Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why Monty Panesar should be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats

I am led to understand that there currently isn't a vacancy for leader of our great Party. However, one should never presume that such a situation will continue forever, so I have been giving some thought as to who should replace Nick Clegg if he were to be pushed under a number 11 bus - unlikely in Creeting St Peter, I admit.

And, after some consideration, I have concluded that, assuming that he is given an entirely appropriate peerage for services to his country, Monty Panesar is the man. Yes, it would require Party rules to be changed to allow a Peer to be Party Leader, but it seems entirely reasonable.

So, why Monty?

Firstly, you need patience and persistence to be a successful Party leader, especially if it's the third-placed party. And what better than a slow left armer who is always game to bowl long spells for his team?

You also need enthusiasm, and anyone who has ever watched Monty play will testify to his visible pleasure in what he does. In Auckland, when he helped to save a test match that could easily have been lost, he was still backing up during the last three nerve-wracking deliveries, still willing to face the opposition if needed.

If there's one thing that voters claim to dislike, it is the professional politician, slick, packaged. You could never say that about Monty. He isn't the world's greatest batsman, he's not a brilliant fielder either, but he has worked hard to improve, and spectators appreciate that. And, of course, he wears a patka - you couldn't see David Cameron doing that. Best of all, if you're a proper liberal, he's got a beard.

A good nickname is a plus, and Monty has a number of them, all of which are affectionate. I think of him as 'The Montster', come to snatch an unexpected victory batting at number 11 (perhaps he can be promoted to number 10!). But the 'Sikh of Tweak' is good too.

Finally, you want a leader who is popular and likeable. And who could dislike Monty? Even when he dived early for the crease in Auckland and ended up crawling over the line, most England supporters cheered once they had opened their eyes again. When he fields well, or plays a forward defensive, people cheer and applaud. How many politicians could claim that?

So, I'll be signing nominations papers for Baron Panesar of Luton when the opportunity comes. Will you?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Published elsewhere: Nick speaks on immigration. and proves that my fears were justified...

A shortened version of this article was published on Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday...

Last June, in one of the Coalition's less glorious moments, the idea of insisting that those wishing to bring a foreign spouse into the country should have a minimum level of income was mooted. Naturally, I wasn't impressed.

It was bad enough that the Government adopted it, but it was the Labour response that was even more dubious? Here's what Yvette Cooper said at the time;
It is not clear that the best way to protect the taxpayer is to focus solely on the sponsor’s salary. For example, in the current economic climate, someone on £40,000 today could lose their job next month, and then, of course, there is no way to protect the taxpayer. The system does not take account of the foreign partner’s income, which might have a differential impact on women. Will the Home Secretary explain why the Government ruled out consulting on a bond that could have been used to protect the taxpayer if someone needed public funds later on?
So, when Nick Clegg talks about the idea of introducing a security bond for visitors from certain countries, it isn't original and it isn't clever. In fact, the security bond for foreign spouses option is already used in Denmark.

But the justification was that it would act as a disincentive against false marriages. The Government, having consulted the Migration Advisory Committee, chose to go down the route of minimum income levels for the British spouse instead.

And, one can see the logic. If you're going to set the bond at a particular level, how do you choose it? Too high, and you punish those whose intentions are entirely honourable, too low, and you set the rate for those whose intentions are less so. Nick does at least see that;
The basic premise is simple: in certain cases, when a visa applicant is coming from a high risk country, in addition to satisfying the normal criteria, UKBA would be able to request a deposit – a kind of cash guarantee. Once the visitor leaves Britain, the bond will be repaid. Clearly, we need to look into the detail and seek a wide range of views, including from the Home Affairs Select Committee. 

The bonds would need to be well-targeted – so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups. The amounts would need to be proportionate – we mustn’t penalise legitimate visa applicants who will struggle to get hold of the money. Visiting Britain to celebrate a family birth, or a relative’s graduation, or wedding should not become entirely dependant on your ability to pay the security bond. 
However, his naivety is astonishing. If you target the bonds, they by definition discriminate against particular groups. Is he really telling me that the bonds will apply to the United States but not India, Japan but not Botswana? Does he not understand that we already make it difficult for citizens of many countries to get a visa, insisting on payment without guarantee of success, dealing with applications remotely so that decisions are not made locally? For example, if you are Jamaican and applying for a visa, your application is not processed in Kingston, but overseas. You are not interviewed, merely scored against criteria decided upon by the Home Office. Hardly a sensitive, accurate process.

It might not be the case that Nick means to give the impression of racism, but if you are an ethnic minority, you might not be quite so generous of spirit.

