Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thank you Ryan...

Small teething problem with the blog feed over the past few days. Not being in any way technological apt, I puzzled for a while before e-mailing Ryan, the Lib Dem Blogs founder.

He very graciously referred me to the FAQ section, noting that I was using Feedburner (which is a bit rubbish, it seems). I hadn't been aware that I was but, finding a moment, I went into Blogger and discovered that, indeed, there it was. it was the work of a second to remove it, and now all is well.

Good, isn't he?

Alistair Carmichael - I don't know what he does to the enemy but...

Given that Alistair is marking Up Helly Aa, I thought it might be nice to add a picture.

This is, I am told, Alistair. Now, if he were to turn up in Parliament looking like this, I think that we might be taken more seriously...

Tax code problems: a message from HM Revenue & Customs

As a public service announcement, and because it's rather embarrassing...

Annual coding: multiple or incorrect tax code notices

HMRC has recently introduced a new National Insurance and PAYE system and is using it to issue notices of tax coding for the first time. The new system creates a single record for customers and this, together with increased automation, is resulting in many more people having more accurate codes than before.

The transition to the new system has, however brought to light discrepancies in our existing records and this is resulting in a number of incorrect notices being issued. The vast majority of notices will be correct but there will be cases where, because the data carried over from our old systems does not match employers’ data, some people receive an incorrect coding notice or more than one coding notice for the same employment because of these discrepancies. This is a transitional issue caused by data mismatches, rather than an IT issue and will be resolved once we have cleared these from the system.

We are aware of the issue and apologise for any inconvenience caused. There is plenty of time to put the codes right before the start of the tax year and we are doing everything we can to rectify the position and ensure no-one pays too much tax when the new tax year starts in April.

However, anyone who is concerned that their code may be wrong should check it using the guidance included with the code and on our website. If customers cannot resolve their query, they can telephone 0845 3000 627 so we can ensure the right tax code is applied in time for the start of the new tax year on 6 April 2010.

Click here to find out more information about your PAYE Coding Notice.

So, what does a Regional Secretary do?

I admit that, in my second incarnation in the role, I have been obliged to ponder this somewhat. Whilst in London, the role was quite a traditional one, minuting, Executive servicing and the like, in East of England things are rather different.

Again, I have a Regional Administrator to work with, but this time Lorna does the constitutional bits, leaving me, at least as far as the Constitution is concerned, without much to do. On the other hand, I've received more e-mail seeking advice in my first month as I did in all my three years in London. In a more widespread Region, e-mail is clearly more important in the absence of potential face-to-face contact.

There is a role beginning to emerge, it seems. Firstly, the Regional Constitution. Someone needs to know how it works, who is responsible for what and how the different parts of the Regional Party interact, and that someone is going to be me.

Liaison with the wider Party is next. The Region feeds into English Council and to the English Council Executive, who decide upon the level of membership fee rebate we get (as well as that for Local Parties). I should also keep in touch with my opposite numbers in other English Regions to see what they're up to, and if there are any issues of mutual interest. Information gleaned can be disseminated across the Regional Executive and beyond.

Process consultancy for Local Parties is another likely source of work. What to do if, for example, you have candidate selection issues for local elections, dispute resolution, who to talk to for what. It mostly resembles being a village switchboard operator on one of those old exchanges, sticking jacks into holes.

There will doubtless be more as the job unfolds, but in the meantime, I'll be busy enough, trying to manage the flow of communication in and out. Any questions, you know where to find me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Come one, come all, to the inaugural Conference of Suffolk Liberal Democrats!

Yes, Suffolk Liberal Democrats are holding our first ever County Conference, on Saturday, February 27th, at the Henley Community Centre, Henley, Ipswich IP6 0QX, starting at 10 a.m.

"Getting Our Message Across"

The event will feature discussion of the General Election, the likely result of Local Government Review, plus opportunities to discuss education, waste disposal and the NHS in Suffolk, all issues of keen interest across the county. The Conference will be attended by our Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and attendees will be able to learn more about plans for the campaign ahead.

With networking and training, and a keynote speech from Andrew Phillips (Lord Phillips of Sudbury), this should a lively way to launch a season of campaigning in the run-up to key elections.

For more information, and a registration form, contact Martin Redbond, the Secretary of the Suffolk County Co-ordinating Committee, contact details available at the Regional Party website (look under forthcoming events).

Cincinnati and the Veterinary of Doom

In all honesty, Cincinnati has been in decline for some time. A combination of thyroid trouble, gradual renal failure and a benign but growing tumour at the base of his tail has slowed the old boy down (he's about 84 in human years).

Last Christmas, he was so fragile that we were convinced that he didn't have long left. However, the permanent move to the country last summer seemed to give him a new lease of life, as he prowled the garden,  visited polling stations, and generally pottered about like an old codger.

However, his various ailments haven't got any better, and the muscle loss caused by his renal problems has made him rather wobbly on his pins, and it can only be a matter of time. And so, when he appeared to stop eating and, more alarmingly purring (and he really does purr, as anyone who has met him will testify), it seemed like the moment had come to take him to the vet to be put to s-l-e-e-p, and with a heavy heart, I booked the appointment.

Naturally, as the week progressed, he perked up a bit, but given his general state of health, we went ahead with the consultation, to get a sense that we were doing the right thing (or not). The vet was most understanding, explaining that, in his view, it was a matter of weeks in any event. I steeled myself to do the deed and then, in the way only Cincinnati can manage, he sat up, looked at me and purred.

I couldn't do it. The vet suggested a steroid injection, quite popular with ageing cats as it gives them a bit of a boost, and so, injected with a pick me up, we brought him home. As a treat, Ros drove back whilst I sat in the front seat, cat over my shoulder looking out of the window like an old codger on an outing.

Clearly, Cincinnati is going to be one of those slightly anarchic heroic figures, clinging on to the edge of the cliff with one paw, flicking v-signs at the fates with another. Within an hour of getting home, he'd scrambled onto the dining table in the conservatory to eat the remains of the smoked mackerel we'd eaten for lunch. He seemed to enjoy the roast chicken with gravy we prepared for him too...

Have Regional website, will inform

I find myself with a Regional website to 'play' with, that of the East of England, and put my first piece of information on it last night, notice of the inaugural Conference of Suffolk Liberal Democrats.

However, there appear to be a myriad number of ways in which I could make it more useful, details of by-elections, local party events, regional training sessions, links to Parliamentarians, the list goes on. I am, at heart, keen to enable.

So, gentle reader, especially those of you in the counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, what would help you? Let me know via the comments box or via the website...

Receiving Department, 3 a.m.

