Monday, November 30, 2009

Can I haz title? Does that come with ermine?

On 14 December, the following item is on the list of business in the House of Lords;

Baroness Deech to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make proposals relating to the titles used by the husbands of women members of the House of Lords.

Now I don't know where this question comes from, and I'm not sure what Baroness Deech's motivation is, but I am certainly intrigued by the prospect of an answer.

However, it isn't clear to me what title one might give. Of course, the wife of a male Peer is given the honorific 'Lady' (I'm not sure if this applies to the civil partner of a female Peer - anyone know?), but 'Lord' seems somewhat inappropriate. A life baronetcy perhaps, although Sir Mark has a bizarre ring to it.

No, I tend to think that things will be left as they are. After all, if all political parties are committed to reform of the second chamber and a mostly or fully-elected House, why bother with further fripperies? And if this Government were that bothered, you would have thought that Harriet Harman would have acted before now...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Zac Goldsmith - not a fit and proper person to be an MP?

My morning was somewhat brightened up by the news that Zac Goldsmith has been outed as a 'non-domicile'. As an old friend of Susan Kramer's (she was our candidate in Dulwich & West Norwood when I was active there), anything that legitimately helps her to gain re-election in Richmond Park is a good thing.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceHowever, I see that Iain Dale has chosen to defend him on the grounds that what he is doing, using his non-domiciled status to avoid capital gains tax, inheritance tax and income tax, is perfectly legal. I therefore feel obliged to remind him that the public clearly don't see that kind of old-style thinking as acceptable any more. That might seem unfair and unjust but, as we know, the public view of politicians is fairly poisonous.

As for Zac, he is guilty of a degree of hypocrisy. Proposing a range of green taxes when you are actively avoiding paying what many would see as fair levels of taxation smacks of 'one rule for you, another for me'. It is true that he has told the Sunday Times that he will voluntarily give up his non-domiciled status, but it does seem odd that someone who is selected to fight a Parliamentary seat should consider himself to be non-domiciled.

To be automatically considered non-domiciled in the United Kingdom, you must fulfil the following criteria;
  • you must be born outside of the United Kingdom
  • your father must have been domiciled outside of the United Kingdom at the time of your birth
  • you must have come to the United Kingdom for the purposes only of employment (including self-employment) and must intend to resume employment abroad when that employment ceases
I presume that Zac meets the first two criteria. The third, however, is not so clearcut. What exactly is his employment status? Perhaps the Residence & Domicile Technical Team of HM Revenue & Customs might want to take a look?

I'm not of the view that David Cameron is obliged to sack Zac as the Conservative candidate for Richmond Park. Of course, he may feel that a candidate whose behaviour brings his Party into disrepute might not be a fit and proper person to be a Member of Parliament. After all, if buying a duck house on expenses is an offence sufficient to cause the loss of a nomination, how relatively heinous is using your non-domicilied status to avoid potentially hundreds and thousands of pounds in tax?

Only a week late into Edinburgh...

I'm a busy man and not always the most organised, and so it shouldn't have come as a great surprise to discover that, on arrival in Edinburgh for the Bloggers Unconference on Friday night, it had taken place the previous weekend. Luckily, a full schedule of events was available to me, and I had already swapped blog comments with Jo Swinson before setting off, so my journey wasn't in vain.

Friday saw me on the 14.00 Aberdeen service from London King's Cross, bound for the Edinburgh Pentlands St Andrew's Day dinner, in the company of John Barrett and his wife Carol, where an excellent meal (game terrine, chicken stuffed with haggis, Lanark Blue cheese with oatcakes) was enlivened by an excellent speech from the guest for the evening. So that was a second element of the Unconference achieved...

Saturday opened with with a mince pie and mulled wine event for Edinburgh North and Leith, where I ran into the godfather of Scottish Lib Dem blogging, Stephen Glenn (the third element), before heading to a Christmas Fayre in Edinburgh West, where I paid £2 for a go on the 'water or wine' stall. The idea is that there is an array of sealed gift bags with bottles in. You pick one and it either has a bottle of wine in it, or a bottle of water. On the basis that you stick with your party colour, I picked a yellow one and was most gratified to find a bottle of sparking rose in mine. John Barrett, who had an unblemished record of winning bottles of water, took my advise and picked a gold bag. Sure enough, there was a bottle of wine in it.

By this point, we had met up with Mike Crockart, and I pointed out a yellow bag with white polka dots - I was beginning to suspect some subliminal Liberal Democrat bias by this point (does a 13,600 majority cause that?). And yes, when Mike picked it, there was a bottle of wine inside.

But, it was getting on, and our day wasn't finished. I did, however, have time for a haircut. It appears that I got a bit carried away though, and Ros is still slightly traumatised by the result. It is very short, I fear. The one disconcerting moment was when my barber took out a piece of wire with a lump on the end, set fire to it and announced that I shouldn't worry about the naked flame being held close to my ears. Apparently, this acts to singe the hairs on the ears, making it easier to remove them.

Next stop, Perth...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thoughts from the Train: What if Deutsche Bahn rang my local rail franchise?

Liberal Bureaucracy has received, in a brown paper package, a copy of a document purported to have been sent to Lord Adonis, the Secretary of State for Transport, following his announcement that National Express will have their current franchise for East Anglia truncated so that it ends in 2011. The covering letter is signed by the Chief Executive Officer of Deutsche Bahn.

Having read through it, here are the key proposals;


Trains will run at least hourly on all routes. We have ways of making them run on time.

New services and special arrangements

It is our intention to run more services to Stansted Airport and to Harwich from across the Region, with the intention of making it easier for East Anglians to travel to European cultural centres such as Berlin, Munich and Heidelberg, and for central Europeans to travel to important towns such as Stowmarket. We see particular potential in running special services for those seeking to make pilgrimages to worship before Dalai Russell in Colchester.


We intend to reinstate the restaurant car, where the finest local food will be served, alongside a range of German beers and wines, as well as classic bierkeller snacks such as pretzels and weisswurst, all served by staff wearing traditional outfits.


Naturally, we will introduce an accordian player on mainline services to provide an opportunity for passengers to sing traditional drinking songs as they return after following Colchester United, Ipswich Town and Norwich City to away games. Whilst we understand concerns about drunken and unruly fans, we are confident that, by providing them with good German lager, brewed according to the ancient laws that still control beer production in Germany, they will be happy to behave positively.

The Future

Naturally, we expect to seek an anschluss with the franchise covering services from Fenchurch Street, and will look to seeking to extend operations across Cambridgeshire to Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in due course.

Well, I don't know about you, but I'd sign up to that...

Pearson of Barking? Barking of Rannoch? Is this important?

I am led to understand that Lord Pearson of Rannoch is the new leader of UKIP (I'm cocooned on an East Coast train somewhere near Newcastle, on my way to Edinburgh...).

