Monday, October 31, 2011

And to think, one of my friends is an international cricketer...

I've been spending the evening working on the East of England Regional Party's website - not the most exciting of chores, I know. However, in the tidying process, I discovered something that I didn't know.

This distinguished looking gentleman is Peter Welch, former Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Southend West, former European Parliamentary candidate, and all round decent fellow. He is also a former member of the Luxembourg national cricket team, and was part of the team that took part in the 2003 ECC Trophy in Vienna, competing against the might of Portugal, Croatia and Malta (amongst others).

Alright, they weren't very good. But, let's be honest, isn't it every cricket buff's dream to  play international cricket?... But I know that you're dying to know how he got on, so here are the statistics;

13* vs. Switzerland (batted at number 8, hit two fours)
0 vs. Greece (batted at number 3, one catch as wicketkeeper)
4 vs. Austria (batted at number 6, hit one four, one catch as wicketkeeper)
2* vs. Finland (batted at number 8)
5 vs. Switzerland (batted at number 7)

An average of 8, three boundaries struck and two catches taken for a team that, it is fair to say, didn't shine. But the record will always say that he was there...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Using the Lord's Highway as a diversionary route...

Once upon a time, there were four Creetings - St Peter and St Mary will be familiar to regular visitors - but for different reasons, we are now reduced to just two. Yes, you can find Creeting Hills and the evocatively named Creeting Bottoms on maps, but they're just names to fill blank spaces.

Creeting All Saints lay between Needham Market and the core of modern day Creeting St Mary, although the two parishes were so intertwined that the parish churches shared a churchyard by all accounts. But All Saints Church blew down in a great storm in the early eighteenth century (no foundations, you see) and, rather than rebuild, it was easier to merge the two parishes into one.

Creeting St Olave is little known, and the church appears to have vanished by the end of the seventeenth century. There is a sign on the site, explaining a little of the history, but little easily unearthed information to take the story further.

However, I was reminded of this by an e-mail I received, notifying me of a road closure that affects our parish. Fen Lane, which runs along our south-eastern border, is to be closed during the day for a week in early December to allow BT to replace some of their equipment (and no, it hasn't been explained what sort of equipment needs thirty hours of road closure to be replaced).

Naturally, a diversionary route has to be announced and, amusingly, this route includes The Lord's Highway, which will take drivers past the former site of St Olave's Church.

I've also learnt something else which amuses me a bit, but I'll save that for another day...

Eric Pickles is lying, ladies and gentlemen, start your Risos...

The suggestion today, emanating from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, that council tax for band D properties could be cut by £20 per annum, funded by the abolition of the second home discount, is the sort of stupidity that I have grown accustomed to from the blue wing of the glorious Coalition (although the yellow wing isn't exempt from criticism either).

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWhat is a very good story - the abolition of the second home discount on council tax - is utterly ruined by an undeliverable promise of individual savings. Why do I say that?
  1. Second homes are concentrated in a relatively small number of authorities. For example, Cornwall has lots. Mid Suffolk has very few. Therefore, there will potentially be quite a lot of extra money available to Cornwall and other such authorities, and not much for the rest.
  2. Actually, band D is the median band, relative to which all other band levels of council tax are set. In Suffolk, more people live in properties in band B, which reduces the likely benefit further.

I'm sure that Eric Pickles would like to think that we're all so utterly selfish that £20 (maybe) in our pockets trumps our desire to protect local services, but perhaps using the extra income to reduce the level of cuts might be more appropriate? Perhaps, applying the logic of localism which, I accept, Eric has tortured almost beyond recognition, leaving it to local people to decide how to use the additional income would be more logical than a central edict.

Of course, if I was campaigning against my local Conservatives, I'd be thinking about a leaflet asking Mid Suffolk District Council where my £20 was...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Doe, a deer, a female deer...

I was on my way to work this morning on the community bus (£2.10 return, very reasonable), heading up Creeting Lane, when suddenly, a deer leapt in the road in front of us, disappearing equally quickly into the trees on the other side. It wasn't the only one either, as there was another right behind it.

I looked across to the right, through the trees, where there were another four deer, the remainder of the herd, heading across the field beyond them.

It was a misty, murky morning in the Gipping Valley, and the lack of visibility obviously provides our larger wild mammals an opportunity to move from one grazing spot to another. But, whilst the deer have learned to take advantage of the fog, it adds a whole new set of risks for rural motorists.

Deer are surprisingly quick, and even more surprisingly solid, and if one appears on a narrow country lane in front of you, there is little chance of missing it. The prospect of a deer coming through the windscreen is not one to savour, and deaths are not unknown.

In New Hampshire, away from the Interstate highways, moose are a huge problem. Bull moose can weigh more than 1000 lbs, and given that roads are quite winding, you can be upon one far too late to break. Worse still, they are attracted to roads by the salt laid to keep the roads ice-free, I'm told, so reaction times are even worse if you need to brake.

Just another danger in a rural existence...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Budget for Europe: getting your excuses ready...

Yesterday, I looked at the vista which rolls out before European liberals. Today, let's look at some of the justifications for expenditure...