Perhaps it's just me, but in Ros's absence, I tend to revert to my underlying night owl self. It is somewhat unreasonable to inflict such a pattern on others, but I tend to be most effective in the early hours of the morning.

Musings on the Federal, English and Regional Constitutions, issues regarding Local Parties, amendments to the Regional website, all of these things can be done without interruption, and I can (eventually) sleep with a sense of achievement.

So, if you get an e-mail from me at 3 a.m., it's because I've finally found time to read what you sent me. And no, I'm not particularly overworked, it's just that my head is clear of distractions...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Musings on Conservative thinking, am I being a bit unfair?

I have been quite harsh on the Conservative policy announcements of late. I have not been, in that sense, even-handed, because I've tended to leave Labour alone. Admittedly, there are plenty of people tearing their proposals apart, but it does look like an omission on my part. So let me explain...

I am, at heart, a free trader, a believer in personal responsibility, an opponent of the nanny state. I believe that we, as a nation, have created a system of government that is fixated on monitoring of delivery rather than delivery of outcomes. You would think that I am an obvious candidate for being lured by the Conservatives. And yet I am not. Why is that?

Put simply, because I do not perceive that Conservative policies support and encourage freedom for all. Yes, they talk a good game about freedom, but there always seems to be a razorblade in the candyfloss. On tax breaks for married couples, for example, they seek to tell us that marriage is the best background for child rearing. Tell that to the two victims in Edlington. And no, I'm not claiming that being raised in any other type of family environment would have been better, an assertion impossible to prove and equally judgemental.

Oh yes, there is no such thing as absolute freedom for all. In a just society, with freedoms come the obligation to respect the freedoms of others, and government is there to establish the framework within which we take the opportunities to make of ourselves what we will.

And I acknowledge that there are elements of policy within all political parties that are contradictory, an inevitability given that, by its very nature, a political party is the sum of its disparate parts. However, I am a believer that society is in itself a compromise, and that most decisions involve a balancing of competing freedoms, often quite a difficult one.

So, Conservative-minded readers will be thinking, why Liberal Democrat? I suppose that it comes down to an optimism that people are basically decent, responsible, law-abiding, reasonable, tax-paying, sensible, honest, decent... (oops, gone a bit 'Pub Landlord' there). Most people can be trusted to adhere to the basic rules that make societies work. And whilst I might not agree with every dot and comma of Liberal Democrat policy, I still believe that the Party is the one most likely to deliver the society I want to live in.

That said, if my Party is not in government, I want the Party that is to display some sense of philosophical coherence other than "we want to get elected". At the moment, Conservative pronouncements are long on aspiration, short on delivery mechanisms. Time is running out, ladies and gentlemen, and the country deserves better...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

House of Lords reform and the Conservatives - an example of self-interest when it really matters

The news that the Conservatives are proposing amendments to the Constitutional Reform Bill, removing the clauses that remove the final tranche of hereditary Peers from the House of Lords, should really come as no surprise, given that most of the remaining ninety-two are Conservatives. However, there is an element of logic to it.

Firstly, a declaration of interest (or two). I am married to a member of the House of Lords, for those who don't know me (and there will be some). In addition, I am a member of the Management Board of 'Unlock Democracy', who run a campaign to elect the Lords. And yes, I can see the contradiction there...

At the moment, the Lords is fairly evenly balanced. Labour are the largest party, with the Conservatives not far behind. The Liberal Democrats hold the balance between the two with a bit to spare. The cross-benchers very rarely coalesce behind one position, being notionally independent (that isn't always so, but there you go), and the Bishops don't vote that much, unless on moral/ethical issues.

However, strip out the hereditaries, and it becomes much easier for Labour to get legislation through the Lords, something which does exercise them. Under Tony Blair's relatively enlightened leadership, Labour tended to seek a balance of forces, rather than a majority, and there would, probably, have been a deal whereby Conservative Peers would be nominated to fill the gaps in their ranks. Under Gordon Brown, a much more partisan figure, that likelihood is more illusory.

Yes, under an incoming Conservative administration, David Cameron could appoint a whole tranche of new Peers, but it would serve to demonstrate that he doesn't have any intention of reforming the House of Lords - and given the indications that any such reform would be a 'third term priority, shorthand for never - and would be contrary to talk of democratic renewal. So, opposition to the Constitutional Reform Bill makes sense, at least from the perspective of Conservative self-interest.

There is also some irony in the proposals, as the hereditaries who remain in the House of Lords are the only ones with any democratic mandate at all, given that they had to fight a contest to be amongst those who remained after the first round of reforms. Some have been elected through the rather bizarre system of by-elections. All of them actively want to serve, and their attendance record and levels of participation are pretty good.

However, when all is said and done, the only real solution to the question "what to do with the House of Lords?" is proper reform, with an elected second chamber, open lists and all that goes with that. I'm not seeing a rush towards that by the reds or the blues...

Ballot result: Vice Chair Membership Development of Liberal Youth

Enough votes having now been cast to ensure that the result can be clearly determined, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Patrick Elsdon has been selected for co-option.

Paddy will perform the duties of Vice Chair Membership Development until elections take place to fill the position for the unexpired part of the current term, these being scheduled to take place next month.

My commiserations go to Thomas Hemsley who, on this occasion, was unsuccessful.

Ballot result: Vice Chair Communications of Liberal Youth.

Enough votes having now been cast to ensure that the result can be clearly determined, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Joe Rinaldi-Johnson has been selected for co-option.

Joe will perform the duties of Vice Chair Communications until elections take place to fill the position for the unexpired part of the current term, these being scheduled to take place next month.

My commiserations go to Rich Wilson who, on this occasion, was unsuccessful.

And as the votes slowly trickle in...

Polling is now well under way for the three Liberal Youth Vice Chair co-options, and tension is mounting in anticipation of the results.

Interested parties should note that, following resignations, the 'electorate' consists of ten voters, and once any candidate reaches six votes, or less if abstentions arise, I will be announcing the result.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ballot result: Vice Chair Campaigns of Liberal Youth

Enough votes having now been cast to ensure that the result can be clearly determined, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Matthew Folker has been selected for co-option.

Matthew will perform the duties of Vice Chair Campaigns until elections take place to fill the position for the unexpired part of the current term, these being scheduled to take place next month.

Liberal Youth co-options update

Nominations for co-option as Vice Chairs for the period until 28 February are now closed, and the nominations are as follows:

Vice Chair Campaigns
  • Matthew Folker
Vice Chair Communications
  • Joe Rinaldi-Johnson
  • Rich Wilson
Vice Chair Membership Development
  • Patrick Elsdon
  • Thomas Hemsley
Polling is underway in each of the contests, with the electorate restricted to the ten remaining members of the Federal Executive, and results will be published here as they come in.