In fairness, Malcolm Pearson is probably ideal for the job, in that he is of the view that between them, Islam and the European Union are determined to destroy the country that we love. Indeed, there are enough people out there who agree with that view to attract a rather more than infinitesimal share of the vote.

His big problem at the moment is the issue regarding a very large donation, over £350,000, which is to be returned, due to the donor not being on the electoral register. It appears that he is of the view that being on the electoral register should merely be optional, and must therefore assume that he would be happy to receive money from anyone, regardless of their link to this country - an odd thing to believe for someone who believes in pulling up the drawbridge, but there you go.

He also supports those who believe that the Koran should be banned, yet demands the right to freedom of expression. Perhaps, in this case, he means freedom to express that which he agrees with. Of course, he is consistent here, in that he believes that Islamism has taken over. As he asked on 23 March,
Does he further agree that all must be equal under our law, including women, gays and those who wish to convert from Islam to another faith, and that Sharia law should therefore not be allowed to go on holding sway in this country?

On House of Lords reform, he is of the view that it should only take place once the United Kingdom has 'reclaimed power from Brussels' and reformed the House of Commons. That would be never then...

I suppose that we should be reassured in a way. With Pearson of Rannoch at the helm, UKIP are clearly not intending to be anything other than an anti-European, anti-Islam political party. In other words, completely irrelevant to the day to day needs of mainstream public opinion. Thanks, Malcolm, thanks very much...

Extreme inconvenience to the enemies of Valladares (part 2)

For those of you who wonder what a bureaucrat does in his spare time, I can confirm that one of the things I don't do is sticking pins into wax effigies of National Express East Anglia management. I can't speak for Andrew Adonis though, but if he does, he's pretty good at this voodoo stuff. Less than forty-eight hours after I complained to and about NXEA, it was announced that their franchise will be terminated three years earlier than scheduled, in 2011.

There has been, for some time, a sense that National Express were doing just enough to meet the performance targets built into the franchise agreement. However, the loss of the restaurant car service, the increasingly shabby rolling stock, with faulty toilets and deteriorating standards of cleanliness, and the claims that removing customer service staff would improve the service provided to passengers all pointed towards a corner-cutting, asset-sweating approach by a company in financial difficulties.

Perhaps we will get a better deal from a new franchise agreement this time. It would be nice if passengers were more involved in drawing up such an agreement, although I am not optimistic on that score.

Interestingly, the withdrawal of the last three years of the agreement allows for a bringing together of the currently separate East Anglia and Fenchurch Street to Southend franchises, the latter, held by c2c at the moment. I have little doubt that a foreign bidder will emerge, and that likelihood will only be increased if the two franchises are brought together. The significant commuter traffic from East London and Essex will provide the backbone for the income stream, whilst the rural routes in Norfolk and Suffolk will offer potential growth linked to population growth.

To be honest, I'd been tempted by any bidder who offered to put the breakfast service back at the pre-2009 levels... ah, pork...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Will the last London-based civil servant please turn the lights out?

It seems that the Government have reached the conclusion that a review is needed to see what civil service and quango jobs could be moved out of London and the South East... again. There is, it is suggested, scope to move some of those 132,000 civil service and 90,000 "arms-length bodies" jobs and achieve not only savings but place civil servants in the heart of the communities they serve.

Well, yes and no. Firstly, there are those of us who are still struggling through the reorganisations wrought by the Lyons Review, published in 2004, which called for transfers of work out of London. As a result of that, corporation tax work for most of the City of Westminster (my old office) was transferred to Hull, and that for South West London was transferred to... Dundee. To go for another reorganisation so soon would certainly be challenging but, if that's what Government wants, that's what Government will get.

Indeed, Lyons wasn't the first transfer of work out of London. In 1991, the final tranche of PAYE work left London, in the case of my then office, Hendon, it went to Salford. I was moved to deal with wealthy self-employed individuals and those with significant investment income in Maida Vale, only for that work to be transferred to Leicester in 2001.

There is little of the local network left in London nowadays, with much of the work transferred to enormous sheds in Washington, Merthyr Tydfil and East Kilbride (to name but three). And yet the intention is that we should be closer to our communities? Does that mean that the work already transferred out of London will suddenly materialise back into the city? No, of course not, that would be consistent. In other words, the community only matters if it isn't in London and the South East, and the warm words are merely intended to provide cover for another transfer of jobs to Labour supporting areas in the North and the Celtic fringe.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to the transfer of work out of London. The arguments about the cost of accommodation, of London weighting and about retention and recruitment all hold some merit. However, if you believe that a national civil service is about providing a high quality of service everywhere, it means that you need to provide that service everywhere. Technology means that much of the work can be done remotely, especially where it involves processing of documents. However, you do need people to provide the face to face service, and there comes a point where you cut numbers beyond that required.

I am astonished that it took Liam Byrne seven months to come up with this proposal. Given that all he needed to do was pull the Lyons Review off of the shelf, get someone to update it a bit, and then act upon those recommendations that haven't yet been carried out, it shows that any sense of originality has been drained from an increasingly desperate Government.

Diversity: Labour's control freaks want us to be control freaks too

And so the Labour Party Speakers Conference has concluded that political parties should be made to publish the number of women, ethnic minority, disabled and gay people are applying to be Parliamentary candidates. Let us not be under any misapprehension here, this is an attempt to impose a Labour solution on the body politic, regardless of the fact that other political parties see the solution to the diversity issue in very different forms.

The phrase 'Speakers Conference' is meant to reassure, to provide the cover of apparent cross-Party agreement for an authoritarian attempt to blackmail other political parties to adopt the sort of 'nanny state' positive discrimination that, as liberals, we prefer to eschew. However, a closer look at its membership reveals that, far from being cross-Party, there is an inbuilt Labour majority, with nine Labour members, four Conservatives, two Liberal Democrats (Andrew George and Jo Swinson) and one Democratic Unionist.

So, unsurprisingly, it has gone for a 'name and shame' approach in its efforts to make Parliament more representative of the nation. If that is the best that they can come up with, then we should be demanding our money back.

I fundamentally object to being told that I must betray my Party's philosophy and principles in order to achieve the goal of fair representation. As a liberal, I believe that everyone is equal, and that equality of opportunity is something that we should strive for. That doesn't mean equality of outcome regardless of merit, it means creating processes that do not discriminate, and providing support and encouragement for anyone who wishes to offer themselves up for consideration.

More than most people, I know that Liberal Democrats have wrestled with the desire for proper representation with the idea that we select on merit, with the only consideration being ability. We believe that Local Parties are sovereign, with the only roles for the centre being in setting minimum quality standards for candidates and designing the processes for approval and selection. I've been at the heart of the debate for a long time and I know that we haven't always got it right, but we have tried.

For smaller Parties without deep-pocketed funders, it is difficult to provide the training and support that candidates, regardless of background, need. We do our best given the limits placed upon us, trying to be smart rather than omnipresent. And given the evident lack of support for state funding of political parties, I suspect that it is a problem that will not go away.

