Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Another of those things that I've learnt as I've grown older

I am in a reflective mood as I sit on my train back to our rural idyll, after an evening with my family.

Family can drive you crazy if you let it. So I've clearly been quite lucky in that sense, in that I enjoy my family time. What makes it easier is that I have mellowed as I have got older, less prone to the easy certainty of the unexpectedly ill-informed.

My father is a genuinely bright person, an achiever in spite of the hurdles placed before him, reaching the rarified heights of his industry despite a relatively late start. As a young man, untainted by experience, we did occasionally lock intellectual horns, which tended not to end that well.

But time, and a degree of distance, lends a sense of perspective and, unexpectedly, doubt. Curiously, unlike the stereotype of the elderly, who are supposed to become more fixed in their prejudices as they get older, I find myself seeing more and more shades of grey, and rather less black or white.

As a result, my father and I can now talk about stuff without that sense of competition on my part. It's a lot gentler, and rather more fun.

And so I really ought to mark my father's birthday by saying, "Thanks Dad, it's been great.". Because it has...

New 'New Strategic Direction' - a threat to our democracy?

And so, the truth is out there. For all the talk of 'rowing back' from the New Strategic Direction, the half-dozen or so councillors who apparently run Suffolk (as opposed to the remainder who mostly do as they're told) are determined to contract out or divest themselves of as much as they can get away with.

So, as a council taxpayer and observer of local politics, I am duty bound to consider what the impact of their course of action is.

Let's start with an admission though. I'm an agnostic over the question of public versus private sector delivery of services. In certain areas, the private sector already plays a central role in delivery - transport, care of the elderly, the NHS - and the world has not ceased to turn on its axis. Yes, there have been problems with contracts, but as a former resident of Brent and Southwark, two councils with a mixed performance history, I wouldn't want to suggest that local government is a bastion of efficiency either.

Others challenge, and will continue to do so, the effect of divestment on staffing, on service delivery and on budgets. I won't gainsay them on that, but instead want to focus on the impact on accountability and democracy.

All of us who rely on public services seek reassurance that our voice can be heard in relation to the delivery of services, someone who we can hold to account, someone who can fix things when they go wrong. If they're not very good, we can replace them with somebody else. That's democracy, and they're called councillors.

If, however, they divest themselves of direct responsibility, what are they for? Do they need to meet as often, do they need to be paid as much? Is what we want of them in terms of a skill set the same as it was when they directly ran services and directed council officers? I would suggest not.

And then there is the question about the length of contracts. To make contracts attractive, you need to make them long enough to make investment worthwhile, i.e. profitable (we'll leave the non-profit sector out of the equation for the time being). This means that, if you don't like the people who issued the contract, and vote them out, their replacements may find themselves tied into a contract that neither they, nor you, want. Potentially, different people, same rubbish service.

What does that do for accountability? If I ask my county councillor about a problem and he replies, "You need to take that up with Massive Conglomerate PLC, they have the contract now.", who actually is accountable?

And given the level of non-engagement amongst members of the ruling Group at Endeavour House, they may just like it that way...

Suffolk Community Transport - an experiment in rural transport

I was somewhat surprised to find that the Department of Transport have found £392,000 to do something that I, as a non-driving country dweller, can approve of.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure that the Department of Transport is packed with frightfully well-meaning people, who are none of the worse for thinking that the countryside is improved by putting dual carriageways through it. After all, someone has to suffer so that the denizens of our major conurbations can avoid prolonged exposure to the rural environment.

However, I digress. The money has been given to set up Suffolk Community Transport, an new county-wide umbrella group whose key objectives in the three-year strategy include adding to the range of community transport services available in Suffolk, sharing of resources where appropriate, and improving efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

This is the first such attempt in England, and I wish them well. However, they may wish to pick up on some research being done at Tokyo University on the question of 'On Demand Buses'.

By using quite simple technology, more efficient use of the vehicles can be achieved, whilst encouraging more impulsive and short notice travel, and I could book my rides using my BlackBerry, which would be very useful indeed, especially given my tendency to become distracted...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Suffolk's New Strategic Disguise: if at first you don't succeed...

Observers of the local government scene, as well as readers of 'Private Eye', will be aware of events at Suffolk County Council since the 2009 county elections.

A controversial proposal, badged as the 'New Strategic Direction', recommended that the Council divest itself of virtually all of its staff, leaving a core team of contract managers to supervise (and I use the term loosely) the delivery of services ranging from libraries to social care, waste disposal to highways. Under the leadership of the now notorious former Chief Executive, Andrea Hill, it was seen as a radical change of a local government model under genuine financial pressure.