As Returning Officer, I wish all of the candidates the very best of luck!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Liberal Youth: we have the technology, we can rebuild it

The process of filling the gaps at Liberal Youth is now well under way, with nominations now closed for the three vacant Vice Chair positions - Campaigns, Communications and Membership Development.

Despite being a bit distracted by other matters, I will be balloting the remaining members of the Executive Committee and, when any candidate has a clear majority of the available votes, I will declare a result. Electors will be able to vote by e-mail or text message - I am the very model of a modern Returning Officer.

Once this is done, attention will turn to the other vacancies. I'll provide a list of the runners and riders shortly...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When is a letter not a letter?

My piece for the Evening Standard yesterday was published in edited form, as a letter. Whilst that is, from a personal perspective, very gratifying, from the perspective of a reader, it might be somewhat confusing to find that, far from it being a spontaneous response to something that the correspondent has seen, it is a contribution actively solicited by the newspaper itself, a comment piece disguised.

On the positive, rather partisan side, it is good that Liberal Democrat views are being actively sought out - if only all media were the same. However, I always assumed that a letters page was an opportunity for ordinary members of the public to say their piece. That may be naive in an era of 24/7 news and a never ending need to find more material to put before viewers and readers, but it is a concept that one clings to as an element of a society which allows all to have their voice heard.

I should be flattered that someone read my blog, concluded that I can write coherently enough to be worthy of a greater audience, and approached me. I will, as a result, have reached a large audience, some of whom might conclude that what I have said makes sense, and might then be more inclined to consider voting Liberal Democrat.

And that can only be a good thing...

A letter to the Evening Standard and its evolution

So, what did I write, and what was actually published? The additions are in red.

Matthew D'Ancona makes a beguiling case for David Cameron and his "irreducible" faith in views on marriage. However, like marriage, it helps if you behave consistently, and I am not It is no surprised that he glosses over the fact that Mr Cameron was Norman Lamont's advisor when the decision was taken to first reduce the value of the Married Couple's Allowance in 1993. He didn't have such It clearly wasn't a deep-rooted belief then in the institution at that point.

Marriages last because both partners want to stay together, and it is hard to see how, in the midst of a recession, any government can justify spending money in an attempt to bribe unhappy people to stay
put together. That £20 per week equates to an allowance of more than £5000 a year, and is unaffordable, as George Osborne acknowledges. Instead, Conservatives would be better off reforming the tax and benefits system to ensure that scarce funds are distributed according to need, not relationship status.

For example, he could support raising the personal allowance to £10,000 per year, so that it helps widows, the divorced and working single parents and not just people who behave in a manner he approves of. Unfortunately for him, that’s Liberal Democrat, not Conservative, policy.

I'm sorry that the last paragraph, promoting a policy that is uniquely Liberal Democrat, was left out, and I'm slightly embarrassed that I was described as a councillor (Parish Councillors only tend to use the honorific when acting on council business), but it is at least a contribution.

The whole affair does raise another question, but I'll look at that separately.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Read all abaht it! Lib Dem attacks Cameron on marriage tax break!

Well, news reaches me that my 200 words can be found on the letters page of tonight's Evening Standard. I'd better pick up a copy, hadn't I?

An apology to readers of Liberal Bureaucracy

In a piece posted earlier today, I described an image which may have caused some discomfort to my readers. Having further considered the idea of Matthew d'Ancona in a tight sweater, short skirt and pompoms, I would like to apologise to you all. I'll try not to do that again...

Matthew d'Ancona - kissing arse, and doing it badly

So, having let Josh have his 150-200 words, it's time to give some less sparing comment on what did Matthew d'Ancona actually wrote. To be honest, especially as Matthew seems so keen on not being so, I am astounded by the astonishing chutzpah that he calls upon in writing it. If Dylan Jones is a rather embarrassing cheerleader for 'Project Cameron', then Mr d'Ancona is equally guilty of donning the tight sweater, short skirt and pompoms in support of his man.

The first paragraph is an clear indication of the intellectual rigour that we can expect...

No less than Tony Blair, his occasional role model, David Cameron has an “irreducible core” of beliefs: convictions so close to his heart that they are non-negotiable. And none is more deeply-felt than his faith in marriage as the cornerstone of society. His belief in the institution is neither aggressive in character or puritanical in origin. But it is the hard kernel of his politics.

So deeply felt that he was one of the team who started the process of reducing the impact of the married couples allowance in the 1993 Budget - Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, Special Advisor David Cameron. Did he indicate his disapproval then? Like hell he did...

So for Ed Balls to attack the Tory leader's plan to recognise marriage in the tax system as “hugely expensive and unfair”, as he did in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph, was an act of typically brazen aggression. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was ridiculing a policy that is as dear to Mr Cameron's heart as it is controversial: the Tory plan, Mr Balls said, was “designed to say that some types of families are first class, and other types of families are second class”.

I'm no friend of Ed Balls but on this occasion, he's right. If Conservatives believe that a family headed by a married couple is the ideal, then anything else is less than that. It isn't brazen aggression, it's a valid opinion. Or perhaps it is only acceptable for Conservatives to ridicule their opponents?

This week, the Government will publish its own green paper on family policy, while the Conservatives unveil the section of their draft manifesto on repairing the Broken Society. And in this case, the ideological “dividing lines” of which Mr Balls is so fond will be clear and unambiguous.

You'd better believe it, kid...

There are two quite separate questions to be posed about Mr Cameron's plan: would it work, and is it the right thing to do? Let us say that the tax break amounts to a £20 weekly boost for married couples. This sum is derided by those who forget how poor the poor truly are: the least affluent 10 per cent have a disposable income of less than £90 a week. So, for them, an additional £20 would be no small windfall.

No, they aren't separate questions at all. If the plan works, it is evidently the right thing to do. If it doesn't, it's the wrong thing to do. Since when was it right to waste billions of pounds to make a statement? At least this demonstrates that Matthew is less capable of running than the economy than George Osborne. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who are more so. 

£20 per week? What he means by disposable income can only be speculated at, but if you earn £4,500 per annum, you would fall below the income tax and NIC thresholds. Accordingly, the married couple's allowance wouldn't help you at all. And for it to be worth £20 per week, the allowance for a basic rate taxpayer would have to be £5,200. At its abolition in 1999/2000, it was worth £1,970 (at 10%, remember), or less than £4 per week. That represents about £6 per week now. Anyone would think that Matthew was plucking a figure out of the air. And of course, they'd be right, he is.

