Wednesday, February 27, 2008

MP allowances can we really expect self-regulation?

With all the fuss over Speaker Martin's various claims, and talk of improper use of public monies, we are in danger of falling into the trap of confusing moral impropriety with its legal counterpart.

I had the dubious pleasure of listening to an exchange between Martin Bell, the former Independent MP for Tatton, and elected as a direct response to the allegations, mostly accurate, against Neil Hamilton, and John Spellar, the Labour MP and chair of the working group looking into the expense regime for MP's. It has to be said that it was a most unedifying exchange.

John Spellar rightly makes the point that, for the most part, nothing has been done which breaches the rules as they currently exist. This is almost certainly true. He then goes on to suggest that the 'fuss' being made is just media hype, and that the public don't really care. This, from the person tasked with leading a review into the issue, is an indication that not much will come from it. In fact, what Mr Spellar is telling us is, "We know what we're doing. We really don't care whether or not you think we have our snouts in the trough and, frankly, it's none of your business.".

I'm sorry to say that it is our business. Whether or not Mr Spellar and some of his Parliamentary colleagues understand it or not, they are spending our money and, I might remind him, are answerable to us. Forget whether or not Speaker Martin should go, John Spellar shouldn't have to consider his future in connection to the review. He should go now.

On the other hand, Martin Bell spoke eloquently on the moral dimension. However, his rather sanctimonious stance that the whole process is corrupt and that the Speaker must go, rather undermined his position and, indeed, his argument.

There is a need to reform the expense regime for our MPs, and I don't think that many people would deny otherwise. However, allowing a group of MPs to do the job is nonsense. Put the whole thing on a proper footing, have an open debate about MP salaries, administrative support and expenses, and then accept the findings. I would expect that, in the final analysis, we will discover that an open structure will actually lead to a greater cost to the public purse, yet I believe that we may get a better, more effective democracy as a result.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wales: the cutting edge of Party fundraising

I spent most of my weekend travelling to, or from, Llandudno, in order to attend the Welsh Liberal Democrats Spring Conference with Ros, and a very pleasant journey it was too, with the grandeur of Snowdonia, lambs gambolling in the fields and the rest of the North Wales experience.

The event itself, at least what I saw of it, seemed to be going well, and I took the opportunity to compare notes with members of the Welsh Conference Committee for possible use later. The conference dinner, something we don't do in London, was a lot of fun, and I got to share a table with an all-star cast including Roger Williams, the MP for Brecon & Radnor, Kirsty Williams, the Assembly Member for the same patch plus Eleanor Burnham, the local Regional List AM. The fact that I couldn't talk to Ros (she was at the opposite side of the table) was made, as a result, much more bearable.

The fundraising element comprised a raffle (you were surprised by that, weren't you...), three table quizzes and a game of "Deal or No Deal". What I learnt from the quizzes was that Will Howells has an encyclopedic knowledge of Winter OIympic venues (odd, because we really aren't that good at things involving snow and ice), and that George W. Bush is even more stupid and tongue-tied than even I had thought possible.

I had bought an envelope when one was proferred to me without actually realising what it was. Once the game was introduced, I suppose that I shouldn't have been surprised when my number (five, the number of cats from whom I rent my home) came up as the contestant. It was time to match wits with banker Alison Goldsworthy, a noble adversary indeed. Luckily, and a little to Ros's surprise, I suspect, I gave the impression that I knew what I was doing, and was able to convert my £5 stake into a £25 donation to the Welsh Party by dint of some astute deal non-making.

I was impressed my the ingenuity, and think that this is certainly something that other Party groups might want to try in the future. Make sure that you have someone who can count as your banker though...

One thing that did initial puzzle me was the presence of a sizeable contingent from Cowley Street who, as it turned out, were there to lead some training. Unlike me, I guess that some of them will be in Avie more for the Scottish Spring Conference this coming weekend.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Clegg, Paddick and a touch of ermine - who could want more?

It is with vast pleasure that I announce the cast for London's Regional Conference on 18 March. You would expect our Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, of course. However, we also have our new Leader's London debut, four members of the House of Lords (the noble Lords Rennard and Tope, plus the noble Ladies Hamwee and Ludford), a member of the European Parliament and our London spokesperson in the Commons. Not bad for my first Conference, methinks.

I'm not smug though (oh alright, I am a bit, but you'll forgive me, won't you?). There is still much to do in terms of promoting the event, encouraging attendance and maximising revenue (if we make enough money, we could subsidise training later in the year - not too radical a thought, is that?) and I really need to get on with that.

