Saturday, September 26, 2009

A bureaucrat in Istanbul (not Constantinole)

Conference is over, and it's time to escape the sunshine of Suffolk for something a little more exotic. And so, here I am in Istanbul. It was a pretty easy journey, the flight went smoothly, and the light rail and tram journey to the hotel worked out pretty well (my luggage is resting at the airport).

Today, I am having lunch with an contributor to the 'Axis of Evil' (as I lovingly call 'Liberal Vision'), Barry Stocker, who teaches at one of the city's universities. I may also try a little pampering - I'm worth it, after all.

More news as it comes in...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blog of the Year Awards: James Graham acceptance speech

James won the BOTY for the best posting. For those of you of a sensitive disposition, I should warn that this clip contains 'adult' language...

Conference Day Three: (Not Quite) Everybody) Loves Vince

It was becoming apparent that the 'Mansion Tax' was causing something of a stir. Naturally, as an employee of HM Revenue & Customs, I wasn't going to be drawn on the subject, except to note that implementation would need to be handled sensitively - always advisable when you're trying something new.

That said, things still seemed to be going alright, even if the newspapers appeared to be at a rather different event.

It was a fairly quiet day for me, with not much formal business until the evening, when I attended the Lib Dem Friends of India event with Ros. Given that I'm half Indian, it seemed like the right place to be, and the newly arrived High Commissioner gave a pretty adroit speech, wishing us the very best of luck for the General Election, before noting that he would be conveying the same message to the other two Party Conferences he would be attending.

Ros left me to attend the Lib Dem Friends of Pakistan event which, rather predictably, clashed with the Indian one. I didn't go because, in truth, I was enjoying myself where I was. Given that the last time a member of my family had anything much to do with Pakistan was during the 1971 war (my uncle is a retired Indian Air Force Squadron Leader), I might not have been entirely welcome.

A good night out, and a nice prelude to the big day to come...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

When Liberal Bureaucracy met Discworld...

I have met so many people at Conference this year, and you've all been really nice. However, a chance encounter allowed me to publish this...

Yes, this is Terry Pratchett. And yes, this is me. And yes, the photographer is the Party President, who made it possible. Richard Dawkins? Who's he, then?

Blog of the Year Awards: Slugger O'Toole

Forever the bridesmaid and never the bride, it fell to Stephen Glenn to collect the award for the best non-Lib Dem Blog.

At some point, it would be nice if Stephen won an award himself...

Blog of the Year Awards: Jo Swinson acceptance speech

It was Jo Swinson's day at the awards, winning the award for the best use of social networking, as well as being the subject of award-winningly impassioned defence by James Graham.

What impresses me is that a number of our MPs and councillors are willing to experiment with the new media in order to reach out and engage. In an era when 'safety first' is the watchword, and when small groups of obsessed anoraks feel the need to scrutinise everything that is said or written for possible contradiction, error or controversy, it is reassuring that there are some who are willing to exercise humour in their communication.

Conference Day 2: an award free zone

Well, the BOTYs ceremony, as we must now call it, went without too much controversy. Our compere for the evening, Stephen Tall, wearing a hat (indoors, dear boy?), a dazzlingly pink shirt and matching chest hair, kicked things off with an overview of Lib Dem blogging, leavened by a series of off-message but very funny jokes (note to self - check who writes Sarah Teather's jokes...).

I'm in the midst of uploading the acceptance speeches, so I won't comment on the winners here. However, what surprised me was the number of unfamiliar faces. Hitherto, I had thought that I knew most of the Lib Dem blogosphere. It turns out that I was apparently wrong.

On the other hand, I am still older than most of you, and that isn't likely to change any time soon...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Blog of the Year Awards: Mark Reckons acceptance speech

Never let it be said that I can't 'do' technology. And so, without further ado, my first video. Apologies for any camera shake - I was sober...

I admit to being surprised that Mark didn't win the award for best posting, having probably written the most successful 'weather making' posting I can recall. But then, winning any of the awards is an increasingly impressive achievement in any event...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Conference Day Two: the secret society meets

Sunday morning, far too early. I hadn't read my papers for English Candidates Committee the top secret Committee tasked with keeping you all in the dark over our plans for world domination, although I had left my cat at home so that you wouldn't suspect.

Of course, I did say that I wouldn't report on it, so I won't. Needless to say though that I didn't win the vote on my proposal, and you've all got another year before it'll be too late for you to stop us.

Nice chocolate and caramel square though...

Conference Day One: tales from the green room

And so, there I was for the beginning of Conference, having arrived a little early, and was talking to Annette Brooke, our MP for Dorset Mid and Poole North, who was due to open Conference. We chatted about how things were going and about what she was doing after Conference was over. I like Annette, and see her as one of the more unsung heroines. And yet she's a very sharp cookie indeed. To win the nomination to fight the seat was a challenge in itself, winning it was tough too, and yet she is still there.

Once the opening ceremony was done, it was time to go though, as the work of the First Husband is never done. Admittedly, my duties are rather less numerous this year, as I've been sacked as her minder - I really wasn't any good at it as I kept getting into conversations with people - and my replacements are fearfully good. So I visited the exhibition area, where I was waylaid by Colchester Lib Dems, who were selling chocolate. I had only intended to buy one bar, but made the mistake of handing over a fiver. So I ended up leaving with four bars, and a slightly emptier wallet. They're very good at selling things and I wouldn't want to be a Colchester Conservative...