You might ask, "Wouldn't it be better to improve the visa application process?", and it's a perfectly good question. Unfortunately, we've already cut back our network of consulates as a cost-cutting exercise, so the tick-box method of processing applications is the only currently practical option. It just isn't a very good one.

So, if my uncle wants to visit me from Mumbai, how much should he be charged? On top of his airfare, any accommodation costs and expenses? Does it depend on how long he plans to stay? He is family, so my father or I might choose to pay the bond.

But it can't apply only to family visits, or you would create an incentive to lie about the purpose of your visit, so it must potentially apply to all visitors from the designated countries, which brings me to the potential effect on tourism and trade.

If you are a tourist, you have a choice - Paris or London, Berlin or Edinburgh, for example. If you're like me, you're price sensitive, and if the United Kingdom wants to add a large chunk to the potential upfront cost, I might decide that it isn't worth the bother and go to Prague instead. And what will the cost of that be to our tourism industry?

And then, there is the risk of retaliation. Proposals to tighten the visa regime for Brazilians coming to this country were shelved when it became abundantly clear that the Brazilian government would simply retaliate in kind. Trade trumping principles, you might conclude, and I would agree with you. 

In June, I wondered if this was a sign of things to come. I didn't think that the answer would come quite so soon, and certainly not from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Civil Service: Staff

The debate over Scottish independence has been mostly notable for the lack of information, as opposed to asserted opinion. And so, Ros sought to find out what the base Civil Service staffing figures were as, if Scotland does become independent, those United Kingdom functions currently carried out in Scotland might need to be repatriated...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many United Kingdom Civil Service jobs are currently located in (1) England, (2) Scotland, (3) Northern Ireland, and (4) Wales.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)

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, dated February 2012.

As Director General for the Office for National Statistics, I have been asked to reply to your Parliamentary Question asking how many United Kingdom Civil Service jobs are currently located in (1) England, (2) Scotland, (3) Northern Ireland, and (4) Wales (HL15346).

Estimates of regional Civil Service employment are published annually by the Office for National Statistics on the National Statistics website. The data available refer to the survey reference date of 31 March 2011.

The following table provides the headcount of Home Civil Servants in post for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as at 31 March 2011.

Regional distribution of Civil Service employment 1,2

All employees 

England 404,043
Scotland 48,832
Wales 33,299
Northern Ireland 4,355
All employees 490,529

Source: Annual Civil Service Employment Survey

1 Workplace postcode data are used to derive geographical information

2 Excludes employees of the Northern Ireland Civil Service

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Second Reading, Public Services (Social Value) Bill

I am fearfully behind with Ros's contributions, and here's one from 27 January last year...

The Public Services (Social Value) Bill was intended to encourage government procurement from smaller, local providers, as this would encourage a wider range of potential providers, countering the trend towards fewer, larger vendors and service providers. Ros's experience in local government, as well as the information that we picked up when touring the country during her Party Presidency, led us both to wonder whether opening up contracts might offer better long term value...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Newby both for picking up the mantle of this Bill and for the work he does on the All-Party Group on Social Enterprise. It is of course a fact that all providers are able to think about social value; it is also a fact that most of them do not, which is where there is a real gap and a need for social enterprises. There is a lot of talk about social enterprise, mutuals and not-for-profit at the moment, but it is interesting how many misconceptions there are about the sector. People think that somehow it is an offshoot of the voluntary sector; that social enterprise is something new; that social enterprises are necessarily small; and that they do not have profit-making as an objective. Of course these things can be true, but not necessarily.

I was a board member of the Lloyd's Register, a not-for-profit distribution organisation which works in the field of safety. At 250 years old it certainly is not new, and with over 5,000 employees it certainly is not small. Last year, I went to talk to the head of Hackney Community Transport, which was originally a small dial-a-ride service and is now a multimillion pound business and operates some commercial services as well. Both demonstrate the key identifiers of social enterprise, its public good and its not-for-distribution profit, but both have also demonstrated that social objectives can be good, sound commercial business.

However, those two examples are exceptional in the field. Most social enterprises are small and operate locally, and in this is both their strength and their weakness - a strength because they offer tailored services, based on a real understanding of the needs of service users; but a weakness because, as we have heard, they find it very hard to get a foothold in the market for public services, which is dominated by large enterprises. There is a wealth of evidence from around the country that small social enterprises-as well as small businesses-face often insurmountable hurdles in the public procurement process, so this Bill is designed to address that most significant problem faced by the sector.

