Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Census

Here's one of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 14 March 2011...

The question, "Who fills in a census form?" was one that was bothering Ros, especially given the importance of the information therein, and so it was time to find out, especially given the small, but rather critical, point of who gets fined if it isn't filled in...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

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

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

Lord Taylor of Holbeach (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call me old-fashioned, but are you any clearer about the point, because I'm not...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Sleep Apnoea

There are moments when Ros does suspect that I might be a sufferer from this rather under-regarded complaint, but she assures me that that wasn't why she asked...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking with regard to the diagnosis and treatment of obstructive sleep apnoea.

Earl Howe (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Quality), Health; Conservative)

The National Clinical Directors for Respiratory Disease have identified obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) as one of the priority areas for the respiratory programme in the department for this year. As a result, a clinical lead and a project manager were appointed and are currently mapping existing services and identifying priorities for action on OSA. Working groups have been established to support this work, involving a range of experts and stakeholders, including representatives from the British Lung Foundation, British Thoracic Society, British Sleep Society, Association of Respiratory Technology and Physiology, Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists, Primary Care Respiratory Society and the Sleep Apnoea Trust Association.

The national programme for physiological diagnostics continues to monitor access to investigations for OSA and other sleep-related breathing problems, and promotes best practice in service delivery.

Waiting time data are available in the public domain and was included in the NHS Atlas of Variation in Healthcare for People with Respiratory Disease.

It will also be included in the Diagnostics Atlas of Variation for England which will be published shortly. The current median waiting time for diagnostic sleep studies is 2.3 weeks.

HMRC writes to those affected by Child Benefit changes

Never let it be said that this blog doesn't cover the big issues. And hopefully this will be of use to those worrying about the proposed changes...

HMRC will start to write to around one million customers this week to explain how they will be affected by next year's changes to Child Benefit.

The changes, which have already been the subject of media scrutiny, will see the introduction of a High Income Child Benefit Charge. This will come into effect on 7 January 2013.

The new charge will apply when a taxpayer's or their partner's income is more than £50,000 in a tax year and if they or their partner receive Child Benefit.

The charge is gradually increased on earnings between £50,000 and £60,000. For those on more than £60,000 a year, the charge is 100 per cent of the Child Benefit they receive.

The letters sent to customers will contain a flowchart helping them to establish if they are affected by the changes. They will also explain that affected customers have a choice as to whether they continue to receive Child Benefit.

Those who choose to continue receiving it will have to pay the charge through Self Assessment. This also applies to affected HMRC staff who wish to continue to receive Child Benefit.

Along with the letters, HMRC has today circulated an issue briefing on the changes to politicians, the media and other external organisations.

CAPTCHA - a horribly necessary evil?

One of the things that I really hate about reading blogs is that bit when, just as you'd like to make a witty, erudite comment, you find yourself having to type something you can barely read into a box. It's called CAPTCHA, and I personally find it really annoying.

It was therefore a rather unpleasant surprise when the always entertaining Jennie Rigg noted, in passing, that the CAPTCHA on my blog was rather hard to read. This came as a surprise, as I hadn't even known that it was there. So, in a rather determined manner, I decided to remove it, discovering that I had set something called 'word verification'. This, it would appear, switches CAPTCHA on.

It felt good, I admit. At least, for about fifteen minutes, it did. And then, the wave of spam comments began to break over my inbox. Boy, are those spammers persistent! And annoying too. And yes, I can delete the e-mail notifications, and clear the comment moderation inbox from time to time, but I have rather better things to do with my time.

So, how can I solve the problem? Or do I just have to accept that CAPTCHA is a necessary evil? Or, would it work better if I changed the blog's colour scheme. You know more about this than I do, so what do you think?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another day of being the great and the good...

To Holbrook, in heavy drizzle, for a fundraising lunch at the Royal Hospital School, hosted by the High Sheriff on behalf of the East Anglian Air Ambulance and the Suffolk Foundation, we drove, not entirely certain what we'd find.

What we found was a cross-section of Suffolk society, all there for drinks, canapes and a chance to catch up with old friends. Admittedly, there aren't a lot of 'out' Liberal Democrats at these things - not 'our sort of people', I suspect - so it feels a bit like an exercise in anthropology, studying 'suffolkus gentrificus' in its natural environment. In truth, individually they're mostly rather charming, with an old-fashioned sense of courtesy, but they can be rather daunting en masse. Our table companions were charming and entertaining, and what could have been a slightly trying afternoon, surrounded by Tories, turned out to be rather pleasant.

And there were rather a lot of people there, probably three hundred or so, eating a rather nice lunch - I'm usually sceptical about the ability of most venues to deliver that many plates to even an adequate standard - but the Catering Department of the School really did us proud, and the wine flowed freely. That is, for those of us not driving (about half of us, I suppose)...

No fundraising event would be complete without a raffle, although at £20 per envelope (tickets would be almost vulgar...), it's not the sort of raffle I expect to grow accustomed to. And, at least Ros won a cord of firewood, which will come in useful with winter approaching fast.