I admit that, at the time, I wasn't opposed to the concept necessarily. I tend to the view that whether a service is provided by the public or private sector is unimportant relative to its accountability and efficiency. What worried me was the ability of the Council and its leadership to manage contracts and protect service provision.

This was mostly because;

a) Andrea appeared to be out of control, and;

b) The people who should have been controlling her, the Conservative Group on the County Council, were utterly useless, and for the most part willing to delegate authority to a small core group, most of whom weren't much better

In truth, the experience of government control and supervision of contracts has not been an entirely happy one at any level, but a high level of engagement is essential if you are to have any hope of positive outcomes.

Luckily, that lack of engagement was not matched by the media, or by bloggers across the county, and with district council elections to be held across Suffolk in 2011, pressure was brought to bear, culminating in the resignation of then Council Leader, Jeremy Pembroke, and his replacement by Mark Bee, on a platform of rowing back from the proposals.

Andrea didn't last much longer, although she did pocket a morally undeserved payout for her troubles.

And the New Strategic Direction was trashed, with various comments designed to reassure Suffolk residents that their valued public services would be safe. Well, safe-ish, unless you relied on public transport (grant cut by more than 50%), or used a mobile library (service halved), or used a county-run nature reserve (all divested).

But you may be able to make a Conservative stop, but you can't necessarily make them think. And the same people who either thought that the New Strategic Direction was a good thing, or were too feckless to question it, have now concluded that, for all intents and purposes, a somewhat pared back version is still fit for purpose.

So, what are they up to now?...

Monday, February 27, 2012

"A Liberal Roadmap for Energy Transition"

One of the joys of being involved in the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR), is that you discover that there are all sorts of things going on that you might never have known about otherwise.

I had not, for example, realised that Liberal Democrats were collaborating with one of our Dutch sister parties, Democraten 66 (or D'66 as most people refer to them) and Sweden's Centerpartiet on an energy policy for Europe. Partly, this will teach me to read the documents sitting in my pending tray (shorthand for, things that look vaguely interesting and that I ought to read one day).

But now that I am clearing that tray, I find myself faced with a short, quite punchy document, which has become the foundation for ELDR's 2012 theme, energy transition. It isn't the most obviously sexy subject, things that are likely to require years, perhaps decades, of conscious effort are too difficult for a politics of short term strategy and soundbite thinking, but the potential benefits of a trans-European energy grid, for example, are fairly obvious when thought about at all.

So, given that ELDR is discussing the subject, and that we should really encourage input from as wide a range of views within the Party as possible, what do you think? But don't tell me, interested though I might be, tell ELDR. To make it easier for you, they have created a website with a pretty picture of a lake surrounded by verdant forest for you to use.

So go there, say something, make your voice heard...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Eric Pickles - shoot first, think... ummm... errr...

I know that we have to be in coalition with the Conservatives. Economic crisis, stable government, etc. etc. And I'm even willing to accept that some of the Conservatives are decent human beings - not liberals, for the most part, but decent enough even when they're wrong. But do I have to endure Eric Pickles?

We are, after all, part of a government that has introduced a power of general competence for local government - a good thing, especially if your local council is innovative and thoughtful (mine aren't, but that's a different problem, especially as both are run solely by Conservatives a small number of Conservative councillors). So, when will Eric get that? We've passed a Localism Bill, giving local councils the freedom to do things differently, removing the handcuffs and other restraints put on local government by a distrustful Labour administration and, in fairness, the distrustful Conservative administration before that. Or hadn't Eric noticed?

And yet, our 'friend' insists on undermining such good intentions virtually every time he opens his mouth. A bribe to councils returning to weekly refuse collection, a insistence on prayer, referenda on increases in council tax, talk of a moral duty to keep council tax rises low, more bribes to freeze council tax, the list of irritations piles up.

The idea of localism, as I perceive it, is that you allow local councils to 'get on with it', responding to local needs, being kicked out of office by the electorate if they don't, that sort of thing. There are very few local councils I have encountered who spend money like water just because they can (their competence, perhaps, is open to question) and one finds that they tend to be punished if they do so.

I accept that such a model isn't without flaws. You will get variations in service levels, the dreaded 'postcode lottery', because local councils will have differing priorities based on the nature of their communities, whether they are rural or urban, wealthy or relatively poor. But, within reason, what's wrong with that? Isn't it right that Stowmarket and Eye decide what is good for us, rather than Westminster?