  • The EU has simultaneously enlarged to 12 new member states and received new competences;
  • Between 2000 and 2010, member state budgets increased by 62%, compared to the EU budget that increased by 37% over the same period;
  • There have been liberal achievements in reforming EU agricultural policy, including; a reduction in CAP funding from a high of almost 70% of the EU budget in 1985; the decoupling of direct support for farmers through removing the link between payments and the production of a specific product; ensuring farmers have greater consideration for environmental, animal welfare and food quality standards by making financial aid dependent on respecting these issues; and putting further emphasis on a reorientation from direct aid to a more comprehensive approach to rural development that will strengthen initiatives in the areas of climate change, renewable energy, water management, biodiversity, and innovation. 
Hmmm... Yes, the EU is bigger, but is it really fair to compare the budgets of member states, with social welfare responsibilities and bank bailouts to finance, with the European Union? I'm not so sure, to be honest. And whilst reducing the proportion of the EU budget spent on CAP funding from 70% to 39% is a good thing, the EU has been given a lot more in the way of competences over that quarter-century.

Considers that: 
  • EU-level projects not only have the potential to create long-term benefits for the Union as a whole, but can save individual member states money through better coordination across all EU countries, thus avoiding twenty-seven different and costly means of achieving the same ends. 
This is the international equivalent of BOGOF, but it is a fair point. 
  • The budget for 2014-2020 must be viewed as an investment budget. Accordingly, negotiations should centre on priority areas where EU spending can make a difference; 
I couldn't agree more. Spending money on things that will generate a return can only help the European economy and create jobs. Infrastructure spending, anyone?
  • National politicians all too quickly resort to criticising or blaming “Brussels” for unpopular measures taken at the member state level, which heightens a sense of negativity towards the EU and fuels misinformed, anti-EU sentiments; 
If you think that politicians are bad, you haven't met our media yet...
  • EU cohesion policy plays a vital role in creating equality between Europe’s regions, while acting as an incentive for private investment, leading to economic growth and social prosperity; 
  • Trans-national networks are crucial to advancing economic and business and social and cultural ties between regions as well as being a prime example of the benefits that can be derived from EU projects in general and cohesion policy in particular; 
  • As a matter of principle, the level of EU co-financing should reflect the European added value of the different investments made under the cohesion policy and rural development programmes; 
Only local funding for local projects, in other words Europe will be taking a broader, strategic view.
  • The importance of speaking with one voice and coordinating efforts in the field of Foreign Affairs becomes all the more important in a quickly globalising world. Acting collectively, the European Union is a world leading power; 
So, if you have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, with a veto... In theory, I agree. In practice, it's going to be a hard sell in Tunbridge Wells...
  • In times of austerity, important financial gains can also be made through increased pooling of resources in defence spending, which relies on heavy financial investment and top level research; 
The Eurofighter is not something to shout about, and I can't help feeling that this is better left to the private sector. 
  • With a better use of the European Social Fund, there should be no need for a European Globalisation Fund in the next seven year EU budget, and believes that the very idea of such a Globalisation Fund conflicts with the liberal vision of free and fair trade and competition; 
I'm yet to be convinced that having government, at whatever level, attempt to pick winners is likely to be a roaring success.
  • Existing programmes that encourage the mobility of students and educational professionals should be further developed. 
A case of familiarity breeding content, and a thoroughly good thing, if you ask me.

So, nothing too alarming so far, except the bit about pooled defence spending, unless they mean the weapons buying equivalent of Groupon, you know, if twenty of you sign up to buy tanks, you get 61% off. I suspect though, that they don't.

Next time, what European liberals are calling for in terms of spending...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Counting Women In campaign: holding David Cameron to his word

As a member of the Management Board of 'Unlock Democracy', I thought that I should take this opportunity to endorse the Counting Women In campaign, and ask you to help, by signing the e-petition calling on David Cameron to keep his word. He pledged that, by the end of his first administration, one-third of his ministers would be women., i.e. there would be at least forty female ministers out of one hundred and nineteen, as there presently are. And I think that he needs to be held to that.

In fairness, it isn't just about the Conservatives, it's about the Liberal Democrats too, and young Mr Clegg needs to do rather better, having failed to appoint a woman to the Cabinet. Now, before anyone gets too excited, and points out my rather glaring conflict of interest, let me be the first to say that I'm not demanding a job for Ros. It is for others to decide whether or not that comes to pass.

But, in principle, I share the view that having a more diverse politics makes for better, more representative, more inclusive politics. And, at a time when the public feel more remote from those who supposedly represent them than ever before, drawing talent from a bigger pool might reconcile the two sides.

A Budget for Europe: creating European added value from European Union expenditure (part 1)

So, where were we? Ah yes, the cuddly European Liberal Democrats had produced a rather fluffy preamble. However, in fairness, preambles are like bunny rabbits, they're not intended to scare you, they're intended to reassure. So, let's look at what the key issues are...

The European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party Congress convening in Palermo, Italy on 23-25 November 2011:

