Thursday, May 31, 2012

Scottish Independence: what are the chances of an honest debate?

It's an awfully long way from mid-Suffolk to the Scottish border, about five and a half hours by train, but as the son of a Scot, I take a passing intellectual interest in the debate that so dominates all political discussion up there.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceSo, let me nail my colours to the mast. If the Scottish people, however defined, decide that their desire for freedom is such that it can only be exercised through an independent state, it is not for the rest of us to say that they can't.

However, there is a catch. A free nation is also a community of informed citizens, called upon to make decisions on the basis of rather tricky things called 'facts'. And, rather disappointingly, I'm not entirely convinced that facts are going to be a core part of the debate.

You see, freedom costs. Oh yes, the alternatives aren't cost-free either, but there is a price to be paid. Often, where people seek independence, there is a cost in blood and treasure but, at least in this instance, blood is unlikely to be spilt. But there will be financial implications, and the pro-independence campaigners seem keen to avoid that issue thus far.

In strategic terms, that's probably quite sensible, as the issue is fearsomely complex. Which currency will an independent Scotland adopt? The Euro? The Pound? Will it go it alone? The first two options mean a pooling of sovereignty, the first through Brussels - and wildly popular that's proving to be, isn't it? - the second through London - you are kidding, aren't you? The third option leaves the new nation more vulnerable to the currency markets than most, but does offer the broadest range of monetary and fiscal tools. Each option comes with risks, each needs to be properly assessed.

International relationships are important too. Yes, Scotland would get a seat in the United Nations, but would have to apply for a place in the European Union. In the meantime, vast swathes of European Union legislation, directives and regulatory frameworks would be effectively imposed by fax from Brussels - ask the Norwegians what that means - hardly the independence that is supposedly on offer. In the modern era, sovereignty is increasingly pooled, be it within a federal state, or (whisper it quietly) a federal union. Independence is not necessarily what one thinks it is any more.

Finally, the terms of a 'divorce settlement'. I was interested to hear Angus Robertson, the SNP's Parliamentary Leader at Westminster, claiming that it was unfair that Scotland was not getting its fair share of UK defence spending. He ought to be more wary about arguments like that, especially as Scotland is perceived to have benefited from some quite generous provision in other areas, including disproportionate levels of public sector employment.

But if there is a separation, there will be a slice of the national debt to be agreed, and then serviced, there will be assets to be divided up, contracts to be honoured. The definition of a fair division will be a very difficult one - who gets the debt relating to bailing out the Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland, for example.

It will undoubtedly be a tough negotiation, with both parties keen to get the best deal possible for their people, but amongst the range of possibilities are some pretty grim ones for Scots - potentially huge deficits in the short term, likely austerity in any event. There are rosier scenarios but, in the context of the current state of the United Kingdom economy, rosy is merely a paler shade of grey.

The real debate is a complex one, and the question is not just, "Do you want to be free?", but, "How much are you willing to sacrifice for it?".

And that's a question that the rest of us need to give some thought to as well. What deal are we, the English, the Welsh and the (Northern) Irish, willing to countenance? As pro-Union political parties, we have to be rather more upfront about the answer, and rather more transparent about the data.

The Scottish people deserve the very best that politicians on either side of the debate can offer, in terms of rhetoric and in terms of integrity. Whilst making an unwise call in terms of a vote for independence, if unwise it turns out to be, has an obvious, visible cost, remaining in a Union which holds Scotland back, if it does, will be a hidden burden on a proud people.

And let the Scots decide!

You want an owl? I'm your man... as long as it isn't in the nature reserve

It was a short meeting of the Parish Council on Tuesday evening, as much because neither Steve, our Chair, Rosemary, our Parish Clerk, or I were 100%, but also because much of our business had already been dealt with at the Annual Parish Meeting just a week before. Indeed, most of our discussions were about the newer parts of our empire, the Nature Reserve, the small piece of woodland and our playground.

However, at the end of the meeting, when talking about wildlife, it was decided that we should have a 'point man' for non-nature reserve related wildlife, and that this someone should be me. It is perhaps a sign of how off-colour I was that I'm not entirely sure what it is I have taken on. Luckily, I happen to have a Pocket Guide to the Wildlife of Britain so, if you happen to see me peering at various things in a rather vague way, you'll know that I'm doing my job...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Things you might not expect to receive in the post #327...

