Saturday, June 25, 2011

Caught in a landslide, can escape from reality...

I find myself unexpectedly on a steam train, on the Worcestershire/Shropshire border, surrounded by people dressed in 1940s outfits, as the Severn Valley Railway celebrates one of its special event weekends.

It's been an odd weekend, starting with a trip back to 1897 to experience life in a Victorian industrial town at Blists Hill, with a clay mine 'experience' complete with mock landslide (don't worry, I dug my way out with a handy shovel), domestic pigs, proper(ish) money and a post office guaranteeing next day delivery to everywhere except the Scottish Highlands and Islands and... Norfolk (why am I not surprised?...).

We've crossed Abraham Darby's iron bridge (very impressive) and stumbled across a really rather good Indian restaurant in Oakengates.

But today, we're moving onto the 1940s, with identity cards and men in knitted sleeveless v-neck sweaters. Yes, welcome to World War II. The sun is shining, the Union Jack bunting is out and the 'Be like Dad, Keep Mum' posters are up.

And it is quite spectacular, with crooners belting out wartime classics, members of the cast of Allo Allo signing pictures - Ros found herself standing next to Helga in the gift shop at Highley - and men and women in uniform. Indeed, the number of people who have entered into the spirit of it and dressed up especially is really rather impressive. In short, it is the sort of entirely, gloriously, bonkers (no disrespect, my Lord) sort of event that is so quintessentially British.

Ah well, time to move on though...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Localism Bill, Committee Stage

Clause 4 : Limits on doing things for commercial purpose in exercise of general power
Debate on whether Clause 4 should stand part of the Bill.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: I did not give notice of my intention to ask a question about Clause 4, but I have listened to the discussion on the previous group of amendments with some interest. Clause 4(1) gives me a certain amount of anxiety. The provision describes,
    "power on a local authority to do things for a commercial purpose only if they are things which the authority may, in exercise of the general power, do otherwise than for a commercial purpose".
Does that really just mean that if it is illegal to do it otherwise, they may not do it for a commercial purpose, or is there some inwardness here which perhaps I have not appreciated? It sounds almost tautologous. If a local authority cannot do something, presumably it cannot do it whether for a commercial purpose or otherwise, in which case why put it in the Bill? If there are differences or some distinction is being drawn here, I would be most grateful if my noble friend could explain it to me.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I want to join this brief exchange because I am developing an increasing sense of Alice in Wonderland. It feels as though we are operating in two worlds: the old world in which local authorities were only allowed to do things that were in statute, and the new world in which they are free to do anything unless they are barred. It is beginning to feel, in the context of this debate and future debates, that there is a real problem about being caught in the middle where local authorities will be stopped from doing a lot of the things that previous legislation allowed them to do. I am sorry, but I find it difficult to express the point, but I am sure that noble Lords are beginning to get a sense of what I mean. The question of how significant the general power really is, if local authorities are continually hampered by previous legislation, will become very important. It is an issue to which we will keep coming back.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Vision... so many fences to sit on, so hard to choose...

Someone of immense wisdom* suggested to me the other day that the Liberal Democrats are at their best when the three drivers of Party activity - organising, campaigning and thinking - are all heading in the same direction at the same pace. In order to do that, you need people in each of the three strands who understand the value of the other two, and who are influential enough to make it happen.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI have to admit to a sense that, to some extent, the campaigning strand has dominated in recent years, leading to a situation where we have become better and better at conveying messages, whilst simultaneously getting worse and worse at developing the messages to be conveyed. Yes, we can deliver dozens of leaflets, but what goes in them? Is it enough to be simply against 'them', whoever they might be? What are we offering that makes us a better choice, that demonstrates how we will put our principles into action?

And so we have seen the rise of groups based on ideas, first Liberal Vision, who have never really broken out from their perceived libertarian box, and now the Social Liberal Forum, who appear to have struck a rather sharper note if reports of their conference this weekend past are to be believed. I am still to ascertain what it will lead to in terms of a communicable message, but it is early days yet.

Meanwhile, the organisational branch of the Party continues its long trek towards constitutional perfection, seemingly oblivious of the impact of mounting regulation designed to cover every circumstance imaginable, whilst failing to reflect the struggles of small, fragile Local Parties, barely able to run a slate of candidates at local level, let alone take seats and win councils.

It is time to bring the three Liberal Democrat tribes together, for each to start thinking about the impact of its actions on the others, so that we can build a better machine, capable of surviving the next General Election.

Of course, that assumes that we can all come together. My dilemma is one, I suspect, that is shared by many within the Party. I worry that the social liberals are a bit too 'warm and fuzzy' on questions of economics, yet the economic liberal voice is, as I put it, 'as warm and human as a thrown knife'. And you can't really sit on the fence between the two - there's quite a lot of intellectual territory between them, albeit with the odd areas of overlap.

