Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A public information announcement for 'Liberal Bureaucracy' readers

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2009

Alright, so the whole things is redolent of a convention of crack whores but... yes, it's time once again for the 'Total Politics' Best Blogs Poll, where a bunch of desperately sad people, craving recognition and stature, prostitute ourselves in search of votes. You'll note that use of the word 'ourselves' there...

However, I'm not actually going to ask for your vote this year, although if you have already voted and included me in your top ten, you are most kind and the cheque will be in the post shortly. If you haven't voted, and were thinking of doing so, time is running out, as all votes must be received by midnight on 31 July.

There are, apparently, rules, and here they are, courtesy of 'Total Politics' Chief Blackboard Monitor, Iain Dale...

  1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
  2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
  3. You MUST include ten blogs. If you include fewer than ten your vote will not count.
  4. Email your vote to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
  5. Only vote once.
  6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible.
  7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name.
  8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2009. Any votes received after that date will not count.
The problem with this list, as with so many such efforts, is that it is entirely dependent on the nature of the 'selectorate'. Given that the organiser is a Conservative, and most of his readers are Conservatives, the outcome is inevitably weighted towards those of a bluish hue.

I'd be intrigued to see what difference limiting such a poll to just Liberal Democrats would make. Perhaps Liberal Democrat Voice might like to take up such a challenge?

Ploughing the fields of Bihar

My father tells me that the monsoon has been somewhat erratic in India this year, although Mumbai appears to have returned to its usual state for July - wet, with occasional periods of extreme wetness.

However, not everywhere has been that fortunate. Bihar, one of the states on the east coast, renown for its poverty, remains dry. So, farmers there have decided to decided to shame the gods into bringing rain by sending their unmarried daughters to plough the fields naked.

Apparently, this is thought to be the most trusted social custom in the area, although I'm not convinced the daughters remain enthusiastic...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beyond the reach of the LGA...

I had vaguely assumed that Parish Councils fell within the auspices of the Local Government Association. A fine body of men and women, I've attended a couple of events in my capacity as Presidential consort and been, I have to admit, pretty impressed.

Unfortunately, they only cover Districts, Counties, Boroughs and Unitaries. Parish and Town Councils are covered by the National Association of Local Councils, a rather more cosy grouping. However, it is a group which does have a degree of clout, given that most parish and town councils are members, and that they cover virtually all of the country, with the exception of big cities (London is still completely unparished).

It operates through a network of county associations, and I'm keen to find out more about SALC (Suffolk Association of Local Councils). I have a password and access to the members area of the website, and have been reading about the training they provide. It's all very intriguing.

So I'm hoping to re-engage Creeting St Peter with the somewhat larger local government community in the coming months. After all, there's nothing to lose, and everything to gain. I'll probably learn a few things from people who've been Parish Councillors for rather longer than I have, and who knows, the national stage may beckon...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning a new trick

I'd always wondered how some of my colleagues were able to post blog entries with bits crossed out. Very clever, I thought, I wish that I could do that.

And now I can, which allows me to do all kinds of fun stuff. For example, I could say that I firmly believe that a particular group of people should be rounded up and flogged to within an inch of their sorry lives given a jolly good talking to over a nice cup of tea, and you would know exactly what I mean.

Isn't technology marvellous, possums?

An object lesson in not answering the question

Michael Roberts, of the Association of Train Operating Companies, was on Radio 4's 'Today', being interviewed in response to the Transport Select Committee's report on rail franchises. It was a curiously unsatisfying effort on his part, matched only by the inability of the interviewer, Sarah Montague, to actually pin him down on anything.

I'm fairly reliant on National Express. In Suffolk, they run all of the trains - the only station served by anyone else is Brandon, on the Norwich to Ely/Cambridge line. They also run the long distance coach network (Stowmarket is on the Southend to Liverpool route). My only alternative would be to drive, although driving lessons would be a key prerequisite before I could do so.

So I want to be confident that they aren't going to abuse their monopoly position by ripping me off. I'm also concerned that, given what happened on the East Coast Main Line, they might decide to walk away. Let's see what Michael had to say...

On whether passengers are getting a good deal in terms of fares, "Fare rises have been kept within the limits set by government.". That would be a no, I presume. Michael did point out that passenger satisfaction was up, reliability was up, and so was punctuality. Frankly, if my fare goes up by more than inflation, my train should get there on time more often, and it should turn up more often.

That said, they took away the restaurant car, sacked cleaners and reduced the number of customer service staff, claiming that this would improve the service I get. It didn't, and it idn't going to.

It's the sort of answer you'd expect from a politician talking about his expenses...

Oh yes, and franchises. Are any more of them in trouble? "As in the rest of the economy, times are hard.". That would be a yes, a no or a don't know. Rumours that Great Western and South West Trains are thinking of 'handing the keys back' are rife. And if they're taking public money, don't we, as stakeholders, have the right to know?

No, Michael, that was, from a passenger perspective, a shockingly poor performance. I'm sure that your bosses will be pleased though...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Being a Parish Councillor - the Earth isn't trembling at my passing...

Lib Dem Blogs is full of commentary on local issues by local councillors, and I have to admit that I don't read much of it. Most of it is relevant to a particular, geographically-based audience, and as I don't live in any of these places, news of bus routes, of bin-emptying rosters or of the cut and thrust of retail politics. It's often well written, very useful if you're part of that audience, and exactly what I'd hope to find if I was a voter on their patch.

On the other hand, some of them write entertainingly on non-specific issues - what it's like to be a new councillor, the generalities of life as an elected tribune of the people - and these I find fascinating.

Of course, what all of these people have in common is that they're rather higher in the councillor food chain than I am, as a humble Parish Councillor. They have some real influence, in many cases actual power. It all seems to be terribly serious, and slightly daunting, especially for someone who doesn't really like retail politics. Heavens, I wasn't even elected - we don't really do elections at Parish level, and Creeting St Peter is no exception in that sense.

What this means is the life of a Parish Councillor in a place like Creeting St Peter isn't exciting in a macro-political sense. Political groupings are frowned on, so you don't really have opposition in an organised sense, and most issues are settled upon by consensus. And with a precept of £4,200 - some £22.11 per voter - we're unlikely to have any serious issues regarding waste of taxpayer funds.

So, whilst I intend to continue to blog about my activities as an elected member of the lowest tier of government, I have to issue a minutiae warning - if only because everything we do is at that kind of level...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Trying to be a little better - how do you be a Parish Councillor?

Alright, I've never done this before, and I'd like to do it well. I know that the Local Government Association provides lots of training for 'big' councils, but what is there for the likes of me?

So I've been doing some research. Apparently, the Department for Communities and Local Government provides support to the National Training Strategy for Town and Parish Councils, and this is administered by the National Association of Local Councils. Admittedly, I don't know what that support is, but it does at least exist.

Questions, questions, always questions...

EXCLUSIVE: John Barrett MP to stand down

A good friend of 'Liberal Bureaucracy', John Barrett, the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, has announced that he will be standing down at the next election, after nine years of dedicated service to his electors.

Here, in his own words, he explains the background to his decision. I have to admit to a touch of regret at the news, as he's one of the nicest guys I know, and a bloody good MP too. However, he's made a decision that is good for him, good for his family, and perhaps he reminds us that MPs are human too.

Party President, Ros Scott, said, "I'm very sorry to learn of John's decision to stand down as the MP for Edinburgh West. His majority of 13,600 is a testament not only to his superb campaigning skills, but also to his dedication to the role of constituency MP. Personally and professionally, John embodies the notion of public service, and will be missed in the Commons and by his many friends in Westminster generally.".

Searching behind the sofa cushions won't balance the books... time for a little intolerance, perhaps?

Amongst Liberal Democrats, the debate about where to cut, and where to invest, is a knotty one. Social liberals take the stance that now is an opportunity to invest, as a means of driving economic growth and repairing sorely neglected public infrastructure. Economic liberals see this as an opportunity to withdraw the state from significant areas of activity.

And yet, I find myself torn. I'm a small state kind of person, who believes that government is there to enable, to hold the ring if you like, balancing the tensions of the market and the public interest (whatever that is). Ironic really, given who I work for, but there you go. I believe in sound money, public accountability and that sense that we, as a society, should look out for those less able to look out for themselves. Yes, it's kind of contradictory, but then nobody ever said that being a liberal was easy.

