Thursday, August 30, 2012

London Metropolitan: that's another fine mess that Tory stupidity over immigration has gotten us into...

The combination of administrative ineptitude by the authorities at London Metropolitan University, and the pressure self-induced by an absurd promise by the Conservatives has created a nightmare for a group of innocent students far from home.

There is no doubt that, if the university authorities have failed to fulfil their obligations to ensure that only genuine students are admitted to the United Kingdom, sanctions are appropriate. But whilst the university may suffer in the medium and long term, the Government has a responsibility to protect legitimate visitors to our company.

So, instead of giving the students sixty days to find a new course, with the stress and risk of financial loss that this entails, why not ban the university from offering places to any new students, announce that their current student body will receive rather more scrutiny than might otherwise be the case, and impose an inspection regime for students to be financed by the university?

Something must be done quickly, because the current situation is fraught with danger for our university sector. If it were to become the case that overseas students could find their courses abolished at a moment's notice, they might decide that the risk is too great, and that going to the US, or Canada, or Australia might be a safer choice. And given the revenue that accrues to British universities from overseas, that loss could dwarf the costs of immigration that so trouble the Conservatives.

But once again, the Conservative insistence on setting an entirely impractical target has proved to have created more problems than it could ever solve. The response of the UK Border Agency is designed to appease the political agenda, rather than solve the problem. I would suggest that any benefit that might have thought to accrue from such a hardline stance will be dwarfed by the criticism that this will attract from those who believe in fair play and natural justice.

The hills are alive with the Sound of Music...

An evening of high culture here in Suffolk, as we've been to Snape for a singalong Sound of Music, accompanied by the charming and erudite Jonathan Fryer.

I know what you're thinking - it isn't obviously a place for a jobbing bureaucrat, but I do enjoy a good sing from time to time. Perhaps that explains why I tend to avoid Glee Club at Party Conferences...

However, having been persuaded, somewhat against my better judgement, that it would be fun, we set off for Snape, taking the opportunity to tell Jonathan a bit about the old demesne - he may have been to nearly two hundred countries, but not to Suffolk, it seems. We detoured to Aldeburgh which, despite the rain, put on a decent enough show. One must, I admit, ask how many wine merchants does a town that size need - three is possibly excessive - but it is wonderfully genteel.

But, time was passing and, if you're going to sing, you should do so well-fortified. The Plough and Sail at Snape Maltings is apparently under new management, and their food was marvellous. Duck liver parfait... mmmmm...

Sometimes, I'm told, Sound of Music singalongs are done with the film, and you join in. This evening, it was rather more of a performance. Accompanied by a three piece band, with Alex Woolf on piano (I know this because he subsequently contacted us via Twitter - @alexwoolf), who looked as though they were enjoying it without any loss of professionalism, we ran through the songs with proper musical direction, although not so much as to make it stilted and overly serious.

And with an audience who were clearly up for a fun night out, some dressed as nuns, others as brown paper packages tied up with string, as well as the odd Maria, singing was done. There was the occasional dress that looked like it was made out of curtains... or it could have been Laura Ashley - I often find it hard to tell the difference.

By the time we'd made it to the interval, we were tolerably good, but the second half was going to be the test. With a proper West End singer, and the Aldeburgh Choir, to do the hard bits, we'd have to be up to the mark. And we were or, at least from my untutored ear, we seemed to be.

Having approached the event with a degree of dread, I found myself enjoying the sheer silliness and enthusiasm of the thing. Surrounded by hordes of people out to enjoy themselves come what may, and steered gently by musicians who had a finely tuned sense of what worked, we gave it our best shot, and Rodgers and Hammerstein would have probably enjoyed the fact that we were doing so.

We started at the very beginning (a very fine place to start, it seems), we yodeled along with the lonely goatherd, and we climbed every mountain (without leaflets). And all too soon, it was time to escape over the mountains to Creeting St Peter, stopping only to generously and enthusiastically applaud the real performers. Luckily, the mountains of East Suffolk aren't too high...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Absolutely committe(e)d to road safety around Stowmarket

In the past, I might have noted the concerns that my fellow parish councillors have traffic speed through our village. So, when the opportunity arose to nominate a member of the Stowmarket and District Road Safety Committee, I had rather expected one of my colleagues to step forward.

Expectation is a funny thing though, so when it became apparent that there wasn't going to be a volunteer, I could see that my future would include the occasional debate about pedestrian crossings or road layouts. And it hasn't been so bad, made easier by the expert chairing of Keith Scarff and the excellent secretariat in the form of my stepdaughter, Sally.

So, when at our AGM there was a silence in the room as it became clear that our serving Vice Chair wasn't present, it was with a degree of caution that I offered my services to replace him - and was duly elected unopposed.

I'm not expecting to add a vast amount to my workload as a result of my elevation, but it acts as another connection between Creeting St Peter and the outside world. And that can only be a good thing, can't it?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dipping her toe back into the water... Ros blogs again...

