Monday, December 31, 2012

Putting the New Delhi rape case into a little context

The gruesome news of the rape and subsequent death of a young woman in New Delhi has led to protests on the streets of cities across India as citizens demand action from the authorities. The sheer vileness of the attack, of the abuse and of the final dumping of her body as if it were without value of any kind, has touched the collective heart of the people.

I caught a recent report of the story on BBC News the other day, and in it was the statistic that a rape is recorded in New Delhi every fourteen hours, a fact likely to produce a sense of disgust in the minds of viewers. And there is no doubt that the figure is much higher than we would like it to be, especially given the likelihood that the number of recorded rapes is likely to be a fraction of the actual number that take place.

However, for those who have drawn the conclusion that such events are the preserve of less- developed parts of the planet, one needs a reminder that this is far from being so.

Delhi has a population of about seven million, according to the report, approximately that of London. There were 635 recorded cases of rape in Delhi in 2011/12. In London, 3,334 cases were recorded.

So, whilst we mourn the tragic death of a young woman in a Singaporean hospital, let us not forget that, every three hours, someone in London is being violated with little likelihood that their attacker(s) will be punished. It is time that we did more as a society to change that...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Written Questions - Gypsies and Travellers and Council Tax

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 17 October 2011...

At the height of the Dale Farm controversy, Ros was intrigued to find out what action the Government was taking to address the question of provision for gypsy and traveller communities, and their position regarding council tax...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they have made on a national policy framework for the Gypsy and Traveller community.

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

The consultation on the Government's draft planning policy for traveller sites closed in August. We intend to publish a new policy as soon as possible, following due consideration of the consultation responses.

The consultation on the National Planning Policy Framework is open until 17 October. We welcome views from everyone on all aspects of the framework. This includes views on the consistency of the draft framework with the draft planning policy for traveller sites, or any other comments about our intention to incorporate planning policy for traveller sites into the final framework.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether council tax is payable on properties that do not have adequate planning permission.

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

An unoccupied dwelling where the occupation is prohibited by law (including by planning law) is exempt from council tax. Occupied dwellings not exempt for another reason are chargeable, whether or not they have adequate planning permission.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

ALDE Policy: LGBTI Rights

As part of my work as a member of the Party's delegation to ALDE Council, I passed the original version of this motion to LGBT+ Liberal Democrats for their thoughts. They quite liked the original, and I hope that they like the final version as much...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Dublin, Ireland on 8-10 November 2012

Notes that

  • the Universal  Declaration of Human  Rights affirms  that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, should be entitled to all the rights and freedoms in the declaration;
  • crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity lead to abuse in the form of discrimination, violence, imprisonment, torture or even execution, every day somewhere in the world;
  • 78 countries out of 193 still have legislation criminalising  same-sex consensual acts between adults;
  • among the 113 countries where homosexuality is legal, 55 countries have legislation against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the work place. 


  • the United Nations Human Rights Council adoption  in 2011 of a resolution on violence and  discrimination against lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTI) people.
  • the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s request at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva 2012 asking for countries around the world to “decriminalize same-sex relationships and  end discrimination against  LGBTI people,” and his  exhortation: “When individuals are attacked, abused or imprisoned because of their sexual orientation, we must speak out.”
  • the message of Hillary Clinton’s speech on International Human Rights Day, in Geneva 2011, saying that “Human beings are born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time  ...  Gay rights are human rights. …To the leaders in those countries where people are jailed, beaten or even executed for being gay, I ask you to consider this: Leadership, by definition, means being in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. Be on the right side of history.”
Expresses concerns
  • about countries where the right of freedom of opinion and expression are under threat when it comes to  LGBTI individuals and where LGBTI individuals are being abused because of  their sexual orientation;
Calls on all governments and member parties
  • to recognise the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people as human rights
  • to push for the adoption by the European Commission of an EU roadmap on the rights of  LGBTI people, in order to systematically identify the policy areas of EU competence where action can be undertaken to advance LGBTI equality, and propose relevant policy measures.
  • to stress the importance of highlighting instances of abuse against LGBTI individuals and the importance of every person’s equal rights, including the rights of LGBTI people.
  • to stress the importance of LGBTI rights in the negotiations during the accession procedure of candidate countries for EU membership.
  • to recognise the rights of same-sex relationships;  LGBTI parenting; non-discrimination in military service obligations; anti-discrimination laws; aggravating circumstances in criminal law regarding violence against  LGBTI people; the repeal of sodomy laws; expedient legal gender recognition and publicly funded healthcare for trans people; the right to bodily integrity for intersex people.
  • to urge states to ensure adequate protection for human rights defenders who work on this issue,  and to guarantee their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Housing Benefit

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 11 October 2011...