The evening was occupied with the Rally, and a thank you to Chris Rennard, opened by Ros and compered by Sarah Teather, looking rather glamorous (no, she didn't pay me to write this). Admittedly, by the time she'd finished, she could write off any prospect of getting Christmas cards from Mark Oaten and Lembit Opik, amongst others, but she's got a future in standup comedy if the mood strikes her.

However, my evening had started earlier, after Ros had sent me a text asking if I could get some chocolate for her. As I texted back, funnily enough... And so I found myself in the green room prior to the rally. It's strange, in retrospect, but I've not exactly been conscious of how these things work. As a bureaucrat, I tend to assume that my job is to ensure that things can happen, and not take that much interest in what actually does.

In the green room, makeup is being applied, speakers are reading their speeches one last time, microphones are being fitted, and there is a general buzz of nervous energy. You do sort of assume that they've all done this a thousand times but, actually, it isn't like that at all. It's the little routines that make it easier and, when they don't happen, you can be put off of your stride. And so it was last night, as the expected quick walkthrough dematerialised. As I said to Nick (yes, that one) and Charles as I left them, "Don't worry, you've done this a hundred times. And the fact that you'll be performing on a specially greased revolving platform shouldn't put you off for a moment...". Charles's cheery "Bugger off!" echoing in my ears, I made my way to the First Husband's seat.

And wasn't Charles amazing? He was in fantastic form, a reminder of exactly why the Party voted him leader in the first place (yes, I know, I voted for David Rendel...). Funny, passionate and erudite, he was a tough act for Nick to follow. But Nick was up to the job, and showed all the skills I had counted on when I voted for him in 2007. It wasn't an easy choice, and he had his problems in the first year, but he has blossomed into the role.

It was, I think, a good way to start things off. The emotional sendoff for Chris Rennard was an occasion for genuine warmth and, whilst I have been on the wrong end of his political skills on the only occasion when it really mattered, even then I could find time to admire the skill with which my proposal was semi-thwarted. Sitting next to him as I was, I was struck by how much his reception meant to him, and how strongly felt was the idea that we owed him for the work he has done over so many years. As a Party, we're not always good at saying thank you, and we tend to take some people for granted, but regardless of how individuals think about Chris, his influence has been huge. After all, how many people get to have an 'ism' named after them?

The Rally having rather overrun, it was then a hectic dash to visit some of the receptions. I made it to the Exhibitors and Sponsors reception (good food), the East of England (good company) and the First Timers (and to think I was one once!), before heading back to the room for some well-deserved sleep...

Be very afraid: bureaucrat with gadget alert

You just have that 'Eureka' moment sometimes. And mine was flicking that little switch on the memory card... As Jennie would put it, "Mwah ha ha ha..."

It's 5 p.m. and you still have time to get away...

Conference Day One: a bureaucrat steps out

Alright, I was now up for Conference but the finishing touches were missing. Yes, it was time to go shopping. Fortified by a list from Ros, and with jaw pointed towards the town centre, I set off in search of stuff.

For myself, I had a suit in mind and, as I strolled through the sunlit gardens, a thought stirred. A hat is what a liberal bureaucrat should have - a proper hat, not something garish or silly, or even practical, just something elegant. And so I searched. I picked up most of the things that Ros needed - where do you find sage in Bournemouth? - before turning to me. The suit was easy but a hat? I tried Debenhams - useless. Dingles? Actually, no hat, but I did find some costume jewellery for Ros.

Fortunately, Bournemouth has Beales, a proper department store. I found Nick (no, not that one!) in the menswear department and noted the apparent absence of hats. He very kindly led me towards a small selection, none of which were what I had in mind, a point I noted. "What sort of hat do you have in mind?", he asked. "I don't know,", I replied, "something like a panama, I suppose, but with a wider brim.". "I think that I have the very thing...", and he disappeared, returning with a small, but perfectly formed selection. Amongst them was exactly what I had been looking for.

So, I am now the possessing of a rather splendid hat, which came in rather handy in yesterday's warm sunshine. It will next travel to India, where it might be worth its weight in gold...

Conference Day Zero: Friday night surprises

Alright, Mark, time to buck up. After all, it's only a Liberal Democrat conference, full of old friends and other assorted nice people. So, make the best of it, smile sweetly and hum a happy tune. And that was how it ended up. It was a very good start to run into Joanne Foster, supremo of the Welsh Lib Dems, and then David Allworthy, an old friend, both of whom were nice to me.

And it just got better and better. Dinner with Chris and Steph White, a bottle of wine and some lively conversation and all of a sudden, it was Conference, and it was going to be just fine...

Friday, September 18, 2009

A bureaucrat ascends the scaffold...

And to the strains of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, I am bound for Bournemouth, for the opening of Federal Conference. The closer it gets, the less I really want to be there, as it increasingly represents something to be survived before I can return to the rest of my life.

My personal Conference highlights are likely to be the opening and close of Conference, the Rally and the bit before the debate on the pre-manifesto. I admit that they might have one important thing in common but, hey, I'm as biased as all hell. Apart from that, I've got an critical meeting of English Candidates Committee, and will spend the rest of the time trying to learn how my new camcorder works and wondering why some people are so annoying.