However, all that said, the current budget crisis offers a genuine opportunity to return to basics in terms of what we want our Government to do and why. Not about more versus less, or public versus private, because that's more about delivery than about the fundamentals. No, I mean the question of what you want to do as a community, what you want to leave to the market and what you should reasonably expect of individuals.

We have, as a society, become increasingly of the view that government, at whatever level, should be responsible. For example, we expect our local council to keep the streets clean, so they employ roadsweepers, funny little machines that sweep the gutters, or drive on the pavements vacuuming up litter, or men with steam jets to remove chewing gum. They remove graffiti, flyposted gig posters, little postcards offering the services of unfeasibly attractive women, that kind of thing. And we pay for them.

The fact that we pay for the service seems to have the effect of encouraging a belief that, having paid for that service, we might as well take advantage of it. So we litter, drop chewing gum, generally abuse our environment, and think little of it. No, not quite. We moan about the terrible burden of council tax, and the utter inefficiency of our local council. So what if we took our litter home, punished graffiti artists, and educated our children to learn from our folly? Why, we would reduce the number of people needed to clean our streets and buildings and cut the cost of government.

Call it a compact if you like. I, the citizen, agree to behave in a sensible fashion, take an interest in my community. In return, I expect the government to punish those that transgress, and punish them in such a way that doesn't burden me overly. How about restorative justice, for example? Don't imprison them - fine them, or get them to repair the damage they have done. And not just a token fine, a fine that reflects the true cost of the damage they have done. If that means they end up paying over twenty years, so be it, it will be a salutary lesson to them, and to anyone else who thinks that burdening me with clearing up behind them is a good thing.

The libertarian in me takes the view that, if people are genuinely to bear the consequences of their actions, the penalties should be transparent and honest. Now I know what you're thinking. Life is more complex than that. There are interrelationships to consider. The problem is, we allow that to override what should be a sense of anger.

This Government takes the view that, in order to solve the problem of anti-social behaviour, increasingly precise legislation is necessary (the aim is precise, rather than the legislation itself, in my experience). The impact of that legislation needs to be measured, breeding a cadre of people whose job it is to count things, rather than do anything about them. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition believe that problems of anti-social behaviour are best solved by imprisoning everyone under the age of eighteen (alright, I exaggerate a bit there, but you get the drift...).

This leaves a bit of a gap for us to exploit, if we're up for it. Enough of the wet liberalism. The public don't like it, and we just look weak if we talk about social deprivation and the ineffectual nature of imprisonment. Let's talk about economic restitution, about cutting the cost of government, the kind of things that are thoroughly liberal, resonate with the public and, as a handy side effect, will be electorally popular.

Curiously, I suspect that thinking like this will cause me to be associated with the 'Liberal Vision' tendancy within Liberal Democrat circles. Ironic really, given that I seem to find myself on the opposite side to them on most issues. However, they specialise in allowing people to do things. In this instance, I want to give a community the opportunity to do something. Call me a reactionary if you like, but...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Today Creeting St Peter, tomorrow Greater Stowmarket, next week...

Here in the Democratic People's Republic of Creeting St Peter, we have tended to the view that, whilst the outside world is very nice, it is best left to its own devices. Unfortunately, the outside world feels differently.

As part of the strategy of creating Community Boards, Creeting St Peter has been grouped together with Stowmarket (population 20,000) and Stowupland (population 2,500). Our still, small voice is, by comparison, rather lost in the crowd. However, our now former Chair of the Parish Council did attend and, following his resignation, a replacement was needed. That would be me then.

So, the steep learning curve gets a little steeper... That said, if we do get unitary authorities, the Community Board will have money, power and... Let's just say that I'm going to have to pay some serious attention...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Answers on a postcard, please?

Alright, I'm flummoxed. What does this Standing Order mean?

61. The Clerk shall make known the purpose of this Standing Order to every candidate.

I am confused...

On being eaten by bureaucracy

An interesting spin on self-cannabalism, one might think. There I am, a bureaucrat to my fingertips, in a mini-flap over a set of rules. The problem is, put simply, I have to read them. And what are these rules, you ask? The Standing Orders for Creeting St Peter Parish Council.

Alright, we're not a vast organisation, with a staff that runs to a part-time Parish Clerk, and responsibility for... not very much actually. The Standing Orders run to eighty, yes eighty, clauses and fourteen pages, with references to European Union Public Sector Procurement Rules (damn, there goes the opportunity to get my kid brother to put in the best tender for the new High Speed Rail Link from Creeting St Peter to Westminster...), the Standards Board for England (heavens, do they have jurisdiction this far down?) and to a Code of Conduct that, I hate to admit, I actually haven't seen.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm opposed to such things, but it does seem rather sad that we should have to have them. But the Standing Orders aren't the only document that, as a newbie Parish Councillor, I need to be aware of.

We also have Financial Regulations, ten pages of them. There are references to the Audit Commission Act 1998, the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 and the VAT Act 1994, and references to contracts in excess of £50,000 (twelve years of precept income at current levels).

And last, but not least, we have financial risk assessment and management. It seems that there is a high risk of illegal activity or payment, if only because none of the councillors have been properly educated as to our legal powers. That's possibly true, as I was rather hoping to learn as I go along. Apparently, there are also concerns about the adequacy of the precept. Again, I'm not yet in a position to comment, as I still don't have a true grasp of what we, as a parish Council, actually do. Mind you, given that only one of the councillors stood for election in 2007, and the other three have been co-opted since then, it would be a fairly steep learning curve...

It's enough to make you wonder if I didn't make a mistake in volunteering in the first place...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cincinnati is unwell...

One fears the inevitable as cats get older. They slow down, they become impossible to insure - you try insuring a cat over the age of 12 - and, eventually, they die. Given that my five cats were born in 1991. 1992 and 1993, my luck had been pretty good. Victoria was the first to go last year, as cancer finally caused her to succumb. Franklin suffered a stroke and Eleanor fell to renal failure, all of them last year.

That leaves me with Cincinnati, a big orange and white bruiser with a heart of gold and a purr which would melt the resistance of even the most inveterate cat-hater, and Katherine, a rather neurotic calico who, in recent months has blossomed into something of a people person. The two don't interact much, but they are rather good company, and I like to take time out to sit, with a cat on my lap, reading, or drinking beer, or catching up on the events of the day with Ros.

However, such reverie was disturbed by a call from Suffolk. Cincinnati is unwell, was the message. On returning to the house, Cincinnati was lying on the bed in the spare room, and purred quietly when I stroked him. Overnight observation led me to conclude that he's not in great shape, a bit wobbly on his hind legs, and rather too keen on lying curled up on the bed for my taste.

Oh well, to the vet on Saturday in the cat carrier of doom. I fear the worst...

Monday, July 20, 2009

8.45 a.m., Needham Market Station...

The sun is warm, the view from the platform over towards Needham Lakes is green and lush. Behind the platform, a fieldmouse is searching for berries and the air is filled with birdsong.

How's your commute going?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Yesterday(ish - still) in (and around) the Lords: Harry Potter and the Select Committee of Doom

Life in the modern House of Lords (alright, this might be a bit of an oxymoron, but stick with me...) isn't all about trying to improve badly drafted attempts by the Government to make us all criminals. Sometimes, the Lords interact with the community, and yesterday the Lords Select Committee on Communications were meeting with the cast and crew of the next Harry Potter movie as part of their review of the state of the British film industry. Apparently, any leak of information is punishable by death, but my sources tell me that the stars aren't as tall as they look on screen...

Meanwhile, in the Chamber, it was back to the Parliamentary Standards Bill, and the second day of its Committee Stage. As the Government hedge, trim, amend and backtrack like some demented and slightly haphazard barber, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish what the Bill says at any given moment. Think of it as a memory test for a group of aging lawyers...


Clause 8 introduces a new offence for MPs committing expenses fraud, and a number of Peers noted their concern that an act already covered by anti-fraud legislation elsewhere should now be addressed by legislation offering different, and more importantly less stringent, maximum terms of imprisonment. Unfortunately, the irony of this is completely lost on the Government, and they seem determined to push it through. Indeed, Standing Orders have been suspended so as to allow the Report Stage and the Third Reading to take place on the same day, and allow amendments at Third Reading One suspects that Monday will be a long day...

