Thursday, December 30, 2010

There are more important things than blogging...

I admit that blogging has been a bit light of late, with ill health, Christmas and my campaign in Stowupland either getting in the way, or taking priority.

Both Ros and I went down with flu-like symptoms, although whilst Ros was relatively stoic about it, I ended up out of action for three days. Christmas was fun though, and I rather enjoyed the whole presents, food and general socialising stuff.

Since Christmas, we've been concentrating on getting calendars delivered across Stowupland ward. Neither of us is 100% by any means, but we've plodded on and, with a day to spare, the task is complete.

And so to 2011, with much to do, and a few changes on Planet 'Liberal Bureaucracy'. But I'll save that until next year...

Another thing learnt about country life...

Funny looking thing, isn't it? But what is it?

The answer is, a sugarbeet, or what's left after an enormous piece of farming equipment has gone through a field of beet, digging them up for transfer to the nearest sugar factory - in our case, at Bury St Edmunds.

The 'campaign' has been somewhat delayed by the frozen ground, although it was fairly late in our parts last year in any event. However, for part of a day, the main road out of our village to the north, towards Stowupland, was blocked by large lorries being loaded up with newly unearthed beet. Now I don't have the world's greatest sense of smell, but I could have sworn that the air smelt a bit like sugar.

I've also seen fields full of sugarcane, in places like Mauritius and Fiji, and when the fields are burnt, the air is filled with a caramel smell. The difference is that you can make a fairly lethal liquor out of sugarcane, and I'm yet to be convinced that you can do anything interesting with sugarbeet. Does anyone know any different?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

East of England Liberal Democrat election results

It's hard to believe that the Regional Conference took place more than seven weeks ago, but we've finally concluded our business with the announcement of our Executive Committee election results for 2011. Admittedly, the Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and Candidates Chair were all elected unopposed, but we did need a new Vice Chair, and there were slightly fewer Executive member vacancies than there were candidates.

And so it gives me great pleasure to announce that that the results are as follows;

Chair: Julie Smith

Vice Chair: Baroness (Ros) Scott

Chair of Candidates Committee: Catherine Smart

Secretary: Mark Valladares

Treasurer: Ian Radford

Executive Members: Roy Benford, Paul Clark, Nick Hollinghurst, Sal Jarvis, Steve Jarvis, James Joyce, Graham Longley, Rupert Moss-Eccardt, Stephen Robinson, Sandy Walkington, Jon Whitehouse and Allan Siao Ming Witherick

The other sub-committee chairs will be elected in the New Year, as will the Regional Training Co-ordinator.

I'm particularly impressed at the strength at the top of the 'batting lineup', although the overall gender imbalance is a little troubling. Luckily, we have some co-options at our disposal...

Fantasy Football: Lib Dems in the Fantasy Cup - 1st Round

Alright, you knew that someone was going to start to take an interest in the Fantasy Football eventually, and those of you who hate these things might want to look away now, as they used to say on a Saturday evening before Match of the Day was on.

This week saw the first round of the Fantasy Cup, and with ninety-seven of the Liberal Democrat League's participants surviving Week 17's qualifying round, there were the prospects for a decent number of survivors, especially given the form shown by some of our leading exponents of the beautiful game thus far. And so it turned out, with fifty-six winners and forty-one losers on a weather-decimated weekend.

Given that only three 'real' matches beat the freeze, teams scouring the relative bargain basement for players from teams such as Sunderland were far better off than those focussing on the big six, only one of whom played (and don't Manchester City wish that they hadn't?). That meant plenty of potential for the top sides to be ambushed by minnows with a bit of luck, and a random element not sought after by those who have put a lot of trouble into their selections.

So, here are some of the highlights from the first round;

Easiest victories

Nick Davies's 'Wenger's 2nd XI' blew their opponents, 'Tripp United', out of the water, 36 - 0, but that's what you should do to a team ranking nearly a million places below you. On the other hand, David Powell's 'Beedophiles' 36 -5 thrashing of Marts Yellow Army, ranking one hundred thousand places better, and in the top quintile to boot, was probably very satisfying indeed.

Most effortless victories

In a week when the average score was just fourteen, it was quite possible to beat your opponent by getting a player onto the pitch at all. James Staff's 'Realpolitick' probably didn't even need to do that, defeating 'Astros' 4 - -4 (when the only player in your squad to see action gets sent off, that's never going to end well). At least Andrew Dandilly's 'Keith' had to defeat opponents who scored more than zero, even if 'Olympiakos' still went down 5 - 2.

The top guns

Some unexpected defeats in the first round saw the demise of Ryan Cullen's 'Artesea Athletic', beaten 4 - 17 by '', and the Chair of Federal Conference Committee, Andrew Wiseman's 'Wiseman Wanderers', beaten 7 - 31 by 'Urgi'. Both sides went into their fixtures ranked in the top 12,000 globally (to give you an idea as to just how good that is, it ranks them in the top 0.5%) and would have fancied the prospects of a decent cup run.

Meanwhile, league leading Alick Cotterill's 'The Welsh Wanglers' glided past lowly 'Danson Queens' 32 - 4, and Charlie Garnett's 'Waa Hageeg' scraped past 'Relegation 10/11' by the odd point in 41. On rankings alone, it shouldn't have been close, until you noted that the opposition had only entered the league in week 13...

MP corner

Just in case the Daily Telegraph are eavesdropping, John Leech's 'Mike's Dodgy Beard' beat 'Dingle FC' 25 -14, and Adrian Sanders' 'Torquay Utd' scraped through 6 - 0 against 'Leijona Jonna'.

And finally, classic Liberal Democrat underdog victories...

To be honest, most of the teams near the bottom of the Liberal Democrat Fantasy League are there because they're rubbish. Harsh, I know, but true. So, we should celebrate their successes.

The weakest team in the league, and one that, with the exception of the reserve goalkeeper, appears to consist entirely of Scots, is R Provan's 'The Huhney Monsters'. Ranked 2,187,831 against opponent 'mudhaFC', ranked 290,070, you wouldn't have given them much of a chance, but by pulling off a 14 - 9 victory, the plucky minnow lives to fight another day.

But for sheer nail-biting randomness, how about Clea Curtis's 'Purple People'? Ranked 2,135,713, her gallant heroes snatched a 23 -23 draw against 'Timooo', ranked 469,271. Goals scored couldn't separate the two teams, but by conceding two goals to her opponent's three, she's snatched a place in the second round.

Author's postscript

And yes, my personal interest remains strong, especially after 'Deportivo Creeting' beat 'Winky Wanderers' 28 - 17...

And so, until next week, cue 'Match of the Day' theme...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Liberal Democrat Court Circular: your guide to forthcoming introductions in the Lords…

It is with breathless excitement that ‘Liberal Bureaucracy’ can bring you news of our newest Peers, who are beginning to don ermine for their big day, being introduced to the House of Lords. And whilst introductions smack somewhat of a conveyor belt at the moment (there are as many as three a day in the coming weeks), it is useful to know when our corner of the red benches becomes more populous.

Today, in fact, saw the first of the fifteen new Liberal Democrat Peers to be introduced, so step forward Lord Sharkey, who was introduced about three hours ago by the noble Baronesses Scott of Needham Market, and Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury. He has picked an excellent day to be introduced, as the ermine robes will be welcome on such a cold day.

