Saturday, December 20, 2014

Latvia welcomes careful Europeans...

Next month, Latvia assumes the Presidency of the European Council and, to introduce itself to the world, this really rather charming video has been released. So, if you don't know very much about Latvia, here, in less than three minutes, is a Latvian view of themselves...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Liberal Democrats and political philosophy - let's not be strangers, eh?

Perhaps it requires exposure to the brisk, clean air of a properly liberal country to get the old philosophical juices flowing but, finding myself in the Estonian countryside this afternoon, along with Ros and Cicero, talking about what is wrong with British politics, I find myself faintly perturbed by the relationship between political parties and political philosophies. Or, in the case of the United Kingdom, the evident lack of such a relationship.

The Labour Party has little in common with socialism these days, and Conservatives behave in a way which is anything but. And, it dawns on me, Liberal Democrats have a not wholly consistent relationship with liberalism. As a self-confessed liberal, that does rather trouble me.

"Ah yes,", I hear you say, "but what sort of liberalism do you mean - social or economic?". And I find myself thinking, why choose? For to choose either is to deny the benefits of the other, to determine that one is secondary to the other.

So, for example, we debate the level of private sector involvement in the delivery of public services. All very interesting, I'm sure, but shouldn't we be more worried about how the market works in reality - avoiding the creation of effective private sector monopolies and cartels, encouraging new providers and nurturing a spectrum of delivery vehicles for those services? Does Mrs Brown worry about the logo on the side of the bus that takes her to market on a Thursday, or is she more bothered about the fare and the quality of the service? Does choice trump quality or vice versa? By creating larger contracts in an attempt to create economies of scale, are we, as David Boyle so astutely notes, creating a chasm between the day to day needs of humans and the behaviour of big, impersonal institutions?

How can we empower people, so that they aren't enslaved by conformity, ignorance and poverty? How should we educate our people to allow them to think for themselves, to evaluate information in an ocean of data and place value upon it? What is the role of the State, what size should it be and why, where should power be exercised?

I have this uncomfortable feeling that Liberal Democrat thinking has developed an acceptance that change can only be delivered within the confines of our current political construct, that legislation is the first tool to be reached for in any given circumstance. In Parliament and at the heart of our Party, we have fallen into the trap of playing the game the way the big boys want it to be played, rather than exploring a new form of politics, one that reflects the rapidly-changing world in which we live.

And, worst of all, we seem to become ever more rigid in terms of the solutions we propose. There must, it seems, be an answer to everything which will, well, answer everything, leaving no room for doubt or uncertainty. Life is full of doubt and uncertainty, and our political response should face that slightly discomforting proposition.

So, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Party, regardless of the result in May, is to decide what Liberal Democrats are for, and how you create an effective campaigning vehicle to win those things. Sadly, I fear that we'll instead choose to wring our hands and allocate blame...

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Sweden: another bite at the electoral cherry* for liberals

In August, Ros and I ran into members of Folkpartiet, campaigning in Sweden's General Election, and I later reported on the rather unstable minority coalition government that emerged. It indeed turned out to be unstable, when its first budget was defeated by the combined Opposition.

And so, another election will take place on 22 March, which may offer a window into what might happen here in the event of an inconclusive election on 7 May. Admittedly, with first past the post here, the chances of UKIP having the same sort of directly malevolent impact on the ability of other parties to form a coalition is somewhat slighter. However, given the stated enmities between the various UK parties, finding enough of the right dancing partners could, if current predictions turn out to be accurate, be rather challenging.

* By the way, does anyone know if biting an electoral cherry falls foul of our new porn laws?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

International Relations Committee - some initial observations from a new kid (elect) on the block

So, I have attended my first meeting of my Party's International Relations Committee, having kindly been invited to attend in order to get a feel for it before I formally take up my role as a directly elected member on 1 January. How did it go, and what do I think?

