Friday, July 26, 2013

So much for the Coalition packing the Lords then...

One of the low spots of attempts to reform the House of Lords was the claim that the Coalition was packing the chamber. It wasn't true, especially given that there had only two lists of new creations since the General Election, and one of those was Labour's Dissolution Honours List.

However, we now have some data. At the end of the 2007-08 Parliamentary session, there were 733 members of the House of Lords, excluding those on leave of absence, disqualified, retired etc. At the end of the 2012-13 session, there were 763. That represents an increase of just over 4%.

Interestingly, there were very few creations by Gordon Brown in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 sessions, just five (four Labour, one Conservative) in total, plus a Law Lord. In fact, there were more (six) crossbench appointments by the House of Lords Appointments Commission in that period.

Since the General Election, there have been 129 appointments, made up as follows;
  • 58 in the Dissolution Honours List (29 Labour, 18 Conservative, 9 Liberal Democrat, 1 Democratic Unionist and 1 Crossbencher)
  • 57 in the Winter 2010 list (28 Conservative, 15 Liberal Democrat, 10 Labour, 1 Plaid Cymru, 1 Ulster Unionist and 2 Crossbenchers)
  • 8 nominated via the House of Lords Appointments Commission (all Crossbenchers)
  • 6 appointed separately - three appointed directly to Ministerial office (all Conservatives), the former Head of the Civil Service, the former Governor of the Bank of England and the former Archbishop of Canterbury
And so, with another list apparently due to be published, the number of eligible Peers will increase, obviously. Well, not exactly. Since the beginning of 2012, twenty-nine Peers have died, so a list of roughly that length would merely replace losses.

So, not significantly more Peers, which leads you to wonder why the place is so crowded these days...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Might Claire Perry versus Guido Fawkes be a bit of a mismatch?

I don't know much about the Conservative MP for Devizes, whose campaign against the easy accessibility of internet porn has brought her to the attention of internet freedom campaigners and civil liberties activists - amongst others. However, there is more than a hint that she doesn't really 'get' the internet from her comments thus far.

That's fair enough, I suppose. After all, I have an awareness of the value of the technology but, if you asked me to explain how it works, I'd be fairly clueless. I like to think of it as witchcraft that doesn't require burning at the stake.

But her latest sally, against Guido Fawkes, appears to be a foolish and wholly unnecessary one. It does trouble me that she doesn't appear to understand that making unsubstantiated accusations about named individuals, even if they are the Guido Fawkes collective, is a rather dangerous game. I particularly dislike the threat to talk to the Editor of the national newspaper for which Paul Staines writes a column.

Now, I'd be one of the first to note that Paul and his minions have done plenty to coarsen political discourse in this country, assisted undoubtedly by some of those who hold public office, but it's still a fair way from there to criminality, especially without evidence.

I do have to admire Guido's response though, albeit in a 'from behind the sofa' kind of way. Holding a public poll to determine whether or not to sue her for libel is certainly entertaining, whilst giving her plenty of opportunity to withdraw her comments and apologise, should she deem it wise to do so - and it's the course of action that I'd recommend, frankly.

There is, of course, a degree of irony here, in that it is virtually impossible to hold the Guido Fawkes collective accountable for any libel they might commit, due to their entirely legal corporate status. So, before engaging our learned friends, Paul, Harry and Alex might wish to consider whether or not a level playing field is appropriate.

Just a thought, gentlemen...

Monday, July 22, 2013

Internet: freedom, and liberalism, lies bleeding...

So, if David Cameron and the Conservatives are to be believed, we are about to have an opt-in provision for 'adult content' on the internet. Strike another blow against freedom, I fear.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not particularly wild about some of the impacts that the internet has wrought - it has increasingly allowed the coarsening of political (and other) debate, amongst other things, and the easy availability of online pornography may well have had a negative impact on the way some people interact sexually - but in part that comes down to the way people use what is, otherwise, a tool for good, or change, or both.

The beauty of the internet is that it gives people access to information, be it frivolous or vital. It gives the vulnerable a means to discover that they are not alone, it provides a route for those who are, in their own eyes, unusual, or outside of the mainstream, to meet others like themselves. It is, in short, a critical building block for a properly liberal society.

And yes, it does need to be policed against illegality - I'm perfectly relaxed about that - and we need to educate society about its impact and how best to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. But an opt-out option is far better than an opt-in strategy.

The definition of 'adult content' is a vexed one. Various 'minority' communities are rightly concerned that they will be impacted, and that entirely legal, consensual material will be included, as well as critical support material for, for example, the LGBT+ community will be covered. And who, exactly, decides what will be included, and how will they cover every potential website? Is such a project even possible?

It would surely be better to police the internet for criminality, and to educate, rather than to presume criminality and block material pre-emptively based on a set of contentious criteria. But, it seems, something must be done, and this is something, so it must be done.

In a society where we are increasingly taught to be scared of things, it was inevitable that, at some point, the internet would be targeted by people who either don't get it, or have a material interest in not getting it. I would have expected it from Labour, but assumed that, given how loudly Conservatives proclaim their love for freedom, that they might be a bit more sensible. It seems that I was wrong... again. I'm afraid that it's still true that Conservatives still mostly believe in the freedom to do whatever they approve of.