I'm not a natural committee Chair, as I think I've noted in the past, but there are certain advantages to holding power. I'm not prone to thinking within the box, and can experiment if I feel like it. My new committee seems to feel likewise, so the scope for new ways of doing things is vast(ish).

With March now fairly much firmed up, I can turn my attention to our Autumn Conference in November. Fortunately, I will be married by then, and slightly more focussed. That's the theory, anyway...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Banking with Abbey: reasons to get annoyed

I've banked with Abbey for seventeen years or so, and generally been a fairly contented customer. The move towards e-banking suited me to a tee, and as someone who doesn't receive a lot of cheques, I suffered little from the reduction in the number of cashiers available.

All this seems to have come to an end with the takeover by Banco Santander. My first problem came last year when, on a trip to the United States, I discovered that I was unable to withdraw money from my cashpoint card, as I had already done before. On returning home a week later, having assumed that there was a problem with my card, I rang Abbey, to be told that they had assumed that there was an issue regarding card theft, and rung me at home to seek confirmation that it was me in Washington DC attempting to withdraw money.

In vain, I pointed out the utter stupidity of such a strategy. If I am in Washington, I am hardly likely to answer my phone in London. If, on the other hand, I do answer the phone, it is sensible to assume that I am the victim of card fraud. This concept appeared to be far too complex for the Abbey staffer to comprehend. I then noted that they had quite happily allowed me to withdraw money from the very same account, using the very same card, from cash machines in such mainstream locations as Bogota (Colombia), Port Vila (Vanuatu) and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). This similarly failed to impress and I eventually concluded that a complaint was necessary.

Some weeks later, I was not horribly surprised to receive a reply effectively suggesting that it was all my fault for leaving the country without their permission, and that I should seek their authority to travel in advance, if I wanted to withdraw my money from my account. I admit to having ignored this advice to some extent - in fact, totally. So I shouldn't have been surprised when it happened again, in Washington DC (again) seven weeks ago. Ros is of the view that I should tell them, their fraud department in Madrid, and their wretched management to take a running jump whilst I take my business elsewhere.

This week, I received a telephone call at work from a woman purporting to work for Abbey. She asked me to answer some security questions and I made what I thought was the not unreasonable statement that I was unwilling to do so in accordance with the advice given to me by Abbey, advising me that I shouldn't give my security information to random callers. Denise, for that was her name, accepted that this was a reasonable stance. I then asked her why she was calling. She couldn't tell me this, as I had refused to answer the security questions!

I admit that I had a pretty good idea why she was calling, and we eventually were able to conclude the item of business in question but I find myself asking the obvious question, "Why are Abbey so paranoid about the possibility of me spending my own money, yet willing to telephone me in the expectation that I will give an unknown stranger answers to security questions without hesitation, in contravention of their own advice?".

It is my view that Abbey is a banking institution unfit to retain my trust and, therefore, my business. And, once the rest of my life has settled down, I shall be looking for a new bank with which to entrust the Valladares billions...

Suffolk reviews: Kasztelan Cafe, Ipswich

Welcome to part one of a series which, I hope, will give you some ideas for things to do, places to go and things to see in my newly adopted county of Suffolk. I am a newcomer to the county, in every sense of the word, and everything is new and strange. If you're in the area, you might find this useful. If you aren't, why not?...

Breaking off from a busy day of wedding preparations, Ros and I were in search of lunch, and we headed down to the waterfront in Ipswich. Unfortunately, building works made our journey somewhat more complicated than strictly necessary, so we fell back to Old Cattle Market in search of sustenance, to find something new(ish), Kasztelan Cafe, a Polish cafe in the true sense of the word, serving hearty food in an atmosphere which, whilst lacking in obvious ambience, reminded me very much of similar places encountered on my trips to Eastern Europe in recent years. Pictures of food in the window, Polish television playing in the corner, this is clearly meant to serve primarily as a meeting point for the growing Polish community in the town, and we were soon joined by a group of young Poles in search of home cooking.

The food itself is not fancy, just filling, and I ordered the turkey cutlet with potatoes, a sauerkraut salad and some sparkling mineral water. My expectations weren't high, but the turkey was tasty, the potatoes were especially good, mashed with dill and some fried onion, and came in a vast portion that could have fed two (but not in this case). Ros had the goulash with dumplings. The goulash had flavour without being overpowering, the dumplings were beautifully light and fluffy and we were both happy with the sauerkraut salad. Service was quick enough, no more than that, although this is not somewhere for fast food, and the cost of lunch, just £9.50, was extremely reasonable for real food.