Notes that:
  • As a result of the economic and financial crisis, EU member states are implementing a range of austerity measures in order to reduce their public debt;
  • Although member states are in a period of austerity, for the majority this has involved a freezing of the current budget level, rather than a cut, in real terms, in expenditure;
  • The European Commission has proposed a multiannual financial framework for the period 2014-2020 set at € 1,025 billion in commitment appropriations (1.05% of EU GNI) and at € 972,198 billion in payments appropriations (1% of EU GNI), which corresponds, respectively, to an increase by 3.16% and 3.12%, in constant prices, in comparison with the current multiannual financial framework;
So, we see that the EU doesn't spend that much (gosh, think how much money national governments have to waste by comparison...). It is ambitious though, and likely to increase its budget at a faster rate than predicted United Kingdom inflation. That increase is also rather higher than the target rate for inflation within the Eurozone. Call me quirky, but when money is tight, and governments are cutting expenditure rather than increasing it, this is unlikely to be popular.
  • The 2007-2013 EU budget is dominated by two policy areas; the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (39,4% of the total budget) and cohesion policy (35% of the total budget);
  • The ELDR Party manifesto for the 2009 European elections and resolution “Agriculture and climate change” (2009) call for ambitious reform of EU agricultural policy within a multilateral framework (World Trade Organisation) and a continuing reduction of its budget after 2013;
  • The European Commission proposals for the EU multiannual financial framework 2014-2020, released on 29 June 2011, put forward a reduction in CAP support to 36.2% of the EU budget and welcomes this;
That does mean increasing expenditure relating to the Common Agricultural Policy, although it will be a smaller proportion of EU expenditure overall.
  • It is worth remembering that more than 95% of the CAP is decoupled, and export subsidies are virtually gone - being less than 1% of the CAP, a fact that is often overlooked;
Good news if you're a farmer in a developing country, we won't undercut you in your own domestic market.
  • Agriculture is an important part of the Union's strategic interest in order to ensure food security throughout its territory, and with public finances under serious pressure due to the economic crisis, it is important to press for better targeting and a more efficient use of this part of the EU budget;
Bad news if you're a farmer in a developing country, there will be less scope for imports from you.
  • EU Agricultural policy should continue to move away from price support for farmers and export subsidies and recognise the wider role that farmers play, and have the potential to play, in the rural environment as “stewards of the environment”, including tackling climate change;
Good news for the environment, and good news for you urban types wanting to visit our pretty countryside.
  • The Arab Liberation process in the Middle East and the founding of the European External Action Service has substantially increased calls for a global role for the European Union;
That'll be more money for European Union diplomats then...
  • The increased streams of migration have caused severe strains on many EU member states, resulting in increasing demands for a more active role for the EU’s border agency FRONTEX. Yet the proposed increase in funding for ”the EU as a global player” remains minimal; up only by some € 20 billion over the coming seven-year period - or 1,02% compared to the current multiannual financial framework;
Keeping migrants out, the Conservatives will love that, and security costs, so this seems a bit on the low side.
  • There are advantages derived from revolving funds compared to traditional subsidies and welcomes the JEREMIE (access to finance for SMEs) and JESSICA (sustainable urban development) initiatives through which the Structural Funds have provided important capital with considerable leverage effects.
Sounds clever. I confess that I'm not sure that I understand what this means, but if anyone would like to have a go at explaining it...

So, we have context, and some 'directions of travel' which point towards the proposals to come. Next time, things that have changed, and some of the key issues to be addressed...

Goodbye National Express, and good riddance!

And so, it's goodbye to National Express East Anglia, and welkom to Nederlandse Spoorwegen, who have won the new Greater Anglia franchise. The only catch is, the franchise is for... twenty-nine months, starting from 5 February 2012 (yes, only 101 days of NXEA to go!).

In their bid, a series of improvements for passengers during the franchise period has been promised, including  better station and ticket facilities and measures to improve passenger information. There will be a text messaging service to keep passengers informed if service disruption occurs will be introduced, and new information desks will be provided at major stations including London Liverpool Street, Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich and Stansted Airport.

For commuters, the new franchise will make it easier for passengers to buy tickets, including:
  • extending Oyster Pay As You Go between London Liverpool Street and all stations to Shenfield, and stations to Hertford East
  • improvements to ticket vending machines, and
  • introducing mobile phone and print-at-home ticketing facilities.
They are also committed to provide an additional 600 car park spaces (subject to planning approvals), more cycle storage facilities and deliver a number of other measures to improve the service to customers including deep cleaning of stations and trains.

Like me, Bob Russell thinks this is a good thing, noting as he does that we now have a railway system privatised by a Conservative government, run by one government (Netherlands) and powered by electricity produced by another (France). It isn't exactly a glorious endorsement of the private sector, is it?...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Budget for Europe: liberal priorities for the EU budget 2014-2020

A copy of the draft theme resolution for next month's European Liberal Democrats Congress in Palermo has reached me. So, over the next few days, I'm going to publish it (in sections), and let you have my thoughts. And where better to start than...


The effects of the global economic and financial crisis that began in 2008 continue to be felt by the European Union (EU) and its member states. The crisis is not over and Europe’s response to it remains a matter of vital importance.

So far, so obvious...

The crisis has highlighted how interconnected the world has become, and shown that no single country can overcome the consequences of such an upheaval in economic and financial markets on its own. European Liberal Democrats believe that it is only through coordinated action at the European level that member states of the Union will return to a path of growth, employment and prosperity. Therefore, it is essential that the EU budget for the seven-year period from 2014 to the end of 2020 is one that promotes and enables initiatives to be undertaken at European level, in order to meet these goals and to make a demonstrable difference to the lives of European citizens, whether at local, regional or national level.

It's the 'promotes and enables initiatives to be taken at European level' bit that would really upset our Coalition partners, isn't it...

It is therefore vital that on the expenditure side the EU budget focuses on creating European added value and puts European interests above those of individual countries, including on matters of research and development and innovation within the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy and in tackling climate change and reducing the EU’s dependency on external, un-environmentally friendly energy sources. In this regard, there must also be a clear route for the long-term financing of the EU that deflects the discussion away from national interests about how much money countries are going to get back from the European pot at the end of each year, and establishes the focal point of budget discussions on how to use the EU budget most effectively for the common good of the Union.