But let us be realistic: a tax break of this sort is not, in and of itself, going to drive millions of young people to church or the nearest registry office to tie the knot. That, indeed, would not be its purpose. Would it “incentivise” marriage? Possibly, though it would rarely, one imagines, be the clinching argument (“He married me for my tax break”). Instead, it would alter the message which claimants are given as they wander through the impenetrable thickets of the welfare system, encountering a series of signals and symbols freighted with meaning.

But surely the whole point is that it would influence behaviour? So, what is its purpose? What is worth spending so much money regardless of whether it justifies the expenditure?

At present, the message they take away is that the state is at best neutral and at worst actively hostile to marriage. The Married Couple's Allowance introduced by Nigel Lawson in the 1988 Budget was restricted in scope by Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke and finally abolished by Gordon Brown in 1999, replaced by an elaborate system of tax credits. And the perverse consequence of the credit structure has been the so-called “couple's penalty” — the price a couple pays for staying together.

And, lest we forget, David Cameron. If you're such a fan of young Dave, why don't you bother to find out what he was doing in 1993? Oh yes, I forget, you're a fan. But don't worry, I did the research for you. It took less than five minutes but you're probably paid by the word rather than by the hour, so I perfectly understand why you didn't.

According to calculations based on figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions, for instance, a family earning about £35,000 a year would be better off by £186 a week if the parents split up.

Is this figure as reliable as the £20 per week you quoted earlier? The calculation is based on figures published by the DWP? Did you get someone to hold the calculator for you?

There is no shortage of studies and anecdotal evidence suggesting a surge in divorce among the lower-paid since the new credit system was introduced. What is beyond dispute is that the present structure is antagonistic to marriage and incentivises separation: a status quo that is scarcely defensible. True, the old Married Man's Allowance, introduced in 1918, and the Married Couple's Allowance that replaced it 70 years later did not thwart the onward march of divorce. No single policy could possibly do that. But, since the MCA began to wither on the vine in the early Nineties, the process of social breakdown, particularly among the poorest in the inner cities, has gathered pace to a frightening extent. In such a context, it seems bizarre, to say the least, that the institution of marriage has no voice whatsoever in the system. Indeed, as far as the tax structure is concerned, marriage is invisible and irrelevant.

So, what does this tell you? That tax credits are damaging to social cohesion? Possibly, but so is a recession, changes in divorce law, the influence of celebrity divorces, the introduction of Independent Taxation in 1990... when for the first time, for tax purposes, a woman ceased to be considered a chattel of her husband. But seriously, if the gradual reduction in the value of the Married Couples Allowance is, as implied, linked to the process of social breakdown, that would be the fault of the people who cut it, right? So it's David Cameron's fault, correct? No? Should we review your statement again, or do you see the contradiction now?

But does that mean it is appropriate to reward marriage? “I have no desire to make windows into men's souls,” Queen Elizabeth I declared, and there is part of the British character that recoils from such measures as an invasion of privacy: some of Mr Cameron's closest colleagues feel similar qualms. Would the Tory plan be, as Mr Balls claimed yesterday, an improper attempt “to socially engineer family life”?

Improper? Not necessarily, if that is the sort of society you wish to promote. Social engineering has been at the heart of tax and benefit policy pretty much since taxes were first levied on an unwilling populace. So, what's the underlying principle, Matthew? What do you and David hope to achieve? 

To which the answer is: no more than every other nudge, wink and prod. The tax and benefits system is, by definition and intrinsically, a moral system, bristling with moral judgments and moral messages. Mr Brown's tax credit structure, for instance, has favoured work and lone parenthood. Thanks to a reform in 2005, gay civil partners may now claim the Married Couple's Allowance (as could heterosexuals already) provided one or more partners was born before 6 April 1935. In this instance, the system favours older gay couples over younger straights. No more or less than Mr Cameron's proposal, that reflects a moral position translated into a policy. If the Tory leader is, as Mr Balls claims, a “social engineer”, then so is he, the Prime Minister and every other member of this Government.

I agree, the tax and benefits system is a morals-based one. In the case of the Labour Party, the aim is to redistribute from those that have money, to those who do not, using heavily bureaucratic systems which take money away in tax, only to return the money in the form of credits. Matthew also likes to make tax fairness look bad, comparing young straight couples with old gay ones. Perhaps a fairer comparison is that of older couples against younger ones. The same allowance is available to all couples over the age of 65, so it isn't gender that is the 'discriminating factor', it's age. Older people have higher costs to bear, heating and utilities, personal care etc. Society has accepted that old people need to be protected, a fact that costs.

David Cameron was a Cabinet adviser during the “back to basics” debacle in 1993. He knows full well that all this is political kryptonite. A government that takes a stand on the desirability of marriage and rewards it in the tax structure is opening itself up to the most pitiless scrutiny. If his reform goes ahead, it will be quite legitimate for the media to ask deeply personal questions of Cabinet ministers that would presently be off-limits. Indeed, it is a measure of quite how much Cameron believes in this that he is willing to take that risk, to persist with what is going to be one of the biggest political rows of the coming years. Brace yourself for trouble and strife.

Oh yes, remind me again, who was he working for?... 

I'm sorry, but whilst I'm sure that David believes in it now, he also believes in winning, and without a price tag (come on George, you might not have that long to answer this one!), this smacks of populism without principle. Given that his colleagues are already rowing away from the sort of allowance that would genuinely make a difference, it's all just a pretty soundbite. And for those Conservative MPs with a skeleton in their closet, don't worry, you can only be thrown to the wolves once, unless of course you're a mate, in which case don't get caught next time...

An outside shot at the big league?

I got an unexpected telephone call yesterday, from a very polite young man at the Evening Standard called Josh, and I should confess that it took me a little while to get to grips with the idea that a newspaper would call me - it seemed improbable that any good would come of it. Yes, I'm married to a politician, so I'm painfully aware of what some journalists can do.

However, once I had gathered myself, he explained that he had read my posting on David Cameron and marriage, and wondered if I would be willing to respond to a comment piece published in their newspaper on Monday, written by Matthew d'Ancona. He had, very kindly, e-mailed it to me in case I hadn't read it. 150-200 words would be greatly appreciated, and I felt unable to resist. After all, the public act of blogging is related to a desire to have your voice heard, and the possibility of being published in a newspaper with a distribution, let alone readership, of 600,000... well, you should, shouldn't you?

