Friday, August 30, 2013

Dave, Nick and Ed - thanks for nothing!

I am, I suppose, a bit of a liberal interventionist. I believe in a model whereby the international community defines certain behaviours as unacceptable, agrees on a range of possible sanctions, and then enforces them based on principles of evidence, justice and international law.

It's the word 'enforce' that presents us with the tricky bit. Enforcement means action, because unless you actually demonstrate that you really mean it, those minded to break the rules are encouraged to believe that they might well get away with it.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLast night, the Government showed poor judgment in calling a fairly meaningless, and probably unnecessary, vote on potential future action against Syria, a motion which positively invited a 'political' Opposition amendment, and was then lost to a coalition of the Labour Party, government rebels and minor parties.

In doing so, Parliament has effectively, although perhaps accidentally, turned its back on the cause of liberal interventionism in the case of Syria.

Oh yes, we've hardly been consistent in our approach. We only tend to engage with the approval of the US, but someone has to lead, and big countries with sufficient military capacity are required to demonstrate the existence of a big stick.

But, as a liberal, albeit perhaps an old-fashioned one, it's no good talking about the rights of man if, when push comes to shove, you only mean it when it's easy or convenient.

So, perhaps now would be a good time to take stock of our place in the world, and our obligations towards it?

Syria: an opportunity lost, an opportunity gained?

Parliament has spoken. And whilst it isn't entirely clear that what it appears to have said is actually what it meant to say, there are some serious questions that follow on from the outcome of last night's defeat for the Government.

Is the 1925 Geneva Protocol a dead letter, if nobody is willing to enforce it?

Written during the time of the ill-fated League of Nations, the Protocol outlawed first use of chemical weapons, and is still being ratified in various places - Syria ratified it in 1968, Moldova in 2010. It was widely accepted as applying to use anywhere, including domestically, although some signatories weren't entirely happy to share that view.

The Protocol was written in a simpler time, when technology limitations meant that access to chemicals was restricted, the means of delivery were few, and pretty obvious, and the idea of using such weapons against your own citizens was almost unthinkable. Besides, they weren't very accurate, being vulnerable to wind shifts and the like.

The world is a much more complex place now, and delivery of chemical weapons much simpler, so the idea that only sovereign nations might use them is a flawed one. That has implications for enforcement, and I'm not convinced that existing international bodies are best suited to dealing with the new environment.

So, if it is to be assumed that last night's vote rules out British involvement in Syria in the near term, does this mean that we have effectively chosen not to enforce the Protocol?

I hope not. But perhaps if the United Kingdom finds itself in a position to bring the UN Security Council together to address the question of treaty enforcement in an era where sovereign states are not the only players, this may be an opportunity gained, rather than one lost.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Of spurdogs and the Common Fisheries Policy

One thing about following Ros about the place is that it can be surprisingly educational. On previous outings, I've discovered what makes a successful in-house waste disposal and recycling programme (Teignbridge), what colour plants you should use in a care home for Alzheimer's patients (red and yellow) and at what point a modern pharmaceutical plant becomes profitable (10% of capacity, if it's in Pune, India). Last Friday saw another of those trips.

In Ros's new role as Chair of a sub-committee of the EU Select Committee, she is heading up an enquiry into the new Common Fisheries Policy, and I wondered out loud as to whether or not meeting some fishermen might not be interesting and informative. After all, Lowestoft isn't that far from home, and I'd never been. Ros agreed, and a meeting with the Lowestoft Fish Producers' Organisation was arranged.

The sun was shining as we headed for the coast, and we arrived in good time to meet the Chief Executive and the Chair at their office, filled with pictures of trawlers and of the port in its heyday. Then, the dock was crammed tight with fishing smacks, and fresh fish was distributed far and wide from the railway depot across the street. Now, sadly, there are just a dozen or so trawlers using Lowestoft as a base.

A number of local fishermen had come to meet Ros, who was keen to talk to them about the impact of the proposed discard ban. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that the mechanics of combining a discard ban with quotas are potentially very difficult, and that for smaller vessels, matters could be very tricky indeed. The science of fish survivability rates remains uncertain too, as factors such as technique used, water depth and air temperature all impact.

There was talk of spurdogs (spiny dogfish), which cannot be landed, but are very difficult to safely return to the sea alive, and the problems caused by bans on the catching of some types of skate but not others. It began to feel as though, in an attempt to address the problems created by huge seaborne fish processing factories, the European Union and the member states are applying an inflexible regime.

And yet, small trawlers offer relatively high levels of sustainability and low levels of discards, something to be encouraged, not buried in regulation and hedged in by unnecessary restrictions. In ensuring the survival and regeneration of fish stocks, we risk killing off an industry as a by-product.

All in all, it was a very enlightening meeting with a group of people I might never have met otherwise, on a subject I knew virtually nothing about previously. It does make me think that supporting a local industry by buying fish from local suppliers is worthwhile, and encouraging supermarkets to do the same might help. But, most of all, designing a fisheries policy towards sustainability of both fish stocks and local, small vessel, fishing fleets, might be the greatest thing of all.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

CPI - another bank scandal... and five more years of texts and robocalls

Ros reminds me that, two years or so ago, she received a phone call from a financial institution that shall remain nameless, offering her protection against identity theft. At the time, she questioned its necessity and rejected their 'generous' offer.