I don't want you wasting my money as a taxpayer on bringing a dustcart the three miles from Stowmarket to Creeting St Peter every week to empty my wheelie bin, especially as it is highly unlikely to be even half full. And if it is, give me a bigger wheelie bin. I don't want prayers as part of the official business of my council, although if my colleagues want to get together beforehand, I've no objection. And I don't want you distorting the argument about how I fund council services by means of a populist bribe that you have no intention of renewing each year.

In other words, I'd rather have someone who gets local government, localism and light touch from the centre. And that isn't you, Eric...

Minding the Tax Gap: an overview

I've been sitting on these documents for some time, and am surprised that they haven't received more coverage,  given the extent of concern over the public finances. They are a set of papers that have been in the public domain since last September, but I do feel that they merit a better airing. They are 'Measuring Tax Gaps 2011', published by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) as an official statistics release.

Over the coming weeks, I intend to dip into them, highlighting some of the things that I find of particular interest., but I'm going to start today by looking at the basic figures, as calculated by HMRC over a period of years.

This, in itself, is controversial. Given that the tax gap, if filled, would either allow a reduction in the deficit, and consequential reductions in the rate of growth of government debt, or enable protection of public spending, the scale of the gap itself is hugely important. And estimates of the tax gap vary enormously, depending on how you define tax evasion, and how you perceive the value, fairness or otherwise of government 'engineering' of the tax system.

UK Uncut and the key HMRC union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, tend to quote the figure claimed by Tax Research UK - £120 billion, coincidentally very close to the estimate for the government deficit this year. This figure is made up as follows;
  • tax evasion (as suggested by the World Bank) - £70 billion
  • tax avoidance - £25 billion
  • tax paid late - £25 billion
There will be those that would question elements of this. Counting legitimate tax avoidance within the tax gap is a point to be validly argued. Is taking advantage of a government incentive to behave in a certain way wrong, in a moral sense, and if morality is part of the discussion, then is there a debate to be had on the granting of investment reliefs? Alternatively, if such reliefs encourage investment, both internally and from abroad, thus creating jobs and growth, are they merely part of government spending? I won't argue those points here.

Tax paid late is, one presumes, paid at some point, with interest. And if that £25 billion changes little year on year, is it fair to represent it as a figure that could be taken from the deficit, or from the debt? If the latter, is it really significant, or is a better figure to consider the interests paid on borrowing that amount until it is actually paid over?

So, for argument's sake, let us take the estimate as being between £70 billion and £120 billion. How does this compare to the HMRC estimate?

HMRC defines the tax gap as being:

"...the difference between tax collected and the tax that should be collected (the theoretical liability). The theoretical tax liability represents the tax that would be paid if all individuals and companies complied with both the letter of the law and HMRC's interpretation of the intention of Parliament in setting law (referred to as the spirit of the law). The tax gap estimate is net of the Department's compliance activities. An equivalent way of defining the tax gap is the tax lost through non-payment, use of avoidance schemes, interpretation of tax effect of complex transactions, error, failure to take reasonable care, evasion, the hidden economy and organised criminal attack."

-  Chapter 1, paragraph 1, 'Measuring Tax Gaps 2011'

On that basis, HMRC estimates that the total tax gap for 2009-10 was £35 billion, approximately 8% of the estimated total tax liability for the period. And yes, there are caveats. The estimates are subject to error, due to sampling and systemic errors in assumptions - this is not entirely science (and yes, I'm a statistician by training, so I understand the irony of that statement), as the gulf between the two estimates (Tax Research UK and HMRC) demonstrates.

Again, there are legitimate questions to be asked. 'Interpretation of the intention of parliament'? Avoidance schemes? Is HMRC likely to hold its hands up to a larger tax gap given that it is responsible for restricting said gap? To its credit, it is fairly honest about the assumptions it has made, provides a vast array of data and a lengthy methodological annex, but there must still be questions asked by those who, to be blunt, know far more about this than I do?

So, in summary, there is a tax gap which is estimated as between £35 billion and £120 billion. Where it comes from, and how it might be addressed are questions that should concern all of us, and yet I sense that the debate is all about tax and spend, with very little debate of enforcement and tax policy in the round.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Moderation and freedom of expression - a personal dilemma

One of the advantages of having your own blog is that you have total control over its content, especially important when it comes to comments.

