Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ros in the Lords - Statement on Policing (26 July 2010)

The problem with some of the more 'ideological' legislation is that the actual nuts and bolts of implementation are often overlooked. Luckily for Baroness Neville-Jones, Ros actually understands how this stuff works in reality...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Perhaps the Minister can clarify the expression in the Statement that the new commissioner will "set" the budget. Do the Government really mean set the budget, or do they mean manage the budget within its existing parameters? For example, do they intend to retain the precepting arrangements whereby it is the local authority which levies it? If they do, how can this flexibility be exercised within the context of a council tax freeze, which would impact on police spending as well as local government spending?

You see, it's more than simply passing legislation, it's about understanding the consequential things. So, Baroness Neviile-Jones has promised to see if there's a grown-up available to explain how the mechanics work. I wish her well in that quest...

"I preferred Old Labour to New Labour - at least they had some bloody principles!"

So said Nancy Seear once, after a debate in the Lords. And if ever her words were to be proved true in spades, it is by the decision to whip the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote against the Bill to allow a referendum on AV.

It is, of course, the right of the Official Opposition to oppose. I expect nothing less. However, to oppose a policy contained in your own manifesto for narrow political calculation is pretty shoddy by anyone's standards. Even more so if it was an offer made to persuade Liberal Democrat supporters to switch sides. The message that it sends out is, "we never actually wanted electoral reform, we just wanted to burnish our progressive credentials".

I freely admit that AV is watered down milk, compared to the rich cream of open list STV, but I accept that the latter isn't on offer. But I did expect that any debate would be on the issues, not on how much damage it might do to the Coalition. All I ask is that the British people have a chance to decide, and I'll accept the result.

I can see the logic. The Liberal Democrats want electoral reform, the Conservatives aren't anywhere near as bothered. It is a key plank of the Coalition Agreement though, and Labour thinking would be that if the Bill fell, the tensions within the Coalition would cause a fracture and a General Election. An unpopular administration would be voted out and Labour could return to power under new management. Best of all, those pesky Liberal Democrats would be shafted, and hopefully be reduced to background noise, i.e. not a significant threat, allowing Labour to remain the dominant voice of the progressives.

However, there are elements of the calculation that they might have forgotten. Yes, the cuts might be unpopular, but the public won't forget who created the budget deficit that quickly. Given that a drop in Liberal Democrat support will see more losses to the Conservatives than it will to Labour, Labour will need to take significant numbers of seats from the Conservatives to regain power. That's important, because unless they do, we're back into coalition territory.

At that point, what do Labour offer, and to whom? They specifically ruled out coalition talks with the SNP last time, a deal with the Democratic Unionists would be tricky, Plaid Cymru would probably stick together with their nationalist partner, leaving... errr... the Liberal Democrats.

Labour can't credibly offer electoral reform, they lack a consistent record on constitutional change full stop, public spending is ruled out, and most routes towards reducing the deficit have been ruled out. Most civil liberties legislation involves rolling back thirteen years of Labour salami-slicing, so not much hope there, either. What, indeed, could Labour offer, given their apparent antipathy to pluralism, full stop?

So, perhaps, Labour need to be rather more intelligent in their dealings with the Coalition. It is always possible to be too clever, after all...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Coalition: it is alright to have doubts, isn't it?

There are those in the Liberal Democrats who are optimistic by nature. They believe that if you work hard and do the right things, no seat is unwinnable, no cause impossible. There are those, rather more battered by time and defeat, who are more pessimistic, who have seen a false dawn or two.

I suppose that I fall somewhere in the middle. For most of my political life, I've lived in places where Liberal Democracy has not exactly flourished, in Brent North and Dulwich & West Norwood. Ironically, both constituencies fall within London boroughs where, on the whole, we have done pretty well in recent years, just not in my bit of them.

So I hope for the best, and plan for the worst. Being part of the coalition is like that. I hope that the Conservatives will behave honourably, even though past experience is not entirely promising. I know that, as the junior partners, we cannot expect to get our own way much of the time, that there will be compromises, choices that I might not have made if it were in my power to do so. However, I accept this, because the choices were, in some cases, merely images and not reality.

In many ways, I see myself as being somewhere on the centre-right of the spectrum of Party opinion. I believe on sound money, I believe that people and communities should, where possible, take more responsibility for their actions and for the running of their villages, towns and suburbs. But I balance that with a deep-rooted belief that, as a society, we need to understand that choice and freedom cannot be available only to those that can afford it, that we have a responsibility towards the vulnerable and the weak.

My problem is that, regrettably, I'm not wholly convinced that our Conservative partners share that stance. No, I don't believe that they are evil, or malicious, or even uncaring, it's just that they think in terms of economics and markets, without quite appreciating that underneath those concepts are real people, whose lives risk being treated as guinea pigs in a societal experiment.

Of course, I'm hardly likely to say that I would have preferred a coalition with Labour. For the most part, they combined an apparent desire for social justice with a total inability to understand that society is made up of individuals, each with their own hopes, dreams and aspirations. They believed, and still seem to believe, that communities can be dealt with as though they were entirely homogeneous, that the government can and should do as much for people as it can. They appear to find it impossible to accept that a government has to live within its means over the long-term, or to face the brutal fact that government is currently doing more than it can afford to deliver. Indeed, the idea that people are inherently decent and well-meaning seems to be beyond their comprehension, leading to an inevitable restriction of our rights and freedoms.

So, unexpectedly, I find myself sitting on the sidelines, quietly rooting for the rebels amongst us. Not because I want them to win necessarily, but because they represent that sense of rebellion and contrariness that makes us stick with a Party which struggles for air time, which is treated harshly by its opponents and the media alike, and which has to fight for every ounce of credibility it can muster.

I suppose that I have a conscience, when all is said and done, combined with a sense of honest doubt. I worry that the decisions we take now may undermine social cohesion, leading to long-term burdens upon society and the State. I fret that we risk losing a generation to unemployment, that the young are driven from our rural communities in the search of work, that our public services become devalued and ineffectual. In short, I worry about the bigger picture, about what our nation might become, or fail to become, as a result of a short-term goal of spending reductio.n

These are big decisions, and daunting ones, probably of a scale beyond my ability to grasp. So, I have to put my faith in the Coalition, and keep my fingers crossed. However, it is right that I seek to hold our leadership accountable, to press for things that I believe in, to support those who seek meaningful debate on the political direction of the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition, even where I don't agree with them.

And it is for that reason that I find it hard to condemn the likes of Bob Russell and Tim Farron. I might not have found Tim's honesty entirely comfortable, and don't think that I would have said something similar myself, but he represents a strand of thinking within the Party which deserves to be heard. There are many amongst us who find coalition with the Conservatives hard, and here in mid-Suffolk, where Labour have become background noise for the most part, we see the Conservatives as our primary rivals.

Likewise with Bob Russell. He has been quite feisty in his views and I am sympathetic to his stance on VAT. It is regressive to some extent, although not as regressive as an increase in National Insurance contributions was. I personally find it difficult to condemn anyone for voting with their conscience, as he has done.