On a personal note, I’m delighted for John, as he’s one of the good guys, and has given generously of his time, experience and knowledge without seeking the limelight or trying to change the philosophical culture of the Party. It is very tempting for people relatively new to the culture of any organisation to try to ‘kick over the traces’, but John has shown due respect for the way we traditionally do things. In a party notoriously cynical about anything that smacks of ‘public relations’ or ‘media management’, he has quietly and effectively gone about his work. He will bring valuable knowledge of the creative and marketing sectors into our team in the Lords, and will remain a valued advisor to the Leader.

Future scheduled introductions to mark in your diary are;
  • 22 December – Dee Doocey
  • 10 January – Susan Kramer
  • 11 January – Judith Jolly
  • 12 January – Paul Strasburger
  • 13 January – Jonathan Marks
  • 17 January – Rajinder Loomba
  • 19 January – Ben Stoneham
The remainder are yet to be scheduled, but we’ll report them all here as news reaches us…

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: gosh, people really are that stupid!

The British delight in snow having been proved to possess a very short shelf life, the inquests have started into why we are so rubbish in dealing with snow. And whilst there is no doubt that our basic infrastructure weaknesses are highlighted in such extreme conditions, the stupidity of some of our fellow citizens has also become apparent.

As Ros drove me to the station this morning, across the skating rink that is the Creeting St Peter highway network, we were somewhat surprised to encounter fellow road users with a mobile phone clamped to their ear. It isn't a complex debate. Driving whilst using a non-handsfree mobile phone is illegal. The reason that it's illegal is because it is a distraction from the task of safely controlling a heavy metal box capable of causing damage to anything it hits, like me. And in these conditions? Are these people really so ignorant of the dangers, or so insouciant to the risk they represent to other road users? Or perhaps one should assume that they are just stupid.

There have been horror stories from the airports in particular this weekend, with terminal buildings designed for throughput suddenly having to become places of shelter. It does seem to have come as a surprise to people that airports aren't very good at that. And let's be honest, how many airports are designed to be cosy? They're generally big metal and glass retail opportunities.

I understand why people might want to stay at the airport. Any possibility that their flight might get away, especially for those heading home for Christmas on longhaul flights, would be clung to, especially given the allegedly contradictory advice given by airlines and airport operators. But one case caught my attention, the case of a Ryanair flight which had become the scene of an occupation by angry passengers. A woman, talking to one of the rolling news channels, was complaining that Ryanair weren't supplying drinks or food, and that children were suffering. Perhaps if they had followed the advice that Ryanair had given them, and gotten off the cancelled flight, the suffering might have been avoided. Oh, and yes, this is Ryanair we're talking about, not an operator noted for its frills.

I didn't note that there was anyone from Ryanair to respond, but I suspect that Michael O'Leary would have had a sharp response. It might even have included the use of the word 'stupid'...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Eric Pickles: if urban myths are truth...?

Ah yes, Eric Pickles has dragged the 'Winterval' legend out for another airing, as a stick to beat local government with. As has been pointed out elsewhere, it's just a story, based on a strategic decision, more than a decade ago, to attract people into Birmingham by bringing together a collection of winter festivals under one banner.

But this latest outpouring merely continues a worrying tendency to focus on marginal issues as a means of disguising the very serious dilemma facing councils across the country. Here in the foothills of local government, I worry about balancing the books whilst maintaining local services. Luckily, getting the grass cut or not is unlikely to be fatal unless a villager suffers from really bad hay fever, and a loss of street lights might cause us all to drive with greater caution, but we'd get by somehow, I'm sure.

But there are big, philosophical issues nonetheless. In a time of austerity, how do you decide what to retain? Is potentially expensive investment to save future running costs something you can justify against a generally hostile opposition? Is contracting out of services merely converting a public, democratically accountable monopoly into a private, barely accountable one? Are there services which can be best described as the icing on the cake of public provision, and what, if any, are the social costs of axing them? And the biggest of all, does the target-driven culture of service provision add intolerable amounts to the overall cost?

And here, Eric is pretty silent. We traditionally haven't been, and our philosophy is, if Andrew Stunell is to believed (and I do), will shine through in the new Localism Bill. But it would really help if the case could be made by someone with a less knockabout manner, someone who uses his or her intellect to win arguments, rather than bluster.

So, let me wish Eric a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, spending much more time with his loved ones in Brentwood and Ongar...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More examples of Labour's belief in bribing you with somebody else's money...

Last week saw the Second Reading debate on the 'Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill'. This Bill abolishes the Child Trust Fund, cancels the savings gateway scheme and the health in pregnancy grant. Naturally, Labour are opposed to the measures, and accuse the Government of abolishing these as a matter of dogma.

What they don't tell you is that these were introduced at the very end of the Labour administration, as a time when it was already clear that the country couldn't afford them. They weren't even very effective as a means of supporting the most vulnerable.

Let's take the health in pregnancy grant. Introduced on 6 April 2009, it is a £190 grant given to pregnant mothers upon reaching the twenty-fifth week of pregnancy. That is, all pregnant mothers making a claim, regardless of household income. The National Childbirth Trust weren't particularly impressed;

    "if dietary intervention is to have an impact on birth weight and outcomes for the baby in later life, it should be started as early as possible"

And, of course, there was already the Healthy Start programme, which provides support by means of vouchers rather than cash, and means that you can determine how it will be spent in a much more targeted way than simply handing over some banknotes and saying, "We'd like you to behave sensibly please."

Now don't get me wrong, supporting actions designed to improve fetal health is obviously a good thing, if it is effective. But when it is introduced as a means of bribing an electorate by an unpopular government which knows that it is unaffordable, it is playing politics with the health of children. Frankly, I wish that there was the money to provide more support to pregnant women. But there isn't, and I'd rather take away the relative cream than the substantial support that families have grown used to.

And at some point, Labour politicians are going to have to come up with an answer to the question, "Where were you going to make the cuts?", rather than simply take the morally and fiscally bankrupt so-called high ground. So far, no sign of that...

Richard Grayson: he was high on intellectualism - I've never been there but the brochure looked nice

And so, farewell Richard Grayson. Or perhaps not.

There has been much criticism of his acceptance of Ed Milliband's offer to take part in Labour's policy review and, whilst I for one won't be joining him, he does offer a potential bridge on the long road towards future collaboration with New Labour Mark III (ish).

Now I have to admit at this point that, when I started in politics, I was of the view that there was only one thing better than kicking a Tory, and that was kicking one when he was down. I was young, and not frightfully clever, but after seven or so years of a Thatcher administration, they really were an awfully tempting target. I knew that I wasn't a Conservative, even if I was by the standards of most Young Liberals, pretty right wing. Add to the fact that most of the Young Conservatives I encountered were pretty vile, and it was a fairly easy choice.

At that time, Labour were still emerging from the years of Bennite agit-politics, offering nothing that could possibly appeal to anyone who thought that loosening the grip of the State could only be a good thing. And later, I had to do politics in areas where it was us versus Labour. Their utter vileness in Southwark in particular was a real eye-opener, and that was where I learned how much some of their activists really hate us. Us personally, not our ideas, as we should, in their eyes, be part of their rather ragged 'big tent'.

Over the years, all three parties have shifted somewhat. We've become somewhat less interfering, Labour fell under the spell of the market, and the Conservatives became less focused on ideology and rather more so on winning. What they were going to do when they won was rather vague, but whilst Labour's support hemorrhaged through 2008 and 2009, it didn't matter much.

And then it did. And here we are, in coalition with them. No matter how Labour whine, they made the Tories the only show in town (please don't bother trying to convince me otherwise, I had a ringside seat during those days post-election). Comfortable? No. Necessary? Certainly.