So,with time of the essence, I came up with something and, possibly, maybe, it will be in today's Evening Standard. Then again, it might not be, I don't know yet. Given that the widest circulation publication I've ever written for was 'Liberator', this might be a bit of a leap into the dark.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reviving a local tradition - Rogation Sunday

Here in Creeting St Peter, life has its cycles. Of course, being predominantly agricultural, there are the various harvests, plantings and what have you, the splash of vivid yellow as the oil seed rape flowers, the green to gold of wheat as it ripens. We also have our local traditions, such as the Christmas Eve carol service at St Peter's Church, with readings by various members of the community.

As the Parish Council, we feel that we have a role in encouraging these sorts of things, and so we resumed the tradition of laying a wreath to mark Remembrance Day last year, our way of reflecting the mood of our little community. I have to admit though, that when the question of Rogation Sunday came up, I was a mite perplexed.

Apparently, Rogation Days were set apart for solemn processions intended to seek God's mercy. That developed into a tradition known as 'beating the bounds' whereby the local minister, the churchwarden and the choirboys led the parishioners on a walk around the parish boundaries, with prayers for the protection of the parish in the year ahead.

The tradition lapsed in Creeting St Peter some dozen or so years ago, after the departure of the then local vicar, but our Parochial Church Council are keen to resume, so we'll be going for a bit of a stroll on 9 May. The fact that the A14 cuts the Parish in half, with only two crossing points, is a bit of a nuisance, but our District Councillor is contributing to the post-walk tea, and the countryside is pretty so, if you're in the area, why not join us...

Meaning well isn't good enough on education

I spent part of yesterday morning listening to Michael Gove outline the latest Conservative policy on teacher training. Luckily, my morning cup of tea was drained, otherwise I might well have spluttered most of it over the eiderdown.

In one sense, I see nothing wrong with the notion that teachers should be selected from the best candidates available, and that to aspire to the ideal that all teachers will have, at least, a 2:2 degree is fairly laudable. However, the idea that young people with good degrees are going to flock to the classroom because Conservative Party policy will make teaching easier, despite the relatively low salaries and societal lack of respect, demonstrates a worrying degree of either myopia or naivety.

The teaching profession is made up of, for the most part, the best of those that apply. Many of them are devoted to their charges, some do it because they couldn't think of anything else to do, others were probably never good enough but aren't bad enough to sack - just like most professions. There are even those who went into teaching for entirely altruistic reasons.

And that appears to be what Michael Gove is expecting. He compared salaries in other European countries (and South Korea) for good measure, noting that teachers in Finland or Germany get paid at the same level as teachers here. And whilst I suspect that the collapse in the value of sterling relative to the Euro hasn't helped those numbers, what I suspect he hasn't factored in is the level of salary relative to the wider national income distribution.

At the moment, I presume that recruitment into the teaching profession is relatively buoyant. In a recession, jobs that are perceived to be 'safe' are at a premium. However, as the economy improves, that will change, and it will become more difficult to recruit and retain teachers.

You see, it's a free market out there, one with a workforce less prone to seeking a career in one organisation, where aspirations are higher. Potential employees are likely to compare and contrast packages of salaries and benefits, and when you can earn £60,000, £100,000 and even more in the financial sector, with its impact on your prospects for housing - even now, a teacher's salary won't buy much in London - why teach?

Trust me, the answer isn't going to be "because Michael Gove asked nicely"... 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hey, big spender!

It's the big night in Creeting St Peter, setting the budget of the Parish Council for 2010/11. Yes, I know, it's not as though we're talking about a vast sum here, approximately £40 per household, but it does matter.

I have agonised in the past about the effectiveness of small local authorities like ours, and reflected the local pride in doing small things well, and in representing the views of our residents. However, we as Parish Councillors are the frontline of citizen representation, so we'd better be competent, open and transparent.

There are some potentially enormous challenges for us in the year to come. Proposals for unitary government in Suffolk will open up a gulf between our village and the next tier of government and, whilst I have little positive to say about Mid Suffolk District Council, they do at least have a sense of what our issues are - unlike our district councillor, who rather relies on us to represent to her the views of the village - and are fairly responsive to them.

And so, three people, supported by our loyal and faithful Parish Clerk, will sit down this evening to agree a budget. Wish us well...

Do Conservative plans add up? What would Margaret Thatcher say?

I've been looking at Conservative plans for reducing public expenditure over the past week and, to be honest, I've not been particularly impressed. Admittedly, you might expect that - 'Liberal Democrat endorses Conservative spending plans' is particularly unlikely given who I am - but I'm genuinely disappointed by the timidity of these proposals. It's almost as though the Conservatives want not just power, but to be loved too. It's hard to imagine a Margaret Thatcher-led administration taking such a stance.

This is the phrase that prefaces the proposals on the Conservative Party website;

These are examples of specific savings that should be made in addition to the tens of billions of pounds of efficiency savings and productivity improvements that the Conservatives would deliver throughout the public sector over the next Parliament in order to reduce waste, deliver more for less, and protect frontline public services:

It has that uncertain element of 'it's government, it must be inefficient' to it. And, of course, there is an element of truth to that. However, there appears to be no question of why this is so. If there are tens of billions of efficiency savings and productivity improvements to be found, and it is so easy to do so, some of it would have happened by now. No government wants to spend vast amounts of money on waste and inefficiency, it wants to spend money on doing things.

Now I am no friend of this government. However, what I do know is that, since Labour gained power in 1997, I have personally experienced four major reorganisations, each one intended to achieve efficiency savings and productivity improvements. In HM Revenue & Customs, where I work, there have been a series of office closures, transfers of work away from the South East, the abolition of Regional offices, the introduction of mandatory e-filing of PAYE returns and, amongst all this, the loss of 20,000 staff. It is foolish to suggest that a concerted effort has not already been made to cut costs and improve efficiency.

The challenge therefore, for our Conservative friends, is to find out where further savings can be made through organisational and structural change. I would suggest that they would be better off trying to find things that Government need not do, as that's where the big savings are to be found.

Unfortunately, our blue friends are too busy trying to be loved to find time to talk about real cuts, about a rolling up of the State, about unshackling people from the nanny state. The debate about what the nation wants, what it needs and what it can afford is going to have to be started by someone else.

If Margaret Thatcher were dead, she'd be turning in her grave...

I'm no friend of Lady Thatcher, but at least you knew what she stood for.

91% punctuality? National Express East Anglia are having a giraffe!

Well, the performance statistics are out for January, courtesy of National Express East Anglia, and so, how have they done on punctuality?
  • 78.2% for all routes
  • 69.3% for mainline routes
Guess what I have to deal with?

What this means is that, to achieve their franchise target of 91%, they'll have to achieve 93% punctuality for the next eleven months. That is, to coin a phrase, so not going to happen.

