Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A new rail franchise for Greater Anglia - the runners and riders

And so, with National Express East Anglia out of the picture, what can we hope for? Well, probably not much, in the short term at least. The franchise up for grabs is for just seventeen months, whilst the Government decide how future rail franchising should be done. Accordingly, it will be just cosmetic changes that can reasonably be expected at first. The big prize is a potential twenty-five year franchise, with control over track maintenance, signalling and infrastructure.

Our first contender, Go-Ahead Group, are involved with three franchises at present - Southern (pretty good), SouthEastern (pretty expensive) and London Midland (notorious for failing to run a Sunday service for lack of drivers). Each of those franchises is operated by Govia, which Go-Ahead Group is a 65% shareholder in. Their partner is Keolis, which in turn is partly owned by SNCF.

They have no experience of running InterCity services, as their only long haul services are slow, stopping services on the West Coast Main Line, and the challenges of the Liverpool Street to Norwich service will test their adaptability.

Nederlandse Spoorwegen is, in fact, the Dutch national railway company. They, of course, run virtually all trains in the Netherlands as part of a properly integrated public transport system, and very efficiently they do it too. Long haul, regional, commuter, they do it all.

In Britain, they are part of the consortium that operates Merseyrail and Northern Rail, neither of which I know much about, but would hope that, left to their own devices, levels of customer service would improve.

Stagecoach, love them or loathe them, you can't argue that they aren't successful. Currently operating South West Trains and East Midlands Trains, and a 49% shareholder in Virgin Trains, they certainly have experience of commuter, regional and InterCity services, and whilst there are ongoing complaints about crowding on South West Trains, that isn't likely to be as much of an issue, particularly at this end of the Anglian Main Line, or on the rural services that link Suffolk with Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

Based on organisational reputation, I would probably favour the Dutch contender. However, until we see exactly what the three bidders are offering, it is probably safer to withhold judgement. An anxious travelling public waits with bated breath...

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's official, I'm validly nominated...

With a track record of a quarter century of bureaucracy behind me, you would think that the process of getting my nomination papers filed would be pretty straightforward, wouldn't you? But of course, the whole process is predicated on the view of the Electoral Services team, and their word is law.

So I've spent part of my weekend getting the nomination forms just right, asking friends and neighbours to sign and print in the right boxes in the approved manner. In fairness, everyone has been very kind, with only one person refusing to sign - she doesn't do politics, she says (and I believe her too). And whilst my campaign manager has kept me on the straight and narrow, ensuring that things are done early, it means that there is less scope for last minute drama.

This morning, I presented myself at the offices of Mid Suffolk District Council with a folder of forms for both District and Parish council elections for review and, if all was well, acceptance. A nice lady took the forms away and offered me coffee while I waited. Fifteen minutes later, Phil Tallent, the Head of Democratic and Legal Services, introduced himself and asked if we could briefly discuss them.

There was a question about the description - 'Liberal Democrat' or 'Liberal Democrats' (I'm of the singular variety) - and about my agent. Martin Redbond, one of our councillors in Claydon, is kindly acting for all of the candidates in Mid Suffolk, but not for me, as I'm happier doing it myself. Besides, not only has he got enough on his plate as it is, but I've been an agent at Parliamentary level (Dulwich and West Norwood 2005), so I've got a decent grasp of what is expected.

Reassured by my answers, Phil handed over the letter, officially confirming that I am the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Stowupland ward of Mid Suffolk District Council. And there's so much to do...

Moments Musicaux to soothe the soul

I have, I must admit, a weakness for Franz Schubert, and in particular for his chamber and solo piano works. And yes, it isn't what one might expect from a bureaucrat, but then again, I prefer lyric romanticism to completion in triplicate.

And so Ros and I found ourselves en route to Snape Maltings yesterday for a piano recital by Christian Blackshaw. The programme, Six Moments Musicaux (D780), the Sonata in A minor (D784) and the Sonata in B flat major (D960), was familiar but not wholly so, and we took our seats with some anticipation.

The Moments Musicaux are an old favourite of mine, with a Geza Anda recording often getting an airing, and I found some of the choices of tempo not entirely to my liking, the third being played as though the artist had a train to catch (odd really, given that the branch line to Snape closed in the early-sixties and never carried passenger traffic anyway). However, those reservations aside, the quality of the performance shone through, with the fifth and sixth Moments conveyed with real emotion.

The Sonata in A minor is a piece that I couldn't recall, and looks forward to the twentieth century in terms of its construction. And again, it was performed with flair and dexterity, receiving a rapturous response from elements of the audience, as we went into the interval.