But will Liberal Democrat parliamentarians, given the chance, be any better? Or, in a vain effort to appease the Daily Mail, will they just roll over?

Regardless, I don't have a good feeling about this...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The bureaucrat lives to study another day...

It's been a trying week or so on Planet Bureaucrat, as I had a notoriously tricky exam nearly two weeks ago, and have been waiting for the result since then. But, on Friday, the waiting was to be over.

The result was to be sent to my work e-mail address, so I caught my usual Suffolk Links bus to Stowmarket, found a seat on the 8.11 train, and sat back with a good book as we trundled through the mid-Suffolk countryside on a sunny morning. All was well, at least until the point where the train stopped in the middle of a field.

Time passed.

Eventually, an announcement. A trespasser at Ipswich station meant that all trains were at a standstill, but it was hoped that we would be on the move shortly.

More time passed. I was, at least, enjoying my book...

10 a.m. came and went. I rang the office to let them know what was happening and, as I ended the call, there was another announcement. It seemed that there was someone on the roof at Ipswich station and that the electrical supply had been switched off in that area. Accordingly, we would be returning to Stowmarket, where buses would be available to take us to Ipswich and/or Manningtree.

That turned out not to be entirely true. Yes, there were buses, but only six of them, and none of them were anywhere near us. Eventually, a bus arrived, but it was women and children only. The sun beat down.

By 11.45, another two buses had arrived, but both required a 45 minute break to remain within legal limits. I had almost, but not quite, forgotten that a career-defining exam result was awaiting me.

A train arrived, and it was announced that it would be travelling to Manningtree and Colchester only, and most of the increasingly impatient crowd headed to the platform, leaving about a busload for Ipswich, who boarded a suddenly available bus, and we were off.

As we pulled into Ipswich, I spotted the man behind the chaos, still on the roof after five hours in the sun. It would be fair to say that he wasn't entirely popular, although I did think that shooting him - the most recommended solution - was a mite harsh.

So, I headed to the office, opened my e-mail, and found the notification.

Deep breath...

I had passed.

Well, that's another three months of study to look forward to...

Monday, July 15, 2013

David Milliband: now right, but not apparently sorry...

It was a Saturday in mid-July. The sun beat down upon middle England out of a clear blue sky on the sort of day which usually sees Englishmen unveil a dress sense to horrify Frenchmen, Italians and, in truth, anyone with an eye for fashion. Barbecue and cold beer weather or, for those with a more genteel disposition, a glass of something red and full-bodied. And there I was, in a suit, heading for something best described as the political equivalent of LinkedIn for people who really don't need a computer or social media.

Ditchley Park is a country house and estate north west of Oxford and about two miles from Charlbury, and is probably best known as being the home of the Ditchley Foundation, an organisation with a goal of advancing international learning and to bring transatlantic and other experts together to discuss international issues. It is, if you like, a garden party for the great and the good with a lecture attached.

It would be fair to say that this is not my obviously natural territory, but given what Ros does, it is hers, and where she goes, and they'll have me, I go too. The main attraction, a speech by David Milliband, billed as being his last major political intervention before going to take up his new role as CEO of the International Rescue Committee in September.

The entertainment came in two parts - a formal speech and a question and answer session. The speech has already been published by the New Statesman, and covered by the press. The Q&A session was, and will remain to some degree, off the record - I cannot believe for one moment that it won't be leaked, such is the world we live in - and I will respect that injunction, although I wouldn't say that it was particularly revelatory.

His speech was about intervention by the 'Great Powers', in particular with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan. He noted;
Iraq and Afghanistan have occupied American and other western troops for longer than World War 2, at enormous not to say inordinate cost, human, financial and political. And the longer we have been in these two countries, the less clear it has been not just who has won or even is winning, but also what winning looks like. Alliances shift, local politics intervenes, recent promises are trumped by old hatreds, my enemy’s enemy turns out to be mine too.
And yet, given that he was Foreign Secretary from 2007 until 2010, he seemed remarkably coy about his responsibility, both individual and collective, for what happened in both theatres. He had, however, drawn four lessons;
  • clarity and legitimacy in post-conflict power sharing arrangements needs to be front and centre in any diplomatic or military endeavour overseas 
  • without the support of regional actors fragile states can never be stabilised 
  • mobile terrorist groups add a whole new dimension to instability in fragile states through their ability to hijack local grievances 
  • the phrase “war on terror” had the dangerous consequence of uniting under a single banner a series of disparate and sometimes localised grievances, so language is important 
Now, to be honest, I'm not that impressed. In 2006, I was designing an American policy for intervention - multinational, supported by the United Nations or the appropriate regional body, backed with prior congressional approval and with stated objectives - and I didn't have an entire bureaucracy behind me.

In fairness - and I'm a pretty fair person, usually - it was a well-constructed speech, awash with interesting points, most of which merited further development but never received any, the sort of speech that is interesting but, when pondered over afterwards, leaves you wondering what it was he actually said.