So, I'm not a blindly partisan cheerleader for the Coalition, nor am I an opponent, more a critical friend, with a desire to hold the administration to account. I want them to do better, to build a stronger nation, a more successful society where everyone has a part to play. There will doubtless be uncomfortable moments ahead, but I will engage with, rather than rage against, our leadership. It is, for this bureaucrat, the only honourable way to behave.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Welcome to Creeting-sur-Gipping...

From where the River Gipping is bridged by the railway, just south of Clamp Farm, to the bridge over the stream as you enter Creeting St Mary, the River Gipping forms the border of our Parish. It makes for a pleasant walk, and is a shortcut on foot if you want to get to Needham Market on a sunny day.

Three years ago, the River Gipping Trust was formed, with the intention of restoring the river for navigation from the Pickerel Bridge in Stowmarket, all the way to Ipswich, whilst preserving its unique flora and fauna. As someone who has spent a morning in the river by the Pickerel Bridge, supporting the Pickerel Project's efforts to maintain the cleanliness of the environment there, I tend to the view that this is a good thing, worthy of support, so Ros and I have joined (our cheque is in the post).

It is, I admit, hard to credit that the Normans brought Caen stone up the Gipping, and then the River Rat, on its way to build the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds in the late eleventh Century or that, in 1567, timber for the roof of the Royal Exchange in London's Cornhill was taken in the opposite direction. However, in 1790 a Board of Trustees was appointed to administer the Ipswich and Stowmarket Navigation, which opened in 1793, with cargoes of manure (conveyed for free!), gun cotton, corn and hops being the main sources of traffic.

Alas, when the railway came in 1846, traffic levels dropped until, in 1932, the trustees  applied for a Revocation Order, as there were no funds available to fulfil their obligations to maintain the fabric of the Navigation. Now, the Navigation is impassable, although it provides a home for what seem like millions of ducks. Fortunately, there is no more gun cotton - but that's a story for another day...

Ros in the Lords: Women in Society, Motion to Take Note - 21 July 2010

Yesterday's setpiece debate, requested by Baroness Verma, saw no less than seven maiden speeches, including that of Kate Parminter, to be covered by Liberal Democrat Voice later this afternoon. Ros managed, however, to make her thoughts known...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am sure that the House shares my sense of indebtedness to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for tabling this Motion. Not only has it given us the chance to debate an important topic, it has given rise to a series of amazingly powerful, informative, deeply moving and, at times, shocking speeches. I am sure that many noble Lords shared my physical reaction to the story of the stoning of a 13 year-old girl. That will stay with me for a very long time. The debate has also given us the opportunity to hear maiden speeches from seven colleagues; we have heard five and there are two to go. It is wonderful to see the diverse backgrounds of those joining your Lordships' House. We look forward to hearing from them often. I was particularly pleased to hear the speech of my noble friend Lady Parminter. It seems like only yesterday that I introduced her to the House—it was actually the day before yesterday. She is a great friend and supporter. Therefore, it was wonderful to support her in an official capacity earlier this week. It was also good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who shares my commitment to, and love of, our home county of Suffolk. I look forward also to working with him.

I wish to address my remarks solely to the representation of women in Parliament, particularly in the other place. Many Members of this House will be aware of the statistic that at the current rate of progress it will take another two centuries before equal numbers of men and women are in the House of Commons. The notion that our granddaughters’ granddaughters’ granddaughters will still be having that debate is profoundly depressing. There has been some progress in the past decade. Certainly, measures such as all-women shortlists had the effect of bringing in a new crop of women to the House of Commons. However, it is sad that so many of those women subsequently stood down, which suggests that while there may well be a place for measures such as all-women shortlists, they are not in themselves the final answer.

Certainly in my party, we have had many debates—very many hotly debated sessions—where we have talked about whether we need some special measures to bring women into Parliament. There is an interesting fault-line between those who see it as patronising to women to introduce such measures, and those who see that this is the only way to make progress—and the fault-line is not gender; it is age. The younger women in particular are very hostile to the notion of special measures, which they see as patronising, whereas older members of the party are frankly tired of waiting for a difference to be made.

The approach we have taken in my party is to encourage people forward through mentoring. We had a certain amount of success in terms of getting women selected in “safe seats”, but sadly it was the choice of the electorate not to elect them. It is a particular issue for my party that we do not have the luxury of safe seats in order to bring in things like all-women shortlists with any confidence of improving the situation. Finding a sustainable solution requires us to think not about treating the symptoms, but to tackle the underlying causes instead. Research in my own party suggests that the lack of female representation in the Commons is to do not with discrimination, but with a combination of an insufficient number of women coming forward and a high rate of attrition among female parliamentary candidates. Put bluntly, not enough women want to do the job. Worse still, many count themselves out once they take a closer look.

The yah-boo culture of the House of Commons is off-putting to a lot of people, not just to women. It certainly put me off ever wanting to be an MP, and it is a pity that the media does not concentrate more on the other aspects of the job—constituency work, Select Committees and so on—that are not so confrontational and that I think would appeal to a broader spectrum of people, women particularly.

The way the House of Commons works in particular is also very difficult to reconcile with caring responsibilities. Even nowadays, in most families women have the brunt of caring responsibilities, whether it is caring for children or for the elderly. The general work-life juggle is inherently stacked against women for that reason. I notice very much in my party that the women coming forward for selection to Parliament are either quite young—in their early 20s—or in their late 40s and early 50s, and we are in effect counting out women over a period of perhaps two decades, at the sort of age where they feel that their responsibilities for children simply preclude them.

A Centre for Policy Studies report last year found that the vast majority of mothers with children at home would like to work. However, only 12 per cent of them want to work full-time. Westminster, with its full-time-plus—all the anti-social hours and everything else that goes with it—is effectively writing off a large section of the female population. We have always been very reluctant to reform parliamentary practices, which is something that I hope will be addressed as the Speaker’s report kicks in. I am also concerned that some of the changes that have been brought about to the expenses regime—particularly the way IPSA is running things—will actually make it more difficult for people with families to become MPs and run their lives in the way they need to.

The good news is that we do not have to reinvent the wheel—what we have to do is to look outside Westminster. Over the last decade, the right to request flexible working has quietly revolutionised the way many businesses work. Enlightened employers have embraced the benefits of retaining talented women who might otherwise have thrown in the towel. That flexibility has empowered women—and men—to be able to construct their own solutions to the career and family dilemma. It strikes me as ironic that while we have legislated to mandate flexible working in other people’s workplaces, we have failed to do it in our own.

I noted with interest the sharp intake of breath when my noble friend Lady Parminter mentioned job-sharing MPs. Well, why not? We have job-sharing chief executives, job-sharing city lawyers, job-sharing head teachers and even job-sharing high commissioners. Why could we not job-share as MPs? We have to get away from the notion that somehow we in Parliament are so different from the rest of the world that these solutions cannot be considered. It is not just about fairness, as important as fairness is; it is actually about good governance. Having a huge number of potential MPs precluded because they cannot manage these sorts of responsibilities—precluding women in that way—is bad governance. I hope that in the other place and in all our deliberations we do what we can to change that.

Ros in the Lords: Written Answers (20 July 2010)

This seems like such a harmless question but, if you're the Executive Member for Education on Suffolk County Council, there's a razor blade in the candyfloss...