It is, I suppose, my fault. It was with my encouragement that she first began to blog in 2008, under the title 'Because Baronesses Are People Too...', as I thought that her commentary would be of interest, both as part of her campaign for the Party Presidency, and as a window on what she does. I had, perhaps, not thought out the consequences...

So, when things became a bit tense, some people thought that her blog offered an opportunity for a public dissection of the events of the day. In truth, that wasn't particularly viable, as Ros is not the sort of person who enjoys that sort of public confessional, and more importantly, as she was in possession of all of the facts, some of them quite personal and sensitive, it was impossible to properly correspond.

Under pressure, she took the sensible decision, to my mind, of calling a halt to proceedings. That wasn't easy, but I understood her dilemma. And since then, she has not blogged, nor have I suggested to her that she might. I have offered her a space here, but she hasn't felt the need to take me up on it.

However, she was recently approached by the Hansard Society to become a contributor to 'Lords of the Blog' and, slightly to my surprise, was sufficiently interested to 'give it a whirl'. And I suspect that this will work for her, as it suits her rather more gentle style. She isn't really comfortable with the partisan 'my party right or wrong' approach, and she likes to talk about ideas. It also gives her an opportunity to post on a more occasional basis, without the pressure to report back frequently.

So, we'll see how it goes, and for those of you interested in what Ros does, or thinks, here's the link to her first posting...

Friday, August 24, 2012

Creeting St Peter: a small problem for my Parish Council

I have, in the past, touched upon my Parish Council's difficulties with social media, in particular the divergence of views between myself and our Chair, and the Parish Clerk.

Our Chair is deeply suspicious of individualism, pleading collective responsibility as grounds to discourage personal commentary on the activities of the Parish Council. Given his background, such a stance is understandable, even as it vaguely bothers me.

Our Parish Clerk is more interested in using our website to communicate, and has initiated a Twitter feed (@creetingstpeter) which occasionally broadcasts news of potential interest - flood warnings, local events and the like. She does like to manage our external communication, which occasionally comes into conflict with the notion of independent councillors, but nonetheless, we are fairly cutting edge by rural parish standards.

But now, Eric Pickles has changed the game somewhat. His announcement that broadcasting of council meetings, live blogging from the public gallery, and even Twitter, are to be encouraged, nay welcomed, rather changes the balance of things.

The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 will come into force on 10 September 2012. Amongst the changes are new legal rights for citizen reporters. Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers (regulation 4). This will make it easier for new 'social media' reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.

Which means that I am able to tweet my way through Parish Council meetings from here on in, and blog about them afterwards. Giving that public attendance at our meetings is generally low, and getting lower it seems, it won't create many issues in terms of facility provision, but it does create a window of opportunity for yours truly.

Mwah ha ha ha...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tales from the Pacific Northwest... in no particular order

We've been away, as the deafening silence on the blog in early August might indicate. But we've been busy enjoying ourselves, far from the madding crowd...

And this is a picture of Tanu, the sea otter, at the Vancouver Aquarium. Tanu was part of Ros's birthday present this year, as I had arranged for a 'sea otter experience' for the pair of us, given Ros's love of sea otters.

The experience starts with a behind the scenes talk about sea otters, where they live, what they eat, what issues they encounter, and you get to find out some interesting things, such as, a sea otter has more individual hairs per square inch than a human has on their entire body, making their fur extremely soft and thick. 

That turned out to be pretty bad news for the sea otter, as fur traders rapidly discovered this, and hunted them pretty close to extinction. Fortunately, before it was too late, they became protected, and whilst they are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were, they are rebounding to a degree. They rely on that fur because, without blubber, they have no other way of keeping the cold out, and the Bering Sea and North Pacific are seldom anything other than cold.

Naturally, sea otters eat seafood, floating on their backs whilst they rip crustaceans and the like to bits, and using rocks to break open the shells of clams and other bivalves. I was surprised to find that, if a sea otter finds a really good stone, it can keep it in a sort of fur pouch in its armpit behind its front paws.

Our next experience was to visit the marine mammal kitchen, where we learned about how you keep sea otters amused with toys, varying them from day to day, and what you feed them. They may be cute, but they're expensive, eating squid, shrimp and scallops. It would be fair to say that Ros was slightly envious of the quality of their diet...

So, we knew a lot more about sea otters. But what we really wanted to do was meet one, and we were shown up to the exhibit and, whilst Tanu was the subject of the 'Sea Otter Talk' at front of house, we were being introduced to Elfin in the back for feeding time.

You aren't allowed to get too close to Elfin, for a whole bunch of really good reasons, but feeding him was tremendous fun, as he floats around looking adorable, and you get to toss him bits of squid, or shrimp. Elfin can strip the casing of a shrimp rather more effectively than I can, and watching him go to work on his food rather gave me an appetite too.

But sadly, that was the end of our 'experience'. I did buy Ros a mug with sea otters on it, a coaster with sea otters on, and a fridge magnet... with sea otters on, as a momento of our trip. 