So, neither a social liberal or an economic liberal shall I be - at least, for now. I'm keen for the debate to go on though, if only so that I can be a small, still voice pointing out that it's about more than just ideas, or campaigning, or structure. Which reminds me, there's something that I want to do...

* Yes, that would be Ros...

Ros in the Lords: Oral Question - Cyprus

Baroness Hussein-Ece To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the recent speech by the United Nations Secretary-General on the lack of progress towards a political solution to a divided Cyprus.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the biggest practical problem facing Cypriots wanting to reunify is the difference in GDP between the two halves of the island, and that the best way of improving things on the Turkish Cypriot side would be for the European Union to implement the direct trade regulation? Can the noble Lord assure us that the Government will really push for this particular measure, which is practical and offers part of a solution?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I have two points in answer to my noble friend. First, the EU is putting a considerable volume of funds into northern Cyprus, precisely with the thought that when the happier days come, the disparity in incomes will be somewhat overcome. I have a figure here of €259 million, I think, for the current year, a very considerable sum indeed. That may be over two years, actually. So on that side things are being done. As to the problem of trade between Turkey and the rest of the EU and the bar on the use of Turkish ports by EU or Greek Cypriot shipping in response to the fact that the EU appears to have pursued a policy of isolation of northern Cyprus, that is a very difficult issue. There is a stalemate at the moment, with each side waiting for the other to move. However, I agree with my noble friend that if we can get movement on that front on both sides, trade and prosperity will open up and the problems of northern Cyprus will be further alleviated.

Civil Service pensions: how on Earth did we come to this?

Hector the Inspector
If it isn't my old friend, Hector!

Before I continue, for those of you below a certain age, Hector was, in his day, a bit of a trailblazer. He was the first attempt by the then Inland Revenue to reach out to the public as if to say, "look, we can laugh at ourselves too". And, believe it or not, his voice was provided by Alec Guinness, the only voiceover the great man ever did. But I digress.

When I started as a civil servant, at a time when tax assessments were produced by typists using carbon paper, we still had wax to seal documents and I occasionally worked by the light of a candle, the standard retirement age was sixty-five, just as it was for virtually everyone else. However, things were beginning to go badly for the then Conservative government, and it was decided that getting rid of a bunch of civil servants was necessary (and doubtless popular, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose).

However, firing people was bad for morale and, more importantly, expensive. And so the Conservatives thinkers came up with a brilliant plan. "I know, we'll reduce the retirement age to sixty and pension them all off!". "Brilliant idea George, let's do it!". And so, a number of my more aged colleagues were dragged away from jobs they rather enjoyed (and were quite good at), and force fed pensions. And the logic was obvious - it cost less to give them a pension than to keep them on the payroll. Well yes, in the short term, at least. Of course, you had to make them eligible for their pension, and that meant allowing civil servants to receive their pension at sixty.

At that time, you accrued your maximum pension entitlement after forty years which, if you had joined the Civil Service from school, you would manage that by the age of sixty. It wasn't so great if you had studied at university, but the pension was pretty good anyway, and the promised leisure time was kind of appealing.

The catch was obvious, giving every Civil Servant an extra five years of pension was likely to prove expensive eventually and, in truth, look rather generous from the perspective of everyone with real jobs (naturally, I am paid to drink tea and shuffle paper all day - you have no idea how difficult it is to do both at the same time...). But, as long as the economy was going well, it would be alright. Of course, it also assumed that the Civil Service wouldn't grow much either. So much for that theory...

The system was already beginning to creak and groan by the time Labour came into power in 1997, and before long, proposals to make the scheme less generous were forthcoming. However, to avoid the ignominy of civil servants doing even less than usual (note to the humourless - that's sarcasm, by the way), it was agreed that those of us already in the scheme would have the right to opt in to the new scheme, or remain in the old one. If you had served more than fifteen years, you were almost certainly better off staying put. If you had served less than twelve, you were better off moving over. Yes, you had to pay a bit more, but the benefits were enhanced a bit, and if you were a newcomer, you weren't given a choice anyway.

It still wasn't enough though, and it was soon time to restore the retirement age to sixty-five. That wasn't as helpful as it sounded though, as the reserved right to retire at sixty was retained. What that meant was that you could go on until sixty-five if you wished, but why do so if you could take a comfortable pension at sixty, live off of the lump sum for five years and then collect a state pension at sixty-five? However, it would begin to pay off somewhere around 2050...

Since then, the final salary scheme has been closed to all new entrants (2007), the mandatory retirement age has been abolished (2008), both of which potentially help the 'pension timebomb' at some point in the future. On the other hand, the maximum number of years for which you could contribute towards your pension was increased to forty-five - which did at least mean that you had to work the extra five years if you wanted to benefit.