The talk of encouraging council tenants to purchase their own homes struck both Ros and I as nonsense on stilts, especially given the council housing is now only really available for those in relatively difficult financial straits. So, it seemed obvious to find out just how credible a proposal this was...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what percentage of council house tenants are in receipt of housing benefit.

Lord Freud (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Welfare Reform), Work and Pensions; Conservative)

Housing benefit recipients, local authority tenants, as a percentage of local authority dwellings stock - June 2011

HB LA caseload as a percentage of LA households: Great Britain 64.9

Source: Single Housing Benefit Extract (SHBE).

Households data source is the HSSA annual return submitted by each local authority.


1. The percentage has been rounded to one decimal place.

2. Housing benefit recipients are based on benefit level and not household and as such may include more than one person at the same address who claim independently.

3. Percentages have been calculated using household statistics for LAs (2009) published at:

4. SHBE is a monthly electronic scan of claimant level data direct from local authority computer systems. It replaces quarterly aggregate clerical returns.

In other words, two-thirds of local authority tenants are on housing benefit. How on Earth do Conservatives think that they could afford to buy their homes, regardless of the discount?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

In the spirit of Christmas, here are two (not turtle) doves in a hazel tree...

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Short Debate - Social Enterprise

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 6 October 2011...

Baroness Andrews, a former Labour Minister and current Chair of English Heritage, initiated a debate on social enterprise, a subject which Ros has become increasingly involved in recently...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has done the House a great service by tabling this debate today, which has demonstrated that huge disagreement is not needed for an interesting debate. We by and large agree, but nevertheless there have been lots of different and interesting points. It is perhaps not surprising that we agree because one thing which unites us, wherever we sit, is a sense of public service. That is why we are active in your Lordships' House. It is also why we do what we do outside this House. As we go around the country, the ideal of public service is absolutely alive and well. Everywhere there are people who, in some way or another, devote their life to service to the public.

Until fairly recently, I regarded public service and the public sector as synonymous. I was wrong and I admit it. I was also wrong to believe - as I did until 1997 - that all that was wrong with our public services was a lack of funding. I am sure that privately if not publicly even Members opposite would accept that the large amounts of money put into public services in the last 10 or 15 years have not delivered the outcomes for many of our citizens that we would have hoped. I am not going to theorise why, although I strongly feel that the blame, if you want to call it that, does not usually lie with individual workers. Personally, I deplore the demonisation of people who choose to work in the public sector.

However, if we are looking for solutions and ways to improve public services, the solutions very often lie with the people who are working within our public services. They are the key to reform and making services more flexible, responsible to individual need and circumstances, locally focused and cost-effective. Last year, I met a former youth worker in Suffolk who had left the county council and set up, almost by accident, a social enterprise. She is doing great things with young people with multiple problems. Local social services had to admit that they had virtually given up on those young people, but that lady has been able to deal with it.

Earlier in the summer, I met Dai Powell, who runs Hackney Community Transport. Founded in 1982 from very modest beginnings, it now operates across the country and last year provided more than 12 million passenger journeys. Government need to be sure that they know where these existing, very successful models of social enterprise are. Something like Hackney Community Transport should be used as a benchmark for service delivery, because it is not only cost-effective and efficient but also ethical and locally responsive. It would make a change for government to benchmark against that rather than conventional service delivery.

In this current economic climate, as we have heard, there is a great incentive for this sector to grow, but the danger is that it is seen as some way of getting public services on the cheap, which it certainly is not. Nor will this growth somehow happen all by itself. Some will of course, but if we are to see the step change that the Government seek, then the Government have to get serious about it.

How do they do that? First, they have to play their part in creating a culture in which social enterprise is seen as a serious career option for people leaving education and for those looking for work, and not as some sort of last resort of employment. In this regard, Ministers' attitudes are crucial both in terms of saying the right thing and ensuring that social enterprise is seen as an intrinsic part of service delivery and not bolted on as an afterthought. It needs to be mainstreamed into all policy and legislative decisions.

Secondly, the sector needs support. I recently spent a very enjoyable day with the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich, where I met a variety of people seeking to set up social enterprises. Their dedication and enthusiasm will carry them a very long way, but professional support in finance and business planning, legal frameworks and so on is key, and this is where the school comes in. The Ipswich school is great, but we need more of this sort of thing right across the country. We also need social enterprises which themselves help other social enterprises. My colleague in Suffolk, Craig Dearden-Phillips, does this very well through his business, Stepping Out. Social enterprises need help not only in being established but in scaling up, as my noble friend Lord Newby, said, although not every social enterprise wants to get bigger - that is precisely the point.

If services are to be divested from local authorities or health trusts, it is senior managers from those bodies who are likely to head the social enterprises. If they are to make the transition from senior manager to chief executive, they will need help in doing so. Social enterprises continually cite public procurement policies as a major obstacle to growth. The Government need urgently to address that.

