Manchester United even have an official airline.

Seven tiers down the football pyramid, the numbers are much smaller but additional fundraising is no less important. In the Ryman League Division 1 North, shirts are sponsored, advertising hoardings sold and match sponsors sought. My local team, Needham Market FC, are acknowledged to be a very well run outfit and, when I discovered that match sponsorship was surprisingly reasonable, the information was filed away for future use.

I am not the easiest person to find gifts for, and so when my mum and dad asked what I would like for Christmas, just after Ros and I had watched the FA Cup game against Cambridge United, I thought, why not sponsor a league fixture? And so, a few weeks ago, I rang the club, and asked if there was a match available to be sponsored. Mark Easlea, the Secretary, checked, and it was agreed that I would sponsor the match against Ware FC.

And so, today, I made my debut as a sponsor of a football club. I brought along, as my guests - I was entitled to three - Ros, my stepdaughter Sally and her husband Brij. I was greeted by Alan, the Commercial Manager and escorted to the Boardroom for tea and a chat with the Management Committee before we took our seats in the stand before kick-off.

It's been a difficult season for non-league clubs. The endless rain through the winter caused a series of postponed matches, leaving a lot of teams having to play three times a week to catch up, and both teams had played on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday as part of that. The side effects are tiredness and injury, which left Needham Market without a recognised striker. Their opponents were in the bottom four, but their recent improved form meant that they wouldn't be easily beaten.

The first half started brightly for the home team, although opportunities were few, but as the half went on, Needham Market began to dominate, creating chances but not taking them until, as the half-time whistle approached, Dave Cowley had the ball in the net. Sadly, the referee's assistant had flagged for offside. Encouraged, Needham Market pressed again, and Chris Hogg, formerly of Hibernian and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, headed home the opener just in time.

We retired to the Boardroom for more tea and a finger buffet before returning for the second half. The Marketmen continued to create chances but not take them, and tiredness was beginning to take its toll. Ware began to make more of an impression but, apart from some long-range efforts that were off target or relatively easily dealt with by keeper Andrew Plummer, it looked for all the world is if a team in red shirts with white sleeves and white shorts were going to win 1-0.

There was a late scare, when a Ware free-kick had to be acrobatically tipped over the bar, but the final whistle wasn't far away and Needham Market had the three points. I was tasked with picking the Man of the Match and, having consulted, chose the right-back, Luke Ingram, a decision which seemed to go down well amongst the 226 paying spectators - the best league attendance since October.

I presented him with his prize, a bottle of wine, posed for a photograph, and we headed for the bar for a deserved drink.

So, four tickets, a programme each, seats, refreshments and the chance to pick the Man of the Match, plus a mention in the programme, all for just £100, which for a day out for four isn't that expensive. I might do it again next season and, perhaps more importantly for the club, I might go along to the odd match as time permits.

I think that local sporting clubs play a vital role in their communities, and a well run one like Needham Market FC, with an academy for young footballers and ambitions to provide a resource for use by the whole community, has the ability to transform. Across the country, volunteers make that happen and, by giving a little financial support, people like me can make a small contribution. I would encourage anyone with a little spare cash to do something similar.


Friday, April 04, 2014

Vaguely annoyed by another pointless generalisation

Unlock Democracy! Yes, you! Over here!

And now that I have your attention, might I be so bold as to ask that, in return for my annual subscription, you desist from sending me e-mails seemingly designed to annoy me.

What's that, you say? You don't mean to annoy me? Perhaps you might explain the use of the phrase "the out of touch and unelected Lords" then. Yes, I acknowledge that they are unelected, but out of touch?

It is a modern truism that, when arguing a case, it is as well to find ways of discrediting your opponents. However, the fact that someone doesn't agree with you doesn't actually mean that they are necessarily out of touch - indeed, it could be that they're right and that you're out of touch. But even assuming that some Peers are wrong and out of touch, insulting those who actually support the cause of Lords reform is pointless, insulting and counterproductive.