So, that's the background to the current dilemma. Tomorrow, I'll look at some of the reasons why civil servants are so outraged...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Goodbye and farewell to another stupid Conservative idea...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
Lord Tope
Lord Jenkin of Roding
Lord Beecham

57       Page 210, line 27, leave out from beginning to end of line 39 on page 212

Doesn't look like much, does it? However, the effect is wonderfully satisfying for those who have the interests of local government at heart, and the rather ecumenical nature of the proposers (one Labour, two Liberal Democrat and one Conservative) makes it all the more curious.

In one fell swoop, the amendment removes the proposal that elected mayors could become the chief executive officer, as well as much of the rubbish that gives him/her powers that would make the rest of your elected representatives pretty well redundant.

And, like all of the best amendments, it won't even get debated. Baroness Hanham, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, said yesterday, in the early stages of the first day of the Committee Stage;

"At Second Reading I indicated that we would listen to noble Lords' concerns about shadow mayors and mayors as chief executives. We are keen to build on the common ground and consensus that the Bill has enjoyed. I should therefore like to say at this stage that when we reach the debate on mayoral provisions, the Government will be pleased to support amendments that have the effect of deleting from the Bill mayoral management arrangements; that is, mayors as chief executives and the concept of shadow mayors. In more detail, this means that we will delete mayoral management arrangements and we will be supporting Amendment 57 in the names of my noble friends Lord Jenkin of Roding, Lord Tope, Lady Scott of Needham Market and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. We will also be supporting Amendments 62A, 66A, 84E, 87A to 87D, 108A and 187 in the names of my noble friends Lord True and Lord Howard of Rising, which complete the changes needed to delete mayoral management arrangements."

So, no more shadow mayors either, another one of those absurd suggestions designed to (effectively) keep the question of an elected mayor on the agenda regardless of the lack of enthusiasm from all but those who aspire to be the elected mayor.

What do you mean, I'm actually the Chairman?

I was, I admit, pretty excited about becoming Vice Chair of my small, but perfectly formed, Parish Council. After all, we bureaucrats don't usually get offered positions of authority. And I thought that my first effort at chairing went quite well in the absence of our outgoing Chair due to pressures of work.

But it seems that I missed a small detail. Apparently, I am the Interim Chairman of the Parish Council until Steve signs the appropriate documents and assumes the chair. To be honest, I suspect that Rosemary, our Parish Clerk, withheld this small but important piece of information just in case I went berserk and started ordering trespassers to be shot or some such thing.

I admit that this is rather unlikely, but I am the most overtly political councillor on Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and I do have 'views', most of them about value for money and 'ordnung', admittedly.

My powers are fairly limited though, and as I don't even know how to turn on the street lights, Rosemary, and the village, are probably safe for the time being. And, in any event, I get to hand over the invisible chains of power in a fortnight's time...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Strike Law: Is freedom only appropriate for people you approve of?

Having been critical of Liberal Vision's approach towards the Party it claims to support yesterday, I have been challenged to debate with them, rather than 'griping' as one of their Deputy Director puts it.

So, I had a look at their latest posting, and was interested to see that it addressed industrial relations. Given that I'm a fairly cynical member of a public sector union, PCS, what did Liberal Vision's contributor, Leslie Clark, have to say?

"Despite the recent results of Mugabesque proportions that were widely interpreted as an endorsement of anger against the Coalition..."

The use of ‘Mugabesque’, redolent as it is of individuals coerced into voting through fear, hardly reflects the reality of those pesky Trade Union ballots. As a public sector union member, that’s an image that is rather unfamiliar to me. Union ballots are run by the Electoral Reform Society’s ballot services arm, and I vote secretly in the comfort of my own home.

And yes, there is anger about pay and conditions. Three years of pay freezes have reduced living standards amongst civil servants, all of whom are doing jobs required by the Government, and most of whom are earning less than £25,000 per annum. Yes, argue about whether there should be as many of them as there are, or whether their tasks are really necessary, but his callous sarcasm directed at individuals struggling to raise their families and keep a roof over their heads indicates where his motives actually point towards. It should be unsurprising at a time when inflation is running at 4.5% and real incomes are falling by almost as much in the public sector that militancy is on the increase.

Add to that the proposal that civil servants make bigger contributions towards their pension - which implies another cut in real terms income, despite the fact that the value of the pension was taken into account when deciding pay scales and pay increases, the cynicism of his attitude knows no bounds.

"It goes without saying that introducing a minimum turnout wouldn’t drastically curb the fundamental right to withdraw one’s labour."

Of course it does, he wouldn't recommend it otherwise. The use of the warm and fuzzy word 'modernise' is a tactic beloved of all weasels in a tight corner. So, why not be honest here, public sector strikes are bad because they make the lives of people like Leslie Clark slightly less inconvenient.

His proposal to require minimum turnouts for strike ballots does two things – it incentives opponents of any proposal to simply stay at home, rather than engage, an action likely to entrench the sort of one-sided outcomes that so upset him, and it reduces the freedom of the individual union member to choose whether or not to participate as, under his proposals, union officials would need to actively drive up turnout by pressurising members to vote, creating the very scenario he appears to imagine exists now.