Friday, July 17, 2009

What Ifs: what if Lembit had met the Labeque sisters instead of the Cheeky Girls?

Ah well, one can only dream...

A night at the Royal Albert Hall

I am something of a classical music lover. Educated at a North London comprehensive which had yet to address its demotion from grammar school status, we had the benefits of a somewhat elitist education without our parents having to pay for it.

A love of music was one of the by-products (another was a deep suspicion of certainty, but that's another story...). And so an invitation to attend the First Night of the Proms was too good an opportunity to give up. Whilst orchestral music is not uppermost on my hit list - I have a weakness for chamber music and keyboard works - how could you miss such a gig?

Of course, our hosts, the BBC, threw a reception first, attended by the great and the good (and me). Those of you who follow Stephen Fry will know that he was there, and there was a touch of celebrity spotting to be done.

For me, the highlights were the Labeque sisters playing Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos - absolutely amazing - and Brahms' Rhapsody (Opus 53), which reminded me exactly why I am so fond of his works.

On the other hand, I still don't feel that I would cross the street to listen to Tchaikovsky's 3rd Piano Concerto...

Yesterday(ish) in the Lords: a by-election and a never ending sentence

Yesterday saw the announcement of the result of that rare creature, a by-election in the Lords. In the event of the death of a hereditary peer, an election is held to fill the vacancy, the electorate being those Peers sitting on the same benches. In this instance, twenty-seven hereditary crossbenchers voted to fill the vacancy arising from the death of Viscount Bledisloe on 12 May. The result, the election of Lord Aberdare, whose father's death had caused an earlier by-election.

In the Chamber, it was Day 8 of the Committee Stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill, with the proposed new Sentencing Council for England and Wales front and centre (readers in Scotland and Northern Ireland might wish to make a cup of tea at this point). With the one consolation that the Council would include a number of lay experts, debate centred on its composition, with Conservatives seeking to double the number of lay justices, and Liberal Democrats wishing to include, potentially, a member with an expertise in rehabilitation of offenders. The latter proposal was accepted by the Government, so applause is due for Lord Dholakia, for it was his amendment.

A brief debate followed on an amendment put forward by Lord Ramsbotham, calling for sentencing guidelines to specify whether or not an offender will be capable of voting in parliamentary or local government elections during their detention. As Lord Lester of Herne Hill put it from the Liberal Democrat benches, it didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of being accepted, and in the absence of support from the Conservative benches, it was withdrawn.

My question of the day?

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they carried out research into the impact of taxi metering on the provision of service to rural communities."

According to Lord Adonis, they haven't...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The day before yesterday in the Lords - the steady drip, drip, drip of concession

I had intended to post this yesterday but, having read Hansard, I rather lost the will to live. Indeed, Tuesday was one of those days when much is said, but little is apparently achieved.

That said, the first day of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Standards Bill demonstrated that this is an astonishingly poorly drafted piece of legislation, with much of the debate intended to probe into the actual meaning of the language used, and the Government conceding that much redrafting will be needed. Baroness Hamwee and Lord Shutt of Greetland prodded and poked the Government, the Earl of Onslow, from the Conservative benches, went for ridicule, sugesting that parts of the debate reminded him of "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue". Indeed, he suggested that the Woolsack be rechristened as Mornington Crescent.

The ever sartorial-elegant Earl had already made a plea on behalf of the House of Commons that Peers stand up for the rights of their colleagues in another place, noting how low morale had fallen there.

Debate resumes today, so we'll see how the Government manages an ever more complex redrafting task...

Liberal Vision - missing the point on Government advertising

£179.7 million, spent by the Government on advertising. Obviously, classical liberals see this as an outrage - taxpayers having to foot the bill for Government propaganda.

Actually, classical liberals believe that people should have access to the information that allows them to take control of their lives. Libertarians believe that government should be minimalist and, for the most part, non-intrusive. Nothing wrong with either stance, the latter taking a stronger line in terms of personal responsibility, but perhaps less mindful of the needs of those less well-equipped to take care of themselves.

Most Government advertising is designed to impart information, about changes in tax law, for example, or new entitlements such as the Child Trust Fund. You might not like the legislation, and in many cases, most liberals have doubts, but the idea that the public should not be told hardly strikes me as a liberal one.

Now I am hardly stupid enough to claim that the whole £179.7 million is spent effectively - anyone who knows how media buying works will tell you that you can only use the available data and personal experience gleaned over time to make the best call on the use of spend - but to describe it as 'propaganda' is lazy and, to be blunt, misleading.

I'll offer up an example of a recent advertising campaign that, to my mind, is reasonable, justified and not propaganda. There are plenty that I could offer, but I'll settle for this one. The penalty regime for limited companies has recently been toughened up, and the points at which penalties are levied have been brought forward.

So, Companies House ran a poster campaign warning people that they were doing so. There are now millions of company directors in this country, following Government efforts to encourage enterprise. Many of them are one-man operations, and could well do without having to pay such penalties. Warning them encourages them to comply with the requirements of company law - good for the consumer, good for honest traders - and makes it less likely that they will be penalised.

Of course, it could be argued that the guidance notes provide with company returns could be used to impart this information. Unfortunately, in my experience, people seldom read the guidance notes, and then are deeply unhappy when the result of their oversight is explained to them. Therefore, a range of communication tools, including advertising, works.

Liberal Vision like to claim that they are the true champions of classical liberalism, implying that the rest of us aren't sufficiently liberal. In this instance, they demonstrate that they are the champions of classical knee-jerk reactionism, and I'm delighted to differ from them in this instance.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yesterday in the Lords: Baronesses Hanham and Miller regret to advise...

Yesterday's business started with tributes from all five benches following the death of Lord Kingsland on Sunday, a man clearly highly rated on all sides, even when they were in opposition to the thrust of his argument. Described as a lawyer's lawyer and a parliamentarian's parliamentarian, one senior Peer described him as one of the intellectual powerhouses of the Conservative benches.

The Government then went on to announce its intention to ratify the Dublin Convention on Cluster Munitions, whereby the United Kingdom will cease to hold stocks. Currently, in anticipation of ratification, their use has been abandoned and they are currently stored pending destruction.

The Coroners and Justice Bill reached Day 7 of its Committee Stage, with Lord Henley stepping in at very short notice to fill Lord Kingsland's shoes on the front bench. The opposition parties continue to chip away at some of the more troubling aspects of the bill, with the Government agreeing to look further at elements relating to witness anonymity. The proposal to crate an Independent Commissioner for Terrorist Suspects was passed by 145 votes to 103, another defeat for the Government, and we will see whether they attempt to overturn that in the Commons in due course. Again, the Liberal Democrats turned out in force to contribute to that defeat.

There followed a series of Regulations relating to the introduction, at some future point, of identity cards. Whilst these were passed, Baroness Hanham, supported by Baroness Miller from our benches, rose to move a motion regretting the decision of the Government to proceed with them, as a test of the House's opinion on identity cards. Again, the Liberal Democrat votes probed decisive, as the vote was won with 157 voting content, just 98 voting non content, an opposition victory by 59 votes.

Finally, and I make no apologies for covering this, a written question asked some time ago eventually received a formal answer. Lord McKenzie of Luton, answering Baroness Scott of Needham Market, confirmed that some, if not all, disabled councillors will be eligible for Access to Work support. Where councillors receive anything above reimbursement of travel, mileage and meal allowances, they may be eligible for Access to Work support, providing that they meet the other eligibility conditions.

Don't call the BNP fascists - publicise their policies instead

I'm not exactly a friend of the BNP - I wouldn't be allowed to join, for example. However, as I've noted in the past, simply calling them fascists and throwing one's hands up in disgust does nothing to address the question of why people vote for them.

Some of their support certainly comes from racists, but I'm yet to be convinced that all, or even most, of their supporters think of themselves as racists. Many of their voters feel neglected and frustrated and the BNP appeal to that sense where they work.

On the other hand, they stand for some quite eye-wateringly crazy policies. How about this excerpt from their 2005 manifesto;

"The compulsory National Service system discussed elsewhere in this Manifesto would begin at the age of 18 with a period of basic training in the army. This would include full training with the citizens’ assault rifle. Conscientious objectors who refuse to undertake military service would be allocated other constructive work for the community, but would not receive the citizen’s right to be armed, or the right to vote."