This was followed by an auction of the sorts of things that I frankly have little personal use for - a hand-crafted sailing boat, a week's salmon fishing, a hydraulic four-wheeled trolley perfect for conveying bales of hay around your estate (must get myself one of those - an estate, that is). However, if you're the sort of person in the market for such things, and I guess that here in Suffolk there certainly are some of those, they are means of raising money for a worthy cause.

We were also entertained by a rather marvellous singer, singing arias by Handel and Puccini, which, given the rather testing acoustics of the venue (I have no idea even now what the High Sheriff actually said at the end), was quite brave, and entirely worth it.

It is astonishing sometimes just how quickly four hours can pass by, and the time had fled by, so we made our excuses and headed out into the gathering dusk, after a rather enjoyable day. It is always nice to enjoy yourself in a good cause, and I hope that the beneficiaries have made a tidy sum from the event.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ros in the Lords... I'd rather lost track of that, hadn't I?

There was a time when I would faithfully chronicle Ros's contributions in the Lords here. And then I stopped, for reasons which quite escape me. And it strikes me that, given that her job is to help run the country, it is entirely right that I should use this space to celebrate her contributions. So, I'll try and get back into the habit of it, especially given that since she finished her term as Party President, she's been rather busier in the chamber.

I've got about eighteen months to catch up on, so I'd better get started...

Google Affiliate Ads - is this a good thing?

I note that, having written my most recent blog posting, I am being invited to use Google Affiliate Ads in the course of my blogging. And, as I do have advertising on this blog, the potential for earning money which might, in some really small way, be used for fun (or Liberal Democrat stuff, which may or may not be the same thing), is one that I have a duty to explore.

So, how does this work? As I understand it, I write a blog entry, like this one. When I've finished, I look to the right hand side of the screen, where there is a gadget marked "Advertise products". I am then presented with a set of icons, from which I choose one. As I type this, I'm being offered;
  • pencils
  • printer
  • camera
  • bike
  • shoes
  • blender
I presume that I should pick one that is vaguely appropriate to the posting or, perhaps, something that is likely to appeal to Liberal Democrats, or my readers, or both.  A blender, perhaps, as a number of my friends like to cook. Or, perhaps I should pick something that reflects me. That would be pencils, I guess (hmmmm... stationery...).

Let's stick with the blender. I press 'search' and a list of products appears. I can then add a link, an image, or a full ad. The KitchenAid 5-Speed Hand Blender in onyx black sounds vaguely appealing, so let's pick 'full ad'.

And an ad appears in the post. It's a bit inconvenient, as it appears where I stopped typing, so let's think that through and try again... That's better.

So, let's see how it works, and what you, dear reader, make of it...

You can call me Inspector Bureaucrat...

It's been an interesting few months on Planet HMRC, especially for yours truly. After many years of service, mostly marked by an almost complete lack of personal ambition, I had begun to accept that I would spend forty-five years at the same grade I had entered at, and that this would be fine.

After all, the salary isn't bad, all things considered, I still enjoy what I do, and I'm still motivated by the vaguely altruistic sense that, by doing my job well, I put something back into society. And, in an environment where Civil Service numbers are in decline, opportunities were likely to be few and far between anyway.

That was true until the dawning of the Coalition, and young Danny Alexander's enhanced funding of HMRC compliance work. Suddenly, we needed more compliance staff, and this, combined with the Department's slightly troubling age profile, meant that we'd actually need to recruit, and promote, to fill the gaps. After years of career stagnation, especially for those younger and more ambitious than I, this was going to be an opportunity not to be missed.

Eventually, it was announced that an internal scheme for promotion to Higher Executive Officer level would take place in late Summer and, having discussed the matter with Ros, I returned from our summer holiday determined to compete. I honed my competence examples so as to squeeze in the maximum amount of scoring content within the permitted word limits, discussed them with my manager, and pressed 'send' on my application on the very last day. That left the online test...

I'd only ever done one recruitment test over the years, when I sat my direct entrant examination in 1987. Yes, I was good then, but things have changed - psychometric testing is in vogue - and you just don't know. And, given that your online test score would decide whether or not your application would even be read, there was a bit of pressure to get it right.

As it turned out, the test was a mixture of logic exercises and judgement exercises. Luckily, I've been keen on logic problems for years, so they weren't too bad. The judgement exercises, on the other hand, were something of a blow. As a liberal, I tend not to extremes of view on the best solution in a situation where people are involved, and found myself wanting more information than was on offer. But, with only thirty minutes on the clock, there was no time for agonising, so I gave it my best shot.

The waiting began... Firstly, what was my test score? As it turned out, not bad, as I achieved a score in the 95th percentile, giving me, on the face of it, a pretty good chance of getting to the next stage. However, as the next stage depended on the range of scores in your chosen locations, it guaranteed very little.

Two weeks later, I received an e-mail at 8.30 on a Friday evening, telling me that my score was good enough to ensure that my application would be considered, and that they would be considering three times as many candidates as there were vacancies. With four hundred vacancies, that left a very high potential casualty rate to survive.