And he assumes that union members act like sheep, unable to think or act for themselves. Just because unions representing 750,000 public sector workers have voted for strike action doesn’t mean that 750,000 public sector workers will be missing on 30 June. I for one am expecting to turn up to do a day’s work as usual, and I’m guessing that I won’t be alone.

Strike action in the public sector is surprisingly rare. Giving up a day’s pay, plus a day of pension entitlement, is not done lightly, especially when most of those doing so earn less than the average wage.

His inconsistent approach to democratic legitimacy merely serves to infer that freedom, in his view, only applies to those of whom he approves, and that is no freedom at all. But, of course, he is writing on the blog of an organisation which has no internal democracy, is criticial of the internal democracy of the political party it claims to support and sees no paradox in being a collective endeavour whilst seeking to place limits on the freedoms of other collective endeavours.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Liberal Vision - as warm and human as a thrown knife?

I read with some interest the latest missive from Liberal Vision, another condemnation of the works, culture and morals of the Liberal Democrats, and find myself asking the question, "If you dislike us, and most of what we stand for, why do you bother?".

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIn posting after posting, Liberal Vision's contributors criticise our sense of compassion, our internal structures, our leading personalities, with nary a positive word. Is there nothing about the Liberal Democrats that is pleasing to their rather jaundiced eye? That said, I'm not one of those that suggests that, as an appalling group of neo-liberals with no comprehension of, or sympathy for, the underlying values of the Liberal Democrats, they should leave on the first helicopter out - they are within the spectrum of politics that is liberalism.

However, it is dispiriting to see a relentless stream of sarcasm, carping and disapproval, especially from a group whose activities are a lightning rod for those on the left who accuse us of being 'yellow Tories'. It is hard to stand up for a group who behave in such an unlovely manner.

From issuing a report claiming that swathes of Liberal Democrat seats would be lost unless the Party accepted their policy prescription, to promoting an anonymous witch hunt against prominent Party figures, their approach has appeared designed to alienate rather than persuade, to court publicity rather than seek debate. The sustained support of key Liberal Vision activists for the rehabilitation of Lembit Opik rather than someone whose credibility is more widely accepted is another indication of a divorce, or at least a trial separation, from mainstream Liberal Democrat thinking.

That is not to say that mainstream Liberal Democrat thinking is always right - the fiasco of tuition fees is a reminder that the majority view isn't always optimal. But to be so far from the mainstream so often is a lonely place to be and, if it were me, I might begin to wonder whether campaigning from beyond the constraints of a political party might be more inviting than attempting to do so from within.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

When you only have three ways out of your village...

I'm experimenting with my village blog, trying out a new style. What do you think?...

At a meeting of the Mid Suffolk South Area Committee of SALC, the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, Cllr. Mark Valladares raised local concerns about poor communication of the closure of the village's main link to Stowmarket recently.

In a conversation with County Council Highways official, Steve Bone, Cllr. Valladares noted the failure to notify villagers of the closure, pointing out that had he not taken it upon himself to circulate the information, drivers would only have discovered the closure on reaching the junction of Pound Road and Mill Lane.

He also noted the failure to co-ordinate roadworks, given that at the same time, Church Road in Stowupland, the only other convenient route to Stowmarket, was the subject of redressing, reducing traffic speeds to 20 mph.

Other subjects raised included the dangerous right hand turn from the A1120 into Creeting Lane, and the filling of the grit bin in The Lane.

"It really isn't good enough,", claimed Cllr. Valladares, "the County Council needs to be more careful in scheduling road closures, especially when fuel costs are soaring. Long diversions, especially when they are unexpected, are costly to those of us who live in villages.".

Meanwhile, the closure of Creeting Road, on the edge of the parish at the entrance to Cedars Park, has overrun, although the road is now passable, and should reopen to traffic shortly.
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

You learn something every day...

Creeting. Creeting, or ‘creepy tweeting’, means retweeting a high-profile Twitterer so you can bask in their reflected glory. So what if you didn’t really understand (or even read) that abstruse piece on A/B testing, canonical URLs or Facebook user profiling? Retweet it anyway, you’ll look incredibly clever and might get a mention from someone with 100,000 followers.

Now, here in Creeting St Peter, we are surprised to find that there is another use for the word 'creeting', but it has to be admitted, it's really rather clever. Of course, if we had decent broadband here, we'd do it too, but until Suffolk's bid for faster broadband comes good, we'll just have to settle for checking on the status of our redcurrant bush...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Meanwhile, on my other blog...

Anyone would think that I wasn't taking this seriously...
I've been busy elsewhere too. Litle known to most of you, I actually run another blog, dedicated to life in my small village, you know, the kind of stuff that you might not be particularly interested in. However, now you might be, so I'll be running some of the stories here. It might be fun, and not a little educational...

