Saturday, March 31, 2012

I think that I've finally worked out this life thing...

It's taken forty-seven years, but it looks like I've found my metier. I have turned my mind towards becoming a country gentleman of an enquiring disposition. I could even learn to potter around, drink gin and watch the local wildlife, perhaps all at the same time.

And it suits me. I emerge from my country idyll from time to time, and wander around in a slightly puzzled way, wondering why everybody else is in such a hurry. Indeed, why are they? Heaven only knows.

At my best, I am a classically well-intentioned amateur, something that has emerged through my work with Unlock Democracy. And slowly and methodically testing evidence suits the way I think, so I think that I'd like to do that a bit more, perhaps a Policy Working Group, or a project of some kind.

But I do have quite a lot on my plate already. I'm responsible for the candidate assessment process for the 2013 County elections here in Suffolk, I'm the Local Party and County Treasurer, I'm part of the team organising the County Conference, and I'm involved in the European Liberal Democrats. Throw in my responsibilities as a parish councillor, and I've got enough to keep me intellectually challenged for some time.

And, of course, I have this blog, and my fortnightly day editor gig at Liberal Democrat Voice. So, all in all, I have quite a lot to do. I'd better get on with it then...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Unlock Democracy: applying napalm to my very own burning bridge

I have already touched upon the issue of the declared rules for the internal elections to the Council of Unlock Democracy. At the time, Ros did suggest that I might regret addressing the issue in such a blunt manner and, as usual, she was right.



However, constancy to a set of principles is important too, and my friends will know that I've banged on about internal democracy for many years. To me, it is critical to an informed and participatory society. But I have agreed to disagree with most of my fellow Council members, if only to acknowledge the fact that we all have our own reasons for taking the stances we do.

What I do object to is some of the reactions of individuals. It appears that, to at least one of them, the idea of blogging is cause for ridicule, and that the notion that I might wish to express an opinion other than that of the group is somehow strange. Another has expressed the view that use of social media will discriminate against some candidates and, whilst I entirely see where the view stems from, it does appear to represent an equally valid argument against the use of social media in public elections, surely not a notion most would endorse.

But the final blow to morale was the comments placed on both of my recent blog entries, which were clearly a 'cut and paste' job.

So, to save them the trouble...

"Unlock Democracy's internal election regulations are decided by our members.  The rules are designed to provide a level playing field and to prevent wealthier candidates from having too great an advantage. The current rules were set before Facebook and Twitter were in widespread use.

Any member concerned about these rules could have submitted a standing order amendment to our AGM.  No-one did so. We are keen to encourage as many members as possible to stand for election. For more details see our website: http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/elections"

There are times for irony, times for sarcasm, and times for despair. And once you've dealt with those, it's time to move on...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Religion and the Liberal Democrats - like sex, but without the warmth

Oh dear, I appear to have helped stir up a bit of controversy over young Mr Farron's letter to the Advertising Standards Authority and, by extension, provoked an ongoing row about religion. It hasn't been pretty.

I consider myself as someone who believes in God, albeit rather informally. I instinctively make the sign of the Cross on entering a Catholic church, I light candles for my late grandmother (as much out of respect for her as out of any expectation that it makes any actual difference), and, most of all, I feel vaguely guilty that I am not more devout (not actually guilty enough to remedy this, more a background level of guilt, if you like).

But, as an ersatz Englishman, I take a quintessentially English view of religion, as I do of sex. I have no objection to people practising their faith, as long as they don't force me to join in against my will, and as long as they do it privately amongst consenting individuals. I'm not wild about public displays of religious faith, just as I'm not keen on people performing sexual acts in public.

That doesn't seem too difficult for most people to live with. But it is, I fear. There have been some astonishingly intolerant remarks made in the course of the debate, some of them from quite surprising sources. And I am puzzled by that, as we do seem, as a country, to have decided that tolerance is all well and good, with the exception of religion.

I am not a huge fan of organised religion. In the wrong hands, it has been, and continues to be, used as a justification for war, repression and intolerance. In more recent times, the emergence of a religious bureaucracy has led to a rather ponderous response to societal change. But the notion of faith is a powerful one, and can be, if taken in the round, a good one. A tolerant faith, based on universal tenets of decency, honesty and consistency, is a force for good in an increasingly cynical world.

For we all believe in something that cannot be proved, be it religious faith or liberalism. Both are ideas, rather than solid facts, the aim of both being to build a society in our image, both open to interpretation, argument and disagreement, both of which leave space for doubt and uncertainty.

So perhaps we could go easy on the vitriol, and accept (and respect) our differences. Because, ultimately, we're all in the same lifeboat, and it will go easier for all of us if we can just rub along a bit...

Monday, March 26, 2012

What do you mean, £250,000 doesn't buy you influence?

The Conservative Party's claims that big donors do not influence Government policy are highly entertaining, and would be highly amusing if it wasn't all so serious.

But first, a declaration of interest. I do contribute to the Liberal Democrats, through my membership subscription, a generous £62 per annum, by giving of my time, gratis, to deliver the odd leaflet and more time to assist in the administration of my Local Party and of my County Co-ordinating Committee. If you asked me to put a monetary value on it all, I wouldn't have much of a clue. It does buy me influence, of a sort, but most of my influence is earned, by way of personal credibility, and I like to bear in mind that politics is about communal benefit rather than personal gain.

On the other hand, if someone approached me as the Local Party Treasurer, and offered me a fat cheque, my gratitude would be tempered by a degree of cynicism. Do I know this person to be a committed Party supporter? Is there an agenda underpinning the donation?

Peter Cruddas clearly doesn't think like that. And that's just fine, right up to the point where you appoint someone like him to head up your fundraising operation. You see, if you take someone's money, you are beholden to them in some way. And the bigger the cheque, the more you are.

