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...

Friday, November 05, 2010

Just eight days away, the very first Stowupland Action Day - Saturday, November 13th...

Alright, so I'm pushing this quite hard. There is, however, one really good reason why you should come.

The Action Day takes place on my birthday. Yes, I'll be celebrating my forty-sixth birthday by doing resident surveying in my ward. I might even deliver some leaflets if time permits. So, don't give me money, don't send me cards, just come and help me win. And then, if I do, I'll do my very best to represent the people of Stowupland and Creeting St Peter on Mid Suffolk District Council.

We're only a couple of hours from London, so if you fancy a day in the countryside (and ours is pretty lovely), it's a hop, skip and a jump up the A12 or the M11/A14 to Mid Suffolk.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

House of Lords Committee slates the Public Bodies Bill

It appears that, in their haste to reduce the number of quangos that exist, the Coalition or, to be precise, Francis Maude, has rather overstepped the mark. In a savage attack, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution asserts that the Bill "strikes at the very heart of our constitutional system", and "hits directly at the role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber.".

So, what does the Bill do? It grants extensive powers to Ministers to abolish, to merge, to modify the constitutional arrangements of, to modify the funding arrangements of, to modify or transfer the functions of, or to authorise delegation in respect of a very significant number and range of public bodies.

There is a catch, in that the majority of these bodies were created by statute, indeed some of them by Royal Charter, and the idea that they might be abolished or significantly altered in scope or function by ministerial order, rather than by legislative amendment and debate in Parliament, strikes at the notion that only Parliament may amend or repeal primary legislation.

And the organisations affected by the legislation are not a bunch known only to bureaucratic anoraks, they include such 'obscure' bodies as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Children's Commissioner, the Competition Commission, the Health and Safety Executive and Passenger Focus.

So I think that we have a right to be concerned when the Select Committee concludes;

"We fail to see why such parliamentary debate and deliberation should be denied to proposals now to abolish or to redesign such bodies."

They intend to closely monitor the progress of the Bill. I suggest that we ought to as well...

Just nine days away, the very first Stowupland Action Day - Saturday, November 13th...

Details are now confirmed, with the day starting at 10 a.m., meeting at Belmont Cottage, The Lane, Creeting St Peter, Suffolk IP6 8QR, where our Campaign Manager will be organising teams to do some resident surveying. There will be some delivering available if you prefer though. The distances are small, the locals are friendly, and most of the dogs are harmlessly enthusiastic labradors.

A hearty lunch will be served between 12.30 and 1.30, before we head back out until darkness falls at around about 4 p.m.

If you can't join us for the day, why not join us for the morning or afternoon sessions? You'll still get lunch, you'll still get to meet Baroness Ros Scott, our Party President. You'll even get to see our brand new campaign headquarters, well worth the trip on its own.

So why not join us? For more information, or to confirm that you'll be joining us, leave a comment, or direct message me on Twitter (@honladymark), or e-mail me at markv233[at]aol[dot]com, or via Facebook. Go on. you know that you want to...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A new complaint handling framework for the East of England

The position of the Regional Party in terms of complaints handling has, it appears, been an issue for some time. On assuming the position of Regional Secretary, it became apparent that the role included responsibility for handling disciplinary issues, in the absence of any evident structure. Events over the past nine months have made it clear that such a situation is untenable, and I have taken this opportunity to design a process for future incidents, which was formally adopted by the Regional Management Committee in the course of its meeting last night.

It reads as follows;
  1. All complaints submitted for action by the Regional Party shall be transmitted to the Regional Secretary, or in the event of a potential conflict of interest, the Regional Chair, for consideration in the first instance. On receipt, the Regional Secretary shall ascertain whether said complaint should be dealt with at Local, Regional or State Party level, seeking clarification where appropriate and ensuring compliance with the English Party Membership Rules.
  2. If the requirements indicated above are met, and the complaint is accepted as being best handled at Regional Party level, the Regional Secretary shall make a report to the next meeting of the Regional Management Committee, with a recommendation for action. Such a meeting may be by e-group if undue delay would otherwise result.
  3. The Regional Management Committee shall decide, based on the report of the Regional Secretary, on whether to proceed with or reject the complaint, to refer it to an investigator or directly to a disciplinary hearing. It shall not be bound by the recommendation of the Regional Secretary.
  4. The Regional Secretary, or in the event of a potential conflict of interest, the Regional Administrator, shall be, in the first instance, responsible for liaison between the Regional Party, the complainant(s) and the respondent(s), which will be handled in writing. This will, normally, be done by e-mail. This clause does not supersede the right of the investigator or disciplinary hearing to seek evidence.
  5. The Regional Secretary shall not act as an investigator or member of a disciplinary hearing panel, and instead shall monitor the process, ensuring that deadlines and procedures as specified by the English Party Membership Rules and by the Regional Management Committee are adhered to. A record of complaints shall be maintained, including a copy of the formal complaint.
  6. In the event of a conflict of interest, a member of the Regional Management Committee shall declare that interest and absent themselves from any further discussion of the complaint. If there is any doubt, members should seek clarification.