My attention has been brought to a rather unusual parcel delivered to the headquarters of the Conservative Party of Canada.

On Monday, Canada Post arrived at their office and delivered, amongst other things, a white box with a red heart on it. Addressed simply to 'The Conservative Party of Canada', it was handed to an employee to be opened, who was somewhat alarmed to find blood inside. But that wasn't all that was found.

The police were called, and a biohazard team took the box to be x-rayed, only to discover that it appeared to contain a severed human foot, later confirmed as such by the local coroner.

Across town, at the Ottawa sorting office, another parcel, not addressed to the Conservative Party of Canada, was discovered to contain a severed human hand, although a link between the two body parts has yet to be established.

However, the Canadian authorities are on the case. The major crimes unit is handling the investigation of the foot because now "there's a body without one," as Ottawa Police Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Creeting St Peter: doing more, doing it better...

It has been nearly three years since I became a Parish Councillor and, it must be said, much has happened since then.

What was a rather small, insignificant piece of the architecture of local government in one of England's quieter counties, responsible for grass cutting and nine street lights, has rather expanded.

Last year, we absorbed the Community Council, inheriting its project to provide a new playground, as well as the funds raised, and set to work securing the site. Meanwhile, we discovered that we owned a small piece of woodland called 'Plot 89' next to the A14. Finally, following the County Council's divestment of Local Nature Reserves, we successfully bid to take over Fen Alder Carr, on the edge of the Parish, extorting £5,000 from the County for its upkeep in future years.

So, for the time being, we find ourselves with £20,000 in the bank, and an awful lot more responsibility.

And with that comes a need for a more professional approach towards our work as councillors. As portfolio holder for finance, I now have to balance two earmarked funds, income from our village lottery and a precept up 13% from last year, ensuring that we have enough money to maintain our new facilities, whilst keeping the precept within reasonable levels. It isn't always easy, especially given that being a Parish Councillor is only one of my many responsibilities.

So, we have risk analysis, financial management guidance, internal and external auditors, and all the paraphernalia of proper fiscal discipline. Occasionally, it does feel like 'awfully hard work', but nonetheless it gives the impression of responsible governance.

We are, unexpectedly, rather bigger and rather more active, than I might have expected when I was first co-opted to the Council in 2009. And yet, this organic growth has made us rather more relevant and involved in the life of our village, our Parish and our community. And that can't be a bad thing, can it?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reforming the EHRC: is the Coalition going about this the right way?

My Liberal Democrat Voice colleague, Caron Lindsay, has recently written about the proposed reform of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Given that I am one of those people who theoretically should benefit from its work, perhaps I ought to put some thoughts out there.

Let's start with the negatives. The EHRC was hobbled from its outset by Labour's insistence on packing its leadership with Labour hacks, who saw their role as a political one. It also suffered from appalling financial management and a sense of mission creep. It was symptomatic of an administration which thought that bigger was necessarily better. Sadly, they were wrong.

There is a serious problem with the quango state. Broadly unaccountable, the leadership of quangos reflects the nature of the people who put them there. And, because they have contracts, when a new government comes in, the scope for conflict is obvious. That isn't a party political point, far from it - in the event that the Labour Party win a future General Election, they will encounter a well-entrenched 'quangocracy' packed with Conservative and Liberal Democrat appointees.

By politicising the delivery of Government functions - as opposed to the strategy - you incentivise 'empire building' and mission creep, and you generate internal opposition to the government of the day. If you are a supporter of the Opposition, you are hardly likely to willingly accept the Government's policy stance, indeed, the temptation to oppose a potentially unpopular administration is strong. So, an obvious first lesson is "don't politicise your bureaucracy".

Secondly, poor financial management is exactly that. However, that in itself doesn't justify radical change in the role and function of an organisation, it justifies finding those responsible, and call me quirky and old-fashioned here, holding them to account. That may mean, whisper it gently, punishing the guilty.