That might not be a fundamental problem if you're a voluntary organisation, or a charity. But when you're running the country, or even if you aspire to run, the obligation to be cautious is multiplied many times over.

Just take one example, an economic one. Potentially, a government can distort a market by means of legislation, or general policy. If a contract is given following the giving and receiving of a bribe, that's illegal and therefore a crime. If the terms of the contract are altered by legislation designed to favour a bidder who has, at some point in the past, made a generous donation to the governing party, that isn't a bribe. Actually, that's 'legalese'. Really, it is a bribe, except that it is supposedly above board.

In a world of massively increased scrutiny, where more information is available than ever before, where the media is as much in the hands of dogged individuals as it is in those of international media moguls, such behaviour is harder to keep covered up. Most of us would suspect that, for a cool £250K, there would be a quid pro quo, the only question being, "what's in it for the donor?".

So, time for party funding reform... and for lobbying reform. Throw in reform of the media, and maybe, just maybe, we'll have a conclusive answer to the question of whose campaigners are most effective. Can't wait...

Internal elections at Unlock Democracy - a follow-up

Following on from yesterday's mildly intemperate comments about the rules for electing the new Council of Unlock Democracy, I have been asked to point out that all decisions on the content of those rules are made by the Council of Unlock Democracy, a body of which I am currently a member.

And, being a civilised soul at heart, I am happy to issue such a correction.

This raises an interesting question, in terms of collective responsibility. Regardless of the internal debate within Council, I am technically bound by collective responsibility for its decisions. Now, when it is a question of prioritisation in our campaigning, or decisions about how the organisation is run, that's quite easy. There are, after all, many ways of doing things, and one should respect the existing culture of the group.

However, when it comes to a decision which, to my mind, flies in the face of the organisation's fundamental principles, one does have to ask the question, is this the right place for me to be? And, to be honest, I'm not sure.

So, much to think about and reflect upon. I'll let you know what I decide... Ah, I forget, I can't...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Throwing away the key... how not to run internal elections

I find myself in an unusual position. Well, actually not that unusual, in that I find myself in opposition to a bunch of conservatives who find social media 'a bit difficult'. So, where are these reactionaries?

Here is an excerpt from the election rules for the organisation;

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice"No candidate may pro-actively campaign for election online, or allow anyone else to campaign on their behalf. This includes - but is not limited to - setting up special Twitter accounts, "friending" or "following" people for the explicit purpose of campaigning, establishing a Facebook group or page, pro-actively "tagging" friends with status updates about their candidacy, writing a blog post, recording a video or audio message."

and another;

"Candidates may inform their existing friends and social contacts that they are standing and may answer direct questions about their candidacy, if asked. This applies to the informal use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). However, there is inevitably a thin line between informing and campaigning via social media and there are circumstances in which  a candidate may not be able to control how their communications on social media are subsequently relayed by others."

Having just stamped out such nonsense from within the candidate selection rules of my own Party, you cannot believe how frustrating it is to encounter it again. But how frustrating do you think it is to discover that these rules come from the internal election calling notice of 'Unlock Democracy'?

I should like to put on record that I am deeply disappointed that an organisation that calls for a better informed, more participatory democracy should have such repressive election rules, a point I have made most forcefully to my fellow Council members.

It is a sad indictment of the organisation's leadership that I find myself in the position where I can't even tell you whether I intend to run for re-election or not. Because, no matter how ludicrous the rules are, I feel collectively bound to honour them.

So, until I either announce that I'm not running, or the close of poll on 21 June, I am able to give no inkling as to what is happening. What a crying pity, and what a terrible irony...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Time to open up the lobbying industry

Disappointingly, it would appear that the Coalition's efforts to combat the pernicious influence of lobbyists on our democracy have come up rather short of what Liberal Democrats might hope for. The fact that the senior civil servant responsible for the consultation was somewhat confused as far as objectivity was concerned might very well not have helped.

So, what is needed? My colleagues at Unlock Democracy have the answer. They call for a public register of lobbying, which would include;

  • the organisation lobbying
  • the name(s) of individual lobbyist(s)
  • information on any public office held by the lobbyist in the past five years
  • the public body being lobbied
  • the name of the public official with whom contact has been made (government minister, senior civil servant and above)
  • a summary of what is being lobbied on
  • a good faith estimate of spending on lobbying
This register would include corporate lobbyists, trade unions, companies or law firms, as well as larger charities.

Unpaid lobbying by a member of the public, or lobbying of an MP by a constituent, would be exempt, as well as small businesses and charities.

And, to make sure that the register is credible, an independent body is proposed, similar in design to the Electoral Commission. The information would then be publicly available and thereby open to scrutiny by voters and any other interested groups.

That doesn't sound too difficult. Of course, if you're beholden to the lobbyists, you might not be so keen...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Thinking about thinking about thinking

In my relative semi-retirement from frontline political activity, I find myself with a little time on my hands, and a wealth of experience and knowledge to call upon. Quite a lot of it, I hasten to add, is other people's, but you know what I mean.

And so I'm musing on ways to re-engage myself, and others, back into the work required to drive the Party forward. New ways to participate, that kind of thing, and as much of it as possible in a gentler, more decent way.

I rather enjoyed my campaigning in Stowupland last year, talking to voters, and doing it at a slower pace because I'd started early. And yes, some of the conversations were difficult, but by being polite, and being prepared to stand and chat as the opportunity arose and time permitted, I began to connect with my neighbours.

In fairness, that isn't a campaigning model that works in many places. Whilst the principle of meeting your voters is sound, for most campaigners, in wards far larger and more populous than Stowupland, there just isn't the time. But it is reflective of the new politics that our leadership used to bang on about at length.

But the notion of constructive, civilised dialogue has stirred something in me, so have a look at what I have written here, and here, and add your thoughts.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Budget 2012: some initial thoughts

Another year and, whilst the media response is pretty feckless, I am moved to comment on what is, in the round, a pretty good Budget by Messrs Osborne and Alexander in difficult circumstances.