So, let's see. They believe that we should all have the right to bear arms. Not just any arms, but an assault rifle. That's going to make my morning commute a mite more interesting. On the other hand, perhaps people will move right down inside the carriage if I encourage them with my assault rifle.

They also believe in mandatory basic army training. Alright, a bit over the top but there are many who suspect that it would instil discipline. Admittedly, most people think of national service, which wasn't really intended to produce soldiers, and might demur at the idea of taking young thugs off the street, potentially converting them into highly trained, armed killers and then putting them back onto the streets - with their assault rifle, don't forget.

They clearly believe in changing the role of the army - soldiers will need to carry out that training - and in spending money on housing those doing their national service, feeding them, clothing them, arming them etc. Given the disposition of our armed forces, either that means withdrawing them from places they're in, or increasing their numbers. Either choice has implications, in terms of cost, or in terms of our place at the top table of international affairs.

The linkage of mandatory army training with the right to vote means, potentially, the exclusion of the disabled from the franchise. Can the blind complete the training, or are adjustments going to be made to allow them to do so? How about those on dialysis, or with injuries sustained on the sports field or in day to day life? Are they to be dienfranchised by the state for no fault of their own?

However, let's say that I've successfully completed my army training. Will allowing me to carry an assault rifle cause the police to be armed too? If so, they'll need a training budget, they'll need the weapons, and they'll need to change their strategy. After all, if everyone is potentially armed, every incident requires an armed response.

As an example of a country where the right to bear arms is strongly defended, the American model of gun ownership is, in urban areas, one of handguns, and a significant proportion of deaths are accidental. In Canada, on the other hand, gun ownership is far more likely to mean a hunting rifle, and deaths caused by firearms are far lower. An assault weapon is unlikely to be used to hunt - it's designed to kill - and one has fears for the carnage that might follow. It would be likely to assumed that an intruder is armed, and one would feel the need for an armed response. All very well if they are an intruder perhaps...

So, all in all, a policy which might not be so popular when you look at the detail. The BNP want your thuggish neighbour to be armed with something that will, if used, kill you. They want the countryside to be covered with army training facilities. They want the police to be armed. They want to take the vote away from the disabled. They want to miltarise the nation.

Is that enough for the next Focus leaflet?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Safe in my old cocoon

Once upon a time, when I was young, I became active in the Young Liberals - a radical bunch indeed, if not necessarily that effective. As I rose effortlessly through the ranks - it wasn't that I was that good, it was just that I was consistently the only person available to fill vacancies, it dawned on me that a radical gesture was required.

For a middle-class surburban kid like myself, the idea of doing something that involved risk, pain or demonstration was ruled out instantly. So I joined the National Liberal Club, immediately marking me out from the knit your own muesli, sandal wearing tree huggers who were my contemporaries - lovely people though they were.

I loved the Club, wood-panelled walls, leather armchairs, a terrace overlooking the Thames, and conveniently located for Parliament, the South Bank and the West End. I was single, carefree and with the sort of disposable income that made one painfully content with one's lot. It was a great place to host our international visitors too, as a gentlemens' club was always likely to impress.

Unfortunately, I had to give it up when I first married - the cost was a bit of a luxury all of a sudden. However, as my finances improved, I dusted off my right to rejoin and renewed my membership. That was 1996 and for a number of years after that, I popped in from time to time, grabbing a drink at the bar, making conversation with the barman, an institution called Benito, whose attitude to those wanting refreshment was famous, and occasionally treating myself to dinner.

I even availed myself of my reciprocal rights - Los Angeles, Mumbai, Dunedin, Bangkok, all of them allowed me the opportunity to seek sanctuary from the hubbub of urban life.

In recent years, however, my opportunities to visit began to become fewer, and I was beginning to wonder whether or not it was time to give it up. It isn't cheap and, whilst a gentleman is allowed the odd indulgence, the money could be better spent.

Until now, that is. Now that my domestic arrangements have changed, and a pied-de-terre in inner London is part of them, I actually have an excuse to drop in more often, especially during the Parliamentary recess, when Ros is in Suffolk and I am, during the week at least, in London.

So, I get to entertain a bit. If you're in London midweek, and you fancy a drink, and a look around one of London's more secluded corners, drop me an e-mail. Give me some notice, and if I'm free, and you're properly attired (jacket and tie for men, no jeans, proper shoes please), we'll see what can be done. And don't forget, Lord Bonkers is known to frequent the place when in town, or so I'm told - I've never laid eyes on the old buffer when I've been here, to be honest...

This week in the Lords - 13-17 July (part 1)

It's the sharp end of the Parliamentary session, as a number of Bills reach the point of potential no return, and the Government hasten to get as much of their poorly drafted legislation through whilst the sun shines. One complication is the unexpected death yesterday of Lord Kingsland, the Conservative frontbencher for constitutional and legal affairs which, given the nature of the week's business, is likely to cause some reshuffling, if only on the Conservative benches. Liberal Bureaucracy sends its condolences to his family.

So, what do we have to look forward to?


Monday

From the Liberal Democrat benches, oral questions on US/UK negotiations on the acceptance of detainees (Lord Wallace of Saltaire) and on the issue of refugees arising from conflicts and climate change (Baroness Tonge).

Day 7 of the Committee stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill, where our plucky team will doubtless continue to resist attempts to take more of our rights away. Lord Thomas of Gresford will be seeking to amend the Bill to tighten up issues relating to witness anonymity (amendments 185ZA to 185ZE inclusive) and to reject Clauses 86, 87, 93 and 98. Meanwhile, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer will be moving amendments 186A-C, which seek to prevent the imposition of police bail for minor offences.

The most interesting, and most likely to be successful, amendment is one that has the support of both Conservative and Liberal Democrat benches, amendment 187, which creates an Independent Commissioner for Terrorist Suspects. Paragraph 2 of the proposed new clause reads;

"The principal function of the Commissioner shall be to monitor the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects held under section 41 of and Schedule 8 to the Terrorism Act 2000 (c. 11) and in particular to give the judicial authority such independent assistance as it may require in deciding whether or not to extend the period of detention, and to perform such other related functions as the Secretary of State may determine."

Finally, there will be a Motion of Regret from Baroness Miller, opposing some new regulations in support of the introduction of identity cards. The Conservatives are likely to be supportive, although whether they can round up enough votes is another question.


Tuesday

From the Liberal Democrat benches, there will be oral questions on the prospects for a united Cyprus (Lord Watson of Richmond) and on university places (Baroness Sharp).

Then, it will be on to the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Liberal Democrats will be pushing to make specific the fact that the Bill only applies to the House of Commons, and to insert a proper system for investigating complaints. Meanwhile, Lord Jenkin of Roding will be attempting to insert multiple references to the 1689 Bill of Rights. I wonder if Conservatives opposed that piece of legislation at the time?...

Curb your enthusiasm - 'yesterday' in the Lords (Friday, July 10th)

Firstly, apologies for falling behind. You know how it is, it takes time to read the papers, something else crops up, blah, blah, blah...

Anyway, last week saw one of those rare Fridays where the Lords remains in session, doubtless preventing Lord Redesdale from getting home to continue his excellent work in preserving the red squirrel by killing every grey squirrel within the borders of Northumberland. But I digress...

Business started with a statement from Baroness Royall, advising that additional time will be found to debate the Parliamentary Standards Bill, i.e. the bill that introduces the nanny state to Parliament. Whilst this was welcomed by the opposition front benches, Lord Shutt of Greetland, he of the effervescent tie collection and the very model of a Yorkshireman, called upon the noble Baroness to life her e-quill and notify Peers via the exciting new communication method involving electronics. This radical notion appears not to have crossed her mind previously, but she was keen to take up the selection. We'll see how successful it has been on Thursday...

The remainder of the day's business consisted of Second Readings of four Private Members' Bills, the last of which was that originally moved in the Commons by Willie Rennie, seeking greater regulation of driving instructors, in particular those accused, or found guilty, of serious offences. Willie has covered this far better than I could, but it was good to see that the Bill received wide approval across the House. Hopefully, it will be passed into law shortly.