I wish the proprietor(s) good fortune with their enterprise, and not just because they had a video from HM Revenue & Customs on display, indicating perhaps that they intend to comply with their tax commtments. It is perhaps inevitable that we'll see more such eating places as the Polish and other Eastern European communities become more established, and if this is an indication of how things will be, I look forward to eating some very good dumplings, pierogi and bigos in the years to come.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why supporting Keith Vaz is quite astute

There has been criticism of Nick Clegg's move to support the ten minute bill to be introduced by Keith Vaz, proposing that exclusive shortlists be permitted for parliamentary and other selections. Given my past record of opposing quotas or special pleading, you might reasonably expect me to join in. I'm not going to...

It was part of the deal that, if all else failed, Nick would support positive action such as all-women shortlists. Supporting the Vaz bill merely enables that if, and only if, all else fails. Think of it as an enabling motion, not as a clear commitment to something illiberal in the near future... if we are to go down that road, there will be an opportunity to discuss it at a Federal Conference, and I expect a rigorous debate to take place when it comes before us.

So, patience my friends, and in the meantime, support worthy candidates, whoever they may be...

And it's a warm welcome from me...

Following my comments regarding the Bones Commission, an edited version of which might be in Lib Dem News this week (I was asked to edit it down to 300 words, did so, and sent it in), Martin Turner, the new chair of the Parliamentary Candidates Association, has been in touch, as much to confirm my criticisms as anything.

I freely admit that I have had my differences with the PCA in the past, on one occasion suggesting that when the last Federal Executive apparatchik is strangled with the small intestine of the last member of the PCA Executive, the Party will truly be ready for victory. However, I am more than supportive of the notion of an effective 'trade union' for parliamentary candidates, whether actual or hopeful.

I've had the pleasure of working with Martin in the past, and found him to be a witty and personable performer willing to think outside the box. He has ambitious plans for the organisation, and I wish him the very best of luck with his efforts. He certainly won't fail for a lack of effort.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A day out in search of knowledge

I'm being trained to be an 'initiative facilitator' today, and am away from my normal environment, perhaps a good thing under the circumstances.

Business Balanced Scorecard is a management tool which is designed to achieve enhancements in performance and efficiency and, in principle, it sounds like a good idea, albeit a distillation of concepts that coalesce into my existing impression of what makes a good manager.

As a liberal, I struggle with rigid process, forever fighting an urge to think outside of the box. The training seems, thus far, to discourage individuality in exchange for consistency. Perhaps this is a good thing in terms of the organisation, and I must confess that it probably is, but it indicates that initiative facilitation is not for me. Initiative and bureaucracy are not obviously associated, after all...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

You are invited to the funeral of the Labour dream - flowers not required...

I am unexpectedly angry this morning. This Labour government, with its attacks on civil liberties, its compulsive centralism and slavish desire to placate the Daily Mail, has long irritated me for the sole reason that it could do so much better. But now it finally dawns on me that not only can't they, they don't want to try.

Caroline Flint, the new housing minister, purports to be surprised that more than half of those of working age living in social housing are without paid work - twice the national average. If this is true, she is either a fool or a knave. Either way, she is not fit to be a minister of the Crown.

Social housing used to be fairly mainstream in the post-war era. "Homes fit for heroes" was the cry, and governments heeded the call, building houses and flats in sufficient numbers to ensure that everyone who wanted one had a roof over their head. They may not have been perfect, but they did a job. We've always had a culture of home ownership in this country and, as the opportunity arose, council tenants crossed over into the private sector, freeing up social housing for the next generation.

The Thatcher government glorified the cult of home ownership and personal ambition to an extent that made socially conscious liberals somewhat uncomfortable but even this might not have been fatal had they not been so contemptuous of both local government or the social market. By forbidding councils from spending the proceeds of 'Right to Buy' sales to invest in new social housing, they sparked the first property boom, priced the aspirational blue collar workers out of the market and generated the crash of 1991. Having bought my first home in July of that year, I wasn't complaining, let me assure you...

It was one of the things that toppled the Major government, and you would have thought, wouldn't you, that an incoming Labour government, with young Prudence Brown at the economic tiller, would have addressed the issue of a rampant property market. But they didn't...