But that doesn't mean that we must inevitably drift rightwards, bound ever more closely to the Conservatives. And that's where Richard comes in. Now, suppose his efforts lead to a Labour Party more sympathetic to civil liberties, less inclined towards hoarding power at the centre and rather less messianic about the incontrovertible truth of its stance on the economy (sarcasm alert, for those who don't know me...). Wouldn't that offer a genuine choice in terms of coalition partners in 2015?

And yes, it will be more social democratic than is ideal. But they aren't us, and we aren't them. In a new, pluralist politics, we owe it to Labour to keep a watching brief on what emerges, to question, to challenge where it seems to be far from our stance, to indicate where we might share a common perspective.

In return, Labour are going to have to learn that, if they try to pick us off one by one, they end up without a dance partner. By trying to engineer splits in the Coalition by taking stances that contradict their own policy for short term advantage, they demonstrate that they don't get pluralism, and are less likely to make a credible partner in the future.

Once upon a time, I was part of a Young Liberal Democrat Executive Committee that employed Richard. He was fearfully bright then, and whilst his actions may be a bit naive, he is remaining true to his guiding principles. Just remember who your friends were, Richard...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tonight, the Doctor Who Christmas Special...

I'm a bit busy this evening, watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Yes, the one that's on at Christmas. And yes, it's a bit early, and no, I don't have a preview copy. It's just that I have an invite to a screening.

I promise not to spoil it for you though...

Blog List: a couple of deletions

Funnily enough, I had been thinking that I really ought to review my blog design to take out clutter and ineffective links, and the news that Iain Dale has decided to give up blogging has provided me with an incentive to act.

'Letters from a Tory' bit the dust some months ago, which was rather a pity, as I enjoyed his style. However, I had stopped reading 'Iain Dale's Diary' on a regular basis some time ago, once he had left the Daily Dozen to his personal assistant. To be blunt, if I had wanted to read Grant Tucker's views on anything, I would have sought them out, and it was a bit of an insult to his readership to 'contract out' some of the work on what was a personal blog.

So, in that sense, Iain is right, it's time to go... Good luck with the other projects, vieux chap...

Big Society or Liberalism? Or both?

I note that Nick Clegg has been suggesting that the 'Big Society', as proposed by David Cameron, is not dissimilar to liberalism, as proposed by us. Well, yes... after a fashion, if you take it at face value. And that's the catch.

You see, liberalism is a philosophy which, if followed, guides a decision maker in certain directions, creating policy which has a consistent thread running through it, even if the policies aren't always consistent. The 'Big Society' is a concept, interpretable as one wishes. So, if Nick is trying to capture the concept, and make it safe for liberalism, then all well and good.

And there certainly are elements that sit well with liberalism. The notion of giving people more influence over how their local services are provided, indeed what local services are provided, is certainly a liberal one. Getting people to take on responsibility for service delivery is liberal, if they are given the freedom to choose whether they want to or not.

However, my abiding suspicion is that the 'Big Society' is intended as a cloak to cover significant cuts in grants to, and degradation of, local services to reduce the cost of central government, whilst increasing the cost of local government, i.e. a transference of liability rather than a genuine saving.

So, I watch the changes with a degree of healthy scepticism, but with a equal measure of hope. As a Parish Councillor, I am apprehensive about the prospects of being forced to take on responsibilities that my colleagues and I may not be equipped to handle. At the same time, the Localism Bill may allow the creation of new structures that bring decision making closer to our community.

There is much to ponder over the coming months...

Friday, December 10, 2010

And now for the big finale - 'Good Evening, Merthyr Tydfil!'

Yes, I'm on my way to my last gig as Presidential Consort, a dinner at the head of the Valleys. It's a particularly appropriate way to end two years in the role, as our campaign team in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney represents, in microcosm, much of what is good about being a Liberal Democrat.

We first met Amy, Kevin and Bob during the Presidential campaign, spending an afternoon meeting local businesses (Ros, Amy and Bob) and delivering leaflets to the side of a hill (Kevin and me). We were impressed that they were so determined to bring our message to a community so utterly taken for granted by Labour. There was a buzz, a sense of passion that you don't always see. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that I rather admired them.

We were back during the General Election campaign, visiting the HQ office, doing a little canvassing on a sunny afternoon between visits to Montgomery and Brecon and Radnor. The response on the doorstep was friendly, almost enthusiastic, and we almost ran out of window posters. Amy was the candidate, Kevin her agent, and Bob the calm voice in the background. And it was nearly enough, with a huge swing from Labour slashing the majority to a scarcely imaginable 4,000 or so.

So, when they asked Ros if she could do a Friday night event, I was keen that we did it. After all, it sounds like it'll be fun...

Tuition Fees: the Peter Sarstedt dilemma

It's not been a great day in the political history of our nation. Obviously, the public agonies of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees have provided an all too inviting target for the media, for the National Union of Students and for our political enemies. 

But it hasn't been a great day for the student cause either. Scenes of violence against the police, of masked individuals clearly tooled up for trouble, of damage to Winston Churchill's statue and, most unfortunate of all, the attack on a vehicle carrying the heir to the throne and his wife, have probably done more to alter public perception of the demonstrators than any of the many positive aspects of the campaign against fees.

There is another casualty too, although the damage may not become apparent for some years. Labour's cynical opposition to a set of proposals rather more progressive than their own manifesto pledge means that they are boxed into a corner in terms of future policy for the funding of the university sector. They'll no doubt be counting on the fact that the media have short memories.

But I want to focus on the damage that this has done to the Party...

Where Do You Go To My Lovely?

It has been, in emotional terms, probably the most difficult time since the merger between the Liberals and the Social Democrats. As then, there are people announcing that they've had enough and are quitting, some of whom I would describe as friends. I'll miss them, even if I don't agree with their decision.

And my question, as they close the door behind them is, where do they go? Labour, the party that introduced tuition fees and was committed to accepting the proposals of the Browne Commission? The Conservatives, who happily entered the 'yes' lobby without much in the way of public dissent? The Greens, who may be on the right side of this debate but share little philosophical ground with us? Not a terribly edifying choice unless tuition fees are a single issue cause.

I suspect that those who have quit on a point of principle will refocus on single issue campaigning, and some will trickle back to us over time. Others, disenchanted with politics altogether, will turn to community activism or retire to their armchairs. And a few will wonder why they ever thought that they could make a difference. All of them will be missed, and the political culture of a country will be a little poorer for their loss.

And so, in the words of another Anglo-Indian...

So look into my eyes Marie-Claire
And remember just who you are
Then go and forget me forever
But I know you still bear
The scar, deep inside, yes you do

Goodnight, my friends, and fare thee well...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Another year, another precept...

I have to admit that I'm quite pleased with myself today. Last night saw the discussion of next year's budget for Creeting St Peter and, like last year, I have emerged fairly triumphant from the discussion.

Our Parish Clerk is a cautious soul, allowing generous scope for cost increases of those key services that we provide - street lighting and grass cutting - and attempting to build up an appropriate general reserve. I, on the other hand, am more frugal. It's somebody else's money, at the end of the day, and whilst I am happy to fund services that support the village, I prefer not to spend it just because it's there.

Of course, you can't just slash and burn. With a small budget like ours, you have to be conscious that, whilst your expenditure might have been low in one year, the next year you might need to replace a dog waste bin, and for a small, but perfectly-formed, Parish council, that represents quite a chunk of expenditure. So you smooth things out, on the basis that you balance an underspend one year with an overspend the next. You also have to allow for potential expenses, like elections.