For many years now, local authorities have been encouraged to join together to create purchasing consortia to benefit from economies of scale from larger contracts, but this simply has the effect of freezing out new providers who are smaller and in the long run generates higher costs by driving diversity and competition out of the market.

Traditional procurement and commissioning tend to focus on hard financial data and lose sight of those rather harder-to-measure aspects such as advocacy, support and accessibility - those things which make social enterprise so attractive.

The Government have to give serious thought not to giving a handout to this sector but to giving it a step up, perhaps by thinking about quotas for the transfer of services or, as my noble friend Lord Newby said, about speeding up the process, which is so protracted that it stymies local initiative. Starting a new social enterprise is a huge risk for the individuals concerned. They need assurances over length of contracts and the future of the pensions that they have built up while working in the public sector.

The other major problem, which a number of noble Lords have addressed, is finance, both in terms of availability and affordability. A policy of credit easing - or whatever we call it - needs to be extended to mutuals and social enterprise.

Social enterprise has so much to offer us in terms of value for money, flexibility and genuinely responsive public services. The track record of such organisations in some of the poorest and most deprived parts of our country is already impressive, but we can do so much more to unlock the energy and enthusiasm of all these people who are genuinely committed to public service.

Wouldn't it be nice if we allowed Baroness Thatcher some dignity?

I'm an old-fashioned soul, I suppose, in that I believe that people have a right to maintain a degree of privacy and dignity. Yes, there are exceptions to that rule, particularly where individuals have sold their soul to the media in pursuit of fame and fortune, but in principle, I believe that people should be treated with respect.

So, I was horrified to see pictures of a fragile looking Margaret Thatcher in the entrance to a private hospital propped up by two people as if to demonstrate that yes, she was still alive. Why was it necessary for there to be cameras outside the hospital anyway?

Lady Thatcher hasn't been a very active Parliamentarian for some time which, given that she's eighty-seven, isn't that unreasonable. And, undoubtedly, her health has been less than perfect for some time - Ros doesn't think that she's seen her in the Chamber since the Queen's Speech.

So, why not leave her in peace? I know that she's a bit of a hate figure for some people, but she's a harmless old woman now, and even she deserves to be left alone to enjoy her final years as much as she is able to.

One day, we'll be old and frail, and worried about retaining our dignity. It would be nice to think that we might be as thoughtful to others...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

ALDE Policy: Global Digital Freedom

It is reassuring sometimes to know that we are not alone, that Liberals across Europe believe in the same sorts of things, and are willing to fight for them at the European level...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Dublin, Ireland on 8-10 November 2012


  • that technological developments enable individuals all over the world to use new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to connect to the internet, thereby fostering revolutionary changes in societies, the functioning of democracy, governance, the economy, business, media, development and trade;
  • the vast enabling, creating and catalysing potential of the internet and ICTs for global economic, social, scientific, cultural and political development, contributing as such to the progress of humankind as a whole;
  • that the global and borderless nature of the internet requires new forms of international cooperation and governance with multiple stakeholders;
  • that net neutrality is an essential principle for the open internet, ensuring competition and transparency;
  • that the internet has flourished and developed organically as a platform of immeasurable public value;
  • that some European companies have sold telecommunications equipment to non-democratic countries, who have used this equipment for monitoring and following political opposition in their countries.”


  • unrestricted internet access a key enabler of access to information, freedom of expression, press freedom, freedom of assembly, and economic, social, political and cultural developments;


  • that human rights need to be protected and promoted by the EU, both offline and online;
  • that freedom of speech needs to be complementary with persecution of statements that call for genocide and physical violence against concrete citizens, groups of people or national groups.
  • that the EU only leads by example on digital freedoms when these are safeguarded in the EU;


  • that ICTs are also used as tools of repression through (mass) censorship, surveillance, and tracing and tracking of information and individuals;
Calls on
  • the Commission and Council to unequivocally recognise and push for a UN recognition of  digital freedoms as indispensable prerequisites for enjoying universal human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and access to information and ensuring transparency and accountability in public life;
  • the Commission and Council to recognise digital freedoms as highly relevant to the assurance of human rights. All human beings has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,  and this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Members of the ALDE Party should advocate that digital freedom gain stronger recognition as an imperative to upholding universal human rights.
  • the Council and the Commission to mainstream and review, so as to ensure accountability and continuity, the promotion and protection of digital freedoms in all the EU’s external actions, financing and aid policies and instruments;
  • the Commission and Council to promote and preserve high standards of digital freedom in the EU, in particular by codifying the principle of net neutrality in appropriate regulation, so as to strengthen its credibility in terms of promoting and defending digital freedoms around the world;
  • the Council and Commission to include, in accession negotiations, human rights dialogues and all forms of contact relating to human rights, conditionality clauses stipulating the need  to respect and preserve unrestricted access to the internet, digital freedoms and human rights online; 
  • ALDE Party member parties to consider the promotion and protection of digital freedoms as an integral part of all its principles and activities.