Schools: Free Schools


Question
Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market


To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider applications for free school status from middle schools in Suffolk.[HL1044]


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): The Government are keen to receive proposals for free schools from a broad range of proposers, including charities, educational groups, teachers and parent groups. We are aware of a number of groups in Suffolk, including groups associated with existing middle schools, interested in establishing new free schools. We will consider carefully all proposals received to ensure they have strong educational aims and objectives, and take into account the impact they might have.


You see, Suffolk County Council want to close all of the middle schools in the county, against a background of much opposition. The proposals for free schools give local communities an opportunity to save their middle school, which the Conservatives won't really like that much.


Oh yes, there may be a coalition in Westminster, but that doesn't mean to say that locally, the battle won't continue...

I am the very model of an LDV guest editor... (it scans, it scans!)

Good grief, I am astounded that any member of the Liberal Democrat Voice editorial team has time for a life. That is my primary finding from two weeks of preparing for my day as a (not entirely) serious journalistI admit to being a bit nervous, having tried out a few new skills - editor, interviewer and commissioner - and without any real idea how my efforts will be received.


However, that's only one day. The team at LDV Towers do this every day, rain or shine, whether they feel inspired or not. How do they do it?


Anyway, on with the medley, as they say. I began by coming up with a theme for the day, the House of Lords, and then mused on what might interest someone coming to the subject for the first time. I wanted to introduce some new faces, and to give a flavour of what goes on, but also to challenge the orthodoxy a little. Luckily, I have a few advantages in such a quest, which I have used without hesitation.


Hopefully, you will enjoy it, and the image of the House of Lords as a place where real political action takes place will be enhanced just a little... 



Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Written Answers (19 July 2010)

Of course, the advantage of being a Peer is that you're not limited to a particular patch...

Buses: Luton Dunstable Busway

Question

Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made on the Luton Dunstable Busway.[HL1143]

Earl Attlee: The previous Government granted full funding approval to the Luton Dunstable Busway scheme in March and this was reconfirmed by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 17 June following a review of all spending approvals made since 1 January. The contract between Luton Borough Council and the contractor was signed on the same day (17 May) that the Chief Secretary announced the review of spending approvals.

Some advance works have already taken place to clear vegetation on the site and additional topographical and ground investigation works are currently under way. The contractor is due to begin lifting the disused railway track in early August and the main works are due to begin towards the end of September. The scheme is forecast to complete in autumn 2012.

A reminder that, out there, life isn't threatening...

My attention is drawn to a letter in the Times this morning. I won't link to it, simply because you won't want to pay for the privilege of reading it...

Sir,

Reading your Weekend articles about adventurous activities was very interesting. Out here in the real world, from about the age of 9 or 10, children leave for school, they come home, have a quick snack and they are out again until meal time, and then out for another hour. Local amenities include a lake (made from a gravel pit so it's deep), a playground with substantial play equipment, a free internet cafe, a couple of fields and, of course, the streets of our town. If children want to go to a club, parents are happy to take them, but if it is in our town, for example Scouts or piano lessons, they go by themselves.

We are not all keeping our children as prisoners, and perhaps that is the case outside London. By the way, since when did the Famous Five take mozzarella and prosciutto on picnics?

"And where is this idyllic, rather sensible spot?", I hear some of you ask. Needham Market, in the beautiful county of Suffolk, with a Liberal Democrat Mayor, two Liberal Democrat District councillors and a Liberal Democrat County councillor. Oh yes, and a Liberal Democrat baroness...

Read it and weep, city dwellers...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Do you use the Circle and/or Hammersmith & City lines? Read this!

Those of you who don't use the Underground much may find this useful, especially if you've got a train to catch from Paddington, or are hoping to connect to the Heathrow Express for a flight.

Starting on Saturday (24 July), there will be no service on either the Circle line or the Hammersmith & City line between Edgware Road and Hammersmith for more than three weeks due to essential Crossrail-related engineering work. So, Paddington will be accessible using the Bakerloo, Circle and District lines only.

One interesting side effect is that the Circle line will return to its original route during this period, so there won't be any need to change trains at Edgware Road for journeys from High Street Kensington to, say, Baker Street for the time being.

When the white heat of technology comes in really handy...

One of the biggest advantages (and sometimes, worst aspect) of modern technology is that you can vent your spleen quickly and efficiently. And so, discovering that National Express East Anglia's Customer Relations e-mail address is in my AOL account...

Dear Customer Relations,

I thought that I should drop you a note to record my disappointment at your company's failure to fulfil its obligations on my journey this morning.

I'm on the 8.29 from Stowmarket, with an Advance ticket. My ticket comes with a seat reservation for seat 53A in coach F. Unfortunately, there is no coach F. There is a coach E, with a seat 53A, which has no reservation slip on it and is, in any event unusable as the upholstery is smeared with something brown and sticky looking.

The guard, Louis, has not made any announcement about the problem with coach F and, when I asked him about this, he responded that a number of people had already asked similarly. It doesn't seemed to have dawned on him that this might be a problem especially if, like me, they had booked well in advance to get a table seat.

This is, sadly, an all too frequent occurrence on your Mainline services, in that the failure to place reservation slips causes passengers to sit in seats reserved by others. It makes having a reservation pointless because, whilst one can sit somewhere else, one then risks finding oneself in a seat reserved by someone else. It almost seems as though NXEA takes a perverse delight in making the travelling experience as stressful as possible.

I look forward to receipt of your response in due course.

Yours sincerely, etc. etc.


Press send, wait for response...

Good morning, National Express East Anglia! Still useless, I see...

Welcome to the 8.29 service from Stowmarket to London Liverpool Street, where we are, for the time being, on schedule for an 'on time arrival'. I have a reservation for seat 53A in coach F, which is a table seat, facing forward - very nice.

Except that there is no coach F. So, where is my reserved seat? No announcement, so I take an available seat, noting the absence of any reservations in coach E. The guard arrives to check my ticket, and I ask him where my reserved seat is. He tells me that there is no coach F (I'd kind of guessed that), and that a number of people have asked him where their seats are already.

Now call me naive if you will, but under such circumstances, I might either;
  1. Announce that there is a problem and advise people where their reserved seats actually are; or,
  2. Apologise for the failure to lay on coach F.
Apparently, there is a third option, which is to do and say nothing.

Oh well, another National Express East Anglia fail... Time to write them an e-mail, I think...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Only 252 days to go. Are you ready?

One of the things about being a parish councillor is that you get a stream of information about things that you never really realised you cared about, or why you might want to care about them. However, our Parish Clerk here in Creeting St Peter, or Paradise-sur-Gipping, as I prefer to think of it, enthusiastically provides us with a folder of documents from various organisations, containing as much information as I could wish for.

The one that really caught my attention is 2011 Census: Councillor Handbook, which "explains what the census is all about, why it matters and how you can help us spread the word in your council and community". There are, naturally some headline messages so, as a service to those of you who are councillors, here they are;

  • The census matters to everyone who lives in your area. Census population estimates inform the allocation of resources to policy making and service planning at national and local level
  • Census information is strictly confidential: personal information is protected by law
  • The Office for National Statistics (ONS) needs the help and support of local councils, using their grassroots knowledge and experience to promote the census to their communities. Local activities to be carried out by census field staff and your council staff will be recorded in a census local partnership plan
  • ONS runs the census in England and Wales. Our population estimates are built on quality data and produced to the highest international standards
So, there you have it, the 2011 Census in a nutshell...