I have to be honest enough to admit to some misgivings about this approach. I do not much like duties and requirements being piled on to local government by central government. We have had far too much of that in the past. The previous Government introduced a general well-being power to local government, and the coalition has gone further by introducing the power of general competence. We also have the Sustainable Communities Act, which is relevant in this area, as is the right to challenge introduced in the Localism Act. Local authorities have the powers required by this Bill and some use them, as we have heard, but many more do not. Given this legislative framework and the wealth of evidence about how beneficial this sector is, we need to think about why this is simply not happening. It may be because some are blinkered, as my noble friend Lord Newby said, but it also comes down to two other things: money and capacity.

Local authorities have been finding savings year on year for some time and face a very stringent settlement this year. Rightly, their priority is the protection of front-line services so they strip away back-office functions, which include the staff who work on procurement and managing contracts. With fewer people working in that area, public authorities find it easier to manage fewer, larger, more straightforward contracts rather than a plethora of smaller suppliers offering services that really have to be thought about. This is not just an issue for social enterprises; it is a major problem for small local businesses. It is even happening now in the voluntary sector; I have been watching as around the country small local voluntary agencies have been losing local authority contracts to large suppliers.

There is another problem for local authorities. When you outsource something, you have to keep the risk in-house. If the service goes wrong, the risk remains with the local authority. That explains the risk aversion that we tend to see in local authorities that the noble Lord, Lord Wei, so trenchantly referred to.

The attitude of public procurement authorities is understandable, though short-sighted. I am afraid of going down the route of compulsory competitive tendering. I have watched that process for the past 30 years, and at the beginning large savings and efficiencies were indeed made and the regime was judged a success. Over time, though, as the smaller in-house suppliers disappeared, competition in the market lessened to the extent that in some areas - waste and local buses are two that spring to mind - there is now very little competition left in the market. That is bad for the public purse and for public services, and we must not go the same way in the social enterprise and voluntary sector.

The Bill, and government support for it, would go a long way towards sending a message to public bodies that they can adopt a different approach that values local services with the added public value that they can bring. It is a sad fact that local service providers still look very much to Whitehall departments for direction.

There are problems with measuring social value - it is not straightforward - and that is another area where the Government can help. As well as initiatives that are needed to improve the social enterprise sector, such as the creation of the School for Social Entrepreneurs or the academy proposals being developed by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, we also need to work with the public sector to learn most effectively how we can evaluate and assess social value so that these factors can be taken into account by the decision-makers.

We also need to learn how to think about and measure the benefits of social enterprise that are much more difficult to measure: the improved productivity that comes along when people are motivated by working to their own objectives and feel a direct sense of responsibility to service users, and the community benefits that come from people working who are active and engaged in their own service delivery.

Words of support are all very well but there comes a time when action has to be taken. Passing this Bill will not of itself make things happen, but it will be an important first step. If social enterprises, SMEs and local charities benefit from this approach and thrive, the larger commercial organisations will also begin to think more seriously about social value, and then we all win.

Social enterprise is unusual. It does not matter what your political philosophy is; there is something in it for you. It is about enterprise, social value and communities, and it is often good for the environment. I am sure that we can all join together to support not just this Bill but other measures to help this sector to grow.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Just how much have we cut tax for basic rate taxpayers?

So, the personal allowance will reach £10,000 on 6 April 2014, a year ahead of the target stated in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto. Excellent work, especially in the teeth of a lengthy period of austerity, and I note that there is much excitement that we have 'delivered a £700 tax cut for ordinary people'. Far be it for me to demur from the celebrations (and there is much to celebrate), but perhaps a look at the numbers might help.

To get a benefit of £700, you would have to assume that the personal allowance would not have been increased from its 2010/11 level, i.e. £6,475 (£3,525 at 20% is £705). So I wouldn't claim the £700 figure myself, even if it is accurately calculated.

So, I have reservations. However, the more realistic figures are pretty good nonetheless. Had the personal allowance increased by RPI as envisaged by Section 57, Income Tax Act 2007, it would have been £7,285 for 2013/14 and, assuming that the RPI for September 2014 would be 2.5%, £7,475 for 2014/15. Accordingly, the tax benefit for basic rate taxpayers would be £2,525 at 20%, or £505. That's not bad.

Interestingly, Alastair Darling effectively revoked the RPI linked by failing to increase the personal allowance in his 2010 budget. On that basis, the personal allowances enhanced for RPI in later years would have been £7,195 for 2013/14 and £7,375 for 2014/15. On that basis, the tax benefit for basic rate taxpayers would be £2,625 at 20%, or £525, or 75% of the £700 claimed, which is still worthy of celebration.

