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.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Charitable and Voluntary Sector

30 April saw a Motion to Take Note, moved by Dominic Addington from the Liberal Democrat benches. Here's what Ros had to say...
We live in an age where we have an obsession with numbers—that is, analysing and counting—but we occasionally forget what really matters: the outcomes. As inspiring as it was to see 750,000 volunteers come forward for the NHS, the fact is that many of them have been given no tasks to perform. In the meantime, 1.5 million of our most vulnerable shielded citizens have not been receiving the support that they were promised.

Volunteers need to be organised as well as mobilised, and that requires structure. It makes no sense to create large new centralised systems when existing local provision is already there. It may look fragmented at the local level, but it is much more likely to be effective than any other way when properly organised. Local providers are much more likely to be trusted, to be aware of ​local needs and conditions and, crucially, to be able to draw on resources quickly when they are needed. For those needing specialist help, it is much more likely to be at hand in a local network.

In Suffolk, we formed the collaborative communities board, made up of a range of statutory providers and the VCSE sector—including Community Action Suffolk, of which I am a trustee. Town and parish councils are also represented; they are an important link into many communities, especially in rural areas. We have 1,500 community groups registered on our app. The Home But Not Alone helpline is taking around 1,300 calls a week and is organising help for people in need, including food packages, medicines, transport and befriending. A 24/7 mental health hotline was opened on 15 April. Providing accommodation solutions is a major strand of work for all these organisations, which are working together to provide accommodation and the support that people need.

I urge the Government not to neglect the local dimension in all this.

And here is an excerpt from the reply from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Baroness Barran...
On volunteering, we have seen an overwhelming response from the public, expressing their willingness to step up and volunteer to help those in need during this time. We have seen this through local volunteer networks such as the 3,500 Covid mutual aid groups that have sprouted up on Facebook, WhatsApp and ​Nextdoor, as well as the incredibly important established charity networks, large and small, which have been able to respond quickly and effectively, based on a deep knowledge of their communities and trusted local relationships. Having had a wonderful visit with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, to her local community organisation, I can tell noble Lords that it is an exemplar of all those things.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ros in the Lords: questions and answers

Yes, the "Virtual Lords" is up and running, and Ros has already been active. Here are her questions since the House returned, as well as the Ministerial answers...

Passenger Train Services - 29 April

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
To what extent will demand for rail services be taken into account when deciding which sectors will be unlocked? How will this be managed given the significant regional variations in the use of rail for commuting?

Baroness Vere of Norbiton
That is an incredibly important question. I am sure the noble Baroness will understand that we are considering all these issues at the moment. There will be regional variations according to which services are more likely to be used. There will also be variations with long-distance services and short-distance commuter routes. All these considerations are being put in. Also, when restarting public transport, one of the key things that we will have to do is look at local impacts—working with metro mayors, for example, and local transport authorities to make sure that they feed into the system and help us plan for their local economies, to get people back to work.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund - 21 May

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, the voluntary community and social enterprise sector has made very effective use of EU structural funds. However, generally it can be very difficult for the sector to access public sector procurement and bidding processes. Therefore, will the Minister undertake to consult the sector before the details of this new scheme are put in place?

Lord Greenhalgh
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. It is very important that we consult the local community and voluntary sector. This is an opportunity, through one fund, to reduce bureaucracy and avoid form-filling, and for precisely that reason we will engage with the wider voluntary and community sector.

Covid-19: UK Border Health Measures - 4 June

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
Can the noble Baroness reflect on the difficulties experienced by police in the early days of the lockdown concerning regulation and law versus guidance? Can she tell us what lessons her department learned from that, and how we can make sure that the three agencies involved are very clear about the difference between statute and guidance?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
Yes, this was the subject of a question to me a few weeks ago. There were some hiccups at the beginning of this process, and of course the media ran the odd story about the police perhaps being a bit overzealous. The police have, to a huge degree, got not only the consent but the support of the public. Something like 74% of the public think that the police are doing the right thing in how they go about enforcing—in fact, some people think that they should have been even stricter. But I totally take the noble Baroness’s point that people should understand the difference between what the law is and what the guidance is. The regulations are the law and the guidance assists in the application of the law.

