Friday, October 29, 2010

Lunch with the Chamber of Commerce...

Thursday, October 7th (continued)...

I'm not normally a big fan of long lunches, mostly because they make me want to spend the afternoon asleep. However, given that the Chamber of Commerce were going to so much trouble, I was pleased to join Ros and a small group of Turkish Cypriot business people for a very good lunch indeed.

With the increasing confidence that Turkish support brings, business is beginning to pick up in Northern Cyprus and we returned to the Trade Agreement with the European Union, admittedly not much of a surprise. I wanted to explore the possibilities for trade with the Middle East, especially given the fall from grace of Beirut as a neutral entrepot where deals could be done. It seems that whilst some business is being done, the problems of direct flights rear their ugly head yet again, and you can see their frustration.

The construction industry is significant, as development begins to gather pace, but agriculture is severely limited in terms of profitability - exporting to Turkey, where prices are lower, is never going to be as lucrative as exporting to Britain. Indeed, Cyprus new potatoes, which I remember from my childhood, mostly came from what is now Turkish Cypriot territory. What that means is that investment in the agricultural sector is significantly down on what it might be.

We parted amicably, with a commitment to pursue an update in the progress of the trade agreement, and it was with much to think about that we hit the road back to Kyrenia...

Thoughts from the Train*: getting used to the idea of power

It has been an interesting journey so far, from the suspense of the negotiations (and you may never know just how much suspense there was...), to the realisation that we weren't in Kansas opposition any more, through the depression of having to work with the Evil Tories towards a realisation that there was enough common ground, at least nationally, to make the relationship work.

Personally, I have to deal with work colleagues asking me what will happen next, as if I'd know any more than is already public. People refer to 'your Government', which is an interesting twist, and assume that I have some kind of hotline to Ministers. And, I suppose, being married to a Member of Parliament means that I might do - sort of. Or at least, it might if I thought that it might be a good idea, which I don't really.

It also means that I have to defend whatever supposedly dreadful thing that the Coalition is doing, mostly to do with the Superannuation Bill currently on its legislative journey through the House of Lords. In my local campaigning, it isn't as much of an issue, as there is no sign that anyone else is campaigning, and my primary opponent is an evil Tory. What it does mean is that I'm having to be positive, the very sort of campaigning I tend to favour. I'd much rather talk about what I'd like to do, rather than what I'd like to stop, and it is difficult, but not impossible, to attack an opponent whose Party I'm in coalition with at Westminster.

Best of all, I can actually see Liberal Democrat policies being implemented and, whilst it isn't perfect, I can see the argument that says that 30% of something is better than 100% of nothing, the fate of Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy for generations, only implemented if it has been stolen and, even then, not terribly well as a rule.

So, after a few early wobbles, I'm beginning to find a comfort zone, which makes the next phase a bit easier. And as one of the first over the top in May, we'll see if I still think that when they count the votes in Stowmarket...

* St Pancras International to Nottingham... never let it be said that I'm predictable...

On the road again, as the gigs begin to run out...

Yes, as the end nears, this weekend brings the show to Kirkby-in-Ashfield and Huntingdon, and I'm on an East Midlands Train to Nottingham, fortified by a glass of white wine as we dash through Northamptonshire.

And apart from a mini falling out with my Regional Chair (she does pick her moments), I'm feeling pretty good. The next Stowupland Focus is now off the drawing board and with my printer, with delivery expected to begin next weekend, our first Action Day is scheduled, my delivery team has expanded (the joys of family!), and I've got a better grip on what I'd like to do now.

I do need to work on the residents survey though. A job for the weekend, methinks...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why I'm running for re-election as Regional Secretary

I'm now approaching the end of my term as Secretary of the East of England Liberal Democrats, and I have been wondering about whether or not I should seek a second term.

For one thing, the role is not the one I had when I was the Regional Secretary in London. Where I had Flick, whose role was more all-encompassing, I now have Lorna, whose organisational skills and effective use of technology mean that there is far more crossover between our job descriptions. What this means is that I have lost the hands on element of the task, minuting and Executive servicing, and gained... well, what exactly?

Operating in a new region, with new people, where processes are presumed rather than based on published criteria, has proved to be somewhat disconcerting. I have drifted from one incident to another, without any effective framework to cling to. Worse still, the lack of such a framework has only become apparent when it is too late to build one. And yet, as the Regional Secretary, you are expected to know the answers, and implement them.

I should have realised that I was, to some extent, on my own when, at my first meeting, I had to point out that the Executive Committee were about to act in a manner contrary to their own Constitution. It wasn't a big issue, nor one that would have any impact beyond the structures of the Regional Party, but it was clear that the Constitution had the status of folk legend rather than living document.

However, having given the role of the Regional Secretary in a supra-administrative environment much thought, I have concluded that there is scope for someone to operate in a strategic and analytical capacity, improving the way we operate as a Regional Party, and delivering something which enables those we serve to perform better, focus their attention on getting their people elected and re-elected, and, if we believe in our message, conveying it as widely and effectively as possible. That someone, might I suggest, is me.

My first task is to tighten up our complaints handling, and once that is done, I have some ideas for the very structure of the Regional Party... vorspring durch verwaltung, as we say in Amaranth...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: is a loss of respect for public service fatal for the 'Big Society'?

I've been dwelling on the question of public service this weekend, and as someone who celebrated twenty-four years as a civil servant in the past week, mostly on the front line, I'm more prone than most to wonder about the morals and ethics of government and governance.

For a long time now, I've argued that government is there to enable as far as is reasonable whilst encouraging initiative and personal responsibility. In my day job, I try as far as possible to adhere to that philosophy, but it is made harder by the increasingly strained relationship between administration and the public.

You see, over the best part of a quarter century, I've had a front row seat as first deference and then respect have been eroded. The loss of deference was undoubtedly a good thing, as it encouraged that curiously British notion that the bureaucracy knew best. It didn't but, unchallenged, it tended to take the view that intervention was a good thing, and that public concern would go away if left for long enough. On the other hand, civil servants were generally well trained, supported by a hierarchy of management who knew more than the person below them in the food chain, and steeped in a ethos of public service as a contribution to civil society.

When I started at London North West Collection in October 1986, my senior manager still clung to a hierarchical model of management that reflected an almost military sense of order. Managers were referred to by their title and surname, duties were clearly delineated, and one knew one's place. There were books of manuals, defining what you would do in any given circumstance, and a proper training system.

Those whom we dealt with, referred to as taxpayers, knew the 'rules' too. They knew what our approach was, arguments were rare (although excuses for non-payment were anything but!), and there was an understanding that, whilst we weren't popular, we were doing a job that needed to be done. But as the years unfolded, the corrosive impact of market-based reforms, years of ideology-based abuse from senior politicians and the media, and a dismantling of the professional core of the civil service had an effect.

And now we are where we are. My colleagues struggle to handle callers, now referred to as customers, who believe that their interpretation of tax law is far superior to that of people paid to deal with tax professionally, even where they have actual knowledge. They believe that if they tell us something, with sufficient emphasis, we will quietly accept it, regardless of the prescriptions of legislation. Accountants, especially from the Big Four, increasingly seem to communicate on the basis that any junior member of our staff is stupid and feckless, and the idea that we might work post in the order that it reaches us is a notion that only applies to other people. It might depress me, if I let it. It does depress some of my colleagues...

