Wednesday, November 27, 2013

ALDE Congress: the struggle for Europe's soul begins here...

It is that time in the political cycle when the various European political groupings come together to decide upon a platform for the approaching European Parliamentary elections. And, this time, the Liberal manifesto is being debated, amended and, hopefully, agreed in London - this weekend, to be precise.

As an elected member of ALDE's Council, I will be there, naturally, although my role will probably not be entirely policy-focused, given the size of our delegation. Indeed, given the number of delegates we will be sending, I'm unlikely to get a word in edgeways.

So, what am I hoping for from the manifesto?

I'd like to see some action on the following;
  • meaningful political reform of the way Europe does business - more transparency, better accountability to its citizens
  • efforts to enable citizens to take advantage of the opportunities that Europe potentially offers - free movement of labour, educational exchanges, trade etc.
  • support for innovation - we have no future in labour intensive mass production as developing countries can undercut us with drastically lower labour costs, so must be cleverer instead
  • a Europe that speaks with one voice when, and only when, it is best placed to speak for us all
  • real subsidiarity, not a 'land grab' for power by the European Parliament
There's more, but that's enough to be going on with for the time being.

As time permits, I'll be covering the event for Liberal Democrat Voice, so watch out for reports there...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Goodbye to payday loans. But good riddance?

The news that the Government will be taking steps to restrain payday loan companies appears to be generally welcomed. As Ros said more than three years ago, when asking the Government whether they planned to regulate loan companies charging high rates of interest;
Is my noble friend aware of the growing number of companies, some of which advertise on television, which offer short-term loans at extremely high rates of interest-in one case the APR is 2,689 per cent-plus an arrangement fee? Does she share my concern that a small short-term loan could very quickly turn into a very large lifetime millstone?
At the time, the Minister, Baroness Wilcox, noted the dilemma that previous Governments had faced in deciding whether or not to act. More than four months later, Stella Creasy introduced her Private Members' Bill to regulate the industry, a move which, eventually, led to yesterday's announcement by George Osborne.

I have, in the past, been sceptical about payday loans, worrying as I do about the ease with which some people have accumulated debts that they cannot service, without any great scrutiny. Others have noted that, if used sensibly, they can be a valuable way through which individuals can get through difficult, short-term, crises.

There is doubtless an element of truth in both arguments, which I now acknowledge. As a liberal, I believe that people should be trusted to make decisions that suit them and that, by removing, or restricting the availability of payday loans, their freedom is restricted unduly. However, choice, and the freedom that it implies, does not truly exist if the ability to evaluate the risks and benefits of any transaction is not present.

Restricting the freedom of some people against protecting those who need protecting is a very difficult choice, especially given the impact of unsustainable debt on some of society's most vulnerable people, and the likelihood that the community, through government, will have to step in.

Clearly, in order to survive within the restrictions to be laid down, the various payday loan companies will be obliged to change the way they do business, which will restrict their profitability and possibly force them out of the industry altogether. The service they offer will become less easily accessible and, possibly, less useful to those capable of making informed choices.

It seems that, whatever government does, there are casualties. And, regardless, the issues that lead people to turn to payday lenders will still exist. Perhaps it is time for government to look at ways to help people to manage their finances more effectively, and to encourage the growth of credit unions and friendly societies, for fear that loan sharks will surface once more in our towns and cities...

Building a better walrus, one invisible cheese sandwich at a time...

I have remarked in the past that I am more walrus than gazelle, and those of you who know me (and are honest), will accept that this is true. And whilst I like walruses (and what's not to like?), being more gazelle-like is likely to enhance the quality of my life. Well. probably, anyway.

Not Ros, and not actually me. But isn't he cute?
And so, with more than a touch of apprehension, I have embarked on a quest to change from walrus to, if not gazelle, then at least something slightly smaller and more streamlined.

I started with a diet which, I must admit, has gone well. I have shown rather more discipline than I had feared would be the case, and have lost a quite acceptable amount of weight in just nine weeks. Indeed, I have lost the amount that I promised Ros that I would lose by Christmas already.

Alright, it has not been without sacrifice. I have given up quite a lot of red meat, most of the cheese in my diet and much of the alcohol that I might otherwise consume. I have found myself scanning menus for things that are less damaging, even though they might not be quite my first choice. It has, in short, not entirely been fun.

I have taken to walking during my lunch break, something which is less trying because I don't actually eat lunch generally anyway. When in London, I set off from the training centre in random directions to see what I can find - it's been rather interesting so far.