Ah well, never mind...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 7)

  • Creating an Office for Budget Responsibility. We will create a new Office for Budget Responsibility to assess independently the sustainability of the public finances and hold the Government to account.
It wouldn't be a Conservative manifesto without something stolen from the United States. The US Office of Management and Budget states that its mission is;

to assist the President in overseeing the preparation of the federal budget and to supervise its administration in Executive Branch agencies. In helping to formulate the President's spending plans, OMB evaluates the effectiveness of agency programs, policies, and procedures, assesses competing funding demands among agencies, and sets funding priorities. OMB ensures that agency reports, rules, testimony, and proposed legislation are consistent with the President's Budget and with Administration policies.

In addition, OMB oversees and coordinates the Administration's procurement, financial management, information, and regulatory policies. In each of these areas, OMB's role is to help improve administrative management, to develop better performance measures and coordinating mechanisms, and to reduce any unnecessary burdens on the public.

Of course, we have something like this already, the National Audit Office. It isn't independent, but it is pretty effective.

However, if you want something independent, who decides who serves in it? How do they hold the Government to account (and in any case, isn't that the job of we, the people?) and what sanctions are there for a Government deemed to have failed?

I have been extremely critical of the Government's Fiscal Responsibility Bill, and this is another example of a political party without any confidence in its ability to do what is right, so much so that it has to be told what that is. And if it can't trust itself to do that, what can you trust it to do?...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

First day at school - welcome to the East of England

There is something about turning up in an unfamiliar place, and sitting in a drab room full of people you don't really know, that makes me slightly nervous. Are they going to like me? Am I going to be able to contribute?

Today was like that, as I made my way from inner London to a business park on the northern edge of Cambridge to attend my first meeting as a member of the East of England Regional Executive. Having only become a member of the Regional Party in early October, and been elected in absentia to the position of Regional Secretary, it was time to face the music.

Curiously, the Secretary does not minute, nor does he service the Executive - Lorna, our Regional Administrator, does that, leaving only a series of unrelated, rather vague roles. And so I settled down, laptop on the desk in front of me, and listened as Julie Smith, our newly-elected Chair, kicked things off with a round of introductions.

It did dawn on me that I ought to do something, so I brought up the Regional Constitution, as a guide to what was supposed to happen. Almost immediately, a question of jurisdiction arose, and I noticed that we were about to act in a manner contrary to the Constitution, so I pointed this out, surprising my colleagues somewhat.

When I was Regional Secretary in London, I was often surprised by the lack of awareness of the constitution. Such documents are, I admit, pretty tedious, but when you really need them, they're a lifesaver. It appears that East of England is little different in that sense, and I suspect that the first role to be put on my job description is 'constitution guru'.

It was a pretty good meeting, I think, and smartly chaired by Julie, in spite of her disappointment over the Cambridge candidate selection (she had been on the final shortlist but wasn't successful) and the sort of weariness that an intense selection campaign inflicts. I've got a few things to do, which I'll need to get on with, and I'm looking forward to working with a rather more traditional type of region, as opposed to the city-state that is London.

Our next meeting is scheduled for 6 March. I am reminded that attending it could be difficult, as I'm supposed to be in Perth that evening. Note to self, write a good report...

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 6)

  • Review of the state pension age. We will hold a review to consider bringing forward the planned rise in the state pension age.
And now we begin to reach the scraping at the bottom of the intellectual barrel. The Turner Report proposed that the state pension age should increase to 66 by 2030, 67 by 2040 and 68 by 2050, whilst the Government decided that it should increase to 66 by 2024, 67 by 2034 and 68 by 2044 (a precis of the 2006 White Paper can be found here).

The suggestion of a 'review to consider' is just weasel words, to be frank. If you believe that increased longevity and improved health and quality of life enables those in their sixties, seventies and beyond to work on, then say so. Indeed, given Government proposals to remove the mandatory retirement age, the opportunity to address this now exists.

Offer these people a deal, work on and defer your pension, or part of it, and we'll increase the value of it when you choose to take it. The Government has an actuarial service, so there will be little extra cost, and the potential for some savings. In any event, there is already an acceptance that people can and should work longer - you might not like it but it is now a matter of consensus - so the question is whether the current proposals go far enough.

This is a timid proposal when the time is for bold ones, an attempt to demonstrate that they are willing to think the unthinkable, or at least the unpopular. Unfortunately, it falls under the category of an aspiration to be dumped as soon as the Daily Mail comes out against it. Anyone would think that they weren't really serious...

Friday, January 15, 2010

A chance to halve the Conservative majority on Mid Suffolk District Council

Following yesterday's resignation of Bruce Cameron-Laker, there is a vacant seat on Mid Suffolk District Council in Haughley & Wetherden, north-west of Stowmarket, and one of the four district wards that make up the County division of Upper Gipping (why does that sound vaguely familiar?).

I don't know Bruce at all, except that he is a Conservative who won the ward by just 45 votes in 2007 over Liberal Democrat candidate, Geoff Clarke. The full result last time:
  • 354 votes    Bruce Cameron-Laker (Conservative)
  • 309 votes    Geoff Clarke (Liberal Democrat)
  • 122 votes    Jenny Overett (Green)
So, less than a 3% swing required to reduce the Conservative majority to just two, albeit that at least one of the four independents is a Conservative in disguise.

More news as it comes in...

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 5)

  • Stopping tax credits to high earners. We will stop paying Child Tax Credits to those earning over £50,000.
Well, I suppose that you can't really argue with this in terms of fairness, and there is no doubt that it is bizarre to use public funds to give credits to the wealthy. I have had a look at how much in the way of child tax credits would be received by someone earning £50,000, and I make it about £550 per annum, assuming that their partner doesn't work and they have one child (try the HMRC calculator if you're interested or, indeed, if you might actually be eligible yourself and aren't claiming.

At £70,000 per annum, an individual qualifies for nothing at all, based on the same assumptions. Therefore, we aren't talking about a huge impact here, rather a symbolic one. In 2004/05, just 5% of individuals had taxed income above £52,400, equivalent to approximately £58,000 now, and 10% had taxed income above £39,000, roughly equal to £43,000 now.

In short, we're not talking about a huge amount here, and whilst it is media-friendly, in the face of £178 billion, it is merely spitting in the wind. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

An opportunity to find out exactly what Labour mean by 'citizenship empowerment'

A press release lands on Liberal Bureaucracy's e-doormat...

On Wednesday 27 January, Unlock Democracy will be hosting a lecture by John Denham in the Grimond Room, Portcullis House, Westminster, starting at 7.15 p.m.