As the devaluation of public service continues, cutting professional training, turning consistency into rigid process that does not reflect the individuality of circumstance, there is a price to be paid. The demand for performance data creates an army of public sector staff who count things rather than doing anything, adding to the cost of service delivery, frustrating those on the front line who, instead of acting, are reduced to justifying. The relationship between public and the public sector becomes more fractious, again increasing costs.

If we are serious about increasing community involvement in the delivery of public services, we have to rebuild that respect. If volunteers experience for themselves the low regard in which social workers, tax officials and railway staff (to name but three generally maligned groups) are held, their sense of altruism and community spirit might well be lost. If that happens to the extent where the voluntary sector is unable to function, forcing society to fall back on the 'man from the council/Government', we will all lose something potentially precious, the idea of a vibrant civil society, where people take part because it matters to them.

And with that will come the final triumph of the notion that there is no such thing as society, only men and women...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Liberal Youth: the ex-Returning Officer has not left the building...

I did say at one point that it was my intention to run for an honorary Vice-Presidency of Liberal Youth. I was serious, and still am, so here's the manifesto which is currently exercising Liberal Youth members at their Autumn Conference in Manchester...

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Innocent Bystanders,

Firstly, please accept my apologies for not joining you in Manchester this weekend. Unfortunately, I haven’t spent a weekend at home since before Federal Conference, and I miss my home, my cat and my village.

This brief missive is by way of a call for your support in this weekend’s election for a team of Honorary Vice Presidents, and those of you who know me may be wondering why, after surviving three rounds of Liberal Youth elections, I want anything to do with the organisation.

Having served as a national Officer of the Young Liberals and then the Young Liberal Democrats, I understand just how valuable the organisation can be, both as a training arena for the politicians of tomorrow, and as a conduit for radical thinking on issues that matter to young people and lots more.

However, two things that make life more difficult for Liberal Youth are the inevitable lack of an institutional memory and knowledge of how the darker corners of the Party work, which is where the Honorary Officers come in. My record as a Party bureaucrat and my network of contacts would enable me to offer sage advice when needed and support when it matters. And, whilst I am aware of Liberal Youth’s recent history, I am not a part of it.

So, your first preference would be gratefully received...

Yours faithfully,

Mark

We'll know the result later today, I understand, so until then...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ballot paper after ballot paper after ballot paper...

I've spent the weekend so far filling in ballot papers, the presidential, the Federal committees and the English ones too. It hasn't been easy, indeed, it has been quite depressing at times.

With candidates tending to run for multiple positions with identical manifestos, others who fail to mention the work of the committee they wish to run for, or provide any clue as to why they are running, it has at least been easy to work out who I won't be voting for. There are also some candidates who perhaps might be better off working out what the committee they are running for actually does.

It does take time, especially if you want to do it properly. However, there are plenty of candidates who make me think, "Yes, he/she has a real agenda for making the Party run better in that area.", and others who have demonstrated by their performance up until now that they deserve re-election.

On the other hand, at least I'm not voting for the Liberal Democrat list for the Greater London Assembly. Yes, I've been invited to join the Facebook groups of a number of candidates, some of whom I would have happily supported... if it wasn't for the fact that I don't live in London.

Meanwhile, I am awaiting the verdict from Manchester, but that's a different story...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parish Council finances from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first in a single bound...

I have to admit that, in my role as a parish councillor, I find financial matters the most frustrating. It is all so slow, and every payment is made by cheque. However, I have found out why and, at the same time, discovered that I might not have to worry about it any more. And the following announcement, courtesy of the Department for Communities and Local Government, explains why...


Local Government Minister, Grant Shapps, has today unveiled plans to free England's 9,000 parish councils from archaic rules which prevent them from using modern banking methods and making fast and easy payments to the small businesses they employ.


Parish councils spend over £340 million each year. But under laws introduced in 1894, even the smallest payments must be signed off by at two members of the council - creating a time-consuming process and leading them to use cheques instead of quick electronic transfers. In contrast, the Payments Council reports that cheque usage fell by £21.5billion in the last year alone.

So the Minister has confirmed that from 2011, parish councils will be given the freedom to use modern banking methods - in time for the abolition of cheques in eight years' time. These changes are set to benefit the many private companies that parish councils employ, as they should now be paid faster.

The National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks will now work together to put important safeguards in place so all payments made by parish councils are legitimate and there is no misuse of the system.

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said:
Parish Councils have been around for over a hundred years, but it doesn't mean they should be bound by outdated rules which make it harder for them to serve their local community.
It's time to bring Parish Councils into the 21st Century so they can get on and do their jobs in a faster and simpler way.
This is about removing the barriers so that local people can deliver the services that their communities care about, but it could also help hard pressed contractors who rely on quick payments to survive.

The move has also been supported by the National Association of Local Councils, whose Chairman Councillor Michael Chater said:
I am delighted that the Government is making it easier for local councils to get on and do their job through modernising the rules on the way they can make payments.
This much needed reform is very welcome and underlines the important role local councils play in their communities supporting local people and local businesses.
This initiative will give a much welcome boost to local councils to help them operate more efficiently and effectively and enable them to continue to play their role at the heart of localism and Big Society.
 
Of course, trying to get banks to enable us to make the switch could be quite difficult, but it will save even a tiny parish council like ours quite a lot of work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Andrew Phillips - still right about ID cards...

Only in the House of Lords can you have the chance to return from the dead, so to speak, but very few have returned from the administrative grave that is 'leave of absence'. Suffolk is the home of one of those very few, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. Before he took leave of absence, he led for the Liberal Democrats on the Identity Cards Bill, forensically taking apart the arguments given by the then Labour Government. And now he's back, in time to participate in another Identity Cards Bill...


Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I admire the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, for sticking to the old guns, as you might say. It may be worth while in this Second Reading debate reviewing where we have come from because I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was not accurate in what he said. The principal issue that exercised this House back in 2005-06, to such an extraordinary degree that we threw that Bill back to the Commons three times, was the issue of compulsion. It is wrong of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to start his speech by saying that the previous Government introduced a Bill for a voluntary card. Indeed they did according to their manifesto, but when the Bill came out it was compulsory. That is the rock upon which the opposition in this House was built and that opposition then grew across all Benches. It is as well to remember that.

I pay tribute to Mr Willcock. I do not suppose that many in the Chamber remember dear old Mr Willcock who, when asked by a policeman in 1952, refused to produce his identity card. He said, “I am not going to produce my identity card. The identity card was to stop the Germans, not to help you on some piffling nonsense”. The High Court upheld the good gentleman’s refusal and the identity card legislation was swiftly repealed. The point of that was to show that identity cards tend to have what you might call usage creep. The state cannot resist the opportunity to use the card for more and more things in more and more situations.

Again, one aspect of the Bill of 2005 that this House objected to profoundly was the right of the Secretary of State to add to the circumstances in which the identity card could be used and, in particular, to add to the category of information that could be on the national identity register. Let us not forget that the national identity register was to be unique in the world in terms of the amount of information that it would collect on each citizen. Microsoft licked its lips and referred to the register as the great honey-pot because it was to be the greatest source of information on earth.