Firstly, income tax rates and allowances. Taking another chunk of the poor out of the income tax bracket is clearly a big success for Liberal Democrats, and we can look forward to telling the public that we delivered on that key commitment in 2015. Next, I suggest, increasing and synchronising the National Insurance Contributions (NIC) threshold and taking full-timers on the minimum wage out of both income tax and NIC on their earnings.

As for the new 45% rate, I am intrigued that, in the depths of the HM Revenue & Customs report on the efficacy of the 50% rate band was an alternative estimate, suggesting that the impact might have been a net loss to the Exchequer of £1.7 billion. Yes, there were references in the report to 'Monte Carlo simulations' (quite appropriate, some might say) but my suspicion is that George and Danny may have 'put away a little for a rainy day' by taking a conservative position as to the impact of moving from 50% to 45%.

The restriction of currently unceilinged reliefs to 25% of income is interesting, although the kinds of reliefs involved might be seen as esoteric to ordinary taxpayers. Many of them are seen as being a means of providing wealthy people with huge incentives to become even wealthier, so they'll not be mourned by anyone except accountants and their wealthy clients.

On pensioners, the gradual loss of the additional personal allowance will not affect all pensioners, particularly female ones, who are more likely to be poor and not pay income tax anyway. It also won't affect pensioners with income higher than £30,190 either, as they would have lost any additional sum in its entirety anyway (the allowance is lost at a rate of £1 for every £2 of income above £25,400 at present). And for those in between, the additional state pension will more than cover the effective real loss of allowances.

The new higher rate of stamp duty for properties with a value of £2 million or more, and the even higher rate for corporate vehicles purchasing property are, to my mind, better than a mansion tax in some ways. The new 15% rate will encourage people to put properties in their own name instead, improving transparency of ownership. And, as it's paid by the purchaser, who must therefore be wealthy, it doesn't impact on that small, but curiously much befriended group of poor people who live in astonishingly expensive homes (how do they maintain them if they're so poor?).

Corporation tax is interesting, in that both Alastair Darling and George Osborne appear to be of one mind, at least as far as moving towards a single rate. Whilst Alastair appeared to be moving towards a 25% rate, it looks as though George is aiming at 20%. If it encourages large corporations to remain in, and come to, the United Kingdom, it will probably cover its costs in the long run. However, that may be a big if, and the major benefits are likely to be in terms of a boost to business confidence.

Sin taxes are, I'm afraid, another kicking for those that like to drink or smoke, as well as for the pub industry. Unfortunately, by using the word 'sin', they imply guilt, so one can't be too surprised when punishment comes. That said, some action to support your local public house might be popular, as people approve of such things. Something to watch for next time, Danny?

Seckford Foundation: "if you can't win the argument, intimidate your opponents"

The argument for, and against, free schools in Suffolk has taken a curiously sinister turn.

In last year's District Council elections, one of the more lively campaigns was in Stradbroke and Laxfield, where local school governor, library campaigner and self-confessed geek, James Hargrave, took up the cudgels for the Liberal Democrats against the incumbent Conservative (described on the ballot paper as Independent, but we all know what that usually means). And, whilst he lost, his campaign was seldom dull.

Afterwards, he returned to his two personal campaigning issues, libraries and education, giving the County Council a hard time, and highlighting efforts by local Conservatives to skew the process in favour of their proposals.


In recent weeks, he has been giving the supporters of a proposed free school in Beccles a thoroughly deserved hard time. He's clearly having an effect, if this excerpt of a letter he received from Graham Watson, the Director of the Seckford Foundation is any guide;

"Please note that we do not intend to engage in any further correspondence with you but will continue to monitor your blog in case you publish any defamatory comments in the future."


Mr Watson is described on the Seckford Foundation's website as a Member of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, with extensive knowledge of charity law, tax regulation and governance issues. He doesn't mention any expertise in the field of public relations.

So, as a favour to him, I would suggest that, in terms of public relations, he's wise not to claim any expertise. However, most people know an implied attempt to intimidate when they see one and, from the perspective of this bystander, that's exactly what Mr Watson's letter looks like.

And one wonders about the wisdom of issuing such a clumsy threat in writing, to a blogger, who has the means to immediately tell the world that you've threatened him. And in turn, you might wonder whether someone who considers that intimidation is an acceptable strategy should be involved in the education of your children.

I'm sure that he understands entirely what he's doing... But just in case...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A county set at prayer with the High Sheriff

I am not a particularly religious person - a deep and abiding suspicion of clerical bureaucracy is just one reason why I am sceptical about organised religion - but I do find that religious services, done well, do lift the soul (oh yes, I do believe in that, contradictory though that may seem). And so it was with some pleasure that Ros and I attended Evensong for Her Majesty's Courts of Justice at St Edmundsbury Cathedral this afternoon.

The event, the climax of the High Sheriff's term of office, is an opportunity to give thanks to those who uphold our laws and who exercise governance on our behalf, and is attended by the judiciary, council leaders and town mayors from across the county, plus Parliamentarians and the rest of the local gentry. Suits are worn, as are hats. It is a public occasion.

The cathedral looked lovely, with the choir, the new organ and trumpeters to play fanfares, plus the various senior clergy in their robes. Proper hymns were sung, such as "I vow to thee, my country", and we got a sermon from a senior figure related to the law. And, of course, we sang the national anthem.

I am reminded by all of this that, whilst religion plays a far less central role in our lives than once it did, the relationship between the civil authorities and the spiritual one - the Church of England - remains a strong one. In a county such as Suffolk, still relatively homogeneous, the issue of diversity is relatively understated - more people here define themselves as Church of England than in more urbanised parts of the country - and rural village life still revolves around the church to some extent, even if most people don't attend services.