If the NRA are to be believed, is it safe to visit the US?

The rather bizarre suggestion from Wayne LaPierre, from the National Rifle Association in the US, that the only way to protect children from 'bad guys with guns' (BGWGs) is to hire 'good guys with guns' (GGWGs) to protect US schools ranks up there amongst the more stupid ideas ever put before civilised society.

However, it is not enough to say that it is stupid, one has a moral duty to demonstrate it.

If all Americans have the right to bear arms, if I visit my cousins in New York, or Boston, or San Francisco, I should assume that some of those people are BGWGs. Accordingly, I need a GGWG to protect me from them, unless I am going to be given the right to carry a gun myself. For, without a gun, I am vulnerable to these BGWGs, am I not?

Ah, but I'm a foreigner, so the right to bear arms doesn't apply - indeed, Americans have the right to bear arms against me - so I cannot protect myself against BGWGs. And because only GGWGs can protect me, I'll want one of those with me at all times.

They're quite expensive though, I guess, and how would I know if I had hired a BGWG by mistake? Accordingly, I would want the Federal Government to maintain a force of GGWGs to allow sufficient to protect every overseas tourist, and to accept responsibility if it turns out that any of them are BGWGs in disguise.

Stephen Glenn has pointed out how much it would cost to provide one armed police officer for every school in America, and there are more tourists than schools (except in parts of Idaho, I suspect). So, perhaps I'm being unreasonable in terms of legitimate expectations.

As a public official, I have a duty to spend money wisely, so it would clearly be cheaper if I didn't travel to the United States, and if we could persuade more people not to go, that would be better for US public finances.

Besides, given the prevalence of BGWGs, my travel insurance provider is bound to put up the price of cover for the US, so perhaps I should go somewhere safer. Disneyland Mogadishu, anybody?...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Higher Education: Tuition Fees

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 3 October 2011...

Ros hadn't given up on seeking further clarity on the less well-publicised elements of student finance...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the funding of tuition fees for, and repayment of loans by, students taking second degrees varies from that which applies to other students.

Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat)

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) does not usually provide a funding contribution towards university tuition fees for students that are studying a second degree, although some exemptions apply to students studying subjects rated as exceptional, which currently covers subjects such as: medicine, social work, nursing, and veterinary science. A comprehensive list of such exemptions can be obtained from HEFCE. HEFCE also makes a funding contribution to tuition fees for students that are studying a foundation degree, or are in receipt of disabled students allowance.

Students that already hold an honours degree do not usually qualify for a tuition fee loan. An exception is made for those students that start to study one of the graduate entry accelerated medical and dental programmes in the 2012-13 academic year. Tuition fee loans are also exceptionally made available to students studying a full time course of initial teacher training (ITT) of not more than two years (or a part time course the duration of which does not exceed four years) who have not already gained qualified teacher status (QTS).

Tuition fee loan repayment arrangements for these students will be the same as those that apply to all other students.

Creeting St Peter 0, Tory District Councillor... well, what exactly?

Recently, in response to a planning application by local concrete products company, Poundfield Products Ltd, Creeting St Peter Parish Council submitted an extremely negative reply, noting;
  • the impact of noise pollution to the local surrounding area and the Gipping Valley in general, especially from the loud bleepers. It is understood that noise is often heard at night and at weekends
  • light pollution from the very bright lights on top of the cranes which can be seen from a long way off. This light pollution is affecting both local residents, the Gipping Valley in general and also the natural environment – owls, badgers, etc. There are many owl boxes nearby and it is thought that the lights and noise must have a negative impact on the wildlife in the area, including the Fen Alder Carr Nature Reserve in Fen Lane
  • the cumulative impact of all the activities being undertaken at the site that, it is felt, is having a negative effect on the local residents and the wildlife in the area and surrounding natural beauty of the Gipping Valley.
  • that painting the cranes grey will not solve the problem, as they will still be seen, particularly when lit up at night.
  • that the site is generally becoming an eyesore from all aspects, and particularly when viewed from the nearby footpaths. It is felt that there has been continual abuse of planning clearance and that obligations under existing planning applications have not been fully met. The bund has not been fully planted with trees as we understand was part of the earlier planning permission, so the site can still be seen from the road (Mill Lane). A building constructed to house fertiliser has, it is understood, never been used for this purpose, but for housing cement products.
  • increased traffic to and from the site is also of concern to local residents.
I have to admit that, despite our damning comments, added to those of local residents, I had little confidence that the Planning team at Mid Suffolk District Council would do anything other than approve it, given their historically poor performance record.

And so, this evening's news that the planning application has been approved comes as no great surprise. What does come as a surprise is that the application was apparently approved by the Planning Committee contrary to the recommendation of the planning officer.