And now, in the most unexpected step yet, I've joined a gym, something which will bring some joy to my father. I've even gone, which is nice, and I'll write about that before very long.

The effect has been interesting. I have gained a little more confidence, and a touch more energy, and whilst I am no more than a slightly more svelte walrus so far, my clothes are looser and my pace a little faster.

I do kind of miss the cheese sandwiches though...

Monday, November 25, 2013

On being reminded that, perhaps, one should count one's blessings more often...

I read Jennie Rigg's blog post today with a sense of disquiet. Not, as one might think, with a sense of disbelief, or disgust, or disappointment, but disquiet. It does bother me somewhat when people I like are disturbed to the point when they take actions which, in my mind, are injurious to themselves and/or others, or are made unhappy by the actions of others or even sheer randomness. Sometimes I note from their Twitter feeds, or from third parties, that life is dealing out lemons today.

I find myself thinking, "there, but for the grace of God, go I", but seldom do I take the next step of reflecting upon that. So, by way of making amends, perhaps I should tempt fate by doing just that.

I am, in many ways, extraordinary in my ordinariness. I had an uneventful childhood, raised by two people who cared for me, in a community where I felt safe, and schooled by people who took sufficient interest in me as an individual to want to encourage me to explore the possibilities open to me.

I never experienced poverty or suffering in the way that, as it turned out, so many other people have done, never had people tell me that I couldn't do things, never been treated as a persecuted minority, never felt that I have to justify my existence. Clearly, being a mixed-race, middle-class male comes with certain advantages. And to the extent that I am in a minority, it is one that goes almost entirely unnoticed, even if it is something that I am inordinately proud of.

I have had opportunities denied to many, and even taken some of them, and when bad things have happened, I have been blessed by friends and family who generously given their love and time to support me. And I am married to someone who I love and, I think, loves me back.

In short, the fates have been generous thus far, a view reinforced by the dilemmas faced by my friends and associates on a day by day basis. I can only admire the grace and good humour with which they face them.

And so I say to Jennie, and to so many others, I am proud and honoured to be your friend, and I take strength and solace from your bravery and honesty.

And, in turn, I give thanks for the good fortune that I have had over nearly half a century, and promise not to take it for granted quite so much in future...

Standing room only? Another 'interesting' idea from the Institute for Economic Affairs...

Picking up my copy of the Times this morning, my eyes were drawn to a small teaser on the front page, indicating that Ministers are being pressed to allow train companies to reintroduce third-class "standing only" train carriages as a cheap way to increase capacity.

As a retired South Londoner (as in, I don't live there any more), I remember spending most of my time standing on trains anyway, and then standing on the Underground having reached a London terminus. Accordingly, I turned to the piece, on page 11, expecting the worst. I wasn't disappointed.

Given the tendency of the Institute of Economic Affairs to promote some mildly wacky ideas and overstate support for them, I was not surprised to find that this was one of their efforts. Dr Richard Wellings, the author of the report, has a PhD in transport and environmental policy, which is all very nice, but doesn't necessarily demonstrate any practical experience of running a railway.

Apparently, many commuters on shorter journeys already choose to stand even if seats are available, according to Dr Wellings, so positioning three standing-only carriages at the front of commuter trains would provide a valued service. They could be described as 'third-class', with fares to match, he suggests.

I find myself wondering how far-reaching his research was - perhaps no further than talking to his (probably) relatively youthful, in a hurry, workmates. I also find myself wondering what his knowledge of suburban rail travel is, as any hardened commuter over the age of, say, thirty-five will tell you that they tend to seek the comfort of a seat if one is available, and their journey is long enough.

Given a little time, and if I cared enough to trash such nonsense, I could come up with half a dozen reasons why the proposal is merely a desperate attempt to draw attention - safety, infrastructure, rolling stock layout, accessibility, fare evasion risks come readily to mind - but, luckily, the response of the Government is, apparently, to consider the proposal to be "a bizarre idea from the Westminster bubble". A government source (whatever that is) is quoted as saying;
It doesn't reflect what commuters in the real world want and it would be a step backwards.
I suspect that the same phrase could, with the word 'commuters' replaced by 'people', be efficently recycled to describe the Institute for Economic Affairs...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An away day to watch the Hatters

We all have our burdens to carry, I'm told, and one of mine is being a Luton Town supporter. I have no connection to the town, so why the Hatters?

I'm a north Londoner by upbringing, but by a fluke of geography, one of the easiest Football League teams to reach from my childhood home is Luton Town, and they wore orange shirts - I'm an old Liberal, and that was their colour too - and so that's how I ended up, after a brief, and somehow unsatisfying flirtation with Queens Park Rangers.