Time passed, September turned to October, and I was beginning to get twitchy. Given that the application would be reviewed by two random strangers, who might not understand what I had written, I feared the worst. But, eventually, came the word, that I had met the minimum score requirement to be eligible for a job offer. The catch? Without knowing how many people had made the cut, there was no guarantee that I would get a job offer, and might end up on a reserve list with no guarantee of success at the end of it.

However, I would know within a week, I was assured. The week passed with no news until, on the Thursday, it was announced that more time was required, and that the results would be delayed for another week. I wasn't handling this well, although having set fairly low expectations, i.e. that I would fail at every stage, hope was beginning to stir by this time.

Last week passed by with agonising slowness, and increasing twitchiness on my part until, yesterday, my manager wandered over with a grin and asked, "Haven't you read your e-mail?". I hadn't. So I did.

And so, it is with much surprise, and an unexpected degree of pleasure, that I can now say that, at some point in late November or early December, I will officially be promoted to my new grade, based in Ipswich. I don't know what the job will be yet, as they haven't told me, and won't be doing so for another three weeks. And, there will be challenges, with potential professional training to be taken and passed, and a whole new set of skills to learn.

But don't worry, I'll still be the faintly bemused bureaucrat that the world knows, and is relatively comfortable with...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An evening of Common Sense in Thetford

If I were to be entirely honest, the prospect of spending a Friday evening in Thetford wouldn't be an obviously attractive prospect. On a cold, dark, drizzly evening in October, being at home with a glass of wine and a cosy fire offers a much more tempting alternative. However, an invitation to take part in a debate, organised by the Common Sense Club, was sufficient to lure Ros and I out and across the county border.

The Club was inspired by Thomas Paine, who was educated at our venue, Thetford Grammar School, and they organise events with themes linked to his works. Last night's event was a panel debate with the theme, "These are the times that test men's souls".

It's about 45 minutes to Thetford, and stopping only for an excellent dinner at The Dog at Norton, Ros drove through the rain and murk to our destination, before meeting up with the rest of the panel - Liz Truss, the local Conservative MP, Peter Smith, Labour's Parliamentary spokesman, and Sandra Walmsley, from the local Greens.

It was a fairly good debate, with some lively questioning, and was over almost too soon. So, what were my impressions?

Liz Truss, that well-known former anti-monarchist and Liberal Democrat, turned up just before the debate started, and left immediately after it ended - an odd approach to take in your own constituency, I would suggest. And for someone tipped to achieve great success, I can only note that the stocks of talent on the Conservative benches are worryingly slight. Let's just say that I wasn't impressed...

Peter Smith is old school Labour, and I rather liked him. He believes in things, but is perhaps reflective of the truth that, when you won't win - and he won't in South West Norfolk - you have the luxury of being yourself. I can't imagine that the Labour hierarchy would encourage him to fight a winnable seat, which is a pity, because he stands for some old-fashioned and decent principles. It's a pity that modern politics doesn't seem to value them much.

Sandra Walmsley did what a minor party politician can do so easily - be populist and generous - although I fundamentally disagree with her view that poverty is less important that inequality. I would happily take her to places where poverty denies people the ability to seek other rights. Nonetheless, she performed well given the rather greater experience of her fellow panellists.

I won't comment on Ros's performance, although she did get in the best appreciated joke of the evening.

Afterwards, Ros spoke to members of the audience who had approached her, including a young woman with, I presume, her father, who wanted to know how she could get involved in politics. Between us, we came up with plenty of ideas, and it would be nice if she found something that interested her as a result.

But soon it was time to go, and as we drove across 'bow and arrow' country, we reflected that it had a rather pleasant evening...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

HMRC publishes 2010-11 tax gap figures

Far be it for me to challenge some of the wilder assertions about tax evasion, but I do feel that I ought to bring this to your attention...

Figures released by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) today estimate the tax gap for 2010/11 at £32 billion, or 6.7 per cent of tax due, compared to 7.1 per cent in 2009/10.

The tax gap is compiled from 30 separate estimates for different taxes. It is also broken down into the reasons that tax hasn't been collected. These include tax evasion and avoidance, as well as customer error, the hidden economy, criminal attacks and where tax cannot be collected because businesses have become insolvent.

HMRC's tax gap estimates go back as far as 2004/5. These are regularly revised to take account of improved methods and the latest available information, some of which has long lags as it takes time to settle tax enquiries. The figures published today include revisions going back to 2004/5, including downward revisions by the Office for National Statistics that affect the VAT gap. They show that the tax gap as a percentage of liabilities has declined from 8.2 per cent in 2004/5 to 6.7 per cent in 2010/11.

Exchequer Secretary David Gauke MP said:
These tax gap figures show that the vast majority of people and businesses pay the tax they owe on time. Last year £468.9 billion was collected, including £13.9 billion brought in through HMRC's work policing the rules.
Every pound of tax that is not collected puts a greater burden on honest taxpayers and public services, so the Government and HMRC will continue to work together to make it harder for individuals and businesses not to pay the taxes that are due.
We are determined to reduce the tax gap and have made £917 million available to help HMRC tackle avoidance and evasion."