But for me, his most interesting, and somewhat depressing, comment, seemingly almost slipped in was this;
Ten years on, Saddam is gone, and the Kurds are safe, but the country is afflicted by violence and fissures. The overall reckoning is strongly negative. There were no WMD, and if we had known that in 2003 then there would have been no justification for war.
Well, David, that's fine as far as it goes, but if you recall, there were many saying just that in 2003. You, and your colleagues of the time, ignored that view, doctored your evidence, and used it to justify intervention.

It would have been nice if you could have found it in you to apologise... 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My day as a zookeeper - O is for Otter, R is for Red River Hog

I only got a relatively fleeting look at the smooth-coated otters at Otter Creek, as time was short, and they can't entirely be trusted with non-keepers, playful little scamps that they are, but there was time to find out a bit about them.

I got rather more time with the red river hogs though. They have the misfortune to be at a relatively remote corner of the zoo, and don't get as many visitors as, say, the meerkats. I like them though, and got to get fairly close to them.

Not happy, not happy at all...
My job was to feed them an assortment of apples, carrots, broccoli and other healthy stuff. The hitherto dominant male wasn't entirely happy, having been recently castrated to prevent the group from getting any larger, but he was still content to eat apples from my hand.

He couldn't have everything though, so I was obliged to give the fruit and vegetables some air. The downside of this was that some of the hogs were in receipt of glancing blows to the head from low-flying fruit. They seemed to take it in good spirit though.

And that left just one more animal, also beginning with R...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Social media and councillors - thank you to Auntie Helen...

'Connected councillors - a guide to using social media to support local leadership' doesn't sound like the most exciting read in the world and, indeed, it isn't likely to be hugely sought after by the populace. However, it has suddenly become interesting, not because I have an urge to be difficult, but because I want to be absolutely sure that, as a parish councillor, I don't do anything stupid. But, having given some thought to my parish council's new social media policy, I wanted to know more about the background to such documents.

My first thought was to visit my District Council's website, on the basis that they probably have a policy for their councillors. Well, if they do, it wasn't easy to find, so I gave up. Instead, I typed 'social media policy for councillors' into Google and came up with the following linkYes, once again, Liberal Democrat Voice, in the person of Helen Duffett, came up trumps.

Something to read on Thursday, I think...

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

My day as a zookeeper: M is for Meerkat

The country's most popular animal, entirely down, it seems, to the advertising genius employed by a comparison website was on my list of animals to see. What I hadn't expected was that I would be part of the exhibit...

The Suricata Sands exhibit is, naturally, one of the most visited attractions at Colchester Zoo, and I was to go and find out about what they eat, and how they are looked after.

Posing for the camera...
First, I was admitted into the enclosure to take a closer look, and to be introduced to the 'mob' and their environment. Naturally, as burrowing animals, the enclosure is, effectively, a concrete bowl filled with suitable soil, studded with rocks and logs, some hollow, for them to dig under, run through or stand on.

They all have names, naturally, and the group is led by the dominant female, who is usually pregnant. They're also incredibly inquisitive, and my presence didn't appear to bother them at all. It did, however, appear to confuse some of the visitors, who wondered what I was doing there.

We then returned to the inner sanctum, where it was time for feeding and simultaneous enrichment. My job was to pour mealworms and slices of banana into paper bags, scrunch them up into balls, and throw them into as many parts of the enclosure as possible. It seems that I'm quite good at it, although the meerkats were just as good, if not better, at finding them, shredding them and eating the contents.

And yes, they are just as cute in the flesh as they appear from television and adverts...

Ros in the Lords: Short Debate - Claims Management Companies

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 29 May 2012...

There has, in recent times, been a lot of fuss about claims management companies. They aren't looked at with as much concern as payday loan companies, but they remain one of the more annoying things about modern life...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for securing today's debate. Topics such as this, which are limited in scope but of real importance to the public, are exactly the sort suited to one hour Questions for Short Debate. The noble Lord has done us a great service by drawing attention to the many problems which are being caused by poor practice and, indeed, often illegal practice, in this area.

I suspect that had the noble Lord tabled a Question for Short Debate on the level of nuisance calls from claims management companies, he would have been overwhelmed by speakers. The number of calls from companies selling their so-called services for payment protection insurance, utility deals, home insulation schemes and accident compensation has now reached epidemic proportions. Debt consolidation services are particularly perfidious, preying as they do on those who are already vulnerable. At home in Suffolk, I routinely receive two or three calls every day from such companies. On one glorious evening, I received five. These related either to PPI, which I have never taken up, to a loan which has never existed, or to some accident which I have never had. It is irritating enough for me, but for elderly and disabled people who physically struggle to get to the phone, this is a real problem. I am increasingly finding people who have turned off their landlines because of the intrusion of these calls. I recently moved to a new flat in London. I had a new phone connected and it was a mere 30 minutes before I received my first PPI call. When the claims management industry gets your number faster than your husband does, things have come to a pretty pass.