And so roll on Conference, roll on...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conference: go back to Bournemouth and prepare to be perplexed

I've always had mixed feelings about Federal Conference. Years of being a wallflower amongst the 'beautiful people' (MPs, Peers, MEPs, PPCs, council group leaders and the like) have made the whole experience a rather fraught one. In the past, I tended to shuffle around Conference, huddling for social warmth with old friends, whilst everybody else rushed around, apparently part of some heady social whirl from which I was excluded.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceRetiring from active politics twice probably didn't help, and being a bureaucrat didn't help either. To be honest, the Party only notices its secretaries, treasurers, returning officers and the like when something goes wrong, and then the attention is unlikely to be positive. Even the long service awards tend to go to campaigners and councillors.

And so I would potter around the venue, looking slightly perplexed, and never really enjoy myself. Until last year, that was. Last year, the faceless bureaucrat was unmasked in the midst of the maelstrom that was the Presidential contest. Suddenly, from being relatively unnoticed, I had a profile, and not an altogether welcome one. Given that I am in many ways rather shy, and notoriously poor at self-promotion, suddenly being one of the front guys for the campaign was a bit of a shock to the system. It wasn't easy, and the sense of being under a microscope didn't help.

This time, it will probably be different. I won't see as much of Ros as I might like, especially as she has a fairly intense schedule. On the other hand, I've met so many people in the past year, virtually all of whom have been really kind, it will be nice to touch base with them again.

My focus at Conference is rather different too. Having become a parish councillor, deep in the heart of the countryside, I have a steep learning curve. There will be rural receptions, training on PagePlus and EARS, and all the other stuff that I'll be able to take back to Creeting St Peter for use later in my campaign for 2011.

I suspect that I'll still be looking perplexed though. So if you see me reach for my jacket pocket and look bemused, you'll know that I've missed an appointment. Just point me in the direction of the bar, and don't let me cross any roads unsupervised, and I'm sure that it will be alright...

See you there?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why you still don't know what Party Committees are up to (part 5) - ghosts in my machine…

There will be those who will suggest that I am calling for the various committees to be exempted from criticism, that communication should be unidirectional. Far from it, far from it. The problem is, as I have described, a multi-faceted one. However, if the relationship between reporter and audience becomes, or is even perceived to be, one of abuser and victim, the desire to communicate will be extinguished. Yes, be persistent in your questioning but also be grateful for what you get, lest it be lost.

As I said at the time, you break it, you pay for it. And I’m afraid that, with every passing day, we pay for the inability of some to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around a particularly small minority…

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why you still don't know what Party Committees are up to (part 4) - is there an easy answer to the dilemma?

For anyone else considering using a blog to reach out to interested parties, it makes for a depressing spectacle. If the outcome is to provide a platform for rather aggressive, insistent and often ill-informed criticism, why put yourself through it? Given that most committee hands are doing it with the aim of achieving an improvement in how the Party operates, and give up their own time, and money, to do it, you might understand why such personalised criticism hurts all the more.

I haven’t forgotten the individual who accused me of being a ‘lackey of my wife’. The fact that their criticism was wildly inaccurate and born of a total ignorance of my record within the Party didn’t make it any less painful. It made my decision to withdraw from the field of internal party debate much easier though, and so another source of information is lost. It hurts me not at all but, unfortunately, someone somewhere may miss out on information that I would otherwise have freely given and might have been valuable to them. Worse still, I know that there is nobody likely to take my place any time soon.

In the midst of the debate, Oranjepan suggested that committee secretaries might report via a group blog. In principle, this might work but, unfortunately, there is a catch. Secretaries are not word perfect and their interpretation of a debate might not be wholly accurate, which is why minutes are approved at a subsequent meeting and not before. Until those minutes are agreed, any statement made is merely provisional. Often, perspectives of a meeting can vary wildly, depending on what the agenda of the commentator is. Most of us are not above spinning the decisions taken at a meeting to support our stance or to condemn that of an opponent, so whose opinion can you really rely upon?

Another problem is that most people don’t like to blog. Either you want to, or you don’t, and if an individual doesn’t, how do you make them? Do they have a duty to a small corps of bloggers, to their direct stakeholders, to State, Regional and/or Local Party Officers? It might surprise some reading this to know that, in some quarters, the blogosphere is not thought to be reflective of the membership, or even worth engaging with unless they want something from us. Indeed, the more we demand, the more adherents that stance attracts.

There is also the inconvenient fact that, for some, their words are scrutinised far beyond the activist base of the Party. Our opponents and the media don’t care much about our squabbles. On the other hand, if an MP, Peer or other senior figure commits a faux pas, it will be recorded and potentially used against us, just as we do to errant opponents. As an example, Nadine Dorries take vast amounts of flak because of her blog and, whilst she holds many views we as liberals can disagree with, she is communicating. It isn’t doing her prospects of advancement much good though, and both Labour and ourselves are enthusiastic in using her as a stick to beat her Party with, evidently causing some concern to the Conservative whips.

Finally, the whole point of blogging is that it is interactive, or it is nothing. If most committee members don’t blog, don’t engage with the blogosphere, in short, have lives, and do not respond immediately, or even at all, will they be criticised? You bet they will and, like I did, would probably withdraw back into their collective shells.

Tomorrow, in summary...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Guilty of looking at the government in a funny way

The new Independent Safeguarding Authority marks another stage in the Labour Party's attempts to fracture our society into one where individuals fear each other. That we have come to such a point where ferrying the local kids, one or more of whom might be yours, to their Scout meeting requires you to apply for Government 'approval' is, to be blunt, yet another nail in the coffin of community.