With a final glowing endorsement from the Government spokesman, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, the House adjourned in time for lunch, or an early train, depending upon ones taste or distance to be travelled...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The lights may be out in Creeting St Peter but the torch burns in Norwich North

A typical Sunday morning. Wake up at about 8, go downstairs, make tea. Drink tea, go downstairs again to make more tea. Turn on kettle, nothing happens. Turn off kettle, turn on kettle again. Still nothing. Hmmmm... try a few other electrical items. No, mone of them work either. I know, ring electricity company...

And that's when I found out that there was a high voltage cable fault, apparently affecting an area from Great Bricett in the west, through Needham Market and the southern end of Stowmarket, to Mickfield and Stonham Aspal in the east. Engineers were on the job though, and it was expected that power would be restored as soon as possible.

As it turned out, power wasn't likely to be restored until the early evening, but I had an appointment in Norwich with April Pond and the campaign team.

So, off up the A140, across the Waveney, stopping only for a very good lunch at the White Horse at Stoke Ash. At Norwich, a spot of light shopping before arriving at the HQ to meet activists before going on to do some canvassing with April Pond, John Pugh, Gerard from Liverpool and Chris Butler, April's minder.

There weren't an awful lot of people in, but those that were seemed fairly friendly, and pleasantly supportive. Alright, it may not be entirely representative, but I am reassured that we'll do alright.

Then home again, where the power was still to be restored, but at least the barbecue was working. And the power did come on eventually...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A half of two meetings

To London for two meetings, English Council wearing my Lib Dem hat, and a meeting of the council of 'Unlock Democracy' - I'm on the Management Board. Alright, they were due to run simultaneously, but they weren't far apart, and I reckoned that I could do part of both.


Unfortunately, I can't tell you what happened in the key business sessions of English Council, because I said that I wouldn't, but I'm sure that some other blogger will report back, although I don't think that any other bloggers attend, now I come to think about it. It was a bit more participatory than usual, with some vital decisions taken that will impact tremendously on our ability to fight and win elections in the future... but I digress.


English Council is an odd combination of grizzled veterans and comparatively starry-eyed novices to the English stage. Most of the latter group don't survive once they realise that they are there to be talked at in a series of talking head presentations. There is no training, no fringe, just a series of speeches and reports back. Occasionally, however, there is a big debate changing something fairly radically, generally at a meeting that you've had to miss for some reason...


At lunchtime, I left for Islington, where I arrived in time for a series of policy debates related to future activities of 'Unlock Democracy'. As an organisation, we aim to campaign for reforms that allow the maximum level of engagement and participation for individuals and communities. How we do that whilst dealing with the presence of extremist political parties is a tough challenge. We acknoweldge their existence yet, if we choose to engage with them, we alienate other groups, especially those whom the extremists would themselves exclude.


At election time, we traditionally seek to inform the public by holding public hustings meetings. Yet some extremist groups make that difficult by creating an atmosphere that is unsuited to proper open debate, making the aim of the exercise unachievable. There is clearly a conflict between our aim of inclusivity and our desire for open debate and dialogue.

And so, my work done, back to Suffolk and dinner with wife and cats...

That word 'mute' - what does it mean again?

I understand that one of the Liberal Democrat blogosphere's 'enfant terribles' has been stirring things up again. As someone of South Asian extraction, the idea of anyone in my family telling their wife how to vote is amusing to say the least. But then, the idea of a family matriarch was always rather more realistic than that of a patriarch... And naturally, I have stayed true to that stance, although my wife can't vote in Westminster elections anyway...

However, it's taken me rather a long time to catch up with this debate, and I blame Ryan Cullen for this. You see, the mute button is a wonderful thing and, to make it more likely that I remain nice (in line with my current quest), I use it to block out things that might annoy me and cause me to be un-nice.

Now if only I can get it to work on the mobile version of Lib Dem Blogs...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Yesterday in the Lords - in which Rennard of Wavertree is triumphant... eventually

Yesterday saw the Third Reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which kicked off with a Government amendment increasing the number of Electoral Commissioners to be persons nominated by political parties to three.

Lord Rennard, something of an expert on elections, I'm told, noted how important it was that commissioners should have genuine hands-on experience of running winning campaigns, as well as the array of legislation relating to them. It was, as Lord Bach noted, a subject on which Lord Rennard had been consist for nearly a decade.

Debate then moved onto a series of amendments designed to address the concerns of Lord Marlesford, whose keen eye had spotted that the original draft of the Bill had allowed officials of the Electoral Commission to gain entrance to the premises of an individual or organisation to examine documents related to their income and expenditure without a warrant. Local Party Chairs and Treasurers will doubtless be relieved that their homes will remain their castles.

On the other hand, I quite fancied the idea of being an Officer of the Electoral Commission, armed with automatic weaponry, kicking down doors at four in the morning, shouting "Show me the books and records for the 100 Club!"...

Local Government Review for Suffolk - the shambles continues...

The third deadline for the report of the Boundary Commission into the structural review of local government in Suffolk was originally due on 31 December, then mid-February, and then 15 July. Money has been spent by the district and borough councils, as well as by the County Council, planning for what might be to come, and contesting the process thus far, with all the inefficiency and dislocation that comes with an uncertain future.

And today, another blow to good governance comes with Justice Foskett's ruling (CO/4722/2009 Forest Heath DC vs Electoral Commission Boundary Committee for England) published this morning, in which he states that "the Boundary Committee should have discussed with the Claimants any reservations it had about whether the concepts advanced met the Secretary of State’s criteria before publishing the Draft proposals in July 2008 and also in March this year.".

Naturally, the Electoral Commission will now retreat into a huddle to work out what they do next. And even more naturally, the seven district and borough councils and the county council will wonder what to do in the interim...

News International - how much did they know about bugging?

Whilst the Metropolitan Police declare open season for those wishing to bug and phonetap politicians and public figures, it is becoming apparent that, if senior figures at News International didn't know what was happening at the News of the World, they were inadvertently working hard to cover it up and to protect their journalists from prosecution.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer takes up the story...

Now I turn to the role of Parliament and this House. In 2008, during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, under Clause 75, we debated whether there should be a prison sentence of two years for people, including journalists, who were caught unlawfully obtaining personal data. But we also debated whether there should be a special defence for journalism and, if so, what that defence should be.

During the passage of that Act, the legal manager of News International, Alastair Brett, e-mailed me and sought a meeting. News International was most concerned at the idea of the increased tariffs or diminished defences. Now we can see why. It put tremendous pressure on the Government to drop the idea of prison sentences for journalists being included in the Act. Was it actually the Prime Minister who instructed that that legislation be dropped?
At the end of the debate on that Act, the conclusion was that we would not include it in the Bill, but that it would be brought in by order if necessary. Will that order now be brought in urgently so that when those who have been organising these appalling systematic intrusions into people’s private lives have been on trial, they will get the punishment that they deserve, rather than a paltry fine? The fact that we did not pass this to go in the Bill seems a tremendous mistake now. That order needs to be brought in urgently.


When the News International chairman, Les Hinton, was giving evidence to the Select Committee, he said that the phone hacking was a one-off case. If the Guardian evidence is to be believed, there is a lot of disdain for Parliament, and an immense amount of illegal action has been going on, which should result in a criminal record for a large number of people.

I can completely understand why Members on the Conservative Front Bench do not want to mention Mr Coulson. Undoubtedly, they feel contaminated by their association with him. There is no doubt that some of this custom and practice developed on his watch. No one could seriously believe that it suddenly developed overnight after he had left. For the sake of their credibility on privacy issues and law and order, I hope the Conservatives will join me in calling, at least, for the order to be enacted. I hope the Minister will confirm tonight that it will be enacted, so that when an investigation takes place—as it should and I hope he will press the police on this matter—and, eventually, when this comes to trial, there will be a proper punishment.

I have to say that the implications are stark. It is surely impossible to believe that Alastair Brett didn't know that this was an issue directly impacting on News International employees. After all, the 2007 sentencing of Clive Goodman, the News of the World's royal editor, was a bit of a giveaway.

Worse still, when Gordon Taylor sued the News of the World later that year, his legal team served the Information Commissioner with a court order, asking for details of News of the World reporters engaged in hacking or any other breaches of data protection law. The dossier that came back listed 27 journalists. Is it imaginable that this was anything other than systemic illegality? Is it imaginable that senior executives at the News of the World, or at News International for that matter, didn't know? Or are financial controls so lax that you can file invoices for illegal acts without anyone questioning them?