The Financial Ombudsman Service website states that when it investigates a complaint, it expects to see evidence that a financial business has carried out a reasonable search to ascertain whether there has ever been a PPI policy. If only the dozen or so companies contacting me every week would do so. As we have heard from the noble Lord already, the impact on the financial services institutions in investigating completely bogus claims is quite large. I ask the noble Baroness: what can be done to oblige companies to do this research before they start down this route?

Will the noble Baroness also raise with Ofcom the question of nuisance calling, particularly the effectiveness of the telephone preference service? Signing up to this service is often offered up as a solution, and millions have done so. However, complaints are simply passed on to the Information Commissioner, as the telephone preference service itself has no enforcement power. Can the Minister confirm that to date there has not been a single case of prosecution under the Act? Would she agree that the epidemic growth in these calls is a demonstration of the fact that the TPS system as currently set up is simply not working? Is she able to say, through work done by the Information Commissioner, what percentage of the problems is caused by overseas phone calls, which are, of course, outside the scope of the telephone preference service?

One of the most worrying aspects of all this is that of data protection. There are many organisations-scandalously, these include public bodies-to which we give information in good faith, which routinely sell on this data. Once they have the details, they sell them on, so that it is impossible to escape from their clutches. I am sure I am not alone in being alarmed that not only my home and mobile phone numbers are used, but increasingly my parliamentary e-mail as well.

The Ministry of Justice website has a large section dedicated to claims management issues. I read with interest that companies should:

"not engage in face to face 'cold calling', or in any form of high pressure selling".

That leads me to reflect that either the companies which are doing the calling are not registered, or that they are registered and are flouting the rules. Perhaps the definition of "high pressure selling" needs to be tightened up. In any event, will the Government consider ways in which the public could more proactively report this kind of behaviour, enforcement could be made, and action could be taken when transgressions are found?

There is a trade body called the Association of Regulated Claims Management Companies, to which companies engaged in these activities can be affiliated. It offers a form of accreditation, unlike the Ministry of Justice, which simply registers companies and strikes them off if they transgress. The Motor Accident Solicitors Society has made the valid point to me that this is a complex area, and people often need help to make claims for legitimate injuries. It is entirely in the interest of good practice in the industry to weed out the bad people and ensure that they are removed. Can the noble Baroness say what sort of dealings the Government have with these trade bodies and how they might work more closely with them in the future?

Finally, will the Minister undertake to hold discussions with the Ministry of Justice to see how a higher profile might be given to how the public can deal with these issues? The MoJ website is highly factual, but does not go in for bold statements. Certainly, in this place, it is the personal injury sector which has been most complained about; however, it is actually the financial services sector which is really worrying the public. The financial services sector has less than a third of authorised businesses operating in this sphere, but it gets more than 90% of the complaints. Most of those complaints are about either cold calling or about up-front fees. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has already said, the MoJ report for last year records 3,213 authorised businesses in this field, an increase of 91 over the year. More than 1,000 were suspended or had surrendered their licences in some way.

This is clearly a sector in which there is a lot of churn. So while we absolutely need a robust regulatory framework, we also need real enforcement and bold public awareness campaigns about how to deal with claims management companies, right from that first call, through to the way that they use personal data and then on to the substance of how they conduct their business.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Creeting St Peter: more thoughts on a social media policy

Please note that this blog post refers to an item of Parish Council business and, accordingly, I must note that the views and comments that follow have been made entirely in a personal capacity, and do not, and should not be deemed to, represent  the official view of Creeting St Peter Parish Council or its Officers.

I've had a little more than a glancing view of  the document now so, what do I think?

Well, we now have 'approved social media' the official council website, Facebook page and Twitter feed, none of which I have operating access to anyway, so I suppose that I can't breach any agreed policy regarding them, at least.

There is guidance for Officers which, if my understanding of the definition of Officers is correct, doesn't affect me either - I'm a Member, not an Officer.

There follows a section entitled 'Usage of Third Party Media in your Official Capacity as a Parish Councillor', which tells me to do things that any self-respected, reasonable blogger should take for granted - try and avoid abuse, both in your posts and in any comments that might be submitted, ensure that you do not give the perception that you are representing the view of the Council (that's the Clerk's job), appropriate use of information only available to you through your position as a councillor.

It seems harmless.

We also have a protocol. It is called 'Internal Procedure and Protocol Blogging and Social Networking Policy for Parish Councillors'. This worries me a bit, especially as, to the best of my knowledge, I'm the only councillor in the Parish with a blog. One of my colleagues has had a Twitter account for slightly less than a month but, otherwise, that would be just me as well. It includes the following clause;

5.  Councillors must bear in mind that if they have a private blog, website, or social media pages and refer to Parish Council business on them, they will be viewed as acting in their official capacity.

Now, that does make me a bit nervous, especially given that my view on the role, responsibility and obligations of parish councillors has, on occasion, differed from that of some of my colleagues. I accept, freely, that my view is a minority one in some quarters, but there is reason to be concerned. Does this mean that, if we as a council decide to do something, and I decide to blog about it before the minutes are published as a thoroughly good thing, that I am in breach of the Council's Code of Conduct? Or, worse still, if we make a decision that I'm unhappy about,  that I cannot let it be known why I am unhappy until the minutes are published?