The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, objects to what we are doing now because of the commercialisation that he says afflicts disadvantaged youths who want to establish their identity. I would be totally sympathetic to that if I felt that he was correct. However, he omits to remember not only that the ID cards that the Bill will abolish would have been compulsory if this House had not intervened three times but—this could never have been taken away—the huge cost of the scheme, which the LSE working group established would be more than £20 billion over the first 10 years and which was to be recouped by selling the ID cards to the great retailing outlets. These would have readers which, if you spent more than £15 at XYZ store, would read the purchase into the national identity register. Every time that happened, the store would have paid a small sum of money, and—how many of us remember this?—the national identity register would have recorded every occasion on which the card was used. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, looks quizzical, but I assure him that that is so. That is why people objected to the sort of information build-up to which the card would lead.

Lord Brett: We are having a Second Reading debate on a Bill that will repeal an Act. Will the noble Lord say where in the Act the facts that he is putting forward appear? In the Act that was passed in this House and in the other place, there is no reference to that.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: It is a bit much to ask me to refer to a point of detail in the Act. I shall tell the noble Lord afterwards, but he need only read Hansard. I assure him that the Government did not deny that they would pay for a substantial part of the cost by commercial use and that every use of the card would register on the NIR. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, will agree with that.

Let me quickly pay tribute to NO2ID and Liberty for the huge help that they gave this House in respect of that Bill. I also repeat what the noble Countess said about Lord Northesk, whom we all miss and who was of great use to the House in the course of the passage of that Bill, as was the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who is not in her place now.

To come to the Bill, those of us who fought and fought the previous Bill welcome this one with huge enthusiasm. I believe that the Identity Cards Act 2006 would have affected fundamentally the relationship between the citizen and the state. It is as well to think of “citizen” rather than “subject”, because in some respects that Act would have had a deleterious effect on that vital relationship. However, I say to my noble friend, who confirmed in opening the debate that there will be no repayment of the £30, that I think that that is a serious mistake. It seems unfair to say that people should have kept an eye on what we do in this House and should have carried in their heads the fact that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party had made clear statements in the course of that Bill’s passage that they would repeal it if they came to power. Simple fairness should lead Government to repay those sums of £30—whether to old women or to rich hedge fund managers, I do not mind. It is not fair to abolish ID cards and not to repay that money. It is a modest sum in relation to the total costs already incurred.

I am sad that the Bill is as complex as it is. I do not know how many noble Lords have tried to read through the Bill, but it is a nightmare, even for an old lawyer like me. In Committee, I shall table a lot of amendments to attempt to make its provisions clearer. I draw attention to just a couple of clauses. In Clause 4, “Possession of false identity documents etc with improper intention”, the definition of improper intention in the second subsection does not say whether it is exhaustive. In addition, the reference to “false identity documents” is not true to the clause because it covers situations in which the documents are not false. The language of the clause is also extremely complex; I hope that we will be able to simplify it as we go along. Clause 6(1)(a) provides for an offence of possessing without reasonable excuse,

“an identity document that is false”.

That does not seem to be reconcilable with an almost exactly parallel offence in Clause 4(2)(a). I hope that that is not too detailed a point for a Second Reading debate.

Clause 10 desperately needs rewording, because it allows the Secretary of State to require various authorities to provide him or her with what is called “verifying information”. At the end, there is a nasty little subsection that states that the Secretary of State may specify by order,

“any other person … for the purposes of this section”.

That could take us right into the realms of private businesses, and we will need to look at that.

I welcome the Bill with great enthusiasm, as have my noble friend Lady Hamwee and others. I would like to think that, by the time it leaves us, the Bill will be really fit for purpose as well as fit in intent.


It's good to have him back...

Friday, October 15, 2010

ELDR Congress: And the winners are...

Congratulations to Roman Jakic (Zares, Slovenia) on being elected as the new ELDR Treasurer, and to Vesna Pusic (HNS, Croatia), Dick Roche (Fianna Fail, Ireland) and Graham Watson (Liberal Democrats, UK) on being elected as Vice Presidents.

ELDR Congress: a miracle of debating efficiency on the shores of the Gulf of Finland

The afternoon session started with a keynote speech from Hans van Baalen MEP, President of the Liberal International, who spoke passionately about opposing the radical right across Europe.

And then it was time for the plenary session on the theme resolution. In a spectacularly efficient piece of chairing, Gordon Lishman managed to deal with all 107 amendments without resort to a single counted vote. As a scrutineer, I wasn't entirely unhappy about being kept idle. Alright, not entirely idle. I did make a brief intervention in support of amendment 107, noting the value of technology and social networks in supporting participation in society and in combating isolation, particularly in rural areas.

The theme resolution was, with that last debate concluded, approved with all of the working group's recommended amendments.

Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament, was next up. He gave a speech which was, in turn, feisty, humorous and philosophical. He attacked those who want 'less' Europe, and also those individuals and groups who undermine European cohesion and harmony by their actions. In truth, my expectations had not been high but, assuming that it is posted on the ELDR website in due course, I would recommend a viewing.

ELDR Congress: of censorship and fish, both of them frozen?

It's currently snowing here in Helsinki, and even before it started, you could almost taste the snow in the air.

I had an early morning scrutineers meeting, where I discovered that my job was in fact to count votes in the hall when necessary, like our stewards at Federal Conference do when a counted vote is required.

The plenary session on the Congress resolutions was fairly uneventful. A LYMEC resolution calling for censorship of offensive websites, as opposed to blocking, was defeated. Personally, I was surprised that a group so consistently supportive of freedom was even tempted by the notion of censorship, but there you go.

But just to prove that ELDR is not afraid to debate the big issues, we voted to oppose the renewal of the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement. Say no to the theft of Western Saharawi fish!

ELDR Congress: pretending to be important

I had to bail out of our evening delegation meeting early, as I was unexpectedly in possession of an invitation to a reception for Parliamentarians. Given the prospect of pleasant conversation and a glass of something sparkling, a discussion on the congress resolutions paled somewhat in comparison.

We were treated to an entertaining speech from one of our Finnish hosts, the highlight of which was her assertion that Finns don't have sex. There was a comment from the back along the lines of "that explains why you have such a demographic problem"*, before it became clear that she was referring to the Finnish language and not the people.

The speaker from the other host Party, the Swedish People's Party, was quick to point out that Swedish-speaking Finns do have sex - not necessarily a surprise to those of us who know them - in their language.

And then, we were all invited to proceed to the 'walking dinner', basically a buffet meal without tables. The wine flowed freely, and there were meatballs (not for the last time, I suspected). I'm beginning to get the hang of talking to other delegations, and was able to talk to the Swedes and Croats, both of whom were looking for support for their candidate.

Finally, I ran into an old acquaintance, Mechtilde von Alemann, a former ELDR Secretary General and MEP from the German Free Democrats. Many years ago, when I was young and rather gauche, she was very kind, tolerating my rather scattergun approach to policy making, and it was good to catch up.

* Yes, this was funny. Remember, the Congress theme is 'Demographic Change - Moving Beyond Boundaries'

ELDR Congress: the working group strikes back...

The second session of the working group on the theme resolution took place in late afternoon, and I was keen to push on, encouraging my colleagues to focus. And focus we did, allowing us to complete the review of all 107 proposed amendments.

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, the big issue were the proposals to seek greater compatibility between the social security systems of the member states and to create an EU framework and qualifying period of eligibility to receive social welfare benefits for immigrants entering the Union.