Interestingly, Ros spotted a number of familiar faces during the interval, indicating that Snape is one of the county's high society gathering points. That said, given the quality of the performance, and the nature of the event, a fundraiser for the Treehouse Appeal, it was unsurprising that a number of the 'local gentry' were in attendance.

The B flat major Sonata is one of my personal favourites, displaying all of the aspects of Schubert's work I find most appealing, the warmth, the lyricism and the infectious melody, and I was not to be disappointed, as Christian Blackshaw wamed towards a spirited and irresistible performance of the scherzo, before launching into the final rondo. More rapturous applause, all of it well deserved.

The encore that the audience demanded followed, and we then headed out as dusk fell over the heaths of coastal Suffolk for the drive back of Creeting St Peter, all the better for a thoroughly good evening out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

And it's goodbye to National Express East Anglia...

Today's news that, in the contest for the new Greater Anglia rail franchise, National Express have failed even to make the final three contenders comes as no great surprise. Their record of axing catering facilities, customer service staff and cleaners whilst presiding over increasing shoddy rolling stock and poor punctuality was always likely to make their chances of retaining the franchise minimal.

And, ironically, they themselves had obviously begun to realise that, with extra cleaners engaged, a new breakfast service launched, and increased frequency of services turning up just as the franchise contest heated up. All too little, too late, it would seem.

A spokesperson for National Express said, "We believe we put forward a very positive and high quality submission building on the significant improvements delivered on National Express East Anglia. We are therefore seeking further clarification from the Department for Transport to explain this decision."

In the words of the East Anglian Daily Times though, "few customers will be shedding tears at the news that National Express East Anglia is to lose the franchise". And for most of us who rely on the railway to get to work, or to start the journey for a holiday, there will be keen interest on who gets to succeed them.

But that's a story for another day, I think...

A big thank you to National Express East Anglia

As regular visitors will know, I'm not a huge fan of National Express East Anglia, indeed, I have called for the franchise to be taken away from them on a number of occasions. And it is therefore with great irony that today, of all days, I feel duty bound to write something nice about them.

Yesterday, Ros was travelling back from London after her labours in the Lords, and when she arrived at Stowmarket, she crossed the footbridge to the car park thinking, it's really nice to be doing this without luggage. At that point, the penny dropped, and she watched in horror as the train pulled out, our small suitcase still on board.

Luckily, Ros is a practical soul, and asked the station staff for help. A quick telephone call to their colleagues at Diss, the next stop, and it was arranged that the luggage would be retrieved there and sent back to Stowmarket on the next available service. And so it came to pass, an example of what can be done if you want to.

In fairness, my relationship with the staff at Stowmarket is a pretty good one. Chris, who works in the ticket office, is smartly dressed, polite and efficient, never short of a cheery greeting. The other staff get the job done effectively, and Stowmarket is well-run. It's the management that I have issues with...

But thank you to the guys at Stowmarket and Diss, and I hope that you enjoy the biscuits...

The 87 bus is saved, but only in part...

As part of the Conservative-run County Council's slash and burn approach to bus subsidies, the subsidised evening and Sunday service on routes 87 and 88 will cease on 2 April. However, for some at least, there is some good news.

Galloways have announced that they will be running a revised Sunday service on the route, between Stowmarket and Ipswich via Needham Market six times a day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., using one bus. My only confusion is that the timetable is labelled 'Mendlesham - Stowmarket - Claydon - Ipswich', yet there is no indication that buses stop at Mendlesham or any intermediate point between there and Stowmarket.

I'll be in touch with Galloways to see if there's something I've missed, and report back later...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The contest for Stowupland: do not distress the Returning Officer...

Well, it appears that I am not alone on the campaign trail in Stowupland, although I'm not exactly sure who my company is.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from our chief agent, indicating that someone has been co-ordinating postal vote requests - all perfectly legal, of course. However, they were using their own form, which doesn't quite match up with the official Mid Suffolk District Council postal vote application form, which can be scanned for greater convenience and, above all, accuracy.

Apparently, our instructions are that, if we encounter someone who'd like a postal vote, we are to ring Mid Suffolk's Electoral Services team, who will send out a form. I'm fairly confident that my campaign team aren't using an obsolete form, so it must be someone else. Well, good luck to them, and if I don't see them beforehand, see you at the count!

Ros in the Lords: Question - People Trafficking

Dee Doocey has already made her presence felt in the House of Lords, and she took an early opportunity to raise a question of keen interest to those with the welfare of children at heart.

Asked By Baroness Doocey

To ask Her Majesty's Government what measures are in place at King's Cross St Pancras International station to prevent children being trafficked into the United Kingdom.