That isn't the case on most local authorities I know of, indeed I know a number of councillors who 'live tweet' their meetings. So, I'm going to have to seek clarification as to what the intention of the policy is before I draw any conclusions.

I have a nasty feeling that this isn't going to end well...

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Queen's Speech Debate

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 16 May 2012...

Having failed to get through to Earl Attlee, the Queen's Speech debate offered another opportunity for Ros to make a suggestion as to how infrastructure spending might be financed...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I am not an economist and therefore have no intention whatever of venturing into the debate on the deficit, its causes and how it might be tackled. However, I want to reflect on the fact that in this House and beyond there would be consensus that growth, when it comes, will to a large extent be dependent on infrastructure investment, particularly on transport. That point was very well made by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce in its briefing for this debate.

It is often said that transport plays a fundamental role in the economic, social and environmental well-being of our country. Everybody says that, and to an extent they understand it, yet this sector is bedevilled by lack of coherence. Interaction between levels and tiers of government and with industry and finance is haphazard and leads to poor and often random outcomes. A key constraint is the uncertainty of delivery of large publicly funded infrastructure schemes. Current mechanisms often work in total isolation from the development planning process and from financing.

As an honorary fellow of the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation, whose members are drawn widely from across the sector, I can commend to the Government the work that it has done to see how this situation can be improved. Its work has shown that there is potential for generating private sector capital through planning gain and the uplift in land values through investment in transport. This is the ethos that underpins the Government's community infrastructure levy, but much more needs to be done to ensure that government at all levels enter into true partnership with the private sector which needs encouragement to look at profit sharing and collaborative arrangements regarding land acquisition.

The majority of road schemes are and will remain local. With the localism agenda firmly in place, the mechanisms we use to deliver local infrastructure are urgently in need of review. The newly created local enterprise partnerships could take the lead in creating local infrastructure funds, a hybrid public and private sector vehicle for delivering local schemes and giving modest capital returns on private investment. Perhaps the Government could look at how such schemes could work and could pilot some because that would enable local businesses and local citizens to work with local government to invest in their own area. These municipal bonds could include provision for investment from local authorities' own pension funds. If the Government were prepared to prime them by providing some forward funding, it would enable these projects to get off the ground. Their investment would be repaid afterwards by capturing the economic benefit of such schemes. It is often the case that cash flow prevents the private sector funding such infrastructure, but there will be provision to make profit later, so this would be a low risk and relatively low cost mechanism by which the Government could stimulate delivery, particularly of road infrastructure.

Other schemes are worth while but are not quite viable without some level of public support. Here the Government should provide grants to fill the gap and should prioritise those areas that deliver growth. Both gap funding and forward funding will bring forward additional private sector investment in several forms: infrastructure, development and business and employment investment. It is estimated that infrastructure investment can result in a multiplying effect on the economy of between three and six times the initial investment. The challenge is not so much funding it as bringing together planning, funding and delivery. If local government in particular could engage with businesses at an earlier stage, it would increase the chances of coming up with schemes that meet the objectives of both sides, giving each the incentive to make progress. It would also focus the minds of local authorities on schemes that are deliverable rather than on the lists of aspirations that lurk in local transport plans for years with no realistic chance of being delivered.

To bring back market confidence and to encourage parties to engage and investment to flow, we need new mechanisms that would reduce the initial costs of scheme development because at the moment this presents a considerable risk and a large, potentially abortive, cost to investors. This needs all parties to rethink their approach to planning and delivery and their respective roles in them. If the Government are serious about private sector investment in transport, they need to recognise that decision-making and funding decisions have to be streamlined and a more certain environment has to be created. This applies whether you are talking about local or national schemes.

The Government should also consider creating a national hybrid public/private investment funding scheme for large transport schemes. In such a scheme, private investors could pool the risk across a portfolio of transport investments. Decoupling investment from the success or failure of any individual scheme is a standard risk elsewhere and could be attractive in the transport sector.

The Government are looking at new models of managing our highway network, in which roads would become owned and managed by the private sector, regulated by central and local government. Funding would come through the existing system of allocating money or-whisper it quietly-could evolve into road-user charging for funding improvements and new schemes. There is considerable consensus throughout the transport industry that road-user charging could revolutionise the way we use transport by enabling tariffs to reflect the location of the road and the time when it is used. It remains as politically unacceptable today as it was a decade ago, when the Commission for Integrated Transport put its weight behind it. Unless there is an outbreak of political consensus to match the professional one, we will make no moves in the direction of road-user charging.

In the mean time, I suggest that the Government take a look at the work of the chartered institute and some of the models that I have suggested this evening. If they do not, they will simply fail to get private sector investment in transport and to deliver the role that new transport plays in developing growth.

Candidate selection and Falkirk - nothing to be smug about

The developing story of the role of the UNITE union in influencing Labour parliamentary candidate selections has apparently come as a shock to our beloved media. For those of us with a background in this normally overlooked aspect of party organisation, it comes as no surprise at all.