Luckily, I was able to find some areas that come under the category of discretionary spending, like councillor training, which might be cut back, and discovered that we had over-provisioned for legal costs related to the playground, which allowed me to propose a precept 3.4% lower than last years, but which corresponds to a standstill for the council tax payers of our village - our taxpayer base has shrunk recently.

Best of all, we'll be able to make very significant progress towards establishing a sensible general reserve, the aim being to have six months expenditure in the bank for a rainy day. And before you get carried away about our holding vast sums that might be better off in the hands of local residents, that represents £2,000...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Income tax changes - something really progressive to enthuse over

Whilst there has been a lot to ponder over of late - tuition fees and the spending review merely top the list - it is easy to lost track of those acts which have truly reflected a uniquely Liberal Democrat view of society.

For all of the figures, click here, but here are some of the key numbers;
  • Personal allowance up £1,000 to £7,475 (up 15.4%), 
  • Basic rate band reduced from £37,400 to £35,000 (down 6.4%),
  • Starting level for the 50% rate band frozen at £150,000
So, what does this mean?

Firstly, it should be borne in mind that indexation of allowances was based on the inflation figure for September (4.7%) so, had everything gone up accordingly, the tax bands would have been;
  • Personal allowance up £310 to £6,785
  • Basic rate band up from £37,400 to £39,200
  • Starting level for the 50% rate band up from £150,000 to £157,000
So, those earning between £7,475 and £42,475 will be £138 per annum better off in real terms. Those earning between £46,675 and £157,475 will be £702 worse off in real terms, and those earning over £164,475 will be £1,402 worse off, if my arithmetic is correct.

You might agree or disagree with the notion that the heaviest burden should fall upon the broadest shoulders, but there can be little doubting that, in isolation, this does look pretty fair. And taking the best part of 900,000 people out of the income tax net altogether is certainly a contribution towards a more just society...

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Surviving the approval process in Mid Suffolk

You may recall that I was preparing for my approval interview to be a potential candidate in next year's District Council elections. Well, this afternoon saw that moment arrive, and Ros drove me to Little Finborough, a village just outside Stowmarket, where the panel awaited.

There was tea, and a chance to catch up with John Field, one of our District and County Councillors, whose wife was on the approval panel. Chaired by Ros's replacement as County Councillor for Bosmere, Julia Truelove, and with two District Councillors, Patricia Godden (Ringshall ward) and Tony Fowler (The Stonhams ward), making up the rest of the panel, it wasn't going to be easy, and I was a mite apprehensive.

That said, as an interview location, Julia's living room has much to commend it, and I got to sit in a comfortable armchair, near to a fire, with a cat sprawled across the rug in front of it. There was even tea to drink, most civilised. And then came the questions, which I won't list, simply because other people have to be approved yet. They were suitably challenging, and I had to think a bit, whilst attempting not to be distracted by the hen pheasant standing by the back window - think of it as a feathered bunny rabbit.

Interview over, I retired to the holding pen to await my fate. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long, and the news was good - I've been approved. Now, all I've got to do is achieve a 17% swing from the Conservatives, and I'm elected. That might prove to be the tricky bit...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bill Bailey's 'Dandelion Mind' - don't look at me, I'm just a stranded Belgian tourist

I'm still gluing my sides together after a fiercely funny evening at the Wyndham Theatre, courtesy of the surreal comedic mind that is Bill Bailey.

Last year, we went to see 'Tinselworm' which was pretty damned funny, but this year we were expecting something special. We weren't let down, as the bearded one did everything from an excerpt from 'Last Christmas' in the style of Kraftwerk, to a Lady Gaga tribute in the style of the Wurzels, via a series of Dutch gags. It was clearly all too much for one woman in the audience, whose raucous and uncontrolled laughter drew Bill's attention, to the extent that she really couldn't stop.

The Large Hadron Collider, a critique of depictions of St Thomas testing Jesus's wounds, a range of musical instruments, some of them unknown to the audience, the show had it all, and we certainly had our money's worth.

So, if you get the chance to go, I heartily commend it...

So, no pressure then?

I must admit that, on discovering that the rather more talented, and certainly more prolific, blogger, Jonathan Calder has steered his readers towards me whilst he takes a break, my heart sank a little. Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered beyond measure, but, if truth be told, the force hasn't been with me much for a week or so.

Fortunately, life has become a little more thought provoking all of a sudden, so there might actually be something here to read after all. So, sit back with a glass of something you enjoy, as a bureaucrat writes... 

Thursday, December 02, 2010

An announcement confirming the new tax rates for next year

There are, it must be said, some terribly dull pieces of government. What follows is one of them, albeit one of the most important dull pieces of government there is...

Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (David Gauke): Following decisions announced at the June Budget and the release of retail and consumer prices data for September, the Government has today confirmed 2011-12 rates and thresholds for income tax, National Insurance Contributions (NICs), and tax credits. The limit for Individual Savings Accounts (ISA) for 2011-12 has also been confirmed.

A note containing this information has been deposited in the libraries of both Houses and is available on the HM Treasury website at:

There is a statutory obligation on the Treasury to make an order to replace the existing amounts of income tax rate limits and personal allowances for the following tax year. The 2010 indexation order has been made today and sets out the indexed amounts of income tax rate limits and personal allowances for 2011-12. In the case of the personal allowance and basic rate limit, this order will be over-ridden by the Finance Bill next year that will legislate for the changes announced at Budget 2010.

The relevant regulations and orders for NICs and tax credits will be laid in spring 2011.

Time to have a look at what this means later...

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Changing lives, one bus at a time

I've lived my life in three cities, Mumbai, London and Norwich, and one of the aspects of urban life that means most to me is the sense of freedom, of mobility, that public transport engenders. And now that I live in a small village in the Suffolk countryside, that freedom is particularly valuable, especially as a non-driver.

Previously, to leave my small, but perfectly formed, village in the morning, I either had to take an 8.26 taxibus to Little Stonham, connecting with route 114 to Ipswich, or book a cab to Stowmarket, costing about £7. The first option involved a potential twenty-five minute wait, the latter being rather expensive.

But now, my village has 'Suffolk Links Gipping North', a refinement of the existing Taxibus service. Now, I can book the bus as much as a week in advance, and use it to commute. Alright, I don't commute now, but I do occasionally need to get to the station on the morning after a Parish Council meeting, for example. Best of all, it is much cheaper than a taxi, about 20% of the cost.

What it also means is a potential escape from isolation for villagers across our part of Mid-Suffolk. In a city, you can get around, using a regular bus, but somewhere like Creeting St Peter, without a shop, or pub, or other meeting point, it can be too easy to become cut off. Services like the mobile library and our mobile coffee caravan help, but they are only a sticking plaster without independence.

So, good news for the upper Gipping Valley, and good news for a Suffolk bureaucrat...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It's not the consorting, it's the travelling that can get you down

Ros and I are home now, after one of the Presidency's more epic journeys, nine hours from Stirling by train. Admittedly, it was supposed to be just seven hours, but you get my (snow)drift.

The Presidency is more than just the meetings, the conferences, the dinners and the campaigning. That's actually just the bit in the middle, because you have to get there... and back... Take this weekend for instance. We set off from Euston just after lunch on Thursday, travelling three hours by train to Penrith. The journey was a smooth one, and we were on time. We were driven to Keswick, another twenty minutes or so, where we did the gig, retired for the night and were up in time to take a little stroll around the town with the Mayor.