We opposed these, seeing them as an unhelpful intrusion into the affairs of member states. Fortunately, the working group backed our stance, and a negative recommendation will be put to the plenary session, later this afternoon.

As we left the Convention Centre, a few damp snowflakes were falling from a sky potentially laden with a lot more...

ELDR Congress: a parade of ambitious Europeans

Yesterday afternoon saw the presentation of the seven, no, make it six candidates for the three Vice-Presidential vacancies (the Kosovan contender having withdrawn), Lena Ek (Centerpartiet, Sweden), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (VVD, Netherlands), Norica Nicolai (PNL, Romania), Vesna Pusic (HNS, Croatia), Dick Roche (Fianna Fail, Ireland) and our own Graham Watson.

But first, the introduction of a new Treasurer took place. Roman Jakic (Zares, Slovenia) looked a bit familiar. His CV reminded me why. Many years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I had rather more hair than I do now, Roman was a new face at IFLRY, and a popular one too, whilst I was a slightly perplexed International Officer of the English Young Liberal Democrats. He does actually have to be elected, but as he is unopposed, this is merely a constitutional nicety.

So, what were my impressions of the six candidates?

I was most impressed by Vesna Pusic, who came across as serious, credible and coherent. Graham Watson was his usual polished self, whilst Dick Roche combined high politics and folksy charm. Lena Ek was enthusiastic, but Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Norica Nicolai made little impression on me.

I'll be voting for Vesna, Graham and Dick today, although that shouldn't be taken as a guide to the intentions of our delegation.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

ELDR Congress: the theme resolution working group (part 1)

Twenty years ago, I attended a Liberal International congress in Helsinki, and fled our delegation meeting in despair. My problem was the delegation's inability to understand the theory that, if you have nothing material to add, you should stay in your seat rather than take up valuable speaking time.

The first session of the working group on the theme resolution indicated, slightly depressingly, that we still haven't entirely absorbed the message, with multiple similar interventions, an obsession with minor drafting amendments and a lack of agreed strategy. Apart from that, it went quite well, I thought.

Gordon Lishman, a familiar name (and face) to Liberal Democrats, had led the process through which the theme resolution had been drafted, and it was, as a result, a document which was predominantly acceptable to a Liberal Democrat audience. Disagreement was, for the most part, minor, although there was a rather directionless debate on euthanasia, which will be returned to later, I suspect.

All of this thinking makes a man hungry, I find, and Allan Knox's invitation to lunch came at just the right moment...

It's a longer road to Nicosia than it need be...

Thursday, October 7th.

The Prime Minister met, we had some time to kill before our next meeting, so it was an opportunity to visit a sixteenth century caravanserai in the heart of the old city, within the Venetian walls. The building now hosts outlets for local artists, and is in remarkably good condition. We were introduced to a woman who makes ceramic flowers, and I purchased two simple pendants for Ros (I'm still a romantic at heart.

However, we had more business to carry out, and it was off to the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture for our second meeting. The Minister was most gracious, answering our questions for nearly an hour.

The TRNC suffers from an absence of direct flights, with all flights from Ercan, Northern Cyprus's main airport, having to stop in Turkey before flying on to anywhere else. This causes significantly longer journey times (six hours from London) compared with those to Larnaca (four hours from London), and is an active deterrent for potential visitors. The Minister was keen to gain our support in the face of the legal barriers placed in the way of such direct flights.

I raised the issue of cruise ships, given the popularity of the Eastern Mediterranean for cruising, with sunshine, antiquities and varied cultures aplenty. And again, the TRNC is barred from this lucrative market.

Ros was keen to probe the Minister's intentions in terms of tourism development. The Republic of Cyprus is now heavily developed, some might say overdeveloped, and Ros holds strong views as to sustainability in this field. We were reassured by his commitment to retain that which makes Northern Cyprus special, although only time will tell if they can avoid the mistakes made across the Mediterranean region in the past.

Cyprus is not really equipped to support mass tourism. Water supplies are vulnerable, much of the resources used by tourists have to be imported, and the environment is potentially under threat. There is not a large potential labour pool available to service tourism, leading to immigration from elsewhere, and most of the jobs generated are lowly-paid, a problem when the State is keen to develop a better-educated workforce.

It was time for lunch, Hasan advised, so we bid farewell, and set off for the Golden Tulip Nicosia...

'Twas on the Thursday morning that the Liberal Democrat delegation met...

And I made it, courtesy of a painfully early start and a fast taxi through the unexpectedly empty Helsinki streets.

The delegation meeting itself was uneventful for the most part, which our acting delegation leader, Robert Woodthorpe-Browne, led with his usual flair. Discussion of the election of three Honorary Vice Presidents - there are seven candidates, one of whom is our own Graham Watson - and agreement of our approach towards the theme and congress resolutions.

There was one unexpected surprise. I am to be a scrutineer for the elections, and hope, eventually, to find out what this involves...

Tiptoeing through the diplomatic tulips in North Nicosia...

The role of the Party Presidency is not normally a diplomatic one. That is, there is plenty of diplomacy involved in dealing with the various elements of the Party but, in general, dealing with foreign governments is not part of the role. So, a meeting with the Prime Minister of a sovereign, if generally unrecognised, state is not to be taken lightly. There are issues regarding the implication of recognition, especially when you are, as Ros is, a member of a governing Party.

The Prime Minister, Irsen Kucuk, was our first appointment, and we were welcomed into his office, where we were served tea, and given an introduction to the issues that are at the centre of his nation's concerns - trade and direct flights. Of course, a brief history lesson was included, noting a series of atrocities by Greek Cypriots against Turkish Cypriots in the period after independence in 1960.

At the moment, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is effectively under embargo, a matter of some irony. As part of the 2004 Annan Plan, a referendum was held on each side of the line of control. The Turkish Cypriots voted 2:1 in favour of the proposed deal to bring the two halves of the island. The Greek Cypriots voted 3:1 against. Less than a week later, the Republic of Cyprus was admitted into the European Union, an apparent reward for their intransigence. The Turkish side was to be rewarded with a trade agreement allowing tariff-free access to the European market. That agreement remains unratified by the European Union, six years later.

Regardless of whose side you take in the dispute, it seems grossly unfair that the European Union has failed to reward the Turkish Cypriots for their willingness to sign up to a deal requiring much compromise on their part. However, the pre-Lisbon arrangements allowed the Greek Cypriots to block ratification, which they promptly did, not exactly the act of a friendly neighbour.

Ros was intent on making this a genuine factfinding mission, and I was able to raise other issues when her flow of questions ran dry. After all, how often do you get to interview a Prime Minister?

But it was soon time to move on, although there was time for a presentation of gifts, one for us and, most touchingly, one for Sally and Brij to mark their wedding. Next stop, the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ELDR - it'll be just fine, there's a bureaucrat in town...

Welcome to... Helsinki, capital of Finland. I'm in town for the ELDR Congress, it's late in the evening, it's cold, and I'm trying to escape the airport in an attempt to reach the warmth of my hotel room.

Unfortunately, ill health means that Ros can't be here with me, which means that this is the biggest political 'gig' that I've done without her since we met, so you'll understand why I'm a mite nervous. I'm sure that I'll handle it though...