Charlie Falconer - rewriting the truth to support a weak argument

Watching yesterday's Andrew Marr show (and don't start me about him...), I realised just how seriously the Labour leadership were taking the reports about Ed Miliband's future. You can, after all, always rely on the soothing tones of Lord Falconer to smooth over any turbulence. However, that doesn't mean to say that the wily old campaigner isn't above using the odd entirely inaccurate 'fact' in support of his arguments.

Having obfuscated with rare style over the future of Miliband, the conversation turned to Lords Reform. As a senior Labour Peer, his opinion undoubtedly matters. He is rather well-connected in Labour circles. So, we can expect his arguments to be echoed in future debates, which makes his comment that the Coalition has introduced more than one hundred new Peers all the more depressing.

Regardless of which side of the debate on Lords Reform you find yourself (and I'm sitting on the fence marked 'conflict of interest'), it would be helpful if Labour didn't distort the facts in support of an argument which opposes a manifesto pledge of theirs. Yes, more than one hundred new Peers have been introduced, but as half of them were appointed by the outgoing Labour administration on a list which was repeatedly delayed by the inability of Gordon Brown to sign it off, Charlie's comment is, to put it mildly, misleading.

And so, when he calls for the sort of minor changes that he saw no need for when on the Government benches, you can safely assume that he has slipped comfortably into Labour's stance that everything on the Government's agenda is wrong, unnecessary, or being done too fast.

And yet, didn't his mob abolish all but ninety-two of the hereditary Peers, attempt to unconstitutionally abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, and use the Lords as a retirement home for aging Labour MPs to create vacancies for the chosen friends of the leadership and their Union boss friends? You know, I think that they might have done.

Was it unnecessary then? Did it contribute to the reduction of child poverty? Did it create a single new job (apart from for Tony and Gordon's mates)? No, but it was the right thing to do at the time. Or was it just another cynical act designed to attract the votes of those who seek constitutional reform? You might say so, but I couldn't possibly comment...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Amina Abdallah is a fake - the impact on 'real' bloggers

The somewhat unexpected news that the young lesbian blogger from Syria is, in fact, a bearded American academic living in Edinburgh, will have provided some amusement to the cynics amongst us. And yet, it is a demonstration of the risks that the internet presents. After all, once the media started to report 'her' dilemma as fact, the story took on a life of its own.

It is all too easy to create a credible story and portray it as real life, especially when it plays to an agenda that people want to believe in. In this case, a repressive regime torturing and killing its citizens, in a country where LGBT rights are limited/non-existent, and where information is heavily restricted, provides a background for a really good tale.

The irony, of course, is that somewhere out there, there is almost certainly a young lesbian Syrian, whose experiences would make great, dramatic reportage. She probably doesn't have internet access though and, even if she did, she probably wouldn't be believed now. Indeed, there has already been a backlash from genuine LGBT activists in the Middle East, condemning Tom MacMaster (the person behind the Amina persona) for his actions.

But why would he do such a thing? His claim to have been raising issues that he cared about may be entirely genuine, but the resulting damage to the credibility of all bloggers purporting to be reporting actual events in Syria only helps one party - the Syrian regime. Because, let's be honest, anyone who reads tales of violence, torture and oppression coming out of Deraa or Jisr Al-Shagourh is going to be thinking, "Is this real?". As far as the Syrian government is concerned, job done.

Which leads you to another, darker possibility, that Mr McMaster is in the pay of the Syrian regime. Naturally, I don't believe that he is, but when you've gone to so much trouble to create a fake persona, you might understand why some might wonder.

The whole story should act as a reminder to us all though. If you really want to 'succeed' as a blogger of record, as opposed to just expressing an opinion, you need to apply verifiable facts, a task made more difficult by the sheer mass of information out there. And, sometimes, the 'facts' out there have been propagated by people whose agenda might not be entirely open or honest...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Open Farm Sunday in Creeting St Mary

One of the many advantages of not being on the road any more is that Ros and I get the pleasure of spending weekends at home, just pottering around. And, having finished the weekend's household chores, we took the opportunity to attend our local Open Farm Sunday event in neighbouring Creeting St Mary.

Whitegate Farm is conveniently located just off the A140 and is a 109-acre holding, owned and managed by Jason and Katherine Salisbury. However, it is becoming increasing well-known by connoisseurs of fine dairy products as the home of Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses, and in opening their farm up to the public, it presented an opportunity not to be missed.

We arrived in light rain to discover that we were far from the only people to decide that a farm visit was the perfect way to spend part of a Sunday, and there were plenty of families out, looking at the very young calves, including one just a day old, the fine milking herd (guernseys, for those of you who know about this stuff), and the piglets. There were trailer rides around the farm, cheese to taste, hot pork and sausage rolls to eat and even some retail opportunities.