But if you want to get a real idea of how much less in income tax has been taken from basic rate taxpayers, you should look at the cumulative benefit of increasing the personal allowance.

The total income tax saving for 2011/12 to 2014/15 for a basic rate taxpayer would be £1,348, made up as follows;

  • £790 at 20% in 2011/12
  • £1,080 at 20% in 2012/13
  • £2,245 at 20% in 2013/14
  • £2,625 at 20% in 2014/15

In terms of overall tax take, increased VAT does have an downward impact on the overall benefit, although certainly not sufficient to extinguish the benefit of the personal allowance increase.

There are some huge good news stories to be told. 2.7 million people will have lifted out of the income tax system, 257,000 of them in 2014/15, and 24.5 million individuals will receive an average real terms gain of £50.

So, Liberal Democrats can legitimately claim a massive achievement, which makes work more rewarding and is broadly redistributive. And we should be proud, accordingly. That's what we came into government to do, after all.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Rosenberg and Cooper respond to my criticism

A month ago, I was fairly scathing about an approach made by a firm who cold-called me about investing in coloured diamonds. And, having heard no more from them since, I assumed that the person who had called me had taken the very strong hint that I wasn't particularly interested.

Until today, when I noted that I had received a voice mail (I'm not terribly good at checking my voice mail, for the record). Rather than check it, I returned the missed call, only to find myself talking to a rather polite, but slightly unhappy, gentleman at Rosenberg and Cooper (sorry, I didn't catch his name).

Apparently, my posting represents bad publicity, and they'd really rather that it didn't damage the prospects for their enterprise. And, if they are a legitimate enterprise, I'd rather that they not be damaged, although if they accept my comments as constructive criticism, it may be to their advantage.

So, in the spirit of fair play, I have offered them the right of response which will receive equal prominence on this website once I receive it.

I would make one recommendation to them in the meantime. They do need to work on the website, which tells you a lot about diamonds, but nothing about the principal staff or the global partners. If I were to be in the market for diamond investments, I would want to be able to carry out something resembling due diligence, especially as this is the sort of investment unlikely to be recommended by an independent financial advisor (IFA), albeit through a lack of awareness.

Any investment that comes from a relatively obscure broker comes with a very different potential degree of risk, and having discovered what Lloyds TSB's idea of high risk is - they weren't willing to countenance enabling me to invest a relatively modest sum in a Latin American investment fund managed by a reputable British financial institution - it is hard to envisage many IFAs who would even mention diamonds as a possibility.

So, establishing personal credibility with potential investors is the key. Rosenberg and Cooper got off to a bad start with this relatively informed investor, and whilst diamonds aren't for me in truth, I'll be interested to see how they respond.

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Railways: Railcards

One of my former work colleagues raised this question, as he works in London, and lives in darkest Hertfordshire...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government when the Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation (ITSO) standard national rail card will be available; whether they have chosen an operator for the card; and why customers cannot use Oyster cards, which are ITSO compliant, for commuter journeys while the national system is being developed.

Earl Attlee (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)

There are no current plans for a single, centrally developed ITSO smart rail card. The Government strategy is to roll out ITSO-compliant smart ticketing on rail incrementally through the re-franchising process. To accelerate the roll-out, the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement has provided extra funding of £45 million in respect of smart ticketing on rail in the South East. Where franchises have already been let with an ITSO ticketing requirement the franchisee owns and manages their smart cards.

Oyster cards are not ITSO-compliant. However a project is currently under way to equip the London Oyster estate with the capability to read and accept ITSO products.

It's the lack of imagination that depresses me...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Leveson: what if we simply apply existing laws?

Given that, in my professional life, I spend rather a lot of time applying the fruits of our legislative process, and that my behaviour is constrained by a specific Act (the Commissioners of Revenue and Customs Act 2005), I perhaps have a conservative view on producing more legislation as a solution to a new or emerging problem.

The notion of putting press regulation onto a statutory footing is a troubling one in a number of ways. Freedom of the Press is part of a framework of protections that serve to constrain the State, offering scope for alternative viewpoints and debate on the issues of the day. To place restrictions on that freedom is to attack our civil liberties, and to justify such a move, other freedoms must be enhanced.

And just because elements of our media have behaved illegally, we should not lightly consider our response. Most of the offences committed are already punishable by law, and it would be nice to know that, if information is sought by illegal means, that those who are guilty will bear the consequences of their actions, with prison time as appropriate.

However, there is a bargain here, in that in return for the freedom on offer, there are some obligations, ethical ones for the most part. For example, if a police officer is selling information, not only should a journalist not buy it, but he or she should report the crime that is being committed. And on what planet do acceptable ethics allow the hacking of e-mails or voice mails?