When blogging becomes a chore...

So, here I am, sitting at my desk in our new office, Kylie's 'Fever' blasting away on the speakers...

Did I mention that I'd visited the exhibition of her work at the Melbourne Museum? Probably not...

... at the end of another day in the Suffolk countryside. I've been spending the day learning a new skill - digging a small hole, putting a plant in it and filling the gaps with soil - and generally relaxing. I may be getting worryingly good at this.

On the other hand, I'm not blogging very much, mostly posting Ros's contributions in the Lords, with the occasional piece of general bureaucracy. You see, I'm just not that inspired. What I need is something to irritate me, and given that the Government seems determined not to do so, and I really don't care who Labour pick as their new leader - they all seem equally deluded - I'm having to cast the net a bit wider than usual.

And that's rather difficult when I'm generally happy. I can't even get worked up about National Express East Anglia, an organisation that takes 'customer service' to hitherto uncharted depths. My Conservative District Council is inept rather than evil, and I am partly responsible for running my Parish.

So, my apologies for the general air of calm that pervades 'Liberal Bureaucracy' at the moment. But rest assured, something, or someone, will come along to get me back on track eventually. Besides, Conference isn't so far away, is it...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

'Liberal Bureaucracy' by the numbers - June 2010

A bit later than usual - give me a break, I'm busy, why don't you? - here are last month's figures...

Readership returned to its usual levels, with 2,394 visits during the month, compared to 3,653 in May (down 34.5%, or 32.3% adjusting for the uneven number of days), and 1,867 in June 2009 (up 28.2%).

Income from advertising fell back again, to 95p, down from £2.01 last month, and from last June's £1.43. As a result, my first cheque from AdSense is now expected to arrive in April 2014.

Oh yes, my Wikio ranking is 190 (General, up twenty places), 107 (Politics, no change), so I've managed to halt the drift towards blogging oblivion...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Rural Communities (Debate) - 15 July 2010

Today's debate was initiated by our very own Lord Greaves of Pendle, and he took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of our uplands, and the issues that arise from depopulation and the difficulty in providing services to isolated communities. Ros was keen to highlight the importance of locally-based solutions and of building a sustainable economy in rural areas...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I, too, thank my noble friend for tabling this Motion for debate today. I want to address my remarks to rural areas in general rather than specifically to upland areas. I am a country dweller. I have lived in Suffolk for many years and my village has about 120 inhabitants. Like many people in your Lordships’ House, I carry out a weekly shuffle between where I stay in London and my home in Suffolk. The journey from Liverpool Street to Stowmarket takes around 80 minutes by train—or at least it does if National Express East Anglia is having a good day—yet that short 80-minute ride takes you from one world to another.

I guess that we are privileged in a number of ways, particularly because every week we see urban and rural living very much side by side. Certain things strike you about the way that public policy is developed—for example, there is lots of discussion about choice in public services. When I walk from the flat that I rent in London to the House, I probably pass eight schools, so choice there is a very real concept. In a rural area, passing eight schools might involve an hour’s drive and, in more sparsely populated areas, perhaps a two-hour drive. Therefore, questions about choice in public services are very different in rural areas. That reminds us that a lot of policy-making and decision-making is very much London-centred, which is something that people in rural areas notice and feel every day.

I was struck very much by the fact that a lot of the public service investment that took place under the previous Government was tied up in central administration, management and target-setting. I am philosophically allergic to that but it has also created a problem in rural areas. Centrally driven solutions are highly ineffective in dealing with rural problems, because there the solutions often lie in local, small-scale actions which are very individual and do not respond well to central control. Therefore, 20 years after I first became a district councillor, we are still talking about the same problems in rural areas—those of housing shortages, post office closures, deprivation and so on—and we have not really made any headway in tackling them.

I want to pause to recognise the role of the voluntary sector, certainly in Suffolk, although I am sure that it is the same in all rural counties. As well as some of the large national voluntary organisations, many hundreds of small organisations work tirelessly, some of them just generally to improve the quality of life—for example, the local project that cleans up the river in Stowmarket, or HomeStart volunteers who visit people in their homes and, in particular, help young mothers with post-natal depression. Those are key services which are targeted, offer good value for money and are highly effective. For us on these Benches, localism is not just about devolving power down to smaller arms of government, although that would be welcome, but down to communities and individuals who know best what they need in their area.

That needs to be balanced by effective strategic planning—not micromanagement from Whitehall. Although I have no particular regard for and am not sorry to see the dismantling of the unelected regional development agencies, we should look out for areas such as planning for water, waste, transport and other key services. Having been both a county and a district councillor, I am a fan of county councils for delivering that sort of strategic function. After all, counties are based on historic boundaries which carry a certain amount of public support with them. They are also democratically elected.

A good county council will understand the complex interplay between rural areas, market towns and the larger centres of population. A simplistic playing off of one against the other leads to bad policy-making and poor service delivery. For the same reason, I have never been very convinced by the previous Government’s imposition of so-called strong leaders in local councils. A well functioning cabinet or even the old-fashioned committee system would be better suited to large rural authorities because then representation would come from right across the council area, from town as well as country.

Despite the appearance of timelessness, our rural economies are changing. There are some very impressive rates of new business start ups which, in many cases, are driven by new technologies. Between 1998 and 2005, the growth in knowledge-intensive business services has been at twice the rate in rural areas than in urban. This is despite the patchy provision of broadband services offering reliable speeds. Can the Minister say something about the Government’s plans for improving broadband in rural areas?

Rural businesses face certain problems. Surveys tell us that many small rural businesses rely on home loans and credit cards for their business finance rather than formal business loans. Thus they are more vulnerable to high overdraft charges or extortionate terms and conditions. There are 500 face-to-face debt advisers, funded by BIS, but only 24 are located in rural areas and so waiting times for business advice have increased to about three and a half weeks.

If we are to have a private sector-led recovery, the rural areas will be part of the driver for that, but they need help. We need to get the banks lending again where appropriate. Last year, Stuart Burgess, chairman of the possibly doomed Commission for Rural Communities, published a report stating that the size of the rural economy could be doubled if some actions were taken to unleash enterprise. I think the Government need to pay that some attention, particularly with regard to young people in rural areas who may wish to improve their skills and qualifications but who do not get the proper advice that they need. Often, they will either move away or fail to reach their full potential.

I shall finish by agreeing very strongly with comments made by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, about planning. I welcome the notion of moving away from a .heavily target-driven system to one which responds better to local needs. In my experience, parish councils are not nimbys. Most of them are very pragmatic about the need for development which can genuinely create more sustainable communities. They want to have their say, but they do not pull up the drawbridge. Therefore, the accusation that devolving planning to a more local level will somehow lead to nimbyism is completely misplaced in these rural areas. My only plea to Government is to ensure that any incentive system which they give to housing reflects real need and is not just “cash for sprawl” but rewards the development of genuinely sustainable communities and sustainable homes.