It should be obvious to anyone with an ounce of political savvy that, if an opportunity is attractive enough, the competition is likely to be rather more aggressive, and potential applicants more likely to 'stretch the envelope' of what is allowable. And, given the likelihood of anything other than a Labour win in Falkirk in 2015, the possibility of being the next MP for the seat is attractive, especially as, once selected, the candidate isn't going to have to work as hard as his/her counterpart in a marginal seat. The fact that it's a job for life is not a factor, I'm sure...

So, you have motive. And, as any good detective will tell you, what you now need is opportunity. If it is the case that an affiliated union can pay the membership subscriptions for the Labour Party on behalf of its members, and said union wants more influence over the direction of said party, what happens next is only too predictable.

And, as long as said union, and said party leadership, are seeking broadly the same thing, and there is competition between unions with differing perspectives, it's not ideal, but it's tolerable. However, with the emergence of a small number of 'super-unions', the diversity of voices has been lost and the ability to obtain disproportionate influence has grown.

It is harder to gain that influence if a Local Party is active, attractive to potential new members, and has a vibrant and inclusive internal democracy. Sadly, we know that the Labour Party has a record of not really encouraging that sort of thing, and that all three traditional major parties have seen dramatic falls in membership over the past two decades.

Thus, stripped of all defences, it is far too easy for UNITE to effectively buy parliamentary candidate selections. I don't criticise them for doing so, as they feel that it is the most effective way in which to achieve their goals, but I am critical of a party leadership who have apparently allowed this to happen and then whined about the result of their failure.

A political party's internal democracy is only as good as the rules that safeguard it. And, whilst our internal rules can be labyrinthine and annoying, they are intended to be a force for good. They are, of course, only as good as the people who apply and enforce them, and Liberal Democrats need to train and develop a small, part-time volunteer bureaucracy to carry out such key functions.

But, the price of proper internal democracy is eternal vigilance...

Friday, July 05, 2013

Creeting St Peter: The European Union comes to help

I find myself, temporarily, in a house without a kitchen. This is, of course, quite deliberate, but nonetheless, I am having to camp out in our utility room for a few days.

Thanks to Paul, and his team of contractors, the situation is likely to be temporary. In the process, I am receiving a demonstration in why the right to work anywhere within the European Union has its advantages.

You see, Paul, our kitchen designer and project manager, is Polish. He's been here for a few years, and was recommended by one of Ros's colleagues. Until he came onto the scene, we had been looking to find someone without much luck. Either they weren't very convincing, or they were eye-wateringly expensive - the local firm doesn't actually have prices, presumably on the basis that, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford them.

Paul, on the other hand, came to the house, took some measurements, talked to Ros - I was there, but I don't have a very good eye for design and Ros is better in the kitchen than I am - and went away to talk to his wife, who does the artistic stuff. A few days later, some diagrams were e-mailed over with a quote for the cost of the cabinets, removal of old kitchen and installation of the new ones.

We were impressed, so we hired him. Over the following weeks, a decorator (Radek), an electrician (Brian) and a flooring guy (Nigel) came over to take measurements and ask questions, whilst we picked out a cooker, a dishwasher and wall tiles (amongst other things). It isn't easy. Ros is incredibly busy at the moment, and I'm uncomfortable about making decisions in her absence, but we've got to the point where work has started.

Tonight, as a treat to myself, I ordered pizza to be delivered. Yes, I used a national brand - I'm a bit dull like that - and waited for it to arrive. About half an hour later, the phone rang, and an accented voice admitted that he couldn't find the house. In fairness, that's fairly common, so I ventured out into The Lane and flagged him down. Mario, for that was his name, was on his first day, and is Hungarian. So, instead of being mildly irritated, I tipped him and thanked him for delivering a hot pizza.

So, Poles and Hungarians in mid-Suffolk. There they are, coming here, working hard and providing a service. Add in the Romanians working at the care home in Baylham and you can see that, even in rural areas, the service sector is increasingly dependent on migrant workers.

It's hard to imagine our underemployed young people heading somewhere else in search of work, or being willing to do such jobs. I wonder if UKIP members have noticed that?...

My day as a zookeeper: L is for Leopard and Lion

Zoos are not, apparently, entirely about cute furry creatures that you can stroke. And, although I have been a servant to cats in the past - you really don't own cats, they employ you - there is a difference between cats that can scar, and cats that can kill.

See, I can make beds if I have the right motivation...
Despite the recent unfortunate incident when a keeper was mauled to death, my next task was to enter the lion enclosure to do some tidying. Their indoor enclosure needs to be cleaned regularly, the windows washed from the inside, the floor swept and hosed down, and the bed changed. So, having made absolutely sure that the big cats were securely outside, I was handed a large broom and got on with my work.

This must have come as something of a surprise to those zoo visitors walking past, as I wasn't in uniform, but I set to work with gusto, bagging the used straw, sweeping the floor and hosing it down very thoroughly. It isn't glamorous, and is a reminder that zookeepers work very hard indeed, doing an array of hard, quite boring jobs behind the scenes.

