Friday, November 25, 2011

ELDR Congress: adrift on a familiar sea...

It is that moment, where you find yourself alone with a glass of wine, looking out over the azure sea, when you almost feel as though you are on holiday, rather than debating war and peace, feast or famine, life or death. I tend to the view that this is a good thing, a reminder that perspective is precious, that we are not consumed with our own importance.

This morning, we have been occupied with an ELDR Council meeting, most of which was quite dull, and a debate on various resolutions. Astonishing though it might seem to Liberal Democrats, we got through thirty-two resolutions, on everything from the Debt Crisis to Prison Reform, from taxation to Iran, in just eighty-five minutes.

You see, most of the arguing goes on in working groups before hand, allowing only brief arguments on the floor of the Congress itself. Delegations then vote as steered by their leaders (well, mostly, because Linda Jack is amongst us...). I'm one of the scrutineers, tasked with counting votes from time to time. I've also been given another task, which might well be intriguing.

I've promised to report back via Liberal Democrat Voice, so I won't cover the outcomes of our deliberations. It would, however, be remiss of me not to pass on an impression.

ELDR is, in many ways, much like our own dear Liberal Democrats. There are social liberals, economic liberals and those willing to be swung by the arguments or by their own innate pragmatism. And whilst, perhaps, the balance is more in favour of the economic liberals than social ones, we act as a critical voice with a weight of votes which cannot be ignored.

However, there is a question as to whether our delegation is entirely representative. It excludes those without the means to pay for two or three nights and flights, it is predominantly white, overwhelmingly male, astonishingly middle class and almost entirely self-selecting. That is, some might suggest, an inevitability. Our Party has no funds to commit to support our delegates financially, and getting to, as an example, Palermo, is not cheap.

But if we cannot take financial steps, perhaps we need to find ways of inviting those from under-represented groups to take part in our international work.

Just a thought...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Graham Watson formally unopposed for ELDR Presidency

Nominations have closed, and I can confirm that there has not been a late challenge to Graham's candidacy.

Curiously, that doesn't mean that he has been elected. A ballot is still required as a President can only be elected if he or she achieves more than 50% of the vote. And that isn't necessarily as easy as it sounds, as I am reliably told that one unopposed candidate did lose once upon a time...

European budget: shoot the DJ?

Alright, so we're underway here in Palermo, in a room lit in blue lights a bit like a 1980's disco (if I find the glitterball, I'll let you know).

After a fiercely early start, the 32nd Congress of ELDR (European Liberal Democrats) is deep in discussion about the future of the European economy, with a rather technical presentation on global interconnectedness. Interestingly, the United Kingdom ranks 6th of the one hundred and twenty-five nations considered, although we rank behind Ireland. Even more interestingly, thirteen of the top twenty are in the European Union, and fifteen are in the European Economic Area.

The Indo-American professor, Pankaj Ghemawat, based in Barcelona, talked persuasively about the importance of migration into the EU to address the demographic timebomb that threatens the welfare system that has developed since World War II. He also noted some of the issues that inhibit intra-EU trade, relative to that within the United States.

The issues of transport, which is significantly more expensive within Europe (twelve times as much in the case of rail) are perhaps well known. However, the question of trust was not something I had previously considered, and the 'news' that levels of trust in those beyond our national borders are very low perhaps explains why companies do not pursue opportunities elsewhere.

But I ought to share the Congress logo with you. Often, these are esoteric in the extreme, but this one is worth a thousand words...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

First published elsewhere... ELDR Congress - let's hope it isn't a lemon...

For those of you who aren't Liberal Democrats (which includes my father, although he's fairly gracious about my political affinity), here is a piece published on Liberal Democrat Voice (apologies for the lack of linkage, but I can't do that when posting by e-mail from my BlackBerry)...

It's a long way from Creeting St Peter to Palermo, which partly explains why this piece comes to you from Linate Airport in Milan. But if my eight hour journey feels arduous, it is as nothing compared to the journey back to stability that is the mission of the Eurozone's finance ministers.

In the midst of this crisis, ELDR (the European Liberal Democrats) delegates from across Europe (and I'm beginning to appreciate just how far that might be) are gathering in Sicily's capital to discuss the European Union's budget for 2014-2020. I'm here because you sent me (or at least those of you who voted for me last year - molto bene, everyone).

In fairness, what has come to pass was unimaginable at the beginning of the year, and even when the ELDR Council met in May, there was little sense of the chaos to come. However, the current financial situation is likely to take up much of our time over the coming two days and will doubtless inform our debate on what the European Union should be doing in the coming years.