It appears that we are, as Mark Thompson puts it, dangerous until proven safe. Now pardon me, but isn't it a basic tenet of English law that we are innocent until proven guilty? Not anymore, it seems. Now, the government, supported by people like the Children's Society (who should know better, frankly), have decided that, because a small number of people have slipped through the net, some of whom were under suspicion but not charged, everyone who is involved with 'regulated activity' must register with the new Authority.

Now, bear in mind that this legislation was part of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which might imply that this legislation wasn't exactly urgent. But it's worse than that. Here's the definition of 'regulated activity';

Regulated activity is any activity which involves contact with children or vulnerable adults. This could be paid or voluntary work.
Such activities include:
·       Any activity of a specified nature which involves contact with children or vulnerable adults frequently, intensively and/or overnight.
·       Any activity allowing contact with children or vulnerable adults that is in a specified place frequently or intensively.
·       Fostering and childcare.
·       Any activity that involves people in certain defined positions of responsibility.

Is it me, or is that a bit on the vague side? There will be a rather more precise definition somewhere, right?

Why you still don't know what Party committees are up to (part 3) - so what went wrong?

Somebody once said that pop will eat itself, and I fear that this is true of blogging. In truth, that element of the leadership, national or regional, that is even aware of the blogosphere think of us as self-indulgent, irresponsible and with a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. I exclude the many councillors amongst us, most of whom are reaching out to their electorate first and the Lib Dem blogosphere second. However, most of the rest of us aren’t actually responsible for that much, and claim the freedom to comment as we please.

And I have to admit, dispiriting as it might sound, I am beginning to see what they mean. Oh yes, I might fool myself that my opinions on Labour policy, MP expenses or Irfan Ahmed might influence someone somewhere, but isn’t it somewhat arrogant of me to think that my views actually matter? Approximately sixty to seventy people read my blog each day, hardly an audience to trouble the ‘big boys’ of blogging.

Worse still, keeping a blog is a bit like owning a cat, in that it requires attention and feeding if it is to be done well. Like e-mail, it creates a sense and, worse still an expectation, of immediacy. Either you’re willing and able to respond to that sense, or you’re not, and clearly most people aren’t. That doesn’t seem to register with some of us, and the Rennard expenses debate demonstrated it in abundance.

I won’t address the substance of the debate - there is no point at this stage, and my comments, if only a personal opinion, would risk interpretation through the prism of my personal relationship with the Party President. However, an expectation on immediate comment was created which, in truth, was never going to happen. The situation was too fast moving, there was too much uncertainty, and the external interest in the story was too sensitive to risk publishing an incomplete picture.

Of course, the irony that, having not had any reports pre-2009 on the actions of the Federal Executive, reports were being provided by the Chair of the Federal Executive within ninety-six hours, was lost on those suddenly determined to form a lynch mob on the basis of a report from a newspaper not exactly renown for its friendliness to liberal democracy. It simply wasn’t good enough that the President might want to reflect upon her response. And so, she withdrew.

I freely admit to regrets. I have always believed that keeping members informed of my activities as a Party apparatchik was something of a duty. After all, I’ve been elected by (some of) you, and you deserve to know what I’m doing. At the same time, I have been treated with some suspicion by my fellow committee members, some of whom are quite contemptuous of the idea of blogging. I have occasionally been critical of the inability of some to remember who we serve and, in return, they have indicated doubts as to my discretion. However, I had attempted to balance the opposing views in my reporting.

Almost inevitably, those few of us who have attempted to square that political circle have, eventually, suffered for it. The only other member of the current Federal Executive who maintains a blog is Duncan Borrowman, who has studiously eschewed the opportunity to discuss committee business, despite temptation. His ‘reward’ was to be taunted by Agent Orange, and then Sara Scarlett, in an attempt to lure him into an indiscretion. The use of language calculated to cause embarrassment to Duncan and attract the attention of local media to his rather uncomfortable predicament might well have been a valid strategy from the perspective of someone trying to gain information otherwise unavailable, but it hardly encourages anyone to engage in public debate, or to communicate more widely.

Depressing, no? Tomorrow, I'll consider whether or not there is a viable solution...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why you still don't know what Party committees are up to (part 2) - a brief, personal history of ‘reporting back’ via blogging

Curiously, blogging, as a reporting medium, has been decidedly underused, given its relative simplicity. I blogged on events on the London Regional Executive from the point when I started ‘Liberal Bureaucracy’ in late 2005. I tended to be fairly cautious, as much because of my own innate sense of discretion, as a deep and abiding suspicion amongst many of my senior colleagues.

The next year, I joined the English Candidates Committee, having been directly elected by English Council. Naturally, I covered events there, making sure that, where I was expressing an opinion, this was made abundantly clear. Otherwise, if discussions took place which impacted more widely, I sought clearance from the Chair to publish.

On the Regional Executive, I wasn’t the only blogger. Susanne Lamido was already reporting on events, without much restraint and, occasionally, accuracy. Her stance was that it was all about freedom of speech. It would be fair to say that she was in a pretty small minority and I found myself torn between disclosure and discretion. There was evidence that individuals were withholding their opinions on controversial issues for fear of having those views broadcast to a wider audience, especially where there was a contradiction between the Regional position and that of their Local Party - not that unusual.