Regular readers will also note the gentle jibe at National Express East Anglia. Yes, it's personal... 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Local Government Bill (Committee Stage), 14 July 2010

Curiously, despite the fact that the original Orders creating unitary authorities for Norwich and Exeter were quashed by the High Court, the Lords is still debating the Bill which overturns them. Two weeks ago, Lord Howarth of Newport, and others on the Labour benches, tried to derail the Bill by having it referred as potentially hybrid. They won the vote to refer it, only to see it declared as non-hybrid.

Undaunted though, they returned to the fray, with a series of further amendments, leading Ros to intervene on Amendment 3...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Is there not a danger that, if this amendment were passed, the noble Lord would place a particular duty on these authorities that does not apply to any other authorities anywhere else in the country and that he would therefore be turning this Bill into a hybrid Bill?

It seems that Lord Howarth would be hoisted by his own petard, as his proposal introduced obligations upon local authorities beyond those specified in the Bill itself. That might explain why it was subsequently withdrawn...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

If it really matters, do it properly...

I am notoriously bad at saying no to people and at delegating and, as a result, tend to get into a bit of an organisational tangle. And so, prompted by the most organised person I know, I've decided to concentrate on three tasks over the next year;
  • being Regional Secretary - I'm beginning to discover just how much work could be done...
  • fulfilling my commitments as a Parish Councillor - I'm now comfortable in my 'representative skin' so to speak, but it's time to learn to fly.
  • my campaign for next year's District and Parish Council elections - with less than ten months to go, there's a lot to do if I'm going to have a chance of winning
What this means, for my political friends at least, is that I won't be taking on any new projects until next May. And as long as I can steer clear of the fiendish Count Packula, I should be able to make it stick...

Monday, July 12, 2010

What a Regional Secretary actually does - the East of England remix

I've been in the job for more than six months now, so perhaps I should be able to tell people what I do. And this is it...

3.6 The Secretary shall be responsible for

(a) arranging the meetings of the Regional Executive,and keeping minutes;
(b) receiving and distributing the minutes of the Regional Party’s committees, sub-committees and working groups;
(c) maintaining an up-to-date list of regional conference representatives and supervising the conduct of the Region’s internal elections; and
(d) for ensuring that the Region makes effective communications with Local Parties and other bodies within the Party.

4.8. Within seven days of the conclusion of the elections, the Returning Officer shall send a list of the names and addresses of all Officers to the Chair of the Party in England and to the Chief Executive of the Federal Party. The Secretary shall send details of any later change of Officers to the Chair of the Party in England and to the Chief Executive of the Federal Party within seven days of such changes occurring.

4.9. The Regional Executive shall meet at least four times a year. The Secretary shall give at least 7 days notice of meetings to all members of the Regional Executive, specifying in the notice the business to be transacted at the meeting. The agenda for each ordinary meeting of the Regional Executive shall include reports from each Regional Officer and from each subcommittee of the Regional Executive and shall include a report from the Region's representatives on the English Council, English Council Executive and English Candidates Committee.

4.10. A special meeting of the Regional Executive shall be convened by the Secretary at the request of the Chair of the Regional Party or one third of the members of the Regional Executive, to deal with the business specified in the notice of requisition.

5.11 All Committees, Sub-Committees and Working Groups shall keep minutes and shall submit these to the Secretary of the Regional Party within one month of the meeting at which the minutes were taken. Such minutes shall be copied to Officers on receipt and to the Regional Executive at its next available regular meeting.

Ros in the Lords - 21 June: another fail for the Government...

Regional Development Agencies: Funding

Question

Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the funding allocated to regional development agencies for the provision of leaders' boards under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 will continue until legislation repealing the leaders' boards has been enacted.[HL228]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): The Secretary of State has announced that government funding for regional local authority leaders' boards-which took over most of the functions and staff of the old regional assemblies-has been ended. This does not need to await the repeal of Section 5 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and will produce an annual saving of £16 million.

The dismantling of these boards will remove a needlessly complex bureaucracy and see local authorities put firmly back in control of planning in their areas. This will ensure local people can hold their leaders to account.

Another poor answer from the Minister, in that the legislation requires that the leaders' boards meet, and that without funding, they probably can't. Unless Section 5 is repealed, an unfunded obligation exists. The answer? Repeal Section 5 as quickly as possible...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New Parliamentary Selection Rules: the underlying principles

These rules shall be used for the selection of prospective parliamentary candidates in all constituencies in England, with the following exceptions: by-elections, the re-selection of sitting MPs, and constituencies in local parties suspended by the region, where separate processes shall apply. In the event of an imminent General Election, the ECC may vary these rules to ensure that all constituencies have an approved candidate in place.

Within this one set of rules, there are two tracks: one for priority seats and one for all other seats. More is expected of priority seats at all stages of the process but it is accepted that development and moving forward seats can ‘opt up’ to the more complex rules at any point.

The selection process shall be conducted in accordance with the principles of Liberal Democracy. Everyone involved in the selection must act in such a way as to ensure that the party is not brought into disrepute. In particular, selections must be conducted in a manner that is:

• Democratic
• Inclusive
• Fair
• Accountable
• Manageable
• Transparent
• Robust

Candidates for selection must make sure that they abide by the candidates’ code of conduct, the Party’s data protection rules and PPERA. Where these rules are silent, the Returning Officer will proceed using these principles as a guide. In addition, the ECC may from time to time issue guidance and clarifications to these rules, which must also be derived from these principles.

In these rules, the words, ‘must’, ‘shall’ and ‘will’ refer to mandatory actions.

The words ‘may’, ‘could’ and ‘should’ refer to optional actions.

Hiding under the shelter of the Regional Constitution...

It is one of the unexpected pleasures in the life of a bureaucrat to discover a whole new range of rules to play with. So you can imagine my delight that the East of England Regional Constitution differs from that in London.

Even better, it has become apparent that my new colleagues haven't had an opportunity to read it themselves, so I find myself as the Region's constitutional guru. Whilst gratifying, it presents its own problem, in that I haven't actually read it in full myself. So, my evening is now dedicated to doing just that, in the first instance to find out what my job is.

I always recommend that people read the rules that govern an organisation at an early stage, on the basis that most people won't. Knowledge is power, and even the inference of knowledge has its benefits, but most importantly, a grasp of process is what enables you to avoid an awful lot of pain. Let me give an illustration...

Most branches of an organisation tend to be run and organised by amateurs, and whilst this is no bad thing, it can lead to difficulties when conflicts arise. Process allows you to move forward even when there are differences of opinion, as it provides a framework for decision making which can be respected, even by those who are in the minority camp. You can imagine how that becomes even more useful in a political organisation, when opinions are firmly held and egos are occasionally fragile. It also means that, when appeals are made to a higher body, they can be dealt with efficiently by people who can refer to that process, see if it has been adhered to, and then rule accordingly.

Constitutions also act as a reminder as to the responsibilities of individuals, committees and working groups. It never ceases to amaze me how organisations transition from year to year, with changes of personnel and direction with so little 'handover'. In my case, my competence appears to have been assumed, and given I had done the job in another Region for three years, that might seem realistic. However, the two Regions, London and the East of England are very different, and the required skill set is not quite the same.

So, back to my papers. I'll let you know what I find in the morning...

Friday, July 09, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Housing (8 July 2010)

This was, apparently, the first debate on this subject in the Lords for four years, sought by Baroness Ford from the Labour benches. Ros was called upon to summate from the Liberal Democrat benches... 