Back on the train, it took us four hours to get to Stirling (track circuit failure north of Carlisle). Again, we do the gig, overnight at the hotel before heading for home. So, we've spent about five hours being President and consort, and about seventeen hours travelling. Last weekend, we spent about nine and a half hours travelling from London to Plymouth and back, with a stop at Warminster on the way back, all of that in thirty-six hours.

Sometimes, things change unexpectedly. We weren't supposed to be heading home today, but our scheduled third leg, in Aberdeenshire, was cancelled due to the bad weather in North East Scotland, so plans were rapidly reorganised.

Let nobody be mistaken, the Presidency is a tough gig. You have to do all that travelling, get off of a train or out of a car, and be able to perform, to inspire, to persuade. You have to be able to deal with questions on virtually any subject, looked pleased to be there, even if you're not feeling at your best, even if you'd really rather be at home.

And yet, the Presidency offers an opportunity that few ever get. It is a chance to see every level of the Party, to find out what makes it tick. You get to meet the everyday heroes who make this Party what it is. You get to put something back. And, you get to spend more time on trains than you ever imagined possible...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Unfortunately, there's one less gig on our UK tour...

We were due to be attend a dinner in Banchory tomorrow night but, due to the weather conditions in rural Aberdeenshire, the quite sensible decision has been taken to cancel it. I for one wouldn't want people to battle through the conditions just because Ros has, so we'll head south from Stirling in the morning.

Just three more performances for the First Husband left...

Dodging the snow in the not so frozen North

As the Presidential engagements run out, Ros and I find ourselves saving some of the greatest mileage until last. And with an increasingly hostile weather forecast for the weekend, it was with a degree of nervousness that we set off for Penrith, en route to the Copeland and Workington Liberal Democrats AGM and Dinner, just outside Keswick.

It was a pleasant enough journey from Euston, which was made all the better by a glass or two of merlot, a light meal and even a piece of cake. And, as darkness fell, we arrived at Penrith North Lakes Station to be met by the Mayor of Keswick, and our host for the evening, Martin Pugmire.

The AGM was not unusual, with individuals gently arm-twisted into filling key roles - no, it's not just yours that has that sort of problem - and a series of reports noting that life is not easy - again, most of us will recognise that - but a sense of stoic perseverence and optimism for the future that makes Liberal Democrats so persistent.

We then moved onto dinner, which was very good indeed, before Ros spoke to the gathering. It is interesting how the tone of these events has changed. Before the election, it was all about exhorting people to greater efforts in pursuit of a larger Parliamentary Party. Now, it's about reassurance of a Party prone to soul-searching. Ros is focussing on conveying a message that reflects the positive elements of being in Government, which resonates particularly with the Local Government community, whose experience of local coalitions leads to a greater understanding of the implications of coalition.

Afterwards, members were invited to contribute towards the County Council strategy for dealing with budget cuts over the next few years. Cumbria is somewhat unusual, in that we are the Opposition to a Labour/Conservative coalition running the council. I was impressed that a county councillor should take the trouble to consult members in an attempt to find the best solution, and I wish Elizabeth Barraclough, said county councillor and outgoing Local Party Chair, the very best with her efforts.

And then it was time to sleep, for we were heading north in the morning...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The knotty problem of getting a referee

Naturally, to adhere to the new English Party rules, I need to be approved as a candidate by a panel of my peers, and I've now received the paperwork from the Chair of the Mid Suffolk Panel. I've filled in the application form, including the question I dreaded - "Please give details of any offices held within the party, at all levels, past and present." Let's just say that I kept it to one side of A4...

But I need two referees, which makes life a little awkward. Most of my fellow Liberal Democrats here in Bury St Edmunds don't really know me terribly well, and I'm relatively new to the Region. So I need to find two people willing to vouch for my sanity (or otherwise). Volunteer, anybody?...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Meanwhile, somewhere else in Westminster, appointments are made...

The Prime Minister has today announced the names of three new political members of the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission.

The new members, nominated by the three main political parties, are:
  • Lord Hart of Chilton (Labour)
  • Rt. Hon. Lord Howard of Lympne QC (Conservative) and
  • Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)
The Chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, Lord Jay said:

"The balance of political and independent members is an important feature of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and I am delighted that we will have three new political members with such experience. I look forward to working with them.

I would also like to pay tribute to their predecessors - Baroness Dean of Thornton-Le-Fylde, Lord Hurd of Westwell and Lord Dholakia - who served on the Commission since its creation in 2000. Their knowledge and understanding has been invaluable and I would like to thank them for their immense contribution to the Commission's work."

I'm guessing that this rules out the prospects of a seat in the Lords for me...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Coalition sustains a wound from friendly fire

It would be fair to say that the noble Lord Phillips of Sudbury is not one to be bound by such things as Party whips. Andrew is more the kind to do what he thinks is right and liberal, which may not put him always on the side of the angels, whoever they might be.

One of his personal bete noires is ID cards. Having been a prominent voice opposing them during the Labour administration, he has taken up the cause of those foolish enough, or obliged, to have paid for one. It is his view that they should be refunded any monies they have paid and, today, he had an opportunity to obtain it.

Despite the sense amongst some that, if anyone bought one given the promises by all of the opposition parties, they deserved what they got, there was clearly support for his stance. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise when, with members from all benches went through the lobby with him, and his motion was passed.

I don't doubt that there will be attempts to overturn this, but Andrew Phillips deserves his day in the sun...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ros in the Lords: enabling a graceful exit fron a red-upholstered sardine tin?

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who has almost made my speech for me, but as a member of the working group, I wanted to add a few words about how I have approached this matter. I start by saying that it has been a pleasure to serve on the group. We are very ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, and have very good support from the staff here.

The group is working well together. We are committed to this House, to its work and to its Members, and we seek to arrive at a set of proposals which can command confidence and a broad base of support. We are considering the reduction of the size of this House as it is currently constituted. Although reform of this House is, in a way, the elephant in the room, we, like the noble Lord, Lord Desai, do not believe that this is a matter that can be left for resolution until that time.

There is no doubt from our consultation, both formal and informal, that there is an overwhelming view in this House that ways have to be found to allow Members to retire from this place. In some cases, this is expressed in humane terms: to give people who feel that they can no longer contribute a means of taking permanent leave of absence. The growing size of this House has led many Members to reflect on how its size can be made more manageable, encapsulated in a recent Sunday Times cartoon, which showed a tin of sardines, with one of them saying, “It is like the House of Lords in here”.

We have received more than 80 responses, but it is always difficult to know what to infer from the people who did not respond—whether their silence is an indication that they are happy with the size of the House. I think not; informal views, as well as those responses to the consultation, suggest not. There were many comments to the effect that there should be no further creation of peerages. With the new intake hotly tipped to be announced next week, that seems a forlorn hope. In any event, although there is an issue about the number of new Peers coming to this House, I do not think that any of us can really contemplate trying to pull up the drawbridge. If our main and enduring purpose here is to provide expertise, we have to ensure that the expertise is up to date.

Suggestions on how to deal with the issue can broadly be split into two categories. The first is what I call “compulsory redundancy”, although that is not a term I would use formally. There were suggestions that people over a certain age, or who had a certain length of service, or who fell under a qualifying attendance threshold could be disqualified. Some noble Lords thought we should have elections based on the precedent set by the hereditary Peers. Perhaps predictably, for each of those suggestions, there was a persuasive counterargument showing why it would not work.

