Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Localism Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 5 July 2011...

Schedule 5 : New Chapter 4ZA of Part 1 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992

Amendment 129LZZZA

Moved by Lord Jenkin of Roding

129LZZZA: Schedule 5, page 263, leave out lines 9 to 29

One of the joys of local government finance is the use of language, and this debate turned into a symposium on the word 'excessive' and the appropriateness of its use in legislation. Ros demonstrated that not all members of the House of Lords are wedded to quill pens and reference libraries...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

Before the noble Lord decides what to do with his amendment, will the Minister undertake during this gap to look at some dictionaries for definitions of "excessive"? I have taken advantage of the new rules of the House and googled the word. The definitions all say that it describes a quantity or amount exceeding that which is justifiable, tolerable or desirable-for example, excessive drinking. So will the noble Lord accept that "excessive" is a term that has connotations, whatever its original and absolute meaning might be? I agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that it does not have a place in legislation.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Localism Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 28 June 2011...

Clause 31 : Power to require local or public authorities to make payments in respect of certain EU financial sanctions

Amendment 110

Moved by Lord Wigley

110: Clause 31, page 29, line 11, at end insert-

"( ) Only a Welsh Minister may require a local or public authority located in Wales to make a payment of an amount determined by the Welsh Minister in respect of any EU financial sanction imposed on the United Kingdom."

Ros picked up on the question of how blame is allocated, and what the effect might be on local authorities...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, like many other noble Lords I share the concerns expressed about these provisions. I want to start by asking the Government to give us an absolute assurance that they are confident that legally an EU fine levied on a member state can then be passed on to a local authority. I am not entirely sure that that is the case and would appreciate being given some comfort that it is true. My personal preference would be to see these clauses deleted, because I am not sure that the Government entirely realise what a can of worms they are opening. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, talked about where it is clear who is to blame, but EU fines would be levied only for a huge infraction - for example, in connection with air quality. It is almost inconceivable that it would be easy to point a finger and say that a particular person or organisation was responsible.

In fact, a large number of organisations would be responsible. Seeing the noble Lord, Lord Berkley, reminds me of the situation within the rail industry, where there are hundreds of people employed to do nothing but allocate blame. Every time a train is late, they go into a little huddle and work out whether it was the fault of Network Rail or the operator. When I am stuck on a train, I do not much care. This Bill is supposed to connect people with local politicians. We could have a situation where legal arguments drag on for years and cost millions of pounds while arbitrators try to sort out exactly who is responsible for the air quality of London. In that case, who will pay the fine? The public will look with bemusement while this goes on and they will rightly ask, "Why on earth did you not spend that money trying to deal with air quality rather than have this huge legal battle?". I hope that the Government will think carefully about exactly what they are trying to do here.

Finally, it is a great pity that the whole dialogue and ethos of fining goes against everything we should be trying to do in terms of relationships between central and local government. It should be about looking at the best ways of resolving problems, not about allocating blame in this way and certainly not about allocating fines.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Liberal Democrats and blogging: in which I rise to the bait

There has been much talk over the past month of Liberal Democrats, blogging and awards. Jonathan Calder has, by dint of giving the snowball a decently hard shove, started that debate and taken it on, helped by Jennie (made of awesome) Rigg, Alex (and to think I was his Returning Officer once...) Wilcock and others.

I haven't won any awards, although I wouldn't say no if I did, but I do have a BOTY here in the office at home - the one that Ros won in 2008 for best use of social media in a campaign. It's very nice, and remains shiny. Shiny...

But I digress.

I tend to think that awards should reward innovation, entertainment and achievement, and I tend to agree with Paul Walter to some extent when he suggests that blogging is dead. I wouldn't go that far, merely suggesting that, with the emergence of a whole bunch of other media, blogging isn't as exciting as it was, and I remain to be convinced that it is the best medium to convey ideas and information, especially in a political sense.