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, this afternoon's debate has been about housing. Many television programmes, which millions of people enjoy, talk about property. However, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Ford and Lady Wilkins, reminded us, we are talking about people's homes-the places that should form the secure base from which we all lead our lives, and most of us are lucky enough to do that. In many cases, however, that fails. It is not just that we do not have enough houses; too many houses are in the wrong place at the wrong price and in the wrong condition, and the results are stark. Shelter estimates that more than 1.5 million children live in overcrowded, temporary or run-down accommodation. The effects on their health and educational attainment are profound. We know that their life chances are adversely affected through no fault of their own. Any Government who want to create a genuinely fair society must address that.

There is no doubt that the move to a property-owning society has had profound consequences on all of us. It is interesting how falling house prices are greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth by the three-quarters of us who currently own our own properties. It ought perhaps to be a glimmer of hope for those who aspire to own property. Recently, however, house price falls have been accompanied by a lending squeeze; so the reality of home ownership is now as far away for many as it ever has been, a point which was well made by my noble friend Lord Teverson. Recent RICS figures show that loan approvals for house purchases are continuing to fall. My first question, therefore, is whether the Government will continue to press the banks over which they have control to free up mortgage lending where that is appropriate.

Over the years that I have been in your Lordships' House, I do not think that I have ever heard any Government put a figure on how far they think property ownership can extend-or, indeed, any kind of recognition that home ownership is simply not the right option for a proportion of people. That has resulted in a lack of genuine planning in terms of the variety and quantities of housing tenure that ought to be available in this country. The lack of viable alternatives has forced some people into home ownership even when that is not the best option for them. The result, particularly now, is that many live in constant fear of default.

The private rented sector has to an extent stepped into that breach and is on the rise. However, it is in urgent need of reform. Most of our private rented sector is in the hands of individual private landlords who own just a few properties and 45 per cent of those properties fail to meet the decent home standards. Do the Government have any plans to boost the provision of rented accommodation through the formation of larger companies which could provide not only a useful investment vehicle but-the point which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, made in his excellent maiden speech-a more professional and more easily regulated private sector?

Rents in the private sector are very high, and in some places this is being driven by the housing benefit system. It is therefore time that we had a review. However, I urge the Government to consider the fact that this review should be driven not solely by the need to cut costs. There is a question of value to the taxpayer. Apart from the human misery concerned, simply driving people into homelessness or creating other problems which actually cost more to put right would be extremely short-sighted. We must be very careful about an arbitrary cap on housing benefit that does not take into account the local costs of housing, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Whatever happens in government, the one piece of legislation that never changes is the law of unintended consequences. The Government must think carefully before they leap into this. Other noble Lords have asked about the levels of funding for housing associations and local authorities. I look forward to the Minister's answer.

On other forms of housing, can the Minister tell us anything about the future of low-cost home ownership schemes such as HomeBuy Direct? Do the Government intend to simplify some of these options, or even to continue them?

The affordability of housing is no doubt governed largely by housing availability. That is driven in turn by the planning system. I welcome the abolition of regional spatial strategies and all that comes with them. I am pleased that local councils will have more control over housing in their areas. However, there are caveats and things that must be watched.

I am worried by the extent to which housing that is driven from the bottom up, welcome as that may be, will not fully take into account other strategic issues such as transport, hospital provision and education. I come from a rural area. Until three years ago, we had an effective sub-regional planning tier known as a county council. It was extremely good. I wonder whether the Government have any plans to give some of the planning powers back to county councils so that they can play a strategic role alongside the districts.

I turn to the question of empty properties. I am very grateful to the Empty Homes Agency for its useful briefing. There are, it tells me, currently 652,000 empty homes in England alone. These are clearly an affront to any society. The coalition agreement said:

"We will explore a range of measures to bring empty homes into use".

Those words are welcome but not as welcome as action would be. When I raised the matter this morning at Question Time, the noble Baroness said that the use of empty homes is a "matter for local authorities". That is true to an extent, but I would be interested to know whether the Government plan to incentivise local authorities to get empty houses back into use. Can the Government encourage the Homes and Communities Agency to change the grant rules for housing associations so that local authorities have a real incentive to buy and refurbish empty homes? Picking up a point made by the right reverend Prelate, could the HCA work up a scheme which would allow homelessness charities, churches and local community groups to buy empty properties in their areas, refurbish them and provide affordable housing? Finally, would the local housing trusts proposed by the Government also be allowed to refurbish empty properties? All of these things could make a very useful contribution to the provision of housing and are very much in line with the themes of big society and localism.

I finish by thanking the noble Baroness for securing this important debate today. I had not appreciated that it had been four years since the last; it does not seem like it. It has also given us the opportunity to hear two extremely good maiden speeches from two noble Lords from whom we look forward to hearing more.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Written Answers (5 July 2010)

It seems that both Ros and I have an interest in holding National Express East Anglia's feet to the fire whilst they work out their severance period...

Railways: Franchises

Question

Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the Written Statement by the Minister of State for Transport, Theresa Villiers, on 17 June (Official Report, Commons, col. 58WS) that the procurement timetable for the new Greater Anglia rail franchise is to be revised, what arrangements are in place to ensure that the performance of National Express East Anglia is acceptable.

Earl Attlee: Current contractual provisions in relation to performance on the National Express East Anglia franchise will remain in place and will be fully enforced by Department for Transport officials. These include benchmarks for punctuality, reliability, capacity and cancellations which, if contravened, can result in enforcement action.


Railways: National Express

Question

Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps will be taken to secure an improvement in passenger satisfaction with National Express East Anglia during the period of its extended franchise.

Earl Attlee: Current contractual provisions will continue to apply to the National Express East Anglia franchise and will be rigorously enforced by Department for Transport officials. Although there are no specific passenger satisfaction targets in the contract, there is a service quality regime which attracts incentive or penalty payments for train and station quality standards.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Transport - Motion to Take Note (5 July 2010)

It's always nice to see someone who knows what they're talking about rise to speak, and who better than an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation to contribute to a debate on transport... Here is Ros's contribution...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Earl on his appointment. In the short time with his brief he has already shown himself to be an assiduous Minister and I look forward to working with him on transport issues in the coming months and years.

In his opening remarks he talked about the fundamental role that transport plays in the economic, social and environmental well-being of the community. My interest in transport developed in a much less dramatic way as a councillor in Suffolk when I realised fairly quickly that probably nine out of 10 pieces of casework related to transport in some way or another, whether it was home-to-school transport, a dangerous crossing, an inability to access some sort of public service, or the state of the roads. I have always been interested in the enabling role that transport plays, and the fact that many good policy interventions made by government and local authorities failed to work because nobody properly thought through the transport dimension.

I have never made a pretence of having any great technical expertise on transport but I have a great admiration for those who do. The UK transport industry is a major employer throughout the country. In the past 20 years huge structural changes in the industry mean that transport is much less the preserve of the public service than it used to be and there is huge variation in the size of the organisations concerned, from large multinationals to small specialist companies—indeed, Parry People Movers.