It's also time to elect a new President, and as already reported here, Sir Graham Watson is currently the only candidate to replace Annemie Neyts, from Open VLD (Flanders, Belgium), and assuming that an opponent hasn't emerged by this evening, the Liberal Democrat delegation will be being heavily lobbied for its significant voting strength by the various candidates for Vice President - we represent something like 12% of the available votes, and with four candidates to be elected, that really matters.

We'll also have the usual array of weird, wonderful and frankly parochial resolutions, urging ELDR to do this or that, and some fascinating seminars. And on the subject of seminars, it should be noted that it was at the equivalent event two years ago that the long-term need for recapitalisation of European banks was highlighted, and at the Dresden Council meeting in May when the junior partner in the ruling Slovak coalition announced that they would be opposing any proposal for a stabilisation fund (damn, I could have made a fortune...).

Finally, there are rumours that ELDR could be coming to a city near you soon, and I'll report back once this is confirmed. But first, we may be going somewhere that, when I first heard the news, made me exclaim, "How the hell do you get there?". It's not all glamour, this Euro stuff...

Italians - not entirely as stylish as one might think...

It's been a long, long time since I was last in Italy, more than thirty years, in fact, and one's memories do play tricks as senility sets in, but I had always had an impression that Italians are rather more stylish than the rest of us. Given my occasional tendency towards self-image doubts, that makes the prospect of a journey via Milan, Italy's style capital, slightly fraught.

However, times change, and I have to say that Linate Airport is a ghastly reminder of what flying used to be like before proper architects started designing airports. Yes, it does have the ludicrously expensive shops, but it is ugly, dirty and poorly lit, with insufficient seating, poor layout and... But I should stop there, I've said quite enough...

And, curiously, Italians aren't as interesting to look at as they once were. Admittedly, times are hard, but that effortless sense of style appears to have been lost, and instead, the people around me look like everybody else.

I fit in quite nicely...

Monday, November 21, 2011

"What do you do with a Secretary, when he stops being a Secretary?"

So, I've started the process of turning in my sheriff's badge as Regional Constitution Monitor (the actual title is Secretary, but you know what I mean). Just one more Executive Meeting to go, and a successor in place, Lloyd Harris from Dacorum, I'm already beginning to look for ways of filling my midweek evenings whilst Ros is in London running the country.

Meanwhile, my Local Party has been struggling a little. The Treasurer who, as is often the case, had his arm twisted to serve, has not exactly been on top of his game. Given that the Chair is a management accountant, this is, understandably, a mite frustrating to him, as he related to me over dinner one evening.

So I said, "Son-in-law, I'll tell you what, I'll do it myself if you really need someone.", thus breaking Valladares's First Rule of Bureaucracy - if you show any hint of willing, they will come. And so, despite being unable to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Bury St Edmunds Liberal Democrats on Friday evening, I was gloriously elected to the position of Treasurer unopposed.

And I'm already deep in thought about a four-year plan to take us through to the General Election...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy birthday, Mr Bureaucrat

Yes, another year older, and possibly another year wiser. Another year closer to death, certainly, although I like to think of that as being rather a long way off, and really not worth worrying about. That said, I don't really do birthdays, as I never know what I want, don't like having a fuss made of it (except when I unpredictably feel like it) and tend to have fairly simple needs anyway.

Fortunately, Ros is a pretty astute judge of her bureaucrat, and it was agreed that apart from the gift bit, and a nice dinner for two at home, Sunday was going to be a fairly normal day. So, I was left to sleep in for a while, before being presented with two books of railway maps - is there anything better than the prospect of travel?

We'd been away visiting my family the previous day, so food shopping was necessary, and we headed to Ipswich. My personal priority was cheese, as my lunchtime treat was to be my first cheese sandwich for five months. The cheese has been sacrificed in the cause of my diet (coming along quite nicely, thank you very much) and has been occasionally stressful. I have been known to hallucination a cheese sandwich at times, which is not something you want to witness in a grown adult.

A lovely afternoon followed, with two cheese sandwiches, a nice walk in the countryside, spotting deer and a kestrel, and some gentle pottering around before dinner. Dinner was belly pork (with crackling, naturally), roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables (apparently, they're part of a balanced diet), with a bottle of champagne to wash it gently down.

So, all in all, a pretty good day. I should thank everyone for their kind words and greetings, my family for their generous gifts, and life generally. And now, I really ought to get on with year forty-eight. Perhaps a nap first, though...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Theresa May - how likely is it that a senior civil servant takes a critical decision on their own initiative?

