Sunday, June 20, 2021

Can the tide of political unpleasantness be turned?

I spent some time this afternoon talking to some political colleagues about the problems that arise when people disagree. It was an interesting discussion and offered me an opportunity to express some of my concerns about modern politics and how the way people treat each other undermines how political parties function.

Unfortunately, that seems to be a problem that gets worse with time rather than better, and it distracts from the cause, whatever cause that may be. For a bureaucrat not generally seen on the front row of political activity, I don’t tend to be involved in the competitive element of politics, even within my own Party. It does risk appearing somewhat sheltered from the reality of campaigning, especially when you consider that, in my quiet corner of England, politics is relatively genteel.

That said, I do understand how much it can matter to people. I’m not naive. Indeed, I have a pretty good understanding that, when a contest really matters, people can be tempted to bend, even break, the rules for personal advantage. The first round of list selections for the European Parliament in 1997 was a case in point, when the prospect of becoming an MEP was a real one for whoever topped their regional list (and in some cases, the runner-up too).

That led to some interesting strategies being employed, but in the absence of social media, it was for the most part fought in good spirit. Had we tried to repeat the process twenty years later, I have a nasty feeling that it might not have been quite so easy to manage. There are, unfortunately, those who have less restraint in terms of the language they use, or allegations they make, especially if done remotely.

And, to make things even harder, as time has passed, the rules and procedures are more prescriptive, more complex, more open to misinterpretation (deliberate and accidental) and the implications of getting it wrong more severe, and not just to the person committing the “offence”.

The danger is that you have to dedicate more and more resource to dealing with the unhappy, the unreasonable and the unlucky. And, given that most people join political parties to change things or gain power, finding people to handle that burden becomes more difficult. It is, in short, a challenge that seems to grow as the years pass.

Ultimately, political parties, like societies, operate better and more effectively if people behave reasonably both in general and towards each other. It seems like such an obvious truism that you might wonder why it needs to be expressed. However, people often forget that political parties are not monoliths, where everyone agrees, but coalitions loosely wrapped around a philosophical concept, where arguments can rage over what outsiders may see as trivia.

Thus, the existence of rules to guide behaviour, ensure due process and compliance, covering everything from meeting etiquette to candidate selection. You hope that they don’t have to be enforced much, by offering training, encouraging mutual respect and providing guidance. You hope that it’s taken up and applied and, when things do go wrong, that there is someone to remedy the situation.

So, apply the rules, maintain them, recommend changes to them as the situation requires, but defend them and the ethos that underpins them in the hope that people learn and improve. Because, regardless of the organisation you’re a part of, if you can’t treat your colleagues decently, you’re probably not going to treat anyone else very well…

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Creeting St Peter - goodbye, Alice, and thanks for everything...

Small villages like Creeting St Peter tend to rely heavily on a small number of people who are willing to take on key, often unsung roles. That's especially true if the population is younger and thus busier with work, children and all of the other aspects of modern life that reduce the time available to do other things.

In our case, there are two organisations which tend to dominate civic life - the Parish Council and the Parochial Church Council. For the latter, there is the perpetual struggle to maintain the fabric of a historic building, i.e. the church itself. If your church serves a population of 275, many of whom are not particularly religious, that struggle becomes more acute.

Accordingly, the Parochial Church Council fundraises, and part of that fundraising is through village coffee mornings and pub nights, which are the backbone, indeed almost the totality, of the village's social activity. And residents turn up in sizeable numbers, buying cups of tea, homemade baked goods, catching up with each other and discussing the burning issues of the day.

Someone has to organise that though, chivvying people along, creating rotas, being "bossy". And, for some years now, that "someone" has been Alice. Alice describes herself as bossy but, in her role as Church Warden, she has worked incredibly hard to keep the show on the road. Unfortunately, that is about to come to an end, as she, her husband Mark and her family are moving away... a long way away.