Local Government: Economy - 9 June

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, the response to lockdown has shown that, where a full range of digital tools is available, people and businesses can locate almost anywhere. This could be transformative for rural economies, so will the Minister commit that, when we get details of the shared prosperity fund, there will a dedicated stream for rural areas that could work alongside new funds outlined in the Agriculture Bill?

Lord Greenhalgh
My Lords, I have already made the commitment that the UK shared prosperity fund will see no diminution in the support to enable us to level up our economy, including support for rural areas.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Creeting St Peter - dreaming about local government finance?

One of the personal advantages of the pandemic is that, as I’m working from home, I have rather more time to think - the eight hours or so I would usually spend commuting are mine to enjoy, for the time being. Now, I acknowledge, that isn’t necessarily an entirely good thing, because it does tend to lead me to think of things that I might do. However, given that life is usually quite hectic on Planet Bureaucrat, it is nice to have some relative downtime.

But, simultaneously, I don’t have anywhere near as many responsibilities as I might have done in the past. As part of the ongoing process of tapered withdrawal from anything other than local Liberal Democracy, my activity is more focused and less burdensome - I do things that I want to do, rather than those that other people would like me to do for them. Thus, the things that I ought to, or might, dedicate more time to are fewer.

The biggest one, or at least, the role with widest significance, is Creeting St Peter Parish Council, which I have the astonishing privilege of chairing. It isn’t an obviously onerous job, although I probably spend more time on it than I tend to suspect. And I’m moved to dwell on what it is that I, and we, do.

We are, in local government terms, well resourced relative to our activity. We have a clutch of ring-fenced funds which are intended to support various aspects of village life, and healthy levels of reserves - probably healthy enough not to require further bolstering. That said, financial management is light touch - we don’t meddle, and don’t have a philosophical stance on capital expenditure excepting that we understand that you have to spread its cost rather than simply spend as issues arise. We are, I should emphasise, highly rated by our auditors in terms of record keeping, due diligence and transparency.

So, the question is, what might we do better? That takes me back to a point that one of our councillors raised last year when we considered this year’s budget - should we maintain, increase or, whisper it quietly, reduce the precept given the health of our finances?

But you know how it is, life intervenes, and you “park” the idea at the back of your mind, fully intending to act upon the thought at some point. And then, that point never really arrives. It’s a bit like that e-mail you get that you think, “I really must read that at some point, it looks really interesting.”, and then find in a pending folder six months later, long after the information stopped being useful.

And now, I suddenly, at least theoretically, find myself with some time. So, I’ve decided to look at our ring-fenced funds, to see what we might to with or about them. There are opportunities to clarify functions, increase participation and, perhaps most importantly, do some good.

Wish me luck. I may be gone some time...

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Creeting St Peter - a tricky planning application lands...

One of the joys of Parish Council life is our status as a statutory consultee when it comes to planning applications. Admittedly, some of them are pretty straightforward, for example the recent application from Muntons, the local malt business, who wanted to build a new staff car park. Given that you couldn’t see the site because it’s hidden from view by... a bloody great malt factory... there didn’t seem to be much for an issue.

However, a proposal last year to knock down a house in the centre of the village and replace it with five “executive homes”, leaving scope to extend the development into a neighbouring meadow, went down rather badly. Unfortunately the applicant failed to make any effort to consult, and their application drew a justifiably hostile response from the owners of neighbouring properties.

Indeed, nobody seemed to much like it, as it extended beyond the village’s planning envelope as laid down on the District Council’s Local Plan, thus potentially setting a troubling precedent. Highways didn’t like it, and it was rather emphatically turned down by Mid Suffolk District Council on the basis that it breached a large swathe of their planning policies.

Eventually, I was asked by the applicant for a meeting, in my capacity as Chair of the Parish Council. That made me nervous, as I prefer transparency, so I offered him an opportunity to present to a Parish Council meeting, should he wish to proceed with a revised application, an offer which was taken up.

It would be fair to say that the meeting which followed was... lively. It was, at least, mostly amicable, although tempers did occasionally flare. The views of the citizenry were made clear to the applicant and his planning consultant, and there was a sense that the message had gotten across.

Two weeks ago, a revised planning application was notified to the Parish Council. Five executive homes had become four bungalows, access to the meadow was now removed, and there was a sense that, whilst the unhappiness at the prospect of new housing remained, there had been an attempt to respond to some of the concerns.