And then there are the likes of Guido Fawkes, whose almost total disregard for ethics can best be demonstrated by the corporate structures used to make him and his associates almost entirely unaccountable. It is nice that he sees himself as a fighter for truth and beauty against an overbearing State, but as a poster child for liberty, he isn't exactly stainless.

There is no doubt that self-regulation hasn't worked, but even less doubt that State regulation of our media is a recipe for levels of interference that liberals should be wary of.

So, let's cut a deal. Leave self-regulation in place and encourage the media to do it better, and ensure that when journalists commit crimes that the punishment reflects the fact that they're doing it for profit. That's an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes, isn't it?...

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bureaucrat dices with organisational death, but lives to administrate another day...

In my somewhat unexpected quest to qualify as an trained killer (that's a joke, by the way), there were always going to be obstacles to be faced. However, I had rather hoped to encounter them later, rather than sooner...

My course starts off with a series of core skills assessments, communication, general law, analytical thinking and the like. Think of it as a skills audit but with a sting in the tail, as all subjects are assessed, and all ten must be passed with the required 70% score or better. And it had been going swimmingly until I encountered 'Communicating Effectively in the Workplace'.

There is an obvious irony here, as most of my managers and colleagues have acknowledged that I communicate pretty well. Alright, perhaps over enthusiastically at time, I accept, but I am told that I write well, take a robust but helpful approach to my telephone work, and have a wide vocabulary. So, should be a breeze, right?

Wrong, as it turned out. Yes, I wasn't well, and perhaps should have deferred the test, but found myself confronted with something that was rather blurry, at least it seemed so to my medicated with paracetamol brain. And perhaps I hadn't really grasped the material through the haze. Whatever it was, the result was a failure, albeit a narrow one.

And so, a sudden death resit beckoned. Pass, and I could move on. Fail, and the course was over almost before it had started.

The catch? You have to wait at least a week to resit so, with resit scheduled, my attention turned to the other outstanding assessments. I survived 'Teamworking' and 'General Law Awareness' but missed 'Interacting with HMRC Customers' through ill health.

So, as impending doom approached, I read and re-read my notes. And read them again. And took notes from my notes.

The clock ticked relentlessly towards the assigned time for the assessment until, at precisely 3.00, I clicked on the link to the assessment, and looked, with a degree of bemusement, at the questions, before ploughing in.

Six questions went easily, three required a bit more thought, but the last one left me somewhat perplexed. I thought it through, but didn't really like any of the answers. So, gentle reader, I took what I considered to be an informed guess, pressed 'submit' and crossed my fingers.

Interestingly, good news comes in a red font. And the news was good - I had passed. So, nine down, one to go on Wednesday. Can't wait...

Ros in the Lords: Short Debate, EU Healthcare

Here's another of Ros's interventions, this time from a short debate on 11 January last year.

At the time, Ros was a member of the late lamented EU Sub-Committee G, which was abolished later in the year, and the debate offered an opportunity to refer to their recently issued report.

My Lords, I wish to focus on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, which provides the framework within which healthcare professionals move around within the EU.

I am entirely supportive of the notion of free movement across the Union and I have no doubts about the benefits that the mobility of healthcare professionals can bring to patients and to the medical profession. However, a number of high-profile cases have called the workings of the directive into question, and all UK regulators have expressed strong concerns that the current system forces them to admit individuals who do not meet the standards that would be required of UK or non-EU professionals.

Professional mobility should never be at the expense of patient safety. There is evidence that, as it currently stands, the directive is striking the wrong balance. The requirements as currently set out are not sufficient to ensure that qualifications and skills are adequate and up to date. We need a competence-based approach, rather than a one-off qualification, fixed at a particular point in time and hard to compare across jurisdictions. Knowing that an individual who has not practised for years has had to take steps to come up to date is essential.

Authorities in host member states must be able to access adequate information regarding the professional history of an individual and to seek answers to any queries they may have. Use of the Internal Market Information System is likely to represent a simpler and more cost-effective option than the proposed European professional card. There is currently no alert system to inform member states when a fitness-to-practise case is brought against an individual. If such a system were to be introduced in some member states, it would be hindered by the use of domestic data-protection legislation.

The ability to communicate effectively in the language of the host member state is critical to safe and effective practice and is the most obvious cause of concern to patients. The directive fails to ensure that professionals meet the necessary standards.

This issue is of particular interest in our area, after the unfortunate incident when a German locum administered ten times the correct dosage of a painkiller, causing the death of his patient in 2008. It is also problematic in that non-EU doctors practising here need to demonstrate a satisfactory level of English, whereas intra-EU doctors don't.