When I still lived in North London, I would go and watch them play erratically (my attendance and their performance both), as the politics got in the way, and when I married and moved to South London, that was it. Until this weekend past, that is. With Ros scheduled to be away, I was at a loose end. We also needed a Saturday night stay in an Intercontinental Hotel Group property - it's a long story - so, where were Luton playing?

The answer, it turned out, was Chester, but the local hotels were either full, or difficult to get to, but a trawl through the website led me towards the Crowne Plaza Manchester Airport, so that was alright.

The other issue was getting to Chester. The best standard class fare that would get me to Chester in time for kick-off was £111.50, which is a bit stiff for a football match. Luckily, the first class fare was a much more reasonable £48.00 (go figure!), and I could also get back from Manchester Airport for the same amount. So, bookings made, I waited for Saturday to come.

Luton had gone ten games unbeaten in the Skrill Conference Premier (think Fifth Division, or League Three for you young people) and were second behind Cambridge United, the conquerors of the mighty Needham Market two weeks ago, and Chester were in the bottom five, so prospects were good as I traveled across the Stour to London and then up the West Coast Main Line.

I had a nice walk around Chester, as well as a modest luncheon, before heading to the ground through a traffic jam. I might not have made kick-off had it not been for the fact that the Luton Town team coach was stuck just ahead of us...

The match itself was a bit of a disappointment, after Luton swept Chester off the park for the first fifteen minutes, then seemed to forget that keeping the ball on the ground was what had allowed them to do so. Chester scored a pretty good goal, but otherwise weren't that good. So, 1-1 it ended up, and whilst it was a bit disappointing, it was a point well-earned.

All I had to do was get to Manchester Airport, where dinner and a comfy bed awaited...

Political appointees: did Northcote and Trevelyan die in vain?

The news in yesterday's Times that Ministers are "likely to hire hundreds more political appointees" (£) is, for anyone who cares about the concept of a non-political bureaucracy, deeply depressing.

I'm a rather old-fashioned soul, I admit, and rather proud that we live in a country where civil servants are appointed on merit through a process of open competition. It means, in theory, that an incoming administration can call on a corps of senior officials who understand how their departments work and are grounded in the process and legislation that determines what should and should not be done, as well as what might be possible.

The Northcote-Trevelyan report, commissioned by Gladstone and published in 1854, made the following recommendations;
  1. Recruitment should be entirely on the basis of merit by open, competitive examinations
  2. Entrants should have a good ‘generalist’ education and should be recruited to a unified Civil Service and not a specific department, to allow inter-departmental transfers.
  3. Recruits should be placed into a hierarchical structure of classes and grades.
  4. Promotion would be on the basis of merit not on the grounds of ‘preferment, patronage or purchase’.
On the face of it, the new proposals breach all four of the recommendations, which does not commend them to me.

I also worry about the impact that such an influx would have on the Senior Civil Service. The idea that these new recruits will be able to give orders to civil servants is a troubling one, and is likely to make the task of recruiting talented individuals to the Civil Service even harder than it is already becoming - bear in mind that one-fifth of senior civil servants would like to leave.

It also means that, if there is a change of government, then a whole tranche of the higher echelons of central government will need to be replaced overnight, with a significant destabilising effect on our governance.

No, I can't say that this is one of the Coalition's best ideas...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I am another step closer to my inevitable demise...

Or not, as the case may be, because my life span is elastic, rather than fixed. After all, if I live healthily, eat properly and get enough exercise, I could live for another, well, who know, number of years beyond what might otherwise be the case. But I digress.

Yes, it's my birthday, which makes me... well, actually, it doesn't matter that much, as I increasingly feel disconnected from my chronological age and am puzzled by my emotional age - still somewhat less than the actual figure. Ah, I've digressed again...

Anyway, what to do on a birthday in mid-November? I wasn't certain, to be honest, so rather left it to the day itself to reach a conclusion. Spontaneity, that's the thing. And so, on waking up this morning, I looked out of the window at the blue sky and thought, seaside, that'll be nice. Not just any seaside of course, proper bourgeois seaside, as supplied by Southwold or, as I lovingly refer to it, Notting Hill-sur-Mer.

It is, I admit, charming, with a pier with good coffee, shops with interesting things in them and a quirky, Heath Robinson-esque clock which puts on a display on the hour and half-hour. And, as it turned out, we weren't the only ones who had drawn the conclusion that, on a sunny day, Southwold is a good place to be.