And there is something quintessentially English about such things or, at least, so it appears to this ersatz Englishman. The Church provides an anchor, holding us to a sense of community, linking us to our history. It also acts as a reminder that bringing people together to celebrate and to reflect is to make us part of something bigger, something more considerate, and a reminder that we are, however it is defined, part of a wider community.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Osborne and public sector pay: the market cuts both ways, you know...

It is said that you should be careful what you wish for, and today, the public sector trade unions are  discovering that the saying comes with a further corollary.

In the midst of the debate on benefit caps, Labour proposed regional variations in the level of those caps. The logic was obvious - some places are more expensive to live in than others - and undeniable. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true, in that some places are cheaper to live in than others, a conclusion that was quickly seized upon by Iain Duncan-Smith amongst others. And if you apply that logic, you can argue that you should cut benefits in places where housing is cheaper, or where commuting costs are lower.

But, of course, those aren't the only people who receive their income from the State. Civil servants too, could be presented with the same logic, if the rumours emerging from George Osborne are to be believed. Apart from London Weighting, all civil servants in a Government Department are on the same pay scales, whether in Ipswich or Coleraine, Dunfermline or Aberystwyth. It doesn't take a genius to see the temptation.

There was a time when civil service salaries were decided on the basis of comparators with the private sector. Better pension rights, job security and rather civilised working arrangements in the public sector were offset by better basic pay rates in the private sector. It was a trade-off, and one that seemed to work.

But much has changed over the decades. Work, and jobs, have been moved away from London and the South East to rather worse off parts of the country in need of employment. By doing so, two things were achieved - reducing the staffing costs for government and reducing unemployment levels in places like South Wales, the North East of England and Central Scotland. If you were a London based civil servant, you probably kept your job - natural wastage usually saw to that - but your career prospects were seriously damaged as promotion opportunities dried up.

And recruitment dried up too, creating an ageing Civil Service workforce. In London, particularly, with pay rates losing value over more than a decade, even in good times, even when vacancies were advertised, the calibre of those applying fell - the brightest and the best wanted to make serious money, not altruistically work in an undervalued, much criticised institution.

Outside London, where the pay scales were more competitive, recruitment and retention were somewhat easier. But, if salaries become less competitive - and the changes in pension rules that already apply have made civil service pensions less obviously attractive than they used to be - the ability to attract bright people to deliver vital public services is weakened.

It is possible that, in some places, recruitment and retention rates might not deteriorate if you cut pay in real terms. I fear that there won't be many of them. And in some places and in some Government Departments, such as HM Revenue & Customs, it will become apparent that the pay scales are wholly insufficient. It is, frankly, unlikely that George will consider raising those salaries to reflect what market rates are. But, in Osborneland, the market is a fickle thing.

So, if I have some advice for Danny Alexander (apart from trying to avoid pandas), it would be, "Don't try this, not if you want a Civil Service that can deliver its tasks for much longer.".

I should quit the Liberal Democrats to save the NHS? You are kidding, aren't you?

I've been told by a former Party member, who shall remain nameless, that, in order to save the NHS, those of us who remain in the Party should quit. And given the recent losses amongst our ranks, I thought that I should publish a suitably edited version of my reply.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIf, like me, you've been a Party member for a quarter-century, seen triumph and, mostly, disaster, you tend to stick with it, especially when it's a Party that hasn't got a recent track record of glorious victory. If it were power I was seeking, here in deepest Suffolk it would be far easier to join the Conservatives. If I had, I'd be a District Councillor with an inside track to being a County Councillor next year. But I wouldn't be a liberal. And I am.

It isn't clear why you joined the Liberal Democrats. Was it from a deep and abiding sense of being a liberal, or some other reason, a policy or stance that you applauded, a person you admired? Or something else? After all, people join political parties for all sorts of reasons, and I am critical of none of them.

But it appears that, for you, it was easy to leave the Party, which is fine. However, for those of us who are liberals, and want to change our society for the better, the options are more limited. If we all leave, as you would like us to, where do we go? Set up a new liberal party? Extremely difficult, especially with first past the post elections. Join the Greens? Hardly liberals. Join the Conservatives or Labour? If that were so tempting, most of us would have gone years ago.

Oh yes, we could join single-issue groups, but they seldom change lives in a big way, rarely change our society.

So, if you don't mind, I'll continue to fly the rather battle-scarred banner of liberalism within the only political party attempting to offer an often disinterested and occasionally scornful British public a genuinely liberal option. It isn't perfect, no political party is, but for me it is the best vehicle for expressing what I stand for, internationalist, inclusive and rooted in the notion of community.

And you want us to sell it, and liberalism, down the river because they think we've put the NHS at risk? When the country ends up with a choice of blue authoritarians versus red ones, who are you going to call? Ghostbusters?...

Friday, March 16, 2012

The wildlife of Creeting St Peter

As a South Londoner of many years standing, the only wildlife I was likely to see consisted almost entirely of urban foxes. And whilst they were occasionally quite attractive, they weren't exactly cute.

Of course, I now live in the countryside, and wildlife sightings are relatively commonplace. Deer, rabbits, hare, slowworms, weasels and a range of game birds give me something to watch out for on my walks around the parish, or community bus rides to and from the station. However, I clearly haven't been as observant as my fellow parish councillors.

Dan, who joined us from the now sadly defunct Community Council, is a proper local. He can identity a rifle by the sound it makes, and cares deeply about the area he lives in. He is leading for us on what to do with the small piece of woodland that we recently discovered is owned by the Parish Council, the somewhat sinisterly named 'Plot 89', which lies next to the A14.

He is keen that we clean it up and make it into, effectively, a community wildlife resource, an idea that has been readily adopted by the rest of us. Mid Suffolk District Council have kindly supplied us with six 'litter pick' packs, and using volunteer labour, we hope to make a start on clearing the site of rubbish and fallen wood shortly.