So, if I were deciding upon the awards, what would I like to see? How about;
  • best use of social media in a political campaign
  • most humorous use of the internet
  • best blog post
  • best blog
  • best tweet/hashtag
  • best new blog
  • best non-Liberal Democrat politician on the internet
  • best non-politician on the internet
I'd also consider restricting the role of the judges to picking a shortlist, upon which the decision would be handed over to those registered in the Forum to vote on. Indeed, perhaps we should elect some of the judges!

I agree that we should announce the categories at the beginning of the year, remind people about them from time to time, and open nominations six weeks before Federal Conference in the autumn, leaving time for judging and voting.

I'd happily promote the awards, although frankly, I should be doing that anyway.

And, as for the awards ceremony itself, we should get a 'personality' to hand them out, complete with glamorous assistant if need be. There's a lot of really good stuff happening out there, and the Awards should be an opportunity to celebrate that and have some fun. Because, ultimately, we do this because we enjoy it, don't we?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Church of England: it's tricky when your laity are more conservative than your leaders

As a Roman Catholic (of sorts, I at least have the good grace to feel guilty about my non-existent church attendance), I am the last person to take pleasure over the Church of England's discomfort over women bishops. No, really I am, even if I do occasionally refer to it as religion for people who are not keen on this 'God business'.

But the vote by the Church of England laity to (effectively) reject the notion of women bishops does bring into sharp question the right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords and make law for the rest of us.

Admittedly, their collective voting records is shockingly poor, with most of them taking part in less than 3% of Lords divisions, but in an age when most people in this country have come to terms with the concept of equality, the idea that one corner of a Parliamentary chamber is a male-only zone is a hard one to swallow.

Ironically, the bishops were never really there for their political skills, they were there as major landowners. Yes, their voice was a significant one, but in days of yore it was because they had lots of wealth - something that kings needed to fight wars.

Do the bishops make a significant contribution to the work of Parliament? No, not really. Would they be better off concentrating on their leadership role in their dioceses? Yes. Can you justify rewarding institutional misogyny? I think not.

Time to sweep the Lords clean of them, I think...

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Park Homes

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 28 June 2011...

Ros has been concerned about the impact of the less reputable park home sites, especially given that many of the residents of such properties are relatively elderly and therefore vulnerable. There are a number of such sites in Mid Suffolk, where land is cheap, and campaigners have encouraged Ros to seek action from the Government.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to bring forward legislation regarding park homes; and, if so, when.

Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)

The Department for Communities and Local Government plans to carry out a consultation in England during the summer on measures to improve the licensing regime which applies to park home and caravan sites so local authorities are better equipped and resourced to tackle problems of poor management in the sector. It also plans to consult on improvements to the buying and selling process of park homes to prevent the unacceptable practice of the blocking of lawful sales by unscrupulous site owners and to provide an effective means of redress for residents where this happens.

Since then, of course, there has been some movement, with Peter Black's efforts in the Welsh Senedd, and increasing pressure on this issue from, amongst others, Annette Brooke MP and Stephen Gilbert MP.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sorting the wheat from the chaff, Suffolk-style

I am, for my sins, Chair of the County Approval Panel for 2013, a role which entails organising interviews for potential county candidates, making sure that they take place, and maintaining a list of approved candidates, as required by English Party rules. This isn't a particularly difficult task, in that I have plenty of experience of it and, as an ex-HR person (I got better), and a Parliamentary Candidate Assessor since 1995, I do understand how such a process should work.

Today was set aside to interviews for a collection of candidates who will remain nameless, partly to protect the innocent, but because I hardly want our opponents to know what we're up to.

Traditionally, if you were willing to have your name on a ballot paper, and didn't have two heads, you could be a county council candidate. Alright, I exaggerate, but not by much. Now, in a more professional era, candidates are expected to understand a bit about campaigning theory, as well as some practical experience, and they are expected to work as part of a team, both within their Division and across the county.

It is also useful to ascertain an individual's skill set, so that the array of training packages that now exist can be brought to them, or members of their team, to enhance and support their efforts.