Lin Homer, HMRC's Chief Executive, said:
Our determination to support the honest majority and to crack down on evasion, avoidance and fraud have kept downward pressure on the tax gap. We are determined to do more and we are devoting increasing resources to pursuing those who do not pay the tax they owe, while making it easier for people and business to comply with their tax obligations.

Vote Mark Valladares for ELDR Council Delegation (part 2)

On Saturday, I wrote about what I had done so far in my first term of office. Today, I want to look forward....

What do I hope to achieve if elected to a second term in office?

In truth, more of the same really. More reporting back, more reaching out to SAOs and AOs, more encouraging participation, especially from under-represented groups.

I also want to contribute more to delegation leadership, if that is possible/helpful. Whilst not a linguist, I do understand process, which has its uses.

So, you now know what I'm offering. It isn't glamorous, it's competent. But then, ELDR Council isn't glamorous either...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

East of England Euro Selection: it gives me great pleasure...

... to announce that the list of candidates to be put before members across the Region for consideration is as follows;
  • Hugh Annand
  • Aladdin Ayesh
  • Belinda Brooks-Gordon
  • Andrew Duff
  • Samuel Fisk
  • Michael Green
  • Josephine Hayes
  • Linda Jack
  • Martin Land
  • Ian Mack
  • Stephen Robinson
  • Peter Welch

It's a pretty diverse list, I would suggest, offering a real choice to members.

To find out more about them, if you're a Party member, why not come to the members' meeting, which takes place on Saturday, at Cambridge Regional College, starting at 4.15 p.m. (more details on the Regional Party's website)?

We'll not be following the usual format, instead there will be three minutes speeches, followed by question and answer sessions on a smaller, more personal scale, rather than the usual formal manner, and I hope that this will make it more useful to members.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

@DisgruntledRad has been to town! Ring the bells, light the beacons!

It's been another excellent day here in Creeting St Peter, as we have had a visit from a 'proper liberal', as I like to think of him, David Grace.

I've already said some nice things about him, so I won't belabour the point, but we've had an excellent roast for lunch, with a fruit crumble for dessert, and stories have been told. It's been fun.

He's running for a place on the Federal Conference Committee, and I'll be giving him a prominent place on my list of preferences which, I guess, makes this an endorsement.

Creeting St Peter: arriba, arriba!

Yesterday was another of those days that remind you, if reminder were needed, of the precious nature of community.

I have written before of the Parochial Church Council's efforts to create a social scene for the village whilst raising funds to preserve the parish church. Last night, it was Tex Mex Night, with home made Mexican food prepared by various villagers, and Ros and I weren't going to miss it.

As usual, the Church Room was full, with every seat taken, and a buzz of conversation around the tables. Accompanied with real ale - 'Scorpio' from the Rougham Brewery - wine or spirits to taste, served up by Russell, our friendly bartender, it was an excellent opportunity to chat with some people we didn't know that well, and to listen to them talk about things that bother them - a Parish Councillor is never entirely off duty, I guess - such as encroachment from Stowmarket as it grows.

All in all, another really pleasant evening, and I've taken the opportunity to buy tickets for the next event, a harp concert at St Peter's in two weeks time.

It's a never ending social whirl, here in Creeting St Peter...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Published elsewhere: Next week in the Lords - 15-18 October

It looks as though this column may be going down in flames, now that the Lords have appointed a new Media and PR Officer, but until we do...

Days 7 and 8 of the Committee Stage of the Financial Services Bill dominate the week. And, as I still don't understand it, I'm going to see if I can get an explanation. Watch, hopefully, this space... However, Amendment 197, to be moved by Lord Flight, requires banks to transfer accounts to a new institution, if requested, within ten working days and without charge. I suspect that the banks won't like this, but as it is suggested that people are more likely to divorce than to change bank, creating a more meaningful market in retail banking can only be encouraged. Interesting that the idea should come from a Conservative though...

Day 2 of the Report Stage of the Local Government Finance Bill takes place on Tuesday. I'm led to understand that there are rumblings about the impact of this legislation on the voluntary sector and on social enterprises, so we'll see if they can sort this out, as promised by Baroness Hanham before the summer recess.

There are two other pieces of legislation to be debated in the Chamber. On Monday, we have the Report Stage of the Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill, a piece of legislation so fiendishly complex that it required a Special Public Bill Committee to steer it through its First and Second Readings. On Friday, we have one of the backlog of Private Members' Bills, the Inheritance (Cohabitants) Bill, sponsored by Anthony Lester from the Liberal Democrat benches, which seeks to give new rights for cohabitants when their partner dies.

On the Committee corridor, EU Sub-Committee B takes evidence from Jo Swinson as part of its inquiry into 'Women on boards', a subject taken up by Kishwer Falkner on Wednesday in her oral question on European Commission policies on women on corporate boards. On Wednesday, Danny Alexander is questioned by the Economic Affairs Committee as they continue to examine the potential impact of Scottish independence on the UK economy.

Apart from Kishwer Falkner's question on Wednesday, there are oral questions on Monday from Derek Ezra (ninety-three years young) on UK self-sufficiency in energy, on Tuesday from Claire Tyler on the recommendations of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel on building character and personal resilience, and on Thursday from Sally Hamwee on Anti-Slavery Day and awareness that individuals may be the subject of modern slavery. There will also be debates on developments in the bus industry, sponsored by Bill Bradshaw, and, in Grand Committee on the report of the European Union Committee on The EU: Sudan and South Sudan Follow-up Report, to be opened by Robin Teverson.