The answer, according to the Minister, Earl Attlee, appears to be none. Ros picked up on the point that measures were being taken at another gateway...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Is the noble Earl aware that when a specialist unit was set up at Heathrow it found that, of 1,800 unaccompanied children, half were under 11 and one-third were deemed to be at risk in some way? Have the Government given any consideration of whether the age at which children can travel unaccompanied is appropriately set?

In truth, the Minister's confidence that the matter of the age of the child has been properly considered may be reasonable in theory, but not in practice. Sadly, I fear that we'll see too many cases of trafficked children before consideration will lead to action

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My typical Tuesday morning commute

One of the big differences between living in London and Creeting St Peter is commuting. Whereas in London, I battled my way onto the Tube, cursing slow moving tourists on escalators, and wondering why people think that, by standing right in front of the doors as the train stops, it will help the flow of passengers on and off.

Of course, I still commute, but it's rather more gentle now. This is how this morning's epic journey went...

9.07 Kiss Ros goodbye and walk down The Lane to the corner with Pound Road. It's less than a hundred yards, the sun is shining, and I'm carrying the last bite or two of a toasted cheese sandwich.

9.10 Community bus arrives with Kath at the wheel, Ted from Wetheringsett on board for his regular weekly journey into Stowmarket and now me. We set off towards Stowupland, and chat about the weather, Kath's trip to Walton-on-the-Naze with her dog, riding, and shopping locally.

9.18 Bus arrives at Stowmarket station, where I pay Kath for my return journey (£2.10, very reasonable) and walk onto the platform.

9.19 Walk into Station News for my copy of The Times, and head across the footbridge to catch my train.

9.29 National Express East Anglia train to London arrives on time, and I take a window seat with a table and some legroom, as the Gipping Valley puts on a spring display in the sunshine.

9.40 Train arrives in Ipswich (on time), and I walk along Princes Street to my office, about five minutes away.

Door to door in 40 minutes... Not bad, if I say so myself...

Ros in the Lords: International Women's Day

Every year sees a debate to mark International Women's Day, and this year saw a very full speaker list indeed, including a number of maiden speeches. Ros took the opportunity to raise the issue of ensuring the participation of women in what will hopefully be the nascent democracies of the Middle East and North Africa...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, once again the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for securing today's debate and for giving us the opportunity for a cornucopia of maiden speeches from six quite remarkable women.

It is a real privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, in what I am sure the House will agree was a thoughtful and forceful maiden speech, a combination that is often difficult to achieve. The noble Baroness came to your Lordships' House in January. It is interesting that, like many of us, she has taken a title that reflects her pride in her origins. She comes to us as emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University after a career as a campaigner and an academic, which strikes me as a dangerous combination for the government Front Bench.

The noble Baroness's links for many years with the Child Poverty Action Group, including eight years as director, have continued and she is now the honorary president. She is currently involved in two studies on poverty and social exclusion. Her whole career as an academic and her writings have focused very much on the areas of poverty, the social security system, citizenship and social justice. It is a body of work that I know she has brought to bear in a political context, and she has contributed much to Labour Party thinking in these areas over the years. Her work on feminism and equality is renowned and has made today a singularly appropriate day for her to make her maiden speech. I am sure that she will continue to make many valuable contributions to your Lordships' House over the coming years.

I wish to say a few words about one particular aspect of recent events in the Middle East, which have made us all hold our breath from time to time. We have seen many striking images involving women and girls taking their place, marching and protesting side by side with the men. In these countries where the public sphere is so often dominated by men, this could be a real game-changer. There is a Facebook page called "Women of Egypt", which has shown that is it not only not the preserve of men but not the preserve of middle-class women either. The photographs show a wonderful variety: grandmothers and young girls, veiled women and those with bare heads. On International Women's Day, it is appropriate to reflect on how the role of women in the creation of these, we hope, new democracies in the Middle East and north Africa can be developed and enhanced. This is no small challenge in countries where women's representation in national Parliaments is less than 10 per cent and where formal participation in the workforce, even now, is less than 30 per cent. There is institutionalised disadvantage and cultural prejudice. We cannot take it for granted that gender equality is an inevitable consequence of a move to a more democratic state.

As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, said, we need a legal underpinning for what is happening. One key component is for these changing countries to make special provision in their new constitutions to enshrine the rights of women. In Tunisia, women are present on each of the commissions which have been established to oversee the transition. By contrast, in Egypt, there are no women on the constitutional committee. That is in a country where the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights reported in 2008 that 83 per cent of women have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment, so no one need think that the disappearance of one man in a regime will change the culture overnight. We need them to get the constitution right as part of that building block.

