Monday, June 24, 2013

Creeting St Peter: a small demonstration of the value of capital investment...

Last year, I was approached by Alice, the enthusiastic and hard working Chair of our Parochial Church Council, about the problems caused by kestrels nesting in the tower of our Grade 1 listed mediaeval church. Unfortunately, whilst we encourage wildlife here in mid-Suffolk, the cost of cleaning and of making good the damage is a burden best avoided.

And so, it was resolved that a nesting box suitable for kestrels be purchased, and I asked one of our residents, whose father makes such things, to build something appropriate, writing a personal cheque to speed up the process. In due course, I heard that the box had been placed in the churchyard, and all that was left to do was wait and see.

Last weekend, the phone rang. Stephen, whose father had built the box, had checked it and found that, not only was it in use, but it contained four kestrel fledglings, all seemingly in good health.

Cost of one kestrel box? £25. Savings for the Parochial Church Council? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the coming years. The thought of more kestrels flying free over the Creetings? Priceless...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Can Liberal Democrats make better capitalists?

Liberal Democrats. Terribly nice people, mean well, not necessarily focussed on profit. Perhaps not the sort of people you would think of first for financial advice, at least not if you want to be rich. Security for widows and orphans, maybe, but raging capitalism, that's for Conservatives, isn't it?

Or is it? Being internationalists, liberals are potentially better at geopolitics - as long as it doesn't involve invading people - and as rather less dogmatic souls, they might well be more creative in their thinking.

It's an interesting question, isn't it? Something to discuss during a quiet stretch at Federal Conference - during the constitutional amendments debate, or the Leader's speech, perhaps. But it's only a theoretical debate, right? Well, not necessarily. Just as football fans have Fantasy Football, wannabe millionaires can play Fantasy Investment Banker, as long as someone is willing to 'host' it.

You'd have to have rules, of course. How much one theoretically has to invest, what types of assets it could be invested in, the period over which the contest lasts, how performance is measured. But it is an interesting question, isn't it?

So, anyone interested?

Friday, June 21, 2013

What happens when even German efficiency breaks down...

You will recall my recent disappointment when travelling from Stuttgart to Zagreb on discovering that my booked first class seat had been replaced with a perfectly comfortable, but not first class, standard class one in the absence of an entire first class carriage.

And so, on 20 May, I complained...

Dear Sir/Madam,

I travelled from Stuttgart to Zagreb on train EC113/213 on 8 May.

Having booked a first class seat, I was disappointed to find, on boarding the train, that the first class carriage had been left off of the train, and that my reservation was in a second class carriage instead. I raised the matter with the conductor, who was rather unhelpful, merely writing a note on my ticket.

Given that the second class fare was €79.00, and I had been charged €109.00, it seems reasonable to request a refund of €30.00, and I look forward to your response indicating how this can be resolved.

For your convenience, I attach a scanned copy of my original ticket, complete with conductor's note. Please note that the original document has been filed in Brussels as part of an expense claim, and is required for audit purposes by the European Commission.

Yours faithfully, etc. etc.

Naturally, I received an immediate response, referring my complaint on to the appropriate team. On 28 May, I received the following reply;

Sehr geehrter Herr Valladares,

wir haben Ihren Auftrag bearbeitet und die entsprechenden Positionen Ihres Auftrags 3O4EUQ storniert. 

Der Betrag in Höhe von   54,00 EUR wird der zur Zahlung verwendeten Kreditkarte bzw. Ihrem PayPal-Konto gutgeschrieben. Bei Zahlung per Lastschrift weisen wir denBetrag zur Gutschrift an. Bitte beachten Sie, dass die Gutschrift im Falle weiterer Fahrkartenkäufe oder bestehendenForderungen der Bahn intern mit diesen Forderungen verrechnet wird.

Der Betrag setzt sich wie folgt zusammen:

Wert der Fahrkarte/n:              109,00 EUR
davon erstattungsfähig              50,00 EUR
abzüglich genutzter Leistungen       0,00 EUR
abzüglich Erstattungsentgelt         0,00 EUR
Erstattungsbetrag Fahrkarten        50,00 EUR

Wert der Reservierungen:             4,00 EUR
davon erstattungsfähig               4,00 EUR
abzüglich genutzter Leistungen       0,00 EUR
abzüglich Erstattungsentgelt         0,00 EUR
Erstattungsbetrag Reservierungen     4,00 EUR

Summe Erstattungsbetrag             54,00 EUR

Das Entgelt für Sitzplatzreservierungen wird laut Tarifbestimmungen nicht erstattet. 