But for me, the best part of the visit was the opportunity to buy some cheese. Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses produce two main varieties - the Suffolk Blue (pictured here), a creamy lightly blue-veined cheese, and the Suffolk Gold, a creamy semi-hard farmhouse cheese. As someone who takes his cheese very seriously, it would have been a terrible pity not to have bought some, and so I have a decently sized piece sitting in the refrigerator, awaiting my attention at some point in the next few days.

I frankly confess that, until recently, the chances of me visiting a farm in this country would have been remote, but living in the country, surrounded by fields, farming takes on a rather greater sense of relevance. As a parish councillor, issues around speeding tractors, access to footpaths and planning consultations mean that farming is never entirely off of my agenda, especially with three working farms in the parish. I can even talk about sugar beet, oil-seed rape and wheat with the sense that I might not be talking utter rubbish.

So, all in all, a good day out, made almost perfect by the heavy rain that started falling late in the afternoon. With droughts now declared in most of East Anglia, but not yet in Suffolk, and the crops beginning to become dangerously parched, some prolonged rain will have raised the spirits of local farmers. As long as it rains at night, that'll be just fine...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Mid Suffolk/Babergh merger ballot ends in tears...

The news that, whilst Mid Suffolk residents voted 3:2 in favour of a merger with Babergh, Babergh residents voted just as strongly against, comes as less of a surprise than might have been thought.

On the doorstep, where there was mention of the merger, comment was fairly negative. However, for those who have little interest in the architecture of local government (and I understand that 99.8% of the public fall into that category), the promise of smaller cuts to services was key. The catch was, the pro-merger publicity didn't tell the whole story.

Oh yes, the merger of back office services will save money - it isn't actually dependent on political merger taking place. What political merger was intended to achieve was to cut the number of councillors. All well and good, but the whole point of local government, especially at District Council level, is that it is close to the public. Making the wards 50% bigger, whilst leaving the councillor allowances unchanged, would have made finding willing candidates to actually be councillors, as opposed to just candidates, more difficult than it currently is.

And it is difficult. I appear to be the only person in my ward of 1822 electors who actually wants to be a councillor - the sitting Tory councillor lives in Eye, Labour supplied a paper candidate from Stowmarket, and the Green candidate, whilst local, studiously avoided any activity that might have brought him to the attention of voters.

Is £3,000 sufficient to compensate for the costs of travelling to council meetings, visiting the various Parishes in the ward - up to ten in some cases in Mid Suffolk, and they do expect to see you - or the time lost having to read vast piles of papers? You might wonder. You'll wonder even more if the area you're responsible is increased by half again.

It was never made clear how a merged council would support and enable a reduced number of councillors to properly represent their electors, or how residents in Eye would be connected to a headquarters in Hadleigh (and yes, some services would have been based there).

In the end, I voted no, despite the fact that my colleagues on Mid Suffolk District Council had supported the proposal. As they discovered, whilst the outcome might have been vaguely agreeable, the implications had not been thought through. To be honest, that's pretty typical of Suffolk Conservatives - officer led, intellectually flabby and in some cases positively allergic to dealing with anyone beyond the Parish councillors. So, it's back to the drawing board...

I refuse to be a cynical goon, passing the masses an easy answer...

I am, it seems, knee deep in constitutions, Federal, State, Regional and Local Party, under fire for all corners merely for having the audacity to note that there are such things, and that they need to be applied. Due process, I think to myself, just a concept to be ignored as it suits, or something that underpins the notion of liberalism?

Naturally, I can't go into detail, but it is enough to say that being the guardian of the constitutional word is not a comfortable place to be, especially when you're on your own, worse still when you're an increasingly unwilling bureaucrat. But you know something, in a world of shoddy process, of short cuts and administrative ineptitude, somebody has to be willing to be lashed to the wheel of the good ship Liberal Bureaucrat, if only to find out what happens.

Heavens, it would be so much easier to say to people, "Yes, why don't you do that. After all, what's the worst that could happen?". The problem is, I have a nasty feeling that I know what happens when people focus on outcomes without thinking about the means of getting from A to B.

Now I'm not the sort of person who thinks that these things are there to prevent people from doing things, quite the opposite - I've always seen constitutions as a means of enabling people to get things done, to protect the innocent. They are remarkably even-handed creations, for the most part, balancing the rights of individuals with those of the wider community, be it Liberal Democrats, Rotarians or heritage railway enthusiasts. Better still, they are reassuringly liberal, if they're well written. They provide checks on executive power, and on those seeking to overthrow the established order.

So, for any of you out there who think that constitutions are to be circumvented, or ignored, or even subverted, please think again. Such behaviour may bring short-term advantage, but it tends to backfire in the end... and I'm prepared to do what is right, not necessarily what is easy...