I am, I must confess, intrigued by the whole UK Border Force controversy. It is, in my view, a classic example of what happens when you set goals which contradict each other.

I've spent enough time at enough airports to have become a bit of a connoisseur of 'good' border controls. What I want, as a traveller, is an efficient and speedy transit through immigration, so that I can pick up my luggage and get to my final destination. If I'm in transit, it's even more essential. As a citizen, however, I want the border to be sufficiently well-policed to exclude as many 'undesirables' as possible. Quick isn't important. Thorough is.

One thing that is emphasised more and more when entering the United Kingdom is the 'customer experience' (please add the rant against the use of the word 'customer' of your choice). The key measure of this is throughput - how many people can be processed per hour. After all, do you care if the immigration officer smiles at you?

And so the news that, at times of peak flows through airports, the scale of examinations was reduced, comes as no surprise. Managers would probably be evaluated on the queues, or lack thereof, and would have an incentive to find ways to improve the statistics. On the other hand, you can't set targets for the number of people prevented from entering the country, so the stringency of checks might be degraded without risk of penalty... unless the Press find out, of course.

But it is a gamble, and civil servants aren't prone to gambling as a rule. Indeed, it seems to this state-sponsored bureaucrat that the trend is towards having your opinion validated by a senior officer just in case.

And now that Brodie Clark, the senior official at the heart of this controversy, has announced that he will be suing for constructive dismissal, one finds oneself wondering, "who did he seek authority to act from?". He will know that any such claim will have no chance unless he can prove that this was discussed further up the food chain.

So, it seems reasonable to assume that somewhere, in someone's inbox, there is a smoking e-mail. Whose that is, I suspect, is going to be a source of much discomfort in the coming days...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

And talking about a sense of perspective...

I am reminded that, as usual, Monty Python had found a lighter way of noting where we fit within the universe...

Somewhere out there, is someone thinking what I'm thinking?

One of the many joys of living in a small, dimly-lit village is the night sky.

In London, light pollution means that only the brighter stars can be seen with the naked eye. In Creeting St Peter, the night sky is a sea of lights, tiny pinpoints marking who knows what.

It is the sort of sky to inspire philosophers and dreamers. For me though, it is a reassuring reminder that, in a world where people can be quite irritatingly certain about things regardless of the uncertainties that exist in political decision making, that there are vast areas of doubt and uncertainty, and that we are a small backwater in a vast universe...

Written ministerial statement on the Universal Credit Migration Strategy

Yesterday, the Government issued a statement on the timetable for the transition from the current welfare framework of multiple benefits to the new Universal Credit. 

"Today the Department for Work and Pensions announces its strategy for moving 12 million working-age benefit and credit recipients on to Universal Credit by 2017.

Universal Credit is intended to provide a streamlined welfare system which makes the financial advantages of taking work or increasing hours clear to claimants. We recognise that the move from one welfare system to another needs to be carefully managed to ensure social outcomes are maximised and no one is left without support.

The transition from the old benefit system to Universal Credit will therefore take place in three phases over four years, ending in 2017 with around 7.7 million households receiving more support to find more work and be more self-sufficient.

Between October 2013 and April 2014, 500,000 new claimants will receive Universal Credit in place of jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, Working Tax credit and Child Tax Credit. At the same time, a further 500,000 existing claimants (and their partners and dependants) will also move on to Universal Credit as and when their circumstances change significantly, such as when they find work or when a child is born.

From April 2014, the second phase will give priority to households who will benefit most from the transition, such as those Working Tax Credit claimants who currently work a small number of hours a week but could work more hours with the support that Universal Credit brings. Overall, 3.5 million existing claimants (and their partners and dependents) will be transferred on to Universal Credit during this second phase.

The last and final phase, which begins at the end of 2015 and runs through to the end of 2017, will see around three million households being transferred to Universal Credit by local authority boundary. This phase will have the flexibility to respond to the circumstances of particular local authorities as they change and will focus on safeguarding financial support, such as housing benefit payments, to claimants as the old benefit system winds down.

The Department for Work and Pensions will continue to work with HMRC and local authorities to settle on a precise timing schedule of the move to Universal Credit. Once agreed, the schedule will be kept under regular review."

Iain Duncan-Smith
Secretary of State, Work and Pensions

It must be borne in mind that this isn't the only big project underway at the moment, as HM Revenue & Customs are preparing to unleash 'Real Time Information', which will provide DWP with up to date information about claimants' employment income.