However, it seems that they have also fallen into the classic trap of believing that numbers are all that matters. As I have pointed out, and won the subsequent argument, the number of women, ethnic minority, disabled and gay candidates is far less important than the numbers in those categories who can actually win. In the past, I have heard positive reports that we selected, for example, eighteen BME candidates in London. The fact that none of them had a hope in hell of winning was considered to be of less importance.

On the contrary, this is not like the Olympics, it isn't the taking part that matters, it's the winning, and only the winning, that matters. The runners-up don't sit in Parliament, they don't count towards the diversity statistics that anyone cares about - the number of women/BME/disabled/gay MP's.

So, Mr Speaker, if you think that you'll make friends and influence people with a report like this, you're wrong. Oh yes, your new Labour friends will love you. But remember, they auctioned off their principles to the highest bidder years ago...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Brief reminders about Cambridge and, for that matter, the rest of England...

Time is running out!

Yes, the deadline for filing your papers to apply for approved candidate status for the 2010 General Election is just six days away. Hurry, hurry, hurry...

Oh yes, and the deadline for nominations for the Cambridge selection is coming closer too - 5 December is the cut off date. It will be a quick turnaround affair, with the calling notice reported to be scheduled for issue before Christmas. Watch this space!

George Osborne - Peggy Lee probably has it right

Now I admit to being a bit partisan. Yes, I would like the Liberal Democrats to form a government, introduce all of those things that I've been keen on over the years, and generally make the world a better place. However, if I can't have that, then all I ask for is that whoever is in charge gives the impression that they care and that they have a high level of competence.

Which brings me, once again, to the subject of George Osborne. It appears that he has managed to make a mess of his claim for mortgage interest expenses, claiming £1,400 for his second home in October, when the limit is just £1,250. His office claim that it was a 'submission in error'.

Error it may be, but it is indicative of a general level of sloppiness and a lack of attention to detail. In an aspiring Chancellor of the Exchequer, that can't be good, and it demonstrates once again that, whilst George hit gold once with his inheritance tax proposals in 2007, he has added very little to the sum of human knowledge since. One presumes that his retention as Shadow Chancellor is linked to something other than his skills in finance and economics, especially with Phil Hammond lurking in the shadows - a far more comforting option, might I suggest.

All this said, George does have form with expenses. Who could forget the £440.62 chauffeur bill for driving him from his second home in his constituency to London (he was entitled to a 5% discount for prompt payment but claimed the full amount anyway)? Or the rebuke for using public money to pay for an overtly political website? And, of course, the charge of 'flipping' after his rather fancy footwork over his mortgage arrangements?

All in all, not a pretty picture. Combined with his seemingly sub-GCSE grasp of economics, it does make you wonder... Perhaps Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller got it right, and so the final word goes to Peggy Lee. Take it away, Peggy...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

National Express East Anglia - a reply?

Thank you for contacting National Express East Anglia Customer Services, we have received your email and we aim to get back to you as soon as possible. Our target is to answer 90% of our contacts within 6 working days.

However, if your contact is urgent you may prefer to give us a call on 0845 600 7245 mentioning that you have already sent an email.

We'll see, shall we?...

National Express East Anglia - their contribution to saving the planet (this post may contain irony)

Sometimes, just sometimes, I find myself travelling backwards and forwards between London and Suffolk in first class, usually because the fare is marginally more expensive or, on the odd bizarre occasion, because it is actually cheaper. Today is one of those occasions, and so this posting comes to you from the 19:30 from London Liverpool Street to Norwich, the one train of the day when they provide an at-seat dinner service.

Except, with the flair and competence with which NXEA are now renown, I am sitting in a darkened coach J for the second time in a fortnight because the people who apparently manage this company cannot arrange to have lights that work, and so those lucky people who have actually paid a full fare to ride this evening are forced to peer through the gloom at whatever they are trying to read. No apology, no explanation. It may be environmentally friendly, but it isn't service.

Oh, but it gets better. Many of us use this train because of the dinner service which, although not complex, is at least nourishing, and therefore, we haven't eaten. It seems that, when the staff turned up to run the service, they discovered that their operations staff had somehow failed to include a carriage with a kitchen in it. Therefore, no dinner service, and as my train makes it way through the evening, I am not very impressed. Add the fact that the train is already nine minutes late at Chelmsford, and I am not in the mood to forgive this evening.

So, I will be writing to National Express East Anglia to complain about their continued inadequacy not, quite frankly, that I expect to get a reply. The manner in which they wriggled off of the hook in terms of their contract to run the East Coast Main Line service is probably indicative of their general contempt for their passengers and the Government.

Oh, and yes, I can guarantee that this will not be the last that NXEA hear of this...

George Osborne demonstrating that he isn't fit for purpose... again

It is clearly time for George to say something that sounds that it might be popular, and so he has leapt aboard the 10:10 bandwagon. Now clearly, as Liberal Democrats, we support the notion that organisations and individuals should cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 10% next year. However, in those places where we run councils, the commitment has to be backed up with action. George doesn't have that problem, and it shows.

He suggests that government departments should achieve the called for 10% reduction and, if they don't achieve it, he'll cut their budget. It's a great soundbite, albeit an entirely vacuous one. I suspect that if HM Treasury fail, or the Department for International Development, whilst the usual liberal suspsects will cry out, the populace won't. On the other hand, if the NHS fails, is he seriously saying that he would cut its budget? The Home Office? Would he cut the number of prison officers or probation officers, would he restrict the budget of police authorities? Thought not.

It is another reminder that he, and his fellow travellers, still do not understand how government works. He seems to think that the only way to get civil servants to respond is to beat them with a stick - we've been here before, I think - whereas the private sector only respond to carrots. Actually, both public and private sectors respond to the right incentive, and it isn't always the same one.

So, another fail grade for George. Six months until a General Election, and the Conservative front bench still shows no sign of grasping what is actually required from a political party in power. Come on ladies and gentlemen, get a grip, it's later than you think...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Defending the regulators - a bureaucrat breaks cover...

We did lose one vote during the debate on the theme resolution at the ELDR Congress, 'Liberal Answers For A New Prosperity', ironically on an amendment to an otherwise perfectly acceptable clause. A late proposal to call for a 25 per cent reduction in the administrative burdens for business by 2014, compared with their current level, set this bureaucrat's antennae twitching. What did it mean? A 25% reduction in the number of regulations? A 25% reduction in the administrative impact of regulations? Indeed, where did the figure of 25% come from at all?

Having spotted it, and argued against it in the working group, I then found myself supported by the delegation and given the freedom to speak in the debate itself. And this is what I said...

"Congress, I have a confession to make. I am a bureaucrat. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Regulation is not simply a burden, it is a balance. We regulate to advance our social agenda, to advance our economic agenda, to advance our environmental agenda. We balance the financial impact of that regulation against its benefits. Therefore, whilst Liberal Democrats support the principle of reducing the administrative burden, we believe that Europe and the member states need a scalpal, not a chainsaw, when attacking excessive bureaucracy.