But in the course of the discussion, the subject of wildlife came up. Apparently, we have kingfishers and water vole on the River Gipping, barn owls in various parts of the parish, and an otter holt (which needs some attention) at Fen Alder Carr.

I shouldn't really be surprised, I suppose. We are extremely fortunate in that most of the parish is rather off the beaten path, that our farming is almost entirely arable, and that the farmers are quite keen that it remain that way for the most part.

But we're clearly going to have to get out and walk about our Parish over the coming months. After all, there's so much to see...

A financial advisor, c'est moi!

A fortnight ago, I was waiting for news from the Bureau of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR), regarding a potential appointment.

I waited... and waited... but silence was all that came. So, I went to Gateshead for the Spring Federal Conference and pottered about a bit. I did run into Sir Graham Watson, ELDR President, but I was far too polite to ask him, especially as the news might have been bad.

However, on Wednesday, I received an e-mail from Roman Jakič, the ELDR Treasurer;

"I have the pleasure to announce to you that in accordance with the rules of the newly created Financial Advisory Committee, 'the candidates proposed to the Bureau by the ELDR Treasurer and Secretary General for membership of the Financial Advisory Committee, have been appointed' on 2 March 2012."

Apparently, my term of office ends on 31 December 2013.

I have to admit to being rather pleased about my news. After all, ELDR is a prestigious organisation and my new role is a serious one. But, interestingly, it means that I am one of the very few people to have held such a position in both ELDR and its youth equivalent, LYMEC (Liberal Youth Movement of the European Community).

It also means two trips a year to Brussels, a city I rather like, to add to the travelling for ELDR Council meetings. However, given that I love to travel, and Eurostar is a very civilised way to do so, I'm looking forward to serving ELDR and its member parties over the next twenty-one months.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Why don't we just turn the street lighting off?"

As Creeting St Peter Parish Council's Vice Chair and Portfolio Holder for Finance (a much less prestigious job than it sounds), my role is to think the unthinkable, tell people that things are far too expensive or, occasionally, reassure that all is well and that we can do something.

Naturally, finding ways to save money without risking the public good is important, so when Suffolk County Council started turning most street lights off, I was keen to bring this to the attention of Council. Unfortunately, they weren't convinced that the investment in meters, which would only become profitable in year 4, was worthwhile. And, given that our nine street lights are fairly elderly, it was easy to see their logic.

However, when the electricity bill turned up this week, coincidentally not long after a County Council report highlighting the anecdotal impact of turning street lights off (crime has apparently fallen in Norfolk and Gloucestershire), the subject was revisited. Clearly, the cost of engaging giant hamsters to run in wheels to generate electricity has gone up substantially, and our bill, before reclaimable VAT, was an eye-watering £450.

And then, one of my colleagues said, "Why don't we turn them off and use the money saved to give everyone a voucher for a free solar-powered light?". I was surprised. Very surprised. And even more surprised when everybody else agreed that it was well worth thinking about. And so we shall.

It is an astoundingly radical idea but, given the profusion of security lights, and the ambient light pollution, do we really need street lights? After all, when it is dark, very few people walk to the village and, if they do, they really should be carrying a torch. Otherwise, people come in cars, which have headlights.

So, we'll see. As the finance guy, turning the lights off will save us a fortune and make balancing the books so much easier. But that, in itself, is hardly the best basis for such a big decision...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

NHS Reform: Shirley rides to the rescue...

So, Liberal Democrat Conference has voted to debate the leadership favoured alternative in the emergency motion ballot, by a margin of 309 to 280. And the majority, small that it was, includes me.

There's no doubt that such a margin demonstrates how important the work of the Lords has been in revising what was a very poor piece of legislation. And, whilst the public debate has centered on what was in the original bill, I would rather have us debate what we now have, rather than what others would like us to believe.

I'm intrigued by the protests. They have been emotional, many entirely genuine. However, I feel it only right that  Conference has the opportunity to hear for itself what has been done to reflect the concerns expressed in Sheffield last spring.

And tomorrow, we'll see if Conference thinks that it is enough...

1 a.m., somewhere between Newcastle and Gateshead...

Alright, so I've made it to the Liberal Democrat Conference after a not terribly epic journey. Yes, the journey to Peterborough was pleasantly familiar, and the trip from there to Newcastle gave me long enough to catch up with the blog and with my Liberal Democrat Voice stuff, so I arrived with a vague sense of achievement.

I've popped into the conference HQ hotel to catch up with old friends, and now I'm heading back to the hotel for some sleep.

Life is going to be very interesting in the goldfish bowl for the next couple of days, and I'll need to be alert...

Friday, March 09, 2012

NHS Reform: everybody's shouting, but is anyone paying attention?

If, as Andy Burnham claims in Liberal Democrat Voice, this weekend sees the last opportunity to 'save' the National Health Service, then I find myself in the eye of the proverbial storm. Which, all things considered, is an intriguing place to be.

If, as is suggested, most people have taken sides, then my support will be somewhat in demand, as I genuinely haven't made up my mind.

As a fiscal conservative, I look at comparative rates of inflation within the health sector and the economy as a whole, and I shudder. We will, as a society, have to decide what we are willing to provide and what we can afford to. And, with increased longevity and the additional costs that go with it, the demands on the NHS are bound to outpace growth in the economy. Such a debate will not be pretty. New 'superdrugs' and complex but lifesaving medical procedures don't come cheap either.

Therefore, finding new, more cost-effective ways of doing things is an imperative. But this isn't like widget manufacturing - people's lives are at stake.

And because of that, all changes to the NHS are emotive. Private versus public, access to treatment, questions of waiting times and rationing, all provoke an awful lot of heat and very little light, it would seem to this rural bureaucrat.