Target response times
  • On receipt of an initial approach - a letter/e-mail will be issued by the Regional Secretary to the complainant within fourteen days.
  • On receipt of a formal complaint - a letter/e-mail will be issued by the Regional Secretary to complainant and respondent, and notification of the complaint will be made to the Regional Management Committee with a recommendation within twenty-eight days.
  • On notification of the complaint to Regional Management Committee - a formal decision on how/whether to proceed will be taken, appointment of an investigator/disciplinary hearing panel will be made as appropriate, and a letter/e-mail will be issued to complainant and respondent, providing confirmation of the decision, within twenty-eight days.
  • On receipt of the findings of investigator - a letter/e-mail will be issued to the complainant and respondent, notifying them of the findings within fourteen days.
  • On receipt of the findings of a disciplinary hearing panel - a letter/e-mail will be issued to the complainant, the respondent, Membership Services (if appropriate) and to the Local Party Secretary (if appropriate), notifying them of the findings within seven days.
All other deadlines shall be as specified by the English Party Membership Rules.

Those who suppress, or are party to the suppression of criticism, shall be held accountable?

The atmosphere is a mite tricky at the moment in Liberal Democrat circles. There is a sense, because the Government is doing things that we're not keen on, and our Party is part of the Government, that it is right and proper to criticise our MPs and, in particular, our Ministers.

I find myself tempted to join in from time to time, but find myself holding back. Can I insist that every major area of Liberal Democrat policy is enacted, or should I accept that, as a minority part of the administration, I am going to have to accept the result of negotiations between the two wings of the Coalition? Am I a purist, or a pragmatist?

It is difficult. I for one didn't enter politics to enact Conservative Party policies, but then again, I never really expected to get an opportunity to enact Liberal Democrat ones (hoped, yes, expected...). So I find myself attempting to determine the level of influence that Liberal Democrats have on Coalition policy. It isn't easy, especially without much data on what Conservative policy actually was.

And policy-making matters. I have a sense of what we want, and a sense of ownership, given my right to vote on policies at our Federal Conference. That sense of ownership is widely-held, and deeply felt, which makes coping with the imposition of Conservative policies in key areas difficult to accept. It's an emotional, almost visceral thing. "We've got so much good policy,", the argument goes, "why should we accept a policy we know to be inferior?". Decades of opposition has dullened any sense of compromise amongst those who haven't been in local government, or in Scotland, or in Wales, where coalitions, and thus compromise, are a fact of life.

Conservatives are more comfortable with ideology than policy. They don't have a clear means to influence policy, most of which comes from the intellectual chemistry laboratory that is Oliver Letwin and his team of policy wonks. Ideology is simple - no to big government and Europe, yes to lower taxes and reduced regulation - and the detail can be left to others, as long as they understand the basic principles. They also like power, sometimes to the extent that it doesn't matter what they do, as long as it is they that are doing it.

Therefore, we run the risk of losing our sense of perspective. We have achieved much that, six months ago, we would have longed for. The deferral of a renewal decision on Trident until the end of this Parliament, significant increases in income tax thresholds, legislation to reform the House of Lords and our electoral system, the new Green Investment Bank, to name but four, and none of them things that the Conservatives would have done on their own account. Yes, there are elements that we don't like, but from the squealing going on amongst some Conservative parliamentarians, it is evident that they're not overly comfortable either. Perhaps the balance is not far off being right?

It is entirely right that we debate amongst ourselves what our priorities should be, and that we should use our Conferences, our policy-making apparatus, and our access to influence Government thinking. But we should keep that debate respectful, both of each other as individuals, and of our philosophy and principles, so that we can face the new challenges together.