It is very instructive to look at South Africa, where there were equal numbers of men and women on the constitutional committee and where women are acknowledged to have played a key role in dismantling the apartheid regime, particularly in ensuring that the consultative and inclusive processes involved women. That meant that sufficient focus was given to human security-to access to food and water, health, education, and personal safety.

There is much that we can do. I have been interested to read about the work of Lesley Abdela, whom the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, mentioned previously in another context. Lesley Abdela has worked in post-conflict regions across the world. When she was working in Iraq, she helped to develop an approach on phrases that can be used in constitutions to guarantee the rights of women. Those can be translated quickly into Egyptian Arabic and into other languages and can play an important part. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on top of this and following it through, and there is of course a role for the EU and the UN.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has a good track record in this regard. Five years ago, it helped to set up the Network of Arab Liberals, with HQs in Cairo and Casablanca. Several of my colleagues have made visits financed by the programme and Network of Arab Liberals members have been invited to party conferences. I know that these links which have been established between Liberal International and the Arab world are just one example of a whole network which already exists and which can be mobilised to move this region into the new phase of its history. We must all use the connections that we have to ensure dialogue, with women talking to women and young people talking to young people. We have an opportunity now to develop and nurture these new-born democratic structures. We must not let it slip by.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A crash course in design... with thanks to ALDC...

I have to admit that campaigning for real has involved learning a lot of new skills. As a paper candidate, you aren't expected to deliver anything in your own patch and, if you do, it is generic in nature. However, as the leaflet designer for the Stowupland campaign team, I've had to master PagePlus, learn to write succinctly - not an easy thing to do when you're a bureaucrat - and match pictures with prose.

It's also got to be done quickly too, even more so as the campaign reaches a crescendo. I prefer to e-mail my leaflet to my printer, so that he can print it and post it back to me, rather than have to collect it from somewhere (time lost), or bother someone who is also trying to campaign themselves. So I have to fit into his schedule, and leave enough time for him to get the job done.

Luckily, ALDC produce a cornucopia of amazing artwork which I can simply pick up and drop, or adapt as I see fit. Indeed, one of their templates has been a rich source of ideas this evening, and my next leaflet is about 50% done in just two hours. And, as Ros and I are both members, it's remarkably good value too.

Meanwhile, my fellow colleagues on the Mid Suffolk campaign team are working on more material for me to work with. I rely on their experience, and that of Ros, to allow me to avoid some of the more obvious errors, and to ensure that I 'sing from the same hymnsheet', incredibly important in our local messaging.

Over the next six weeks or so, I'll be fighting my first campaign where I'm the person trying to get elected. Yes, I'm a bit nervous, but I'm keen to give it my best shot, and I'll try to find time to report back on a gentler, more personal brand of politics than I was used to in London.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Question - Airports: Heathrow (2)

Lord Spicer's question, "To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they plan for London Heathrow Airport to continue to be the world's busiest airport in respect of international passenger traffic.", was an opportunity to revisit the shambles that was Heathrow Airport in December's snow.

Clearly, the hope was that the Government might rethink it's blanket refusal to countenance more runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, but no dice. Ros took the opportunity to make a plea for rather better management of the available landing and take-off slots...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Will consideration of more effective use of the airports include a look at the provision of take-off and landing slots, which currently owes a lot to history and very little to common economic imperatives?

The Minister responded;

Earl Attlee: My Lords, a future airspace strategy is being undertaken, which includes proposals to enable aircraft to fly in more environmentally efficient ways. For example, the introduction of new onboard and ground-based systems will allow pilots to fly more direct routes and therefore reduce fuel burn and enable aircraft to arrive punctually at the approach to Heathrow, which will provide controllers with much better opportunities to guide aircraft into Heathrow without first placing them in a stack.

I'll take that as a 'no', then...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

There's always time for another leaflet...

Having discovered that I become a candidate on the first day for nominations, at least, having announced myself as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Stowupland ward in a previous leaflet, which I guess amounts to the same thing, my expenses are going to be calculated as running from the day that nominations open, i.e. 25 March.

So, it was handy that my March leaflet arrived yesterday, giving me a chance to deliver as much of it as possible before that important date. However, we're still putting the house back to rights, so it was agreed that I would deliver leaflets whilst Ros tidied.

Off I went, in the blazing sunshine, taking on the area of Stowupland which is deceptively tricky to deliver, as the Reeds Way area is made up of little spurs, and you have to keep your concentration to make sure that every house gets a leaflet. But I was making good time, delivering the first two hundred at a rate of two a minute - I'm not as quick across the ground as I used to be, but I'm dogged - so I pressed on, around Columbyne Close, across the north end of the village green, along Thorney Green Road and down Mill Street, until I'd delivered nearly four hundred. That's a good start, as there are less than a thousand homes in the entire ward.