There are a number of remaining problems, however;
  • the development still extends well beyond the village’s planning envelope - would approval offer an opportunity to others to do likewise?
  • the status of the village, defined by Mid Suffolk District Council as “countryside”, indicates that no new housing is permitted
  • The absence of any facilities - shop, school, public transport - mean that new residents would be obliged to drive, contrary to policy encouraging environmentally-friendly means of travel
None of these have really been addressed by the new proposals, other than in effectively wishing them away.

And so, we held our first virtual Parish Council meeting to discuss it, inviting those residents that we could reach via social media - which is a surprisingly large number. Concerns were noted and recorded, the District Council planning guidance referred to, and civility prevailed.

Our Vice-Chair was prevailed upon to draft our reply, and life moved on. And then, Suffolk Highways intervened.

They noted that the access to the road was partly-owned by a third party, i.e. one of the neighbours, and that the access road itself wasn’t wide enough, and didn’t have a footway. Cue men with tape measures. Now, admittedly, there is an issue over access, and this does complicate matters somewhat, so we’ll see whether or not any alterations can be made to remedy this.

Ultimately, however, the rejection of the original application included the following;
The proposed development would be more than 2km from the nearest services in Stowupland and Stowmarket, resulting in the likely reliance on private motor vehicle use and increase in traffic, less integrated communities leading to poor social cohesion and failure to take opportunities to design for functional communities. There is insufficient access to public transport alternatives available within short walking distance from the site to otherwise outweigh other considerations of the location and poor access to services outlined. In conclusion with consideration of the above, the NPPF states that decision- taking authorities should approve development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay, actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling, and focus significant development in locations which are or can be made sustainable. 
As such it is considered that the proposal represents unsustainable development, contrary to the NPPF. In all circumstances the LPA is of the opinion that no residential development would be supported on this site. 
This new proposal doesn’t address this core issue, and I suspect that, whilst any other issues may be an obstacle, this particular difficulty might well prove to be Himalayan.

And so, we’ll see how it goes. Or not, as the case may be...

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Creeting St Peter - a Chair suspects...

Two years ago, I was the victim of what I might best describe as a genteel ambush, and became Chair of our Parish Council. Let’s be frank here, and note that we’re not talking about an empire here - our annual precept is just over £5,000, and the population for which I am theoretically in charge of is comfortably under 300. But, regardless, it is a responsibility that I take seriously.

The idea, I was informed, was that I would do two years and pass the role onto my Vice-Chair. And, I will admit, I was perfectly relaxed about that - power is not to be hoarded, it is to be shared, devolved. That said, I’d enjoyed my two years, and had found an unexpected niche in village life.

Annual Meetings take place in April or May usually, and we generally combine the two into one evening, the Annual Parish Meeting first, where various local worthies, the Parish Council Chair included, submit reports for consideration by Parish residents. There then follows the Annual Meeting of the Parish Council, where we elect officers and, if appropriate, sign documents.

Coronavirus put a stop to that, however, leaving us the question of what to do with the leadership of the Council. It was quickly decided that I should carry on for another year which either means that nobody else wants the job, or that I’m performing adequately. Of course, both could be equally true...

It would be fair to say that I’m not a radical Chair. I like short meetings, but encourage participation, maintain a reasonably tight grasp on procedure but am not fixated by it, and recognise the efforts of my colleagues, our Clerk and our residents. That doesn’t sound like rocket science, and it isn’t, but I see my role as being one of listening to people’s concerns, reflecting on what might be done, and using the tools available to us to achieve things.

Walking around the village as part of my 10,000 steps a day habit doesn’t hurt either, especially during the spring and summer when people are out and about. Admittedly, it does mean that a walk tends to take longer than it might otherwise do sometimes, but I learn a lot from the conversations I have.

And, of course, I have access to the incredible knowledge and experience of Ros, who has probably forgotten more about local government than I will ever know. Any rash notions I might have are usually tempered by a few words of wisdom from her, which makes me a better Chair.

So, another year starts, albeit under rather strange circumstances. We’ve held our first virtual meeting to deal with another controversial planning application and some financial management issues, and that seemed to go well enough. The leaflet that we circulated around the Parish with contact details in the event that anyone needed help has led to a couple of requests that have been taken care of, which is nice, although most people here are either wholly self-sufficient or have neighbours or nearby family who are looking after them.