That control is important for two reasons - it allows you to block offensive comments, often but not always anonymous, and it allows you to set a tone for debate which is appropriate to your readership (it never ceases to amaze me when people tell me that they've read posts here). However, ownership allows a degree of certainty, almost a dogmatic one if you let it.

But now that I am part of the Liberal Democrat Voice family, I've had to give rather more thought to what represents acceptable language and debating style. It has been put to me that what I might consider a 'robust exchange of views' might actually deter others from taking part in the debate. On my own blog, that might not matter so much, but when we're talking about a much-valued 'Party resource' (it is, after all, not an official organ of the Party), one does need to be more mindful of a wider perspective.

We've been having an interesting discussion on the subject in the Members' Forum, the contents of which will naturally remain private and confidential, and I have been somewhat enlightened by the ideas put forward there.

And what I've learned is that good moderation is really difficult, balancing freedom of expression with inclusivity. There is little point in allowing individuals to write pretty much whatever they like if the comments stream becomes so vile (cf Guido Fawkes) that it deters all but those with strong stomachs and an absence of mutual respect. On the other hand, excessive moderation, excluding dissent and passion, reduces the vibrancy of the debate and dullens the site, reducing its effectiveness.

But if that's the hard option, the alternative, no moderation at all, is much harder in the long run. Political dialogue in this country has been coarsened to a point where the public just switch off, something which impacts on all of us who believe in political activism within a vibrant civil society.

I suspect that I will continue to struggle with this question over the weeks, months and years ahead. And sometimes, I will get the balance wrong. But do bear with me, I am trying...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

It takes a village... and a surprising amount of money...

Life in a small village has its charms, and I would be the last to argue otherwise. However, it does come with challenges, as I've noted in the past.

For example, the church needs to be maintained, and the pool of people available to provide funding is a small one. The chances are that your church costs pretty much the same amount to maintain, regardless of the size of the parish, as churches don't tend to wildly vary in size until you get to metropolis of a thousand or more. To make matters worse, with congregations in decline in some places, the strain of keeping the church heated, decorated and in good repair becomes more and more burdensome on those who do attend.

Creeting St Peter is no exception, and whilst we are extremely fortunate that our Parochial Church Council is very active, and at the heart of village life, they need the support of the wider community to support them in their efforts.

As a Roman Catholic, the church doesn't play a big role in my spiritual life, thus removing one good reason to take an interest in the survival of St Peter's. However, that said, a community such as Creeting St Peter needs a focal point, and when you don't have a village hall, or any other venue, the church provides your best, perhaps only, option.

So, the question must be asked, how badly does a community want to be a community? What sacrifice is it willing to make to maintain its cohesion? In our case, I would suggest that without our church, the village would risk being merely a place where people live, rather than a place where people come together. And all that is asked is that we support our monthly coffee mornings, the pub nights and the other social events that our Parochial Church Council go to such trouble to organise.

Put like that, it doesn't seem like I'm being asked too much. So, I'll try and get to as many events as I can in the course of the year, I'll eat cake and drink tea, have a beer or two, donate some alcohol, and just kick back and enjoy myself. There, that doesn't sound too bad, does it?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Coffee comes to Creeting St Peter

Yes, I acknowledge that this is not a huge shock - Tesco isn't that far away - but coffee is at the heart of something valuable to our small village. I've mentioned our monthly coffee mornings, organised by the Parochial Church Council, and they have been at the core of building a social life in, and for, the village. However, thanks to Ros, something new was brought to my attention.

The Rural Coffee Caravan Information Project was launched as a means of reaching out to small, relatively isolated communities, providing information about services, or bringing people together. And yes, it is an actual caravan, although they tend to use indoor facilities outside of the summer months.

I was quite impressed, and so the question of a visit was raised at Parish Council a few months ago. And, thanks to our Clerk, the caravan came to call in December. The reports are that it was well received, and I would recommend it to any village in the county, especially if it hasn't visited before.

For more information, visit their website here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

No.3 on the list of utterly absurd places I have been

Today's outing has been to the Arctic Circle. Naturally, as this is Finland, Ros and I went by public transport, on Rovaniemi's bus route number 8 (as you can see in the picture).

Despite the fact that the roads are covered with snow, life goes on as usual here, with snowploughs deployed to clear the roads somewhat, and grit put on the pavements to make walking a bit easier. They don't salt the roads here, as salt is ineffectual at temperatures below minus 8 degrees centigrade, but with the aid of special studded or all weather tyres, even cyclists can get out and about.