And now, it turns out, it was fraudulent. The cover merely duplicated that already offered in the event of theft from a bank account. The expected cost of compensation? £1.5 billion.

A dozen or so banks have signed up to the proposed settlement scheme, evidence of the scale of the mis-selling. And this leads one to ask the question, "At what point are bank executives going to be held personally liable for their misconduct?".

This mis-selling scandal overlaps the PPI debacle, and it seems obvious to me that, having discovered the scale of that, a functioning management board of a major financial institution might reasonably ask the question, "Is there anything else that we're selling that is suspect?". There is, so far, no evidence that I'm aware of that says that they did.

As a start, Companies House should be considering action to bar some, or all, of those responsible from acting as directors in the future, and then we should start prosecuting people for fraud if provable.

Clearly, these people do not learn, and perhaps five years of having to compensate us every time we get a stupid robocall or annoying text from one of those leach-like 'compensation factories' might be justice for the rest of us.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Creeting St Peter: a little more on that solar farm proposal

I've not heard anything more about the solar farm proposal but, over dinner with a friend who has a renewable energy business, I took the opportunity to ask how many homes could be supplied with energy from an 10 MWp solar farm. His answer? About 3,650 households, or a county council division in these parts.

Now, of course, there are caveats, I presume - average levels of sunshine and of downtime, probably. I'm also guessing that the payment to the farmer for the rent of his land is equivalent, or more than, the expected profit that could be made from farming it, and certainly reduces the risk.

That leaves the question, does the perceived cost to the community overcome a broader need for secure supplies of energy? With the apparent crisis in energy supply looming ever larger, to what extent should local concerns trump a possible greater good?

These are difficult questions, especially for small communities, where any such debate can become potentially rather personal. We can only wait and see how it will turn out...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is it still possible to have online debate without abuse?

I've spent the last day or so in a blizzard of moderation over at Liberal Democrat Voice for having the temerity to suggest that, rather than rush to judgement, it might be better to wait for the facts to emerge. As for the suggestion that the media might not always be unbiased or even factually accurate, and that a range of sources might help in reaching one's opinion...

And yet, in the real world, plenty of people are perfectly capable of jumping to a conclusion based on something which fits with their biases, conscious or sub-conscious. That is, I suppose, normal. After all, in our busy lives, who has time amidst work, families, housework and all those other things to find out more? We effectively trust our media to be reasonably accurate, even as we acknowledge their biases.

Except that we don't, when asked the direct question about levels of trust in journalists. Depending on which polling company is asking the question, only about 1 in 5 of us trust them. So, why is it that too many people who comment on political websites will start from the presumption that the story they have read, or use in support of their argument is true, accurate and without spin? And why are they so dogmatic about it, to the point of surprising levels of anger, aggressiveness and downright rudeness towards anyone who might have the audacity not to agree with them?

It seems to work for them, I must say. That said, whilst they tend to dominate any debate in which they participate, they appear increasingly to be talking to (shouting at?) just each other.

I also find myself bemused by the persistence of non-Liberal Democrats who seem to have remarkable amounts of free time to find Liberal Democrats to abuse. I understand that they're angry, but given their assumption that we're all morally bankrupt and operate in an ethical vacuum, what makes them think that we're suddenly going to conclude, "You know, Steve's right, I am ethically and morally loathsome, I think I'll give up any interest in society and play gin rummy and engage a seven year old to clean my chimney instead."? It seems somewhat unlikely, wouldn't you say?

I'm not under any illusion as to the popularity of liberal democracy as a political philosophy. It is, self-evidently, demonstrated by the absence of a wholly Liberal, or Liberal Democrat government since 1911, and the status quo has some pretty enthusiastic, and motivated, supporters.

I'd like to think though that, given the chance, and a fair hearing, people could lend us their support. I'm not likely to achieve that by standing on doorsteps, aggressively challenging people's integrity and morality.

So, why does the internet seem different?

Friday, August 16, 2013

The four-step approach: something to ponder over, perhaps?

According to Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey, Dean of Bath University’s School of Management, leaders need to demonstrate four key characteristics to really establish and maintain trust.
  • Ability - demonstrable competence at doing your job.
  • Benevolence - a concern for others beyond your own needs or motives.
  • Integrity - adherence to a set of principles, such as fairness and honesty, that are acceptable to others.
  • Predictability - a consistency of behaviour over time.
And, thinking about it, that seems like a pretty fair set of criteria for would-be political activists.

There is, however, a catch, in that they need to be accepted, and understood, by journalists and voters. After all, if you assume the basest of motives in all politicians, you're rather encouraging them not to adhere to them.

I can see that we're going to have a problem with this in some quarters...

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Happy birthday, @BaronessRos

Yes, it is that time once again when we celebrate Ros's birthday.