But, if it all works, it will reduce the administrative costs of our benefit system significantly, and make it easier for those eligible for benefits to get what they are entitled to. 

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the privatised brick road...

Whilst Suffolk County Council has rowed back somewhat from its originally announced goal of divesting itself of all services, our Conservative f(r)iends are still keen to ensure that, regardless of what Suffolk residents want, there will be little scope for an incoming council to change very much.

The road to Stonham Aspal?
Their next wheeze is to hand over responsibility for all highways related services to a single private sector organisation, the Fully Private Sector Model, as it is called. The new organisation will be responsible for, amongst other things, the design and construction of highways improvements, winter maintenance, road safety education and street lighting (although not the latter in Paradise-sur-Gipping, because we own the street lights here!).

We are assured that the input from local county councillors and town and parish councils on the delivery of the service will be enhanced, and that, as much of highway work is carried out by local (often small scale) contractors, the glorious Portfolio Holder for Roads, Transport and Planning, Guy McGregor, will ensure that the good relations that currently exist will continue under the new arrangement.

Now I admit to some cynicism here. Most Conservative county councillors do as they're told right up to the point when they risk losing their seats, and they aren't renown for the volume of casework they get through (I still haven't seen a leaflet from either my county or district councillors outside of an election campaign). Given that the likely break clauses in any contract will almost certainly favour the contractor rather than the council, it would be reasonable to assume that, before the ink is dry, the new contractor will suddenly become harder to reach, and young Weasel McGregor will be wringing his hands, saying that there is nothing he can do.

Suffolk has hundreds of miles of narrow country lanes, many with low traffic volumes but of vital importance to the villages that are linked by them. There is likely to be little profit in maintaining them, and a village of 200 or so is easy to ignore (our votes aren't important enough, I guess). On the other hand, I'll be delighted to make our county councillor work a bit harder at future Parish Council meetings if this turns out badly...

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Can you leap a dual carriageway in a car? Suffolk Highways think you can.

I mentioned the closure of Fen Lane in passing a few days ago, and it has subsequently been brought to my attention that the proposed diversion has a slight flaw.

Doesn't everyone drive one of these?

Whilst the notion of using Church Lane to get from St Mary's Church to Jacks Green Road is an interesting one, the lack of a bridge over the A14 dual carriageway is a bit of a challenge. I'm told that the wooden bridge closed to vehicles might be a bit tricky too...

Ros has suggested that the ladies and gentlemen from Highways might like to check the route before the publish it in future...

Suffolk to divest itself of its libraries... sort of...

Today's announcement that Suffolk County Council will transfer all of its library service into the care of a newly created Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) is merely the latest stage in the efforts of local Conservatives to wriggle off of the hook created by them when they announced plans to slash and burn the county's libraries under the leadership of the late and rather unlamented Jeremy Pembroke.

Whilst the devil is in the detail (as so much is with Suffolk County Council), the numbers are interesting. The IPS will cost about £600,000 to set up, but will save about £2.5 million per year, without having to close a single library.

Now, there is a catch. The savings include those gleaned from cutting management tiers and central staffing costs, which sounds good. However, what that means is that, for example, the apparent cost of running Needham Market library included a chunk of the Chief Executive's salary. I would argue that this is entirely legitimate, but if you take the service out of the hands of the Council, you don't need such things. So, if a volunteer group want to run it, a la 'Big Society', a huge saving is generated quite easily. Of course, this means that the remaining county-run services look even less cost effective, unless you ditch, or transfer, all of the staff costs that were assigned, a task which becomes more difficult as economies of scale are lost.

Another issue is the aim that local library organisations will be expected to find 5% of the running costs, £100,000 in total, and it is proposed that they do this through fundraising, membership schemes and income generation (whatever that means precisely). This might not be easy, and I wouldn't be surprised to see local businesses tapped up for sponsorship, potentially displacing other recipients.

The Portfolio Holder for Libraries, Cllr. Judy Terry, is predictably delighted, saying that, “We want to free the library service from unnecessary council bureaucracy so that it can thrive and move with the times. Giving people a genuine say over how their library is run is also important and this model does exactly that."

I would be tempted to ask Cllr. Terry what she now has to do, given that she won't have any direct responsibility for the libraries, and, as Portfolio Holder for 'the Greenest County', she has divested all of the county's nature reserves and country parks. However, as I wasn't wildly impressed by her on the occasion that we met, perhaps the less responsibility she has, the better.