It was time to head for home, or more accurately, call Ros to come and get me. Unfortunately, the battery on my BlackBerry picked that precise moment to die, leaving me with two options, find a payphone (and there aren't many in Stowupland), or walk home.

In the sunshine, and given that it's a much shorter journey from Stowupland to Creeting St Peter on foot than it is to drive, I decided that the exercise would do me good. It's a lovely walk along a bridleway, along the edge of some fields and then down a slope across the middle of a field (thank goodness for local farmers who leave public footpaths free of obstacles), reaching Creeting Lane just north of the village.

I reckon that I earned that glass of red wine...

What happens at a Royal Garden Party?

Alright, it isn't the question that keeps me awake at nights, so why ask it, I hear you say.

In truth, I've had a rather distracted day at the office today, productive enough, but not quite as good as I'd like. Anyway, my attention was drawn by a memo to staff inviting nominations for Honours. And, whilst I fail to see how doing my job qualifies me for one, I was intrigued and so read on. As I read, it became clear that even the Honours system is gradist, i.e. if you're lucky enough, sycophantic enough or simply good enough to make it to a high grade, you get a better class of Honour.

But I digress. Buried away in the sea of prose was a reference to Garden Parties, a subject rather more relevant to me. You see, as a noble, Ros gets invited to one each year and, whilst it's not really my thing, I ought to go to one eventually. In the meantime, for those of you who might go to one yourselves, here's an official guide to what happens...

Garden Parties take place between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm, although the Palace gates are open from about 3.00 pm. The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by other members of the Royal Family, enter the garden at 4.00 pm, when the National Anthem is played by one of the two military bands playing selections of music during the afternoon.‬

‪After the playing of the National Anthem, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, together with other members of the Royal Family, circulate among the guests through 'lanes' which are unique to Royal garden parties. Each takes a different route and random presentations are made so that everyone has an equal chance of speaking to Her Majesty and members of her family. The Queen and other members of the Royal Family eventually arrive at the Royal tea tent, where they meet further guests.‬

‪In both London and Edinburgh there are tea tents for other guests. Tea and other refreshments are served from long buffet tables. The quantities served are enormous. At a typical garden party, around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake are consumed. Some 400 waiting staff are involved in the serving.‬

‪At about 6.00 pm, The Queen and other members of the Royal Family leave the garden, when the National Anthem is played to mark the end of the party.‬

‪At Buckingham Palace the Yeoman of the Guard, Gentlemen at Arms and Gentlemen Ushers are on duty. At the Holyroodhouse garden party the Royal Company of Archers and the High Constables of the Palace are on duty.‬

Friday, March 18, 2011

A breaking story from Shropshire...

I know that the source of all Shropshire news for Liberal Democrats (and many others besides) is Jonathan Calder at 'Liberal England', but I really couldn't resist...

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) public enquiry centre (EC) in Ludlow has moved to a new location. The EC is now located with Shropshire Council Offices, Corve Street, Ludlow.

Bob Gaiger, HMRC spokesman said: “We have moved to nearby premises and are pleased to be sharing facilities with Shropshire Council. We look forward to welcoming people to our new location. Our opening hours are 9am to 3.30pm on Monday’s and Wednesday’s.”

The enquiry centre will continue to provide free help and advice to local people and businesses on a whole range of services including: income tax, national insurance, tax credits, the Business Payment Support Service, VAT, pensions and self assessment along with many other topics. It also offers support on how to complete forms, along with help on accessing online services. Anyone wishing to make an appointment at their local enquiry centre should pre-book through the Taxes Helpline on 0845 300 0627.

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Census

Those of you who have looked at your Census forms will have noted the warning that "your census response is required by law". Further study indicates that "you could face a fine if you don't participate". Scary, eh? Lucky that I'm not responsible then, isn't it? Or am I? And here's the twist. The householder is responsible for ensuring that it is completed. And who, pray tell, is that?

Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government which persons within a household have the legal responsibility to complete the 2011 Census.[HL7491]

To ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the Answer by Lord Taylor of Holbeach on 7 March (Official Report, col. 1354), what is their understanding of the term "head of the household"; and on what, if any, legal source they are basing that understanding.[HL7492]

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The information requested falls within the responsibility of the UK Statistics Authority. I have asked the authority to reply.

Letter from Stephen Penneck, Director-General for ONS, to Baroness Scott of Needham Market, dated March 2011.