My hope is to provide up to the minute hour or so, maybe, commentary on events here, as there's little enough chance of your finding out what happens otherwise. And although I haven't got my laptop with me, given Finland's enthusiasm for mobile phone technology, I'm sure that my BlackBerry will be up to the task.

I'd better get some sleep though, as I'm staying at the airport tonight, and the delegation meets at 8.45 tomorrow morning...

It's never like this in the spy movies... welcome to the Ledra Palace crossing

Wednesday, October 6th...

An early morning start en route to the third element of our trip, as we drove along the south coast, via Limassol, to Nicosia. We had an appointment... So, we dropped off the hire car, and took a taxi towards our destination. That destination turned out to be up what looked like a minor side street.

Nicosia is the last divided capital city in Europe, and has been such for a very long time. The Ledra Palace Hotel crossing was the first to be opened in the Green Line, a concept which hints of barbed wire, armed soldiers and figures emerging from the mist, and it was with some trepidation that we waved our taxi driver behind and, with luggage rolling behind us, approached the Republic of Cyprus police post.

It has to be said that, having glanced at our passports, the officer who dealt with us didn't seem particularly unhappy that we were heading north. And so, we were off into no-man's land.

Or not, as the case may be. No armed soldiers, or at least, none that we could see, discreetly placed barbed wire, blazing sunshine. There is even an outpost of the Goethe Institute, just in case you need a good book or a literary reference as you pass by. Even so, we were heading back in time, to a struggling non-country, weren't we?

Again, we were to be surprised. Instead of a dusty, non-descript, isolated border post, we were greeted by a police post with cheery red and white striped awnings, an efficient immigration official, a little coffee shop complete with friendly cat, and a shiny cash machine which was only too happy to spit out Turkish lira on insertion of my Santander ATM card. And all of this in a suburban setting not unlike a prosperous Home Counties town on a sunny day.

Our contact on the other side, Hasan Varo─člu, Third Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was soon with us, and we were driven through the suburbs, then across the coastal range of mountains, to our accommodation at the Rocks Hotel and Casino, in Girne.

We had arrived safely in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus...

When Sally and Brij got married...

Monday, October 4th...

The big day had arrived, the reason why we had all come to Cyprus in the first place, the wedding of Ros's daughter, Sally, to her partner, Brij. It was, for various good reasons, a relatively small affair, but with family and friends present, they made their vows on a yacht in the harbour at Paphos, before we sailed out to sea to catch the sunset. There was dancing, singing and a bit of carousing - it wouldn't be a Scott family event without them - and not a little emotion.

Sally wore a dress which betrayed a Cypriot/Hellenic influence, with hair styled to match, most appropriate for a sunny, warm day in the Eastern Mediterranean, and looked truly lovely. Brij stuck to a dark suit, appropriately sober for such an occasion.

As stepfather to the bride, my role was relatively relaxed, my presence being pretty much the limit of the requirements, but it was nice to meet with part of my newly-expanded family, Brij's children, Kieran and Tanya. Curiously, despite never having had children myself, their existence makes me a grandfather and, it seems, soon to be a great-grandfather. A little odd for someone yet to reach his forty-sixth birthday, but something I'm pretty relaxed about.

And so Sally and Brij have set out on their married life. I wish them well, and given the increasingly cynical view of marriage in modern-day society, I admire them for taking the step at all.

Liberal Youth election - vote, vote, vote for Valladares!

There are those who might think that two, effectively, three sets of elections as Returning Officer for Liberal Youth might make the prospects of another, how can I put this, less than enticing.

However, what I learned from my period as Returning Officer is that having a few old hands around with a knowledge of how things work, what constitutions do and who can help when issues arise is good for an organisation with a relatively high churn of activists and leaders.

And so, I would like to take this opportunity to do something that I promised to do a few months ago, i.e. I am going to put my name forward for election as an Honorary Vice-President of Liberal Youth. I would like to go further than that. The Honorary President and six Honorary Vice-Presidents are expected to nominate one of their number to be Chair of the Appeals Panel and, if elected, I would wish to be considered for that role.

As someone with a working knowledge of Liberal Youth, with a copy of their Constitution in their laptop, and a sense of the possible, the desirable and the practical, I feel that I can serve Liberal Youth in a sensitive manner, respectful of the fact that it must always be a member-led organisation with an institutional memory application in the form of the Honorary Officers.

So, if you're going to Manchester in just over a week's time, think of me when you cast your ballot paper...

Tuition Fees: harpoon gun in our hand, harpoon in our foot...

The Browne Report, and the Government's response to it, has come as a major blow to those of us who believe that education is an investment in our young people, and in the future of our country. It has also possibly signalled an end to the innocence of Liberal Democrats in government, as a beloved policy has been exposed as being as full of holes as a piece of Emmenthal.

The principle of 'no tuition fees' has always been a reasonable one, whether or not you agree with it, but with an ever-increasing student population, the contrary pressures of student finance and university funding have become ever more irreconcilable. More students means more cost, and all the economies of scale cannot avoid our having to answer the question, "How much education can we afford?".

And, in truth, we never really faced up to that end of the equation. We never argued that sending more and more young people to further education merely created 'qualification inflation', whereby students were encouraged to gain more qualifications to differentiate themselves from the herd. More and more graduates means that the idea that a degree leads to higher income in later life is becoming less and less true, and therefore, for many, the investment committed in gaining that degree brings lower returns than ever before. I suspect, indeed, that the salary differential between graduates and non-graduates is dropping significantly.

There are some unexpected aspects to the position we find ourselves in. The increasingly international market in education means that any policy decided upon will need to offer a menu of choices in terms of payment - flat fees for foreign students and something different for home students - some of which will challenge the notion of fairness. Our membership of the European Union means that we have to address issues of reciprocity. We will also want to avoid, as far as possible, introducing funding arrangements that are not progressive.

We need to be realistic though. Funding for further education must come from somewhere, as the golden goose that is foreign students is a vulnerable edifice upon which to base a long-term funding package. Our aim, therefore, should be to hold tight to the principle of free education where we can, whilst striving to protect the underlying notion of equality of opportunity.

So, here are my thoughts on how this should work;

  • If there is a pupil premium for school pupils, couldn't a similar concept apply for universities?
  • The government should subsidise those degree courses which will turn out the types of graduates the economy needs - if they think that they can judge the demand for skilled migrants, it should be possible to do it with graduates.
  • We need a proper student market, potential students should have access to the sort of information that will enable them to invest wisely in the best course for them.
  • The cap on tuition costs, regardless of who pays them, should remain. A brusque transition to a US-style market in education will cause serious damage as universities fight over students.

In the short term, I'm comfortable with the prospect of a series of our MPs voting against the proposals. If you sign a pledge in public to oppose tuition fees, you can hardly back down at the first challenge, unless you're really able to justify such a change in stance. And, had I signed such a pledge, I'd be standing right beside them.

In the medium term, we have an opportunity to lead the debate on a long-term funding framework for our universities, looking not just at student finance and university funding, but at the whole aim of the exercise, to educate young people to take leading roles in society, in industry and in government.

And it matters. We took a very strong line on student finance, and we are honour bound to stick to it for as long as we can. However, we have to face the reality of our position, in that there is no money left for social re-engineering, and everyone is going to have to tighten their belts for a fair while yet.