Of course, the blog was one of the factors which led to the revocation of her membership, and my reputation suffered by association. In 2007, there was an attempt to remove me as Regional Secretary, on the grounds that my discretion was suspect. There was no evidence that this was the case, except that I had a blog. It was most dispiriting and, even though I survived by the skin of my teeth, it was never as much fun after that.

Meanwhile, there was little in the way of reporting back from the Federal Executive, which, given the absence of bloggers in senior positions, came as no great surprise. There was certainly little in the way of official reporting, and if you wanted a glimpse of how decisions were taken, you were reliant on Liberal Democrat News - hardly a source of controversial and dogged investigative reporting.

Of course, in 2008, a contest for the Party Presidency emerged. Ros had been campaigning for the role for some time, and Lembit had always made his intension to run abundantly clear. The use of the new media was an area of some debate, and Ros’s commitment to use technology to reach out to members was certainly attractive. Her election, the first non-leadership internal party election to take place in an era of ‘mass’ blogging, set the bar by which some would later judge.

Tomorrow, I'll look at what went wrong in Camelot...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When silence is not golden - reasons why you still don't know what Party committees are up to (part 1)

More than three months ago, in the midst of the expenses crisis, I took a self-denying ordnance not to comment on matters pertaining to the Party President or to internal Party committees. At the time, I was seriously irritated and, having taken some flak, decided that I saw no reason why I should continue to do so.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe summer has passed, and I have for the most part kept to my word, and I am minded to continue doing so. However, I have been giving the question of how the various Federal and State committees report back some thought...

Oh wouldn't it be nice...

If only we could find out what the Federal Executive were discussing, or could communicate with members of the English Candidates Committee? Many of us in the blogosphere are interested in knowing what might happen, what might be discussed. We conjecture about policy, criticise our leaders, opine about strategy. It would be great if we could have a voice around the table.

Naturally, as a Party which talks a good game in terms of openness and transparency, the idea that reports should be published is a laudable one. And, of course, the internet is free, immediate and simple to use. There is a forum, in the shape of Liberal Democrat Voice, which exists as a place where such debates can occur. In the Members' Forum, it can even be done behind closed doors.

Besides, we're members, we're entitled to know what's being done behind closed doors, aren't we?

Next, I'll look at the history of 'committee blogging' from a personal perspective...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Orange and T-Mobile to merge... am I going to be better off?

The news that Orange and T-Mobile have agreed merger terms is likely to spark a round of cuts in call charges over the coming year, a good thing, I think. It may also have an impact for local councillors across the country, in that, if they are one company, they won't need to duplicate phone masts.

I'm an Orange customer, as their reception in Creeting St Peter is so much better than that of my previous provider, O2. Ironically, though, Ros just switched from T-Mobile to Orange for that reason.

One last thought. What colour will the new logo be?...

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Liberal Youth Returning Officer writes... is it that time already?

Heavens, it only seems like an instant ago that one of the bloodiest youth elections since 1873 was concluded, and here I am, called into action again.

Curiously, the Federal Constitution of Liberal Youth is silent on the definition of a candidate for office, leaving me obliged to refer to Article 15: Interpretations & Dispute Resolution and, in particular, 15.1, which covers Rules of Interpretation.

And so, without further ado, here is my first ever Rule of Interpretation...

The definition of a 'candidate' for the purposes of Article 9.12(h) shall be any individual member of Liberal Youth who so declares themself in a public medium. This shall include, but not be restricted to, blogs and social media.

This Rule of Interpretation has been sent to the Chair of Liberal Youth so that she may fulfil her obligations under Article 15.3 of the Federal Constitution...

Tell you what, I'll get some sleep and count in the morning...

I've had an invitation to join a Facebook group intended to rally support for those who want counts to take place overnight following a general election.

I've been something of an election junkie for thirty years, thinking nothing of staying up into the early hours of the morning, eagerly awaiting the results from Skipton and Ripon, or Clwyd West, or wherever. I've been a Returning Officer for twenty-five, first for my student union and then for the Party. Hell, I even watch when BBC Parliament broadcast historic election nights even though I know how the story ended. But I think that I'll leave my dance card unmarked this time.

You see, I'm not convinced that the rush to count serves any useful purpose other than to satisfy the anoraks amongst us (begging your pardon, Dr Pack). Counting requires accuracy and alertness, and few of us are great in those respects at two in the morning. If our democracy is so valuable, it is surely worth ensuring that those who administrate it are at their most effective.

And those errors are important. As our agent in Dulwich and West Norwood in 2005, I was advised that we were third, just 98 votes behind the Conservatives. A bundle check was promptly called, and 450 of our votes were found in the Conservative piles, with 50 of their votes on top. Further study uncovered 250 Labour votes in the Conservative basket, putting us 1,052 votes ahead of them. Would I have sought a bundle check had we been 300 votes behind? Probably not. It was four in the morning, everyone was tired, concentration was beginning to falter, we'd all had a long day.

The fact that, in some circumstances, an election could be won or lost from sheer tiredness and inattentiveness worries me to some extent, and having fresh counters, fresh presiding officers and fresh counting agents would likely reduce the error rate.

Of course, there is a cost element too. Overtime payments add to the burden to the hard pressed taxpayer and, whilst the amounts might be small in relative terms, it all adds up.

And finally, suspicions about delay could be allayed by having the boxes kept under seal, witnessed by the agents if preferred. In rural districts like Mid Suffolk, we count county and district elections the next morning, with no controversy thus far. There is such a thing as paranoia, you know...