The second set of suggestions favoured a more voluntary approach with provision for permanent leave of absence in which Members could retain not just their title but the ability to come into the House and use some of the facilities, as the outgoing hereditary Peers were able to do. Many Members took the view that realistically this is not an option that would be taken by large numbers of noble Lords—the point made very effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. If the aim of the House is to reduce the numbers significantly, this option would probably have to be encouraged by agreeing a modest pension or a one-off compensatory payment based on recent attendance, although whether, in the current financial climate, it would be possible to match the reality with noble Lords’ expectations, I am not sure.

My definite preference is for a more voluntary approach. I believe it sits better with the ethos of this House to find its own solutions to the problem. Evolution has always worked better than revolution with regard to this House and might be more swiftly agreed than something more prescriptive. I hope noble Lords will give particular attention to the innovative suggestion of what we call “associate membership” of the House. This would be entirely voluntary and would enable noble Lords to continue to use the House facilities, retain membership of all-party parliamentary groups and be considered for Select Committee membership where their expertise would be useful to the House. Organisations such as the CPA and the IPU could decide whether Peers could continue membership of those groups. Associate members would be able to speak in debates. The main difference would be that they would not be able to participate in the legislative process. According to the House booklet, The Work of the Lords, legislation now takes up 55 per cent of our time. For the sake of space, if nothing else, I think that associate Peers would not be able to participate in Question Time.

I genuinely believe that this idea has much to commend it and would like to hear from other noble Lords. It is a way of reducing the overall size of the House in a way which keeps the expertise and is not unduly harsh on people who have given many years of active and loyal service to this House.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts from the Train*: time to hold our nerve and tell the truth?

One cannot help but notice that people don't treat us they way that they used to. That isn't to say that we were treated particularly well, as we tended to be patronised if we were mentioned at all. Now, we get much more media coverage, although little of it is flattering or particularly kindly.

It's as though we were nice people, unsuited to power, who you could vote for safely because we weren't actually going to win. A protest vote, a way of telling the Party you really supported that they needed to return to the 'path of righteousness'. Maybe we are nice people - I'd certainly like to think so - but we also want to build a better society. We're not alone in that, for regardless of what we, or anyone else, think, our opponents all want to do the same. It's just that their views and ours don't necessarily match up.

However, we have allowed ourselves to get a bit beyond ourselves, perhaps. Unused to national power, we have been a bit naïve, a bit prone to philosophical introspection. We've forgotten why we do what we do. Indeed, for a Party that talks about pluralism and consensus, we have struggled to remember what that implies - compromise, the balancing of one ambition against another.

And government is about the art of the possible, not tidy arithmetic, where you can say, "pay this and you get that". We need to be honest about that, to talk about trade-offs and disagreement, about how a manifesto is the balancing of priorities, about why if X happens, you can't do Y. In short, talk about why things are.

Yes, there are risks in doing so. With the media determined to find differences between the Coalition partners or, where they don't, create them, that debate will continue until they get bored, or the public do. And anyway, there are differences - just look at the manifestos. But if you want a new politics, you have to do politics differently - dialogue, debate, the open expression of difference, the reasoning for compromise. And, occasionally, a healthy row.

Given that political parties are, by their nature, compromises in pursuit of power, there is every chance that we might convince enough people to make the pain we're going through worthwhile. Politics with principles, if every there were a prize worth winning, that might be it...

* a Hertfordshire special... because you're worth it...

The President is dead, long live the President?

And so, after a rather shorter campaign than last time, we have a new President. As I had indicated earlier, this was a very difficult choice in personal terms, with my knowledge of both candidates of little help in differentiating between them.

Worse than that was not having a consistent sense of what it was I wanted from the incoming President. There were days when I wanted someone capable of giving the leadership a tough time, holding them publicly to account, providing a rallying point for the members if need be. On other days, I wanted someone with the ability to have the quiet word behind closed doors, someone more in tune with the diplomacy of committees.

It's still to early to analyse the Ros Scott Presidency, especially as it isn't finished yet, and the arguments as to the events surrounding post-election negotiations are still ongoing - now in print, no less. And perhaps I might have something useful to add to that debate, but not now, not here.

I will say this though. Two years ago, the debate was about whether the job was even possible given the performances of past holders of the position. I like to think that Ros has settled that argument, regardless of whether people think she did it well or not. Frankly, in the absence of all of the information needed to objectively judge, it can never be easy to measure performance in the role, and there are elements which will always remain under wraps in order to protect the innocent.

It will be a challenging two years for Tim (having seen what two years in the Presidency does, I wouldn't bet on a second term one way or the other...), with a more fractious Party, greater expectations of his performance, a Coalition which may or may not survive and the questions as to his leadership ambitions. And, if it does all end in tears, Tim will be the one who has to turn up at Nick's office with the pearl-handled revolver and glass of single malt.

At that point, it will be more than just a good video and a line in punchy soundbites that will be required, it will be nerves of steel, a strong line of communications with members across the country, and a healthy relationship with the Parliamentary Parties. Having a mandate helps, I know that it helped Ros, and Tim knows that he won a hard-fought contest, which stands him in good stead.

So, whilst Tim prepares for his new responsibilities, and Ros serves out the remainder of her term, I'll be by her side, supporting her to the last. And on New Year's Eve, we'll raise a glass, wish Tim good luck, and give thanks for two years that were anything but dull...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Why are we so afraid to allow those who wish to represent us to campaign?

After another round of internal Party elections where the Rules do everything in their power to prevent us from finding out more about the candidates, I really do think that it is time to do something about it.

Firstly, let me make it absolutely clear that this is not an attack on the Returning Officer, the Acting Returning Officer or David Allworthy (David, I can't remember exactly what your title was...). After all, the Rules as laid down must be applied to ensure equality of opportunity.

But the idea that I couldn't blog about my candidacy, send e-mails to my friends, or use Facebook or Twitter to advertise my virtues is absurd in its impact. And given the not unreasonable limit on manifestos (I know A5 is precious little, but think of your postman...), it seems only sensible to allow people to use free media to promote themselves and what they stand for.

There is an irony here. Twenty years ago, I was involved with a campaign to tighten up the internal party election rules. Then, candidates could spend money and, given that access to the Internet was nothing like what it is now, that meant that a wealthy candidate could contact Conference Representatives in a way that others couldn't. It wasn't fair, and the rules were changed to stop that.

However, times have changed, and campaigning has too. Given that, using Facebook, Twitter and blogs, a campaign can explode into life quickly, candidates can and should be able to respond to that, driving the agenda in the direction of their choosing if they are credible enough. Yes, the defamation rules should still apply, but other than that, we should apply our philosophy and principles, allowing an informed democracy.

And one other thing, now that I'm a disinterested party in all things Presidential. Why on Earth don't we allow candidates for the Presidency access to the membership list? After all, they're meant to represent the members, and the more able they are to reach them in the campaign phase (and don't worry, the £7,500 spending limit prevents anyone from going mad...), the better. That's a good thing, isn't it?...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not every birthday is like this...

It's been quite a day, all told.

The Action Day went pretty well, with support from my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Stowmarket, Needham Market and Great Bricett, and a polite response on the doorstep. For the most part, people were quite happy to complete the survey, and I'll be looking at the responses over the coming week.

Meanwhile, in London, the Party's internal elections took place, and I am really pleased to have been elected to be a member of the ELDR Council delegation. Yes, Ros's transfers made a big difference (it isn't often that you see anyone get a result like that), but there were plenty of people who gave me their first preference, ahead of some very good people, so I have a lot to live up to now. To all those of you who voted for me, thank you very much. Unused as I am to contested elections, having opposition makes your support that much more treasured.