Putting European interests above those of individual countries? This is entirely worthy, but assumes a level of altruism that is NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. That's never. Sad, but true. One can dream though...

So, there's a gentle introduction to the thinking of our European liberal family. They're so cute... Tomorrow, I'll be looking at some of their thoughts on creating added value from EU expenditure...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Perhaps the classiest electorate for any internal Party election?

In the quest to deliver the remainder of my job as Regional Secretary, I am hard at work on election business this evening and, in particular, one of the two elections I have promised to conduct.

Whilst I'm not aware of the logic behind it, our Regional Constitution allows for the following vacancies to be filled by, and from, the ranks of our Parliamentarians;
  • one member of the Regional Executive
  • one member of the Regional Campaigns Committee
  • two members of the Regional Policy Committee
And do we have a classy list of voters, and potential candidates...
  • four MPs - Messrs Huppert, Lamb, Russell and Wright
  • three Baronesses - Brinton, Scott and Williams
  • four Barons - Hussain, Loomba, McNally and Phillips; and,
  • one MEP - the irrepressible Andrew Duff
So, with nominations closing on 13 November, we'll see whether we get a contest (they are, after all, pretty busy people)... Watch this space...

A life in the day of a Regional Secretary...

So, two years as the Regional Secretary in the East of England are nearly at an end. And, what, you may wonder, have I achieved in that time? Here's the list...
  • reconnected the Regional Executive to its Constitution
  • designed a framework for handling complaints for the Regional Party
  • written some election rules, plus guidance for the external returning officer
  • changed the term length of the Regional Executive
When put in written form, it doesn't feel like very much, perhaps because, unlike most Regional Secretaries, I don't have much to do. According to our Constitution;

3.7        The Secretary shall be responsible for

(a) arranging the meetings of the Regional Executive, and keeping minutes;
(b) receiving and distributing the minutes of the Regional Party’s committees, sub-committees and working groups;
(c) maintaining an up-to-date list of regional conference representatives and supervising the conduct of the Region’s internal elections; and
(d) for ensuring that the Region makes effective communications with Local Parties and other bodies within the Party.

Unfortunately, due to reasons that pre-date my election to the post, someone else does all of these things, and that someone is our Regional Administrator, Lorna. Lorna is, I have to admit, really good at these things. However, it doesn't actually leave me with a job.

And yes, spending the time on process has had its uses, but it isn't a role, and having been a Regional Secretary before, where I had to do all of the things listed above, I tend to feel a little adrift on a sea of ennui. So, it's time to go. It's been fun, and I still have a few things to do, including two elections to run, so I'll be busy enough over the coming weeks, but the future is a great big fish... or something like that.

Is it really necessary to elect a new Regional Executive every year?

I have noted before that, courtesy of my new lifestyle, I've developed an awkward tendency to ask questions like "Why...?".

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOne of those questions was, "Why do we elect a new Regional Executive every year, given their role?". So, I drafted some amendments to our Regional Constitution, proposing a two-year term, and ran them past the Regional Executive. They had no objection, and so it was agreed that they could be debated at Regional Conference.

Of course, our Region has, amongst its membership, the legendary Colin Rosenstiel, not exactly prone to ignoring constitutional change, so there was a risk of debate, and I was prepared to get up and defend my proposals. What I had failed to realise was that, in producing the Conference Agenda booklet, Lorna, our ever-alert Regional Administrator, had included my justification for each amendment.

As it turned out, Colin had read all of the proposed changes, and was content. So, on being called to move the motion to adopt them by the session Chair, the ever fragrant Baroness Scott of Needham Market, I thanked my wife for her warm introduction and simply moved them formally. And, apart from a point of clarification, there were no apparent concerns, so I summated formally and watched as the constitution was amended without opposition.

So, next year, the East of England Liberal Democrats will elect an Executive Committee for the two years ending on 31 December 2014, allowing the new team to take a more strategic view, and making them more likely to deliver upon it.

I can't help but think that, at least for the time being, my work here is done...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

East of England Regional Conference: Is that the time? I really must be going...

And so the day of the Regional Conference came, and with Ros and I on the platform for part of every session, and with two side meetings scheduled, I was never going to be anything other than busy. Anyone would think that I was up for election, or something.

Regardless, we left for Cambridge in pretty good spirits, and arrived at Cambridge Regional College in good time for the 10 a.m. kick-off. Sian Reid, Leader of Cambridge City Council, welcomed us to the city and to the conference, before a session of policy debates and Parliamentary reports. Motions on 'A green future for the East of England' and 'Science in the East of England' sandwiched the Commons report, fronted by Bob Russell and Norman Lamb, memorably described as 'Eric and Ernie' by Tom McNally when introducing his report from the Lords (I did tell Bob later that I had assumed that he was Eric, rather than Ernie).

We have a positive story to tell about our Parliamentary representation, as we now have a Westminster Parliamentarian in every one of our six counties (four in Hertfordshire, two in Norfolk and Suffolk, one in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex), and we really need to use them more effectively. 