And I really ought to write an annual report for circulation, I guess. I might leave out any reference to the absence of a plague of frogs this year - can’t be too careful...

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Matt Hancock tells me that I have a civic duty to follow the instructions. There's a word for that sort of person...

Look, let's be honest, I have no desire to catch COVID-19. Likewise, as someone who believes that community is important, I don't want to spread it either. I have responsibilities, as a public servant and as the Chair of my Parish Council, and should set an example. And so, I will.

But I will say this, it sticks in my throat that someone who is giving me instructions is, simultaneously, defending the right of the Prime Minister's senior advisor to disregard them as he sees fit.

And yes, you might reasonably say, I would be less than entirely friendly towards the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I'm not a supporter of his party. On the other hand, I do talk to my neighbours who, for the most part aren't terribly party political. And their responses have been interesting, in that there is genuine unhappiness about Dominic Cummings - "one law for them, another for us" is the general (unbidden) response.

The good news is that his stupidity and lack of integrity isn't likely to change people's behaviour here at least - we're a cautious bunch for the most part. And, in truth, given that public opinion has rather led the Government rather than the reverse, perhaps that doesn't come as a surprise. But what it does mean is that people will have an excuse if they're asked by Matt and his mates to do something that they aren't enthusiastic about.

And what will the Government do if parents decide that they'd rather not send the children back to school in the absence of clarity over their safety there, or if people choose not to comply with the instructions of contact tracers? That's when the loss of moral authority bites, and with it the ability to persuade. Loyalty is a two-way street.

The public don't like hypocrisy, and they certainly don't like being treated as fools. And whilst the issue of Dominic Cummings' job security might blow over, especially given how desperately senior members of the Cabinet are trying to defend him, observers of the 1992-97 Major Government will remember what happens when the public first lose respect for, and then start laughing at, an administration.

And so, I will comply for now, for the sake of my family, my friends, my neighbours and my community. But I will not forget, or forgive, those who made it clear how little respect they had for our sacrifices.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

A heady social whirl in Creeting St Peter

In truth, being locked down in the Creetings is not quite the same as being locked down in a town or city. Yes, we adhere to the “one outing for exercise” rule, and go shopping once a day only, but as most of us don’t shop daily anyway, and the village is surrounded by fields laced with empty public footpaths, it isn’t quite as onerous as it is for some. I’ve managed to keep up with my 10,000 steps each day - it allows me to check the Parish footpaths to see what condition they’re in - and we’re lucky enough to have benefitted from some creative thinking on the part of local food producers, so we’re eating well.

But it is nice to interact with the neighbours from time to time, and whilst one runs into people on the daily walk - maintaining proper distancing, naturally - the opportunity for a chat is limited. And so, the news that an online quiz night was to be organised was a pleasant surprise.

We’ve had the odd quiz night amongst the village pub evenings, but Ros and I hadn’t attended too many of late due to other commitments, so it was a nice to be able to take part via the medium of Google Meet. I’ll say this for the lockdown, I’ve learned more about video meeting software than I ever thought likely.

Each team was able to set a round of ten questions, and these ran the gamut of Suffolk music, Creeting St Peter, geography, musicals, food, Harry Potter and, our offer, politics, courtesy of Ros, amongst others. And it was pretty competitive too, with the lead changing hands regularly.

There were at least three rounds where Ros and I would have happily “phoned a friend”, but we managed a respectable third place finish, which I’d have been happy with at the beginning of the night.

There's talk of a virtual pub night next...

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Leadership delayed - and that's why being Party President is difficult...

I see that the Party President has run into a mild storm - see, I can do understated - over the decisions to a) postpone the leadership election until next summer, and b) suggest that Autumn Conference might not take place, at least not as a physical event.

It is, perhaps, a demonstration that winning the job is sometimes easier than doing it.

Being Party President does often mean doing things that annoy/upset/distress/anger people. Mind you, not agreeing with the unreasonable and unrealistic demands of some is sufficient in itself to attract ordure if you're nominally in charge. Occasionally though, it is enough, when offered a gun, to demur from pointing it at your foot and pulling the trigger. And I can't help feeling that postponing the leadership election so drastically is one of those decisions that will rumble on for a while.

In truth, I have no fundamental objection to Ed Davey as Leader. I voted for him over Jo Swinson, although I had no problem with her winning. But leaving someone in an interim position for so long offers its own risks.