The Brunel report published in November 2008 reported a supply of 87,400 people working in engineering, the technical field and planning across the transport industry. That compared to a demand of 96,900. While I acknowledge that the cancellation or postponement of some projects may have reduced the skills gap, it still exists. The challenge on how to mix economic growth with a low-carbon economy is set to increase the skills shortage in coming years. If we do not meet that challenge our future prosperity will be jeopardised.

Currently, the average age of a chartered engineer is 57. That may be young compared to the membership of this House, but the reality is that over the next decade a huge part of the current knowledge and experience in the transport engineering industry will be retiring. While there are many young people graduating into engineering, many of them then do not go on to work in engineering—they go off and do other things, which are usually better paid.

Young people are required to make a choice about their subject options about 12 years before they would expect to become a chartered engineer or transport planner, so a choice made about topics and subjects this year will affect a young person qualifying in 2022, or thereabouts. Operating on these timescales does not sit comfortably with short-term planning and stop/go investment. Advanced apprenticeships, support for 14 to 19 diplomas and supporting STEM subjects all need funding, and what is more they need employers who have the security of knowing that they will have predictable income streams to pay for the training. Statutory regulations on apprenticeships should be looked at to ensure that they are cost-effective, accessible and manageable, especially for small businesses.

Furthermore, it does not stop with young people. At all levels, changing skill requirements, new and safer working practices, green technologies and other developments mean that the need for training and development is continuous. The costs of that always fall to the industry, which is another reason why industry needs stable investment flows.

The need for skilled, specialised personnel in the transport sector is crucial and will remain so. The supply cannot be turned on and off at will. It takes a considerable time to develop such people, and the timescale goes way beyond our current financial challenges.

At this time, we have to consider a simple economic case: stop/go work flows will make it difficult for even the most enlightened employers to go on investing in good training and development. A lack of short-term prospects could drive skilled people to other sectors or abroad. The result of those two things could exacerbate the skills shortage, driving up costs, when the upturn comes. If the skills base is too far eroded, there will be a real lack of capacity to provide the transport infrastructure needed to sustain growth. The transport industry needs a long-term vision and strategy so that it can resource the skills needed for a low-carbon economy in the future.

I want to say a few words about transport spending in the current environment. In roads, focusing on maintaining the existing asset and using it more effectively should be a priority. It is usually easier to commission and has more immediately visible results. Reactive maintenance—in other words, response to damage—is an inefficient way of dealing with the highway. Planned preventive maintenance offers better value for money and is more efficient.

Road safety is not just a matter of quality of life —often literally—although that is clearly uppermost in our minds. It is also a question of value for money —savings for the NHS in dealing with the injuries caused by road traffic accidents, but also the long-term care required by people with the most severe injuries. Yet there are very few training requirements for people in road safety specialisms, and what little there is is provided by local authorities on a discretionary basis. Of course, when money is tight, discretionary services, especially training, tend to be high on the cuts list.

It is possible to build incentives for training into our procurement processes. For example, the East Midlands Highways Alliance is a collaboration of a number of companies and local authorities whose aim is to improve highways services in the region, and includes the development of a skills academy. The savings to its partners have been huge over recent years.

I have always used trains and, since becoming president of my party, have spent an inordinate amount of time on the railways. I have seen them at their best, and I have seen them at their worst. My overwhelming feeling is that the current franchising scheme, and the highly complex regulatory regime within which the rail industry has to operate, has completely lost sight of the needs of the passengers. I hope that the very welcome review of the franchising system will at last begin to put the passenger first. The fares system is in chaos and there is a widespread lack of understanding of how it works, even among the staff who operate the system. Queues for tickets are at unacceptable levels and should be dealt with as a priority. There are far too many bus substitutions and too few visible staff to help when things go wrong. When passengers complain to train operators, they are often told that their freedom to respond to passengers is hampered by franchises which are overregulated and micromanaged by the Department for Transport. Surely departmental oversight should be focused on the things that really matter: punctuality, reliability, cost and, above all, passenger satisfaction.

It is surely no coincidence that the three train operating companies with the highest performance and passenger satisfaction are those with the longest franchises. Can the Minister tell us the Government's thinking on longer franchises? Does he agree that the decision to award a franchise should not be on cost alone; it should be on improving service quality and how much the operator is prepared to put in? With refranchising of the west coast main line due in 2012 and of the east coast main line next year, and with the whole question of my local, rather benighted, rail franchise, National Express East Anglia, can he tell us whether they will come under the new regime which is currently under consultation, and what will be the timetable? Furthermore, will he say something about rolling stock? There is clearly a need for new rolling stock, but at the moment there seems to be a huge amount of unnecessary government intervention between train operators and the roscos.

I am very pleased that this House has had the opportunity to debate transport matters at this early stage in the life of the new Government. I look forward to contributions from other noble Lords. The importance of transport in all areas of our lives is not always recognised, and it is good that it has been today.

Thoughts from the Train: please do not feed, taunt or abuse the Civil Servant...

It is a tough time to be a civil servant right now. A two-year pay freeze for many of us, pensions under threat, redundancy terms to be slashed, tens of thousands of jobs to be axed, who'd want to join an organisation under such circumstances? Making a case for civil servants is, I admit, a bit like trying to defend anthrax, but perhaps one should explain why some of my colleagues are so unhappy.

On pensions, there was a covenant of sorts. The benefit that the pension represented was factored into our rates of pay, a point made during every pay negotiation by management. Now, all of a sudden, the pension is a burden on the State. Yes, it probably is, but you can understand the level of disgruntlement this might generate. Besides, it wasn't civil servants who reduced the retirement age to sixty, it was politicians trying to reduce payroll numbers in the late-eighties.

As far as redundancy terms are concerned, there is no doubt that their generosity has acted as a disincentive to weeding out the lazy, the inefficient and the downright disruptive. Instead, enhanced retirement packages, natural wastage and the non-filling of vacancies have been the preferred tools used to cut numbers. For an increasingly twitchy Civil Service, who have already struck for three days this year in opposition to proposed changes to the redundancy terms, and are bracing themselves for job losses, such proposals look like provocation.

The hope, of course, is that the private sector will create enough new jobs to more than offset those lost in the public one. However, many Civil Service jobs have, over four decades, been transferred to areas of relatively high unemployment, away from London and the South East. If you're working in Scotland or the North East, for example, the promise of private sector opportunities might not be as convincing as it might be in, say, South London.

And because we're emerging tentatively from recession, levels of natural wastage are likely, in historic terms, to be relatively low. Enhanced pension incentives don't really stack up, whilst leaving vacancies unfilled is not going to do the trick. All of which makes redundancy a looming cloud on the horizon for civil servants.

So, when you read of threats of industrial unrest in the public sector, remember what the average civil servant is thinking. You probably know at least one. You're probably even related to one. And like animals in a zoo, civil servants have feelings too...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

EMLD and me - the dawning of a new era?

Those of you who have been following the current debate on Liberal Democrat Voice will be aware that I find myself in the opposite side of the argument to the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, not necessarily for the first time. I'm not going to repeat the arguments here, needless to say that I have my severe doubts as to whether their proposal will be passed by Conference and, even if it does, whether it will achieve what they hope of it.