Meanwhile, the proposal to take an axe to the mobile library service is likely to be approved in the coming weeks, halving the frequency of visits, and cutting out those stops where there is a 'real' library within the community. Yes, it will save another £200,000 or so, but as far as a village like mine is concerned, it's just another link between villagers and their county council broken. Ah well, at least the council tax will be frozen...

A Budget for Europe: what Liberals want the Union to do

Last time, I looked at the areas where European liberals sense that Europe has, potentially, a greater need for action. Today, it's time to look at the 'wish list'...

Calls for:
  • An end to the blame game that sees “Brussels” made the scapegoat for things that national politicians do not want to take responsibility for;
  • National and European politicians to openly talk about and promote the good things the EU has achieved and how European money has helped to improve the lives of people at all levels of society;
Bless... the day that politicians stop blaming something far away that has little ability to make its own case, and even fewer friends, is about as far away as a Liberal Democrat majority government. I wish it wasn't so, but...
  • New joint EU solutions which create an added value and demonstrate the efficiency of community action;
  • A debate at the Member State and European levels on what constitutes European added value;
Indeed, what is Europe for? What is it most effective at? And let's be honest, all of the bluster over an EU referendum acts to blur the real debate.
  • Greater scrutiny of the EU budget in terms of the added value that EU level initiatives bring before allocating money to the various budget lines;
  • A commitment to review the CAP during the 2014-2020 period and to further reduce its budget beyond 2020 as part of the ongoing process of phasing out the policy.
Now, here's a controversial one, abolishing the Common Agricultural Policy. How much would that save the British taxpayer, I wonder, given that our farmers are apparently so efficient?

Wants to see the EU budget 2014-2020 include:
  • Alignment of EU spending commitments, including in particular the CAP and cohesion policy, with the goals of the EU 2020 Strategy;
What do you mean, spending money on your priorities? What sort of talk is that? Any more of that and you'll be convincing people that politicians mean what they say.
  • The introduction of a ”greening” top-up incentivisation payment aimed at improving sustainability, tackling climate change, improving farm competitiveness and driving innovation across the EU through EU-wide applicable measures. This greening top-up should not disadvantage those farmers who are the most advanced in terms of environmental protection, and should not lead to an additional administrative burden;
You'll have noticed that liberals don't like bureaucracy... but this might well act to increase food production in the poorer, more agricultural economies of the Union.
  • Financial means for the fight against climate change, as well as for sustainable development, energy infrastructure to secure the Union’s economic future and reduce dangerous dependency on imported oil and gas, renewable energies and preservation of biodiversity, in line with EU political commitments and declarations;
A European power grid, linking to the various trans-nation facilities in place already. Sounds like a good idea to me, and potentially profitable for a country with huge wavepower generation potential. Know any countries with a really long oceanic coastline?
  • A new system, for instance called JERICHO (”Joint Rural Investment CHOice”), [to be developed] to let the Rural Development Fund provide SMEs with finance in rural areas where the market fails;
This looks like a bit of a dinosaur to me, with a large multi-national structure trying to find small, nimble companies. Feels like something better suited to a national Regional Growth Fund, I would suggest.
  • Further investment in future-oriented trans-national networks in the fields of energy, transport and communications as a means through which to foster economic growth and to boost social interaction across the Union;
We're talking major infrastructure projects here. In fairness though, such things are already happening (investment in the railway link from Felixstowe to Nuneaton, for example), but the EU needs to be a bit bolder in claiming some of the credit.
  • A reinforcement of the share of the EU budget allocated to Research, Development and Innovation policies;
Or in other words, the policy of national champions doesn't always work.
  • Funding for the extension of the Erasmus scheme to enable students, researchers and academics from outside the Union to spend a period of time at an EU university;
  • A reduction in administration expenditure to be achieved by replacing the monthly commute of the European Parliament to Strasbourg with the establishment of a single seat for the Parliament in Brussels;
A really easy change, which the French will obstruct to the last man. I like Strasbourg, but put another institution there if you must.
  • An increased share devoted to the EU’s role as global actor, to answer to topical challenges in the Union’s geographical vicinity in both the short and long term as well as giving the EU’s External Action Service, set up by the Member States in the European Council, the appropriate tools to operate fully, and not remain as a paper tiger.
Oh dear, more money for Cathy Ashton. Perhaps not, at least while the key players would rather go their own way.

In tomorrow's final instalment, I'll be reviewing the principles that ELDR believes should be applied in structuring the financial arrangements for Europe, including the bit that Liberal Democrats will stand foursquare against...