Given that the council is run by the (evil) Conservatives, doubtless my local (Conservative councillor) will claim that it was not what she wanted, and that she is as horrified as anyone else, as is her usual response whenever something unpopular happens. This might be rather more difficult this time, as she is the Planning Portfolio Holder.

So, Caroline, what's your excuse this time, and why did you think that the planning officer knows less about what is good for the Gipping Valley than you do? Given that you live in Eye, some thirteen miles away, is the fact that it has no impact upon you personally rather coloured your cavalier disregard for our community?

Or is it simply that, as long as you have the support of Stowupland Parish Council, a surprising number of whose members signed your nomination papers last year, our little parish and its 214 voters don't matter to you?...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

If those on benefits think that the Coalition has it in for them...

The decision to uplift certain benefits by 1% per annum has drawn an awful lot of flak in the past week or so. It is argued by some that picking on the poorest in society is harsh, to say the least. And it almost certainly is.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceHowever, it probably means that, over the period from 2007 to 2015, those on benefits will be about 4% worse off in real terms, compared to the Consumer Price Index. Those in the Civil Service would be delighted to be that amount worse off...

An Executive Officer with ten years service is already 11.5% worse off in real terms, following pay rises of 2%, 2%, 1%, nil and nil over the past five years, and 1% rises in the pay bill for the coming years will probably means less than that in the pay packet again. That means that my example Executive Officer will be more than 15% worse off in real terms by 2015.

You may argue that life has been tough out there in the private sector, and that job security and a decent pension are surely worth something, and they are, but Civil Service numbers are now lower than they have been for a very long time, and the new pension arrangements mean that, instead of paying 1.5% of salary towards that pension, it will be 5.45% by 2015.

So, effectively, that civil servant will be nearly 20% worse off in real terms by 2015. And, over the period from 2007 to 2012, those on weekly pay have been nearly 7% better off than my example civil servant, a gap that is likely to increase.

And with more jobs still to be axed, and public spending to be squeezed further, it isn't going to get better any time soon, if ever...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Liberal Bureaucrat and the Double Entry Conundrum

After a great many years, I am about to re-enter the world of education. And yes, I do recall that I successfully obtained a Non-Vocational Qualification in Operational Delivery earlier this year.

It has been pointed out that I won't have to use a quill pen and an abacus this time, which should make life a little easier, and that there are new-fangled trains, rather than stagecoaches, to whisk me to London for the classroom training. This is mildly encouraging. However, the prospect of examinations that I have to pass, and the need to be rather better organised than I usually am is making me a little uncomfortable.

What is making me most uncomfortable though is the idea of learning about bookkeeping. You'd think, wouldn't you, that as a bureaucrat and Local Parry treasurer, that I'd be fairly sanguine, especially given that I am the slightly embarrassed possessor of a degree in Mathematics. But no, I'm beginning to fret about it.

You see, I've always held fairly strong views about numbers. They are a bit like God, in that if you believe in them, and are comfortable about the fact that they exist, all will probably be well. If you don't, and they turn up unexpectedly, problems ensue. I am, as a rule, comfortable with numbers, indeed, very comfortable, but I have an inexplicable sense of unease about the mechanics of bookkeeping. Double entry this, single entry that, it just seems to be a bit arcane. And I have no choice but to be reasonably good at it, at least, good enough to pass an examination.

A friend of mine is being helpful, suggesting that it might make a decent motion picture, with her as my glamorous boss - assistant or sidekick seems so corny and, whisper it quietly, self-centred. So, 'Liberal Bureaucrat and the Ledger of Doom' it is then. I think that a visit to the Kindle Bookstore is called for.

And a Merry Christmas to you all...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Written Questions - Tuition Fees and Student Loans

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

Ros is a former mature student, having taken her degree whilst leading the Liberal Democrat group as part of the ruling administration in Suffolk. As a result, she takes an keen interest in matters relating to mature students, and received the answers to the following two questions...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the funding of university tuition fees for, and repayment of loans by, mature students taking first degrees varies from that which applies to other students.

Lord Henley (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Conservative)

Mature students taking first degrees are eligible for the same package of funding of their university tuition fees as other students, and are subject to the same rules in relation to the repayment of their loans.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether outstanding student debts will be written off when a mature student reaches retirement age.

Lord Henley (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Conservative)

Under the current system of income-contingent repayment (ICR) student loans, any outstanding loan balances will be cancelled in the following circumstances:

if a borrower dies; or if a borrower receives a disability benefit and because of the disability is permanently unfit for work; or (a) for those who entered higher education before 1 September 2006: when the borrower reaches the age of 65, (b) for those who entered higher education on or after 1 September 2006: 25 years after their statutory repayment due date.

Under the new system of ICR loans being introduced for students entering higher education from 1 September 2012, any outstanding loan balances will be written off in the following circumstances:

if a borrower dies; or if a borrower receives a disability benefit and because of the disability is permanently unfit for work; or 30 years after their statutory repayment due date.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Christmas is coming, and in recognition of the fact that Brij, my son-in-law, Jamie, my stepson, and the rest of the Scott family will be visiting us over the festive season, we have stocked up on beer.