And so we gathered in the churchyard yesterday evening to pay tribute to her. Jenny, the Treasurer of the Parochial Church Council, made a lovely speech to mark her contribution to the Church, the village and its residents, and our Vicar, Philip, offered a few remarks to remind us of her efforts.

It was a good crowd too, despite the rather dank, gloomy weather that had replaced the warm sunshine of previous days, which rather demonstrated how much we appreciate, and will miss, Alice.

As Chair of the Parish Council, I've been lucky enough to have a good relationship with Alice - indeed, I can't really see how I could have a bad one with her. She works hard, is incredibly effective and gives of herself freely. Every village should have an Alice, and I suspect that there are many that do.

Hillary Clinton wrote that "it takes a village". That's probably true, but villages need an Alice too, because without leadership, nothing that gets done is ever quite as effective as it might be.

So, thank you, Alice, and the best of luck in your new life. It won't be quite the same without you..

Friday, June 18, 2021

GB News - is there really space for a platform for talking heads?

There’s been a lot of talk about Andrew Neil’s new venture, much of it unkind. I can’t say that I’m as surprised by some of the glitches of the early days of broadcasting - it takes time to bed things in and there will be errors as new staff work out how things are best done.

And, whilst the list of presenters doesn’t leap out and grab me, I don’t think that I’m really part of their hoped for audience, so that probably won’t cause their backers any great loss of sleep. But I do wonder if there is a sufficient market to allow GB News to survive and thrive.

There isn’t a huge audience for television news in this country, and what there is tends to repeat itself in thirty minute chunks - I don’t sense that people sit down and watch long chunks of news unless a major event is taking place. And whilst having presenters opine at length can work on radio, where you can do other things, television has to be watched, and concentrated on.

The other potential problem is that getting 1% audience share in the United States offers you a decent chunk of advertising revenue, it isn’t anywhere near as lucrative in the United Kingdom. And even the relatively low budget GB News needs to earn £25 million per annum to break even if reports are to be believed.

You can potentially square that circle by offering attractive advertising rates or audiences who are likely to have higher levels of disposable income, but that doesn’t necessarily sit well with a cast of professional provocateurs fighting the sort of culture war that Fox News does so well in the United States.

Indeed, what surprises me about the campaign to dissuade potential advertisers is not that its apparent success but why some of the companies who have announced that they won’t be advertising on GB News would have been doing so in the first place. If your target market is younger and more socially liberal, it doesn’t strike me that GB News is the best use of your advertising budget… at least, not now.

I have read the reviews, which appear to suggest that a number of the presenters are determined to fight a “war on woke” (whatever that means), which makes it easy for me to give it a miss. But, in a free society, the right to offer something different must be allowed to exist and, in a free market of ideas, to stand or fall on its own merits.

So, we’ll see if I’m wrong about whether or not there is a sufficient audience out there to make it work, or whether the management team will need to trim towards the political centre in order to make it sustainable. In the meantime, for those who are getting upset about it, I would suggest that they walk on by and save their anger. All it does is draw people’s attention to the very thing you despise…

Friday, May 21, 2021

Ros in the Lords: Remote Participation and Hybrid Sittings

Like me, Ros has been working from home since last March, and it's been something of an adjustment for both of us. Technology, and the willingness to use it, has changed how we operate. But there are always those who romanticise the way things were, and exist that nothing must change. The House of Lords has its fair share of those. Ros isn't one of them...

My Lords, that the House was able to continue doing its work almost from the start of the pandemic is nothing short of miraculous and is a real tribute to the commitment of a lot of people, including Members, who found themselves having to get comfortable — or at least able — to operate in a way that they would never have dreamt.

As a member of the sponsor body for restoration and renewal, I am well aware of the parlous state of the building and the possibility of some sort of catastrophic failure. If there is a silver lining from the last year, it is that at least we can feel that the Houses could keep going should the worst happen. As the Constitution Committee reported, there is potentially a link between restoration and renewal and new ways of working. The sponsor body is well aware of that, but I assure noble Lords that it believes that these are matters for both Houses, and it is certainly not for the sponsor body to tell the Houses how they should carry out their business.