So, here's a precis for the benefit of Caroline Flint;

1. Because social housing is allocated on the basis of need, it tends to go the poor, the disabled, and to families with larger numbers of children. The latter two categories tend to have lower rates of employment anyway - the disabled because of access and discrimination, large families due to the cost of childcare.

2. Social housing tenants tend to disproportionately come from ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly the Afro-Caribbean community, who - again - tend to suffer from discrimination in the job market.

3. The education services in areas with significant levels of social housing tend to struggle to attract and retain good teachers, leading to lower educational achievement.

In short, I take the view that Caroline Flint is a knave. By definition, she can't be an idiot.

The Conservatives aren't going to attack this policy. I suspect that they can't believe their luck. So it's up to us, and I pray to God that we have the courage and nous to do the job.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Getting back into the swing of things

I had one of those rare events, a Sunday in London, which offered me a chance to catch up with all of those things that I should do but don't.

Flick, London Region's indefatigable Administrator (and the capital A is truly appropriate), had produced a draft preliminary agenda for our forthcoming Regional Conference. I amended it a bit and then, having dismally failed to call a meeting of the Region's Conference Committee, decided to circulate it to the entire Executive by way of information.

The response, a whole bunch of suggestions that might have been slightly more helpful (and viable) had they come when I asked for ideas a month ago. I don't know, you communicate with your stakeholders and they wait until the last moment to get back to you. Flick was, it is fair to say, not impressed.

I am left with a choice, either to amend the preliminary agenda that is now being printed in time for the next mailing, stick with my original thought, or try to finagle some sort of compromise. Time to call a meeting of my committee, methinks.

Meanwhile, the selection of a prospective GLA candidate for Lambeth & Southwark has finally been concluded. It has, I confess, been a bit of a nightmare, but congratulations must go to Caroline Pidgeon for an overwhelming victory over a persistent opponent.

This now frees me up to start work on the selection of a PPC for Chipping Barnet, not a million miles away from my home. The amount of paperwork involved seems to get a little bigger every time I do this, so it will be interesting to see what effect this has on my stance on the Selection Rules working group that meets next week.

Worryingly, all this means that I'm rather up to date. The upside of this is that I have time to drop in on the Leyton and Cheam by-elections. Perhaps I may earn the awarded moniker of 'Liberal Democrat activist' after all...

The Bones Commission: a recovering bureaucrat thinks aloud

I have been persuaded that, despite my fairly minor position in the pantheon of internal bureaucracy within our great Party, I should submit something to the Bones Commission, looking as it is into how the party can be better run and managed.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFirstly, I should note that I was rather depressed to discover that we bureaucrats are the problem not, as I would willingly accept, part of it. If the suggestion is that those of us manning the bureaucracy prevent the organisation from working effectively, then perhaps those who are so criticial might like to take on the roles of, for example, Returning Officers, Treasurers or Regional Candidates Chairs, to name but three. In many cases, they would be more than welcome...

However, whingefest over, I thought that I might outline what I believe is one of the major weaknesses we have, that of poor communication channels.

My own particular area of interest is candidate selection. I'm a Returning Officer, Parliamentary candidate assessor and member of both my Regional and State Candidates Committees. It would be fair to say that I know my way around this often controversial area of our activity. Looking at English Candidates Committee (ECC), our key stakeholders are;
  • Regional Parties;
  • candidates, both approved and potential; and
  • Campaigns Department
You will note that I don't mention Local Parties, English Council or ordinary members. With the exception of English Council, they almost certainly don't care what we do. There is, to some extent, a sense that English Council cares about what we do, but prefers to let us get on with it - it is so very complex, after all...

Regional Parties are represented on ECC by the Regional Candidates Chairs who, for the most part, are vastly experienced in the arena as candidates past and present, or Returning Officers, or assessors, and often have experience of a multiple of those roles. They generally have a firm grasp of the issues, and give much time and energy to solving the inevitable problems that arise. They should, and in my experience do, report back to their Regional Executives. So far, so good. This is where the Local Parties link in, however, and speaking for my own Region, our means of reaching Local Party Officers and members is weak/non-existent.

The Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA) represents candidates, albeit it in my view rather badly. Their representative turns up sometimes, although inconsistently, and we have no way of knowing how information is fed back to the PCA Executive Committee, let alone ordinary members of the organisation. I have received a number of complaints in the past about the PCA's failure to include approved candidates who have paid a subscription, and generally refer them to Jo Christie-Smith. As I don't tend to hear much after that, I presume that she deals with the matter with her usual competence. However, they don't have any means of reaching potential approved candidates, so another gap in our reach to stakeholders becomes apparent.