Hopefully, the EU directive that covers this point will be of help...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Me, Fidel and the pelicans

I'm not really a beach person, despite the evidence of this blog - Mauritius, Fiji, Vanuatu, Goa and Jamaica are all chronicled in the archives. However, as I get older, the notion of sitting quietly on the beach, watching the waves lap against the shore as I sip something with alcohol in it and reread my Montalbano books on the faithful Kindle becomes more alluring.

And, it must be said, Varadero is rather good for such things. The sea is a beautiful azure, the sky is blue, the sand is white, and nice people come along from time to time, offering to fetch a drink, or a snack. You could almost forget that you're in a one-party state, where individual liberty cannot be taken for granted.

We were, perhaps, fortunate that I had selected a really good resort, with excellent and plentiful facilities, with staff who seemed genuinely pleased that we had come, from waiters to barstaff, gardeners and the guys on the beach who would find us a spot for our sun lounger. And yes, I did tip relatively generously, because I know that happy staff make for a better experience, and that the money goes into the actual local economy, rather than enriching a foreign hotel chain or supporting the government.

But it all felt rather comfortable, rather than like communist Poland in the 1970s with sunshine. As one listens to some Schumann chamber music, watching the pelicans dive into the sea to catch fish, the notion that all of those people around you are being repressed becomes rather abstract. Repression in Cuba is, typically, somewhat relaxed. Yes, people get arrested, but only for a few days. It's almost as though the authorities don't have the single-minded will to really oppress people in the way that, say, Stalin did in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

The illusion is made almost complete by the existence of a communist state in a post-communist world. Like Wile E. Coyote is the Roadrunner cartoons, Cuba has staggered over the edge of the cliff, yet continues to deny economic gravity. The agricultural sector is weak, two-thirds of its oil comes via a sweetheart deal with Venezuela, the American boycott is still pretty effective, the state sector is moribund, and large parts of Havana are quietly falling down around the ears of its citizens. And yet life goes on.

So, is it worth going? Yes, I think that it is. As a window into an economic and social experiment, anyone who takes an interest in how societies work, and how individuals are motivated, Cuba offers a unique perspective, and one that I fear cannot last. That isn't because the experiment has failed - you can't entirely claim that it was given a chance - but because the hurdles it has to cross are getting higher and higher.

And the Cubans seem like really nice people, who one day will hopefully get a chance to run their country their way, without the malevolent influence of United States foreign policy casting its usual shadow.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Railways - High Speed Rail: Statement

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 10 January 2012...

My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement and, more importantly, the commitment to go ahead with the project. Does the Minister agree that if we are going to spend this amount of public money in these difficult times, it is very important that the public should have a general sense that this is a good thing; and that rather than the argument being entirely hijacked by questions of shaving minutes off journey times between London and Birmingham, we need to keep referring to the line in the context of a very important scheme to link the whole country together and then on to Europe? I am sure the Minister would agree that had Brunel started the Great Western line by saying that he was building the Maidenhead link, nobody would have been very inspired.

I'll be honest, we're a long way from HS2 here in Suffolk, although we really wouldn't mind if someone spent some money on the East Anglian Main Line, but Ros raised an important point here, as you might expect from a former member of the Committee for Integrated Transport.

This line will increase capacity, as the existing West Coast Main Line will have additional slots available for long distance commuters from Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, and for freight. All the indicators are that passenger volumes will continue to increase, and yes, you could enhance the West Coast Main Line again, but the cost would be huge, and the disruption worse.

Temporary classroom places have tripled under the Conservative administration

Suffolk Liberal Democrats have revealed that the number of children being educated in temporary classrooms in Suffolk schools has tripled in the last six years.
More than 1,500 pupils are being taught in portacabins across the County. Under the previous Liberal Democrat/Labour administration, there had been a significant drive to reduce the number of temporary classrooms. In 2007 there were 583 pupils in temporary classrooms. The figure of 1500 is set to rise even further with the announcement of the closure of four middle schools in the Stowmarket and Stowupland area.
Spokesperson for Children and Young People's services, Penny Otton said, "This significant increase in temporary classroom places is unacceptable, and just shows that the Conservatives do not take education seriously. Recently there has been a rash of planning applications for portacabin style classrooms. This is due to the lack of space at many primary schools in the areas which previously had middle schools.
"When we ran the council in coalition, we made a commitment to reduce the number of temporary classrooms, but all this good work has now been wiped out. The Conservatives seem desperate to get rid of the last few middle schools without the necessary funding for permanent buildings.
"We warned at the time that the Conservatives would not have enough money for new classrooms after the Building Schools for the Future was abolished by Government. They carried on regardless, and look at what's happened."
Cllr David Wood, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, said, "The Conservatives record on education just gets worse and worse.  Not only has Suffolk dropped dramatically down to the very bottom of attainment league tables, but they are continuing to abolish well performing middle schools, ignoring the wishes of the parents and to the detriment of children's education.  And now we see a significant and unacceptable rise in temporary classroom places.  The Conservatives have completely taken their eye off the ball."