Well, I say beer. In fact, it's lager (waits for Jennie to throw her hands up in despair). In other words, it isn't real beer, it's mass-produced stuff that people are willing to substitute for real beer.

Now I do have to admit that I do drink lager - proper lager, from places like the Czech Republic - if the mood strikes. But, like a good many Liberal Democrats of my acquaintance, I drink real ale whenever the opportunity permits. And so, having filled the utility room with lager (still in the can), I felt the need to stock up on something for me to drink.

Ros, being amenable to a drive, offered to drive to St Peter South Elmham, out near the Norfolk border (but still south of the Waveney) to allow me to stock up on the finest products of the St Peter's brewery, and I was only too pleased to take her up on it, having rather enjoyed my first visit - a brewery tour organised to mark St Valentine's Day.

It was a pleasant enough drive, if a rather indirect one - the Elmhams are out in 'bow and arrow country', but we eventually arrived and I hit the brewery shop. And so, what do I have?

It being Christmas, I have a case of their Christmas Ale, rich and warm, 7.0% and, being a sensible shopper, I have a case of the India Pale Ale, badly labelled and thus rather cheaper than is the norm, and a mixed case of their greatest hits, including a bottle of Suffolk Smokey, which has a peat finish, rather like that of a good malt whisky. Unfortunately for visitors, I can testify to this because I drank it, and fascinating it was too.

So, at one per day, I have beer to take me through to the New Year and beyond, which is a good thing, I'd suggest. All I need now is cheese... 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

ALDE Policy: Towards a Market-Oriented Common Agricultural Policy

As promised, here's another of the policy resolutions passed at last month's ALDE Congress. You'll notice that it calls for significant cuts on the size of future budgets...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Dublin, Ireland on 8-10 November 2012

  • the ongoing  discussions on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Reform as well as the negotiations concerning the Multiannual Financial Framework; 
  • the 2011 Theme Resolution where the Party: “Calls for a European budget which is adjusted to the priorities of the 21st Century in which a decreased percentage of the EU budget is allocated to structural and cohesion funds and the CAP. This would also pave the way to end Member States’ rebates in the EU budget”.

  • that a market-oriented and sustainable agricultural policy is a prerequisite for the production of high quality foodstuffs.

  • that the CAP must be subject to significant cuts and reform in the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework;
  • that the regional dimension and environmental aspects should be given a greater weight within the framework of a reduced CAP in order to ensure sustainable rural development;
  • that investments in education and research are needed in order to boost innovation in the agricultural sector.

  • that financial resources in the agricultural sector need to be used efficiently and  therefore calls for a further reduction in, with a view to phasing out, direct payments as well as an instant end to public interventions and other market support measures;
  • the importance of high animal welfare standards, which have to be fully implemented and checked regularly to avoid distorting competition.

Calls for
  • The ALDE Party to push for a simplified and less bureaucratic CAP;
  • an adequate budget for rural development policy within the framework of a reduced CAP, consistent with environmental objectives such as resource efficiency and environmental conservation; 
  • a successful conclusion of the Doha Round.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 - Motion to Take Note

Ros is particularly keen to promote the role of volunteering. Genuine volunteering, that is, rather than the 'forced volunteering' which some Conservatives seem so keen on. In a debate on the legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics which took place on 8 November, Ros took the opportunity to bang the drum...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Doocey on securing today's debate and reflect on what a marvellous opportunity it has been to hear a cross-section of perspectives.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a reception at the Czech embassy at which the ambassador referred in his speech to the success of the London Games. Like many others, he made particular reference to the volunteers. He said:

"Never, in the field of human endeavour has so much been owed by so many to so few".

He was right to use that phrase because those few, the volunteers, really kept the Games going and it is about the volunteers that I want to speak today. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as the chair of the England Volunteering Development Council.

Much of what I want to say refers to specific volunteering programmes-the Games makers, London ambassadors and so on - but we should recognise that every athlete who participated in the London Games was at the apex of a vast pyramid of support, from the grass-roots clubs on to the highly specialised training, much of which, of course, is volunteer driven. It seems to me to be really important that we look at the success of the largest mobilisation of volunteers since World War II, look beyond the well deserved congratulations, and think about what lessons we can learn from it.

First, will my noble friend outline how the Games maker programme was evaluated, by whom, and when the results will be published? In particular, have the Government any specific plans to capitalise both on that body of volunteers and also those who have been inspired to volunteer in the future? On a specific point, has agreement been reached on what will happen to the LOCOG database of volunteers and those who applied, who were willing to help but for some reason were not used? At the moment, it all looks rather ad hoc.