Finally, Thursday sees a debate to mark the centenary of the Scott expedition to Antarctica. I know that Ros and I covered a lot of miles during her tenure as Party President, but I really didn't think that we'd got that far...

Vote Mark Valladares for ELDR Council Delegation (part 1)

The problem with a set of elections where you only have one side of A5 to make your case is that one side of A5 isn't very much. It allows you to convey a fairly simple message, and doesn't leave much scope for context or detail. So, as the Election Rules allow me to use this blog as a platform, here are some more thoughts...

What do I think that I have achieved in my first term in office?

I have attended three meetings so far, and reported back, both on this blog and on Liberal Democrat Voice, on the events at each meeting, providing an insight into what happens and why, as well as some of the context. It is important that not only should I represent the Party to its best advantage, but that I should be accountable to those who elected me.

I have tried to make ELDR more inclusive. For example, when the Bureau decided to accept an invitation from the Armenian National Movement to meet in Yerevan, I realised that the existing travel reimbursement scheme would leave many delegates significantly out of pocket, thus making the event for the relatively well-heeled only. By asking the Bureau to look into this, I achieved a relaxation of the scheme and a good turnout of delegates resulted.

On the issue of inclusivity, I have also sought to encourage people to attend ELDR Congresses, where policy is made on a European scale. This year, I also forwarded one of the proposed resolutions to LGBT+ Lib Dems for their thoughts, as I recognised that they might have a valuable contribution to make on the subject to be debated.

Finally, I have been nominated to serve on ELDR's Financial Advisory Committee, where I have encouraged the Secretariat to look at ways in which the burden of the membership fee, particularly for smaller parties and those without state funding, can be eased. If we want ELDR to be a pan-European political party, then we must reach out to liberal parties across the continent, and make it possible for them to play their part and voice their concerns.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Back to school, away in the flatlands...

I've had a day off from my job of raising money to reduce the Government's budget deficit and, rather than spend it playing Civilisation, or walking the Parish footpaths, or lazing in front of the television watching repeats of Top Gear, I've spent it with Ros, on a House of Lords school outreach visit.

It is, it seems, a little known fact that the House of Lords has an outreach programme, and the schools that tend to apply for a visit from a Peer tend to be relatively well-heeled, often in the independent sector. And yes, that probably means that their students are advantaged, aspirational and likely to succeed in life. The idea that, one day, one of them might be in the House of Lords is not entirely implausible.

Today's visit, however, was to St Clement's High School in Terrington St Clement, a village just west of Kings Lynn, in an area with genuine pockets of deprivation, where levels of adult illiteracy are above the national norm, and where opportunities are less than abundant. Despite this, the staff are ambitious for their pupils, and the headmaster, Dr Vicky Worsnop, is keen to find ways to raise performance across the board.

It's a sixty mile drive from Creeting St Peter to Terrington St Clement, and the weather wasn't very promising, but we covered the miles pretty easily, and pulled up at the school just before our scheduled arrival time. We were welcomed by Dr Worsnop, before being introduced to Abigail Cooke, who teaches Citizenship, and was to lead the session with pupils from Years 10 and 11.

And a lively session it turned out to be, with a series of questions prepared in advance to follow the Powerpoint presentation that the House of Lords outreach team has developed as a framework for an introduction to the work of the second chamber. They were good questions too, with the Coalition, immigration and welfare reform amongst the topics raised.

Afterwards, over lunch with our hosts, issues regarding funding of rural schools, student aspiration and transport were raised and considered, including the change in measuring school performance from a contextual value added base to a rather simpler value added base. Now I have to admit that I struggle to see the logic of that, as I was always encouraged to consider context as key to finding workable, effective solutions to problems - in this case, how to provide a good education in rural communities - and this change appears to work against that. I may need to give that some thought...

It was a good day out though and, once again, I came away from it feeling that I had learned a few new things.

* To arrange a visit from a House of Lords member to your school or sixth form college, contact the Lord Speaker's office on 020 7219 6444 or email lordspeaker@parliament.uk

Thursday, October 11, 2012

If your local Church seems a bit quieter, this might explain why...

Ros and I were talking to our local Church of England priest, the Reverend Barbara Gallagher (we're very up to date here in Creeting St Peter), after the Harvest Festival service over tea and chocolate cake, when she noted that there was a possibility that our benefice (St Mary the Virgin, Earl Stonham, St Mary's, Creeting St Mary and us) might need to be extended to include some, or all, of the churches at Coddenham, Stonham Aspal, and Gosbeck.

Now, whilst that would mean that available priests would be better distributed amongst the churches, that may mean that each church sees less services which, in turn, means that continuity may be lost, and attendance dwindles.

In villages like mine, the church remains at the centre of the community even if not in the way it once was. Once upon a time, most villagers would have attended services but no longer. If thirty people turn up on a Sunday morning, that would be pretty good. However, necessity has led the Parochial Church Council to organise a series of events that combine fundraising for the church with an opportunity to socialise with our neighbours.