I used to manage internal recruitment schemes, and one of our golden rules was that a temporary promotion shouldn't last more than six months without damned good cause - it undermined any open competition for the permanent vacancy that might follow. That was especially true if the temporary vacancy had not been filled competitively.

We also have declared contenders for the post - Wera Hobhouse and Layla Moran have already publicly declared - and whilst I have no doubt about their loyalty both to the Party and to Ed, their every utterance will be parsed by some, including a normally unfriendly media, for dissent.

Yes, running a leadership election offers certain challenges under current conditions, and I know that there are some who enjoy a good hustings - I even chaired the first Clegg vs Huhne event in 2007 - but in truth, the artificiality of hustings do little to change people's minds and very few people will actually attend them relative to the size of the electorate. Indeed, it is my increasing suspicion that the resources lavished on them would be better used on personal contacts.

There is an opportunity to explore new ways of engaging with members, to experiment with new media, in short, to do things differently. And yes, that will take a little time, but perhaps we should allow the ingenuity of liberals some freedom.

On the other hand, there are some human factors to be considered. Being the Leader is difficult, demanding, and to have uncertainty hard-wired into the mix by having an indefinite term is unhelpful to say the least. Ed is owed that much for, regardless of whether or not you think he should be the Leader, he is a decent man, doing a decent job.

So, I would have gone for a three or six month postponement, with a review option for extension by agreement of the Federal Board and Ed. That way, you offer potential candidates a degree of certainty and, should the decision be taken to have a contest, time to organise their campaigns.

But, of course, hindsight is 20:20, I'm not privy to the information upon which the decision was based, and it is entirely possible that the decision is fully justified. I'd need convincing though...

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats have a new Secretary...

So, the absence from frontline politics lasted less than a fortnight before I found myself a new project, that of my own dear Local Party.

In fairness, I had made a promise to take over as Secretary, as our previous Secretary had served six years in the role and was keen to hand it on. Admittedly, she and I had made it a personal bargain, so much so that, at Thursday's AGM, it required drawing the attention of the Chair to the fact that it wasn't simply a case of re-electing the incumbent. And so, I have a new job.

One of my first tasks is to establish what our Local Party Constitution looks like, which isn't necessarily the simple task it sounds. The Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats only came into existence on 1 January 2014, following a reorganisation of the County's Local Parties from Parliamentary boundaries to District/Borough boundaries. Ros and I may have had something to do with that...

There are two places where the Constitution should be;
  • The Regional Party - a copy of the Constitution should be lodged with the Regional Secretary after each adoption/revision. Admittedly, that doesn't always happen...
  • The Local Party Secretary - if they were handed one by their predecessor...
In our case, a copy turned out to have been held by our former Agent. It isn't entirely clear that what he held was actually adopted in that form, but we'll see. It can always be readopted at the next Annual General Meeting to ensure peace of mind...

Another task is to establish who is actually on the Executive Committee. Thus far, some people who probably think that they are on the Committee don't appear to be, which may lead to fun and games.

And, finally, I'm trying to create a directory for the Local Party, in the first instance for my own use, so that I know who to contact as and when, but perhaps for wider circulation if it appears to be of value.

So, I have my role, and an outline plan for delivery. Let bureaucracy commence...

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Getting back into the rhythm...

So, I’m home after a pleasantly restful visit to the US, but despite the fact that I  hold only one minor post, I’m surprisingly busy with Returning Officer stuff. I’ve got meetings to go to, paperwork to organise, and even a ruling to make. 

And that’s fine, I guess, because a bureaucrat’s work is never done, is it?...

Friday, January 03, 2020

Dominic Cummings and me - merely a coincidence, your Honour...

It was entirely coincidental that, more than 3,500 miles apart, Dominic and I were both blogging about his suggestions about changing the way Government is done. Trust me, my typing speed isn’t really that quick, and my drafting far too cautious to allow me to have responded that quickly. But now I’ve had a chance to read his blog, and reflect upon its content a little, perhaps I ought to offer some thoughts.

Firstly, the sort of people he indicates that he’s looking for. Smart, “weird” people, he suggests. Bright, young, without any baggage. And in at least one sense, he’s absolutely right, of course. The Civil Service requires regular infusions of talent, people who can rise through the ranks quickly, and in due course be the leaders going forward. How you recruit them, and how you retain them, he’s rather less clear about.