Monday, March 11, 2013

London to Pula... by the pretty route

Last week, I mentioned my dilemma - how to get to Pula by as interesting a route as possible, given a series of limitations.

Jane Leaper kindly suggested;

Train or fly to Venice then seacat ferry to Pula.
If train: Eurostar to Paris and overnight sleeper to Venice.
although this did mean doing the Alps in the dark, which missed the point a little.

I did give more serious thought to the the Zurich/Innsbruck/Ljubljana route, but the fourteen minute connection in Salzburg was just too tight for my taste, so I've settled on the following;
  • Lufthansa flight 4U2379, departing Stansted at 20:10, arrives Stuttgart at 22:35
  • overnight at the Holiday Inn Express Stuttgart Airport
  • S-Bahn 3, departing Stuttgart Airport at 09:08, arrives Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof at 09:35
  • EuroCity 113, departing Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof at 09:58, arrives Zagreb Glavni at 20:55, via Ulm, Munich, Salzburg, Villach, Lesce-Bled and Ljubljana
  • overnight at the Palace Hotel, Zagreb
  • Croatia Airlines flight OU674, departing Zagreb at 14:10, arrives Pula at 16:00
Alright, it is a forty-six hour journey, but it will be a bit of an adventure. And adventure is good sometimes, isn't it?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Payday lenders: as the world catches up...

The sudden flurry of activity on the question of payday lenders is, I suspect, long overdue. The fact that borrowers can borrow from a range of such lenders with minimal, if any, cross referencing, means that such individuals can get into trouble very quickly.

Indeed, Ros raised concerns about payday loans as long ago as June 2010, amidst a wave of adverts for such services. I acknowledge that APRs are not a very effective tool for judging the impact of such loans, but the interest rates are significant. And the problem is that the people most likely to get into difficulties are those least likely to understand the implications of their actions.

You see, such loans are really only useful to those who encounter an unexpected one-off cashflow issue, and are not a solution for those consistently limping from pay cheque to pay cheque. If you're not taking, or not capable of taking, a medium or long term view of your finances, your vulnerability is obvious.

This creates a problem. If your aim is to protect the most vulnerable, the temptation is to ban such lending, or at least to restrict it significantly. If, on the other hand, you want people to take responsibility for their actions, you might leave things as they are, with a view that choice and freedom are good things.

So, we'll see how the lenders respond to the instruction from the Office of Fair Trading to get their act together in just twelve weeks. They'll certainly respond, business is just too lucrative, but watch out for the smoke and mirrors...

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A clutch of certificates for me, as the qualifier heats up...

I'm now well into my core assessments as the long journey towards becoming a real life Inspector of Taxes is finally underway.

The training is the same, regardless of background, so we start with some basic skills - analytical thinking, communication and teamworking - as well as some basic tax knowledge - how appeals are handled, how HMRC is structured, as well as some simple legal premises. As an old man, relatively speaking, I've spent my career doing these things, so the online assessments shouldn't represent a particularly high hurdle.

There is a catch though. The pass mark is 70%, and you only get two tries. Multiple failure means that you get a one way ticket back to oblivion, and I haven't sat an exam since 1986. And people do fail... Luckily, I've been in pretty good form, with only one score below 90% to date, and, although one can't get carried away, my confidence is higher than it was when I started.

The vagaries of timing haven't helped. My target was to complete all ten assessments by 15 March, but I've lost time due to our pre-arranged trip to Cuba, and a day to go to Brighton. All of this means that I will end up sitting a test every working day at 3 p.m. until next Wednesday, leaving me two spare days if anyhting goes wrong. It isn't ideal, but my ability to read critically has helped, it seems.

And yes, I do feel a bit under pressure, but after a quarter-century of almost unbroken lack of ambition, it does feel a bit like a zoo lion would if you realised it into the Serengeti - slighty scary but intriguing at the same time. Hopefully, it won't be me helping the vultures to grow fat.
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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

What does this Liberal Bureaucrat believe in? #libdemvalues

Why wait for someone to tag you, when you can just wade in?...