Even so, keeping the fabric of the church itself in even half-decent condition is a never-ending battle, especially as parts of it date back to the eleventh century, and given that the parish only contains 260 souls, some of whom wouldn't consider themselves to be Church of England, the burden falls on a relatively small number of parishioners.

Naturally, that also means that maintaining the clergy becomes difficult, and with the Church of England reliant on investment income, collections and parish fundraising, all of which are down, I suspect, all the trends are gloomy ones.

That's a pity, because when churches close, a little piece of a village dies. And when you're as fond of your village as I am, that's a cause of no little regret... 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Isn't it nice that the Conservatives are reading our press releases?

For some time, Liberal Democrats have been arguing that, by being in coalition with the Conservatives, we've acted as a restraint against some of their more unpleasant tendencies. That isn't an argument that has convinced everyone, of course, with the less open to reason Labour supporters sticking to their own version of reality.

However, the Conservatives do seem utterly determined to demonstrate that we might have a point. On abortion, on welfare reform, on Europe and on taxation, the rather more unacceptable face of their party has been on show this week. And they really don't like us, do they?

Sadly, that tells you all that you need to know about modern day Conservatives. It is, they suggest, our fault for preventing them from being more aggressively right-wing. No, my friends, it's your fault for not getting a majority, it's your fault that people remember what you did to the country in the 1980's, and it's your fault for pandering to some of the worst prejudices of the British public. It's your fault for talking about freedom whilst wanting to restrict people's rights, and it's your fault for putting your friends first.

Being in government with the Conservatives is a bit like swimming in a piranha-infested river, you're alright until you start to look vulnerable. And whilst, at times, Nick has looked a bit vulnerable, he does appear to be learning.

And, in exchange for things like Police and Crime Commissioners (a pointless exercise in faux-democracy), we get things like the pupil premium which, despite Labour's cynicism, will provide better funding for disadvantaged children, increased personal allowances, and a block on renewing Trident, amongst others.

I do find myself wondering what the Conservatives have achieved though. Cutting welfare benefits? Even Labour admit that this has to be done. Reorganising the NHS? Again? Blocking Lords Reform and voting reform? Hardly a positive. You begin to see why the natives are restless in Birmingham.

So, as long as we have plans to make more lasting changes that improve the way our people live - social care, equal marriage, infrastructure investment, banking reform - we'll swim along, dodging the snapping teeth, with the confidence that Labour aren't offering a meaningful alternative yet, and don't seem likely to for a while either.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

I am a duly nominated candidate for a place on the ELDR Council Delegation... and I am not alone, it seems

Courtesy of David Allworthy, who published the list of candidates at 6.39 a.m. (get some sleep, David...), I can stop worrying about whether or not my nomination papers arrived or not.

So, what's my opposition like?

Well, six are incumbents - Ruth Coleman-Taylor, Jonathan Fryer, Jo Hayes, Gordon Lishman, Peter Price and myself. Seven - Aladdin Ayesh, Ian Bearder, Bob Blezzard, George Dunk, Edward Keating, Brian Mathew and David Simmons - ran last time. The rest - Jeremy Bell, Nasser Butt, Neville Farmer, Paul Hienkens, Antony Hook, Doreen Huddart, Allis Moss, Turhan Ozen, Iain Smith, Winnie Smith and Allan Siao Ming Witherick throw their hats into a surprisingly open contest.

Surprisingly open, because last time, one candidate, my lovely wife, Ros, scooped up nearly 30% of the first preferences, the best tally ever in the history of ELDR Council delegations, and she's not running this time. Also, Phil Bennion has become an MEP since the last election, and is not running (by the way, get well soon, Phil, as I understand that you're a bit poorly).

Last time, the quota was 176.12 and, with the distortion caused by Ros hoovering up as many first preferences as she did, 48 first preferences were enough to get Peter Price elected. Admittedly, 67 first preferences weren't enough to get John Ault elected, but that's the joy (and pain) of STV, I suppose. David Grace (Disgruntled Liberal) was also overtaken, and missed out - pity really, as he's a genuine Europhile, not utterly in thrall to everything that comes from Europe, but a believer in a liberal Europe, and excellent company too.

I got 90 first preferences, and with an astonishing number of transfers from Ros, was fourth to be elected last time, so, if I can earn some of those votes this time, I've got a chance, although it's bound to be rather tighter this time. Running on my record might be a gamble too.

So, the campaign starts here. Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye...

It's a long way to Cincinnati... Go on, you @Reds

I have a long record of supporting teams that aren't, how should I put it, much good. My beloved Sussex County Cricket Club, where I would occasionally prop up the bar in the short period during which I was a member, went 164 years without winning the County Championship, before winning three in fairly short order. Sometimes, they were desperately bad, or equally desperately unlucky, but they were plucky underdogs, and were the county where my mother's family still reside.

At football, I became a Luton Town fan after a brief flirtation with QPR in the mid-seventies. And whilst they did win the League Cup (at Wembley, against Arsenal!), they are still to be found in the Blue Square Premiership.