The next session, chaired by the dashing and handsome Regional Secretary, was a series of presentations and speeches, the first being a call to arms for the 2012 campaign from our Regional Campaigns Officer, Ian Horner. Ian is a hardened professional, and gave those still licking their wounds after May every encouragement to believe that, with hard, smart work, we could do better next year. (Baroness) Sal Brinton talked to us about the work of the Diversity Engagement Group and the new Leadership Academy, subjects dear to my heart certainly, before Watford's 'city boss', Mayor Dorothy Thornhill gave us a good talking-to about what is possible.

And last, before the lunch break, was our Member of the European Parliament, Andrew Duff. I have to say that, when the European project appears to be at its most vulnerable, it reassures me to know that someone as passionate about the good that Europe can do is representing our interests. His speech was warm, funny (not necessarily expected) and informative, and he received a very generous, and thoroughly deserved, round of applause at its conclusion. And we hadn't even reminded people that he was generously sponsoring the buffet lunch!

After lunch, whilst Ros chaired a session with more motions plus the reports of the Regional Chair and Treasurer, Lorna (our Regional Administrator), Chris Williams (our Regional Returning Officer, from Milton Keynes, and I met to go through the nominations for the Regional Executive and its various sub-committees. This, perhaps, is the advantage of not running for office again...

Back to the hall, as Ros introduced the 'highlight of the day', as she put it, the constitutional amendments, moved by me. Luckily, the rationale for each amendment had been included in the agenda, so I was able to move them formally, allowing them to be passed en bloc in just two minutes from start to finish.

Next, off to a meeting with a Local Party to discuss candidate issues. A very courteous, yet robust exchange took place, where the reality of the relationship between Regional and Local Parties was aired and mulled over, whilst some useful points hitherto unconsidered by the Regional Party were brought to our attention.

And then, almost too early, Conference was over for another year. As we headed home, Ros and I agreed that it had gone pretty well...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One of those moments that makes this Coalition worth the hassle

Whilst I freely accept that I voted for the Coalition Agreement, having never actually had to make difficult decisions in government myself means that, sometimes, I can be a bit blase about the implications. It's the old story, being in power is nice, having to compromise, not so. And yes, there are parts of the Coalition programme that I'm not wild about. However, raising personal allowances and taking the some of the poorest people in society out of income tax brackets altogether is a thoroughly good thing.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLast week, like many Liberal Democrats across the country, I got an e-mail, the gist of which was that schools in my constituency will be receiving £703,000 through the Pupil Premium.

Just because my constituency is habitually prone to voting Conservative doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of families who struggle to make ends meet. I've occasionally mentioned issues relating to rural poverty (which reminds me, there's a document I need to read and report back on...), and if you don't live in a big house, there is genuine hardship about the county. It is therefore good news that schools will have additional money to spend on the children who will need most support.

Now I accept that there are those who will say "yes, but you're cutting education spending overall", and they probably have a point. However, spending has to be cut across the piece, and education is not exempt from that. Providing schools with an incentive to focus more resources on those children most in need of support is, in itself, a good thing, the sort of thing that educationalists support, and I would like to think that, as the economy improves, funding can and will improve too. And, best of all, the amount of money will be increased year on year.

I'm not foolish enough to think that the public are going to suddenly start liking us again, but regardless, if we manage to do enough good to make the electoral pain a bit more bearable, we can at the very least go down with a bit of pride. And despite the cynicism that exists in this country and, in my view, is one of the most corrosive things about British politics, standing up for things that you believe in represents what matters most in politics...

Friday, October 21, 2011

It's that time of year when a bureaucrat's thoughts turn to amending the Constitution...

Off to Cambridge tomorrow for East of England's Annual Conference (we don't have a Spring Conference, the only Region not to have one, as far as I know), where I get to chair the pre-lunch session, including presentations on the 2012 campaign (not available in Mid Suffolk) and diversity, a speech from Watford's city boss, Dorothy Thornhill, and the report of our MEP, Andrew Duff. This means that I don't have to work too hard, but come up with pithy introductions for each bit, and maybe control a few questioners.

We then have the entertaining prospect of Ros chairing the session where I torture the Regional Constitution a bit more - I'm hoping to move to a two-year cycle for elections, and free up our Parliamentarians and Youth to select their representatives by a method of their choosing at a time of their choosing. I'm hoping that she'll be kind to me, as it's my first speech to Conference.

We also get a new Regional Chair, and I'll be intrigued to see who it is, albeit not intrigued enough to serve on their Executive Committee. As a result, I get to work with our Returning Officer to deal with the fallout from the nomination process. It seems fair enough, especially as I wrote the briefing notes for him, as well as the election rules.

And with only one meeting of the Regional Executive to go, I can quietly slip away into the evening, playing Butch Cassidy to Ros's Sundance Kid... or something like that. It will make life a little more peaceful...

Parliament and the public: What difference does the Lords make?

A very good question indeed. So, what is the answer?

If you happen to be free on the evening of 2 November, you might be more enlightened if you attend the Hansard Society event forming part of Parliament Week, described as a week of planned events and activities which bring the story of Parliament to life and encourage greater engagement with democracy amongst people of all ages, running from 31 October to 6 November (is it me, or is the fact that it includes 5 November curiously symbolic of something?).

The Hansard Society is particularly keen that the work of the Lords is recognised so we have organised this event, with the co-operation of the Lord Speaker, to throw light on the role that the Second Chamber plays in our democracy and how individual peers engage with the public, something that might be seen as of particular interest given Paul Tyler's exchange with Guardian readers this week.