The reduction sought of 25% has no basis, no precision. It does not indicate whether we wish to reduce the number of regulations by 25%, or the resource impact of regulation by 25%. It is, in short, a pretty soundbite, not a considered policy.

I therefore urge Congress to support the removal of the arbitrary figure from the resolution. Fellow liberals, let us be surgeons, not butchers."

It was, I believe, a fairly well-received intervention. Unfortunately, by a vote of eighty-nine votes to seventy-six, it turned out not to be quite well-received enough. Ah well, the point was made, and perhaps some of those so enthusiastic to slash regulation will remember my words when they discover just how difficult it is to carry out a balanced agenda without some, if not all, of our existing regulatory framework.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

An unexpected turn of events in Barcelona

I have to admit that I hadn't exactly expected to do anything more than attend the ELDR Congress, take a few notes and otherwise listen to some speeches. Indeed, I took in the working group on the theme resolution in the expectation that it would be interesting, informative and make good reportage. I didn't expect to have to do very much.

However, as it appeared that virtually all of our delegation had other plans for their time, I became the second spokesperson for our group on the resolution itself, with Gordon Lishman leading. Fortunately, Gordon is good on the political philosophy end of it, upholding our stance that, whilst free markets are a good thing, there is sometimes a need for balancing what is good for business with what is good for individuals and the wider community.

I was somewhat surprised by a proposal that regulation be cut by 25%. Given that the original draft called for a reduction in regulation, it seemed foolhardy to call for a precise figure, especially given that, whilst the figure was precise, its meaning was anything but. And so I found myself arguing against the proposal on behalf of a party which regularly calls for a reduction of the regulatory burden on companies.

Given the makeup of the working group, I wasn't entirely surprised to lose there. However, there was always a possibility of arguing the case in front of the entire Congress - a slim one, I admit, but a possibility nonetheless. And so, in the delegation meeting that evening, the case was made, and it was agreed that we should continue to argue it.

By the next afternoon, I had prepared a brief intervention, only to discover that Gordon had been appointed to be a counting assistant for the Bureau elections, leaving me to 'lead' the delegation in its voting on the theme resolution. Perhaps I should have taken more notes... Fortunately, there were enough members of Federal Policy Committee around to guide me past any areas of uncertainty, and we managed to cast our votes as Party policy dictated.

It is odd that an non-policy wonk should be put into such a position, and it isn't something that I would actively seek to do in future, but it is reassuring that, if the need arises again, I could do the job and get away with it.

Oh yes, you'll want to know what happened in the debate. Let's leave that for another story...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oh yes, you and whose army, Tom Strathclyde?

The Guardian reports that Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the Lords, is threatening to balk Labour attempts to push new legislation through before a General Election. Apparently, he feels that, without the consent of Tory peers, nothing can be passed. It seems that, amongst his many skills, arithmetic isn't to be found.

Firstly, he presumes that he can get his side to turn up and vote. The evidence of divisions since the summer recess is that he can't, especially after the dinner hour. Vote after vote that might have been won has been lost because Tories would rather be in a cosy armchair than doing their job, with at least one instance of a Conservative amendment lost in spite of Liberal Democrat support because they managed to turn out less than thirty to vote in support.

Second. and most importantly, assuming that the crossbenchers will not coalesce around one position - they are independents, after all - the House of Lords is in no overall control, with roughly equal numbers of Labour and Conservative peers and the rather more motivated, better organised and frankly more cohesive Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power. Our team vote in numbers, punch well above their weight, and are far more likely to hold this shambolic Government to account.

So, if Tom Strathclyde is reading this, he might like to remember that those pieces of legislation that address Liberal Democrat concerns in an appropriate and effective manner actually have a majority in the Lords, with or without the tattered remnants of the Conservative benches.

And, if David Cameron can find someone on his benches that can count, perhaps a new Leader might be worth consideration...

An A-Z of Valladares - J is for José

There are very few images of today's Valladares, flying or otherwise, for it is none other than José Sarmiento y Valladares (1643 - 1708), conde (count) de Moctezuma y de Tula, viceroy of New Spain from 1696 to 1701, and seemingly not a bad ruler relative to the time.

His first wife was a direct descendant of Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, from whence his title came. Whilst viceroy, he established a night watch in Mexico City to combat crime and, whilst the penalties were fairly extreme (whipping for a first offence, branding for a second offence, the loss of an ear for a third), one presumes that they were effective.

A supporter of Habsburg claims to the throne following the death of Charles II of Spain, he found himself on the wrong side when the Bourbons came to power in Madrid. However, he returned to Spain after being removed from his post, survived the residencia (effectively a commission of enquiry into charges against him) that followed and went on to be created Duke of Atrisco and becoming a grandee of Spain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Liberal Bureaucracy at the ELDR Congress!

Blogging here at Liberal Bureaucracy will be a bit light for the next few days, as I'm off to Barcelona to attend the ELDR Congress (oh, the glamour!). I hope to cover the event for Liberal Democrat Voice, but there may be some reportage here too.

Curiously, this will be my first ELDR Congress since Copenhagen in, if memory serves, 1990. Strangely, it was one of the things that I didn't reconnect with when I returned to frontline Party service in 2004, but it should be interesting.

Another addition to the blogroll

A few months ago, I was in Vancouver, attending the congress of the Liberal Party of Canada, and met a few of their bloggers briefly. And so, in honour of that occasion, I bring you Liblogs...

Cllr Bureaucrat and the Budget of Doom

Back to the demesne for another Parish Council meeting last night, with a packed agenda and a Chair keen to finish early so that he could catch "I'm a Celebrity, get me away from Jordan!", or whatever it's called.

An issue of interest to villagers is the introduction of taxi metering by Mid Suffolk District Council, and given that I've noticed the effective fare increase, I thought that it was right to question our District Councillor, Caroline Byles, on the subject, only to get an answer that I hadn't expected. She claims that an amendment moved by the Green Party group and passed by the appropriate committee has added to the fare charged to those whose journey starts from somewhere other than the town.

This raises two questions. Firstly, Mid Suffolk is a Conservative-run council, so why are the Greens winning votes? Second, where was the consultation, or even the announcement? As a Parish Council, we might well have had something to say on the subject. In any event, I'm keen to find out what really happened. Allied to the advice from Suffolk County Council that we can't have a bus stop for the village, it's been a bad week for public transport in Creeting St Peter.

Our first discussion of the budget was a gentle one. There is a difference of opinion as to what we should be attempting to do, and how we fund that. I am a cautious soul, and am uncomfortable about spending other people's money without their tacit approval. It would be fair to say that my view is not universally shared, but we have agreed to consider our options and make a final decision at the next meeting.