Mit freundlichen Grüßen
Ihr Service-Team von

Hmmm... as you can see, the response is in German. Luckily, there is someone with German language skills on Planet Bureaucrat, so I passed it to Ros, who explained that, as best she could make out, they would pay the compensation directly into my credit card account.

And sure enough, that very day, they transferred the sum of €54.00. Impressive, one might think. Even more so when you realise that I had only asked for €30.00.

So, well done Deutsche Bahn!

My day as a zookeeper: B is for (Gelada) Baboon, G is for Giraffe

My morning was dedicated to small mammals (well, smallish), and amongst them were probably the least obviously interesting from a personal perspective. You see, I've never been terribly keen on baboons - they're kind of violent and aggressive. Accordingly, the promise of Gelada Baboons was not expected to be one of the high points of my day. However, it just goes to prove that you shouldn't rush to judgement.

Gelada - beautiful plumage...
Male gelada have a wonderful coat. Admittedly, it comes with a pretty bad attitude, but the coat is superb. What makes them particularly interesting, however, is that they are grazing primates, and not actually baboons at all, although closely related. I was allowed to feed Bruno, the dominant male, sunflower seeds, which they rather like, before feeding the others. Admittedly, I wasn't allowed into the enclosure, but I didn't feel particularly threatened.

Inbound giraffe in search of more fresh leaves
A giraffe, on the other hand, is not only rather bigger, but rather more charming. My job was to feed the giraffes with some rather tasty snacks, some particularly fine leafy tips. I have form with giraffes, having been licked by one at Louisville Zoo some years ago, and I was prepared for the black tongues that they have, so coloured to protect them from sunburn.

It was an incredibly relaxing experience, talking to the keeper and the giraffes in turn, and being able to get so close to such wonderful creatures. They are, despite their size, very gentle creatures and I could have spent much longer with them than time permitted. Besides, I was there to work, not just to watch...

The next instalment will be brought to you by the letter L...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Short Debate on Business and Society

Ros hasn't spoken much in the Chamber lately, focussing more on her Committee work. But when Lord Sacks decided to initiate a debate on the relationship between business and society, she leapt upon the opportunity to highlight one of the ways in which that relationship might be improved...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, perhaps oddly in a debate on business, I am going to focus on the topic of volunteering. I am going to do so because the good news is that more and more people of working age are volunteering, but they are able to do so through the good offices of the businesses and people who employ them and give them time off to do so. Many organisations are going further than this, and are participating in bespoke schemes which enable their staff at all levels to become involved with volunteering. This is perhaps with chosen charities through team activities, fundraising or joining in the work of the charity, or in other cases, giving professional advice such as legal, IT or financial.

The Westminster Volunteer Centre has a very good track record of working with large organisations and corporations to enable this to happen. I recently met a lady called Nikki King. She is the managing director of Isuzu Trucks, and she decided to tackle the lack of aspiration that she sees so often in young people by giving them mentors from the world of business and industry. She started just doing this by herself, but she now works with the Freight Transport Association, DHL, Asda, William Hill and many others to provide mentoring to 14 to 18 year-olds. In my own area, AXA insurance and Willis have both worked with local volunteer organisations.

Academic studies from around the world have shown that creating an employer supported volunteering scheme is a cost-efficient way for business to increase staff job satisfaction, build internal and external networks, contribute to high-quality personnel recruitment, teach new skills to their employees, improve customer relationships and increase shareholder value.

What do we, as parliamentarians, need to do to encourage this trend? First, we need to keep our house in order. I think that it is rather a pity that, as one of the largest employers in Westminster, we do not have a corporate volunteering scheme here. I have raised this with the House, and perhaps other noble Lords will support me in this endeavour.

Secondly, the Civil Service has a very good track record of volunteering and I hope that the Government will remain committed to it. Finally, the Government need to take a look at the funding for volunteer centres. Volunteering does not come free; there is no substitute for the face-to-face expertise and bespoke service provided by good volunteer centres.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My day as a zookeeper: A is for Aardvark

When I discovered that I had been given a 'Keeper for a Day' experience for Christmas, I was presented with a dilemma. Which of the three programmes should I choose? Scheme A had tigers, giant anteaters and inferior African elephants - clearly second best to placid, patient Indian elephants. But I'm not fussed about sun bears and wolves, so I rejected that. Scheme C had penguins and sea lions, but also had chimpanzees, and I've never really been keen on them. And so, it was Scheme B...