The long-term objective is to construct world class educational establishments, capable of attracting the brightest students, the best intellects and nurturing high level research and development. How we do that will do more than anything to persuade young voters that we weren't just promising the Earth, we might just deliver it...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In which your not particularly brave correspondent takes to the sea...

Thursday, September 30th...

Ros likes the sea, she enjoys swimming and snorkelling. Me, I have a pact with the sharks - they stay in the water, and I stay on the land. And so it was with some misgiving that I was persuaded the day before that hiring a boat for the morning was a good idea.

However, this morning, I turned up in Latsi, just west of Polis, willing to give it a try (I understand that there are no sharks in the Mediterranean so, if you don't tell, I won't), and listened whilst the finer point of driving a motorboat were explained. In truth, I wasn't paying too much attention, for fear that I might have to drive the thing myself.

The day was warm and sunny (again), as we cast off and headed sedately westwards along the coast. It was perfectly charming, if a mite dull, as we made about eight knots (this is a technical term, I am told, and is faster than eight miles an hour - but not much). Ros and Sally took a swim but, although they were wearing snorkels, were unable to spot any aquatic life.

By noon, I was struggling. It was hot, and my discomfort on the sea was beginning to manifest itself, so I decided to take a nap. Whilst I slept, more snorkelling was undertaking, further up the cost this time, and fish were spotted (or they may have been striped, I wasn't told).

We then made our way back to Latsi, at somewhat greater speed this time, as Captain Brij had slightly lost track of time. This did mean that the crew got somewhat drenched by spray, but it was quite a lot of fun, and we did make it to port just in time.

To be honest, I would be slightly better off sitting on the beach with a cold beer and a good book, but for Ros, I'm perfectly happy to make what is, after all, a very small sacrifice...

A teething little problem of diplomacy and recognition

I am, as you are aware, a civil servant. Whilst this condition can be treated with cups of tea, a little time spent with pieces of paper and a generous pension (and it isn't actually that generous, before anyone starts), it does come with a thicket of rules.

So, for example, if I accept hospitality, or have it foisted upon me, from a foreign government, even if it is only because I'm accompanying my wife on a visit, I should declare that, shouldn't I? What if, in this instance, the foreign government concerned isn't formally recognised by the United Kingdom? I have raised this with my manager, who is perplexed, so I'm clearly going to have to ask a few questions of our HR people.

For Ros, it is easy, as she will declare it on the House of Lords Register of Members' Interests (she may already have done so for all that I know). As far as I'm concerned, however, it might have been simpler not to be transparent. Oh well, we'll have to see what they've got to say...

A complaints framework for the East of England. Discuss...

You're clever people, you know stuff. And so do I. However, I don't know everything, and there is always scope for improvement of anything, so what do you make of this?...
  1. All complaints submitted for action by the Regional Party shall be transmitted to the Regional Secretary for consideration in the first instance. On receipt, the Regional Secretary shall ascertain whether said complaint should be dealt with at Local, Regional or State Party level, seeking clarification where appropriate and ensuring compliance with the English Party Membership Rules.
  2. If the requirements indicated above are met, and the complaint is accepted as being best handled at Regional Party level, the Regional Secretary shall make a report to the next meeting of the Regional Management Committee, with a recommendation for action. Such a meeting may be by e-group if undue delay would otherwise result.
  3. The Regional Management Committee shall decide, based on the report of the Regional Secretary, on whether to proceed with the complaint, to refer it to an investigator or directly to a disciplinary hearing. It shall not be bound by the recommendation of the Regional Secretary.
  4. The Regional Secretary, or in the event of a potential conflict of interest, the Regional Administrator, shall be, in the first instance, responsible for liaison between the Regional Party, the complainant(s) and the respondent(s), which will be handled in writing. This will, normally, be done by e-mail. This clause does not supersede the right of the investigator or disciplinary hearing to seek evidence.
  5. The Regional Secretary shall not act as an investigator or member of a disciplinary hearing panel, and instead shall monitor the process, ensuring that deadlines and procedures as specified by the English Party Membership Rules and by the Regional Management Committee are adhered to.
If you were a complainant, or a respondant for that matter, would this reassure you that the matter was being dealt with according to due process. If not, why not?

A Latin American outpost in the hills of Cyprus

Wednesday, September 28th...

As most people know, Cyprus is a divided island, with the EU member, the Republic of Cyprus to the south of the Green Line, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, to the north. However, the line is not a continuous one.

The enclave of Kokkina, known to Turkish Cypriots as Erenkoy, is surrounded on three sides by the Republic of Cyprus, and to the north by the Mediterranean Sea. The hills are studded with military bases, each with its own rather curiously camouflaged bus stop on the Greek side (after all, how else do troops get to them?), two of which have the familiar pale blue flag of the United Nations. The south-east base has a sign, wishing visitors and passers-by 'bienvenidos', which came as a bit of surprise. And then I took a closer look (photographs are, by the way, discouraged)...

... and discovered that the UN force at Kokkina is provided by Argentina and Chile. It is a sign of the times that a major European point of tension is being managed by Latin Americans, under the command of a Peruvian. It is also telling in that Latin American governments are confidently taking their place in UN missions - the naval element of the Lebanon mission is now supplied by Brazil.

I do wonder why the Turks retain such an awkward toehold on the coast. It can only be supplied by sea or by helicopter, most of the inhabitants have been relocated, and is surrounded by steep hills, from which the Greek side could incessantly bombard were they to be so minded.

But a resolution must come. The Turks want entry to the European Union, the Greek Cypriots want their possessions back (as do the Turkish Cypriots), and until the two sides agree to settle, nobody's agenda will progress.

Monday, October 11, 2010

One of the oh so many reasons why people don't read constitutions

My beloved Regional Party is concerned. We've had a minor clutch of complaints of late and, to be honest, they've not been handled terribly well (and I hold up my hand at this point). The answer is to create a complaints handling process, which can be published so that, in the event of a future complaint, everyone involved will know what will happen, who will be responsible and for what, and who is managing the process.

What it has uncovered, as best I can tell, is that nobody on my Regional Executive has actually read any of this stuff, including me. I am somewhat mortified. Frankly, I should have read this stuff but, and you know how it is, I was attempting to have a life.

Ah well, it is done now, and I've drafted something. I'll post it here soon, so that if anyone is interested, they can comment - many heads are better than one, they say.

ELDR draft Congress resolutions - an overview

You never really know what you're going to get when it comes to resolutions from the various member parties of ELDR, although there are some telltale hints as to what might emerge. Some of the parties from candidate nations are, to put not too fine a point on it, keen to address issues related to their neighbourhood, others tend towards economic issues and LYMEC, the youth wing, tend towards the libertarian fringe (perhaps it's just that I'm getting old, but it wasn't like that in my day...).

Anyway, here are the resolutions to be considered, gathered into headings for somebody's convenience...