As a result, the process is a more formal one - unsuccessful applicants have the right to appeal, as is right and proper - and a consistent approach is taken. That requires a process person and, given my lack of desire to fight a meaningful county campaign myself in 2013 (new job, lots of uncertainty), I'm eminently qualified to manage the process. The downside is that I'm not great at paperwork, my time management skills are suspect, to put it mildly, and I've allowed my in-tray to get rather full.

And so, I have spent the weekend clearing down my e-mail, dealing with my physical in-tray, so that there is no chance of my having missed anything. This has had some definite positives, in that I have brought the constituency accounts up to date, dealt with all the outstanding bills, and generally feel rather more in control of the bureaucracy than I have for some time.

Today's applicants? They were fine...

Ros in the Lords: Oral Question - Claims Management Companies: Unwanted Text Messages

This is a subject that has caused Ros much annoyance is recent times, and she isn't alone in that regard. So, when the chance came to add her voice to calls for action, and to gentle tweak the beard of the Minister, she wasn't going to miss out...

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to ensure that people do not receive unwanted text messages from claims management companies.

Baroness Butler-Sloss (Crossbench)

My Lords, would the Minister add e-mails? I get an enormous number of e-mails every day, generally about PPI but about a whole lot of other things, too. They all seem to be done at about three in the morning. E-mails are just as serious; I spend such a lot of time just deleting all these e-mails on a daily basis. Would the Minister add e-mails to texts and phone calls? I also get the texts and the phone calls.

Lord McNally (Minister of State, Justice; Liberal Democrat)

I agree; I know what absolute anger this matter causes. It sometimes raises a groan when Ministers announce the following, but a cross-industry working group has been set up led by the Direct Marketing Association and including the MoJ's claims management regulator, the ICO, Ofcom, the Telephone Preference Service, the OFT and the Advertising Standards Authority. They are looking across the piece at what is undoubtedly a nuisance.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I am sure the House is reassured to know that it takes so many people not to be able to do anything about this problem. Does my noble friend agree with me that the real problem here is the routine selling on of our personal data-our mobile phone numbers and our e-mail addresses-and that we might avoid this problem if we dealt with that and had severe punishments for breach of data protection?

Lord McNally (Minister of State, Justice; Liberal Democrat)

I thank my noble friend for that question. She is right. However, from April 2013, claims management companies will be banned from receiving referral fees in personal injury cases and from offering financial rewards or similar benefits as an inducement to make a claim. We are trying to make sure that we do not block legitimate activity but that we comb out and stop those who are causing a nuisance and the rogue traders. I am afraid that a number of regulators need to come together in this area to get effective action.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Another cold, dark evening... it must be time for the Local Party AGM

The Annual General Meeting of the Local Party is one of the things that marks the passing of the year. Good, bad or indifferent, it is time to reflect a little, twist arms to fill places on the Executive Committee, and dream of better days ahead.

Inevitably, it takes place in the dark, and this year, I set off after work to Bury St Edmunds to give my report as Treasurer and seek re-election, not only as Treasurer, but as a Representative to the Regional and Federal Conferences. Equally inevitably, I was delayed on route by a signal fault at Stowmarket, and so only made it to the meeting in time to the Chair to ask the Treasurer to give his report. Luckily, I was not only ready, but had copies of the report to distribute.

As I noted, my job as Treasurer is a pretty easy one, as a lot of activity goes on at Branch level, and the Branch Treasurers are pretty good at what they do.

The report delivered, I sat back and waited for the elections. Surprisingly, after Brij Sharma, our Chair, noted that he really wanted to stand down, but would continue if absolutely necessary, there was a distinct lack of willing volunteers. I suspect that Brij has learnt a valuable lesson from this, i.e. that any sign of willingness, no matter how grudging, will generally be rewarded with the awarding of a job in a Local Party.

I wasn't opposed, not surprisingly, as the idea that somebody might actually be keen to continue wasn't going to be lost, and we went on to elect someone to fill most places eventually.

So, all in all, a pretty easy evening. All that is left is to deal with the financial stuff that has emerged for me to do, and I can move on to the next task...