In the early eighties, I discovered American Football, and became a follower of the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Boy, were they bad, the team with the worst record in the National Football League in the eighties. They did, eventually, get rather better, winning a Super Bowl, but it would be fair to say that disappointment comes with the territory.

But I digress. Baseball fans amongst you will be aware that the post season is with us, and the Cincinnati Reds, a team I have followed through thin and thinner, having won their division pretty emphatically, are in with a serious shot of glory. Two up, with three home games to play in the best of five series with the San Francisco Giants, a place in the National League Championship Series beckons.

Somewhat ominously though, the last twenty-one National League teams to be in this position have all gone through to the next round. Somebody has to fail eventually though. Fingers crossed that it's someone else...

A season of mists and mellow fruitfulness... and chocolate cake

I live in the country, a fact which is probably familiar to regular readers. One of the things that this means is that I take a rather greater interest in my community - it's small enough to do so, and most of us know each other.

So, when Ros mentioned that the Harvest Festival service was coming up, I was stirred with enthusiasm. So much so, indeed, that I indicated a willingness to get up early on a Sunday morning in order to attend the 9.30 a.m. service at St Peter's, our parish church. Well, earlyish, at least. Actually, I rather like Harvest Festivals - a bit of "we plough the fields", a touch of thankfulness for our farmers and the food that they produce, and some fruit and vegetables - and even though, as a Catholic, I prefer to keep a modestly low profile, it is part of village life.

But, as with so much of life, times change, and this year, the food that was brought was intended for the recently opened Food Bank in Stowmarket. I was somewhat surprised to find that there wasn't one already, as there isn't an awful lot of money in the town, but it will doubtless be busy enough.

It was a nice service though, with a part for the children in the story that was told, and an enthusiastic, if not always entirely accurate, organist to play the hymns for us (I'm amazed that the organ works, in truth), and afterwards there was tea and chocolate cake. All very nice.

This year, I really ought to try and make the Remembrance Sunday service...

Monday, October 08, 2012

The day Sir Bob Russell came to dinner

We're not the world's most successful Liberal Democrat Association, evidenced perhaps by our lack of an MP, or our failure to dominate Mid Suffolk District Council. But we do have a really good events organiser, Sheila Norris, and she got as close to centre stage as she is ever likely to want to be on Saturday, as her organisation of our Annual Dinner reached its apogee with the event itself, held at Nowton Court, just outside Bury St Edmunds.

Our guest speaker was the 'Voice of Colchester' himself, Bob Russell, who had come up to do his fourth event of the day - no slacking for him, unlikely some other MPs from other parties some might name - and, as Ros and I were in attendance, we got to sit with him.

It was a very good meal, and I started with the mushroom soup, followed by salmon and finished off with apple and blackberry crumble with 'proper custard' which was, as promised, proper. Meanwhile, Bob was in raconteur mode, made all the better by discovering that one of our key activists, David Payne, had worked with him on the London Evening News more than forty years ago. There were a few old stories retold, let me tell you.

Bob was introduced by Ros, and unlike most guest speaker introductions, this one had the advantage of being between long time friends and colleagues, which made it all the warmer.

The speech was a typical Bob Russell effort, full of character, sharp barbs at Labour for their failures, and at the Conservative right-wingers, with a series of slightly unlikely, quirky stories from his time as an MP and before. He told, for example, of his effort to fill his councillor nomination papers with famous names - yes, Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali did sign his papers one year.

He then took questions from the room. We're not terribly keen on working with the Conservatives here in mid-Suffolk - necessary evil and all that - and the comments reflected that somewhat.

All in all, a very nice evening, topped off by a raffle prize for me. Many thanks must go to Sheila for organising another wonderful evening, and I look forward to the next one...

A night out with Suffolk's Games Makers

Last night saw the third and final event to commemorate the various players in London 2012, held at Endeavour House, headquarters of Suffolk County Council. The Olympians and Paralympians had had their achievements celebrated, and now it was the turn of the volunteers, those unsung heroes whose spirit and enthusiasm did so much to make the Games such a hugely enjoyable event.

Almost 100 Games Makers, most of them in their uniforms, had gathered from around the county to meet and exchange stories, as part of a legacy project to build on their experiences as volunteers, attempting to enhance volunteering across Suffolk.

Ros spoke in her capacity as Chair of the England Volunteering Development Council, but also as a Suffolk resident, and I tagged along as the event was around the corner from my office.

But volunteering is one thing, using volunteers effectively is another, and Ros is incredibly supportive of the network of Volunteer Centres across the county and beyond. Volunteer Centres act as a sort of clearing house for potential volunteers, matching up available skills with the needs of often small, community-based organisations, and often leverage significant benefits for their area.

And it is ironic that, when all three major parties are looking to the voluntary sector to take on roles previously fulfilled by government, funding to volunteer centres is one of the early casualties. "Typical, unjoined-up government!", thought the bureaucrat...

Friday, October 05, 2012

Published elsewhere: is the golden age of government largesse over?

Here's another piece that I've written for Liberal Democrat Voice...