Civil Liberties

1. Civil Liberties in the European Union
2. Deletion, not Blocking!
3. Taking the Lead in Preventing Human Trafficking
4. Human Trafficking
5. The Data Retention Directive
6. Equal Treatment of Single-Person Households in the EU
7. The Romani People in Europe

Economic Policy

8. A Credible and Solid Currency
9. Women Entrepreneurs in Europe

Health Policy

10. The Link between Animal Welfare, Public Health and Resistance to Antibiotics

Future of Europe

11. The European Citizens’ Initiative – a new Opportunity to Empower the Citizens
12. The European Integration of Iceland
13. Kosovan Independence
14. The European Future of the Western Balkans Region
15. Relations between the EU and Russia

Foreign Policy

16. Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law and Children’s Rights
17. Afghanistan – Transferring Responsibilities and Power
18. Nuclear Disarmament and Arms Control – Using the New Momentum in the Debate for a “Global Zero”
19. EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement

It's very hot, very hot indeed...

Tuesday, September 28th...

Alright, I admit, I've gone away, to Cyprus for a family wedding, to be exact. And you know how it is, you don't exactly want to advertise the fact that the house is empty because, whilst we don't have much in the way of crime in Creeting St Peter as a rule, you don't want to take any chances.

It is unseasonably warm in north-west Cyprus, with the thermometer peaking in the mid-eighties Fahrenheit, and the sun beating down relentlessly out of a perfectly blue sky. There's nothing to drink except gin and tonic, but at least the limes are easily available - it's harvest time in Argaka.

We've hired a villa, mostly because they're really rather cheap, at least, compared to the cost of a hotel room of a similar standard. The reason for this is, in part, due to the financial crisis. There has been a vast level of property development here, and clutches of speculative development ran into the sand two years ago. If you borrowed to buy your villa, you will now be almost certainly in negative equity, and if you need to sell, you'll probably have to accept a significant loss.

In the meantime, many are rented out, by the week or by the month, in the hope that something will come along. There are plenty of shells of part-built properties too, left in suspended animation, awaiting the return of the good times.

There is a growing expat community here in the Polis area, north of Paphos, mostly retired, avoiding the spiralling cost of heating, enjoying the greater spending power of their pensions. Those living off of their investment income have struggled as interest rates and returns have fallen, but it is widely felt that things won't get any worse, and the community tends to look after its own.

But you'll excuse me if I end here. After all, a gin and tonic isn't quite as perfect if you let the ice melt...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm home... and the amassed paperwork isn't too bad...

As the rather erratic blogging might have implied, I've been away for a fortnight or so, to Cyprus, in fact. It appears that I should go away more often though as, in my absence, I have broken into the top 100 political blogs on Wikio. There is much to catch up on though, so I'll be reporting on the trip over the next week or so, and trying to report on the forthcoming ELDR Congress in Helsinki too.

It was nice to return to sunshine though, and Suffolk looked lovely both from the air and on the ground, as Ros and I made our way home from the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it's back to the daily grind for both of us tomorrow...

Saturday, October 09, 2010

ELDR theme resolution - Inter-generational Dimensions of Demographic Change

And now for the fourth and final instalment of the theme resolution...

Inter-generational Dimensions of Demographic Change
  • Notes that the overwhelming majority of people choose to live independently in later life, but with good family and social links and considers that autonomy in later life, with family and community inter-dependence achieves both what people want and reduces the strain on services and associated costs;
  • Notes that the unemployment rate is increasing across the EU among the 18-24 and 50+ age ranges, accompanied by a rise in the number of young people that are in neither education, employment or training;
  • Notes that young people will bear the brunt of the after effects of the global economic and financial recession in terms of their level of debt and reduced spending power;
  • Notes that social democrats use early retirement as a short-term answer to unemployment;
  • Notes that the longer people remain active in society, the healthier their lives will be and the greater sense of well-being they will achieve;
  • Considers that individuals must have the right of self-determination over how they live their lives, whether they are young and seeking opportunities in education and work or older people wishing to remain in employment and as active members of society;
  • Considers that young people must be encouraged to take up their responsibilities as members of society, whether through work and the betterment of their standard of living or volunteering;
  • Considers that both increasing the percentage of experienced and skilled older people in the workplace and supporting young people at their point of entry into the labour market are advantageous;
  • Calls for the extension of flexible working practices, including home-working, as a means to allow people to fulfil their work and private commitments to meet their individual needs;
  • Calls on member states and EU institutions to invest more in education at school age levels and, more broadly, for a greater commitment to improving education levels among young adults, both for the good of the individual and Europe’s prosperity;
  • Calls for initiatives which promote inter-generational links and contributions by older and younger people to benefit all generations.
In truth, much of this is aspirational, but is at least consistent with Party thinking.

The big question is, how much of this will survive the amendment process? Next, I'll look at the amendments as currently available, to see what impact they might have...

ELDR theme resolution - Free Movement, Immigration and Social Cohesion

Time for part three of our review of the ELDR theme resolution, due to be debated next week in Helsinki...

Free Movement, Immigration and Social Cohesion
  • Notes that the free movement of people between member states is fundamental to the political and economic goals of the EU and the well being of its citizens;
  • Notes and welcomes the extension of qualified majority voting to issues of immigration and asylum under the Lisbon Treaty and supports the provisions in the Stockholm Programme for the development of a comprehensive and sustainable European migration and asylum policy framework;
  • Notes that immigration and asylum are often confused so that the distinction and reasons between the two are lost;
  • Notes that a large number of immigrants come to the EU on the grounds of marriage and family reunification. We support the human right to family life, but this should not be used as an easy alternative to formal immigration procedures;
  • Considers that the free movement of people within the EU is vital for continued European integration and prosperity and calls for the rights of all EU citizens from old and new member states to be harmonised as soon as possible, notably the right to work in all member states;
  • Considers that proposals for EU cross-border health care, currently being blocked by European socialists, must come into force as soon as possible in order to provide more effective and efficient forms of treatment;
  • Considers that a broader review of labour market policies is needed to address the issue of migrants often filling low paid, low skilled service sector jobs;
  • Considers that the introduction of flexicurity, will make member states’ social security systems more sustainable, while guaranteeing a fair level of social welfare to citizens in need and promoting employability in a more flexible job market;
  • Calls for, in line with the Stockholm Programme, the creation of flexible immigration systems that are responsive to the priorities, needs, numbers and volumes determined by each member state and which enable migrants to take full advantage of their skills and competence. To this end supports the migration of skilled workers into and between member states, both in the short-term, post recession period, and in the longer-term, through a blue card scheme that is administered by each EU country to ensure measured economic migration;
  • Calls for appropriate and effective integration programmes at the national level, including linguistic, cultural and educational elements, to enable immigrants to contribute actively to our societies, economies and welfare systems;
  • Calls on immigrants to EU countries to participate actively in society with the expectation that they will respect the fundamental values and rule of law of the society in which they live;
  • Calls for an EU framework and qualifying period of eligibility to receive social welfare benefits for those immigrants of working age and capability coming to the Union as part of a family reunification process and who are reluctant to actively seek employment;
  • Calls for greater efforts to ensure the compatibility of member states’ national social security systems, including pensions and unemployment benefits;
  • Calls for the establishment and full implementation of a Common European Asylum System to ensure the same level of treatment of asylum seekers across all member states with regard to reception conditions, procedural arrangements and status determination. This system will ensure that only people fleeing from a justifiable fear of persecution are granted asylum;
  • Calls for coherent policies at EU and national level to promote and encourage the participation of young people in the labour market, education and training, including, at EU level, additional funding for student exchange programmes to develop a more mobile and knowledgeable workforce;
  • Calls for greater flexibility of labour market rules while providing a good level of social protection.
There are some issues of potential difference here. The call for freedom of labour movement across the European Union seems to indicate that accession countries should receive the full benefits of a freely mobile workforce immediately, and whilst Liberal Democrats might feel that this is a price worth paying, it wouldn't be universally popular.