He could tear up the existing pay scales, the merit-based recruitment systems that exist, and he might even be right to do so. Do the basic rules of supply and demand apply in the public sector? Should they, and if the answer is yes, no matter how qualified, is there a will to change things? Do Civil Service entrance processes actually test the right things, do they discourage talented individuals from under-represented groups, do they promote the best skill sets going forward? Are they actually reflective of current best practice? As a relatively junior official, I’m not privy to that sort of information, nor is there any reason why I should be.

The sort of people he feels are needed are, I think, the subject of broad agreement, although fashions are, how can I put it, just that, fashions. The long-term impacts of individual reforms are often never truly known because so little time is given to allow them to bed in, and the transition is often under-resourced. Perpetual revolution means instability and caution amongst those who might at any time become victims of said revolution.

And the problem with instability in one of the three legs of the structure of the unwritten constitutional settlement is that it risks destabilising the whole arrangement. Now, if what I read is to be believed, that’s what Dominic wants, at least in the short term. How the effects of change are managed, controlled and limited to the specific field of battle is something he may well have thought through, and one would hope that this was the case. But he is, as I said before, more restricted by a legislative framework than he was as a campaigner.

He’s also at the mercy of someone who needs to get re-elected, which can be an uncomfortable place to be, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill discovered. Does he really have carte blanche, or are there limits when push comes to shove?

The general response so far has been anger and ridicule. Anger that he proposes to tear up something that, in the minds of some, works pretty well as it is, and ridicule in terms of how he proposes to go about things.

I personally wouldn’t recommend either. Dominic doesn’t play by the conventional rules - he seems to think that many of them are absurd and protectionist. He also has a record of getting what he wants, and given Boris’s reputation for granting wide discretion to his advisors, there is no obvious reason to assume that he can’t get his way. And, just because he’s Dominic Cummings, that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily wrong.

“Bombshell” - worth seeing, and an insight into how harassment can prevail

We had an awkward four hours or so between being “evicted” from our cosy hotel room and an appropriate time to head for the airport, and given the fairly frigid temperatures outside, catching a movie seemed like a good idea. Our choice, “Bombshell”, a dramatised version of the events which brought about the end of the career of Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News.

Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and John Lithgow, the film charts the story of Megyn Kelly, the news anchor who, after Roger Ailes was sued for sexual harassment by a former colleague, discovers that a series of female colleagues were similarly harassed by him, and that it wasn’t just her.

Her discreet investigation uncovers the scale of Ailes’s behaviour, whilst other colleagues, including female ones, attempt to rally support for him, pressuring co-workers to visibly declare his innocence.

Fox News is made out to be a pretty dysfunctional place, with female staff behaving out of fear of their CEO and for their potential careers, and a bunch of  men who, to put it mildly, appear to think that, even if he is guilty as charged, it doesn’t much matter.

Now there isn’t much of a plot to ruin, given that the script is based on actual events, well publicised. We know the ending and, as Roger Ailes died in 2017, most of the facts are presumed to be out there, although it should be noted that Megyn Kelly herself has indicated that the film contains material inaccuracies.

But it offers an interesting insight into how peer pressure, competition and egos can combine to repress any attempt to combat wrongdoing at the highest levels of an organisation.

And, for those who seem to think that whistle blowing is easy, or that taking on a corporate behemoth is what you should do because it is right, it should be recommended viewing. The notion that people’s actions have consequences is one thing, but what if those consequences impact on innocent parties - your co-workers, your family, your friends? Is it so easy then?

Is it a great movie? Probably not, but it is a good one. Will it appeal to those with a fascination with politics, the media and where the two collide? It probably will.

And I am reminded that we really ought to go to the movies more often...

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Dominic Cummings vs the Civil Service - fated to end badly?

You can’t deny that, in terms of winning, Dominic Cummings has so far been very effective. Yes, he has driven a coach and horses through many of the conventions in terms of behaviour, and his tactics come with their own long-term issues, but I suspect that he is of the view that, in the long-term, we’re all dead, so that isn’t important.

The thing about a campaign though is that once it’s over, you generally move on to the next thing, preferably something interesting, where the results are visible. Civil service reform is seldom like that, because unlike a campaign, delivery of government happens day after bloody day. It operates within a rule-based structure which can be limiting rather than liberating to those both within it and served by it. Indeed, what most people want is not something radical, but something effective.