All parties talk of devolving power to local communities.  This series of lectures is designed to find out what exactly they mean by Citizenship Empowerment. This is the second of a series of lectures Unlock Democracy is hosting, examining the vision and philosophy of each of the main three parties regarding Citizen Empowerment, and follows on from the success of the Sustainable Communities Act, the campaign for which was led by Unlock Democracy. The first of our lectures was given by the Rt Hon. Oliver Letwin MP.

Tickets are free, however numbers are strictly limited so please be advised to RSVP as quickly as possible to Please allow 20 minutes to clear security.

The Rt Hon. John Denham MP is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He  served as a local Councillor from 1981 until 1993, prior to being elected and has had a distinguished parliamentary career. Following the election of the Labour Government in 1997, he served as a Government Minister in the Departments of Social Security, Health and the Home Office and in June 2000 he was appointed by the Queen as a Privy Counsellor. Following his return to the backbenches after his resignation over the Iraq War, he chaired the powerful Home Affairs Select Committee, before his appointment to Gordon Brown’s first Cabinet as Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills in 2007.

National Express East Anglia - an apology

Don't get excited, it isn't an apology from me to them. You may recall that I lodged a complaint with the shambles that is National Express East Anglia in late November, after another of those deeply unsatisfying trips that they seem to increasingly specialise in. Given that their published aim was to reply to 90% of complaints within six working days, I was expecting a response in the first week of December, possibly the second.

That response didn't come, and still didn't come, and by Christmas, I had begun to start thinking about another complaint. I'm a busy man though, and you know how these things are...

However, I arrived home this evening to find an envelope waiting for me. In it was this letter;

Dear Mr Valladares,

Thank you for your email dated 24th November 2009. I am very sorry that it has taken some time to reply to you.

I am sorry that you had a bad experience when travelling with us on the 19.30 service from Liverpool Street. We expect to provide a reliable, punctual and comfortable journey and I understand that we let you down.

Our aim is to help make travel simpler and a pleasant experience for all our customers, and we were clearly unsuccessful this time. We are working hard to make improvements and feedback like yours really helps.

Given what happened, I am sending you £10.00 worth of travel vouchers. I sincerely hope that your next experience with us is more satisfactory and shows you that we are working to get things right.

Once again, my apologies and thank you for taking the time to get in touch.

Yours sincerely, etc. etc.

In its Passenger Charter, National Express East Anglia states that it aims to answer 90% of all contacts within six working days, and all complaints within fifteen working days. If they cannot give you the full answer within this time, they will send me an acknowledgement and let me know when I can expect to hear further.

My complaint was lodged on the evening of 24 November. Six working days expired on 2 December, and fifteen working days on 15 December, and so I suppose that a reply dated 8 January, and no acknowledgement, represents a fail. In fact, 8 January represents thirty working days, and I find myself idly wondering how well NXEA claim to be performing against that target...

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 4)

  • Stopping Child Trust Funds, except for the poorest families and disabled children. We will stop new spending on Child Trust Funds for better off families. But to protect the poorest and most vulnerable, disabled children and the poorest one third of families should continue to receive both new Child Trust Funds at birth and top-up payments.
As a Liberal Democrat, one can hardly oppose this as a concept. After all, we're calling for the abolition of Child Trust Funds too. However, calling for their total abolition means that that you cut out all of the bureaucracy involved, with a resultant saving that is obvious.

However, the Conservative proposal is likely to give us the worst of both worlds. Yes, there will be a saving in terms of the amount of money handed out. However, you still require a bureaucracy to handle this, and now you add means-testing, with additional forms to fill in, compliance teams to deal with fraudulent claims, and so on and so forth.

The proposal looks compassionate, but if the Child Trust Fund is designed to provide a start to young people, and isn't accessible by the child until he or she reaches the age of eighteen, how do such payments help the poorest and most vulnerable, disabled children and the poorest one-third of families? It doesn't.

There is a sense here that, like political magpies, the Conservatives have stolen a Liberal Democrat policy, sought to soften it at the edges without really getting the point. Anyone would think that bureaucracy comes without costs...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Liberal Youth: transitional arrangements, co-options, cuddly toys and bedside lamps...

So much to do, so little time. Co-options to fill the Vice Chair vacancies until York, the organisation of elections to fill casual vacancies for Vice Chairs and General Executive Members, and all this with the prospect of 'real' elections before much longer.

So, let's see where we are;

Shortly, a notice will go to all members via e-mail, inviting them to apply for the vacant Vice-Chair positions, and the remaining members of the LY Executive will vote on short-term co-options.

After that, members will be invited to apply for co-option as General Executive Members, given the possibility that current GEMs might (note, not will) fill the Vice Chair vacancies. Any other consequential vacancies will be advertised similarly. Again, current members of the LY Executive will form the electorate.

Once this is done, a call for nominations will be issued for elections to fill all current vacancies until the completion of the current Executive term. A postal ballot will be available on request for members unable to attend the Spring Conference. Details of how to apply will be given at that time.

That ballot will be concluded at York on 28 February, with results available as soon as technology permits.

I hope that this clarifies the position, although it is subject to possible change and/or clarification. Please note that any Press enquiries about the conduct of elections, and that includes ursine correspondents of a sky-coloured hue, should be referred to me in my capacity as Returning Officer. It is so important to supply accurate information...

Another demonstration of the sheer inanity of modern bureaucracy

The telephone rings at work.

"Hello, Mr Valladares, I'm calling from X (a financial institution). I'd like to talk to you about your account."

"Right, fine, what do you want?"

"First, Mr Valladares, we need to carry out a security check. Can you provide me with the first line of your address, your postcode and your date of birth?"


"Why not, Mr Valladares?"

"Because you repeatedly tell me that I shouldn't give out that sort of information. So, why are you calling me?"

"I'm sorry, Mr Valladares, but I can't give you that information until we complete the security check. I fully understand why you don't want to give you the information though. Can you call us to discuss the matter?"

"What matter?"

"I'm sorry, I can't tell you until we..."

"Yes, I know, but if I don't know why I'm calling you, why should I?"

"Because we need to talk to you about your account."

"But you won't tell me why?"

"No, I'm afraid I can't. Please call us when you have an opportunity."

Sometimes, you just despair, really you do...

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 3)

  • Capping public sector pensions. We will cap public sector pensions at £50,000 per year.
Ah yes, time for some grandstanding. Now it has to be said that there are very few retired public sector employees who are fortunate to receive a pension in excess of £50,000. The standard civil service pension traditionally allowed for one-fortieth of the best of your last three years worth of salary for each year of service, capped at forty years, i.e. to receive £50,000, your final salary would need to be £100,000, or its equivalent at the time of retirement.