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Localism Bill, Second Reading

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: In every speech on local government I have made in your Lordships' House in the 11 years that I have been here, I have called for government to introduce the power of general competence. I am going to have to think about something else now because I am really pleased to see that the Government have finally brought it forward. I am also very pleased to see the abolition of the Standards Board. It is a body which, while well intentioned, in practice led to a constant stream of vexatious and often trivial claims which were highly damaging to the individuals concerned and really bad for the reputation of councillors and local government as a whole. I am also pleased to see that the committee system is returning as an option for local councils, although I cannot for the life of me imagine why the Government think they should wait up to three years to be able to bring it in. It is important that local councils have an option on their governance models and can choose the model that suits them and their circumstances best. It is for that reason that I am utterly opposed to the imposition of the mayoral model in shadow form, as proposed in the Bill.

The idea of merging the mayor with the chief executive is quite frankly barmy. The whole rationale behind elected mayors is to have a high-visibility candidate, someone with quite different skills from the managerial qualifications that you would expect a good head of paid service to have. I have no doubt that it will go through, but if someone came to this House with a proposal that Ministers should become Permanent Secretaries, there would be an absolute uproar.

There is a sort of schizophrenia evident in the Bill. There are parts that are genuinely localist. For example, I was really pleased to see the dismantling of the provisions in the 2007 Act which told local councils how to receive a petition, but I saw with dismay an even more regimented system for bringing in referendums. Where I live in mid Suffolk, we are having a referendum right now on whether to merge with the local council. The councils got on and did it. They did not need primary legislation to do it, and this provision should not be in this Bill because, as it is envisaged, I fear it will be divisive and I think it will be very costly. There is still a tendency to reach for regulatory answers to every question. If the Government are serious about localism they have to go far beyond the boundaries of just this department and create a localism audit on all new legislation coming forward.

We have a real problem here. Too often, local councils are frozen like rabbits in the headlights of the legal profession and tend to take the safest option on offer. The sparse use of the Sustainable Communities Act and the general power of well-being is testament to that. My fear is that the general power of competence will go the same way. With so much other regulation, both from this department and imposed by others, councils and citizens will simply be unsure about what they can do, a point so well made by the right reverend Prelate.

I am struck by the fact that, despite the general power, I have been deluged with requests from councils and other organisations to request specific powers and duties to be put in the Bill. Clearly, they share the same concerns that the general power of competence simply will not do the job. I was particularly struck by an approach made to me by councillors in Cambridge who, like councillors across the country, are seeking to protect the special character of a shopping street, Mill Road. They are not confident that the general power will give them enough power to override the 2,500 pages of existing planning law, which they believe prevent them from taking the steps that they need to take in order to preserve the special character of the street. I am not at all sure that the changes to the planning system in this Bill will give councils the flexibility that they need to manage their streets in the way that their citizens want. I am sure that we will spend a lot of time on this issue in Committee but it seems to me that if the Localism Bill does not allow councils to protect cherished local neighbourhoods and facilities, it will have failed.

The actions of local government are too often bounded by what they have a statutory duty to do and also by what they are barred from doing by other regulations. We need to create more space in the middle, a discretionary space, where councils can do as they see fit. If one looks simply at the six clauses in this Bill relating to assets of community value, there are 54 things on which the Secretary of State will need to issue regulations. In my view, this is a massive job creation programme for CLG civil servants and for parliamentary draftsmen.

The elephant in the room of course is money. While three-quarters of local authority spend comes from central government, it is inevitable that central government will seek to impose control. The very complexity of local finance will mean that if there are referenda on council tax increases, they will become just a sort of shouting match between central and local government—a battle of percentages—which in the end will freeze and turn off local voters. Given the cost of a council-wide referendum, what we have here is capping by any other name.

Genuine local accountability is impossible while this system persists. It goes to the heart of a healthy local democracy. A lack of clarity about financial responsibility, the maze of statutory provisions and the demise of the local press in many areas combine together to work against a responsive local democratic system. To my mind, this is made far worse by the bundling together of elections on the same day. I fought, and won, two county council elections on general election day. I speak from experience when I say how hard it is to get any oxygen for local issues when elections are fought concurrently. Of course, turnout is higher but, if many of the people turning out are paying no regard to local issues, the cause of local accountability is not enhanced at all. The devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales have been given the option to choose whether to hold elections on a day other than that of the general election. Perhaps we should think about local councils being given the same option. There is nothing magical about the first Thursday in May.

This Bill has some good points but it is overly bureaucratic and remains overly centralised. Let us hope that the Government are prepared to listen to what noble Lords have to say today and in Committee and are prepared to make some changes.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Liberal Democrats announce their nominees for the Lords Reform pre-scrutiny committee

In fairness, it's more that, whilst the information is out there, nobody appears to have noticed. However, it gives me great pleasure to announce the three nominees - two from the Lords, and one from the Commons.