Calling for greater compatibility between the various national social security is interesting, and might be seen as a logical step towards a fully-integrated labour market. However, it does smack of interference in the right of sovereign states to decide for themselves the level of benefits they can afford to provide.

ELDR theme resolution - the Economic Impact of an Ageing Society

Welcome back, as our review of the ELDR Congress theme resolution continues...

The European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party convening on 14-15th October 2010 in Helsinki, Finland

Economic Impact of an Ageing Society
  • Notes that longer life expectancy in the EU should be celebrated and that there are consequences for the structure and financing of health, social care and social protection as well as the need to meet the housing, security and environmental needs of older people;
  • Notes that post-war baby boomers are approaching their later years, with Finland and Italy the first EU countries set to experience this adjustment in workforce composition. Without effective policy responses, this change could significantly reduce the size of Europe’s workforce and threatens economic competitiveness, productivity and service provision;
  • Notes the EU’s Barcelona Summit proposals to raise the average actual ages of retirement; that a number of member states are discussing raising the age of eligibility for state pensions; and that some have already done so;
  • Notes that Europe’s economy needs more entrepreneurs to stimulate economic growth and knowledge sharing and it is important that the member states find ways to overcome the factors that particularly discourage women from taking up the option of entrepreneurship;
  • Considers that relying on state expenditure to meet the largest part of the income of retired people is no longer a sustainable economic model and that individuals must work in partnership with the state and employers to enable sufficient income in later life;
  • Considers that the need to maintain an adequately skilled workforce across the EU is vital for sustainable economic growth, particularly in a post-recession period, and notes that previous economic downturns have led to the loss of skilled and experienced workers and to increased costs in social support, health and care services;
  • Considers that the employment of older workers has positive effects on the economy in terms of them remaining active consumers and spenders, which in turn creates demand and jobs;
  • Recognises the importance of flexibility in labour markets which allows employers to pay appropriately for the contribution which workers make, while safeguarding older workers' pension and employment rights,
  • Calls for the abolishment of mandatory retirement ages in EU member states. Older people are not a collective group and must have the individual freedom to continue working, if they so wish and if they meet employers’ proper expectations;
  • Supports the concept of a 4th pillar of income in later life, focussing on the flexible extension of working life in order to supplement retirement income;
  • Calls for common EU guidelines for member states on how to ensure people’s financial future, including the abolition of retirement ages, greater incentives for longer-term saving and private investment, and a review of unsustainable public sector pension schemes;
  • Calls on governments actively to promote healthy ageing programmes, as Finland has done successfully;
  • Calls on governments at every level in the EU to support the development of age-friendly communities to enable older citizens to play their full part in society;
  • Calls for a business climate that is favourable to female entrepreneurs, as well as social structures that encourages and enables a larger number of new women entrepreneurs and, in general, greater equality between male and female workers to facilitate wider female participation in the labour market;
  • Calls on the EU institutions and member states to recognise the implications of societal ageing in their policies for aid and development.

Once again, the resolution, in its draft form, is relatively uncontentious from a British perspective. Indeed, elements of the resolution are already UK policy, with the abolition of the mandatory retirement age, the move away from mostly state provision of retirement income, and an ongoing review of public sector pension schemes already part of the policy furniture, so to speak.

I would suggest that the implication that public sector pension schemes are unsustainable fails to take into account the 'social bargain' made between public sector unions and their governments, but doubtless there will be an opportunity to clarify that further.

There are, as one would hope for and expect, the usual clauses calling for greater participation of women in the workplace, particularly as entrepreneurs, a group that our more free-market sister parties (no, I didn't call them ideologues...) tend to like.

Finally, you'll notice the occasional reference to Finland. Don't be particularly surprised, as such resolutions tend to include a favourable reference to the host nation... especially if they are in government...

Friday, October 08, 2010

You are kindly invited to a book launch...



One of this country's most prominent European politicians and thinkers, Graham Watson, launches his new book later this month. I'm hoping to be there myself, and it might be an interesting opportunity to explore this relatively little known area of European political dialogue... 

ELDR to discuss demographic change next week in Helsinki. 'Liberal Bureaucracy' reports...

Is it really a year since the last ELDR Congress in Barcelona? The answer, it seems, is yes, so  'Liberal Bureaucracy' is pleased to bring to a rather wider audience than might otherwise be the case, a preview of the forthcoming debates.

It is traditional on these occasions to start with the theme resolution, a generally weighty tome, running to pages, written in a Euro-variant of English, and this year is no exception. Indeed, so much so, that the report will come in several parts. Bear with me...

Liberal Responses to the Challenges of Demographic Change

DRAFT theme resolution of the ELDR Party Congress, 14-15th October 2010, Helsinki, Finland

The ageing of populations sets one of the biggest challenges for the 21st century. Increased life expectancy is one of the greatest successes of the 20th century: who would not prefer a longer life? Older people provide Europe with a major social, economic and political resource and contribute a great deal to society. At the same time, European and global populations are ageing, which raises questions about health and social care; how to ensure sustainable economic growth; and the type of social protection systems that we expect and can maintain.

Demographic change has not happened overnight. However, without policies to address these issues now, some EU countries will discover in five to ten years time that our economies are less productive; our health care systems are unbalanced with the demands for health care in later life and reductions in the number of family carers; and state pensions systems are in crisis. Europe’s Liberal Democrats believe these questions must be answered now with policies that actively engage both older and young people in society and working life, with people having the right of self-determination to create and pursue their opportunities.

Population ageing also affects the developing world. Developed countries became comparatively rich before they aged; many developing countries will age before they become rich. This fact has important implications for the EU’s development policies and will affect the development of trade and competition.

Furthermore, as Europe begins to recover from the worst recession since the 1930’s it is imperative that changes to Europe’s demography do not hinder our ability to innovate, create and be competitive and in this regard the free movement of people and knowledge and a fully functioning Single Market are vital. Equally important is having a sufficiently sized workforce and, in addition to increasing the participation of country nationals into work, we must also take advantage of the emergence of the pan-European labour market and the process of (economic) migration and immigration.

Migration affects the composition of our societies and is not a new phenomenon; the relocation of people across the world has been taking place for centuries. Without policies which address the economic and social aspects of immigration, undue pressure can be felt in recipient countries. Liberals consider that the migration of skilled third country workers into and between member states to complement the workforce of member state nationals remains an important way to maintain Europe’s workforce, stimulate research and innovation and ensure the EU’s global economic competitiveness. Relocation of third country nationals can also occur through people claiming asylum in EU countries as a result of a justifiable fear of persecution in their own country and Europe’s Liberal Democrats support the notion of a Common European Asylum System.

This opening exposition of the current situation contains little that we, as British Liberal Democrats, could disagree with. The stance on non-EU migration is that which our Party took into the General Election campaign (with little positive response from the voter), the support for a common European Asylum System would probably make little difference to the current position - I suspect that any proposal acceptable across Europe would be more restrictive than current UK policy.

So, what are the 'liberal, democratic answers'? Stick with me, gentle reader, as 'Liberal Bureaucracy' probes further...