Santa Claus Village offers visitors the opportunity to rush around on snowmobiles, be pulled along in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, and meet Santa Claus. Unexpectedly, Santa keeps regular office hours, and you'll find him here every day. Apparently, he has some sort of machine to distort time, thus allowing him to visit all the good boys and girls, and deliver presents to them.

I did think of asking him for an extra 10% in the opinion polls, but he's not a miracle worker...

It is an utterly absurd spot, with obelisks marking the line of the Arctic Circle, allowing you to photograph your loved one on either side, a special Santa Claus post office where you can send cards to friends and family, and enough retail opportunities to buy Santa kitsch to last a lifetime.

More than five years ago, I went to Ecuador, to stand on the Equator. Now, I've stood on the Arctic Circle. What other absurd places are left, I wonder?

I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with S... or T...

Welcome to... well, your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that I'm on the 12.38 train from Oulu to Rovaniemi, somewhere south of Kemi, with Ros. All there is to see out of the window is snow and trees.

Despite the cold, and the snow, we've managed to keep ourselves pretty busy. On Friday evening we went for an evening stroll before finding a lovely little restaurant for dinner. The reindeer tenderloin was delicious.

Yesterday, we explored the city centre, walking to the railway station, before heading down to the kauppatori (market square), where they were having some kind of event. Whilst it wasn't entirely clear what was happening, there were reindeer, so we took a closer look.

I got to stroke a reindeer - their fur is incredibly soft - before we set off in search of a bowl of soup for lunch - salmon for Ros, smoked reindeer for me - in the rather lovely kauppahalli. But we were still hungry, so we fortified ourselves with a reindeer sausage each before we set off back to our hotel.

On the way, we found that the road was closed off with barriers, so Ros asked someone with a fluorescent bib on for an explanation. Her answer was that there would be reindeer racing in ten minutes. Well, we weren't going to miss that, so we found a good spot and settled down to watch.

Reindeers race pulling someone on skis, and they're pretty quick too. But soon it was time to take a break, as the temperature was beginning to drop, and the wind pick up - a bad combination when the temperature is below zero to start with.

The afternoon was spent at the Pohjois Pohjanmaan Museo (the Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia), which has more labelling in English than I had expected. It's not the most exciting exhibit I've seen, but it does give you a good idea as to how Oulu became the city it is now.

Dinner was at a Viking restaurant, with all the wild boar I could eat (and I can eat a lot of wild boar).

And so, now we're on our way to the Arctic Circle, with Santa Claus, reindeer and the Aurora Borealis on our agenda. Yes, it is minus 8 degrees outside, plus the windchill (making it about minus 16 degrees) but we're fairly hardy, and how bad can it be?...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A wonderfully charming, yet totally inefficient piece of customer service...

I'm sure that you've experienced those moments when the process of doing something that should be simple becomes a struggle. Buying things on the internet, for example, or trying to change your standing order for a utility. We've all been there.

Ros and I are off to Yerevan, Armenia in May for a conference (as you do), and once the dates were confirmed, I was tasked with booking flights. So, having shopped around, compared fares and flight times, I alighted upon Air France as my preferred option (flights depart and arrive at sensible, civilised times).

I go to their website, book the flights, enter the credit card details, press 'confirm' and... a message comes up, telling me that I need to call Air France to confirm my credit card details. But they've gone home for the evening, presumably to sing torch songs and drink white burgundy.

So, I go to bed, girding my loins for hassle in the morning, Air France being one of those state-run monstrosities that so annoy our free market worshipping friends.

Morning comes, and I awake, feeling pretty good. Until, of course, I remember that I have to call Air France...

At precisely 8.00, I dial the number and, having made it past the call filtering, the phone is answered. Not by someone in a call centre at Gatwick, but by a real Frenchman. We exchange pleasantries, before getting to business. He asks me for my booking reference, which I provide. He explains that, yes, my booking has come up on his screen, and that we are travelling to Yerevan, Armenia.

A very interesting place, he notes. I agree, pointing out that, given the new French law making denial of the Armenian genocide an offence, it seems appropriate to go there on Air France. He agrees, and asks what takes me to Yerevan. I explain, which generates more discussion.

Of course, we haven't actually dealt with the reason for my call, but...

My new friend explains that he is bringing up the payments details on his screen, but that this is taking rather longer than expected. We bemoan the technology, blaming Microsoft (as one does), and sharing the irony of tools intended to improve efficiency slowing things down.