Having explored the pier, we took a stroll along the seafront, with its vast array of brightly coloured beach huts, towards Sizewell B which stands in the mist some six miles or so south of town, before wandering into town in search of lunch. Any suggestion that this might be a supposedly typical English seaside resort might be scotched by our lunch, venison and beef hotpot, with potato dumplings and freshly baked bread for Ros, Blythburgh belly pork with savoy cabbage and garlic mash for me. It is, as I say, a bit middle-class.

Southwold is also home to the Sole Bay Brewery, home of Adnams, and their 'Cellar and Kitchen' store has all sorts of good things - award-winning gin, cordials, kitchen stuff and vast amounts of beer. We stocked up on gifts and headed back to the seafront for more exercise, stopping only to buy me a hat (I did rather need one).

Back at the pier, we purchased a doorstop in the form of a polkadot pig and a moneybox in the form of a beach hut - it even has a seagull on it - before heading for home.

All in all, a nice day out, and a splendid way to spend a birthday...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A branch line at the end of a spiral arm of the galaxy

Suffolk is surprisingly well provided for in terms of trains. With the exception of Haverhill, the towns are connected to Ipswich by hourly train services which, given car ownership and population levels, is about as good as you could reasonably ask for.

The Corn Exchange, now used as the town's library
The quirky exception is Sudbury, which sits at the end of the single track Gainsborough Line, and is served by two-carriage Diesel Multiple Units from Marks Tey on the main East Anglian Main Line. There are no through trains to London, as the branch joins the main line on a curve, pointing towards Colchester and Ipswich, and the fast London trains don't stop at Marks Tey anyway.

There are two intermediate stations, Bures and Chappel & Wakes Colne, the latter being the home of the East Anglian Railway Museum and an exceptionally popular beer festival. There's also the viaduct, which is said to be the largest brick structure in the country.

What this does mean is that Sudbury isn't an obvious place to commute to London from, with a consequential impact on house prices. And it's a rather nice little town, known for its silk production and for being the birthplace of the eighteenth century artist, Thomas Gainsborough, amongst other things.

It has a small department store, Winch & Blatch, enough shopping, some nice churches, sufficient architecture to keep you engaged, and the water meadows on the River Stour are a nice place to stretch your legs and get some fresh air.

But, for any Londoners reading this, it might as well be on Mars. Ah well, your loss...

The advantage of loyalty schemes

Readers of this blog will appreciate that I do like to travel, and that marriage to Ros hasn't really changed that. Naturally, the sort of travel that I do has changed a bit, as Ros isn't quite as adventurous as I am, but nonetheless, we do travel a fair bit.

One of things that really helps is loyalty schemes. I join them as a matter of course, even though it is usually best to stick to just one or two for maximum effect. All of them offer free stuff, although the free stuff does vary in quality and quantity.

For example, I'm not a huge fan of British Airways' Executive Club programme, as it is relatively hard to earn status, and the miles gained are often hard to spend, whereas United Airlines' Mileage Plus scheme allows you to earn miles quite quickly and spend them pretty easily, and in some unexpected places.

The secret is to find an airline that is part of one of the big three airline alliances (Star Alliance, One World and Sky Team), and has a fairly liberal points policy. My preference is for Star Alliance, as they have the best coverage, and miles earned on one member can be spent on others, i.e. you can use United Mileage Plus points to fly Air New Zealand from Melbourne to Port Vila, or LAN Airlines from Buenos Aires to Bogota, should you be minded to.

If you can stick to that alliance, you can earn points, and therefore free flights fairly quickly, with only a few flights. If there is an airline that flies from near you to somewhere you travel frequently, it's probably best you pick an airline in their alliance - so KLM or Air France for Sky Team, BA or American Airlines for One World, Lufthansa, SAS or United for Star Alliance.

Don't forget partner offers either. British Airways have a tie-in with American Express (indeed, a number of airlines do), allowing you to earn miles for your purchases, and by using e-retailers via the airline loyalty scheme website, you can double, or even treble up, making that free trip a little closer.

Hotel chains, Eurostar, they have schemes too, and all of them offer an opportunity for free stuff without having to pay any more. After all, they want your custom, and they'll happily bribe you to get it. They'll even offer bonuses for staying in certain hotels, or flying certain routes, if you're flexible.

So, if you're travelling, sign up. Because, if you don't, you're only subsidising people like me. And whilst I am most grateful, I'd be delighted if you got some free stuff too...