One day, we'll go and see them in the wild...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Asil Nadir is guilty, but what is the effect on Hampshire?

Those with a long memory will remember that what made the Asil Nadir case most interesting to some was his record of donations to the Conservative Party. He was, to put it mildly, generous, giving £440,000 during the late 1980's, just before the Polly Peck campaign collapsed amidst allegations of theft and fraud.

I note that there have been calls for the Conservatives to return the funds, based on a curiously naïve declaration by Lord (then Sir Norman) Fowler that, were the funds proven to be stolen, they would be returned. Now, far be it from me to criticise, especially given the Liberal Democrats' own issues with Michael Brown, but I might reasonably assume that, given the response from Conservative Central Office, we might hear rather less self-righteous carping on the subject from the likes of the Times.

But my attention is drawn to a fragmentary memory of a news report from early July, that the former East Hampshire MP had been selected to be the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in November's election. That would be Michael Mates, whose rather unfortunate contribution to the Nadir saga was being forced to resign from John Major's government after it was discovered that he had given Nadir a watch inscribed "Don't let the buggers get you down" just before the latter fled prior to his trial in 1993.

I don't doubt that the good voters of Hampshire will be called upon to ask themselves whether or not selecting someone with such poor judgement should be given responsibility for policing matters, especially as, at the time, it was clear that there were irregularities in the financial arrangements at Polly Peck, even if criminality had not been proved. Indeed, I suspect that the Labour campaign manager is scouring the archives right now.

Or will Mates jump before he is pushed?...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Assange and Pussy Riot - am I missing something here?

The way in which some individuals or groups become heroes often seems random to me. Why this activist over that one, why that cause and not another, is a bit of a mystery. And I find myself a bit bemused about both of this week's cause celebres in particular.

Let's start with Julian Assange. I am minded to favour transparency over secrecy, and I don't want my government to break international law, so the notion of a group dedicated to uncovering covert acts is a worthy one. However, the way in which WikiLeaks operated, releasing information in such a way as to make individuals vulnerable to arrest and persecution without seemingly any concern for them, and leaking private communications expressing the true thoughts of diplomats and the like for no useful purpose other than embarrassment did not impress this civil servant. Occasionally, people have to deal with those they would rather not have to, rather unpleasant regimes for example, and diplomacy is often about being courteous to people you just can't like.

I can understand why the Americans would like to get hold of him, whether I believe that they should have a chance to try him or not. However, Assange is accused of serious sexual misconduct, offences which, had anyone else been accused of, we would be insisting be dealt with in a court of law. The Swedish authorities have sought to extradite him, he has sought to have the extradition refused using every legal weapon at his disposal, and at every stage, it has found that he should be sent to Sweden to stand trial.

And yet protests continue against his extradition. I don't see too many people speaking up for the rights of the women who claim that he abused them, or is the great Assange far too noble to ever do such a thing? Well, for someone of noble spirit, jumping bail and leaving your supporters to suffer significant financial hardship is hardly a demonstration of integrity. Clearly, their loss is of no importance compared to his freedom.

I would suggest that Julian Assange has, by his behaviour, indicated that he lacks morals sufficiently to raise legitimate doubts as to his honesty and integrity, thus making him a rather dubious poster child for freedom and transparency.

Pussy Riot are more complicated. Their behaviour in violating the sanctity of a holy place for the purpose of an anti-government protest was extremely stupid, and is worthy of contempt rather than applause. The freedom to practice one's religion without hindrance is a basic one, and the members of Pussy Riot weren't exactly respecting the freedom of those attempting to worship. The fact that they were videoed does not suggest a spontaneous act, either.

They probably deserve a slap on the wrist for stupidity and, perhaps, a public order offence. Two years in a penal colony is a quite deliberate, possibly provocative, response to their act.

Traditionally, the Soviet regime used the charge of hooliganism to take anti-Soviet elements off the streets, dissident poets and the like, discouraging opposition and potential opposition voices. In the current political atmosphere, where opposition voices are repressed by bureaucratic means, and occasionally arrest and police brutality, such a sentence as that handed down to Pussy Riot is a reminder of fears that Vladimir Putin wants to lead Russia back down the path towards a totalitarian state, a future which worries its neighbours and its potential rivals.

That said, Russia does have laws, some of which appear to have been broken. The fact that we don't like them much, and wouldn't have them here is somewhat irrelevant, compared to the question of whether or not they have been applied in a punitive manner in this case, the answer to which I do not know. If Pussy Riot have broken such laws, and their punishment is consistent with the usual range of sentences in such cases, we would be better off attempting to persuade the Russian authorities to change their laws. And if their punishment is disproportionate, then some diplomatic pressure might be appropriate.

But, fundamentally, the members of Pussy Riot have sought to provoke a reaction from the Russian authorities and have now succeeded in doing so. They didn't need to use a cathedral as the setting for their protest, but they did, thus providing the opportunity for the authorities to punish them. I'm not sure that they are that worthy a cause under those circumstances...