As Director General for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) I have been asked to reply to your Parliamentary Questions asking, (a) which persons within a household have the legal responsibility to complete the 2011 Census (HL7491); and (b) what is the Government's understanding of the term "head of the household"; and on what, if any, legal source they are basing that understanding. (HL7492)

(a) It is the householder or joint householder who is responsible for completing the household census questionnaire on behalf of all residents living at their address. In households where the responsibilities of the householder fall on more than one person, any such person may complete the questionnaire on behalf of the entire household.

Any person living at an address who is over the age of 16, may request an individual questionnaire, rather than be included on the household questionnaire.

Any person responsible for completing a questionnaire may authorise any other person to do this on their behalf, if they are unable to do so themselves for any reason.

(b) The terms "householder" or "joint householder" are used in the 2011 Census rather than "head of the household".

The Census (England and Wales) Order 2009 (S.I 2009/3210) defines a householder or joint householder as "a person usually resident at the address who either owns or rents accommodation at that address, or is responsible for paying household bills and expenses there". A household is also defined in the order as being "one person living alone or a group (whether or not related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room, sitting room or dining room".

So, if I don't fill it in, and neither does Ros, which one of us are they going to prosecute? Or would they prosecute both of us? Is it possible for a Peer of the Realm not to be the householder? Or should I assume that the law is a sexist ass?

The countryside - a mysterious place full of strange creatures...

It's a sheep, not a goat or a llama...
I'll return to my woolly friend later...

Apparently, a new survey has revealed that there are some amazingly ill-informed people out there. According to the Travelodge hotel chain, of 3,000 people surveyed, 22% could not identify a picture of a hare. One in 10 adults thought it was a deer. Alright, it does depend on the picture they're shown as to whether you'd think it was a rabbit or a hare, although if it's a still life, the legs and ears are a pretty good clue. But a deer?...

Talking of deer, 12% per cent of the survey group identified a stag as a reindeer, and thought that reindeer were native to Britain. Now, there is a herd of reindeer in Phoenix Park, Dublin, but I've never seen any in the wild here. Perhaps they thought they live in Scotland.

32% had difficulty picking out a pheasant, which surprises me less. I would have had a pretty good idea before I moved to a village surrounded by them, and I used to look for them on rural train journies, but given the number of people who don't venture into the countryside, it isn't unexpected.

42% didn't know what an otter looked like and that does surprise me. Everybody likes otters, don't they? They're cute, they're on every countryside programme there is, and you can find them surrounded by small children in zoos.

And in a sign that I'm getting old, 83% were stumped by a picture of a common bluebell. Bluebells were iconic English woodland flowers, I thought. Perhaps if there were more pictures of them in 'Midsomer Murders', they'd be more familiar...

However, what worried me most was that one in ten adults failed to correctly identify a sheep. A sheep, for pity's sake. Anyway, if there are any readers of this blog who are confused on this question, have a look at the picture at the beginning. It's a sheep...

It's time to collect those nominations...

In the wonderful world of Parish Councils, we're not huge on elections. Indeed, last time there was a scheduled election in Creeting St Peter, there were only two volunteers for the five available places.

Things change though, and as nominations open for this year's exercise in micro-local democracy, I don't know whether or not we'll have enough candidates to force a contest. However, I can confirm that I am intending to be one of them.

I've got the nomination form, courtesy of our Parish Clerk, and now all I need to get the requisite signatures. This task is made rather easier by the fact that I only need a proposer and a seconder, which won't present too many difficulties, as I'm married to another village elector.

Wish me luck!...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

David Cameron and the Civil Service - it's bound to end in tears...

No, they don't look like that any more
And so, rather earlier than I might have predicted, David Cameron has lost patience with the bureaucracy. And like Tony Blair, it is clear that he doesn't really get it.

What do I mean by that? Simple, if you really want to overcome years of administrative inertia, you need to bring the Civil Service with you. By attacking the senior ranks, the very people who will give the instructions to the likes of me, you make it all the more likely that they will be unenthusiastic. And to change, you really need enthusiasm.

But it's about much more than being nice to bureaucrats. Firstly, the Civil Service implements all of that legislation that you, and your predecessors, want to introduce. There's an awful lot of it out there, some good, some bad, much of it complex or obscure. As the Coalition have discovered, taking an axe to the red tape risks discovering that you've lost something important or, perhaps more salient, something that the Daily Mail won't like.

Morale is an issue too. Pay freezes, job losses, office closures, none of these are likely to earn an administration any friends. There is no new blood, because you aren't recruiting any, and your senior civil servants are increasingly politicised. Worst of all, on the frontline, there is a sense that junior staff are being stifled by 'this week's initiative', whatever programme has been devised to make it look as though things are getting better. If you're interested, Dave, it won't.