Apparently, there is a new President assuming power on 1 January, and I'll write more about that later, but Ros and I are off to celebrate my birthday soon, and I don't want to keep everyone waiting...

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's my birthday, I'll survey if I want to...

And so all is ready for tomorrow. Maps are printed, bags are ready, we've even got EARS up and running - Ros picks this stuff up very quickly - there's soup in the kitchen and chili on the stove. Yes, it's the Stowupland Action Day when, for the first time in history, other people will be campaigning for... me.

Don't get me wrong, it all comes as a bit of a surprise, especially given my historic reticence to do 'retail politics', or even to be a candidate somewhere other than an utterly hopeless prospect. However, here we are, and although I technically need to be approved and adopted, I appear to be being treated as though this is my spot in the sunlight.

And perhaps that is as it should be. Until I arrived on the scene, there weren't really any plans to fight here, and I promised when I took it on that it would be a stand alone campaign, making no demands on the rest of the Local Party or the District, funded with my own money, delivered with my own shoe leather and that of my family.

I've obviously done something right though, as colleagues from across the District will be converging here to show some support. So it's up to me then...

Helplessly hoping...

Now that polls have closed, I assume that the Returning Officer won't mind if I write about one of the more unusual contests down the bill of internal Party contests, for eight places on the ELDR Council Delegation.

It's my first ever attempt to gain Federal office, made all the more interesting by the presence of the Right Honourable Baroness Scott of Needham Market on the same ballot, a rare husband versus wife contest. Unlike Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, we felt comfortable about competing against each other, especially as we have rather different reasons for running.

After two years as Party President, Ros has been disappointed by the lack of engagement from our UK Parliamentarians with ELDR. The myriad reasons as to why this might be put aside, it is still troubling that there was not a single MP or Peer could make it to Helsinki for last month's ELDR Congress (Ros was taken ill the day before). ELDR provides an opportunity to establish relationships with key figures in our European sister parties, and now that we are in government, the opportunity should not be lost.

As for me, I was astonished that there is little reporting of ELDR activity. We send a delegation to the Council, which has a key organisational role, a bit like our own dear Federal Executive, and yet there is little awareness that it even exists. I'm never keen on authority without accountability, and I have an internationalist track record, so I think I can contribute.

It has presented some of our friends with a dilemma, in that they aren't certain in which order they should place us. We'll know if they got it right soon enough...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Three strikes and you're out?

A constant reminder that we are in coalition with the Conservatives is the ability of the Coalition to combine sensible reform with some hysterical, sub-Daily Vile headline-grabbing irrelevancy.

And, in the proposals for welfare reform published today, we see that trend repeated. The proposal for a 'Universal Benefit' is an eminently sensible one, reducing bureaucracy, eliminating duplication and good for the environment (all those trees saved!). And yet the headline is 'three strikes and you're out', the frankly absurd notion that benefits will be withdrawn from those who persistently refuse job opportunities.

Really? Has this been thought through any further than "That'll get a good headline tomorrow!"? I fear not. Because yes, nobody wants to encourage the determinedly feckless and workshy, and yes, as a liberal, I believe that escaping dependancy is part of building self-esteem, contributing to your community and eliminating poverty. But what about the wider implications of removing people's income?

For example, are we really going to put people onto the streets, families with children perhaps? Even knowing that we would need to take those children into care, an option which results in the worst life chances for them? Or is driving these people to crime in order to survive part of the strategy?

Alright, I exaggerate a bit, but you get the idea. In reality, I do not believe that the British people want to create the kind of underclass that the American social welfare net (or lack thereof) has spawned. And what that means is that this isn't a policy, it's a sop.

Ros in the Lords: not impressed by the Public Bodies Bill...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, perhaps I should start in the spirit of the confessional, because I am a reformed quangocrat. It was a habit that started innocently enough with the occasional meeting of a small regulator. Then I went on to the Commission for Integrated Transport and, hopelessly hooked, went on to the hard stuff and became a member of the board of the Audit Commission. I have to say that everyone I worked with in those bodies—the staff and non-executives alike—was extremely committed to their tasks and genuinely cared about serving the public, so I am very pleased that the Government have moved away from a rhetoric of demonising those public servants.

However, we must all admit that we have been too quick in the past—and I fear we will be in future—to reach for the quango as a policy response to every problem that comes before us. I heard an expression in another context which covers it, which is, “If you have a hammer, all problems look like nails”. I fear that that is where we are with quangos—we just create them. It is time to have a serious debate about how we deliver certain public functions. Should they be done by civil servants with ministerial oversight or do we genuinely need outside expertise? Can voluntary organisations do the job at least as well, if not better, particularly where there is a large campaigning element? Are the public better served in some areas by independent oversight, or is accountability more important? What we do about the use of patronage in making the appointments? How do we deal with the growing costs of the burgeoning number of arm’s-length bodies, all of which require offices, headed notepaper and all the other corporate paraphernalia? How do we deter those bodies from a slow extension of the task for which they were originally set up? We have all seen the tendency for mission creep. Who oversees the overseers, audits the auditors and regulates the regulators?

We need a fundamental review, and one that moves beyond a numbers game. I know that the Government are very focused on the need to reduce costs, and that is understandable, but many of these organisations do not spend very much money. Although there may be very good reasons for looking at them, it will not save much money. The National Audit Office has estimated that 80 per cent of NDPB expenditure is located in just 15 organisations, so you might want to start there. But then, 75 per cent of their costs are grants, which are just passed on to others, so they will not be saved by the act of either abolition or merger—you would need a change of policy direction.

There is no doubt in my mind that departments need to look at the beam in their own eye. Many of them micromanage the bodies which report to them and create unnecessary administrative burdens. In other cases, departments just lose interest in their bodies. Then you get poor communication and organisations completely out of touch with what the department and the Government are seeking to achieve. In other cases, those arm’s-length bodies end up as a kind of sandwich between competing interests. I know that when I was on the board of the Audit Commission, at one point we were engaged in a process of reducing the regulatory burden, in line with the wishes of our sponsoring department, while civil servants and Ministers in other departments were constantly coming to say that they wanted this performance management scheme, or some other regulatory burden, added. We need to look at that.

The great range of organisations contained in the Bill, from the Wool Marketing Board to Channel 4 and from the Theatres Trust to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is a demonstration of the complexity of arrangements that have developed over the past 30 or 40 years. In the case of some of them, for example, Channel 4, it is questionable whether it is even a public body and should be in the Bill. Other noble Lords have highlighted cases where there are omissions for no reason that can be understood at the moment. This is where I begin to have a problem with the Bill. It seems to me that creating a Bill like this—an enabling Bill which simply puts together this vast array of bodies and then subjects them to reform, change and abolition with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, is just asking for trouble.

Many of these organisations were formed only after intense parliamentary scrutiny of primary legislation and, in many cases, were better for it. The fear here is that change imposed by Ministers after minimal consultation will result in imperfect statutory instruments coming before Parliament and Members—particularly in this House, with all their expertise—will see all the flaws but be pretty impotent to do anything about it, given that the orders will be unamendable, that there will be a 90-minute guillotine, that they will be grouped together and that, finally, we have only the nuclear option of voting the whole thing down.