However, as a result, I have been 'challenged' by their outgoing Chair, Baroness Hussein-Ece, or Meral to her friends, to attend EMLD's Annual General Meeting on Tuesday, July 27th, at 6.30 p.m. at Portcullis House in Westminster. And, I'm going to go, not because I might change my mind, but because it is right to find out what they're actually doing, rather than carp from the sidelines in an ill-informed manner. You never know, I might be able to assist in some small way.

But in case anyone asks, I'm not planning to get too involved. I'm probably over-committed enough as it is...

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Rules for the selection of parliamentary candidates in England: an introduction

Overview of the process

In order to ensure that all constituencies have an appropriately approved and democratically selected candidate for a General Election Article 11 of the Federal Constitution specifies that all states shall agree a fair selection process. These rules govern that process and must be used by all Local Parties in England for the purpose of selecting Parliamentary Candidates.

Constituencies starting the process of selection must ask their Regional Candidates’ Chair (RCC) to appoint an independent Returning Officer (RO) from outside the constituency. The local party executive will agree the appointment of a shortlisting committee with the Returning Officer. The Returning Officer will then work with the shortlisting committee to ensure that the selection process is completed satisfactorily in accordance with these rules.

Phase 1: The shortlisting committee and Returning Officer work together to prepare an application pack and advertise the seat.
 
Phase 2: The shortlisting committee scrutinise applications and shortlist applicants for the selection.
 
Phase 3: The candidates’ campaign: members’ mailing, leaflets and personal contact. Postal votes applied for and sent out by the Returning Officer.
 
Phase 4: The hustings meeting, vote and count. The result is declared.

Those new English candidate selection rules...

So, we have some new Rules, following their ratification by English Council earlier today. My intention is to publish parts of them over the coming days, starting with the introduction (a very fine place to start, as Julie Andrews might have put it)...

Friday, July 02, 2010

Liberal Youth: unto thee a Chair is born...

It has to be said that the Liberal Youth count took place under rather trying circumstances. High humidity, combined with the notoriously airless quality of the boardroom at Cowley Street, made the task of counting ballot papers somewhat less than entirely attractive. But needs must, and with a new Executive Committee due to take up their posts just thirty-five hours after the scheduled start of the count, delay wasn't really an option.

The Chair election was closely fought, with three of the five candidates capturing most of the first preferences as follows;

Matthew Folker - 48 votes
Richard Heinrich/Phil Jarvest - 41 votes
Adam Parsons - 11 votes
Martin Shapland - 58 votes
Richard Wilson - 5 votes
Reopen nominations - 11 votes

One curiosity was the final ballot paper, across which was scrawled 'BNP'. One hopes that this was intended to be post-ironic, although that might be being a mite generous...

At this stage, the technically correct procedure would have been to eliminate Messrs Parsons, Wilson and RON, as pointed out by Theo Butt Philip. However, in order to simplify the process in the eyes of those present, I transferred them separately, a point that was published via Twitter. The net result was;

Matthew Folker - 52 votes
Richard Heinrich/Phil Jarvest - 46 votes
Martin Shapland - 70 votes
Non-transferable - 6 votes

So, it was goodbye to Sheffield's 'dynamic duo'. It was, given the split, always unlikely to produce a come from behind victory for Matt Folker but in the event, their transfers only served to widen the margin between the final pair, the final result was;

Matthew Folker - 67 votes
Martin Shapland - 96 votes
Non-transferable - 11 votes

Accordingly, Martin Shapland was duly declared to be the 2010/11 Chair of Liberal Youth.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ros in the Lords: Local Government Bill (Second Reading), 30 June 2010

Ah yes, the joys of Local Government Review in Devon and Norfolk, where the outgoing Government behaved with such utter disregard for the criteria they themselves had established that the Orders creating unitary authorities for Exeter and Norwich were quashed at judicial review...

Anyway, here's what Ros had to say yesterday...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, when I retrieved the notes that I had written for the original Second Reading debate in this House, I saw that they start by saying, "Congratulate Baroness Hanham". I had intended at the time to congratulate her on her new job, but time has moved on, so perhaps I should congratulate her on getting so far with the Bill.

I was the party's Front-Bench spokesman when the Government of the day brought out their White Paper introducing this round of unitary government. At the time, I was prepared to give the Government a fair wind because I am someone who was and remains quite open to the idea of unitary authorities. I can see their benefits in many cases, but only if it is a matter of well informed local choice and following clear processes.

As we moved through the first tranches of authorities to go through this process, I became increasingly concerned about a lack of clarity on the desired outcome, particularly on how the five tests would be assessed and measured. It became clear that there was an absence of impartial information to the public in the areas affected and that there was no objective method for determining the state of local public opinion. All these defects led to protracted processes, many going as far as judicial review, and we ended up with Parliament taking decisions close to electoral deadlines, along with all the uncertainty that that brought with it. Despite that, I did not oppose any of those orders because I believed that the Government were acting in good faith.

By the time that we came to this tranche of orders, relating to Norfolk and Devon-and, in parentheses, my home county of Suffolk-I had lost all faith in a process that by then had taken three years, during which time the Government had constantly moved the goalposts. Not only has that led to the problem of uncertainty for staff, highlighted by my noble friend Lord Rennard, but it has made recruitment difficult, it has undermined partnerships between the local authorities and other bodies and it has had a hugely detrimental effect on good governance for all the councils concerned.

The counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon are similar in character, yet they were treated very differently by the Labour Government. In Norfolk and Devon, the county towns were to be given unitary status. As we heard from the noble Baroness, there may be good reasons why this is desirable, but the supporters of this option have never given me a clear understanding of how we will deal with the impact on the rest of these counties, which will have the heart ripped out of their governance when the county town is taken away.

Concerns about the financial case led to a direction from the Permanent Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, has highlighted what an unusual step that is, although we find now that there was a rash of these in the dying days of the previous Government.

If you understood the rules that the previous Government were working by, you would have known why Norwich and Exeter were to be given unitary status and therefore you would have assumed that, using the same criteria, Ipswich, too, would have been given unitary status. However, it was not: Suffolk was told to go away, have a citizens' convention and then report back. That could have been done three years ago, which would have saved everyone time and money. In fact, local authorities in Suffolk are now working well together and sharing services-in some cases, they are sharing chief executives, while two district councils are looking at merging all their shared functions.

There is only one reason why Ipswich was treated differently. It was in the Labour Party's direct political interests to have unitary councils in Norwich and in Exeter, but Labour did not care about Ipswich because it had lost so much ground there. The decision was pushed through in the dying days of the previous Parliament for purely political reasons. We hear today from the Benches opposite that the coalition Government have no mandate to do this, that the Permanent Secretary was wrong, that the Boundary Committee was wrong and that the High Court was wrong. Indeed, the report of the Merits Committee and the vote in this House have been glossed over. It would appear to the Benches opposite that everyone is wrong except them.

People in these counties deserve the right to have clarity about the way forward. To keep going in this way is grossly irresponsible of the Members opposite. It is time to get behind the people of all these counties, to support them in the services that they want and to leave behind these divisive, unpleasant and, in many cases, outdated arguments. I have heard arguments from the Benches opposite that are 20 years old. Councils and counties have moved on-they are no longer backwaters-so, please, let us get on, get the Bill through and give the people in these areas the certainty that they deserve in their local government.