Ros in the Lords: Oral Question - Flooding: Defence Programme

Part of the life of a backbench Peer is to step in where a Liberal Democrat voice is required and, Ros being a team player, she is often able to oblige. In this instance, the issue is one of relevance after this spring's flooding in Needham Market...

1 November

Baroness Quin

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have plans to reassess the flood defence programme.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

Is the noble Lord able to update the House on the progress of talks which were being held with the insurance industry as there are now many thousands of households that face the problem of living in properties that are virtually uninsurable at prices that they can afford to pay?

Lord de Mauley (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)

My Lords, we want to reach an agreement that ensures both the availability and affordability of flood insurance. We are in intense but constructive negotiations with the industry and further announcements will be made in due course after more discussions with it and other relevant parties.

Of course, the sensible solution would be not to build any more houses on flood plains, but the impact of climate change is beginning to uncover cases where houses were built in areas which were not perceived to be at risk at the time they were built.

Dr Pack has an idea. Is it one of his better ones?

Mark Pack has graciously asked me to respond to his suggestions on improving party election rules, and, as a gentleman, I do feel that I ought to respond.

First, some context. We introduced the rule that insisted that members renew their subscription before being allowed to take part in Parliamentary candidate selections and the like after a series of instances where Local Parties experienced sometimes quite stunning increases in their memberships just before the selection itself took place, no names, no pack drill, as they say. And, having experienced a few of them myself as a Returning Officer or Regional Party Officer, I understand the logic behind it, even as I regret the cause. As usual, abuse by a small minority has a negative effect for the majority.

I deeply suspect that we aren't alone in experiencing such difficulties. Becoming an MP is still prestigious, more so in some quarters, and both Labour and the Conservatives have experienced such entryism in the past. As party membership continues to fall, political parties at constituency level become more and more vulnerable to infiltration, as the numbers needed to launch a takeover become smaller and smaller.

Mark suggests that we allow those whose memberships have lapsed in the recent past (two years, Dr Pack suggests) be invited to take part as well, so long as they pay a membership subscription, i.e. rejoin.

It is an interesting idea, but creates a scenario whereby someone who is keen and enthusiastic doesn't get a vote, whereas someone who has lost interest, or decided that they no longer identify with the Liberal Democrats to the extent that they have withdrawn their financial support, does. It seems somewhat unfair to me, and I suspect that others might see it the same way.

Yes, it might have an impact on membership numbers, but each Local Party is supposed to have a Membership Development Officer, whose job it is to ensure that members renew, and to chase up lapsed members. If that person is doing their job, Mark's proposal is superfluous, and if they aren't, it is likely to be a Local Party that isn't that effective anyway, and unlikely to attract the sort of potential PPC who would need to work that hard.

So, in short, I won't be supporting this. It adds complexity and potentially greater unfairness, with little likely benefit. And now I really must dash, I've got some Local Party business to attend to...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Creeting St Peter: still adding-up, still worrying...

Wednesday saw the final 2012 meeting of the Parish Council, with our District and County Councillors in attendance, and, for a change, there was more hand-wringing on the part of our District Councillor than on mine.

It looks truly grim for Mid Suffolk District Council, with the prospect of cutting spending by 35% over the next three years, and whilst I would rather have been the successful candidate in Stowupland last year, the fact that my Conservative rival is having to make up for her otherwise embarrassing feebleness by having to take responsibility for her decisions does bring me a sense of satisfaction.

And so, taking advantage of the opportunity to stick the knife in after listening to her whine about how unfair it all was, I asked her what steps the Districts and County were taking to progress the local government reorganisation that we were promised would save millions of pounds and protect services. She, naturally, is in favour, although when encouraged to, with her County counterpart, get on with it, out came the hand-wringing again.

Last year, it was personal. I thought then, and think now, that Caroline is only too happy to accept credit when things go well, and even more eager to hide behind somebody, anybody else, when things are difficult. Stowupland deserves better, but I couldn't persuade it of that last year. It does mean that I have the time to write this, I suppose.