Finally, the sheer scale and scope of the EHRC meant that it tended to focus on those aspects of its brief which were of greatest interest to those who led it. Most of those in the sector tend to be campaigners against a particular brand of discrimination, rather than discrimination in its broadest sense. That isn't a criticism - very few of us are political generalists - but it inevitably impacts on the work of the EHRC. If human rights are about managing competing demands, and I would suggest that they are to some extent, any subconscious leaning towards one group or another endangers the rights of others.

So, what is the EHRC for, or, better still, what might be its role?

I agree that responsibility for impact assessments should be taken away from the EHRC and taken back into 'proper government', perhaps into the Cabinet Office. To be blunt, the notion that the EHRC is truly independent is hard to take seriously. The fact that there are a plethora of campaigning bodies shining a light on government policy and its impacts reflects a broadly held view that the EHRC is, in itself, insufficient to hold government to account.

And yes, a fundamental change in the way that government makes policy needs to come at the same time. By having a proper debate, and having real, public consultation before introducing changes, the public and, in particular, affected parties, can raise all of the salient issues, and government can respond to them as appropriate. That might not mean that there are not losers from any changes, but at least the issues are in the open.

I do see a role for the EHRC in helping organisations to operate in a non-discriminatory way, highlighting potential issues, providing guidance on specific topics and, if necessary, taking action to enforce anti-discrimination legislation. It also should provide support to individuals and groups seeking to act against discrimination, informing them of their rights, and of channels through which to confront those who discriminate.

It is very easy to talk about major reform of organisations, much harder to talk about what such reform is intended to achieve. In a political culture where being seen to be busy appears more important than outcomes, I want to see more information about what the future form and function of the EHRC will be before I get horribly excited. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Another gentle day in the Suffolk countryside...

As I occasionally note, I tend to learn new things on a regular basis now that I am a country dweller full time. And today, it's all been about birds.

Firstly, I have been reminded that, if you leave an opportunity for our feathered friends, they will take it. I was somewhat surprised by a close range blur from an unexpected quarter. On closer inspection, a hole in a porch (not ours, I hasten to add) has been colonised by starlings, or 'feathered rats', as Richard, our builder refers to them. And, it seems, they're pretty noisy. It just shows that you really do need to keep an eye on a house, especially out here in the country.

With the weather having been relatively benign today, Ros has been in the garden, whilst I've been pottering about. And there's been a lot of birdsong, some of it remarkably loud. We noticed that a blackbird had been disappearing behind our oil tank and, curious, I took a closer look, only to find a fledgling on the ground, crying loudly.

Alright, I thought, I ought to do something. But what? I asked Ros, whose advice was to try entering "What do you do with a fledgling?" into Google. So, I did. And, for those of you who are confronted with such a problem, here's the official answer;
Young garden birds usually leave the nest about two weeks after hatching - just before they can fly. If you find a young bird out of its nest, it is probably a fledgling. Fledglings are almost fully feathered, able to walk, run and hop on to low branches, and will try to hide in undergrowth where they are fed by their parents. Parent birds are not usually far away and are probably collecting food but will not return until you have gone. Within a day of leaving the nest, fledglings can usually fly enough to keep up with their parents and escape predators.
Only move them, or encourage them to move, a short distance to safety if they are in immediate danger. If you have picked up a fledgling, put it back as near as possible to the place you found it. Don't try to return a fledgling to its nest as you may disturb other young birds. If you are concerned about its safety try to put it nearby on a ledge, or somewhere it will be out of the reach of cats. Monitor the situation from afar (otherwise your presence may continue to discourage the return of the parents) for at least two hours. You will almost certainly find that the parents have taken care of their youngster.
 So, I've left it alone. Only time will tell, I suppose...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's raining, it's grey... but I'm really pleased that we came.

It is a wet, drab day in Yerevan, which is a pity, for our formal business is over and we have a day off to enjoy the city. But we've been for a walk anyway, passing the National Assembly building, the Cascade, which houses a rather impressive museum and some interesting sculpture, and Opera Square, with its surrounding parkland filled with cafes and bars.

Our fellow delegates, many of whom had visited Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, before coming on to Yerevan, have been a mite dismissive about Armenia, but Ros and I are rather smitten by Yerevan. One doesn't want to patronise, but this is a plucky country, with friendly people, and a sense of ambition and pride. Yes, there's not a lot of money around, and the neighbourhood is a tough one, but given a chance, Armenians could make a genuine go of it.