It is already apparent from the range of organisations that has been in touch with me and other noble Lords that, whatever the Government's intention, the creation of Schedule 7 has resulted in a sort of death row for quangos. They know that the short timescale required to impose change by statutory instrument will create a climate of uncertainty which will affect their operational management and recruitment and make long-term decision-making virtually impossible. It will also have a very negative effect on the relationship between the departments and the organisations. Where those organisations have a primary function of holding the Government to account, it will compromise that very function in the eyes of the public by having such an impermanent relationship. Some of the consequences are absurd. The Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, set up to ensure a fair and unpartisan appointments procedure, could itself be changed as a result of the Bill.

It is funny how people tend to think about constitutions as dry things that do not affect the stuff of everyday life, because here we have a constitutional issue which demonstrates how the constitution is inextricably linked with good governance. I am dismayed that, over the years, Whitehall fails to learn this. I quite enjoyed the outrage from noble Lords on the Labour Benches, and I gently remind them that the Constitution Committee notes:

“The House will recall various occasions in recent years on which Parliament has sought to resist executive proposals for Henry VIII powers”.

In its briefing, Liberty comments:

“This Bill follows a trend popular with the last Government of avoiding the necessary rigours of parliamentary scrutiny”.

Let us not pretend that this is a problem which has just emerged since May. This has been many years in the gestation and is a classic Parliament versus Executive problem.

These bodies—quangos, arm’s-length public bodies, whatever we call them—have become a fundamental part of British public life. Reform is certainly necessary, but as the excellent Institute for Government report is so aptly titled, we should Read Before B urning . Its report sets out the case for reform, but it is thoughtful, rooted in reality and sets out a road map for bringing these bodies into a more rational framework over time. The danger of the Bill is that it sets out a legislative framework for a reform process which is itself deeply flawed.

I welcome the Minister's words at the start of this debate that the Government will be prepared to look at improving the Bill. I urge them to take a look at the super-affirmative procedures which will improve consultation and improve the ability of this House particularly to scrutinise. We need to remove the provisions for omnibus orders to come to this House, and we need to allow this House to use the expertise that it undoubtedly has.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Public Bodies Bill - wrong bill, wrong method, wrong time

Last week, I noted that the Public Bodies Bill, promoted by Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office, has turned out to be one of those Bills that displays the Conservative ambivalence towards democracy.

And now, the Guardian's Law Blog has picked up on this same point (well caught up, Ms Hirsch!). I am led to believe that a delegation has met with Mr Maude, and told him in no uncertain terms that the Bill is unacceptable in its current form. And with its Second Reading scheduled to take place this evening, I think that we can be reasonably confident that the point will be pressed quite firmly.

I'll report back on events later...

Monday, November 08, 2010

National Express East Anglia: good news, bad news...

Welcome to the now very delayed 8.29 service from Stowmarket to Liverpool Street, which has fallen foul of over-running engineering works at Shenfield and a person taken ill at Maryland. I will, at least, be eligible for a refund of part, maybe all, of the cost of my ticket, but it's a bonus I could do without.

On the other hand, NXEA have announced the trial of a new breakfast service, on the 7.40 and 8.10 services. Yes, the cooked breakfast is back, which potentially makes me very happy. The catch is that it's only available to first class passengers. I'm just going to have to book further in advance, I guess...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Delivered to my door - the first step towards the future...

I have recently been introduced to Serif PagePlus, the leaflet design software of choice amongst Liberal Democrats, and have happily designed my leaflets with it, having been given a basic training course by Kathy Pollard, our County Group Leader, and borrowed ideas from Andrew Aalders-Dunthorne, our neighbouring Parliamentary candidate earlier this year in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich.

However, I was looking at the ALDC website the other day, and noticed that technology is moving on, to the extent that the new product, PagePlus X4, is going to be cutting edge soon. There was even a discount on offer if I purchased it using their link. So I have done, and a package arrived this morning, courtesy of the Royal Mail.

I've loaded it onto my PC in the office, and designed my first document, a manifesto for Ros. She wrote the text, I artworked it so that it looks pretty, added a photograph, and we're done.

And now, I have some time to practice with it, before the next leaflet needs to be prepared...

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Reassuringly reassured in Brightlingsea

It's easy to feel a little bruised now that we're in Government. Before the election, all you had to cope with was that sense that you were being either patronised or ignored. Now, people blame you for stuff, as though it's your fault. Which, I suppose, it now is, depending upon what it is.

However, across the country, life goes on for Liberal Democrats across the country, and it's Annual General Meeting season. And it was such an event which drew us to Brightlingsea, in Essex.

Brighlingsea is not somewhere that people pass through on the way to somewhere else, indeed, there is only one road in, which winds its way to a town of about 8,000 people on the coast just west of Clacton. Ros and I were to meet at Manningtree, where she would collect me off of the 5.30 train from Liverpool Street, and we would drive on from there.

We arrived in the middle of the AGM, that of the Brightlingsea branch of the North East Essex Local Party, and it was one of those reassuring events where there are no surprises, and the Executive carry on without opposition, because everyone is happy enough with how things are going.

Janet Russell, who will be familiar to many Liberal Democrat conference goers as the lady who sat behind the table near the stage, accepting and processing speakers' cards, and is still one of the army of stewards who make Conference work, is an old friend from my days in Liberal International (British Group). More importantly, she is a former Mayoress of Brightlingsea, and is currently Deputy Mayor of the town.

She lured me, and thus Ros, to the Essex shore with a promise of sausages and mash, and we were not to be disappointed. To be honest, you have to try quite hard to get a bad sausage in East Anglia, given the number of high quality pig producers around the place, and these were pretty damned good.

Ros spoke about how she got into politics in the first place, and then talked about the Presidency, why she ran, what she has done, and what the job is about. After that, she talked about the Coalition, and why it was the best show in town in terms of putting Liberal Democrat policy into practice. It seemed to go down well.

After dessert, there was a raffle. It turned out to be, quite possibly, the longest raffle I have ever experienced, as people didn't want to accept more than one prize, and kept telling Gary Scott, our raffle compere and a councillor on Tendring District Council, to 'put it back'. I did win an interesting looking bottle of Patagonian merlot, which I'm looking forward to opening at some point.

But all too soon, it was time to drive home, as the rain fell heavily over North East Essex, to our little countryside village...

On the march in Stowupland

Never let it be said that I'm letting the grass grow under my feet here in Paradise-sur-Gipping.

Yes, it's time for another Focus leaflet for Stowupland ward, and with the bonus of a county-wide Emergency Focus, condemning the Conservatives on the County Council for their efforts to wreck the authority forever, I've been out, delivering some of the harder to reach corners, whilst Ros focuses on the easier, relatively dog-free bits. Her logic is that dogs don't phase me much, so I'm better off delivering delicious leaflets to them.

And we've gotten off to a good start, with;
  • walk 4 (Thorney Green Road and the area around the Green);
  • walk 5 (Mill Street to Church Road), and;
  • walk 8 (Creeting St Peter village), plus;
  • drive 1 (Creeting St Peter parish); 
all delivered with a double drop delivery, plus
  • walk 1 (Maple and Sycamore Roads), and;
  • walk 2 (Hornbeam, Oak and Chestnut Roads) 
in receipt of the Stowupland Focus. All in all, the Stowupland Focus is now about 52% delivered, and the County Focus is about 30% delivered.

I know that the idea is to get supporters to help with the delivery, but I actually enjoy the walk, as well as the opportunity to meet people. I'm beginning to get the hang of introducing myself, something that I'm going to have to get better at as the campaign progresses. I also get to see what's happening on the patch.

I'll be back on the trail tomorrow, as I really want to get the Stowupland Focus delivered before our Action Day. In the meantime, it'll be nice to kick my shoes off, drink a glass of wine, and watch the television...