And this is where our coalition with the Conservatives makes reform difficult. Sadly, nobody trusts them with the NHS, and despite some fairly herculean attempts to address the issues that have been most difficult, we are left with some major problems;

  1. The Coalition Agreement seems quite clear that there would be no top-down reorganisation. You can argue that all the change is actually bottom-up, as change will be driven by local GPs, but few people really believe that, and there are plenty of GPs who would rather not be empowered, thank you very much.
  2. Andrew Lansley has the bedside manner of Dr Crippen. It has become so bad that I suspect that if he was announcing record new investment in the NHS (genuinely record new investment, that is, not the spin master version), he would still cause a drop in support for the Coalition.
  3. The Opposition have every incentive to wave shrouds and none whatsoever to engage. And, as everybody loves the NHS, and nobody remembers what they did to it when they were the Government, they can get away with it.
  4. The original bill was clearly drafted by people who go private, or would be happier if more people did. Given Andrew Lansley's links with the healthcare industry, one perhaps shouldn't be too surprised.

As a Party, we haven't been terribly sure-footed either. The political antennae of our leadership were evidently not operating well before the initial draft came out. Someone, somewhere, should have spotted the various bear traps and sent it, and Mr Lansley, back to the drawing board.

It must be admitted that, at that stage, there was little sense still that when it came to converting ideas into deliverable legislation, the Conservative policy wonks were a menace to society due to their apparent failure to understand how real people behave in real situations. After all, we test our policies at Party Conferences, where people get up and make comments such as, "I think you'll find that the requirements of the 1885 Paper Clips (Amendment) Act are a barrier to progress in that direction." - and are often right.

As a result, the proponents of the legislation start any argument with a significant disadvantage. Having conceded the pause in the legislative programme, and encouraged people to express their fears, the Coalition fell foul of the widespread misunderstanding of the word 'consultation', a personal bugbear of mine.

There was still time to withdraw the Bill, put it out to pre-legislative scrutiny, preferably in the Lords, and see what emerged. It might not have been what those behind the original Bill would have liked, but it would have been something more circumspect and obviously coherent.

Instead, opposition to the Bill has been allowed to grow unopposed, and whilst Liberal Democrat Peers have sought to build in safeguards addressing any reasonably based concerns, the likelihood of reasoned argument getting a look-in at the public debate is either slim or none. Indeed, that might be slim leaving town as I type...

So, I'm hoping to hear the arguments, find out more about the legislation, and weigh up the politics of where we are.

But somehow, I'm not minded to do it because Andy Burnham wants me to. After all, if he and his friends hadn't opened up the NHS to the private sector in the first place, we wouldn't even be having this argument now...

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Greater Anglia: is it wrong to like your rail franchise?

Regular readers will be aware that I had a love/hate relationship with National Express East Anglia when they held the East Anglia rail franchise. Well, I say love/hate, in that I hated the way they ran the franchise into the ground, and loved to criticise them for doing so.

So, you can imagine my joy when it was announced that the franchise would be taken from them. Actually, you probably can't, so pleased was I. And, whilst my dream scenario of the franchise being awarded to Deutsche Bahn did not come to pass (on time trains, beer, wurst and pretzels), going Dutch was the next best thing.

They did get off to a nightmarish start as snow played havoc with their first days, but the signs were promising. Announcements are better, the information is more accurate, and their app for the BlackBerry allows me to buy tickets painlessly and follow the progress of my train. And I find myself thinking, "I kind of like these people.".

Now, based on my experience of rail franchises across the country - and remember, Ros and I did most of our travelling during the Presidency by train - this is an unfamiliar feeling other than during my trip to Craven Arms on the late, and much lamented, Wrexham and Shropshire.

That saddens me, because I rather like trains. I enjoy the view out of the window, I enjoy the sense of movement, I enjoy the arrival at new or different places.

So, I want Greater Anglia to succeed. Admittedly, I'd really like the restaurant car back and a proper cooked breakfast, but I'll settle for a train service run by people who understand the notion of customer service.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

I'm not only here for the beer

I'm on my way home after another night in the big city. As part of Ros's programme to ensure that I don't become completely disconnected from urban life, I was invited to a CAMRA reception at the House of Commons, and the opportunity to spend a midweek evening with Ros and drink free beer was too good to miss.

The recent controversy concerning the MP for Falkirk has meant that the spotlight has fallen on politicians and their drinking. In a building which has a surprising number of drinking holes, and with far too many evenings when MPs and Peers have to hang around waiting to vote, the scope for excessive drinking is great.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising that 150 Parliamentarians had registered for the event, but it was evident that whilst some were clearly 'only here for the beer', others are keen to support CAMRA's campaigning to save pubs and break the pubcos and their grip on the licenced trade.

For those of us who live in rural communities, pubs are important, and we're particularly fortunate in Suffolk in that the survival rate of village pubs is relatively high, helped by the emergence of gastropubs where the quality of the beer is a key element in their success.

Using pubs as more than just a place to eat and drink helps too, and bringing things like community shops and post offices under one roof creates potentially sustainable community hubs.

And, of course, Suffolk is a major producer of ale, with Greene King at Bury St Edmunds, Adnams at Southwold, plus a number of smaller breweries - St Peters in the Elmhams, the Rougham Brewery (purveyors of fine ale to Creeting St Peter pub nights) and the Earl Soham Brewery to name but three of my favourites.

So, pubs and beer are important, and well worth a trip to London to support. And I even squeezed in a polite chat with Gareth Epps. Beer - it's good for a surprising number of things...

Suffolk County Conference: 2013 isn't as far away as you might think

Saturday saw my debut as an Officer of the Suffolk County Co-ordinating Committee of the Liberal Democrats - I'm their new Treasurer - as an attendee and, slightly oddly, social media expert.

Our Secretary, Martin Redbond, had put together an interesting agenda, kicked off by a hard-hitting speech by Ros, 'our very own Baroness', as our Chair, David Miller, put it. Ros talked openly about the difficulties of being in the Coalition, with legislation that we don't necessarily like, but highlighted some of our achievements, such as the progress in taking 900,000 people out of the income tax net last year, with more to come this year.

