Friday, July 31, 2020

Creeting St Peter: a question of vision and accountability

Pretty much ever since I arrived in the village in 2008, the fate of the land bordering our side of the A1120 slip road has haunted us. It is, I freely acknowledge, a perfect location for development, sandwiched between the East Anglian Main Line railway and the A14 with its link between the container port at Felixstowe and the Midlands.

But, up until recently, whilst there was a lot of talk about first a lorry park, and later a business and enterprise zone, nothing had actually happened, except that the site had been transferred from Creeting St Peter to Stowmarket courtesy of a change to the parish boundary. In fairness, given that such a change would enhance the financial benefit to the locality, I couldn't really complain.

However, the land was recently purchased by Mid Suffolk District Council, who now rather need to create an income stream to achieve value from their investment, and things are beginning to move rather faster.

Naturally, as the Chair of the Parish Council most affected, I am taking an interest. I'm keen, for obvious reasons, to establish a dialogue with the developers at as early a stage as possible - raising our issues at an early stage increases the likelihood that we can achieve some positive outcomes for the community, and allows for better engagement for residents.

And so, I looked to establish where I might start. The project is led by a company called Gateway14 Ltd, working in conjunction with its development partner, Jaynic Ltd. Gateway14 Ltd is in turn wholly owned by MSDC (Suffolk Holdings) Ltd, which is 100% owned by Mid Suffolk District Council. It seemed to me, therefore, that I should seek a response from the senior director of the holding company, Cllr Gerard Brewster. Cllr Brewster is the sole independent councillor in Mid Suffolk, but is Deputy Leader of the Council, having been co-opted into the Conservative-led administration - his vote gives them control of the Council on the casting vote of the Chair. He's also the Portfolio Holder for Economic Growth. 

And so, I sent him a very polite e-mail;
Dear Cllr Brewster,
In my capacity as Chair of the Parish Council most seriously impacted by the Gateway 14 project, I note the information supplied in the District Council's latest press release on the subject.
I wonder if the Council is intending to consult with local residents prior to seeking planning permission, and would be grateful for your thoughts on how this might be achieved in the near future.
I would be happy to arrange opportunities for the District Council to meet (physically or virtually) with residents to outline development plans and to discuss what opportunities might arise in terms of facilities or opportunities for our village.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

Asked by: Lord Hylton
Asked on: 6 July 2020
To ask the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body whether the Strategic Review of the Restoration and Renewal Programme will be conducted by one person, or corporately by the Sponsor Body.

Answered by: Baroness Scott of Needham Market
Answered on: 7 July 2020
The strategic review is being led by the chief executives of the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, Sarah Johnson and David Goldstone, with support from infrastructure and programme management experts drawn from both organisations. The chairs of the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, Liz Peace and Mike Brown, will also provide input.

As the review progresses input and challenge will also be sought from a challenge group including representatives from both Houses and externally.

The review is expected to conclude in the autumn and its findings will be considered by the Sponsor Body Board and the Commissions of both Houses in the first instance.

Ros in the Lords: Agriculture Bill - Committee Stage

When Ros first went to the Lords, twenty years ago, one of the first pieces of legislation that she was involved in was the Countryside and Rights of Ways Act. But, with the Government now obliged to establish some sort of UK replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy in order to subsidise British farmers, the terms of that support are being debated...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD) [V]
My Lords, like some other noble Lords, I fell victim to the Second Reading cull. Had I been able to speak at Second Reading, I would have focused entirely on the question of public access, so I am very pleased to have the opportunity this evening of supporting my noble friend Lord Addington’s amendments and saying a few words.

We are all agreed that the principle of reward for public good is the right one, and it feels to me as if public access is one of the most important public goods that we can put in the Bill. We know that open-air activity in the countryside—not just walking but all sorts of activity—has a huge contribution to make to individual health and well-being. I think it should sit alongside access to good-quality food as an important outcome of the Bill. I was very heartened to hear the Minister’s response to the last group amendments, when he talked about the importance of projects for well-being and partnership working with other departments.

But it goes much further. There is, of course, an economic development argument, with people coming to visit farm shops, caf├ęs and pubs, but it is even more fundamental than that. One thing that has troubled ​many of us is the real disconnect between people, the food they eat and the way that it is produced. Noble Lords have tabled a number of amendments later in the Bill to deal with that. Regular access to the countryside is one important way of helping to stimulate this interest in and understanding of the way that our food is produced. It is also a way of exciting young people into thinking, potentially, about careers in agriculture, land management or forestry—individuals who come from towns, not necessarily just country dwellers. The same can be said about biodiversity, landscape, animal welfare—the more access people have to the countryside, the more committed they will be to those things.