And so, bright and early this morning, I left our cottage in the mid-Suffolk countryside and headed for Colchester, one of the country's top zoos, for my day as a zookeeper... But, rather than retell the day in chronological order, I'll tell of my day in alphabetical order.

And here are my new friends, photographed by me inside their enclosure. Adela, the male, is the one lying on his back with his stomach in the air. So placid are they that he was quite content for me to rub his tummy, examine his claws (much bigger than you might think) and rub his ears.

And why let sleeping aardvarks lie?
Aardvarks grow to full size pretty quickly, and Zafira, the middle one in the picture, is only sixteen months old. She decided that my finger might be worth sucking in case it might produce milk (it doesn't, I'm afraid) but took a firm grasp with her tongue. The aardvark snout is surprisingly soft though...

However, there are more aardvarks, thanks to Adela and his partner Oq. Colchester Zoo has the most successful breeding program for aardvarks in the country and, indeed, worldwide, and Oq was in the birthing chamber with the latest addition, still to be named or, for that matter, sexed. I was taken behind the scenes to meet the baby and Oq, as baby aardvarks are quite vulnerable until they've put on a bit of weight. It already weighs over 5 kg, so the keepers hope that it can be introduced to the family group fairly soon.

A baby aardvark at the end of a hard day growing
Curiously, aardvarks don't seem to be very popular with the zoo-going public, which is odd, because you don't often see them in zoos, and whilst even their mothers would struggle to describe them as pretty, they do have a certain charm. I guess the fact that they're nocturnal, rather dull in colour and lacking in excitement, may be the cause, but I rather fell under their spell today. And I dare anyone not to want to pick up a baby aardvark...

Tomorrow, something beginning with B, and something beginning with G...

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Equal marriage: an accidental bystander at a historic moment

Life, I am told, is mostly about being there. And, being married to Ros, I am fortunate in being slightly more likely to be there than most. Tonight, however, was one of those moments of pure, delightful, chance.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy visits to London are somewhat infrequent these days but, occasionally, I come to the big city for some social event or other, or to see my family. Today, it was for dinner with Ros and our guest. By sheer coincidence, I arrived just as the Lords divided on the Dear 'wrecking amendment', so I headed over to the rainbow festooned group to wish them good luck, making sure to say hello to the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats there. I then headed into Parliament to meet Ros.

Ros was on her way out though, to spread the news that the vote had been won, and clearly so too. And, soon enough, it was official, and the celebration could begin in earnest. We slipped away quietly, leaving our friends to savour a moment they have worked so hard towards.

It was a special moment, made even more satisfying by the fact that the person I love was able to make her contribution towards making it happen.

Never let it be said that there is no emotion in politics...

The House of Lords: a point or three of general clarification...

As the Liberal Democrat Voice Lords Correspondent (self-appointed and erratic, admittedly), I spend more time than most studying Hansard and perusing the Parliamentary website. And, married to a Member of the House myself, I tend to take a more tolerant view of its 'foibles', for perhaps obvious reasons.

It must be admitted that the Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has not demonstrated the Lords at its best, but the response of some to the nature and tone of the debate has been equally poor, with some sweeping, and rather insulting, generalisations being sprayed around about those who occupy the red benches. And in reply to them, I would make a few points.

Firstly, the Lords reflects the nature of the people in it. They are, on average, past the age of retirement, i.e. predominantly within the one age bracket likely to be opposed to the proposals, if the polling is to be believed. Just because they're in the Lords doesn't make them any more or less tolerant than the population generally, especially as they're unaccountable. They are a cross-section of opinion, albeit a more balanced one than in the not so distant past.

Secondly, the speakers in the debate do not necessarily represent opinion in the House, as the formal vote will hopefully demonstrate, merely those wishing to express an opinion 'on the record'. If you've been watching the debate live, you'll have noticed that the chamber is hardly full, as some Peers have already heard all the arguments they need to, and have decided how they will vote, or have other Parliamentary business, and will turn up when the votes are taken.

Finally, this is a free vote, and Peers will have been actively lobbied by both sides - I know that Ros has received a lot of e-mail on this subject. Accordingly, individual Peers will vote according to their consciences. They are the very same people who, in recent years, have acted as a restraint on the Executive, particularly on matters of civil liberties, something that many of us have been grateful for. So, setting aside the question of the very legitimacy of an unelected Second Chamber, perhaps some of my colleagues might try to be more restrained in terms of the offensiveness of their language? And if that is too much to ask, could they not direct their unhappiness more accurately against those who are offending them?