Chris White, our Group Leader in Hertfordshire, then led us through a guide to the impact of the Localism Act, the Health and Social Care Bill and the Police and Social Responsibility Act, pointing out some of the major opportunities that have emerged for local government, a number of which impact even at Parish level.

After a brief break for coffee, David Miller led us through the plan for the 2013 County Council election. We're defending eleven seats, and some of the defences could be a bit tricky, so getting off to an early start will be key. And as I've been awarded the job of organising our approval panels, I'll be busy in the early stages of the schedule.

A very pleasant lunch of soup and salad, followed by a jacket potato and filling, set us up for a rather more technical afternoon. At one end of the room, Tim Huggan led a session on 'Building Winning Teams', whilst I chaired a session on 'Using Social Media', starring our County Councillor from Woodbridge, Caroline Page, whose website is widely read.

I was surprised by the interest in social media, and even more surprised to be told afterwards that there is demand for a special training session, which will need to be organised during the Spring, I guess.

Finally, Rupert Moss-Eccardt gave a demonstration of CONNECT. It was, for my taste, a bit too technical, but for those people who'll be using it, getting a feel for its capabilities will be very useful.

I've learnt some valuable lessons to be applied to our next Conference, and as I've volunteered to help organise it, I may even get to apply them. But it was an interesting event, and I hope that our activists from across the county gained something from it.


Next weekend, something rather bigger...

Minding the Tax Gap: cigarettes and whisky and...

Ah yes, sin taxes (sort of). The sort of taxes that the tee-total, non-smoker really rather prefers, and an issue that my friends at Liberal Vision bang on about at some length.Taking this in two parts;

Beer and spirits

Excise duties on alcohol are fairly easy to collect most of the time. After all, beer is brewed generally in big things called breweries - hard to move about, easy to find, and the profit tends to be in volume. Likewise for distilleries, especially as most people prefer to drink named brands. And for small breweries, producing under 60,000 hectolitres per annum (about 10 million pints), beer duty is charged at a lower rate anyway.

I have to note, on a personal level, as an ale drinker, it never ceases to amaze me how many HMRC staff like a drop of real ale - a small, illegal operation stands little chance of escaping, I suspect.

Much of the tax gap is linked to smuggling, and the means are fairly obvious, amounts carried in on lorries, individuals bringing in amounts way beyond what might reasonably be considered sufficient for personal use only - that sort of thing. In a recession, when governments are looking for means to raise funds, excise duties are an easy target, reducing the incentive to smuggle anyway. Only where a significant price difference appears - French wine, perhaps - does an obvious incentive emerge.

For those reasons, and doubtless many more, the tax gap in 2009/10 for beer and spirits duties is estimated as being no greater than £1.2 billion, and probably in the region of £0.7 billion.

Cigarettes and tobacco

Whilst alcohol duty losses are probably at the tolerable end of the scale, tobacco duties are different. I would guess that it is easier to smuggle something that can't be easily broken and has a relatively high profit margin. The United Kingdom has one of the highest levels of tobacco duty in the world (in 2010, 24% of the retail price plus £119 per thousand cigarettes), and given that smokers tend to feel a bit persecuted by government anyway, avoiding tax might be seen as a legitimate response (NOTE: 'The View from Creeting St Peter' does not condone such behaviour, for fairly obvious reasons).

Given the tax losses from beer and spirits duties, the estimated loss in terms of tobacco duty evaded might surprise you. Yes, as noted above, the rates are high, yet the incidence of smokers relative to drinkers in the populations is relatively low. HMRC estimates the tax lost as being approximately £1.7 billion, and is particularly concerned about duties on hand rolling tobacco, where they suggest that the illicit market share is between 41 and 50%. Yes, nearly half of all rolling tobacco consumed in this country is probably illicit and, to make matters worse - or better if you're the Government - the figures have been improving significantly, from between 55 and 64% in 2005/06.

This offers an interesting challenge for those that believe that sin taxes are a legitimate way to claw back the public monies spent on additional healthcare costs brought about by drinking and smoking. If you take such a view, is it worth increasing the number of stops at our ports, levying higher fines? And, if you take the viewpoint that employing staff to do so is a good investment, what length of increased monitoring is appropriate?

Oh yes, and one last point of interest. For those of you who wonder what happens to the cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco that gets confiscated, they get burned as fuel for the National Grid...

Monday, March 05, 2012

Senior Catholic commits Cardinal error, or not, now I think about it

There has been a tremendous amount of excitement about the comments of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, regarding marriage equality (I refuse to call it 'gay marriage', as that implies that allowing same sex marriage is somehow different). Indeed, some of my own colleagues have been somewhat aggressive in terms of the language of their response.

However, whilst I strongly disagree with his position, and find his argument distasteful and over-emotional to the point where his logic is hard to discern, as a Catholic, I do see the difficulty with which he is presented.

He is a Cardinal, sworn to uphold the word as the Roman Catholic Church apparently deems it to be at the moment, a rather difficult task given its long held position somewhat behind mainstream society. It is, in ideological terms, a slow moving tortoise of a ethics and morals committee, and in a time of rapid social change, responding to that change is extremely difficult.

After all, there are still outposts of the Church that wrestle with the implications of Vatican 2, and given that any expression of sexual orientation other than heterosexuality has gone from being taboo to being, at worst, tolerated by much of the public over a similar period, how well-equipped is it to muster a response, especially given that those attempting to do so are obliged to consider sexuality in the abstract?

From the perspective of Catholicism, the world has it in a state of siege. Science, medicine, education, all of these serve to tease and taunt those who need to have a degree of certainty in their faith, in a world where scepticism is widespread.