There have never been very many civil servants on that sort of salary. Indeed, you would need to be a member of the Senior Civil Service to be in that pay range. In the days when the Inland Revenue had a London Region, we certainly didn't have more than five of them, and my entire area of the Department these days (Corporation Tax Operations) has none.

For the record, at the end of 2008, the number of civil servants, or full-time equivalents was:
  • 225,400 at administrative grades
  • 217,500 at executive grades
  • 31,900 at Grades 6 and 7
  • 4,700 in the Senior Civil Service
i.e. less than 1% of the Civil Service are at grades likely to attract a pension in excess of £50,000. To make matters worse, just 16% of civil servants retire at or above their normal retirement age, and over 60% retire to pursue other careers.

So, given that the pay scales for the Senior Civil Service do not fall wholly above the £100,000 mark either, the number likely to receive such a pension is small, if irritating. However, like expenses for MPs, the system of civil service pay has relied on an unwritten assumption that pay is kept down in favour of perks.

There is another factor as well, which has led to the perceived burden of public sector pensions, i.e. the reduction of the retirement age to 60 in the late 1980's, which reduced staffing numbers quite effectively, at the cost of increasing exposure to pension costs by five years at a stroke. It was one of those decisions that achieved a short-term favourable headline at an appalling cost, and was taken by, yes, you're right, the Conservatives.

Now, if the Conservatives want to cut the costs of senior civil servants, they may want to ask the question, "why has the number of Senior Civil Servants increased by 35% since 2000?". Answer that question, and you might have some savings...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The search for a new Chair for Liberal Youth begins here...

Soundings having been taken, and the Constitution referred to, an election for a new Chair of Liberal Youth, to hold office until the next round of Executive elections after a General Election, will take place, with the result to be announced in York on 28 February.

A call for nominations will go out as soon as possible, closing fourteen days after the announcement, so as to allow maximum time for any candidates to make their case. Postal ballots will also be available, as I believe it to be vital that as many as possible of Liberal Youth's 3,500 members can take part.

Candidates will be encouraged to use social networking, blogs and other electronic media to reach out to members, whilst official Liberal Youth media, 'The Libertine' and the website (forums excluded) will be expected to remain neutral during any campaign that materialises. I intend to carry out my duties in as 'light touch' a manner as possible.

Hustings will take place in York on the morning of 28 February, and I will be present to supervise those hustings, accept ballot papers, carry out the count and announce the result.

I hope that I can rely on all members of Liberal Youth to show due respect for the process itself, and to any candidates who may present themselves.

If there are any questions, I will make my contact details available to members via the Liberal Youth forums, in the members-only area.

Finally, I urge members of Liberal Youth to engage fully in this election. The value of a democracy is measured by participation, and I would like to see a high turnout, so that the winning candidate has an optimal mandate to lead the organisation into a vital General Election campaign.

Liberal Youth: the Returning Officer surmises

Article 6, paragraph 16 of the Federal Constitution of Liberal Youth states;

"Where the office of Chair is or becomes vacant the Executive may designate a Vice Chair to be acting Chair, until a proper appointment may be made under 10.6.a). The acting Chair shall assume all responsibilities of the Chair. Where an acting Chair is not appointed the Vice-Chairs shall jointly exercise the powers and responsibilities of the Chair."

As I understand the position, on that basis, and for the time being only, Alan Belmore is acting Chair, being the only extant Vice Chair.

The Federal Executive may then co-opt a replacement, as authorised at Article 6, paragraph 6, clause d)

"The Federal Executive shall have the power to initially co-opt to fill vacancies for posts under 6.1 a)-f) as laid out in 10.6 a) below"

Such a co-option shall last until an election can take place, as specified by Article 9.6.

Time to work out what the implications of Article 9, paragraph 6 are, I think...

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 2)

  • Cutting the cost of Whitehall and quangos. We will cut the cost of Whitehall bureaucracy and quangos by at least a third by the end of the next parliament.
Ah yes, one of my personal favourites, and clearly one of politicians everywhere.

The problem with this is, that if it were so easily achievable, everyone would do it. There is no doubt that there is too much bureaucracy in this country, and much of it could be more efficient. However, how did we end up with all of these quangos and bureaucracy anyway?

Governments have been so keen to avoid charges of increasing the size of the Civil Service that they devolve to agencies, to quangos, anything to dodge the charge of creating a massive bureaucracy. Many of these bodies are difficult to hold to account, with Ministers only too happy to stand before Parliament and say that, no this is not their responsibility, and that questions should be put to the National Commission for the Co-ordination of Paper Clips, or whatever.

The problem is that we have in this country a tendency to respond to any situation with the cry, "something ought to be done". And so something is. A new body to monitor this, a quango to measure that, it all adds up. The presumption that all of those things that are already being done should continue means that you are adding headcount in order to carry out these additional tasks. And guess what, that headcount costs.

There appears to be no great philosophical coherence to this proposal, more an attempt at salami-slicing on a great scale. What is government for? What purpose should it have? No, the only question being asked is, "what size of government can we raise funds to maintain?".

More and more of government, both national and local, is about targets. Yes, targets are easy to understand. Unfortunately, once you've set them, you have to demonstrate progress (or the lack thereof). Someone is needed to monitor those targets, others to measure and evaluate data. Again, more headcount, more cost.

So, why not return to basics? What is government for? Where should the state intervene and where should it take a back seat? And until those questions are answered by the Conservatives, with a degree of intellectual rigour, this particular policy plank is going to prove difficult to achieve...

A vacancy at Liberal Youth as Chair resigns...

I am somewhat surprised by developments at Liberal Youth. Alright, I am nearly always surprised by developments at Liberal Youth, but this is unexpected. It appears that Elaine Bagshaw, having been elected in what was a rather unfortunate contest as recently as March, has now resigned as Chair.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAs an office holder of Liberal Youth by dint of my position as Returning Officer, I keep a measured distance from the affairs of the organisation (call me a professional neutral, if you must), so have no idea what has actually happened to bring about this event.

However, this does mean that I must ride into town once again, armed only with the Federal Constitution of Liberal Youth, my ballot box and a sense of humour and tolerance. At the moment, I am consulting in order to establish whether or not my presence is required at their Spring Conference in York (last weekend of February if you're interested), and will use this blog and, of course, the Liberal Youth website and forum, to keep a waiting world up to date.

I don't doubt that there will be those who have much to say on what has happened, accurate or otherwise. There always seems to be. However, I have to say that my personal dealings with Elaine have always been courteous and professional, and I hope that she has felt rewarded in some way by her tenure as Chair of Liberal Youth.