Republic Square is the heart of the city, surrounded by vast, imposing arcs of buildings, one of which is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and another the Marriott Hotel, with a nice cafe restaurant outside (not cheap, mind you). But in the evening, the square comes into its own, with the musical fountain and light show. Yerevan is big on water and fountains.

I will confess that I probably would never have come here unless ELDR had decided to hold a meeting here, but I'm also delighted that I came. Indeed, Ros and I are talking about coming back to the region at some point.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Labour Party joins European liberal family!

Good heavens, no, not that Labour Party, but the Darbo Partija of Lithuania, who are currently leading in opinion polls there.

When asked why they had taken the name 'Labour Party', their representative noted that they were a party for all who worked. This is in itself, an interesting twist, as it begs a question, i.e. since when was the Labour Party back home representative of the working class, given how few such people now represent it in Parliament?

So, one out in Lithuania, and one in...

ELDR: I am not alone

The rest of the delegation have arrived in the nick of time, having set off this morning. Apparently, the roads between Tbilisi and here aren't great...

Meanwhile, in their absence, I've been holding the fort at the Resolution Working Group meeting, speaking against a common consolidated corporate tax base for a EU (rejected by the group) and in support of the rights of the Turkish Cypriot community in Cyprus with reference to trade access (accepted).

But Council is about to open...

Some of our delegation are missing...

Alright, I'm here in Yerevan, I've made it to the venue for ELDR Council, and I'm in the resolution working group meeting. So far, so good.

There is a catch though... where is the rest of my delegation? They were supposed to be travelling overnight from Tbilisi by coach, but haven't arrived yet. I am led to understand that, whilst the Caucusus was well known for banditry once upon a time, this shouldn't present any problem...

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Conservatives - wasting your money in Suffolk Circle

Liberal Democrats have been looking at the first year's progress of the Suffolk County Council funded social enterprise 'Suffolk Circle', and are not impressed.

Last year, the Conservatives handed over £680,000, without consultation by SCC's Cabinet to this 'pay for friendship' group, in the midst of some pretty painful cuts to local services.

And, after a year of operation, and expenditure of £350,000, it has managed to attract 362 members - all of whom pay to be members and pay for most of their activities - including getting 'help' from 'good neighbours' at twice the price of minimum wage. That represents nearly £1,000 per head, despite the fact that there are existing 'good neighbour' schemes across the county offering help already.

Interestingly, Suffolk Circle is modelled on a scheme operating already in Southwark, my old stomping ground in South London, a place where community ties are often much weaker, and it is hard to imagine how a scheme that might well work there (I don't know what impact it has had) might be successful in a place different in almost every sense.

It can't help though that the original business model, which required charging users between £30 and £75 per quarter, was quickly scrapped, and users are now charged £30 per annum, thus wiping out at least 75% of the estimated income. It is hard to envisage how such a business plan could be sustainable, but the Conservatives are already committed to pouring another £330,000 of our money down the drain.

Luckily, Liberal Democrat county councillors can count, even if Conservative Cabinet members don't (or possibly can't). As John Field put it;

The organisation appears to be duplicating, at a high cost, much of the work already being done far more economically by local charities and organisations to promote social networks in the elderly.
The Suffolk Circle has already failed to meet its membership targets in the first year, and with the reduction in membership fees, it's difficult to see exactly how this organisation will be sustainable by the fourth year of operation.

Caroline Page notes that this is another example of the concentration of power and authority in the hands of a small part of the Conservative Group;
This dubious project is a prime example of how Suffolk County Council's undemocratic Cabinet system is failing the taxpayer.  It has allowed a few councillors to make an effectively unilateral decision that is costing council tax-payers of Suffolk the best part of a million pounds. And without providing any provable benefit to the vulnerable elderly of Suffolk it was supposedly set up to help. Yet the frail elderly need all the help they can get. When money is so tight this is a disgraceful example of putting the ideology of private enterprise above the common sense of making limited resources stretch as far as possible.
I expect to quiz my County Councillor on this point next week, if he can be bothered to turn up. I don't expect him to have any answers other than those subsequently given to him by someone like Colin Noble, and if he is merely there to regurgitate the ill-conceived views of the Cabinet, what point is there in voting for him?

And the Gipping gently flows...