For a decade, I chaired a rights of way committee in Suffolk. I know that some landowners are more accommodating than others and that some users do not behave in ways that we might like them to, but this stand-off really does need to end, because going forward, the link between individual taxpayers and farmers will be much clearer than it was in the days of the CAP. If people have a perception that they are somehow not welcome in the countryside, they will ask, “Why should my tax money support you?” I think that it would be in everyone’s interests to begin to think much more carefully about public access.

In the interests of time, I will not go through the amendments, but there are two categories. There are the ones that seek to make sure that nothing in the Bill makes the situation any worse. An example is the important question of cross-compliance: making sure that we do not pay for farmers and landowners who do not even comply with their duties under the Highways Act. Nor should we be using taxpayers’ money to help them to do what they should be doing anyway. So we have one set of amendments that are negative in focus, but then the much more positive ones which talk about enhancement and all the things we do to improve public access—not just public footpaths and rights of way, but access more generally, and particularly how we should think about getting people from towns and cities out into the countryside that we all enjoy. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Ros in the Lords - Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, Motion to Approve

Never let it be said that you don't learn anything here at Liberal Bureaucracy. It would be fair to say that a piece of Northern Ireland specific legislation might not normally draw an intervention from Ros, but sometimes context is important.

Ros sits on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, a deeply obscure Parliamentary Committee which consists of members of both Houses, and its role is to consider statutory instruments made in exercise of powers granted by Act of Parliament. One of the key aspects is to decide whether or not a Statutory Instrument is ultra vires or not.

This particular Statutory Instrument had, to put it mildly, drawn some ire from the representatives of Northern Ireland, as well as the anti-abortion lobby generally, and it had been suggested that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments should have acted in a manner beyond its remit.

And so, Ros went into bat for the Constitution and due process...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. As we received a high volume of correspondence on these regulations — indeed, it has been mentioned in the debate today — I thought it might help the House if I briefly outlined the role of the committee. Our role is to draw the attention of Parliament to statutory instruments on technical grounds, including retrospection, defective drafting and the scope of enabling powers. The merits are strictly not within our scope.

For this order, it is apparent that the strong differences of opinion include on whether it is within the enabling powers. However, the opinion of the committee was that we were unable to report this SI to the House as being outside the scope of enabling powers. This is not to argue that it is within them, but it is to say that these debates need to take place on the Floor of the House to preserve the political independence of the Joint Committee. The merits and the law of this instrument need to be decided by the House in debate, as it is today.

El Returning Officer rides again...

It seems like a very long time ago that I was asked, very nicely, if I would act as the Returning Officer to the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats. And, indeed, I suppose it was - I've been in post now for nine months without actually delivering a result. It's a long story...

There had been some problems. A mass exodus of the leadership over the Philip Lee affair had created something of a leadership vacuum, and the membership list had become a little unstable due to issues about renewal. Nothing that time and a little bureaucracy couldn't fix, but somebody rather needed to take a grasp of things, design a route through the process and deliver an election that could be widely seen as meeting the requirements of due process.

And so I found myself in the position of being that somebody. And that's where things rather went wrong. We needed to confirm the membership list and produce a reliable electoral register, which in turn needed the support of the Federal Membership Team. And that was underway when the snap General Election was called...

Eventually, we got things back underway again, and we're now in a position where we have a membership list which can be relied upon, with renewals processed and eligible voters determined, and so nominations are open.

So far, things appear to be running smoothly enough. There are some questions which are rather for me to answer, as their Constitution is silent on them, and I've had to rather broadly interpret some of its clauses because such a situation as we find ourselves in was never really allowed for - if the rules revolve around holding a physical AGM, how do you respond when such a thing can't happen? - but I'm a transparent sort of Returning Officer, so happy to explain "what and why".

Best of all, everybody appears to be utterly lovely (that's not an invitation to be otherwise, please) and prone to behaving reasonably. I have spreadsheets that allow me to maintain a grip on the nominations - I know when you contacted me, when I replied, and whether or not you are properly nominated. You, the candidates, know what your status is, and those that have nominated you likewise.

I do have some more rulings to make, and guidance to publish, but I think that I can handle that easily enough, so watch this space...

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Ros in the Lords - there's a first time for everything...

The House of Lords is an odd place sometimes. When confronted with something that doesn't perhaps fit neatly into the procedures, the procedures are applied in unexpected ways. And so it was, three weeks ago, that Ros made what was described as a Written Ministerial Statement.