Meanwhile, back in Planet Creeting, progress on the new playground continues to be slow, with issues relating to liability dragging out the process of agreeing the lease for the site, although we do have firm pledges of funding to build a really good playground, and a quote for the equipment so that, when we finally sign the lease, we'll be ready to go immediately.

Fen Alder Carr, our Local Nature Reserve, is coming along nicely too, with repairs made to the boardwalk, new signage, a litter bin, and some work on the trees being done. It is incredibly annoying though that people feel it appropriate to walk all the way down to the end of the reserve so that they can throw their beer cans into the pond. I'm not sure whether they're malicious or simply stupid, but it is that sense that someone will pick up after them that really grates. At least Stefan and the guys from Stowmarket Police Station are patrolling the area regularly, and deterring some of the more outlandish behaviour.

We were also presented with a draft budget for 2013/14 which, having studied it, troubled me somewhat. It all added up, but left me with a sense that I was missing something. It looks like I'm going to have to convert it from 'Rosemary format' to 'Mark format' so, if you'll excuse me...

A message from Danny Alexander, my new bestest friend...

Danny wrote to me the other day, telling me that he was cutting my taxes (I pay tax and earn less than £100,000 per annum), a point that I was quite pleased about, especially given that I haven't had a pay rise for three years (I'm a civil servant, and neither Labour or the Coalition approve of such things).

Indeed, the enhancements to the personal allowance have made up for some of the real terms loss in my pay. Unlike some of my colleagues, I can be reasonably sanguine about my relative loss of income, as I don't have a mortgage, children, a drug habit, or any of the other expenses that most people have. And, yes, I appreciate how lucky I am in that sense, especially compared to those that do have children and mortgages (I'm not aware that any of my colleagues have a drug habit, unless you include smoking, by the way).

And, of course, Danny's investment in additional compliance resources within HM Revenue & Customs has created the opportunity for me to gain a promotion, thus making up for the rest of my real terms loss.

So, whilst I probably won't be sending young Mr Alexander a Christmas card, I may well raise a glass to him at an appropriate moment. And I'll be signing up to his campaign for fairer tax too. I strongly commend it to you...

Friday, November 16, 2012

I am part of a rather small minority... and why I'm proud of the Liberal Democrats

Yes, I wandered out into the fog yesterday evening, down the very dark lane (the street light has been out for more than nine months now) towards a distant glow.

On arrival, I entered the Church Room, for that was the inviting point of light, and said hello to the presiding officer and his assistant, the same pair who had been on duty last year. It would seem that my campaigning in 2011 was rather more effective than that of the PCC candidates, as turnout was down from over 50% to a rather depressing 11.2%. That means that 24 good citizens out of 214 had decided to participate, plus those who had used their postal ballot.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI presented my postal ballot, completed and sealed in the correct order, asked the presiding officer about the fiendishly complex looking game they were playing, and left.

So, how did I vote, and why?

I didn't give the UKIP candidate a preference. Having not heard or seen anything from him, and drawing on years of experience of his party's view of the world, I really couldn't see how the European Union is at fault for policing levels in Creeting St Peter - I assume that he believes this to be the case. I also note his claim that he isn't whipped by his party in his role as a county councillor - interesting because I imagine it would be difficult to whip a group of one!

I didn't cast a preference for Tim Passmore, the Conservative candidate, either. Frankly, Tim represents the very worst sort of 'entitlement queen', appointed to various remunerated posts by his mates on the County Council without any significant demonstration of merit or ability. Is he qualified to run our police force, or merely to bank public money?

And, after the usual appalling, hand wringing, performance at Wednesday by our District Councillor, I find the incompetence of our local Conservatives to be matched only by the treachery and incompetence of the Conservatives at Westminster.

That left me with the Labour candidate, Jane Basham, and the independent, David Cocks. Labour were campaigning across the county, I was told. Not in Creeting St Peter, they weren't. I just don't believe that Labour have any interest in the rural parts of the county, and thoroughly expect what policing resources we have to be withdrawn in favour of Ipswich and Lowestoft. Combined with the typical Labour hypocrisy of claiming support for policies that they have always attacked when proposed by us, I just couldn't bring myself to vote for her.