About a month ago I attended a special event in my home county of Suffolk to recognise the Games makers. The organisers had no database of Games makers to work from, but just relied on personal contacts. It was a lovely event and a great way of saying thank you, but it was also a piece of legacy work. Literally, as it is turns out, because the Suffolk Records Office is creating a special Olympic archive, but it is more specifically a legacy because former Games makers are being contacted about other volunteering opportunities in the county, especially for large events such as festivals - Latitude, for example. Suffolk has had the foresight to create a bespoke 2012 legacy project for volunteering which aims to increase volunteering opportunities within sport and culture across the county. It makes absolute sense that, having invested in training the volunteers for the Olympics, those new skills can be put to further use if that is what the volunteers want. I know that the Westminster volunteer centre is doing similar work developing a group of volunteers to help with large events in London, but I am not aware of any more systematic way of doing this. We run the risk of not making the best of the summer's success.

It seems to me that, on volunteering, there are a number of lessons that we can learn. First, there is the value of good, inspirational leadership, which we had in buckets, from my new noble friend Lord Deighton, from the noble Lord, Lord Coe, from the Mayor of London and from many others who are Members of this House. We saw the value of cross-party working and the value of working between public and private, but the really important thing was that volunteers were not added on at the end; they were an integral part of delivering the Olympics and Paralympics right from the beginning. That, I believe, is what really made the difference.

It is worth reflecting, however, on the amount of resource that went into this. In my view, one of the main things that made the volunteer programme successful was that enough investment was put in to make it work. It was not just cash. The private sector came in to offer HR support, recruitment, IT, training and even meals for volunteers. Local authorities stepped up and Transport for London ran a marvellous programme of volunteers at major stations. Many volunteers, of course, spent a lot of their own money on transport and accommodation and did so because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I do not believe that we have any idea of the true value of the investment that went into making the volunteer contribution work. I mention that, and I believe it matters, because I think there is a general feeling in Government and beyond that volunteering is a free good. Well, it is not - the Olympic volunteering worked because money was put in to make sure that it did.

The good news is that volunteer centres report more people coming forward to volunteer than ever before, but across the piece I hear that what holds back capacity is that organisations do not have enough paid staff to manage the volunteers. The noble Lord, Lord Haskell, made that point very well in relation to sports clubs. We need to invest in the capacity of the voluntary sector and particularly volunteer centres. They have an important role in brokering volunteering opportunities for people who want to come forward. But the figures from Volunteering England show that half of all volunteer centres have had funding cuts that have led to closures or a cutting back of their hours. Yet their brokerage role is absolutely key, especially if they are trying to work with hard-to-reach groups such as people with mental health problems or from certain minority ethnic backgrounds.

Volunteer centres tell me that there has been a huge increase in unemployed people looking for volunteering opportunities, which I suppose is to be expected. For many others, volunteering is an important way of maintaining self-esteem, getting out and about and meeting people. Investing in volunteering generally is just as important now as it was during the Olympic programmes, but in many ways is needed more because there is not a big one-off event that is capturing the imagination. If the Government want volunteering to flourish, to make community work an inherent part of the education system or a condition of benefits, they will have to grasp the nettle. Flashy websites and national publicity campaigns will not on their own do it unless the support is there at grassroots level.

There is something really special about volunteering that cannot readily be reduced to a financial transaction, but we must recognise that, it in the end, it does not come free. My noble friend Lady Doocey said that we needed to create a legacy worthy of the Games and I believe that this is just as important in volunteering as in every other part.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Creeting St Peter says no to ugly cranes

The other item of business at Thursday's Parish Council meeting was consideration of a planning application from Poundfield Products, who make concrete products at Grove Farm, at the southern end of the Parish.

They want permission to retain two mobile gantry cranes which they put up in February 2009, without planning permission - something which Mr Jardine, the owner of the site has rather a lot of past form on.

We were somewhat surprised on the Parish Council last year to receive notice of an application for a change of use for Orchard Lea, the tied cottage next to Grove Farm, as it turned out that the owners, Mr and Mrs Jardine, had broken the terms of their planning permission in 2000 and were applying for it to be made a fait accompli on the grounds that more than ten years had passed since the initial breach.

So the discovery that the astonishingly garish yellow cranes, which are a blight on a Special Landscape Area, are there without any thought of planning permission until now comes as no great surprise. Unsurprisingly, local residents are not happy, as they spoil the view over the river valley, are noisy, and are festooned with bright lights which can be seen from the Stowupland side of our village.

I have to admit that the cranes have annoyed me for some time, as they are intrusive and wholly inappropriate. And, as a parish councillor, I have the opportunity to do something about it, so I took a very firm view against the application. The site brings no advantage to villagers, as none of the employees live here, the application is only the most recent of a series of apparent abuses of planning law, and it is high time that Mid Suffolk District Council took action.