And yet, you could make it all so much better. Work out what government is for, what you want it to do, then look at the relevant legislation. Do we need to do this any more? Is the cost of monitoring, regulation and supervision worth the price tag, or would we be better off trusting to a little common sense? No, that isn't an excuse to slash health and safety legislation, by the way.

Now I come to mention it, is the production of all of those statistics that nobody believes worth the candle? It's all very well saying that 76% of this believes that, or that 82% of something is dealt with within 32 days, but if the general response is "Oh, really? Pull the other one...", you've wasted your effort. Actually, public perception is a reasonably good judge of performance.

Finally, a word to the wise. Long after you're gone, Dave, we'll still be here, dealing with the consequences of your actions, and those of your Government. We know that, and some of my more cynical, senior colleagues know it only too well. If you like, we're part of your legacy. And you want one of those, don't you...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"You'll not believe what we've found under the floorboards..."

When we decided to have the cottage rewired, Ros made the point that, given the age of the core of the house, there might well be some unpleasant surprises. Naturally, as the household optimist, I glossed over this sensible piece of advice.

It was day 3 of our holiday when the word came from Richard, our builder. You name it, he found it under the floorboards upstairs, dry rot, damp, do-it-yourself botch jobs. Indeed, the floorboards themselves were part of the problem, as the original floorboards had been partly eaten by rats and, instead of replacing them, new ones had been laid over the top.

Our best laid plans were in ruins, as we'd arranged things so that the electricians came whilst we were on holiday, and the house made habitable again. At least the electricians could do their work - mostly, anyway - so it wasn't a total loss. But we weren't going to get the house back for at least another two weeks...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The only ethnic minority in the village?

The news that the producer of ‘Midsomer Murders’ has been suspended for suggesting that ethnic minority characters in the long-running television drama would detract from the imagery of a rural community does, unusually, raise the issue of diversity in the countryside. To be honest, the issues relating to racism always seem to be argued from an urban perspective, as though it is accepted that ethnic minorities do not live in villages or market towns.

And yes, to some extent, that’s true. Or at least, it was. As a London suburban kid, I watched as my community grew more and more South Asian. The schools were good, the houses were big enough, and aspiring middle class Asian families moved in. As they moved in, facilities designed to cater to them sprang up, restaurants, clothing stores, a cinema in Wembley dedicated to Hindi movies. Today, nearly half the population of north Brent is South Asian.

I studied in Norwich in the mid-eighties. There weren’t that many visible ethnic minorities in the city, most of them were attached to the University, and they tended to stand out. But, as was the case with a surprising number of those who studied at UEA, they rather grew to like the place, found jobs locally and stayed. Of course, the ethnic minority population is not as big as that in somewhere like London, but coloured faces aren’t the rarity they used to be.

Now I live in a small village. According to the last census, my ward is 0.95% non-white, a fact that you might guess by taking a gentle stroll along The Lane. Or not, perhaps… that thatched cottage, immaculately kept, where the names on the electoral register are Thai, that charming Mr Valladares on the Parish Council at Belmont Cottage.

Village life does come with some complications, the lack of facilities, transport, the isolation from the wider community, and if you come from a minority group, with particular dietary or religious requirements, you might well think twice before you commit yourself to living in one. The nearest mosque might be twenty or thirty miles away, access to kosher food might be in the nearest big city, your family might all live in the suburbs.

As a result it is true that villages tend to have smaller ethnic minority communities. But they are out there, living the rural idyll dream, as local councillors, or as a part of the social life of their communities, or simply raising a family.

Brian True-May is a fool to suggest that ‘Midsomer Murders’ is the last bastion of Englishness. It isn’t, it’s a television programme. He’s also a knave, if he believes that Englishness is a white-only thing. That isn’t, either. That’s racism.

We apologise for the disruption to our programming...

Gosh, it's quiet here...

For those of you who've been wondering what happened to me (some of you saw me at Federal Conference in Sheffield, so you know that I'm alive), it's been a bit crazy of late. What with having builders, electricians, carpet fitters and dampcourse operatives in, the house has been in chaos, and our lives with it, for the past fortnight.

But now it's time to get on with things again. I'll tell you about the house as we go...

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Improving the Diversity of our MPs - don't get your hopes up too much...

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have rather a lot of form when it comes to internal Party debate on issues of diversity and representation. I've spoken in the last three debates and, when it became clear that we would have another debate next weekend in Sheffield, I did wonder whether or not to dip my toe in this rather stormy water again. I admit to being minded to sit this one out, but can't resist some comment. Perhaps it might inspire me to put a card in... who knows?