Either Andy Coulson is an entirely honourable man, who took responsibility for illegal acts committed under his leadership, or he knew he was guilty and wanted to get out before the rest of the illegal acts were exposed. He would have known what Gordon Taylor's legal team were planning, after all.

So. Mr Cameron, will you ask him, or do we have to? And if we get the answer I fear we might, are you and your colleagues going to shut up about Damian McBride?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Savaging turkeys that vote for Christmas - yesterday in the Lords

Slightly later than yesterday, but my e-quill is rather overburdened...

An answer to that ever-intiguing question, "How long is a Government commitment good for?", was gleaned by
Lord Brooke of Stoke Mandeville in a question regarding the planned relocation to Birmingham of the Export Licensing Unit of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

In response, Lord Davies of Oldham confirmed that the decision was taken following an efficiency review, which came as a bit of a surprise to Lord Brooke, given the 2006 commitment to co-locate the Unit with the Council in London. He then want to claim that the commitment had been honoured, but that any decision for 2009 and future years was outside of that agreement.

So, a commitment lasts for three years, or Birmingham is the nation's capital - which is it to be, Lord Davies?

However, the main debate was saved for the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, the Leader of the House, claimed that the Lords should pass the Bill because the Commons wanted it. Perhaps the Government wants it, but the Lords was not going to be bounced into giving its assent lightly. The Constitution Committee in the Lords had been scathing in their criticism of the sort of rushed, ill-considered legislation that is all too sadly common these days, and Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, a former Conservative Leader of the Commons, was keen to signal his opposition.

He wasn't alone, as a torrent of opprobrium was unleashed upon a Bill which has shed clauses in the manner of a stripper in a hurry to get to a more lucrative gig elsewhere.

Whilst some Peers attacked the Bill for its undue haste and resultant inadequacy, others noted that it introduced differential treatment - fraudulent expense claims would lead to a maximum sentence of one year, yet the Fraud Act permits a ten year maximum for equivalent offences. It was all most unsatisfactory.

However, as Lord Shutt of Greetland noted, the Bill was the result of a hasty collaboration between Party leaders, hardly the cross-party consensus that Baroness Royall had claimed in vain. As he put it, the Commons wants this Bill, and it will probably get it.

That isn't to say that the Lords, unaffected as it is by the proposals, will come quietly...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The blog roll gets a little bit bigger...

I've had a bit of a falling out with Paul Walter of late, after a disagreement over how best to deal with the Rennard affair. Paul's initial response, attacking both Chris Rennard and the Federal Executive, drew a pointed response from me, even after he withdrew it from the record. Indeed, I used some rather unbureaucratic directness in summing up what I thought.

However, we've tried to allow time to work its healing magic and perhaps it is time that I made a gesture towards reconciliation. So I'm adding 'Liberal Burblings' to my blog roll, as a peace offering and in the expectation that it will give stray readers from outside of the Liberal Democrat blogosphere yet further insight into what makes us tick.

Enjoy...

MP expenses - it ain't over until the fat lady self-assesses

HM Revenue & Customs has written to all MPs inviting them to talk to the Department about their expenses and any tax which they may be liable to pay.

Permanent Secretary for Tax Dave Hartnett also revealed some MPs made the mistake of not paying tax incurred after claiming back accountants' fees for personal tax advice.
Mr Hartnett was giving evidence to the Committee for Standards in Public Life, which has been asked by the government to look into the system of MPs' expenses.

Asked by the Committee whether most MPs had paid the correct amount of tax, Hartnett replied: "Some have got their tax affairs correct and some haven't. It is a mistake that gets made. They should all be paying tax." He added: "We have written to all MPs inviting them to talk to us if they want to talk to us. We have also picked up that there are a number that we will need to talk to as well."

His appearance before the Committee yesterday (7 July) is one of a number of hearings which the public has been invited to attend. The minutes are also a matter of public record.

Yesterday in the Lords: 7 July 2009

Welcome to a new, experimental feature, where I read Hansard so that you don't have to...

Yesterday's business started with the announcement of the death of Lord Blaker, a stalwart of the Conservative benches. Unfortunately, death was always going to be a spectre that haunted the day's events, with the main business of the day being the 5th day of the Committee stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Amendment 173, in the name of Lord Falconer, sought to make it possible to accompany someone overseas for the purposes of them committing suicide, an issue which has been the subject of much debate recently.

The genuine concern that loved ones risk prosecution merely for helping someone to a location where they can carry out their settled wish to die with as much dignity as possible was the focus of the amendment, and Lord Falconer spoke movingly yet cautiously in addressing what are deeply held reservations on the part of opponents of the amendment.

It was clearly going to be a clash of the lawyers, and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, another former Lord Chancellor, was quick to raise the issue of the sanctity of life. He also raised the issue of moral coercion of vulnerable people, the fear being that the elderly, especially those with potentially large estates, would be pressurised into committing suicide so as to ensure the maximum inheritance.

The Lords also has a goodly number of doctors, most of whom were opposed to the amendment in line with the stated stance of the British Medical Association.

If I had to pick one intervention, I would probably choose that of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, whose health is sufficently poor that she would potentially benefit from the amendment, yet she is determinedly opposed to it as a member of an organisation called Not Dead Yet UK (they have T-shirts, she advised fellow Peers).

She spoke of the fear that those with terminal illnesses experience, noting that not a single organisation of or for terminally ill people supported the amendment. The fear is that if the State were to sanction any person to assist another in the ending of that person's life, it might switch the mindset of doctors and those who would help the terminally ill to thinking that assisted suicide was in their best interests (the terminally ill, that is).

After a lengthy debate, the amendment fell by 194 votes to 141, with the Liberal Democrat Peers splitting 26 to 21 in favour on a free vote.

The early stages of the debate took place during a thunderstorm, causing Lord Mackay of Clashfern to claim, "I think that the thunder is giving emphasism", to which a voice from the benches replied, "God is angry.".

The thoughts of the Bishops of Exeter and Chichester on that point will remain a secret, I fear...

Lord Malloch Brown calls it a day - reminding us why a cabinet stuffed with Peers needs better scrutiny

It has been announced that Lord Malloch Brown, the spokesman in the Lords for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will be standing down at the end of the Parliamentary session later this month. Actually, most neutral commentators would probably agree that he was exceptionally well qualified to hold his portfolio, and I tend to share that view. His departure will certainly reduce the size and depth of the talent pool on the Labour side of the red benches.


However, it highlights one of the rather less attractive aspects of Gordon Brown's premiership - his habit of recruiting people into government to fill specific roles and bypassing the democratic process by giving them a peerage at the same time. Lord Carter of Barnes and Lord (Digby) Jones of Birmingham have come, caused controversy, and gone, in Digby's case not even hanging around on the Labour benches but moving to the crossbenches (there's gratitude for you...). What ambitious Labour backbenchers make of it all is not recorded, although it seems a long way removed from the 1997 manifesto and its promise of reform of the House of Lords.


It matters because the increasing number of government big hitters in the Lords has yet to be reflected in terms of the coverage of its activities by the national media. A lack of coverage implies a loss of information for the public and, whilst you could read Hansard, most people don't. In the Commons, full time politicians, with researchers and a salary are there to hold ministers to account. In the Lords, unpaid, predominantly part-timers with an average age of 68 and little or no backup are tasked with the job. Yes, there is plenty of experience and knowledge - I'd back Lord Avebury on our benches to hold Lord Malloch Brown to account any time - but the ability to really dig is limited.


It is, I believe, time that we sought to address this potential democratic deficit. If Labour are intent on placing Cabinet members in the Lords, then additional Cranborne money (scroll to bottom of link) should be made available to the opposition frontbenches to ensure proper scrutiny. It's also high time that we started lobbying the media to cover the Lords more effectively. After all, it is our country that they're running...


Slip sliding away...

My Wikio rating appears to be in gradual decline, or not, as the case may be. Now I haven't been as active a blogger as had been the case earlier this year, and my controversy rating has declined somewhat since I took my self-denying ordnance last month. What is a blogger to do? Attack Irfan, that always seems to be in vogue? No, I don't think so. Attack Iain Dale? No, too unoriginal.