But we have been genuinely innovative, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, set that out very well. We need to think carefully before we go straight back to the old ways of working because, first, the pandemic is not over, as the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, set out. The Indian variant shows that we are not out of the woods, so we need to take the time to make sure that we and our staff are kept safe.

It strikes me that many of the downsides which noble Lords have reported today and previously are down to the pandemic and not hybrid working per se. It is about the distancing and all the paraphernalia that comes with that. We need mentally to try to sort some of that out, because it is very difficult from this perspective to judge what hybrid working might look like if we were in a House that was operating more normally.

I hope that, for both those reasons, the House will decide soon to remain hybrid until well into the autumn. That would give time for the whole population to be vaccinated and for us to be assured that there was not to be a further wave. Crucially, it could offer a period where Members could make a genuine choice about whether to come in or to work from home. I think many people will come in; a lot of us miss the place. It would give us a chance to feel what hybrid working would look like in a more normal environment, so we could use it as a transitional period. We could choose certain functions, such as legislation, which would be done in the Chamber only, while others, such as committees, could be done virtually or hybrid.

For people like me, who have always believed in an elected House, the argument for the Lords as it is currently configured is that it is a House of experts: people are drawn from all walks of life and bring their expertise and professional backgrounds. Yet, once Members are appointed, everything about the way we do our business draws us into becoming full-time parliamentarians. For people outside London and the Home Counties, this is a particular issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, set out. Someone coming from Cornwall or Cumbria for a vote on a Monday and who perhaps has a Question or a committee on a Wednesday will end up spending the whole week in London for a relatively short period of active contribution.

In a system that awards peerages for life, we do need to think very hard about how the expertise that brings the Members to the House can be kept up to date, because it is difficult, if you are in Westminster all the time. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made that point really well, that like many noble Lords, he is assiduous in building up these relationships outside. That is what keeps him current, but it is very difficult to do if you are tied up in the Lords. This is not just a matter of hybrid or virtual working; it is about a whole raft of procedures and practices we have established for ourselves that somehow mean you can only be a proper parliamentarian if you are based in Westminster.

The last year has given us a chance to think afresh about that — to have a look at whether or not this is the right way to do things. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was entirely right: every large organisation is now looking at what it does and how it does it to see whether things should be changed. We will get much more respect for taking a step back and looking at that than we will for going straight back to the old ways we have always done things.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Creeting St Peter - let's play the music and Chair...

Three years ago, I was somewhat unexpectedly catapulted into a position of supreme power elected as Chair of our village's Parish Council. I hadn't sought the role - which is becoming something of a recurring theme - but wasn't quick enough to escape when I was the victim of an extremely genteel ambush by my fellow Councillors.

I had been led to understand that the Chair served two years before being replaced  by their Vice Chair, which turned out to be a ruse. But it was alright, and I had quietly enjoyed the responsibility for two years. And then the pandemic struck, and our 2020 Annual Parish Council Meeting was cancelled. It was agreed that I might as well carry on for another year, and I was happy enough to do so - not that I think that the village particularly needs an active Parish Council Chair - but to offer some stability.

Perhaps if I had known that we could expect the pandemic to last for more than a year, or that the business and enterprise zone long threatened on the edge of the Parish would turn up in the middle of it, I might have been less sanguine, but life can be like that sometimes. The past year has thus been a bit more stressful.

But you can't go on forever, in any event. I'm not one of those people who believes in holding positions for year after year, and Parish Councils need to evolve. That said, whilst I'd be perfectly happy to hand over the invisible chains of office to one of my fellow councillors, it had become clear that they, in turn, were quietly keen for me to stay on.

And so, on Monday night, at our Annual Parish Council Meeting, when nominations were sought for a Chair for 2021-22, I was duly nominated for a fourth year. I accepted, but gave notice to Council that it would be my last year - they now have a year to decide which of them wants to take the Chair going forward. I've even offered to give up the Chair for a meeting so that anyone who wants to "try it for size" can do so.