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A gentle toe in the water - returning to duty in the West Midllands

August is always a quiet time in politics. Oh yes, leaflets are being delivered, residents are being surveyed, and the day to day stuff happens. However, Party business is put on hold, politicians go on holiday and there aren't many events to go to. Given that my role is mostly to accompany Ros to things, that puts me out of a job so to speak.

Summer is now over though, so I am 'back in harness', so to speak, and Friday evening saw me at Marylebone Station for the fairly pretty journey to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I linked up with Ros.

Yesterday morning was dedicated to browsing and some light shopping. I've bought myself a camcorder as a treat, and hope to learn how to use it one day! But we did have things to do. We stopped for coffee at Martin Turner's new home, where candidate stuff was discussed (Martin and I have clashed in the past)., before heading off to Hallow, the scene of Thursday's memorable by-election win, a gain from the Conservatives with a massive swing.

There, we met up with the victor, Dean Clarke, and local PPC, Richard Burt, for a photo opportunity and a chat. They've had some very good election results there of late, which augurs well for the general election, whenever it comes. And that was the theme at the West Worcestershire Annual Dinner in Malvern, our destination for the evening.

We were served by the local Sea Cadets, who looked after us extremely well. I admit that Malvern is not somewhere I would think of as a place to find Sea Cadets, but they are apparently thriving. A good meal, graced by the presence of Lorely Burt, Chair of the Parliamentary Part in the Commons, with pleasant company.

Our hosts for the night were John and Penelope Morgan, whose bed & breakfast, Ash Villa, was wonderfully comfortable. John remembered me from last year's Regional Conference in Pershore. I admired his memory...

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Company accounts for small companies - notes to the accounts

In the introduction, I outlined key elements to a set of accounts (I'm not finished yet...), referring to Section 226, Companies Act 1985. To the profit and loss account and the balance sheet, it emerges that you need notes too.

Schedule 4, Part III explains what should appear in the notes. Most of it won't apply to the average one person business, but here are some key elements that you should be aware of:

Paragraph 36 requires that;

"the accounting policies adopted by the company in determining the amounts to be included in respect of items shown in the balance sheet and in determining the profit or loss of the company shall be stated (including such policies with respect to the depreciation and diminution in value of assets)."

This is pretty key to the way your accounts are put together. At what rate are you depreciating your capital assets? Are you using cash accounting or not? You need to be consistent otherwise, if HM Revenue & Customs have questions, you have problems.

Paragraph 38 states;

1) The following information shall be given with respect to the company’s share capital—

(a) the authorised share capital;

(b) where shares of more than one class have been allotted, the number and aggregate nominal value of shares of each class allotted

This may not seem terribly important, but if there is more than one director (your spouse, your partner, a friend), it will be important in proving who owns what and their entitlements in case the worst happens.

Paragraph 42 relates to your fixed assets - machinery, computers etc;

(1) In respect of each item which is or would but for paragraph 3(4)(b) be shown under the general item “fixed assets” in the company’s balance sheet the following information shall be given—

(a) the appropriate amounts in respect of that item as at the date of the beginning of the financial year and as at the balance sheet date respectively;

(b) the effect on any amount shown in the balance sheet in respect of that item of—

(i) any revision of the amount in respect of any assets included under that item made during that year on any basis mentioned in paragraph 31;

(ii) acquisitions during that year of any assets;

(iii) disposals during that year of any assets; and

(iv) any transfers of assets of the company to and from that item during that year.

(2) The reference in sub-paragraph (1)(a) to the appropriate amounts in respect of any item as at any date there mentioned is a reference to amounts representing the aggregate amounts determined, as at that date, in respect of assets falling to be included under that item on either of the following bases, that is to say—

(a) on the basis of purchase price or production cost (determined in accordance with paragraphs 26 and 27); or

(b) on any basis mentioned in paragraph 31, (leaving out of account in either case any provisions for depreciation or diminution in value).

(3) In respect of each item within sub-paragraph (1)—

(a) the cumulative amount of provisions for depreciation or diminution in value of assets included under that item as at each date mentioned in sub-paragraph (1)(a);

(b) the amount of any such provisions made in respect of the financial year;

(c) the amount of any adjustments made in respect of any such provisions during that year in consequence of the disposal of any assets; and

(d) the amount of any other adjustments made in respect of any such provisions during that year;

shall also be stated.

Think of this as your asset register. There are plenty of other items, and if they are likely to apply to you, you may want to consider seeking professional guidance. You don't have to, you just might like to...

In the next instalment, we'll look at the directors' report...

Back to the Companies Act, however. Reading on brings you to Section 234;
1) The directors of a company shall for each financial year prepare a report (a “directors' report”) complying with the general requirements of section 234ZZA and containing—
(a)the business review specified in section 234ZZB,
It might have been helpful had this been mentioned earlier, but at least we've run into it...
Directors' report: general requirements
(1) The directors' report for a financial year must state—
(a) the names of the persons who, at any time during the financial year, were directors of the company,
(b) the principal activities of the company in the course of the year, and
(c) the amount (if any) that the directors recommend should be paid by way of dividend... (3) The report must also comply with Schedule 7 as regards the disclosure of the matters mentioned there.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Company accounts for small companies - a bureaucrat's guide

Alright, so I've been critical about the ability of some company directors to grasp the nature of their obligations. Of course, the fact that they aren't accountants means that they are redeemable, so here's a basic guide to company accounts for small companies.