I'm looking at the budget on a line by line basis, adhering to the principle of 'value for money' - which doesn't necessarily mean the cheapest option - as I'd rather spend our limited funds on things that actually make a difference. Besides, I have a duty of care, don't I?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Agonising over a budget - fiscal prudence in a time of austerity

Alright, for those of you who serve on rather more high-powered local authorities than Creeting St Peter Parish Council (and in truth, if any of you are elected to a local authority, your budget is bound to be bigger than mine - in some cases by multiples of 100,000), my dilemma is a familiar one. However, that doesn't make it any easier.

This evening, the Parish Council meets to consider a draft budget for next year, and I have my concerns. Our precept is currently £4000, which amounts to £38.45 per household (yes, we really are that small), and we have generous reserves, currently equivalent to a year's spending. On the downside, nearly 70% of that precept goes towards staffing costs, and we are vulnerable to unexpected one-off charges. As an example, if an election were to be called to fill a vacancy on the Parish Council, the cost would be £432 (216 electors @ £2 each). I accept that we don't have elections - competition would be a fine thing - but we need to hold funds just in case the village went democracy crazy and hordes of candidates suddenly came forward.

It's the lack of data that causes me to fret. Is £340 for grass-cutting a good deal or not? What potential increase in costs for street lighting should we allow for? Indeed, is it sensible for a Parish Council of our size to make charitable donations? Given that the combined length of service of two out of our three councillors is less than a year, on what basis can we decide? This is where our Parish Clerk is important, and although she has only been engaged since 1 April, she is very experienced.

My personal aim is to, at worst, freeze the precept for 2010/11, although if I can cut it, I will. Yes, a 1% cut will put just 38 pence a year back in the pockets of each household, but in a time of austerity, it sends a signal out to council taxpayers that we are cutting our cloth to reflect what they are experiencing.

We'll see what happens this evening...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Talk about efficient! Andrew Duff's office come up trumps

One of the things about producing a Focus leaflet is making sure that you have enough material. And given that not much happens in a District Council ward as a rule, any help that you can get can only be a good thing.

However, there is a point to seking material from other sources. The residents of Stowupland and Creeting St Peter don't just vote at District level, they have votes at Parish, County, Westminster and European levels, so my Focus leaflet is a means by which other candidates and representatives can get a message out. I'm told that this is what is meant by an integrated campaigning strategy...

Last time, I asked our PPC, David Chappell, for some input, and I used his contribution to make a point about MP expenses. This time, I thought that I might include some European content - it only seems right to remind people that Europe isn't wholly a bad thing - so I sent an e-mail to Andrew Duff's office earlier this evening, to see if they had anything I could drop into a leaflet. And, within a few hours, I got a reply from Tim Huggan, letting me know that they would be pleased to help and asking for a deadline. On a Sunday, no less! I am suitably impressed.

I know that there are many that are cautious about incorporating a European message in their campaigning - the public are anti-Europe, they say. However, you can't change that by hiding in the trenches, and I think that if we're honest about the failings of European institutions and bold about talking up the benefits of international co-operation, we might yet be surprised by the results.

An A-Z of Valladares - N is for Noel

The flying goalkeeper pictured here failing to save a penalty is Noel Eduardo Valladares, one of the heroes of the Honduran national football team that recently qualified for next year's World Cup in South Africa.

Fortunately, he tends to save more than he lets in, which may explain why he has earned nearly seventy caps for his country, and why Honduras had the best defensive record in the final CONCACAF qualifying phase - all important when you consider that they edged out Costa Rica on goal difference. So, watch out for him, as it might be Wayne Rooney and the boys who are trying to beat him next year!

Oh, and that penalty? It was against Mexico at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, it was well struck and at that altitude it does fly a bit quicker...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New selection rules passed by English Candidates Committee

I am delighted to report that the proposed new Selection Rules for Parliamentary candidates have been passed by ECC with only minor amendments. I don't want to go into too much detail for the time being, especially as they need to be ratified by English Council next year, but the principles that underpin them are:
  • a two-tier approach, with a pared back set of rules for development seats
  • greater potential freedom for candidates in the campaign phase
  • the opportunity for Local Parties to opt for a more rigorous process should they deem it necessary at any phase of the selection, but not to opt out
  • greater protection for applicants from arbitrary decisions by shortlisting committees

I'm pretty pleased about the way things have gone, and I hope that the efforts of the working group who led on this, chaired by Sal Jarvis, meet with wide approval.

Advice to prospective Parliamentary candidates - if not now, then when?

Talking about the Cambridge selection reminds me that I haven't rattled on about candidates for a while. Let's remedy that...

Career success is not just about talent and hard work, although without those key elements, you are unlikely to be successful. However, most successful people will acknowledge that being in the right place at the right time helps. It's knowing where the right place is and when the right time is that presents the challenge...

David Howarth's rather unexpected decision to retire at the next General Election is, for some lucky soul, the right time. As a reasonably safe seat, with Labour as the main challengers, it looks like the right place. However, it leaves little time for preparation, and the very tight schedule means that only already approved candidates are likely to be serious contenders*.

So, what should the ambitious Liberal Democrat learn from this? Get your application form for approval as a Parliamentary candidate in now! Yes, you might not have a seat in mind, you may live in a constituency where the MP is a Liberal Democrat of comparative youthfulness, you may not see an opportunity that entices. But, as David Howarth has demonstrated, you never know what might happen. And if you aren't ready to take an opportunity when it comes up, you might not get another one like it for a while. By then, there'll be new challengers, perhaps someone who has taken my advice.

* Yes, you're right, a Selection Committee can choose to include unapproved applicants, as long as they are approved prior to shortlisting. But they don't have to, and any such applicant merely adds to the pressure of the assessment day. You're also relying on a Regional Candidates Chair holding an assessment day in time, in a place where you can reach it and with a spare slot. How lucky are you feeling?

URGENT: If you're not an approved Parliamentary candidate and want to run for Parliament next year

English Candidates Committee has just decided that the deadline for applications for approval as a potential Parliamentary candidate for the next General Election will be 1 December.

Given that there are nearly one hundred applicants for approval (virtually all of them recent) awaiting an assessment day, and that there are already more than twice as many approved candidates without seats (excluding those on the inactive list) as there are vacancies, applications received after that date will not be offered an assessment day until after the General Election.

English Party - is the election of a new Chair not worth reporting?

Four weeks ago, I wrote about the contest to be Chair of the English Liberal Democrats. It drew little interest at the time, and none since. And now, courtesy of the Party President, I know the outcome. So, congratulations to Jonathan Davies on his success.

That's the last positive I can muster. It is a shocking indictment of an organisation that has tremendous influence on the running of the Party that there is no coverage of the outcome, no indication as to who will be running the English Party next year. You might almost suspect that they would prefer us not to know, as we might only want to hold them accountable.

Apparently, the results will be announced at English Council in two weeks time, and then published in Liberal Democrat News. Most unsatisfactory, to my mind, and implies that the rest of us aren't worth worrying about. As a Regional Secretary-elect, I will be making my displeasure known...

English Candidates Committee - a big finish for the faceless bureaucrat?