But eventually, the screen pops up in front of him, and we go through the process of confirming all of the payment details. When we get to my address, I have to explain Creeting St Peter. He asks where it is, and I tell him that it is a small village in the country, which he seems to like.

It's all very amicable, but I still don't have any ticket confirmation. He's on the case, however, and almost unexpectedly, he says that all is well, and that the tickets are done. We talk a bit more, before I thank him and say goodbye.

A simple ninety second job has been stretched to eleven minutes, enough to drive most people crazy. And yet, I come out of the conversation having rather enjoyed the experience.

Ah well, c'est la vie....
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Whatever happened to Miranda Grell?

On my way home this evening, I came across a copy of the Evening Standard. Not particularly surprising, as my regular train is a commuter special out of Liverpool Street which just happens to run all the way to Norwich.

Reading through the pages about the Mayoral contest, I noted a letter condemning Boris Johnson because a six stop journey on the Central line costs £3.10. The letter was signed by one Miranda Grell and, being an ex-Londoner, that name rang a bell.

Ah yes, Miranda Grell, the woman found guilty of a breach of the Representation of The People Act 1983 and banned from holding public office for three years. Miranda was found by a court, and on appeal, to be a not terribly honest witness, having initially denied telling voters that her opponent was a paedophile, with a nineteen year old Thai boyfriend, but having been exposed by her fellow Labour candidate, admitted that she had raised his sexual orientation on the doorstep, and mentioned a nineteen year old boyfriend.

Having lost her appeal, she then resigned from the Labour Party, but clearly she still feels that her support is potentially of value. However, her letter is of interest, as she has clearly worked quite hard to find as damning an example of the fare structure as she can.

The fare from Snaresbrook, in zone 4, to Liverpool Street, in zone 1, is £3.60 during peak hours, and £2.60  off-peak, and is indeed six stops. On the other hand, the same fare would get her to Notting Hill Gate (seventeen stops), Ealing Broadway (twenty-four stops) and Greenford (twenty-five stops). With a change of line (included in the fare), she could travel to Queensbury on the Jubilee line, or Hounslow West on the Piccadilly line, or Wimbledon on the District line.

So yes, complain about the fares, but do at least give Londoners the credit of being able to see through a manufactured sense of outrage, Miranda. And don't forget, the internet will always remind people of your past...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Scottish Independence: a net employment gain for England?

Courtesy of a Parliamentary Question, the regional distribution of Civil Service employment has been brought to my attention. And the data is quite interesting.

As at 31 March 2011, the headcount for the Civil Service was as follows;

  • England                                        404,043
  • Scotland                                         48,832
  • Wales                                             33,299
  • Northern Ireland                             4,355*

* Northern Ireland has its own Civil Service, and so it is rather difficult to do a reasonable comparison.

So, how does this compare to population? England has one civil servant per 129 head of population, Scotland has one per 107 and Wales has one per 90.

Naturally, there are reasons for the discrepancies. As a major employer, governments, especially Labour ones, have sought to transfer Civil Service offices from London and the South East to areas where employment opportunities are relatively few. This has benefits in terms of recruitment and retention, and the costs of accommodation are far less in East Kilbride and Merthyr Tydfil than they are in Croydon, Maidstone or Reading, let alone central London.

However, if Scotland does become independent, much of the work done there on behalf of non-Scottish customers would have to be repatriated, thus providing some employment south of the border. And yes, some of those staff would be transferred into new roles working for the Scottish Government, policy advisors, even whole new departments. In all likelihood, independence would be, at worst, employment neutral, as far as the public sector is concerned, although there would be an interesting question about how an enlarged public sector might be financed.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Not Left, nor Reform, nor Vision... just a Liberal...

I can't tell you how hard it is to keep up with all of this. It is as though for each reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. Ah, I forget, that's a law of physics, isn't it? And you cannae change the laws of physics... Anyway, no sooner has Liberal Left taken to the runway than Liberal Reform leaves the terminal building.

I won't be joining. I'm not the joining kind, I suppose, and besides, I already pay a subscription to something called the Liberal Democrats, an organisation dedicated to fighting for liberal values with a noble and valiant history of doing so. They seem to have the right idea, most of the time, at least, and I think that I'll happily settle at that.