The first thing to be borne in mind is what exactly you need to produce. Most small companies make the mistake of assuming that their accounting software will produce an acceptable set of accounts. Yes, they'll produce you a profit and loss account and a balance sheet for the year. They won't provide you with comparables (always useful) but they represent a set of accounts, right? Wrong.

So, what represents a full set of accounts for a small company? This is not as easy a question as it might seem. The primary guidance in law is to be found at Section 226 of the 1985 Companies Act. At least, that's what everyone tells you. What it says is:

226.—(1) The directors of every company shall prepare for each financial year of the company—

(a) a balance sheet as at the last day of the year, and

(b) a profit and loss account.

Those accounts are referred to in this Part as the company's "individual accounts".

Not altogether helpful, in that it appears to confirm your initial conclusion. However, reading on, paragraph (3) states;

(3) A company's individual accounts shall comply with the provisions of Schedule 4 as to the form and content of the balance sheet and profit and loss account and additional information to be provided by way of notes to the accounts.

Excellent, some more legal stuff. Alright, you might wish that, instead of referring you to somewhere else, they might state it there. However, this is corporate law we're talking about so, in the next instalment, we'll follow the trail.

A brief guide to producing company accounts

PhilW, commenting on my piece about company accounts, points out quite reasonably that, when accountants charge as much as £1500 to produce a set of statutory accounts, it is no wonder that many company directors choose to try and do it themselves.

Of course, without training and experience, this is not necessarily easy, or wise. However, there is little in the way of simple guidance, and given that new companies are be founded at the rate of a thousand a day, some of my readers are likely to be directors of their own companies. So, over the next few days, I'll be providing a basic guide that will help readers to understand what they need to do and why. It will not be a complete guide, but it will serve most purposes.

I'll also field any questions, answering them where I can. So let the bureaucracy begin...

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Companies Law - something that people don't get

For eight years now, I've worked in corporate tax for HM Revenue & Customs. I'm not one of those technical wizards, although when it comes to the administrative end of things, I'm fairly well regarded. These days, I have become something of an authority on e-filed company tax returns, partly because nobody else was interested, and partly because it is, as they say, the future.

One of my key roles is deciding whether or not a return is complete. Not a complex task, you might think, and yet I spend a lot of my time explaining to people their legal responsibilities under the Companies Act 1985 (currently being replaced with the Companies Act 2006). And these are not obscure ones either, but the basis of reporting.

Of course, there is some confusion. Companies House permit the filing of abbreviated accounts by small and medium enterprises, comprising of a balance sheet and notes. However, in order to qualify for this preferential treatment, a declaration must be signed, acknowledging the responsibility of the directors to produce accounts that comply with Section 226 of the 1985 Companies Act. So they do. Then, they file the same accounts with their company tax return. I then reject them. They then ring, or e-mail, complaining that "Companies House accept these, why won't you?".

So I explain. "Your accounts don't comply with Section 226.", I tell them. I then note that they have signed a declaration saying that they will comply. At this point, it usually becomes clear that they have signed the declaration without actually understanding what it means. It is, one should note, a legal declaration. Now I may be old-fashioned, but the idea of signing a legal document without having a grasp of what it means does disturb me a little.

Of course, the compliance weaknesses of small businesses have become more of a concern since the explosion in the number of limited companies being registered. With the current system of consecutive number issuance going back to 1862, it took one hundred and nine years for the millioneth company to be registered. By comparison, more than three million have been registered in this decade, with the seven million mark reached last month.

I would suggest that a significant minority of these need never have become limited companies, and it is clear that, from an administrative perspective, many rookie directors have little grasp of the legal obligations they have taken on. That said, the recent fortifying of the penalty regime for non-compliance, combined with the shortening of filing deadlines, will doubtless concentrate minds... or enrich the accountancy profession...

Meanwhile, I'll still be fielding telephone calls and e-mails from bemused company directors...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lest we forget... those we have loved and (in some cases) lost...

Having noted the statistic, what did happen to the missing nineteen eighteen seventeen? Starting at the top...

10. Liberal Burblings - actually, Paul Walter goes from strength to strength, as he has already pointed out. Having actually opted out of all awards and lists, it should be noted that he's actually pretty good.

12. Because Baronesses are People Too... - sadly, my other half's blog fell foul of the tendancy of others to fail to realise that blogging, and responding to bloggers, is not the be all and end all of everyone's life.

17. Schneider Home - James last blogged on 28 December. Since then, nothing, not even an indication that he had given up. Was it something we said?

19. Dib Lemming - probably one of the remoter bloggers, deep in West Wales (I know, I've been there), Stephanie Ashley appeared to have given up the blog within weeks of last year's poll. However, there was a posting on 1 August, and I'm assuming that you're very busy, Stephanie. There are many of us who would like to see you back though...

20. The Real Blog - David Boyle is one of Liberal Democracy's more erudite thinkers, not prone to firing off opinions left, right and centre and, in truth, tends more to pamphlets and books rather than pithy commentary, although I'm sure he could do it if he wanted to. Nineteen postings in eight months indicates that he probably doesn't.

25. A Load of Old Stodge - another of the more mature (in years, at least), the demise of this blog is almost certainly another case of too few entries, not enough prominence. Where there's life, there's hope though...