Don't worry, Ros hasn't gone over to the dark side - I'm sure that she'd tell me if she had done - but, in accordance with Clause 17.2 of the Parliamentary Relationship Agreement between the Corporate Officers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons and the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Board, the Sponsor Body shall nominate two Parliamentary members of its Board (one drawn from each House) and agree substitutes as required, to act as spokespeople in each House and to answer Parliamentary questions, make written statements and participate in debates on the Works as required. For the Lords, that would be Ros...

Her formal debut was a written one, which went like this;

I wish to inform the House regarding certain documents that have been  agreed by virtue of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 ('the Act').

On 8 April the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body was established as a corporate body by section 2 of the Act with overall responsibility for the Parliamentary building works. As required by section 3 of the Act the Sponsor Body established the R&R Delivery Authority to carry out the works.

Section 4 of the Act requires the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority to enter into a programme delivery agreement (PDA) regarding the arrangements for the definition, development and delivery of the works. The PDA was approved by the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority Boards on 18 May and it will be reviewed after six months.

Section 5 of the Act requires the Sponsor Body to prepare a strategy for consulting Members of both Houses in relation to the works, which must be published by 3 June. The Sponsor Body Board approved the strategy on 23 April and the Commissions of both Houses took note of the strategy in May. The Act requires the strategy to be kept under review with subsequent versions published accordingly.

Section 6 of the Act requires the Corporate Officers of both Houses to enter into a parliamentary relationship agreement (PRA) with the Sponsor Body. The PRA sets out the arrangements for how both Houses and the Sponsor Body will work together during the works, including their respective roles and responsibilities, and what they should expect of each other across a wide range of areas. The Commissions of both Houses and the Sponsor Body Board approved the PRA in April and it will be reviewed after six months.

I have attached these documents, which are also available on the Programme website.

Not left, not right, but liberal?

So, Layla versus Ed, unless something very unexpected happens. And you're expecting me to have an opinion on which of them I believe will lead the Liberal Democrats into government at the next election.

My answer? Neither of them, to be honest. Going from eleven seats to government, even as a junior partner, is pretty unlikely, if you ask me. We can safely rule out forming a majority government - that sort of thing doesn't happen in fairy tales, and it certainly doesn't happen in British politics. Even the Labour Party don't believe that they can increase the number of seats they hold by 60% under normal circumstances, and in a country where 40% of the population still believe that the Conservatives are the best choice to run things other than a bath, you do wonder how bad things would have to get before opinion turned against them.

That said, the combination of COVID-19 and a hard Brexit might just do it...

A hung Parliament where adding Liberal Democrats would swing the outcome? Possibly, but how many seats would you want to have a real influence, as opposed to being a human shield? Coalition with the Conservatives? Regardless of whether or not it might make sense - and I really don't currently see how it could - the membership would never wear it. Coalition with Labour? Their activists hate us, and their MPs aren't exactly wearing their respect for us on their sleeves. No, either Labour would go for "one last heave", or they'd try minority government and dare the Scottish Nationalists to give the Conservatives a second chance.

That leads to the question, what are the Liberal Democrats for then?

We've tried to be a party of the centre-left, defining ourselves by comparison with a nominal political centre. We've tried equidistance, which means that we are defined by the behaviour of two other political forces. My gut feeling is that we're there to be liberal, because the other two sure as hell aren't going to be unless there's some short term advantage in it for them.

That means values, which drive policies. Now, from a personal perspective, this is some of what I mean (other liberals may vary);
  • does this decision offer new freedoms without necessarily taking freedoms from others?
  • is it transparent and accountable, i.e. is it explained and can it be challenged?
  • does it encourage people to take control over their own lives and provide them with the tools to do so?
  • does it balance the relationship between the individual and the State?
The thing is that liberalism does mean having to compromise along the way. There are very few perfect solutions, no policies that make 100% of the populace happy. You have to consider the benefits and the harms, but applying the four themes above might lead you towards a collection of pretty obvious policy stances.

And that's part of the challenge of being a liberal in any event. that our creed isn't really definable by a sentence as much as a set of guidelines. Not catchy, not really soundbite material, but something that you are and do.

And sometimes, that will be more "left" than Labour, and sometimes more "right" than the Conservatives - the latter's view of freedom being the right to do things that they approve of. But it will, or should, always be liberal.

And so, whilst I'd love to think that my endorsement carries some small amount of weight (it really doesn't, I'd suggest), I won't be offering one. I'll watch the debate, read the commentary, ponder the views of friends and colleagues, and then try to judge which candidate is most likely to lead and build a properly liberal political force before quietly marking my ballot paper in their favour.

My only request of the candidates and their supporters is this - play nice. if your chosen candidate is so great, they'll win on their merits, not because they're slightly less awful than the other one. And frankly, if that's the requirement for winning, the prize really isn't worth it...