I do think that any of them could do the job. Not, perhaps, in the same way that I do it, but that need hardly be a bad thing. I'm keen on process and form, but with a Council made up of reasonable people - as ours is - different styles and approaches could work just as well, possibly better. And, in any event, I'm planning to stay on as a councillor, so the skills that I think that I offer are still available.

It has been an honour and a privilege to chair Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and I've learned a bit about myself in the process. But, in a year or so, it'll be time to hand the baton on to someone else and let them lead the band...

Friday, May 14, 2021

Ros in the Lords - Queen's Speech debate (day 3)

I particularly pick up on this speech because, as a bureaucrat, I understand that having rules that work, that can be applied and are transparent as to their intent, is important. This is what Ros said yesterday...

The Bills contained in this programme will no doubt receive the thorough and robust scrutiny of this House, but as we pass them we will no doubt be delegating dozens of new powers to government and government Ministers, because the volume of secondary legislation has grown enormously in recent decades. The process of EU exit and Covid-related emergency law has added to that.

Many reports and debates in recent times have drawn attention to the shortcomings of both Houses when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation, and that includes the excellent report published today by our Constitution Committee. Too often, the very good work carried out by the staff and the members of the Secondary Legislation Committee and the Joint Committee for Statutory Instruments passes by the House because of procedures that we have ourselves established and agreed. This House has a duty to carry out effective scrutiny, as well a responsibility to ensure that the legitimate business of government can be carried out.

But I am not alone in feeling that, increasingly, the Government are not carrying out their side of the bargain. We have to give this some thought. The Government are increasingly using secondary legislation for significant policy changes that ought to be in primary legislation, and would have been in past years. In its 52nd report, the Secondary Legislation Committee cited changes to the Town and Country Planning Act that were fundamental to our planning system and ought to have been brought forward in a Bill.

In recent years, we have also seen a growth in statutory guidance, which receives virtually no parliamentary scrutiny at all. Again, the SLSC cited the recent grass and heather burning regulations, which were noted because the instrument was passed even though all the detail was in statutory guidance which had not even been published at that point. So the Government are getting three bites of the cherry: the Act itself, the secondary legislation and then the statutory guidance. In effect, this allows for constant post hoc changes to the law, with no parliamentary scrutiny.

These trends have accelerated rapidly during the pandemic. We have taken a pragmatic view that the public health emergency justifies some sacrifice of parliamentary scrutiny, but I think the Government have now taken this too far. The Constitution Committee report highlights that 424 Covid-related SIs have been laid. These include fines of up to £10,000, lockdowns, business closures and quarantines. Whatever position you take on those issues, surely they deserve timely and effective scrutiny — yet 397 of those SIs were either made affirmative or made negative. In other words, they take effect before any scrutiny has taken place, and Parliament can only act retrospectively. The SLSC reported that two came into force before they had even been laid. The Government argue that time pressures in the pandemic make this necessary but, in the case of face coverings, the policy had been trailed for weeks, so it is very hard to see why the regulations in draft could not have been published.

The scheduling of SI debates in both Houses means that they are quite often completely superseded by the time we ever get to debate them. The pressure of work in departments is leading to errors and non-compliance with agreed processes. Preliminary figures from the JCSI show that it reported 194 instruments on 248 separate grounds, including defective drafting and doubtful vires.

We see increasingly important policy announcements being made at press conferences; they get reported in the media and become firmly planted in the public consciousness. When the regulations appear, they are often far less draconian than the announcement but, as a result, there is widespread confusion about what the Government see as desirable and what they see as mandatory. It is not just the public but public authorities themselves - the enforcement authorities - that are struggling with this, as reported by the Human Rights Committee. The Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said that the difficulty for police officers was made much worse by widespread confusion about the status of government announcements and the law. A Crown Prosecution Service review found that 27% of cases had been incorrectly charged, and no doubt many people have paid penalties rather than go to court. This is grossly unjust. It is a drain on our criminal justice system and very unhelpful to maintaining trust in the police force.