Campaigns Department is of the view that ECC isn't very good at its job. We are too slow in getting candidates selected, we are unresponsive to their needs. On the other hand, they issue edicts without considering how this might impact on the ECC's work. For example, they annonuced that, in order to become a 'moving forward' seat, a constituency had to select its Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) no later than 31 December 2006. It might have been nice had they told ECC, I suppose, but we did find out when in late summer 2006, there was a rush of Local Parties demanding Returning Officers.

There is a tendancy amongst Campaigns Department to make decisions without consideration of what needs to be done to deliver their wishes. Given that there is no apparent channel of communication between Campaigns Department and ECC, perhaps what tends to happen next is predictable.

I have concluded from this, and a whole series of other intra-organisational clashes, that we really aren't good at considering stakeholders when creating strategy. When I was elected to the Regional Executive in late 2004, and became Regional Secretary, I attended a meeting of the Regional Policy Committee, merely to find out what it did and how it worked, to find myself in the middle of a meeting about a Region-wide manifesto. My first question was, "Who does this affect, and how?". A list of stakeholders was drawn up and a consultation process devised. It didn't have to be lengthy, it merely needed to be thorough.

In meeting after meeting since then, the question of stakeholders has been glossed over. Questions such as who is impacted by your work, how it impacts upon them, and how best to communicate with them, are neglected because we have extremely limited means by which we can reach them.

If the Bones Commission can achieve one cultural change in this Party, I would hope that it might be to strengthen our communication channels. More effective use of e-groups would help, but a little more thought about the poor bastards who have to deliver upon commitments entered into from on high might also allow the volunteer bureaucrat corps to deliver them effectively where it actually matters.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Conservatives in shock call for more immigration!

David Cameron has today called for the provision of a dedicated maternity nurse for every new mother for up to six hours a day in the first week after her new baby's birth, according to a front page story in today's Observer. I applaud the notion, as most Liberal Democrats are only too aware that early intervention can make a huge impact on future outcomes. Besides, such a strategy needs to be seen as an investment in the future.

However, there is a potential hitch. The National Health Service finds the recruitment of nurses to be very difficult and, as a result, our hospitals are propped up by an army of nurses from developing world countries. Thus, if we need 'thousands more nurses', as is indicated, where are they going to come from? The Philippines? Malawi? And, of course, Conservatives are so in favour of migration from anywhere...

There is, of course, an alternative, entirely consistent with the free market that Conservatives and, frankly, some of my colleagues, bang on about at such length. One of the reasons why recruitment of nurses is so difficult is that salary scales are, in comparison with other sectors, fairly low. You can probably earn more as a PA than as a nurse, and not have to deal with the unpleasant side of sick people.

Of course, the public sector only has to reflect the risk elements of a free market, and not the rewards, as far as pay is concerned. Until politicians understand that, great ideas will founder on the rocks of a lack of capable public sector staff to deliver on the ground.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Sorry Nick, but on the Conway affair, you're wrong

And so, our glorious Leader has spoken on what should be done following the Conway affair. Unfortunately, he's wrong.

This week, a junior officer in HM Revenue & Customs was given a jail sentence for defrauding the department by means of false expense claims. The judge felt that her behaviour put at risk trust in those responsible for public funds. It is my personal view that this was entirely the right stance to take.

So, when I discover that our response to Derek Conway's utter stupidity is to call for limits on the number of family members that can be employed, there is a palpable sense of despair. What impact will that have in terms of public perception? Being generous, precious little.

The only solution is to have a transparent system of recruitment, with independent monitoring and agreed pay scales, just like the Civil Service. The funds used are public in nature, and if family members are good enough, then they will be employed.

There is, in fairness, an issue linked to spouses and partners. In some cases, they met because one worked for the other. In others, employment acts as a means of allowing them to spend time together which would otherwise be denied to them. Perhaps it would therefore be appropriate not to disturb existing arrangements, especially given the disruptive implications to lifestyles and domestic planning.

However, that caveat aside, we must establish clear, transparent procedures, as well as proportionate levels of punishment. Derek Conway will graciously give up his job, take his pension and give up £15,000 or so. He should be in court and, given his obvious guilt, be expecting a prison sentence. After all, he has put at risk trust in those responsible for public funds...