Just ten days away, the very first ever Stowupland Action Day!

Whilst the future of the Liberal Democrats is being decided in Cowley Street, as the two contenders for the Party Presidency hear their fate, the current, and still undefeated, incumbent will be on the road, supporting local activists. And here's an invitation from one of them to join her...

Stowupland Action Day - Saturday, November 13th

Dear All,

It gives me great pleasure to invite you to the first Stowupland Ward Action Day, in less than two weeks time.

Mid Suffolk have nominated the ward as a target for next year, and as, hopefully, the candidate, I would love to see as many of you as possible.

So, why come? What's the incentive? Well, we've got the Party President, Baroness Ros Scott, in attendance, and she'll be doing some resident surveying, we'll be laying on a soup and jacket potato lunch, and the distances are small. Besides, there isn't anywhere more central in the county.

We will provide more information once the final timings are known, but if you are coming, let us know so that we can make sure that there's food enough for all.

Many thanks in anticipation,

Mark Valladares

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

HMRC issues statement about Vodafone's tax position

In an unusual move, HMRC has issued the following statement in response to claims in the media about the company's tax liability following a tax settlement for £1.25 billion in August.
We cannot comment on the detail of the settlement but we can confirm that it was reached by HMRC following a rigorous examination of the facts and an intensive process of negotiation that tested the arguments of both parties.

As a result it was agreed that Vodafone’s liability was £1.25 billion and at no point was a liability greater than that established. There is no question of Vodafone having an outstanding tax liability of £6 billion. That number is an urban myth.
Vodafone gave permission for HMRC to comment on their tax affairs which would normally be subject to taxpayer confidentiality.
Would Johann Hari now like to apologise to Vodafone for reporting a falsehood as truth?

Monday, November 01, 2010

"Vorsprung durch verwaltung", as we say in the East of England

So, Conference and Presidential hustings over, it was time to find out whether or not I would have to produce a manifesto...

The answer? Let joy be unconfined, let the seraphim and cherubim sing the praises of the new Regional Secretary for the 2011 calendar year... me! Yes, I rule, too ruthless to allow a challenge, too intimidating to attract one, empowered to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Region for another year.*

And now that I understand how it all works, I might be even more dangerous...

* I may have become a bit carried away here. I promise to try to make our bureaucracy a bit less daunting, a bit more user-friendly, and a bit more about what a Regional Party should be, something that helps people get themselves and others elected. That kind of stuff... and I might even be nice to people (if they deserve it)...

Tim Kramer vs Susan Farron - it's all too difficult...

Four o'clock came and went, and I really should have gone to check the final list of nominations. However, I had another of those "Ooh look, it's a bunny rabbit!" moments and was distracted by the need (or otherwise) for a roving microphone for the Presidential hustings. So, I obtained one from the venue staff, manning the lighting and sound systems, and found myself the Chair's aide as a result.

I've remarked in the past that this contest makes for a very difficult choice, and the hustings that followed makes my choice all the more marginal. Yes, I've already voted, but I can't help feeling that the hustings would only have made it less likely that I would vote at all. That isn't because they aren't both very good candidates, because they are. It isn't because I don't beleive that they can do the job of President, although I'll return to that point.

Under a hail of questions from the audience, they responded well, appealing to those who feel that the President is potentially their champion, although there were far too many questions about policy for my liking. Let's get this right, the President's view on policy issues should be a personal one, it should not colour their judgement as to what is good for the Party. Their role is to convey widely held concerns, fears or questions to the Leader and, now, our Ministers in Government, not to act as some maverick, firing ideas off in random directions in a chase for headlines.

They do offer two distinctive visions of the Presidency, I believe. Tim has a more high-profile vision for the Presidency, a vocal reminder to the leadership that the members need to be listened to. Susan's is more of a behind the scenes voice, operating beyond the media spotlight, more consensual. I'm not sure which is more reflective of the Party's needs, indeed, my stance varies from day to day. Given that I've had a unique view of the Presidency for two years now, that is perhaps an indication of the challenge that faces the winner of the contest.

Ironically, it may well prove to be the case that what works best with the Party's leadership is not what members opt for, a recipe for frustration, to say the least. And given that there are very few people who actually understand what the President is for, that is always a risk...

Tuition Fees: would the Coalition hang on in the East of England?