And, as a result, Cardinal O'Brien has lashed out and, in so doing, he has exposed the crisis in the Church. When 98% of American Catholics have used, or tolerate the use of, contraception, when the majority of Catholics in developed countries will countenance abortion in cases of rape or incest, and most are willing to tolerate much more liberal abortion laws, the views of a group of old men in rather ornate outfits become less and less relevant. Is, indeed, anyone really listening?

By taking the stance he has, he has acted to reinforce the views of those who are scared of 'different', but more importantly, his over-reaction will have encouraged some who hadn't given the matter much thought previously to say, "It really isn't the end of civilisation, does it matter that much if people of the same sex who love each other marry?".

Funny how a reaction triggers an equal, and opposite, reaction, isn't it?...

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A night of intellectual triumph...

I am fortunate enough to have a very good memory, and absorb facts like a sponge. And whilst this may not an entirely useful talent in my professional life, and doesn't make me a great intellectual, it does make me a modestly useful member of a pub quiz team. I'm also just a bit competitive. And so, in the absence of a convenient pub, I rely on the occasional Pub Quiz night here in Creeting St Peter to keep in 'intellectual shape', so to speak. And the competition is pretty sharp too, making a good showing all the more satisfying.

Friday saw the most recent Pub Quiz and, unlike last time, when we dragged Sally and Brij along to form a family team, we turned up in the hoping of linking up with two of our neighbours. Luckily, Machela and Nick, who live a couple of doors up from us, were in a similar position, so we became Team 5. And a pretty good team we turned out to be, with a wide range of knowledge between us. Jumping out to an early lead, we managed to keep our noses in front to the very end, winning with a very respectable 72½ out of 100.

So, thanks to Machela and Nick, and to Ros, of course, without all of whom it would have been impossible, to Russell, Sarah and all on the Parochial Church Council, for organising such a great event, and to everyone who turned out.

Hopefully, another chunk of money will have been raised to support the maintenance and upkeep of our Parish church, and I'm looking forward to their next event.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Happy birthday, Liberal Democrats!

Here I am, on the train home, reading my copy of the Ipswich Star, only to discover that, on this day in 1988, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party merged.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIs it really twenty-four years? Hard to imagine, but there you go.

And for those of you youngsters who bemoan our polling numbers right now, you cannot imagine how much worse they were after merger. As Paddy Ashdown often notes, we were at one point within the margin of error of 0%.

We survived that. We'll probably survive this too. We liberals are persistent like that...

Minding the Tax Gap: VAT - the tax that nobody really loves

Value Added Tax has never been terribly popular, or indeed, terribly well understood. According to HMRC, something like 14% of the gross VAT Theoretical Tax Liability (VTTL) goes uncollected, significantly in excess of the proportion of the tax gap overall. If that figure were reduced to the 8% seen across the piece, that would imply extra government income of  £4.8 billion, not an amount to be sneezed at.

There are some unique features. Missing Trader Intra-Community (MTIC) fraud, where fraudulent traders acquire goods VAT free from EU Member States; charge VAT on their onward sale and then 'disappear' to avoid handing it to the authorities, became extremely prevalent towards the end of the previous decade, as well as its more serious variant, 'carousel fraud' where a series of contrived transactions within and beyond the EU created large unpaid VAT liabilities and, in some cases, fraudulent VAT repayment claims. In 2005/06, it is estimated that such frauds cost the public purse between £2.5 and £3.5 billion, although better compliance work and risk analysis is thought to have been reduced to between £0.5 and £1.5 billion four years later.

However, VAT is a tax that few like, and its evasion is more likely to be seen as fair game. Paying tradesmen in cash is far from unheard of and, whilst it has a beneficial impact on household expenditure, the impact it has on the small business sector in terms of an uneven playing field for honest traders, and on public revenues in terms of loss of income and potentially greater borrowing is certainly a negative one.

Interestingly, the rate of VAT loss has, over the past eight years, stayed reasonably constant overall, although there have been variations. The average tax gap over that period has been 13.8%, ranging from 11.7% in 2004/05 to 15.6% in 2002/03.

Meanwhile, HMRC is cracking down on certain sectors where the perceived risk of tax loss is greatest. For example, public campaigns have been launched in different parts of the country targeting restaurants, especially fast food ones - restaurants and hotels represent 18% of VAT liabilities arising from the household sector, plumbers and electricians. Risk analysis is the name of the game, plus a degree of 'Big Brother' tactics - "we're watching you, do you fancy your chances of getting away with it?".

In short, if it's cash in hand, perhaps the question being asked is, "do you think that the person you're doing business with is inherently honest?". That isn't necessarily a comfortable one, especially if you're relying on them to do their job professionally and safely. But, if they're evading their taxes, what other corners are they cutting?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

ELDR Bureau: watching, and waiting, and hoping...

The members of the Bureau of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) are gathering in Brussels today. I know this in part because I follow the Treasurer's Twitter feed (@RomanJakic), and partly because, rather surprisingly, I'm on the agenda for their meeting tomorrow.

For tomorrow, the nominees for places on the ELDR Financial Scrutiny Committee are considered, a process which remains something of a mystery to me. I know that there are five nominees - a Croat, a German, a Swedish-speaking Finn, an Italian from Catalonia... and me. What I don't know is what the criteria for appointment are, or how many places there are to be filled.

But what does the Financial Scrutiny Committee do? As best as I can tell, it is ELDR's equivalent of the Liberal Democrat Audit and Compliance Board, ensuring compliance with Belgian and European law, as well as with the funding regulations of the European Parliament - European political parties receive 'state' funding for certain activities.

When it was announced in Palermo that the Bureau would be reconstituting the Committee, I realised immediately that this offered an opportunity to do something a bit different. And, after all, I have twenty-five years of tax compliance under my belt, I'm used to organisational structures and I am highly numerate. So, I threw my hat into the ring to be the Liberal Democrat nominee... only to discover that I was the only one.

So, time to wait, keeping my fingers duly crossed...