That said, I wish them well, so long as they are about ideas and putting them into practice, rather than about opposing someone else within the Party. The website looks reasonably good, if sparse so far (it's early days, so don't take that to be a criticism), and we'll see what they do at our Spring Conference...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Blogging: it's not about recognition... well, maybe it is... a bit

Much to my surprise, postings on this blog have been included in the Golden Dozen in two of the past three weeks. Surprise, because the blog has been relatively quiet of late, but also because I'm not prone to controversy (despite my opinion piece for Liberal Democrat Voice last week).

I don't really write with a mass audience in mind - my life isn't that exciting, and my opinions insufficiently 'spicy'. I don't hold a key position in the Liberal Democrats, my council is hardly one to grace the pages of Private Eye's 'Rotten Boroughs', and I'm quietly happy.

Of course, in the early days of Liberal Democrat Blogs, and of the Golden Dozen, I was a bit of a regular, with fifty entries in the first 131 Golden Dozens. It was, I must confess, a bit easier in those far off days, but I still appear from time to time, which is nice.

I'll have to keep up the blogging though. Given the propensity of Liberal Democrat Voice editors to fade into blogging oblivion, I'd like to strike a happy balance between reportage and gentle whimsy, between occasional frustration and tales of my rural idyll...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prayer and Local Government - between a rock and a hard place?

We don't really 'do God' on Creeting St Peter Parish Council. After all, that's what the Parochial Church Council is for, when they're not organising the village's social life (and sorry for missing today's coffee morning, I had to go to London).

I have to admit though, that if asked to take part in a prayer session as part of Full Council, I'd have to demur. I don't have an objection to religion - I am a guilty, non-practising Roman Catholic, not guilty because I'm non-practising, just existentially guilty - but I do see it as personal and a matter of individual conscience.

It is such a pity that the protagonists are so entirely unsympathetic. The spokesperson for the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, seems rather too keen to drive faith out of our society, whereas Lord Carey of Clifton gives the impression of being a reactionary Lord Blimp.

The abolition of mandatory prayers as an integral part of a council meeting is not the end of Christianity as we know it. And if my fellow councillors were to choose to have a prayer session before our formal business, I really wouldn't see how I could reasonably protest. It is their deeds as councillors that are my concern, not their deeds elsewhere.

I shouldn't be surprised that Eric Pickles has waded into the row. Given that he no longer appears to check basic facts before mouthing off, I tend to the view that if I'm taking a contrary stance to his, I'm on the right side of common sense.

So, if you want to pray, go right ahead, just don't oblige me to join you. And in return, I won't oblige you to enjoy a bacon sandwich, or be a bureaucrat, or savour a nice glass of riesling. It's all about freedom, isn't it, Eric?...

The return of the Returning Officer...

Alright, I've had my refresher training, and am now able to be let loose on unsuspecting Local Parties once more. And, as there are so many more of you wanting to be Parliamentary candidates than there are wanting to be Returning Officers (and why is that?), I really ought to give you a flavour of what to expect.

No more nanny state

You will, henceforth, be under much less supervision as an applicant. You won't need the approval of the Returning Officer for your manifesto, your leaflets or your other campaigning material, online or otherwise. Instead, you will be responsible for ensuring your own compliance.

The revolution will no longer be organised on strict procedural lines

There will be greater freedom in terms of process. As long as the six key principles - fairness, accountability, robustness, inclusivity, democracy and manageability - are met, there will be scope to do things differently. The limits on campaigning will be relaxed - yes, you can use social media, yes, you will be able to include photographs with well-known people in them.

More flexibility, less cost

There is a new two tier approach, with a rigorous process for target seats but a more 'fast track' one for those 'less obviously winnable ones'. The latter will be cheaper - removing the requirement to place an full advert in Liberal Democrat News (although a brief slot in the classifieds column will still be required), and allowing other ways to advertise the vacancy. The timetable in such seats is significantly reduced too.

Diversity yes, but only where it really counts

We'll be less prescriptive on diversity issues for the less winnable seats because what really matters is getting better balance amongst our Parliamentarians, i.e. getting more women and minority ethnic candidates selected in target seats. The evidence is that diversity isn't a major problem is non-target seats anyway.

No more Returning Officers as paralegals

Hopefully, my job will no longer require forensic scrutiny of a complex rulebook, partly because the new version is half the size of the old one, but because it is a document based on fundamental principles, rather than on a fear that candidates need control. As someone who likes to think a little outside of the box, that pleases me, and gives me scope for a little experimentation.

And so, let the games begin... but only once I've got some spare time...

Liberal Left: let a thousand flowers bloom*...