So, if Dominic really wants to change the way the Civil Service functions, he needs to take a holistic view across not only the Civil Service but Government too, and that’s an “interesting” challenge. If he thinks that civil servants are, for the most part, useless, cautious and obstructive, then perhaps he needs to consider why that might be.

There are issues of supply and demand, in that salaries for senior civil servants (and some relatively junior ones) are increasingly out of line with their private sector counterparts, especially in terms of skills such as procurement, IT and tax compliance. Do you really believe that you going to get, and more importantly, keep, talent if it is so easily lured away by the promise of higher salaries elsewhere? The pension schemes have been devalued somewhat by recent government reform, and you can’t live off of a knighthood, even were you to be far enough up the food chain to get one.

Another issue is the quality of legislation that emerges from Parliament. The House of Commons has an increasingly poor record in terms of scrutiny of new proposals, and whilst the Lords is far better, relying on increasingly partisan administrations to accept credible ideas for improvement is a gamble at best, a pipe dream at worst. Civil servants work with what they’re given, especially on the frontline, and if what they’re given is endlessly tinkered with as foreseen glitches begin to pinch, application of government intent is jeopardised.

A good point has been made about stability, i.e. leaving senior managers in post long enough to see through changes. Many frontline staff grow weary of a new senior appointment arriving, forcing through major changes against sometimes reasoned objections only to disappear before the effects are known. By the same token, attempts at cultural change tend to fall foul of corporate inertia - “if we wait long enough, leader X will leave, to be replaced by leader Y who will be enthused by something else”.

It is being suggested that there will be a focus on cutting out perceived deadwood. Removing the supposed feckless and incompetent has been an aspiration of ministers for the more than three decades that I’ve been employed, and the tendency is to apply blunt tools such as picking on, say, the worst-performing 10% of staff. Such broad brush approaches ironically punished relatively well-performing offices, leaving badly run ones roughly unchanged, because of the challenge in selecting 10% out of a broader pool including different types of work, in different offices, with varying managerial standards.

The answer, it is suggested, is a system of ongoing examination. That’s interesting, because it increases the risk of three things - an increased lack of stability, an aversion to risk and a disincentive to recruitment - that run counter to what Dominic wants. If you stick your head above the parapet, will you survive the experience? If you’re looking over your shoulder all of the time, can you take in the horizon? And if your job is as much at risk in the public sector as it would be in the private sector, why not just take the money?

I suppose that I am, in bureaucrat terms, something of a conservative, in that I want things to work, I want there to be a proper balance between state and individual, and I want the state to be a force for good in people’s lives. Ironically, that might be seen as radical in some quarters, and even more ironically, many junior civil servants would certainly support the first and third elements of my wishlist (the second is a bit esoteric, I accept).

So, we’ll see what Dominic and his friends have in mind for the bureaucracy. One can only hope that he can grasp the difference between resistance to change and genuine critique and alternative perspective. My door is always open though...

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

The beginning of another year arrives, so what do I do with it?

After more than a decade of being deeply engaged with all things Liberal Democrat, I find myself entering a new year with surprisingly little responsibility. Term limits meant that my time as a member of the ALDE Party’s Financial Advisory Committee came to an end in October after eight satisfying years, and I lost my place on Federal International Relations Committee which, given how surprised I was to have been elected to it in the first place, came as no great shock. At least I lost to some good people...

What this means is that I only hold one formal role as a Liberal Democrat, that of the East of England member of the Appeals Board for England which, whilst not something which takes up a lot of my time, is quite onerous when my services are required. I do have three Returning Officer jobs to deliver in the New Year, but they shouldn’t detain me for too long, and there is my day editorship of Liberal Democrat Voice, which, if I let it, could expand to fill the time newly available to me.

There is a danger, therefore, that I rush headlong into some new role. And that would probably be a mistake, as there are things in the rest of my life which possibly merit more attention.

I could make some New Year resolutions, but why make commitments out of a sense of duty when it would be better to make changes because they would improve my life and that of those close to me. Besides, change should be organic rather than regimented.

So, I think that I’ll leave 2020 uncommitted for the time being. There’s much to look forward to, and much that would be better avoided.

And a Happy New Year to you all!

Here in Boston, we’re five hours behind most of you, but I wish you all the best, nonetheless. Sleep well!