With the recent wet weather, the once parched landscape has become alive with the sound of flowing water, a reminder that this part of Suffolk is not as flat as one might think. Hopefully, the rain will ease a bit, but the importance of keeping drainage ditches clear of obstruction has been emphasised in case anyone has forgotten.

Creeting St Peter has not gone unaffected. The road to Creeting St Mary flooded just beyond the small bridge that links the parishes, and the drainage ditch that runs along Creeting Lane as it winds its way towards the A1120 and Stowupland burst its banks, causing a river effect. And even Mill Lane was tricky to drive down due to surface water. But the village itself is on a rise, probably a throwback to the plague - villages tended to relocate uphill from the churchyard where victims were buried, I understand - and is pretty much unaffected.

Ros and I have taken to walking up Creeting Lane of an evening, as much to stretch our legs as to go anywhere in particular. The sounds of birdsong, the flowers on the verges, the occasional sighting of an owl, all serve to remind us that living in the country is a counterpoint to our rather more hectic lives elsewhere. It's gentle, in an undemanding sort of way.

But it's time to head back into the more pressurised world of politics for a while. Ros is on her way back to Parliament - it's Queen's Speech day today - whilst I'll be on my way to London later, en route to Yerevan, Armenia (Ros is coming too).

And I really must pay more attention to what's going on - there's a lot on the agenda in the coming weeks...

Saturday, May 05, 2012

ELDR: Rene Magritte would have approved...

I'm back from my foray to the capital of Europe, laden down with good things for other people. And, before you ask, it was nice to be back in a city I know better than most.

I am better informed than I was when I set off on Thursday, in that I now know what ELDR's Financial Advisory Committee is for, and better still, that this is a committee designed for a faceless bureaucrat. How things work, how the numbers stack up, these are issues that I can cope with, and contribute too.

So, what does this newly reconstituted pillar of European liberal organisational architecture do? Our role is to look at ELDR's finances, ensuring that we adhere to the various rules, regulations and directives, exploring new means of increasing the resources available to the organisation, and examining existing arrangements. And now you understand why a faceless bureaucrat is an entirely reasonable person to represent pan-European verwaltung.

I have already 'made a contribution', initiating some research into a revised model for affiliation fees, and suggesting that the associate membership scheme might benefit from some of the experiences gleaned by Democrats Abroad. And the chocolate was very nice...

Admittedly, ten hours of travelling and an overnight stay, all for a meeting lasting less than ninety minutes, did seem a might ludicrous, maybe even surreal (well done if you now 'get' the title). However, I now know how the Scots feel about attending Federal Executive and the rest of the Party's committees. At least they don't need a passport (yet)...

We next meet in September, when we will be considering the applications for project grant funding from the various member Parties. Given that the available pot of money is €300,000, this could be interesting. Which reminds me, I really need to talk to a few people...

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Observing the count... But not that sort of count...

There are no ballot papers, there are no voters, yet I am here in an official capacity. But - and those who know me will expect a 'but' - I'm in Brussels.

To be precise, I'm in "Les Postiers', a bar near the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, nursing a glass of Rochefort, the trappist beer, rather than the cheese, as the culmination of nearly six months of bemusement approaches.

Readers may recall that I had sought the Party's nomination for a place on the reconstituted Financial Advisory Committee of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) during its last Council meeting in Palermo. It is perhaps indicative of the way the Party handles its international affairs, or just possibly a sign of the regard I am held in, that my name was notified to the Secretariat, and then... silence.

Eventually, word came that my name was to go forward, with four others, for consideration by the ELDR Bureau and, by the way, could I let them have a brief resume and a few words on why I wanted to serve. That was surprisingly easy, and I was told that the Bureau would meet in early March to decide. How many vacancies there were was left unsaid, and so I waited.

As it turned out, there were five vacancies, the Bureau never discovered my record of cannabalism, bank robbery and origami, and I was in.

And so, here I am, preparing for our first meeting, tomorrow morning. Except, I'm not sure exactly what I'm preparing for. Yes, I've read the papers - and very nice they are too - and I have my number-crunching head on, so all should be well. It's just that I feel a bit... unsure about the whole thing.

Ah well, only fifteen hours until the moment of truth. Wish me luck!...