I was to get rather closer to the other cat, an Amur Leopard, as I was due to work with it. Enrichment is a key part of the zoo routine. Animals can easily become bored in captivity, and encouraging them to act as they might in the wild is key in avoiding the sort of psychological trauma that zoo animals suffered from in the past.

Here, kitty, kitty, kitty...
I was to work on the cat's reactions, armed only with two sticks, one with a ball on the end, the other with meat. The leopard came to the meshed window, and I tapped on a part of it with one stick. If she followed the stick, I was allowed to give her some horsemeat as a reward.

Getting too close to the window comes highly unrecommended, but she is astonishingly attractive. And, without zoos, these very rare creatures would be even rarer. It is a consolation, as even a zoo fan like myself understands and accepts that life as a zoo exhibit for a creature as large as this is not ideal. However, as lifeboats for rare species, I do believe that zoos - especially well-run ones - play a vital role.

Next, M, which is for insanely cute...

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Motion to Take Note - Draft House of Lords Reform Bill

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 30 April 2012...

Ah yes, the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill. Whatever happened to that? Ros, having suffered for months as a member of the Joint Select Committee, was moved to speak when the Motion to Note its report was debated...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I speak as a survivor of the Joint Select Committee. In doing so, I offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for his very able chairmanship. I should also like to echo his remarks about the work of the clerks and my colleagues on the committee. About a year or so ago, I would have agreed with the consensus in this House that constitutional reform of this nature should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. But after six months on this committee, I am much less sure.

It is certainly true that there are advantages in having a committee of both Houses and I think that we benefited from that. We have certainly produced a vast array of material for the delight and delectation of noble Lords even if they do not read every word. But there are problems with pre-legislative scrutiny on topics such as Lords reform because it is always tempting to move on to the broader constitutional questions which, although relevant, are outside the direct scope of the Bill. I would have liked to have spent some time scrutinising the current arrangements with the same rigour used to scrutinise the proposed arrangements, but I believe that the chairman was right to rein us in and to stick to the confines of the draft Bill. It would have been very odd indeed, on a piece of legislation in which one of the key issues was the ability of the Government to get their business, to have spent 18 months or two years doing pre-legislative scrutiny.

The other problem is that constitutional matters cannot really be scrutinised in quite the usual way because all members of the committee are to an extent themselves experts, and often know as much about the topic as the people from whom they are taking evidence, and of course all the members tend to come with views which are pretty well entrenched. It is also difficult in this case because there is a draft Bill that stands on the simple proposition that the second Chamber should be elected. For those who disagree with that view, scrutiny of the rest of the Bill is very difficult. We found that arguments became very circular and at times frustrating, and of course the requirement to reach enough of a consensus to produce a report runs the risk of compromising the work. Perhaps that answers the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who asked in his opening remarks why we came up with some of our conclusions. So we need to think very hard about the sort of Bills that are put forward for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Two phrases are constantly used in the context of Lords reform. The first is the one about turkeys voting for Christmas. It is an expression I have come to loathe. We supporters of an elected House will have to do better than that in support of our case, and I believe that we will do so. But, equally, those who argue "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", which is my second hated phrase, will also have to do better. If our system is not broken, it is certainly showing signs of wear and tear, and I do not believe that we can ignore those signs indefinitely.

First, we are the creatures of patronage, either ancient or modern, and we should recognise that that is increasingly anomalous in an age where transparency and open process are the norm. People are entitled to understand how and why those who influence their laws come to arrive in this place. When I do outreach visits, I am always asked if I live in a castle. Many people believe that we are still an aristocratic House, and the titles we hold reinforce that. The real diversity that we have here is not well understood outside. As a Member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, I know how hard we work to ensure transparency by publishing on the website the processes and our criteria for selection, but we appoint only a small percentage of the people in this House. On the majority-the political appointments-the commission has a more limited role. One of our main concerns is addressing the question of party donors, because whether we like it or not, there is a perception outside that cash for honours is widespread.

My second concern is about the increasingly political nature of this House. I have been here for 12 years and in that time I have seen the House become more confrontational and less courteous. Debate is much more partisan and the majority of votes are cast along party lines. At some point in the future, having a political house with no equivalent electoral mandate is going cause us a problem.

The third and most serious problem is the size of the House. We all believe that this House is too big. It is too big to run efficiently and so big as to risk bringing ourselves into disrepute. The experts in this House find themselves making three-minute contributions to important debates because there are so many of us. But the size of the House is inextricably linked to the power of the Prime Minister's patronage, and it is a response to the growing politicisation of the House. People say, "Well, the Prime Minister should stop appointing people". Let us hang on for a minute. Every Prime Minister for the past 50 years has had the right to appoint Members at a time and in the numbers of their choosing. Under the current arrangements, how on earth should we decide when Prime Ministers should stop appointing and when they can start again? We have no constitutional framework for deciding how large this House should be and what its political make-up should be. If you believe in the status quo, that is fine, but you then have to answer for the consequences of it-and the consequences are that every Prime Minister seeks to rebalance the numbers in this House.

Between the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the formation of the coalition in 2010, there was only one change of Administration, in 1997. If during that 31 years we had had a change of Government at every election, and more Peers were created to make the political balance work, we would have had to face up to this problem much earlier. If we have frequent changes of Administration in the future, this is an issue that we will have to deal with.