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Water Industry (Specified Infrastructure Projects) (English Undertakers) (Amendment) Regulations 2020

It is a mark of how wide-ranging the debates in the Lords are that, in six weeks, Ros spoke on volunteering, food waste, the National Archives and here, on 8 June, water infrastructure regulations...

My Lords, it is a mark of the new arrangements that in recent weeks I have spoken in debates on food security, the charity sector and heritage and had between one and two minutes in which to do so. With the luxury of five, I will start with the usual courtesy of thanking the Minister for his comprehensive and useful introduction, and his officials for producing an extremely readable and useful set of accompanying documents.

Although narrow in its scope, this SI gives us a very useful chance to carry out some post-legislative scrutiny. I am not clear why a sunset clause was introduced in the first place. It might be because it was only ever envisaged for one project, but it would be useful to understand that better. I would rather know precisely what it was intended to do and what the risks are in removing it. The regulations as they stand have certainly done an extremely good job for the Thames tideway tunnel project. It will remain to be seen whether it is suitable for projects going forward. I am interested in the Minister’s thoughts about why this might not be a suitable framework for the four projects which he outlined, because it seems to have been successful.

It would also be helpful if he could give a bit more detail on the timetable for the proposed major new projects, as I did not quite hear what it was. In recent years, the emphasis seems to have been on improvements —particularly environmental improvements—to existing assets, and I welcome that. I am old enough to remember the 1970s, when the UK was known as “the dirty man of Europe”. UK standards have played a huge part in driving improvements in water quality across the piece. I am sure that all noble Lords would welcome an assurance that the UK will not, in any way, be slipping back once it is removed from EU standards.

Managing those assets, getting better value and using water more efficiently is an interesting challenge for the industry. Can the Minister say a little more about the limits? How much more water efficiency can we get out of existing infrastructure before we have to start thinking about new infrastructure, especially given the combination of climate change, increased population and differences in the way we lead our lives? It is good to hear that this model has worked so well for Tideway. It has suggested that the regulatory and contractual arrangements have given it a framework which has incentivised delivery on time and on budget—I would like to hear an update on that—as well as lower expected costs of capital.

The Consumer Council for Water has observed that customer handling in this project was not effectively done, because it was not sufficiently financed. Is that inherent in the regulatory structure or just an oversight that we can learn from and change next time? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ros in the Lords - Covid-19: Museums, Galleries and Historic Buildings

In a very short speech on 21 May, Ros was moved to refer to a sometimes forgotten element of our cultural heritage...

My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive board member of the National Archives. While the National Archives has closed its building, given the importance of its function, I wanted to reassure noble Lords that it remains highly active in very important ways.

For the duration of its closure, it is providing free online access to its wide range of digitised records. Through, it is aiding legal certainty through the rapid publication of emergency legislation, operating a seven-day-a-week service. It is capturing the comprehensive record of the Government’s evolving response to Covid-19 by archiving key government websites and social media channels.

Given its role as leader of the wider archive sector, I close with a plea to consider the impact of this crisis on archives more widely. Its economic impact puts at risk the survival of the irreplaceable archives maintained by businesses, charities and local authorities.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Food Supply and Security

On 14 May, Baroness (Rosie) Boycott moved a Motion to Consider from the Crossbenches. Given Ros's activities in this particular field, she was keen to raise the issue of food waste...

In 2014, the EU Sub- Committee which I was chairing at the time held an inquiry into food waste, the first ever such inquiry in Parliament. It was very much a reflection of our concern that around a third of the food that we produce for human consumption ends up being thrown away. Since then, the issue has certainly come up the agenda, but it has remained a very difficult nut to crack.

For UK households, the problem is intention. People recognise that it is a problem, but they say that they have a lack of knowledge, their shopping habits perhaps encourage food waste, and the behaviour of retailers almost certainly does.

The leader in this field, WRAP, has just reported after two weeks of lockdown. It has found that people are shopping much less because they do not want to risk going into stores, but they are buying more, and of course people are eating out very much less than they were before. Therefore, the incentive now is not just time and money; it is people’s safety. They have begun to do all the things that we have advised, such as planning meals, checking stocks and making lists, managing portion sizes and using their freezer. WRAP has found that one in three households is now throwing away less and only one in 25 is throwing away more. Crucially, WRAP has found a clear correlation between those throwing away less and those who recalled seeing information from campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste.

Therefore, I now ask the Government to work with WRAP to really ramp up practical advice that will help households save money now but also, crucially, will help to instil a lasting behaviour change going forward. In this way, we can reap the environmental benefits of reducing the emissions and water footprint of the food that we throw away. This is a one-off chance to change behaviour for good, especially in younger people, and we should not miss it.