Think of it as payback for Labour's disgraceful campaign in East Dulwich in 2006 (I hope that you're pleased, Jeremy Fraser...).

And so, with a heavy heart, I voted for the independent. He doesn't wildly convince me, but he doesn't have an obvious link to a political party that has lied to me recently, he comes without much baggage, and he does at least give the impression that he cares.

So, was it worth it? Only time will tell, although I'd be keen to see the Liberal Democrats commit to abolishing the post in our manifesto for the next General Election. Not because of the turnout, but because it encourages candidates to run under false pretences, giving electors unrealistic expectations, and provides a sinecure to the mostly undeserving.

The Conservatives were fearfully keen on the idea of 'electing your local sheriff'. And then, having got what they wanted, they then ingloriously sabotaged it by failing to grant candidates a freepost, including hurdles too high for most independents to clear, and totally failing to understand how democracy really works.

It brings me back to my charge of incompetence I level at the Conservatives. Every good, or at least respectable, idea they have is holed beneath the waterline by their inability to understand how the real world works - benefit reform, Europe, constitutional reform, public services have all suffered from their inadequacy.

Meanwhile, the supposedly 'head in the clouds' Liberal Democrats continue to quietly make big changes that affect real people. The pupil premium has redistributed precious resources towards those that really need them, the enhanced personal tax allowance has put money back into the pockets of the poorest working people to make up for the inevitable squeeze that welfare reform and the deficit has wrought, the Post Office has been saved.

Compare and contrast, my friends, compare and contrast...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

ELDR Council Delegation election: an unexpectedly good result

Alright, I admit, I really hadn't seen that coming. Yes, I had rather hoped that writing a manifesto that not only referred to the body I was running to be a member of, but explained what I had already done, would impress voters, but I wasn't confident. It would, in retrospect, have been reasonable to be an optimist.

So, ninety-two first preferences, second only to that doyenne of internationalists, Jonathan Fryer, was pretty good, and although Gordon Lishman and Ruth Coleman-Taylor overtook me (and there's no shame in finishing behind them either), I was still elected fourth of the eight successful candidates.

I am, you might reasonably suspect, pretty pleased.

My 'prize' is four more Council meetings, starting with Pula, Croatia, in May, followed by London next November and, possibly, somewhere in Serbia in Spring 2014. More importantly, it gives me a chance to contribute further towards the work of the Liberal Democrats within ALDE (not ELDR, and that's a story for another day...).

I've also seen a number of things that might be done to improve our effectiveness as a delegation, both to the Council, and to the Congress, and I'll be talking to the Chair of the Party's International Relations Committee over the coming weeks to see what might be done.

So, thank you to all of you who voted for me, be it as your first choice or not. I am extremely grateful. And for those of you who didn't, I hope to provide you with a reason to change your mind next time.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Localism Bill - Committee Stage

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 20 June 2011...

When transitioning from one regime to another, it is easy to forget that the legislation you had before might stop you from doing what you want to do now. Ros hadn't forgotten...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I want to join this brief exchange because I am developing an increasing sense of Alice in Wonderland. It feels as though we are operating in two worlds: the old world in which local authorities were only allowed to do things that were in statute, and the new world in which they are free to do anything unless they are barred. It is beginning to feel, in the context of this debate and future debates, that there is a real problem about being caught in the middle where local authorities will be stopped from doing a lot of the things that previous legislation allowed them to do. I am sorry, but I find it difficult to express the point, but I am sure that noble Lords are beginning to get a sense of what I mean. The question of how significant the general power really is, if local authorities are continually hampered by previous legislation, will become very important. It is an issue to which we will keep coming back.

Monday, November 05, 2012

@DNSAssociate - is it wise for an accountant to use spam comments as a means of attracting business?

Since giving up CAPTCHA, I have dealt with a stream of spam comments on my blog that CAPTCHA used to block. Strangely enough, it means that I get reminded of things that I have done in a curiously, rather appealingly, random way - an iPod shuffle of my 'greatest hits' if you like.