27. Jo's Jottings - one of the more spectacular implosions in recent Lib Dem blogging history. Controversial, edgy, before finally dying in an orgy of blood and unpleasantness. It was fun to watch until it stopped being fun, if you see what I mean. However, Jo Anglezarke is back, blogging fairly regularly and keeping it calm and measured.

30. Liberty Alone - Tristan Mills was one of the Lib Dem blogosphere's earlier libertarians and, whilst I often disagreed with him, he was able to raise a decent argument. However, it appears that he has allowed his membership to lapse, and his blog has gone fairly quiet, so one assumes that he probably wouldn't count as a Lib Dem blogger anyway.

31. Redlands Liberal Democrats - A collective effort, Daisy Benson, Kirsten Bayes and Glenn Goodall continue to blog, giving the administration in Reading a regular admonishment for being pretty useless.

33. Brian Robson - another councillor, this time in Lewisham, Brian continues to reach out to voters in Lee Green.

34. Suz Blog - ironically, Susanne had long been expelled from the Party when 2008's poll was held. Another who used her blog in a gallant attempt at self-immolation, she still blogs, is a regular host of Britblog Roundup (as is our own dear Liberal England) and is still at the centre of a veritable spider's web of family.

40. Neil Woollcott - From the end of the Central Line, Neil covers events in Epping Forest, a place where the BNP demonstrates why they can't run a whelk stall but are quite capable of hurling a brick through a window.

41. Paint the Town Orange - Helen has gone establishment in her new role as part of the Lib Dem Voice collective and, as Jonathan Calder has already noted, that tends to mean death for a blogger. Perhaps more ukelele podcasts might help?

46. Do As You're Told - actually, this is a bit of a con, as it's Charlotte's old blog. So, she's not quite emerged from nowhere. Even so, a rise of forty-five places is pretty impressive...

48. A Radical View - one of our younger bloggers, Alasdair Wood wrote a searing condemnation of the Liberal Youth elections which I banned from publication in 'The Libertine', Liberal Youth's in-house journal. So he published it on his blog instead. And then stopped blogging...

49. Bridget's Blog - the woman who may well be the next MP for Islington South and Finsbury continues to report on her campaign. She's still fragrant (I had a bit of a crush on her, albeit more than twenty years ago...), and would add a touch of English rose to the Commons when she wins.

50. Susan Gaszczak - a name I can pronounce nine times out of ten, but has given up blogging. Somehow, I doubt that you've heard the last of her though...

And so, there you have it. A sign of the strength and depth of Liberal Democrat blogging? Or of the fact that, at the lower end of the chart, small numbers of votes can have a dramatic effect? Who knows? And who might we lose next year?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Lest we forget - the bloggers who are gone but not forgotten...

Whilst many are celebrating their success in the published top 75 Lib Dem blogs list in 'Total Politics', I am struck by the evident transience of the blogosphere. Given that the list has been extended from last year's fifty, it comes as something of a surprise to see that nineteen blogs, i.e. 38% of the 2008 list, have dropped so far as to be outside the top 75 this time. Indeed, five of the top twenty are gone, so these were blogs with quite a lot of support.

Here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy', we're not getting terribly excited at our thirty-fifth ranking. In 2006, this blog was thirtieth, rising to fourteenth in 2007 before disappearing altogether in 2008. Given that the selectorate is predominantly Conservative, one can only assume that it leans towards those of a libertarian bent, as opposed to social liberals. Now I don't intend to come over all 'Tim Ireland' at this point, demanding that Iain Dale publish all of the data - some of us have a life after all - but it would be interesting to see if the voters reflect public opinion. It would be difficult to provide wholly accurate data, so we'll probably never know.

UPDATE: I should know better than to rely on 'Total Politics' being 100% accurate. At least two of the blogs on this year's chart were also on last year's chart, although their position last year has been omitted.

In a dream of Hungarian lanterns...

Just when you begin to think that this Government has reached rock bottom, they manage to find just that little bit extra. One might almost compare this administration to a beached squid, desperately thrashing the air with its tentacles in an attempt to find a purchase.

This week, the tentacle marked 'tough on the poor' has attempted to find its mark, with a proposal to end the arrangement where claimants who negotiate a rent which is less than the level of housing benefit can keep the difference up to £15 per week. Yes, it does mean that £150 million of current expenditure can be trimmed, theoretically at least. However, it sends out a clear message to one group who should be fairly loyal supporters of this Government - that they can be sacrificed in the hope that it might impressed some of those who have gone elsewhere with their votes.

There is little need to rehearse the arguments as to why this will not actually save £150 million, loss of incentive to negotiate a lower rent, the greed of some private landlords are but two. Yet the greatest reason to worry if you are a Labour MP with a majority of less than 8,000 is that your leadership seem determined to take you with them.

ASBO update - some research

Jono and Aaron very kindly contributed their shared view that activities likely to attract an ASBO didn't actually have to be illegal, a concept that genuinely troubles me. So I thought that I ought to do some research.

The Law and Parents website has this to say about ASBOs. Now it appears to me that this list, whilst not complete, includes actions which are criminal, and I find it bizarre in the extreme that an administration so keen to pursue the 'War on Drugs' is, at the same time, saying to people that dealing in drugs may attract an ASBO. A mixed message, certainly.

I would, however, be interested to find out the circumstances whereby an individual is engaged in an activity which is not covered by criminal law might attract an ASBO. Any answers, ladies and gentlemen?