From the Lords, representing the constitutional wonk tendency (in a good way), Lord Tyler is the first of the two nominees. Paul has been leading calls for a complete overhaul of the Second Chamber for a very long time and is one of the Party's foremost constitutional experts. Given that he is firmly in support of the Government's proposed reforms - unlike some of our Peers, I fear - most Liberal Democrats will feel that he represents a secure repository for our trust.

From the Commons, that rather unusual beast, a former member of the House of Lords, John Thurso. As he has already been abolished once, one wonders how he will feel about the prospects of enabling the abolition of all of his former colleagues. However, he is on record as supporting reform and, in a speech in the House of Commons on 18 May said,

"I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his modest progress. The plain fact is that an unelected Lords is an illegitimate Lords and that weakens the Lords and weakens Parliament as a whole.

An elected Lords is a strong Lords and that strengthens Parliament as a whole. Does my right hon. Friend not find it faintly ridiculous that after 13 years of abject failure, the dinosaurs over there are only interested in feather-bedding the dinosaurs upstairs?".

And finally, the second Lords nominee, Baroness Scott of Needham Market, of whom I have the highest regard, having married her just over three years ago.

Ros has repeatedly voted to abolish herself, and has recently played a key role on the Ad Hoc group report on financial support for members of the House of Lords looking at the expenses system for the second chamber, and on the House Committee sub-group on Members leaving the House, which looked at potential ways of allowing Peers to leave the House of Lords on a voluntary basis.

So, I'd suggest that the Liberal Democrat nominees can be relied upon to enter into the pre-legislative scrutiny process with the aim of improving the legislation without watering down its intent, and reform will be all the better for it.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Andrew Reeves: more proof that it tends to be the good that die young...

The news that Andrew has died suddenly and unexpectedly, has come as a bit of a shock, really. As a bureaucrat rather than an activist, we didn't come into contact much until I became a member of the Regional Executive in London. Andrew was seen as one of those people who got things done, and didn't suffer fools gladly - luckily, he had a generous spirit in terms of foolishness. He was also very highly regarded as a campaign organiser.

Much has been said already about Andrew, and Callum Leslie and Caron Lindsay have said much of it far better than I ever could. However, it would be remiss of me not to retell my personal 'Andrew story'.

Whilst Ros was running for the Party Presidency, and not long after Andrew had taken up his new role in Scotland, she made plans to spend polling day at the Glasgow East by-election. Unfortunately, Parliamentary business meant that she couldn't make it and, as the train tickets and hotel booking were non-refundable, it looked like a lot of money was going to waste. So, rather than have that happen, I went up to Glasgow on a whim, unannounced. As I walked into the committee room, Andrew looked at me as though I was the last person he expected to see, but set me to work immediately.

I noted that the committee room was a bit spartan and he explained, with a glint in his eye, that "if the committee room's too comfortable, people hang around instead of getting out and doing things". I left that office for more than just grudging respect for a man whose skills were so valuable and character so steadfast.

My condolences go to Roger, who I never met, but know made Andrew happy, and to the Scottish Liberal Democrat family, who had taken him to their heart, and who have had a horrible month.

Andrew, you're already missed...
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Federal Conference - is it really worth the hassle of turning up?

I have to admit that I didn't enjoy the Sheffield Conference. The iron curtain drawn around the venue, the hassle of avoiding demonstrators (not that there were anywhere near as many of them as had been threatened). It felt deeply uncomfortable but, at least, the security was efficient and friendly enough, and Ros and I had to be there so that she could hand over the gavel and the copy of 'On Liberty' to young Mr Farron.

I was looking forward to Birmingham even less. Without any real purpose for being there, with the prospect of even greater security, and having seen the cost of conference hotels, it did cross my mind that I didn't actually have to go. And, of course, I don't.

But now that it becomes apparent that I might not be able to go anyway, I do wonder if I really want to bother at all. When I applied for a spouse pass for the House of Lords, my application was delayed for further checks - it's a long story, and quite a dull one, so you'll pardon me if I don't go into details. If the checks for Federal Conference are of a similar nature, they make take some time, and the temptation would be to refuse me on the grounds of caution.

It is unlikely that I will be refused accreditation, I admit, but it is possible that friends or acquaintances may be, and I'm uncomfortable about condoning such a possibility, indeed I am angered by the notion that the Greater Manchester Police should have the power to decide who may, or may not, attend our Party Conferences.

And yes, there are those who suggest that this is merely a by-product of our Party's accession to government, and that the concerns shown by a number of people whom I like and respect are overblown. However, it is a principle of liberalism that the State shall not interfere with our legitimate freedoms without just cause, and I am yet to be reassured that the case has been made.

It is not an easy time to be a liberal in politics, and a squabble which leads us to question the very principles we believe in hardly makes things easier.

However, on the positive side, I am led to believe that a full explanation is forthcoming from Andrew Wiseman, the Chair of the Federal Conference Committee, and as I know Andrew to be a decent, John Stuart Mill-fearing liberal, I'm happy to await his comments before I make a personal decision on whether or not to attend.