Technically, of course, as a bureaucrat, I should do this in 450 words, rather than 150, but, here is my especially personal take;

A liberal bureaucracy should bolster the freedom of the individual against the danger of an overmighty state.

It should respond, not react, to the established needs of the individual, enabling them to make informed decisions in their lives, participate in their society to the extent desired and take advantage of the full range of opportunities available to our society.

It should enable, rather than proscribe, protect, rather than abuse, and encourage, rather than place obstacles in the way of, innovation and diversity.

It should encourage imagination in problem solving rather than impose blunt conformity by its methodology, and should be prepared to justify the decision reached.

It should seek efficiencies such as to enable elected officials the widest possible range of options in making public policy, and be aware of the burden of compliance when designing processes, seeking to minimise it where possible.

Right, that's 142 words. I'll be damned if I'm going to conform...
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Monday, March 04, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Parish Councils: Tax

I am, I admit, a bit annoyed, as Mid Suffolk District Council required three attempts to correctly calculate our council tax base this year, here in Creeting St Peter, and, as a result, the precept increase is much higher than we had planned. Given that we had already set our precept, and that the deadline for doing so had passed when the new figures became available, I wondered what effect this might have. Luckily, Ros was curious too...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the event of a parish council tax base being altered by the district council after the precept had been set, and the resulting percentage increase in precept exceeding the threshold for triggering a referendum, such a referendum would be required.

Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)

Local precepting authorities are not included in the council tax referendum principles for 2013-14, which were approved by the House of Commons on 13 February 2013, therefore such authorities will not be required to hold a referendum for any precept increase relating to that financial year. No decisions have been taken on referendum principles in respect of subsequent financial years.

This was, I admit, a pretty stupid answer, as the question didn't refer to this year, but was exploring the underlying principle. We all know that we're excluded from the referendum provision this year, but as Eric (the menace) Pickles is holding the threat of future referenda over us, I'd like to know where we stand.

A liberal bureaucrat in search of adventure

I must admit that I do like the occasional adventure. Nothing particularly dangerous - I'm an increasingly old man and Ros isn't terribly keen on inheriting yet, not while I can still bring her tea in bed anyway. And for me, the travelling is often as much fun as the destination.

So, on discovering that I have to go to Pula, in Croatia, for a meeting in May, and that Ros can't travel with me, the travel urge has struck. I could fly to Pula, via Zagreb, but it involves arriving on the Wednesday evening at 23:00, which sounds like no fun and is rather obvious. To add to the complications, I am in London on the Tuesday for a training tutorial on bookkeeping that ends at 16:30, and it doesn't seem worth going back to Suffolk only to turn around and come back through London the next day.

What that means is that, assuming I need to be at Pula by 16:00 on the Thursday to allow time to prepare for an evening drinks reception, I have just shy of forty-eight hours to get from London to Pula. There are some obstacles;
  • Pula has no through train service to anywhere, as the only railway line runs to Zagreb via Ljubljana in Slovenia, and the only passenger trains across the border were axed in December.
  • There are only two flights a day from Zagreb to Pula, and only one of them arrives in time, so I must catch the 14:10 flight.
  • I don't want to use a sleeper train because I don't get to see any scenery, and the scenery is pretty spectacular, I'm told.
So, that means an overnight in Zagreb on the Wednesday night which, in turn, means that the day will have to begin somewhere in Central Europe, and that I will need to fly from London to the day's starting point the evening before.

There is a train from Munich, which departs at 12:27 and arrives in Zagreb at 20:55, and there is a Lufthansa flight from Heathrow at 20:10 which will allow me to have dinner before I fly, and leave me enough time to get from a hotel at Munich Airport to catch the train with ease.

But can I do better? The train to Zagreb starts from Frankfurt at 08:22, but the journey to Munich doesn't look interesting. It also stops at Heidelburg at 09:14 and Stuttgart at 09:58, but they're rather harder to get to the previous evening. So, Munich it is then. Or is it?

I could catch the 18:35 British Airways flight to Zurich from London City (very doable from Euston Square), get an early night and catch the 07:28 train from Zurich Flughafen to Munich, via St Gallen, which leaves me a 59-minute connection. Alternatively, I could catch the 08:40 from Zurich itself to Salzburg, via Feldkirch and Innsbruck, leaving a 14 minute connect there for the Munich-Zagreb train. That looks prettier, but riskier in terms of what happens if there is a delay.

I'm stricken with indecision, so I've booked the flight from Zagreb to Pula, and from Pula to London. Perhaps I'll come up with a better idea?...