So, let's dip into this confectionery box, and see what fillings are to be found...

'Conference notes' the recent history of the debate, especially the review carried out by (now Baroness) Sal Brinton. In passing, I should note that I opportunistically took a brief window to feed in some of my deeply-held views on the subject. Only Sal will know whether that had any influence at all, but I'm confident that she will have juggled the competing views with her usual professional thoroughness.

'Conference further notes' diplomatically describes the current division between the opposing schools of thought, although if we are being blunt, the anti-quota view has now won out three times in a row, so we are effectively trying to see how far we can move towards a minority position without losing the motion all together.

And that leads us to the proposals for action...

The first proposal is targeted at Regional Parties in England, which appears to exclude Scotland and Wales (they aren't Regions, they're States, mes amis!). The 'mainstreaming' of Regional diversity champions does sound like management jargon, and as the Regional constitution geek, I am truly intrigued by what they might actually want to see happen. There is also a call for targets to be set, and I am pleased to see that the lessons have been learned in terms of looking at the process as a whole. For the first time, candidate assessors and returning officers are also seen to have a part to play in achieving equality of opportunity.

Admittedly, the responsibility for setting targets is left to the Regions, and this will probably disappoint some, especially the more urban activists, some of whom still seem to assume that the rest of the country is like London, or Birmingham, or Manchester. I suspect that the targets in places like the North East or Devon and Cornwall will be pretty low and yet be properly reflective.

The creation of a Leadership Programme for outstanding candidates from under-represented groups reflects the sort of thing that Messrs Campbell, Hughes and Huhne were promising during the 2006 leadership contest. Indeed, we were hearing similar things from young Mr Clegg in 2008. Hopefully, this time, we might actually see some product.

One aspect that is interesting is the proposed fund to provide practical support. In the past, we have been offered funds to support candidates once they've been selected, i.e. a bribe. This looks to be rather more subtle, and implies that you might, for example, provide funds to a wheelchair-bound candidate to cover additional transport costs, or childcare costs for a candidate with children, or funding for substitute carers. I don't see a problem with that in principle, but the devil is, as usual, in the detail.

The selection criteria appear to be entirely consistent with the concept of selection by merit, although I do wonder how easy it will be to find an MP or Peer with time to do this, a minor cavil, I accept.

I am troubled by the proposal that, where a candidate from the Leadership Programme applies for a priority seat, at least one other person on the programme should be shortlisted. Does that mean, in some cases, press-ganging an unwilling applicant to apply? This looks like a token gesture, and I'm never keen on such things. Applicants for any seat should be enthused by the challenge that a particular seat presents, not there because they were made to be.

The proposal that groups of development seats get together to advertise is, again, window-dressing, and presumes that Local Parties lack the ability to judge for themselves when best to seek a candidate. The phrase 'development seat' covers a multitude of possibilities, from those keen to run a fully-integrated campaign to seats where there are few members, fewer activists, and no activity in large chunks of the constituency.

And finally, there is a call for a review in 2013. Whilst I understand the motivation - ensuring that this isn't kicked into the long grass, for one thing - I do wonder what tangible results will be available at that time, two years out from a General Election, remember. It does look like the ground is being prepared for a 2014 motion calling for quotas, even though that will in turn be too late to change anything until potentially 2020.

In summary, the motion is, for the most part, respectful of the Party's frequently restated stance against quotas. That said, it strays into some rather tokenistic territory as the drafters apparently clutched for a few gestures to satisfy those who continue to favour quotas. I think that clauses 4 and 5 add little in terms of potential outcomes, and would lose little sleep if they were removed. However, in the round, it offers potential for improving the diversity of our MPs. Probably not in 2015, on current polling figures, but eventually. My fear is that the 'outcomes now' lobby won't wait...

The Jacques Cousteau of the shallow end...

Here, fishy, fishy...
I freely admit that I am not a huge fan of things aquatic, the deal being that I stay on land, and the sharks stay in the water.

However, I was persuaded to go for a gentle paddle, and encountered a number of these cute creatures. They're called sergeant majors and live in the shallow waters around reefs. Given that Montego Bay has reefs very close to the shoreline, one of which could be approached opposite our hotel, there was always a possibility that I might find something like this. There were some almost see-through pipefish and some small wrasse and I was quite entranced. Perhaps that's why they tell you not to walk barefoot in the shallows.

I did see one other fish, or at least I thought that I did. It appeared to be maroon and white in colour, and had spines, or at least that's how it looked. Research leads me to fear that it might be a lion fish, a quite venomous creature that escaped into the Caribbean from an aquarium in Fort Lauderdale and has since been worryingly prolific.