It's an absolutely vile morning in Essex, with strong, blustering winds and cold, heavy rain battering the 8.39 from Stowmarket to London. Given that I'm not in the best of moods - it was my birthday yesterday (45, since you ask) and I tend to the view that birthdays mark another step towards senescence and death - at last I don't feel out of place.

My task today is to hold the line on the new Selection Rules for Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in the face of an English Candidates Committee populated in part by the sort of people that give bureaucracy a bad name. Make no mistake, the notion that their role is to serve members and Local Parties rather than the other way round is something that one occasionally feels the need to remind them of.

One of my colleagues in particular, Brian Orrell, currently Chair of the English Party tends to the view that things can't be done and that they're all too difficult. Process is all the appears to matter, and the impact of bureaucracy on hard-pressed Local Parties is not a core consideration. The reports that the last attempt to simplify and rationalise the Selection Rules ran into the sand in part due to his efforts don't exactly surprise me.

I'll report back on the meeting later, assuming that I haven't gone berserk with an assault weapon and created a bunch of vacancies for Regional Candidates Chairs...

"And they're under starters orders!" - the starting gun is fired in Cambridge

Yes, the advert was in yesterday's Liberal Democrat News, and nominations will close on Friday, December 4th. If you're interested, I'd move fast if I were you...

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Returning Officer is appointed for Cambridge

My sources tell me that Paul Clark, the outgoing Chair of the East of England Regional Party, has been appointed as Returning Officer for the Cambridge selection contest...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

MOD bonuses - why do people talk such nonsense?

I see that there is another story in this morning's papers about bonuses paid to civil servants, in this instance at the Ministry of Defence. And yet again, levels of outrage are high, predominantly from those who, I note, aren't civil servants. Might I politely suggest that, before getting on their high horse, they actually find out why these bonuses have been paid (yes, and that includes you, Mr Reeves...)?

You see, contrary to popular opinion, most civil service employees are equally opposed to bonuses linked to performance, and yet these have been foisted on us by governments who seem to think that they improve performance. Actually, for the most part, they are subject to arbitrary guidelines whereby generous managers will reward quite ordinary performance whilst others only reward the sort of performance that Stakhanov would have been proud of. An amount of the paybill is ring-fenced for bonuses, and the amount of bonus received is related to the number of those deemed to qualify. So, if everyone works hard and exceeds their targets, the incentive (bonus) is reduced.

The bonuses take no account of the range of jobs performed, and rely on monitoring systems which encourage staff to focus on easy tasks, a greater number of which can be delivered than those more complex, more time-consuming ones. There are no standards applied across the piece, so that the reward for performing to a certain level in Stockport, for example, may vary wildly from that for a similar performance level in St Austell. In short, it is a dog's breakfast which gives the impression of rewarding performance whilst actually empowering local managers to reward their favourites in some cases.

This Party does have a record of kicking civil servants, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. However, we have votes too, and whilst politicians have every right to comment on the effectiveness of a policy, they also have a responsibility to treat people with respect, especially if they're planning to ask those very people for that vote at some point in the future. After all, hypocrisy is such an unfortunate word...

Last week in the Lords (part 2) - "actually, Goliath tends to beat David nine times out of ten"

The week closed with further debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill, where Lord Lester of Herne Hill moved Amendment 19;

in clause 154, page 101, line 17, at end to insert:

“( ) it is a heinous offence, and”

in an attempt to tidy up the Government's flawed attempt to prevent those guilty of the most serious crimes from benefitting from publication of the details of those crimes. As he put it, "Like the Mikado, I hope the Government and the House, will appreciate that, “my object all sublime”, is to, “let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime”. You have to admit that you just don't get that level of erudition in the Commons... Erudition is not its own reward, unfortunately, and the amendment was lost by 107 votes to 59.

Suddenly one down, it was time to throw men (and women) forward in an attempt to snatch an equaliser, and Baroness Miller was close with Amendment 26 to the Policing and Crime Bill;

clause 16, page 18, line 36,

after “person” to insert “aged 18 or over”

The Bill as currently drafted currently criminalises those under the age of eighteen accused of 'loitering for purposes of prostitution'. As Sue Miller pointed out, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a convention that the United Kingdom has signed up to, she noted, states “The State party should always consider, both in legislation and in practice, children victims of these criminal practices, including child prostitution, exclusively as victims in need of recovery and reintegration and not as offenders”.

Despite support from the Crossbenches, defeat was guaranteed when the Conservatives yet again sat on their hands, although am eighty votes to sixty-eight defeat demonstrated that it was a cause worth fighting for.

Two down and time running out, with the benches emptying, Lord Thomas of Gresford made one last effort with Amendment 96ZA;

before clause 66, to insert the new clause

Restriction on extradition in cases where trial in United Kingdom is more appropriate.

discussion of which touched upon the McKinnon case, where the United States wishes to extradite a young computer hacker, despite concerns as to jurisdiction. Whilst the amendment had been moved in Committee by the Conservative, Baroness Neville-Jones, her unwillingness to press the issue meant that a Liberal Democrat was needed to take up the cudgel. And yet, with common cause between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, the absence of Conservatives when it really mattered meant that the vote was lost by sixty-eight to forty-six.

So, a bad week closed with more defeats. Ah well, the Government do outnumber our Peers by a three to one margin...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Party attracts my attention and saves me money

To be honest, when the mailing hits my doormat inviting me to hand over some vast sum of money so that I can attend Federal Conference, I usually put it aside and promptly forget about it. This usually causes me to miss the early booking rate and makes it even more expensive.

However, this year is different. A strangely turquoise, rather glossy magazine-like thing emerged from the envelope. I was, I admit, rather impressed, so much so that I have registered for both conferences at a cost of £87 - a pretty good deal for those that can afford it.

The document itself is one of the best I've seen emerge from Cowley Street and is evidence that the Party is becoming more professional in terms of branding - the colour scheme matches that of the new website. It actually gives the impression that Federal Conference is valuable, that you might have fun and that you might learn a thing or two.

Stand up and take a bow, Conference Office and all involved...

Lest we forget...

Central Suffolk and North Ipswich - local Tories need not apply..

Gosh, our local Tories do know how to have a good time! Whilst in South West Norfolk, the local Conservative Association has imploded over the question of Liz Truss's affair with Mark Field, somewhat closer to home, the final shortlist for the 27 November open primary for my neighbouring constituency of Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has sparked off a more basic but no less intriguing dispute.

If it was indeed the case that Sir Michael Lord's retirement was a case of jumping before he was pushed, it hasn't gone quite to plan, as the shortlist excludes all of the local applicants, including the Leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, Tim Passmore, and two senior Suffolk county councillors, Jane Storey and Guy McGregor. So much heat has this generated that the Conservative Group on Mid Suffolk District Council has written to the East Anglian Daily Times to complain about, in particular, Tim Passmore's exclusion.