In truth, as a civil servant, I don't really do ranting, which works if you're a Tory (what do they feed them?), and I do like to at least comprehend the other side of the argument. I don't really do policy, I do delivery. My words are modestly well-crafted, but not notably impassioned. I tend to nice rather than nasty.

That said, I'm only two places behind Liberal Vision, and there are so many more of them than there are of me...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

If inflation is negative, and there's a civil service pay freeze...

... how can you justify putting up the cost of a passport by 7.6%?

Actually, you probably could, if you were to claim that you were using market forces to persuade us not to travel overseas, thus reducing carbon emission levels caused by aviation. Alternatively, you could improve the response time of the Passport Agency, providing more local offices.

Unfortunately, the reason is that the recession is causing a drop in the number of passport applications, thus increasing the cost per unit. This is something of a puzzler, given that one presumes that, as with the rest of the civil service, the number of staff is being cut.

Naturally, the responsible Minister, Phil Woolas, claims that the price increase will maintain "the high standards in customer service and document security British citizens have come to expect". It will also go some way towards filling the gaping chasm that is the United Kingdom's current account deficit.

Sadly, it is just another example of this Government's aversion to honest taxation. I expect, not wholly unreasonably, to fund the necessary activities of the State by means of taxation. What I don't expect is to be nickel and dimed to death by a myriad of small but annoying charges. In the case of passports, the cost has gone up by £44.50 since 2002, an increase of 134.8% in just seven years. Yes, I know that biometrics are expensive, and I know that the Government want to be able to trace my every movement, my every conversation and my every thought, but do I have to be the victim of an extortion racket whilst they're at it?

Oh yes, and a word to the wise. Don't leave getting a passport until the last moment, as same day renewal has increased by 13.6% (to £129.50) and one week renewal by 16% (to £112.50)...

Customer Service and the private sector - reasons to be annoyed

I am a civil servant and, therefore, apparently not the best person to talk about customer service. And yet I find myself almost perpetually puzzled by the inability of banks and utility companies to do even simple things well.

I need to change my address and, as my bank suggests, I use my internet banking to do so. This doesn't work, as I apparently have a complicated address, or the moon is in the wrong phase, or my tie is the wrong colour, or whatever. So I go to the nearest branch to do it, and am asked if I have an appointment. To change my address... so that they don't send sensitive financial documents to an address where I don't live...

So I wait... and wait... and eventually get seen. Now I must admit to one exception to my sense of niceness - Abbey - who seem to take great delight in pushing all the buttons that make you want to channel the persona of Genghis Khan (a man who probably had a more direct approach to poor customer service). And yes, my address details can be changed, which is good. I need to fill in a form (oh, alright, if you insist...) but if I have sufficient proof of identity, all will be well.


Next, I want to open some new accounts. My new found friend thinks that he can do this, although given that he types verrrrrry slowly, this could take some time... and does. He gets there eventually, opens the second account and then realises that he has never done what I want him to do next. Reinforcements are called, who promptly get distracted in the ten feet between their office and the desk where my life force is draining away. By the time three of them have gathered, I'm on the phone to my boss, explaining why a simple task which should have taken twenty minutes is in danger of entering its third hour. Luckily, he's pretty relaxed - he evidently banks with the same organisation...

However, we get there eventually. Next, I ask about an eSaver account. Just as he explains why this will be difficult, I get an e-mail from their account management people, telling me that the online account application that I had cancelled by telephone three hours earlier, having been told that it would take another week, has been approved and the account opened. On the plus side, I save at least half an hour of my life. On the negative side, the bank clearly don't follow instructions.

You know, I really must do something about switching banks...

Monday, July 06, 2009

Living in a Minor County...

I have always had a fondness for cricket. As someone once said, the English created the Industrial Revolution, which enabled things to be made more quickly, more cheaply and more efficiently than ever before. At the same time, they invented cricket, a way of spending five days doing absolutely nothing. The county I remain loyal to is Sussex, where my mother was brought up, and they remained true to my tradition of following lovable losers, teams that never quite make it. Until recently, that is, when they won their first Championship after 154 years of striving and not succeeding. Even the team of C B Fry and Ranjitsinghi never got closer than being runners-up three seasons in a row.

Once upon a time, I went as far as becoming a member of the County Cricket Club, and would occasionally potter down to Hove or Horsham, or perhaps Eastbourne, to watch my beloved Martlets not win, a pint of beer in my hand. Alas, those days are long gone, and now that I live in Suffolk, getting to Hove seems like an unlikely fantasy.

So, what is a man to do? Perhaps I could follow my new home county? Whilst Sussex were one of the first counties to play inter-county matches, Suffolk is a relative newcomer, playing a few seasons of Minor Counties cricket before World War I, before deciding that it was all too much like hard work until 1934. Alright, they've won the Minor Counties Championship a few times (1946, 1977, 1979 and 2005), but it isn't quite the same as games against Surrey or Yorkshire.

On the plus side, the annual membership fee is just £15, the games are in convenient places (Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds), and there aren't many of them anyway. Suffolk play three home Championship fixtures (Bedfordshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire) and three away fixtures (Hertfordshire at Hertford, Staffordshire at Knypersley and Cambridgeshire at Wisbech). So I might just send them a cheque...

Sunday, July 05, 2009

In which your correspondent returns to the River Gipping

I've spent the morning calf deep in cool, refreshing water, doing good.

The River Gipping flows through Stowmarket, and was once canalised as far upstream as where the railway station now stands. However, it was never terribly deep, and now provides a sanctuary for the town's vast duck population, as well as providing a nice spot for a stroll on a summer afternoon.

The Pickerel Project works to keep the river tidy, and this morning, I joined their Patron for a session of litter picking. Apparently, you're supposed to wear wellies and gloves but, as a recovering city dweller, I don't possess such things (yet), so I put on my deck shoes, grab one of those 'grab stick' things and walked across the surface of the water.

Project activists have been working hard in previous weeks, so there isn't too much work to do. Curiously, one of the things you find a lot of is sliced bread bags. It seems that people feed the ducks, then throw the empty bag into the river, which seems rather counter-intuitive, i.e. S-T-U-P-I-D.

The water is actually pretty clean, and the ducklings were pretty cute so, all in all, it was quite a lot of fun. Besides, downstream, the river forms part of the boundary of Creeting St Peter Parish, so I've contributed to reducing river pollution levels in our lovely little corner of paradise...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

You know how you never pay any attention to the inflight safety demonstration...

Watch this... very carefully... And I assure you, this is a genuine Air New Zealand inflight safety demonstration video...

Another perfect day in the countryside...

I'm beginning to get the hang of this countryside stuff, I think. This morning, I combined some healthy exercise, a household chore and my councillor responsibilities in one easy task.

As Ros is away, I needed food, so I decided to walk to Tesco, which is on the edge of the Cedars Park estate, about a mile away as the crow flies. To do so, I needed to use one of the footpaths that criss-cross the Parish, and for which I, as a Parish Councillor, am apparently responsible. It gives me great satisfaction to report that the footpath parallel to the A14 towards Creeting Lakes is in prety good condition, and makes for an easy walk.

I got to Tesco in about 25 minutes without getting lost, eaten by wolves or attacked by pheasants, did my shopping and grabbed a coffee, before heading out to the now mostly disused bus stop. At precisely 11.21, the Club 88 taxibus rolled up, and Philip, the driver, helped me get my bags into the otherwise empty vehicle, before setting off towards Stowupland.

As we rolled through Stowupland, we chatted about the service and its usage, and I was disappointed to hear that there aren't that many using it, although those that do are very loyal. Indeed, the two scheduled journeys, intended to provide a connection at Little Stonham for Diss and Ipswich, appear to be pretty much unused. Given that I would like a morning service into Stowmarket instead, this strikes me as providing an opportunity, something I intend to look into.

And now I'm in the conservatory, here in Creeting St Peter, with a cheese sandwich and a bottle of Greene King's 'Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale'. You know, you might well be able to take the boy out of the city, and you may even take the city out of the boy...

Waiting for the campaign to start

The county elections now out of the way, attention turns to the next set of local elections across Suffolk, scheduled for May 2011. Or not, as the case may be. We're due District and Parish elections, but all is on hold pending the results of the Local Government Review for Suffolk, due later this month... probably.