It is true that things were always better at sometime in the past. Or at least, it feels like that, especially as you get older. But perhaps it is. In the period since World War II, government, at national, state and local level, has provided more and more in the way of support to indivdiuals, organisations and communities, mostly for reasons widely supported to be of public good, sometimes for more cynical reasons, occasionally because it can. In a growing economy, such interventions are sustainable.

However, Robert Black, the former Auditor General for Scotland, in a lecture at the David Hume Institute last night, questioned whether or not the current range of free public services can remain so. And, whilst his examples were taken from Scottish government programmes, the point he makes is one that the rest of us need to consider very carefully. Responding to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's suggestion that their support for free university tuition, a freeze on council tax and free NHS prescriptions could be in doubt, Black said;
The move being made by the Labour Party in Scotland to at least start asking questions is a good thing. We need to do more of that but we need to do it as a society. I mean can we really afford all the services that are free at the point of delivery?
Of course, politicians agree with that. Well, mostly in private, but they do. The question is, how do you create a safe space in which politicians engage with the wider society to argue over what, and how?

To take two of his examples, the cost of the concessionary travel scheme in Scotland in expected to reach £500 million in the next decade. Is sacrificing that to maintain free, or subsidised nursing care for the elderly a reasonable exchange? Did increasing police numbers in Scotland from 6,900 in 1949 to 17,000, despite the use of technology, make people safer, or even feel safer? What has changed to justify the increase?

In his lecture, Robert Black went on to argue that, instead of focussing on passing more and more legislation, government should spend more time on budget scrutiny. The notion that Parliament might focus on how things work and what they cost, and how one might make existing structures work better, rather than replacing them with new ones, is not very 'sexy', nor does it leave an obvious legacy for the Minister, but it does have the potential advantage of stability and of organic, evolutionary change in the way public services are run.

As Liberal Democrats, we need to be part of that debate too, and whilst it is tempting to take the same stance that Labour have taken in opposition at Westminster - not this cut, not in that way, not now - if we are to protect the vulnerable, create opportunity and encourage freedom, we need to think about our priorities for a decent, inclusive society are and how we pay for them over the long term, and then start making that case in public. 

* Mark Valladares worries about balancing the books at his Parish Council in Creeting St Peter, Suffolk. He has a nasty feeling about anything much beyond that.

Published elsewhere: Next week in the Lords - 8-11 October

It dawns on me that my work for Liberal Democrat Voice really should be published here too - after it is published there, of course (I know the rules). After all, some of the people who read this, including my family, don't go there.

Yes, the moment you've all been waiting for, the House of Lords is back! And whilst I get to spend less time with my wife, legislation awaits. Will the death of Lords Reform change anything on the red benches? Just what are they going to discuss without it?

There are three Bills carried forward from before the summer recess;

As a gentle loosener after a summer of grouse shooting, light naps and memoir writing, Monday sees Day 6 of the Committee Stage of the Financial Services Bill, perhaps now to be known as the Lord Sassoon farewell tour (he's standing down as a Minister once the Bill is passed). It is, for the most part, extremely technical (that's in the sense that, frankly, I have no clue what they're on about). For the most part, it will be about Lord Flight, the somewhat controversial former Tory MP for Arundel and South Downs and before that an investment advisor and director of banks, attempting to amend the regulatory framework from that intended. From the Liberal Democrat benches, Susan Kramer will be trying to nudge the Minister gently towards greater transparency, whilst Andrew Phillips will be pitching for the individual investor, based on his experiences as Jimmy Young's "Legal Eagle".

On Tuesday, the Defamation Bill gets its Second Reading. The aim of the Bill is to reform the law of defamation to ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. The Bill makes a number of substantive changes to the law of defamation, but is not designed to codify the law into a single statute. Key areas include a requirement for claimants to show that they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation, the removal of the current presumption in favour of a jury trial, the introduction of a defence of "responsible publication on matters of public interest", increased protection to operators of websites that host user-generated content, providing they comply with the procedure to enable the complainant to resolve disputes directly with the author of the material concerned, and new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion to replace the common law defences of justification and fair comment.

Finally, Wednesday is Local Government Finance day. Can't wait, can you? I know I can't... And yet, the Committee Stage ran to six days, and the Lords is full of ex- and in some cases, current local councillors. The Report Stage promises to be lively, especially given some of the savage cuts to be made in terms of grant settlement over the coming years.

It's a good week for Liberal Democrat interventions too, with short debates on provision of mental health services on Monday, initiated by John Alderdice, and a longer debate on the case for considering an alternative constitutional settlement in the event of the break-up of the UK on Thursday, called for by Robert Maclennan. Perhaps linked to the latter, the Economic Affairs Select Committee is taking evidence on the economic implications for the United Kingdom of Scottish independence on Tuesday. In addition, Dick Taverne has an oral question on Wednesday about evidence-based treatment in the National Health Service - a gentle dig at Jeremy Hunt's enthusiasm for homeopathy, perhaps?

Finally, in Grand Committee on Tuesday, Margaret Sharp has a debate on the contribution of further education colleges to their local economies and communities, whilst Qurban Hussain kicks off a debate about the human rights situation in Bangladesh.