The news that a new pressure group has been formed within the Liberal Democrats has been 'welcomed' with a surprising level of hostility from a number of my colleagues. Obviously, there will be those who might expect me to be equally dismissive. After all, I'm generally loyal to the Party, and at least tolerant of its leadership.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd yet, I find myself wondering what the fuss is all about. It is, when all is said and done, the right of any group of Liberal Democrats to organise as they please, within the confines of the Constitution and the Membership Rules.

But what puzzles me more is that, as I recall, we talk a good game about pluralism. And, in a pluralist society, one accepts that individuals and groups have a right to take a contrarian view. It can be argued that the Coalition has been bad for the Party - indeed, polls by Liberal Democrat Voice indicate a consistent stance that the Coalition will be bad for the Party in at least the medium term.

So, for those who have been so negative about Liberal Left, a question. If, after the next General Election, we are offered a choice between Labour and the Conservatives as dancing partners, are you ruling out Labour now? And if so, why?

* Apparently, Mao never said this. The Chinese Communist Party did use the slogan "Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.". But it's still a good line...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Off for training in the morning...

I'm off down to London tomorrow, for my Returning Officer training. Oh yes, I need to be retrained, given that we have shiny new Selection Rules. I am aware of the irony, given that I was on the Working Group that rewrote them, but there can be no exceptions.

And it's probably about time too, as I've already had an informal approach to see if I'd be willing to serve in one of the forthcoming European Parliamentary selections (the answer is no, but then I said that I'd leave the country after the 1997 selection, and ended up doing 2002 and 2007 as well). There might also be Police and Crime Commissioner selections in my Region, and I do so like to be helpful when I can.

I've already done the pre-training test, which meant reading the new Rules - it would be rather embarrassing if I got too many things wrong.

I'll let you know what happened when I get back...

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Climbing off the fence, and into the fray...

For those of you who read Liberal Democrat Voice (and for those of you who don't, why don't you?), you will have noticed that I have, somewhat unusually, taken a stance on something that troubles me. Actually, it's some of you...

So, take a look at the piece I've written, and let's see just what sort of Party it is I'm a member of...

Not cut off, not cut off at all...

Ros and I had been visiting friends for dinner in Hadleigh, a rather lovely little town in South Suffolk, on Saturday evening, and so found ourselves on the road on Sunday morning, snow or no snow.

The road out of Hadleigh towards East Bergholt was twisty and slippery, as the volume of traffic had not been sufficient to clear away the snow, and Ros drove cautiously as far as the turning for the A12. But thanks to the work of the Essex and Suffolk County gritters, road conditions were pretty good as far as Stowmarket.

Stopping only to buy a newspaper, some milk, crumpets and soup at Tesco, we then embarked on what we feared might be the trickiest part of our journey, along Mill Lane and then up the rise to our village. There isn't a lot of traffic at the best of times, and we're a long way down the order in terms of roads most likely to be gritted. But we made it home, to find our village covered in a white blanket of snow, and our house with it.

A fire set, and some logs burnt, and the house was cosy and warm.

But yesterday, with the weekend over, it was time to return to the work routine. And for me, that means the community bus. So it was with some trepidation that I headed out to the pick-up point in the middle of the village, with ice on the road and visibility down to less than fifty metres, after all, road conditions weren't great and the bus schedule is busy.

And so, at exactly eight o'clock, the bus arrived, on time. The road north to Stowupland had been cleared, and it was the usual efficient journey, as I chatted to my driver. All this for £2.10 return.

It reminds me that, here in the country, you need to be just a little more resilient. And fortunately, those that I depend upon usually are...

Call this cold? I think not...

Ros has always wanted to see the Northern Lights and, being a devoted husband and keen traveller, I have made the arrangements. And so, just after Valentine's Day (because the Lords will be debating the Scotland Bill that day), I'll be taking her to the Arctic Circle, to Oulu and Rovaniemi, where it's currently -31°C (-24°F for those of you who prefer that measure).

However, there is a bit of a breeze blowing, with the wind chill making it feel like -44°C, or -47°F... Oh well, it's a relatively balmy -28°C in Oulu...

But why Oulu and Rovaniemi? Well, the flights were fairly easy, the hotels comfortable, and Rovaniemi is the home of Santa Claus. And in a year when the Aurora Borealis is expected to be at its best, why not go and see?

So, I'll try and keep the blog up to date, at least until we leave. Because I'm not exactly sure what happens when a bureaucrat is exposed to the cold...