The utter confusion caused by a review that commenced on 3 March 2008 with a reporting date of 31 December 2008, then extended to 13 February 2009, just as the county election campaigns were due to get under way, was a sight to behold. Given the way that arrangements in other counties were overturned at incredibly short notice, nobody could be absolutely certain what boundaries might be fought, and it was only in February that it became clear that the process would be delayed and the elections fought on existing boundaries.

I'm keen to contest a seat at the next set of elections and, obeying ALDC advice to the letter, I'd like to start as early as possible. However, until the Review is completed and the arrangements announced, how can one do so? I don't know what the boundaries will be, or whether there is an existing Liberal Democrat campaigner working the patch. We're expecting more news on 15 July - will there be a unitary county, or a unitary Rural Suffolk, or will they just give up on the whole affair?

Oh well, I'll just have to focus on Creeting St Peter for the time being. Time to talk to the County Council about a morning commuter bus to Stowmarket, I think...

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Niceness catchup: an encounter with the law, sent down the river...

I was beginning to get the idea that 100 days of solid reporting of niceness might begin to pall, so I'll switch to the occasional catchup...

Last weekend was an interesting one, starting with a dash to Liverpool Street for the daily train to Needham Market, where I was met and driven to Nedging Hall for a reception hosted by the High Sheriff of Suffolk. The haute monde of the county set were all there, plus the mayors of the various towns in their regalia. All very pleasant, with some rather fine deep-fried oysters washed down with some equally good champagne. I did find out what a High Sheriff does, although their powers are somewhat less than once they were (courtesy of the High Sheriffs' Association of England and Wales);

The Office of High Sheriff is at least 1,000 years old having its roots in Saxon times before the Norman Conquest. It is the oldest continuous secular Office under the Crown.

Originally the Office held many of the powers now vested in Lord Lieutenants, High Court Judges, Magistrates, Local Authorities, Coroners and even the Inland Revenue.

The Office of High Sheriff remained first in precedence in the Counties until the reign of Edward VII when an Order in Council in 1908 gave the Lord Lieutenant the prime Office under the Crown as the Sovereign's personal representative. Lord Lieutenants were created in 1547 for military duties in the Shires. The High Sheriff remains the Sovereign's representative in the County for all matters relating to the Judiciary and the maintenance of law and order.

Sunday dawned rather gloomy, but we had plans for the day, a lunch cruise on the River Ore. A pretty drive across East Suffolk brought us to Orford, just as the sun was burning off the last of the cloud.

The Lady Florence is a very civilised way to spend a summer afternoon, as it takes just twelve passengers, feeds them a three course meal, and journeys up and down the river, passing Aldeburgh and travelling as far as Iken before retracing its steps past Orford to a point near the river mouth at Shingle Street. The birdlife is worth attention, as the area is a well known habitat for the avocet, which appears on the logo of the RSPB and is quite a rare sight in this country (just 877 nesting pairs).

Ironically, its presence opposite Orford is due to an error by the British Army. A misplaced shell from a tank training exercise breached the sea wall of Havergate Island, allowing the island to be flooded by about four inches of water, and forming a perfect habitat for avocets.

It was a lovely afternoon, and as we drove back to Creeting St Peter, we were agreed that it had been a really rather nice day...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

National Express walk the plank... so what should we do now?

Whilst my fantasy Lib Dem blogger Secretary of State for Transport will doubtless by delighted to see the back of National Express, an opportunity presents itself.

No, I'm not calling for nationalisation, not by the back door or even the front. However, we are presented with a chance to see if there is a better way to run a railroad. Is vertical integration the best solution? Is there a level of subsidy that allows fares to be set so as to encourage a switch from air or road to rail? Is open access viable?

My rather touchy free market friends rose to the bait this morning when they rather erratically assumed that I was crediting them with support for the ludicrous system currently in place. Actually, if they had read my usual cautious prose, they would have spotted that I was implying that they hold a pretty rigid view of 'private good, public bad' - a stance I find just as unhelpful as the reverse position.

I have to admit that I'm an 'open access' kind of person. Someone needs to own and maintain the track, and whilst the Railtrack model crashed and burned quite spectacularly, and I would probably prefer it to be in public hands, I'm not overly fussed about who it is. The idea that most passengers would be inconvenienced by only having access to one operating company is made much less of an issue by the current fare structure.

My regular advance tickets specify a particular train at a particular time. Who provides that service is irrelevant to me unless I have a choice of trains which meet my timing preferences, in which case cost, en route service and comfort (and occasionally prettiness) are factors which may well influence my choice. If I want flexibility, I might as well just turn up and pay to travel on the train of my choice at the time of my choice. Allow me to pay my fare on the train, and my problem of which train operator to commit to is solved.

As far as commuters are concerned, multiple options and operators are managed through the Oystercard scheme, so why not for a wider area or areas? And as the level of subsidy is concerned, why look at it as simply a cost? What about a reward for keeping people off of the roads or out of planes, or for helping to reduce the level of carbon emissions? Does the public wish to compensate me for the loss of convenience that using public transport might bring in return for using the 'spare' carbon emissions to sell to other countries as part of an emissions trading system? After all, I'm making it possible.

Ultimately, I want a free market in transport, where my choices aren't punished or rewarded for any reason other than those transparently decided upon by a properly representative government, acting as an enabler and guardian of a framework that supports that freedom.

I'm not going to get that any time soon. In the meantime, the debate about how you ensure manage a right of freedom to travel is something that my economic liberal friends might address their pointy minds to. After all, I'm just a bureaucrat who likes trains...

One of the more extreme responses to redundancy...

News reraches your correspondent of an tale of international intrigue and dastardly murder, all in a doomed effort to save a man from redundancy.

When Félix Martínez Touriño, Director of the International Convention Centre in Barcelona, was shot dead in a city street, police thought it was simply a case of mistaken identity. They did enquire into his private life, to see if there may be some motive there. The truth was rather more unexpected.

It turned out that Senor Tourino was planning a restructuring at the Convention Centre, and that jobs were to be cut. A staff member, discovering this and calculating that his was one of those most likely to be axed, contacted a Colombian through his sister, and agreed a fee for the killing of the director, a remarkably reasonable 12,000 euros.

Spanish police have now arrested the employee, his sister and the six Colombians involved in the assassination, and we can look forward to hearing his justification in court.

12,000 euros though, it does give one pause for thought...

National Express - an example to demonstrate that the private sector doesn't always want a free market

Whilst National Express frantically try to renegotiate their franchise for the East Coast Main Line, and CEO Richard Bowker resigns to take a plum job overseas - can you abandon a sinking train? - I am reminded that introducing the private sector to public services is not the universal panacea that some of my colleagues suggest it to be. Yes, that means you, Tristan, and you, Liberal Vision. Oh yes, and you, Cllr Papworth...

The Train Operating Companies signed up in a bidding contest to run train services for a fixed term - all entirely fair so far. Their business model made a series of assumptions, and they were promised fare increases linked to inflation. So far, so good. In the early years, when times were good, they made decent profits which, for the most part, were doled out to shareholders rather than reinvested. It's a free country, and they had taken the risks. Ah, but it turns out that they only wanted to take the risks when there actually weren't any.

Life is suddenly rather tougher - passenger numbers aren't increasing at the presumed rate, and there is a shortfall in predicted revenue accordingly. All of a sudden, running trains isn't so profitable and guess what? It turns out that it's all too difficult and the Government must step in. I get it - the private sector makes all of the profit, the State takes all of the risk. Pardon me for being grouchy here, but wasn't it intended that we, the people, obtained certainty for the running of our services and the cost thereof?

If I was Andrew Adonis, I would send a stiff note to Richard Bowker saying, "You asked for it, you deliver it. If you want out, you can compensate us for the additional costs. Otherwise, the punishment for failure is corporate oblivion. Your choice. Oh yes, and you're barred from bidding for a franchise for ten years.".

Now I'm not one of those people who pine for the glorious days of British Rail. They weren't glorious, and any sense of initiative, innovation and adventure had been knocked out of them years ago. However, it is noticeable that the two TOC's with the greatest satisfaction levels are the Wrexham & Shropshire and the Grand Central, the two companies who have had to struggle to gain access to the tracks, and which have been restricted in the services they can provide by the bigger franchises.

So, National Express, suck it up. And whilst you're at it, reintroduce a full restaurant car service on the London to Norwich run...