There are times when the state has to control what individuals do, but surely it must be through properly enacted legislation that is thoroughly scrutinised and fairly enforced.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A country gentleman returns to Federal International Relations Committee...

And so, this evening saw my first FIRC meeting since my restoration, and interesting it was too. So, what happened, and what did I do?

Joining a committee part way through its term can often be challenging - every committee has a dynamic all its own, and if you’ve been involved in a previous iteration, there is a danger that you respond as though nothing has changed and create something of a culture clash. Frustrating for you, and for the committee you must hope to influence. So, in truth, I tended to stay out of things whilst I get a sense of how I might fit in and what I might contribute.

There have been some changes whilst I’ve been away, with sub-committees set up to look at the European Union and Brexit, as well as China, which seem to be a positive step, and a fundraising group, which I’m going to avoid, given my professional role.

The Committee is pretty high-powered too, with a clutch of Peers (of which I approve) and former MEPs amongst its number. I may be slightly out of my league here, but we’ll see how that goes.

It was a rather longer meeting than I am used to, and quite tiring as a result, but with a new Chair, Phil Bennion, and two significant deaths (Jonathan Fryer, the Chair of the Committee until last month, and Hans van Baalen, the President of the ALDE Party) to dwell upon, it should have been predicted. I must note at this point that Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett said some very thoughtful things about Jonathan in his tribute, and I was touched by his warmth and emotion.

In response to the discussion on China, there was some thought given to whether what is being done to the Uyghurs. There is a degree of unease about describing it as genocide, but I noted that the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention pointed to Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs meeting the definition. It may be na├»ve to suggest that it would be easy to use this as a stick to “beat” the Chinese with, and one must be aware of the “realpolitik” of the situation, but I do think that if you give anyone a free pass on such behaviour, you shouldn’t be surprised if others see it as a green light to treat their minorities in a similar fashion. It will be interesting to see what policy stances emerge from the sub-committee though.

I’m pleased to see that Isabelle, the Party’s International Officer, has survived in post, given HQ’s low prioritisation of the post in the past. She’s not been in the office for a while, but she brings a sense of Nordic calm to her work, and it’s nice to be able to work with her again.

My successor but one as the Committee’s Secretariat (the role isn’t necessarily that of just a Secretary) announced her resignation in advance of our meeting, and a replacement was sought. No, it won’t be me, although I did think about it. I’ve done the job once, and whilst I could probably do it again, I don’t want to. The danger in doing the job is twofold - that you don’t really get to contribute to the international work of the Party except by freeing up others to do it, and that, if you do it the way I think it should be done, you end up frustrated and irritable - there is very little interest in process, rules or constitutions, regardless of their importance. Life is too short for that. That said, the Committee really needs someone, and if you think that you might be that someone, do get in touch.

I will say this though, I thought that Denali Ranasinghe did an excellent job in the role, and she will be missed. She is polite, helpful and committed, and other organisations will benefit from her evident skills over many years to come.

There followed a series of reports from various groups, all of which were quite promising in terms of things that are being done to improve Party knowledge on international affairs, and indicate that the internationalist wing of the Party is a vibrant place.

The meeting concluded with discussions on the crisis in Israel and Palestine, and on India. I warned the Committee that the BJP are intent on establishing control over things such as aid from overseas for political advantage. We do need to be careful about how we relate to the current Indian Government - India would make a valuable partner in our relations with China and, as a democracy, it offers potential leadership across South Asia and beyond.

So, all in all, an interesting and stimulating meeting. I’ll try to contribute where I can going forward, although I’m not planning to join any of the sub-committees yet - I’d rather analyse their work from the outside for the time being, especially as I don’t consider myself an expert in those fields.

We meet again on 19 July, although there’s an event in between...