In any event, the event takes place between 6.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 2 November, in the Attlee Suite at Portcullis House. I recommend getting there a bit earlier than the scheduled start time, because you'll have to clear security.

The event will be introduced by the new Lords Speaker, Baroness D'Souza, the former Convenor of the Crossbench Peers, chaired by Peter Riddell, with panellists Mark Darcy (BBC), Lord Soley (Labour), a regular blogger, Baroness Young of Hornsey (Crossbench) and Ros, batting for the Liberal Democrats (and perhaps occasionally the Coalition).

Life in the big city...

So, I've been in London for the day, and the sun was shining, which was nice. Best of all, I wasn't in a hurry, which meant that I could ride the bus from place to place, a much more pleasant means of transport than the Tube.

Lunch with my father and my kid brother was very nice, especially as I don't see as much of them as I would like. The chosen pub serves Timothy Taylor's Landlord, which is always a bonus, and my weight loss has not gone unnoticed, which puts me in a good mood.

However, they have to go to work, so time for a bit of light shopping. I'm a bit of a random shopper in that, when I'm up for it, I'm really up for it - the shirt collection is evidence of that - but when the muse is not with me, the credit card is safe. And, in a sartorial sense, I'm safe for another month, although I now possess more Monteverdi madrigals than one could reasonably listen to in a sitting.

And that is the minor drawback of living far from the madding crowd, the lack of certain types of shopping. For example, buying classical music CDs is not really an option, unless I go to Snape for a concert, and even then my choice is a bit limited. On the other hand, I am less likely to purchase things that I don't need, and therefore spend less on a day to day basis (sorry guys, if you're counting on me to spend the kind of money that would save the British economy, I fear you will be disappointed).

Of course, London is less than ninety minutes away by fast train (alright, National Express East Anglia train, it would probably be seventy minutes by real train), so if there's something I really want, it's hardly like a trek across the Gobi Desert (Essex really isn't that bad, you know).

The evening was spent with friends, exchanging tales of campaigns past, over an excellent meal and good wine. One disadvantage of living in the countryside is that, if you throw, or attend, a dinner party, one of you has to drive, and not drink. In that sense, public transport makes you free. Ah well, when I raise enough money for the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway...

And so to bed...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy London Stock Exchange becomes a media circus

I'm visiting London today - I've got a dinner party to attend - so I thought that I should make a day of it.

I had a bit of time to spare, so rather than take the Tube, I caught a number 23 bus at Liverpool Street, a route which takes you through the City, past St Paul's, and down the Strand. Passing St Paul's in slow-moving traffic, I had an opportunity to cast my eyes over the 'tent city' formed by anti-capitalism demonstrators. And an interesting sight it is too.

The tents appear to be laid out in an orderly fashion, and if there is a town planner amongst the demonstrators, he/she should be pretty proud of themselves. However, the fact that, apart from the protestors, there appears to be a heavy media presence, would indicate that they're winning the publicity battle.

And why not? After all, protesting against bankers and corporate greed is hardly likely to be unpopular. According to some polls, the public are broadly supportive, which just goes to prove the old adage - being against sin is easy, proposing virtue is rather more difficult. Unsurprisingly, the solutions being rather randomly offered from those camped out in front of St Paul's are likely to be rather less popular.

I fear that the protestors 'fifteen minutes of fame' is already coming to an end at any rate, fuelled as it is by a media ill-equipped to understand, let alone report on, a horrendously complicated technical crisis. Easier to cover a small number of protestors than attempt to supply complex facts and, in an era of 24/7 news, much more telegenic. But there will be another story, and I suspect that the semi-professional protestors will find something else to 'save' once the media have moved on, leaving little but a slogan.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lords call for proper testing of EU health workers in the UK

In a widely welcomed report, the Social Policies and Consumer Protection sub-committee of the European Union Select Committee of the House of Lords has sharply criticised the European Union MRPQ Directive, underpinning the mobility of healthcare professionals within Europe, for its failure to protect the public from doctors ill-equipped to carry out the duties expected of them.

As a taster, here is a short video, featuring one of the Committee's members...

The report, "Safety First: Mobility of Healthcare Professionals in the EU", notes that whilst employers in the United Kingdom are obliged to recognise the qualifications of health workers, including doctors, nurses and midwives, from other EU states without question, they are barred from carrying out language testing to ensure that they have the verbal skills required to deal with patients. Indeed, there is no scope to verify whether or not an individual has maintained their skills since receiving their qualification.

It notes that the definition of key roles, such as 'general practitioner', varies in terms of its scope across Europe, with some patients seen directly by consultants for conditions treated by GPs here. In some countries, babies are delivered by gynaecologists, whereas in others, midwives are at the heart of things. The question of definition, and hence skill and experience levels, is at the core of the problem, and the Committee called for an updating of the minimum standards as currently outlined in an Annex to the Directive.

Questions relating to medical ethics were also touched upon, with the Committee noting that some groups of healthcare professionals were required to have an understanding of the issues surrounding ethical behaviour whilst others, including doctors, were not.

In brief though, the Committee made three core recommendations;
  • regulatory bodies (including the General Medical Council, Nursing and Midwifery Council, General Dental Council and General Pharmaceutical Council) should be allowed to test the language skills of ALL non-UK applicants
  • an alert mechanism should be implemented so that authorities can share fitness to practice information and warn each other about practitioners who have been subject to disciplinary proceedings
  • the list of qualifications and skills recognised by the EU Directive must be updated
Hopefully, the Government, and the European Commission, will act upon these recommendations by 2013, although it is not likely that the impact will become effective until 2017, at the earliest.