It was enough to point out the unelected nature of the House of Lords, but Unlock Democracy seems determined to alienate the very people whose support will be required to achieve its long term goal - this is not the first time that an e-mail from them on this subject has irked me.

And to be honest, as an interested party with a strong belief in the value of democracy and civil society, such needless discourtesy makes me less minded, not more, to contribute to the work of the organisation in the future.

It's a pity, really, as I still retain a fondness for Unlock Democracy, its leadership and the people who work for it. But call me old-fashioned if you will, I still believe in trying to respect your opponent...

Ros and the value of outreach

Two weeks ago, Ros and I spent the day visiting two Norfolk schools, a state school in Dereham (Neatherd High), and a private school (Norwich High School for Girls), as part of the House of Lords outreach programme. My job is to navigate Ros from place to place and chip in the odd fact if Ros needs it, and make conversation with students and teachers alike.

Ros has a presentation to give, which explains how the House of Lords works, and then takes questions in a no-holds barred sort of way, her way of encouraging students to seek answers to the things that interest them. It's not intended to be party political, although if she is asked her opinion, she will give it without hesitation. The sessions are generally pretty lively, and the questions can be on virtually anything.

Ros and Emily pose for the camera
Given Ros's relatively unusual journey through the world of politics, she sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate to young people that politics is for anyone who believes that they have something to say and a cause to campaign on, and it is one of the things that drives her to give up some of her days off to take part in the programme, especially given that there aren't that many Peers in East Anglia who do.

Our visits coincided with the announcement of the results of the elections to the UK Youth Parliament, and at Neathard High, we met Emily Fox, who had been successful in the contest for the Mid Norfolk seat, gaining an impressive 1,788 votes. I have to admit, that in her shoes, I would have been quite excited, but she seems like a very level-headed individual, and she apparently ran an excellent campaign using social media.

We weren't the only visitors to the school, however, as the local press were there, complete with photographer, to cover the story and ask some questions.

Sadly, once Ros had given the presentation and taken questions for forty-five minutes, we weren't able to stay much longer, as we were due in Norwich.

It isn't unusual to find that the students at fee-paying schools are more self-confident than at their state competitors, and Norwich High School for Girls was no exception. We were made to feel very welcome, and the questions came thick and fast over a very nice lunch before the formal part of the visit took place. I got to be Ros's 'glamorous assistant', as someone needed to operate the slideshow and I happened to be free - it's not a difficult task, as there are only thirteen slides, but it is nice to be useful...

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Ros in the Lords: Bird Trapping in the Sovereign Bases

In her capacity as Chair of EU Sub-Committee D, Ros takes an interest in matters European and environmental. This recent Written Question is typical of that...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the level of illegal bird trapping within the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus.


Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)

The Sovereign Base Areas are a separate territory and not part of the Republic of Cyprus. Countering illegal bird trapping is one of the key priorities of theSovereign Base Areas Administration and the Sovereign Base Areas Police. This is stated in the Chief Constable’s annual report and strategic plan. Police enforcement action has resulted in 132 arrests and convictions over the last four years for bird trapping offences and the seizure and destruction of large quantities of equipment. The Sovereign Base Areas Administration reviews regularly what additional measures could be introduced within the Sovereign Base Areas. The Sovereign Base Areas Administration also consults with the Republic of Cyprus on the implementation and where practicable, coordination, of measures to reduce illegal bird trapping.

A technology upgrade for the view from Creeting St Peter

I have been increasingly frustrated with my mobile technology of late. The BlackBerry which had already failed me twice in eighteen months recently started to suffer from catastrophic battery rundown and it was indeed fortunate that I became eligible for an upgrade this week.

And so, it gives me great pleasure to blog this from my new and pleasantly shiny iPhone 5S, chosen to colour co-ordinate with my iPad Air.

This means that I may be a bit more active in the blogosphere and on Twitter, although I've said that in the past...