And you can guess as to the nature of the comments - US drug sellers, internet sales for all sorts of weird and wonderful things. However, today saw something different.

For one thing, the comment had a name attached, Chris Smith, rather than 'Anonymous'. Naturally, I assumed that it might be a real comment, so took a rather closer look, only to find that it was a spam comment, but with a twist. The advert was for a firm of accountants/financial advisors in North West London, DNS Associates Ltd, and read;

"Great post and i am an accountant and my company DNS Associates service provides Online Accountants and Online Accounting. DNS Associates Accountants for Contractors assist with all industries with specific focus on Accountants for IT Contractors.
corporate tax planning"

(I've taken out the link, for obvious reasons.)

Alright, I accept that an accountant's primary skill requirement is to be numerate, but am I likely to be impressed by such a poor display of literacy? I think not. And am I likely to draw the conclusion that this is a reputable company if it uses spam as a core part of its publicity strategy? No, don't think so.

And, given what I do for a living, was it wise to pick on me? Probably not. Luckily, although I have a very long memory, I do tend not to hold stupidity against people, so think of this as a polite shot across the bows...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Oral Question - Cyprus

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 15 June 2011...

Since being elevated to the Lords, Meral Ece has been persistent in pursuing the Government's strategy with regard to Cyprus, and it's a subject that Ros has taken up too. So, when Meral raised the question of progress towards a political solution, Ros wanted to suggest a way forward...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the biggest practical problem facing Cypriots wanting to reunify is the difference in GDP between the two halves of the island, and that the best way of improving things on the Turkish Cypriot side would be for the European Union to implement the direct trade regulation? Can the noble Lord assure us that the Government will really push for this particular measure, which is practical and offers part of a solution?

Lord Howell of Guildford (Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Conservative)

I have two points in answer to my noble friend. First, the EU is putting a considerable volume of funds into northern Cyprus, precisely with the thought that when the happier days come, the disparity in incomes will be somewhat overcome. I have a figure here of €259 million, I think, for the current year, a very considerable sum indeed. That may be over two years, actually. So on that side things are being done. As to the problem of trade between Turkey and the rest of the EU and the bar on the use of Turkish ports by EU or Greek Cypriot shipping in response to the fact that the EU appears to have pursued a policy of isolation of northern Cyprus, that is a very difficult issue. There is a stalemate at the moment, with each side waiting for the other to move. However, I agree with my noble friend that if we can get movement on that front on both sides, trade and prosperity will open up and the problems of northern Cyprus will be further alleviated.

Not a great answer from Lord Howell, although in fairness to him, he does understand his brief. And given that much of what has come to pass can be placed at the door of the European Union, he is limited in terms of what can be done...

Friday, November 02, 2012

Suffolk Conservatives tell themselves that selling off care homes is a good idea

Alright, I'm a little bit of an anorak when it comes to local politics. Fair enough, following the County and District Council Twitter feeds is not for everyone, but as a parish councillor, it's handy to know what they're going to do to me as early as possible.

Yesterday, this Tweet came from the County Council;
I have to admit that this didn't come as much of a surprise. After all, the Chair is a Conservative member, and eight of the twelve members in total are Conservatives. Is it likely that the majority did much more than rubber stamp the decision of the Executive? I suspect not.

Now, I perhaps understand that the ruling Group are highly unlikely to take chances like this, but good scrutiny is a thoroughly good thing, and when Conservative-led councils in Barnet and Cornwall are experiencing serious difficulties in contracting out core services, is it likely that the mostly quiescent individuals that are Conservative county councillors are going to be so much more business-savvy?

I don't think so either...

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Second Reading, Localism Bill

Here's one of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 7 June 2011...

It would be fair to say that Ros takes a very strong view on localism, which runs back to her very first steps as a Liberal Democrat, and beyond. And when you let Conservatives loose on a good idea, sometimes you ave to explain to them what the term actually implies...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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