Twitter: dipping my toe back into the water...

Funnily enough, having given up Facebook and Twitter a few months ago, I haven't terribly missed them. They can be a dreadful distraction from real life, and the introduction by Facebook of a means to add your friends to groups without their being asked was an utter nuisance. And, by the way, I still don't care about virtual chickens and the like.

However, I do see the value of an opt-in system like Twitter, so I've... opted-in again. So, look out for the @honladymark tag (my continued satire of the inequality of treatment of aristocratic spouses), and I'll try to live up/down to expectations.

Does freedom of movement within Europe trump public safety?

One of the great benefits of our membership of the European Union is the ability to work anywhere within it, a benefit which has allowed British professionals to take their skills to places where they are needed and valued. However, it does occasionally present problems.

A management consultant is, if they get something wrong, unlikely to kill you. On the other hand, a healthcare professional might. The recent incident where a German locum doctor accidentally killed a patient by multiplying the correct dosage of the prescribed drug by a factor of ten, highlighted this risk.

The Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive (MRPQ Directive), agreed in 2005 and transposed into UK law in 2007, is a fundamental component of the Single Market. It allows professionals to have their qualifications, obtained in one Member State, recognised in another and thus allows them to be employed anywhere within the Single Market irrespective of where they have trained.

However, whereas non-EU healthcare professionals have to undergo language testing, EU ones don't, not necessarily ideal for a relationship as nuanced and intimate as doctor/patient.

Thankfully, whilst the Commons is pretty useless at scrutiny of European Union directives, the Lords is rather more dedicated to the task, and its EU Sub-Committee G - Social Policies and Consumer Protection has been exploring the impact of the MRPQ Directive and considering what further steps might be taken. Today sees the publication of its report and, once I've had an opportunity to examine it, I'll report back...

Lords Reform: if some is better than none...

Friday sees the Committee Stage in the Lords of the House of Lords Reform Bill. No, not that one, the Private Members Bill introduced by David Steel or, as one should refer to him, Baron Steel of Aikwood.

Whilst he has indicated his opposition to the outline proposals currently being debated by the joint pre-legislation scrutiny committee, he is calling for some desperately need reforms. For example, the Bill calls for
  • the abolition of by-elections for hereditary Peers
  • the removal from the House of any Peer found guilty of a serious criminal offence and sentenced to more than a year in prison
  • the transfer of the power of nomination to a Statutory Appointments Commission consisting of nine members nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords.
  • a limit on the number of Peers - less than the number of Members of the House of Commons
  • the right to take permanent leave of absence, i.e. an opportunity to retire.
Yes, there is no reference to election, and the overall effect would only emerge slowly, but it would represent an advance whilst the Government's proposals wend their way through the legislative minefield that will undoubtedly be laid. And, if the Government loses its nerve, there would at least be some reform, rather than none.

The Committee Stage will also provide an indication as to how the House of Lords is likely to approach the question of reform. My sources indicate that hereditary Peers are likely to oppose even these modest proposals, which does not augur well for the prospects of the Government Bill, when it finally arrives...

Does Liberal Democrat Voice need a Lords correspondent?

I ask, because the question has been raised by our noble friend, Lord Greaves, who suggests that it should include more coverage of events from the red benches and their environs.

As someone who has taken more interest in the activities of our (occasionally) ermine clad friends and colleagues, and written on the subject sometimes, I have to say that it is quite hard work. Some of the best work is done in meetings with ministers, through the 'usual channels' and by means of seemingly harmless, but actually quite significant questions. It isn't glamorous, but it is important.

The problem is that, in order to cover it well, you do need to have an interest in, and a knowledge of, the matter at hand. You also need the time to do the research, not as easy a prospect as it might sound... week, after week, after week. Accordingly, I have a lot of time for Paul Walter, whose weekly report on Prime Ministers' Questions has become a regular feature in recent months, and his efforts have now expanded to cover young Nick Clegg's regular trial by ordeal.

So, is there a demand out there for more coverage of the Lords? And if so, is anyone willing to take it on?

Monday, October 17, 2011

It appears that my Noble Lords are more accustomed to hard work...

I see from a copy of the Evening Standard loft behind on my train home this evening that there is some controversy over the decision to add in an extra week of recess for the House of Commons in mid-November. It would therefore seem sensible to assume that the Lords will be off as well, wouldn't it? Well, no. The Lords will sit on three of the four days concerned, demonstrating perhaps that young people today don't really get the notion of 'work ethic'.

In fairness though, it is easy to accuse MPs of fecklessness. For some, the recall during the summer prevented them from carrying out scheduled constituency work, or from taking a planned holiday. We would be the first to complain if our employer did something similar to us, without extra pay, or even time off in lieu.

Defending MPs is not popular in this country, and the expenses scandal damaged the reputation of all elected politicians for a generation, but nonetheless, there comes a point when such a blanket condemnation of all, regardless of their behaviour, risks driving out the very people who we need to keep, those who place a high value on good character, for they are the ones most affected by abuse by the public and by the media.

And as it seems that Parliament will be sitting for more days in this session than had previously been the case (on a per annum basis), the charge of skiving does seem a bit harsh...

A slight rumble in Creeting St Mary - when a planning application causes unrest...