In truth, I suspect that they will get their permission, as Mid Suffolk's Planning Department is notoriously useless (although the Building Regulations team is pretty good), and their enforcement record is even worse. Normally, I would demand action from our District Councillor, who will doubtless wring her hands in that annoying way that she often does, and tell us that there is nothing that she can do. After all, what can be expected, she is only a member of the ruling group and Chair of the Planning Committee...

However, we as a Parish Council do have a responsibility here, and I intend to propose that we initiate a programme of reviews of commercial planning applications within the Parish, so that we can bring breaches to the attention of the District Council, and force them to act.

And I'm minded to start with the permission granted to build a new building for the storage of crops at Grove Farm...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

And finally, we might be able to open our playground by next spring

The saga of our village playground has rather dominated the work of the Parish Council since I joined it in 2009. First, the Community Council ground to a halt after running out of members. Then, after the Parish Council 'absorbed' it, we had the problem of the lease on the field, which dragged on and on.

However, persistence has been rewarded, and last week, the Parish Council met to consider the latest version of the 99-year lease we wish to take out on the land.

It hasn't been an easy process, and we have had to be somewhat pragmatic about what degree of compromise we are willing to accept in order to 'seal the deal'. And whilst I think that the balance of risk is worse than I am truly comfortable, I would rather not see further delay and additional legal costs.

Accordingly, I supported our decision on Thursday to agree to sign the offered lease. We've done as much due diligence as is reasonably possible, and more than £14,000 of funds can now be spent as intended - hopefully allowing us to open the new playround in time for the Easter school holidays.

An awful lot of effort has gone into making this happen, with the work of the Community Council over many years, plus generous funding from Mid Suffolk District Council and from the locality fund of our County Councillor, Gary Green, and it will be marvellous to see children playing on the new equipment next year.

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

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

Ros doesn't like poor legislation, and is rather good at spotting links between seemingly unrelated clauses. This is one example...

Amendment 129LAA

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

129LAA: Schedule 5, page 267, line 17, at end insert-

"( ) On application by a relevant authority, the Secretary of State may direct that the substitute calculations referred to in subsection (5) may be increased by an amount determined by the Secretary of State."

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

Will the noble Lord consider a scenario in which a local authority is required to increase substantially its council tax because it has to pay one of the EU fines being introduced by the Government in an earlier part of the Bill?

Earl Attlee (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)

My Lords, I hope that the need to pay an EU fine will be an exceedingly unlikely event.

Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response but I do not think he really dealt with the question about an EU fine. It is provided for in this Bill and if the provision is removed we would all be delighted. A fine could be visited on a local authority at the last minute potentially after it has set its budget and its referendum detail is public.

I have to admit that I do wonder about the provision of a clause requiring a referendum if a council tax rise is above a certain amount. Given that voters have an opportunity to 'throw the buggers out' every four years, any ruling administration has to be aware of the views of local residents. It's called democracy, if I recall.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Suddenly, Suffolk is that little bit easier to get about

It is hard to believe that less than 400 metres of track should make such a difference, but this week saw the introduction of the new timetable on the East Suffolk line, which links Lowestoft with Ipswich via Saxmundham. For the first time in far too long, the sixteen miles of single track which restricted the number of trains that could be run has been augmented by the Beccles loop, a passing point at Beccles station which allows an hourly service to be provided, as opposed to the two-hourly service which ran previously.

Residents of East Suffolk now have a reliable service to connect them to London at Ipswich, and to Norwich at Lowestoft, and it makes commuting by train from places like Wickham Market and Halesworth rather more attractive, hopefully taking cars off of the A12.

Ros tells me that it was something that the County Council had been lobbying for since before she joined it in 1993, so it just goes to show that persistence can pay off.

It does mean that I could take a ride out to Lowestoft should I feel so inclined one summer evening, and I might just do that...

Friday, December 07, 2012

Quietly doesn't flow the Gipping...

The heavy rain over the past few days has finally caused the River Gipping to fill to dangerous levels, and the Environment Agency have issued a flood warning for the river south of Needham Market, as far as Bramford.

Here in Creeting St Peter, Mill Lane is flooded near Flint Hall, as Ros discovered on her way home this evening. Then, at around 4.15 p.m., it was passable with care, but we've had more rain since, although I'm pleased to say that it has stopped for the time being.

The system of drainage ditches has held up pretty well, especially those to the north of the village, along Creeting Lane which, fortuitously, were freshly dug out a few weeks ago to a very high standard - a blessing indeed, as this means that the road to Stowupland is in reasonably good shape. However, with the Gipping full to overflowing, we can expect more flooding in Needham Market, to follow that which occurred in May.

The village itself is alright, as we're somewhat elevated above the river, which forms the western border of the parish, although I suspect that the farmland nears the banks is going to be a bit waterlogged.

The only other issue is the East Anglian Main Line, which runs up the valley, criss-crossing the river at a number of points, although Greater Anglia aren't indicating any issues thus far.