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

And suddenly, it went dark... Day 3

It was beginning to get a mite depressing as another day dawned without power. So, I rang UK Power Networks to find out what the latest news was and, to my surprise, I got through almost immediately.

"I'm sorry, Mr Valladares,", said another very polite operator, "but we don't really know when someone will get to your village. I'll get back to you when I have some more information.". Luckily, I'm a fairly patient soul, so I left it another three hours before trying again.

This time, I was a little more assertive, noting that, in a village without mains gas, getting us back on line was perhaps more of a priority. I noted that, whilst it was very nice that they had opened three drop-in centres for those without heat or hot water, placing them all at least thirteen miles from a village which, in any event, had little way of finding out that they even existed, wasn't very useful.

An hour and a half later, my mobile rang. "I understand that you contacted the Red Cross, Mr Valladares.", said a female voice. "I don't think so,", I replied, "but what can I do for you?". The woman explained that they would be sending volunteers to the village, in an effort to help, in particular, the more vulnerable members of the community. In a spirit of helpfulness, I gave them the address of our Parish Council chair, and directions to his front door.

Two hours after that;
Things were beginning to look up, especially when word reached me that engineers had just arrived in the village as darkness fell.

When I got home, however, my hopes of light appeared to be dashed. The engineers had apparently left after just half an hour or so, and the village was still dark, with only the occasional flicker of light from a candle to break the gloom. And when, an hour later, it was announced that a drop-in centre would arrive in Creeting St Peter at nine the next morning, I drew the obvious conclusion.

At eleven o'clock, with the wood fire banked and still giving off heat, I curled up on the sofa under a duvet and fell asleep.

My slumber was disturbed by a bright light and the sound of people talking. The television had sprung into life, and I checked the time - 11.45 p.m. I turned the television off and went back to sleep. The nightmare was over...

Friday, November 01, 2013

And suddenly, it went dark... Day 2

Tuesday dawned sunny, and I got ready to go to work. At the usual 7.55, my Suffolk Links bus arrived to take me to the station where, upon arrival, it became clear that my community bus was the only thing working well.

No 8.11, no 8.29, the 8.45 nowhere to be seen but presumably eaten by desperate residents of Elmswell, I had no choice but to read my copies of The Times and the East Anglian Daily Times and find out just how bad things were. The answer, particularly in Suffolk? Very.

I got to work eventually, stopping for some breakfast on the way and performed my usual duties before heading for Bury St Edmunds for dinner and an evening's culture (I'll talk about that another time). The trains appeared to be running on time at least, and the burger I subsequently enjoyed was pretty good too.

On arriving home, the news was not good. The village was still in total darkness, although there were some consolations...
And there were still thousands of households across the county still without power... 

The dream dies as the rain pours... Needham Market 0, Cambridge United 1

And so, the big day came for our local Ryman League Division One North team, as the big boys from the Skrill Conference National came to town for their FA Cup, Fourth Qualifying Round tie.

To put it in perspective, there's a three division gap between the two teams - think Premiership and League Two - and Cambridge United are top of their league, having gone sixteen games without defeat. But, where there's life, there's hope, as they say, and Needham Market had only lost their first game of the season less than a week earlier.

A crowd of 1,784, the largest ever to grace Bloomfields, and including Ros and I, settled down in anticipation of a slaughter, if the Cambridge fans were to be believed. I wasn't overly optimistic, but then I knew the odds, but was confident that the Marketmen would give it their best shot. And indeed, at half-time, with the two teams goalless, it was hard to tell which was the Conference side. Needham Market were playing the better football, without creating too many chances, whilst Cambridge looked as though they had rather underestimated their opponents.

The second half was a different story, as the visitors began to impose themselves, and the snap gradually disappeared from the home team - the disparity in fitness levels and experience was beginning to tell. Goalkeeper James Shea, a former Arsenal trainee, was coming into the game more and more, making a string of high-class saves as the rain began to bucket down.

But, just as the outnumbered home supporters were beginning to dream of survival and a place in the draw for the First Round proper, their hopes were dashed as tired defenders lost an attacker and substitute Adam Cunnington nodded home a simple goal.

There was a brief flurry by Needham Market in the ten or so minutes that remained, but it was to no avail, and it would be fair to say that, overall, the better side won. The minnows weren't disgraced though, and the funds generated by the best cup run of the club's history will doubtless be reinvested into its future.

And, I suspect, I'll be back from time to time, as my other commitments permit, to watch them as they try to reach the promised land that is the Ryman League Premier Division.

Come on you Marketmen!