However, the final shortlist (Katy Bourne, Timothy Clark, Joanna Gardner, Daniel Poulter, Dominic Schofield, and Claire Strong) has been selected by a five-strong group from the local Conservative Association, advised by Eric Pickles, and they claim to be happy with the shortlist. One presumes that they'll be receiving a few less Christmas cards this year... and I suspect that the Liberal Democrat PPC, Andrew Aalders-Dunthorne, was chuckling over his breakfast this morning...

A quick glance at the shortlist is interesting, notably for the presence of Joanna Gardner, daughter of Baroness Gardner of Parkes (think tough Aussie battler and you'll know who she is). Otherwise, there appears not to be a single candidate with any connection to the county, so if you see a rather confused person wandering the streets of Mendlesham or Wickham Skeith, asking about farming or social exclusion, you'll be able to narrow it down to one of six people...

What happens when you give a cat valium?

I have to admit that this is not a question that I had ever given much thought to, but I now have an answer. Perhaps I ought to explain.

My remaining cats, Katherine (aged 17) and Cincinnati (aged 16) are increasingly vet bills waiting to happen. Cincinnati is a fairly placid soul who, whilst he would prefer not to be in a cat carrier, behaves well with vets - the world is his friend. Katherine, on the other hand, hates the whole experience and gets into such a state that she has rather traumatising fits when being transported. Ros, finding this to be almost as stressful as Katherine does, wondered aloud about tranquilisers and so I was tasked with finding out more.

And yes, there is cat valium, and with a visit to the vet scheduled for Monday morning, I got the job of administering the drug to Katherine. She has sharp teeth and savage claws, but I managed to get her to swallow her medication. What followed was unexpected.

Almost immediately, she seemed to lose the ability to walk but made her way rather groggily towards the upstairs landing. The next moment, there was the sound of something falling down the stairs so I rushed to the scene, just in time to see her lurch away, seemingly unhurt but for her dignity.

After all of that, the visit to the vet went smoothly and you'll be pleased to hear that Katherine is none the worse for her misadventure. I might make sure that she is downstairs before I administer the valium again though...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Last week in the Lords (part 1) - say it ain't so, Sue, say it ain't so...

It was, of course, too good to last. The three-game unbeaten streak for the Liberal Democrats in the Lords had to come to an end eventually, and last week saw the Empire strike back with a vengeance.

Baroness Garden of Frognal attempted to improve the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill with Amendment 27;

in clause 40, page 20, line 37, at end to insert:

“( ) a documented discussion of training needs resulting in a decision on whether to extend such provision to the applicant took place within the previous 12 months”.

This amendment had been suggested by the Institute of Directors, no less, and sought to lessen the organisational burden on those companies that have regular performance reviews bult in to their HR systems and, whilst the Conservatives claimed to support it, when Sue Garden decided to 'test the opinion of the House', they were nowhere to be seen, and the amendment was lost by 65 votes to 131. Yes, we ended up with the bizarre scenario of a proposal from the Institute of Directors being lost for want of Conservative support.

Worse still was to follow, as the shambolic performance of the Conservatives continued, with their subsequent amendment being lost despite significant Liberal Democrat support. Indeed, only twenty-eight Conservative Peers could rouse themselves to support their own proposal, whilst thirty-nine Liberal Democrats turned up to support them. Anyone would think that they didn't want to give Labour any ideas for when they return to opposition...

The Policing and Crime Bill is now back in the Lords for its Report Stage, and our leading goalscorer since play resumed in October, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, moved amendment 1;

to insert the following new clause Transparency in policing.

Apparently, the Association of Chief Police Officers is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Sue Miller was keen to change that, given that ACPO develops policing strategies. Clearly, the Government doesn't believe that policing strategy is a matter of urgency, even though they support the proposal (go figure...), and the Conservatives are disinterested (clearly, Conservatives have nothing to fear from the police...), so the amendment was lost by a fairly resounding 142 votes to 50.

The next day, our plucky Peers returned to the fray, with Baroness Sharp of Guildford moving Amendment 131 to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill;

in clause 111, page 70, line 19, after "body" to insert "but excluding a regional body such as a Regional Development Agency".

Her attempt was borne from the knowledge that giving that power to Regional Development Agencies the size of that for the South East would, in her words, 'eviscerate the notion of a bottom-up development of skills' as had originally been envisaged. Yes, Labour's centralising tendancies strike again. And, despite the Liberal Democrats turning out nearly 70% of their potential vote, the absence of credible Conservative support was enough to condemn the amendment by 136 votes to 96. Like Luton Town in the face of a Rochdale comeback, we had allowed the Government to snatch an equaliser, and worse was to follow...

Open Up Now? No, I really don't think so...

The idea of involving more people in our democracy is always a laudable one. Increasing turnout, encouraging a wider spread of candidates and thus voter choice, making people feel better connected to those who purport to represent them, all of these are concepts which I whole-heartedly support. As a member of the Council and Management Board of 'Unlock Democracy', I don't just think about it, I play a small role in helping to campaign for real change.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd yet I look upon 'Open Up' with a degree of horror. The idea that all applicants should go through an open primary system to pick the candidates of each and every Party should really be seen for what it is - a nonsense. If a political party, open to all, wishes to decide how it should decide upon a candidate, then it should have the right to do so as it chooses, not through an expensive process which, may I remind the backers of Open Up, has to be paid for.

It's all very well for them to suggest that there is plenty of money available, as they do in their Q & A:

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government? From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it's obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we're going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small. On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:
  • The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
  • Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, "Election 2005: Campaign Spending"). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
    Conservative Party £17,852,245
    Labour Party £17,939,618
    Liberal Democrats £4,324,574
What an astonishingly dense point to make. The first element is spent regardless, and pays for returning officers, the staff who man polling stations, counting agents, printing of ballot papers, the list goes on. The second element is raised by the political parties from their supporters. I can't speak for the two 'ugly sisters' but our Cinderella raises most of its money from our members and the money is spent on a small but precious staff, leaflets, posters and the tools used to communicate our messages to voters.

There is no suggestion as to how much open primaries will cost, nor what they hope to achieve apart from a nebulous concept that they will give voters more choice. Really? How does that work? In an open primary, is the whole electorate equipped to decide who is the best Liberal Democrat, or best Green or, heaven forbid, BNP candidate for its constituency? And if the political party spends all of its income on selecting a candidate, how does it then tell anyone what that candidate is campaigning about, or for, or against? Perhaps Alan Parker and his friends are planning to have a whipround?

Indeed, if they want the open process they claim to seek, are they going to prevent political parties from vetting candidates? At which point, how do you ensure that the Liberal Democrat candidate is actually a Liberal Democrat? And you know, I want to be confident that he or she is.

I'm afraid that this looks like a plot to remove smaller political parties, neuter the Liberal Democrats, and return British politics to the two-party red/blue politics of the 1950's. No, if they are serious about opening up the political process, why not campaign for multi-member open list constituencies elected using STV? That way, anyone can run, political parties are forced to offer up a range of candidates in order to appeal to a diverse community, and you abolish the safe seat.