Of course, there are ways of addressing this problem other than through election, and I have no doubt that many of them will be put forward genuinely today. The trouble is that I see no evidence that we could ever get agreement to, for example, a single 15-year term, or a retirement age, or a cap on the size of the House. Many of the proposals put forward by the Goodlad committee have been rejected, and despite widespread support throughout this House for the proposals in the Steel Bill, it has been completely filleted.

In the final analysis, even we must rule by consent. There is a danger that if we turn our faces against all reform, those who argue that there is no need for a second Chamber will grow in number. For the opponents of change, there is a danger that we will win this battle but lose the war.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Cincinnati, the gift that keeps on giving...

As a memorial to my beloved red and white cat, Cincinnati, I planted my only contribution to our garden, a redcurrant bush, two years ago. Last year, it did bear fruit, although not very much, and the birds loved them. As a result, I wasn't expecting very much this year.

Cincinnati just after planting
However, it appears to have been a pretty good year for redcurrants, and despite the predations of caterpillars, we've had a good harvest this year, predominantly down to the efforts of Ros, whose patience in picking the caterpillars off with a pair of tweezers, and timely harvesting, has meant that I've eaten a surprising number this year. Indeed, there are some in the fridge as I write this.

Redcurrants aren't particularly sweet, and as Ros doesn't care for them much, I get to eat all of them, which is good for me (five a day and all), and is a useful and interesting addition to my diet.

I did offer some to our plumber, who is working on our kitchen this week. He did seem to like them, and suggested that his wife might have him plant a bush or two.

Think of it as my wildlife project for the week...

Creeting St Peter: rushing headlong into the 21st century...

I have, in the past, indicated that there is something of a difference of opinion locally regarding social media here in deepest mid-Suffolk. But, perhaps no longer...

Alongside my agenda for next Monday's meeting was notice of a communication policy for the Parish Council and, most intriguingly, a social media policy. I did, I admit, fear the worst - I wasn't the only one to feel that way - but in the spirit of goodwill, I thought that I ought to wait for it to turn up before getting too aerated.

And now they have. I do have a problem here, because, due to existing policy, I'm not sure that I can discuss the proposals on this blog - it certainly hasn't been encouraged in the past. However, the documents appear reasonable so far, although it would be useful to talk to other blogging councillors to see what their councils have to say on the subject.

So, I'll be doing some research over the coming days, just so that I have a better idea as to what is possible and what might be of concern. In the meantime, I've got some revision to be getting on with.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Oral Question - Roads: Private Investment

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 25 April 2012...

Lord Kennedy of Southwark isn't wild about Government policy on roads. Given that he's a Labour peer, that doesn't come as a great surprise. However, his oral question gave Ros an opportunity to make a polite suggestion to HM Government...

To ask Her Majesty's Government what lessons learned from the privatisation of British Rail they will apply to any plans for increased private investment in the United Kingdom's motorway and trunk road network.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, given that the objective of government is to encourage the investment of private finance in the transport sector, do the alternatives include the slightly less risky idea of creating a fund into which private investors can put money to invest in a portfolio of transport projects both new and existing?

Earl Attlee (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)

My Lords, I am not quite sure about the exact proposal that my noble friend puts forward, but we are looking at all options and I will be grateful for any input from noble Lords into possible models.

I do find myself wondering if the noble Earl spotted the lifebelt being generously tossed at him. At a time when investment returns are fairly low, and pension funds are looking for new, safer ways of investing funds under their management, rather dull, yet safe investments such as infrastructure might be quite attractive.

Monday, July 01, 2013

My day as a zookeeper: L is for Lemur, amongst other things

One of the greatest things about Colchester Zoo is their new lemur exhibit, and as I'm a huge lemur fan from my childhood days watching 'Animal Magic', I wasn't going to miss out on the opportunity to spend some quality time with them.

My new best friend. He only loves me for my raisins...
I had already met the two red-ruffed lemurs, stroked their fur and made a fuss of them, and discovered that their snouts are like the softest leather. They're patient little fellows too, although they're a bit timid if you rush at them. Luckily, my years of experience of cats has taught me that you need to approach them slowly, so that they can see you, and I was tolerated sufficiently to get close.

But the highlight was my visit to the Lost Madagascar exhibit. My job was to sit on a rock in the exhibit, armed only with a handful of raisins, and deal with the ring-tailed lemurs. It appears that raisins are a huge treat for lemurs, and that they are only fed to them once a week, which meant that, at the first scent of raisins, I was mobbed by the entire troop, babies and all.

I can assure you that they are very persistent, but I did try to make sure that everybody got a treat, and the zoo visitors on the walkway through the exhibit did get to see what it is like to be covered in lemurs. Luckily, I'm a fairly solid citizen these days, so I was able to remain stable and focussed.

All I want now is a chance to travel to Madagascar, to visit the lemurs in their natural environment. I'll need to persuade Ros, methinks...

There are other animals beginning with L. I wasn't allowed to interact with them directly, for reasons that will become clear soon...