It wasn't a huge surprise that the East of England would debate tuition fees, especially with such an august university just down the road (I refer, of course, to the University of East Anglia...).

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceUnder the careful eyes of session Chair, Susan Gaszczak and her trusty aide (that would be me), the debate was carefully balanced, but with Norman Lamb speaking against, as well as, somewhat unexpectedly, Andrew Phillips (the Chancellor of the University of Essex), it was always likely to be close run.

And so it turned out. The movers spoke passionately of the tuition fees pledge that so many of our Parliamentary candidates signed, noting that two of the Region's four MPs, Julian Huppert and Bob Russell, were pledged to vote against tuition fee rises in any future vote. Indeed, Julian has signed the pledge again, just to emphasise his opposition. They felt that, in order to restore trust in politicians, we had to remain true to our word, a very strong, very emotive argument.

In response, there were concerns about mandating MPs - quite legitimate - and one delegate noted that the 50% target for young people getting into university was itself a nonsense. With Andrew Phillips noting a series of proposals that would address issues of access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, I sensed that Conference might be having second thoughts about taking a stance against the Parliamentary Party.

The debate ebbed and flowed, before we got to a vote. It was close, far too close to call. A counted vote was called for from the Chair, the East of England's first for many a year, and with the aid of the stewards, we had a result. By thirty-eight votes to thirty-seven, the motion had fallen. We waited, and waited, in the expectation of calls for a recount, which never came...

And so came a little succour for the Coalition. Nothing to build their hopes too high, I accept, but possibly a glimmer of hope that, if push came to shove, they might survive a more formal debate...

Regional Secretary: still crazy after all these years?...

And as my first term as East of England's Regional Secretary headed towards a close, was I going to get a second term. Was I even going to seek another? Questions, questions as Ros and I headed towards Huntingdon and our Regional Conference...

So, on arrival, I made my way towards Alan Window, our Returning Officer, graciously giving up a day at his own Regional Conference to help us out. No, not a single nomination for Secretary, so it was clearly down to me. I needed two nominators, so I did what any gentleman would do, and sought out the two senior members of our County Party - Ros and Andrew Phillips, who kindly agreed to sign.

Nomination papers signed, sealed and delivered to the Returning Officer, I waited whilst he confirmed that all was in order, and returned to the Conference Hall...  

Liberal Youth: on the receiving end of a Returning Officer for a change...

Having written a manifesto for Liberal Youth, I'm now going to have to back it up with action, now that I have been elected as an Honorary Vice President. Yes, I have been triumphant, in spite of the fact that I am not called Chris. Indeed, the Honorary Officers do now rather resemble the Philosophy Department of the University of Woolamaloo (look it up...).

So, what do the Honorary Vice Presidents of Liberal Youth do? Well, there may be some drinking to be done, in moderation, of course, but more seriously, one of us acts as Honorary Treasurer and shall, for the purposes of the Political Parties and Referendums Act 2000, be the person responsible for the finances of Liberal Youth. We also serve on the Appeals Panel, with one of us acting as its Chair, and, best of all, one of us gets to be on the Office Management Committee

So, Chris Butler, Chris Gurney, Chris Keating, Nigel Ashton, Yuan Potts and myself will assume our duties on 1 January. One election down, three to go...

Saturday morning in the East Midlands, but not for long...

It seems as though every Regional Conference has been debating the tuition fees question this Autumn, and whilst South Central were passing a motion supporting existing policy in Oxford on Saturday morning, the East of England had saved their debate for the afternoon session in Huntingdon. This was useful from a personal perspective, as I was starting the day with Ros in the Festival Hall, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, where the East Midlands were meeting.

Ros was scheduled to kick things off with a speech and a question and answer session, and it turned out to be a fairly feisty one. It is slightly strange to be operating in an environment where many present are campaigning for one or other of your putative successors, but I think that it has freed Ros up to be a little more direct. Handy really, as there were questions which expressed frustration rather more than fact, but I understand that frustration.

The transition from (relatively) well-resourced opposition to rather more resource-impoverished Government has been shown up by the initial breakdown in communication. Yes, it has improved, but perhaps the intimacy of our past arrangements, and the fact that communications from the centre are scrutinised by the national media in a way that they weren't previously encourages authors to err on the side of caution.

All in all though, it went well, and the East Midlands said goodbye to Ros with warm applause. And then we were off in search of the M1 southbound...