Naturally, I have found an interesting and thoughtful gift to present to her, although that gets a little harder each year - we're at an age where we have most of the things that we want, and there isn't really much more room in the house. But, most of all, we have a pleasant day in the country planned, a nice dinner sitting in the refrigerator awaiting its turn in the oven, and the sun is beginning to break through.

So, happy birthday, my love...

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Creeting St Peter: exactly how ugly is a solar farm anyway?

No sooner do I retire from the Parish Council fray than a front page headline appears in the Bury Free Press referring to a proposed solar farm on the south east edge of the parish. Apparently, an open house meeting had been held in the village to allow residents to find out more, but residents living near the proposed site were interviewed by the newspaper, voicing their concerns. And, according to the representative of those behind the project;
On Thursday July 25, MS Power Projects met with members of the local community and delegates from both Creeting St Peter and Creeting St Mary Parish Councils at a public exhibition. All the members of the local community and delegates of the respective councils were invited to attend the public exhibition, which was held at the Church Hall in Creeting St Peter.
This was, I admit, news to me, so I did a little research. There was some information on the Creeting St Mary parish website, with a helpful and quite interesting FAQ, but nothing on the Creeting St Peter site. The company behind the proposal, MS Power, on the other hand, has remarkably little information on its website, but appears to be credible enough.

The proposal itself provides an interesting dilemma. There is no doubt that our dependence on fossil fuels is a threat to our energy security as a nation, and sustainable renewable energy offers a means towards ensuring that we can generate our own power in the future. And when there are suggestions that capacity may be overtaken by demand within just two years, a project that could be up and running relatively quickly would appear to be a good thing.

There is, of course, an immediate impact on those people who live within close proximity of the proposed site, and I am sympathetic, to some extent. The views in this part of Suffolk, whilst not spectacular, are quite pleasant, whereas a solar farm, with two metre security fencing around it, might not be so attractive.

So, some obvious pros and cons to be considered. Fortunately, they'll be considered by someone else...

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Parish Councils: not necessarily a place for this political activist

It has been four years since I was first co-opted onto Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and I have since survived an election. Throughout that period I have consistently used this blog to fret about issues of financial control, accountability and communication, mostly without any sense that I can actually do anything to improve matters. And I have come to the realisation that this isn't working as I had hoped it might.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLike many small, rural, parish councils, mine is non-party political and, in truth, non-political in any sense that I recognise. In some ways, that presents no problem as most of our duties are obligatory ones - the grass must be cut, the street lights lit, that sort of thing. It isn't very exciting, but then the life of most elected officials isn't exactly glamorous.

However, there is the question of how a council operates, how it communicates and how it is accountable. This, to my mind, indicates the expression of an underlying philosophy about how a representative democracy works. And this, for anyone with a political philosophy, offers an interesting challenge.

As a liberal, I believe that I should be able to express my personal stance on any salient issue in my capacity as a councillor, respectful of the will of Council and of the decision of the majority. After all, every four years, I will be up for re-election and, potentially may have to compete to retain my seat. My electors have a right to know what I have done and why, should they be interested enough. That isn't a view that some elements of Parish Council are comfortable with, and they have made that abundantly clear, as is their right.

As a seasoned committee hand, I strongly believe that advance notice of council business makes us more efficient. It isn't mandatory that an individual councillor read their papers, but that by doing so, meetings can be more efficient and decisions made with the benefit of reflection. Again, that isn't to say that they will be, but it certainly can't hurt. The idea that I can turn up at a meeting, be presented with a list of cheques to be signed without any meaningful context in terms of in-year spending does leave me a bit nervous.

I do also believe in communicating with those who fund the activities of the Council. Our website states that meetings take place on the second Tuesday of every other month, except that they mostly don't, and no notice is given of them other than a notice on the Parish noticeboard. Given that 25% of the households in the Parish don't live in the village, and mostly have no reason to enter it, they are effectively excluded. Meetings are not announced on the Facebook page, the Twitter feed, or on the website. I am actively discouraged from distributing newsletters that are not official publications of the Parish Council, even if it is clearly stated that they are issued by me in my personal capacity.

In other words, Creeting St Peter Parish Council is not a place for someone with a philosophical world view like mine. That isn't to say that my colleagues are wrong, or stupid, or any other pejorative you might think of. We just don't agree and, as a democrat, I respect that.

So, what do I do? Do I continue in post, simply occupying the position rather than carrying out my duties and obligations as I perceive them, or continue to try to improve the way that the Council functions? I'm not minded towards the former, as it feels wrong to do so, and I'm weary of trying the latter. And 2015, when the next elections take place, is a long way away.

Life is, I've always felt, too short to be spent being even mildly frustrated, especially when there are plenty of other things to occupy my time that bring me satisfaction, or entertainment, or both. And so, earlier today, I tendered my resignation as a parish councillor. As a result, how replacement street lights are funded, or how the budget is balanced, or the minutiae of planning applications that Mid Suffolk's planning department will never enforce anyway are no longer my active problem, unless I should choose to take a casual interest. What I won't know won't annoy me.

Now, where are those barbecue tongs?...