A copy of the Creeting St Mary newsletter drops through the front door, and a pretty professional effort it is too. I always read it, in part because there are things happening in our neighbouring parish that impact on us, and because, if they've gone to the trouble of dropping a copy through our door, it seems only fair that I do so.

This month's issue is more interesting than usual though, as there is a two page article about an apparently controversial planning application at Whissels Farm. Admittedly, I don't actually know much about it, but the contributor is clearly deeply unhappy about the response of the Parish Council, who approved it by a vote of 6-1.

As a mandatory consultee, a Parish Council generally finds itself in a difficult position. As councillors, we're not really equipped to deal with anything remotely complex, as training is sparse, and support sparser still. I was offered an afternoon session entitled 'Planning for Parish Councils' by Mid Suffolk District Council which, whilst interesting, merely scratched the surface of what is possible. And perhaps the fact that Mid Suffolk's planning department isn't thought to be very good is, to some extent, unhelpful...

Accordingly, when confronted with anything bigger than a single building, consideration risks being a matter of 'sticking a wet finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing'. Consideration of any District, County or Regional development plans relies on having the information easily available, and having the time to do the research, not necessarily a possibility for 'well-meaning amateurs' like myself.

In addition, a good planning application, even an unpopular one locally, is likely to be approved by the District Council in any event, and parish councillors are then obliged to consider what terms they might reasonably extort from the applicant in exchange for their acquiescence. Better, perhaps, to have one's wishes known in advance, than have the District Council claim any Section 106 benefits for itself.

I'll be keeping a weather eye open for this application in any event, as the site is on All Saints Road, one of the three access routes into Creeting St Peter...

My life as a country gentleman

It's been more than eight months since I gave up life in the big city and moved permanently to my small village in mid-Suffolk. And whilst there were some concerns when I did so, it seems to be going well enough.

Part of the adjustment was ensuring that I didn't become isolated, a genuine risk when you don't drive, and you rely on a rather fragile transport infrastructure to get around. And so my role as a Parish Councillor helps that, both as an intellectual challenge (it is possible that I worry too much about that element of the job) and as an activity. In turn, that leads to my role as 'foreign minister', representing the village at meetings of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC), and of the Stowmarket and District Road Safety Committee.

Of course, one needs a social life too. The monthly coffee morning organised by the Parochial Church Council, the odd village pub night (odd, as in occasional, before you ask), a Local Party social event or two, all of them fill slots in the diary. I come to London from time to time, to visit family, to do things with Ros, or for meetings of Unlock Democracy.

Finally, there are what I would describe as the unexpected events. Last weekend, I put on my black tie and the dinner jacket, and attended the High Sheriff's charity dinner in Ipswich, a high society event for Suffolk gentry, raising funds for the Suffolk Foundation, a wonderful organisation doing valuable work across the county. The wine flowed, as did the witty and light-hearted conversation, as networking took place.

The following day saw the Mayor of Needham Market's Civic Service and, given Ros's title, and her long connection to the town, we get an invite to attend and to take part in the procession. Mayors from other Suffolk towns attend in their robes (the Mayor of Aldeburgh even has a robed bodyguard), and we processed down the middle of the High Street to the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, with traffic blocked by the police whilst we did so. When we reached our destination, a rather robust, not entirely multi-cultural service followed (pardon me, but singing 'One Church, One Faith, One Lord' isn't exactly inclusive, even if the local Catholic priest is present...). We then processed back down the High Street to the Swan, where afternoon tea was served.

It is gentle, I admit, a rather low-energy lifestyle, where trying too hard is frowned upon, and those 'big city ways' need to toned down, but it is far removed from the stresses of the urban rat race. Think of it as the rural vole stroll...

Monday, October 03, 2011

Another council tax freeze makes for a worried Parish Councillor

Last year's council tax freeze was very good politics, even if it wasn't necessarily very good for local government finances. Any council freezing its precept was given additional funding equivalent to a 2.5% increase. I say 'any', although my fellow parish councillors will note that we weren't included in that offer.

I suspect that the long-term implication - that if the 'bribe' stopped, or was stagnant in cash terms, then precepts would need to be increased rather more than inflation - did not go unnoticed. So, here it is again this year. What this means, effectively, is that local authorities who have taken the money will have seen their precept fall by about 8% in real terms over two years.

One solution to the medium-term problem is to divest local services, or to charge more for them. And that's where my problems start...

Last year, the amount charged to my Parish Council by Mid Suffolk District Council for cutting the grass on the village green went up by 13%. It had been subsidised in the past, we were told, so we swallowed hard, made cuts elsewhere, and lived with it. This year, they have decided to charge us for emptying the dog waste and litter bins. It isn't a huge amount, about 1.4% of our total budget, but it will need to be found.

We also pay for street lighting, and the cost of electricity is going up... fast. We need to budget for that too. We are being asked to take on the Local Nature Reserve, as Mid Suffolk District Council have pulled out. Add in salaries, maintenance and insurance, and before you know it, you're talking about a precept increase in excess of 5%.

Our reserves are somewhat lower than I would like, a view shared by our Parish Clerk, so I'd like us to run a budget surplus to bring that up to par, and we have no funds to cover replacement street lights which, eventually, we will need.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Council and Mid Suffolk District Council, armed with their bribe from George and Eric, will set a 0% council tax increase, which will make the 8% that I fear will be necessary for Creeting St Peter rather unpalatable. And even then, I can look forward to a future of squeezes from above and from the past...