Instead, this is not so much a missed opportunity as an attempt to hitch a ride on the bandwagon of public revulsion at politics, politicians and all of their works.

The bleeding continues for Labour in the Lords...

The last week of October saw more Government defeats in the Lords. On 26 October, Baroness Fookes moved Amendment 44;

in Schedule 8, page 139, line 30, at end to insert

“( ) One Deputy Chief Coroner shall be appointed with specific responsibilities for the oversight of military inquests and for the specialist training of all coroners undertaking military inquests.”

Whilst it would be nice to see more Conservative Peers, there were more than enough present, combined with the Liberal Democrats and crossbenchers, to inflict a 153-127 defeat on the increasingly battered Labour front bench.

Emboldened by that, Lord Lloyd of Berwick essayed two amendments from the crossbenches. Sadly, with the Conservatives by now asleep or voting with the Government, they both fell, but Lord Thomas of Gresford had one last shot in his locker, Amendment 62;

Clause 49, page 29, line 32, leave out paragraph (c)

This was a paragraph which sought to remove sexual infidelity from those grounds which might represent provocation and cause a loss of self-control. Odd, really, as 'crimes passionelle' often seems to stem from issues of sexual infidelity. It was getting to the point when brandy, a good cigar and some bedtime reading was beginning to look attractive, but in the vote that followed the debate, a coalition of those remaining Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the crossbenchers was enough to inflict a 99-84 defeat.

So, three weeks into the session, three Liberal Democrat amendments all won. Good work, team!

So, what is going to happen in Cambridge, now that David Howarth is standing down?

With the announcement that David Howarth is standing down, there will doubtless be some urgency to select his replacement. So, how will this work?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe first task is, technically, for the Local Party to approach the Regional Candidates Chair (RCC) to appoint a Returning Officer. This shouldn't be a lengthy process, as Catherine Smart, East of England's RCC, is a Cambridge City councillor. She will be responsible for the appointment, and might well be the first RCC to have to appoint a Returning Officer in such circumstances - held seat, own constituency. She'll be looking for an experienced Returning Officer and, whilst there are only two senior RO's in East of England to my knowledge (Catherine and myself), there are others who are more than capable of taking on such a role. I'm not available, which rules me out...

Meanwhile, the Local Party will be seeking to nominate a selection committee. As this is a held seat, it will be expected that all members will have undergone the formal training available, which includes an element of diversity awareness. They will also have to, as far as is possible, reflect the membership of the Local Party. The Returning Officer will have to agree the composition.

The Returning Officer will seek a meeting with the Local Party Executive as soon as possible to discuss the process and outline a possible timetable. Bear in mind that Christmas will intervene, and that this is likely to be contested, and one will realise that the process is unlikely to be completed until late February at best.

So, much to do in Cambridge, and we await news as they work their way through the Selection Rules...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Over my shoulder a piano falls, crashing to the ground...

It's amazing what you can find on the internet...

But seriously, I'm beginning to realise that my always rather flaky sense of organisational discipline is beginning to collapse. There is much to do and I really ought to get on with it. So I'd better get on with something...

Buddy, can you spare me some vertebrae?

The problem with years of bad posture, slouching in chairs, failing to bend at the knees and combining that with a lack of exercise and, to be blunt, carrying a few stone in weight that ill-suit me is that, eventually, you pay a price. For me, that price is back trouble and, just at the moment, it would be fair to say that I'm suffering a bit.

On the other hand, it is something that I could do something about. I could sit up straight in my chair, on the sofa and on trains. I could walk more and I could attend a 'back school' (my office are, if nothing else, keen to make sure that I am fit to be enslaved - sorry, work for them). I could lose some weight, take up an exercise regime.

My problems are, not unusually, in the lumbar region. Carrying extra weight means that the lumbar vertebrae are pulled forwards, increasing the pressure on them at the back and sharpening the curve demonstrated in the picture. The problem manifests itself in back spasms and the occasionally sharp jabbing pain, all of which is heightened when I'm tired. It's been a difficult autumn in terms of finding time to rest and recuperate, and I'm counting on December and January for some downtime.

In the meantime, I'm obliged to take a few steps to protect my back. Time to find out about that 'back school', I think...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

And whilst we're talking about pyramids...

Alright, now I've been, what did I think?

The pyramids at Giza are, in themselves, pretty impressive. A lot more eroded than one is led to imagine, but pretty impressive nonetheless. So, why in the name of Cthulhu would you put a bus park at the base of one of them? And, if you got a ancient boat to display, why would you put it in an astonishingly ugly building right in front of another one? Put it this way, if the ancestors come back, those responsible had better have an good apology ready.

Giza has suffered from horrendous encroachment, virtually all of it illegal and, thus far, unpunished. The fact that you can see Pizza Hut and KFC signs close to the monument does everything to sap any sense of atmosphere from a visit to the pyramids. Compare and contrast with Machu Picchu, where there is no development allowed anywhere near the site except one fairly inobtrusive hotel built outside the exit.

And yet, this would not be enough to kill off the wonderment but for the never-ending hassle of wannabe guides, hijacking you and then demanding money. Heavens, even the security guards want tipping.

My advice to the authorities would be to remove all of the camel riders, fake guides and purveyors of astonishingly tacky souvenirs, and take a look at Skara Brae to see exactly what can be done with such a fantastic piece of history. If need be, do the former at gunpoint.

All of this said, the pyramids are amazing. If I had been given thirty seconds to just admire the view, I would have waxed lyrical about the wonders that allowed the Ancient Egyptians to build such enormous structures using only the primitive tools available then (oh yes, and tens of thousands of slaves, but let us not cavil...). I have to say, the Sphinx is a bit smaller than I had expected...

A day out with Il Patrone

I wasn't the only Liberal Democrat in Cairo for the Liberal International Congress, and with a spare day on the Sunday, it seemed obvious to do something touristic. So, what to do in Cairo on a Sunday? Well, there were those funny looking mountains that we could see from the window of our hotel room... And so, we found ourselves in a car heading through the suburbs towards Giza with two other delegates.

Our fellow travellers were Liberal International Patron and former President, the Rt Hon Lord Steel of Aikwood, and his former assistant, Atul Vadher. I find it, in retrospect, remarkable that it is twenty years since he led our Party, as he is still pretty lively.

I am disappointed in just one sense. As 'Il Patrone', I would expect to see him with a fine cigar, mojito in hand, with a silver-tipped cane, panama hat and a dancing girl on his arm. I think that he'd look damned good...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

As a service to my fellow Liberal Democrats...

Every man needs a hobby, and regular readers will know that mine is bureaucracy. I served as Regional Secretary in London for three years (2005 to 2007). And now I'm back (from outer space) but with a twist. And so, it is with great pleasure that, on 1 January, I will be taking up my new role as Regional Secretary for the East of England Liberal Democrats.

A man should keep himself busy, after all...