Firstly, Robert Woodthorpe Browne is a very efficient committee chair - we ran pretty much to time, which is always good - and a old-fashioned political operator (that's a compliment, by the way). His experience, contacts and political awareness would be very hard to duplicate, and someone would be have to be very good to be a credible replacement.

The International Office, led by Iain Gill, is enthusiastic and keen to engage. They are aware of the need to be sensitive in how assistance is given to our sister parties across the globe, practical in how that help might be delivered, and pragmatic in achieving their goals whilst factoring in the needs of the wider party.

So far, so good. Is there a niche for me?

I find that most committees need a bureaucrat sometimes, but my engagement in the finances of ALDE via its Financial Advisory Committee already appears to be helpful and my party knowledge and desire for inclusivity may offer some ideas for future interaction with the wider Party.

This evening's meeting was interesting too, with talk of the Africa Liberal Network (expanding fast) and the Council of Asian Liberal Democrats, of study visits and the activities of Liberal Youth, the British Group of Liberal International and the Liberal Democrat European Group. Gathered around the table are a collection of highly informed, very experienced internationalists - former European Parliamentarians, academics and diplomats, with a leavening of enthusiasts - although a few more women would be good.

I have a few things I want to work on over the coming year, and I get the sense that, as long as I work collaboratively, there is the possibility of changing a few things that might make a difference. So, we'll see how it goes...

Sadomasochism and the public finances - a Freudian slip from Mr Cameron?

I couldn't really describe myself as an optimist when it comes to the public finances - I suppose that as a fiscal conservative who is more than a little debt averse, the notion of a budget deficit at 5% of GDP is still a bit unnerving. And so, it should not come as a surprise when I look upon the Autumn Statement with something less than a sense of triumphalism.

Amidst the announcements of investment in this, additional money for that and changing in the taxation of the other, the iceberg of the structural deficit - still not eliminated, lest we forget - looms worryingly large, let alone the deficit as a whole.

Of course, it isn't as simple as just cutting spending and dealing with the consequences - and only a fool would suggest that. Nevertheless, some serious thought needs to be given to how we get from here to a balanced budget. Indeed, we need to consider exactly how urgent it is to balance the budget anyway. After all, if the economy is growing faster than the national debt, you are actually reducing the debt in real terms, a first step towards stabilising our finances.

But what worries me is that further cuts in public spending have been, to a great extent, soft-pedalled. If tax rises are ruled out by the Conservatives, that suggests some pretty serious cuts in budgets that have already suffered grievously and a possible withdrawal of the public sector from what some might consider to be vital services.

Any post-2015 administration is going to have to address this, whether they like it, the sadism of having to make cuts, the masochism of self-denial when it comes to largesse (a particular problem for most of the political parties, I might suggest, but especially for Labour). And I suspect, as Vince Cable does, that nobody will want to in the run-up to a General Election.

We have, in this country, been rather guilty of offering the public Scandinavian levels of public services and, at the same time, American levels of taxation, something that they have swallowed only too happily. At some point, someone will have to explain why that can't work, and what the price will be. I'm not holding my breath...

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords - Hospitals: Voluntary Sector and Emergency Readmissions

The House of Lords does choose to do things with almost glacial slowness sometimes, and then, having chosen to move, does so so quickly that members are unable to keep up. And so it was in this instance, as Ros notes in her opening paragraph...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of the voluntary sector in reducing emergency re-admissions to hospital.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD):

My Lords, it is about a year since I first tabled this Question for Short Debate. I was inspired to do so by reports from the Royal Voluntary Service which described the impact of its Home from Hospital schemes. I regret that, having waited all this time, the Motion was in the end tabled at very short notice, which prevented many Members who would have liked to participate doing so. Given that it appeared on the Order Paper only on Wednesday and that the speakers list was closed on Friday, that comes as no surprise. I am particularly grateful to both Front Benchers and my noble friend Lady Thomas, who will speak in the gap. For the record, I give an assurance that the modest speakers list does not reflect the level of interest in this matter.

I am not one of the usual contributors to debate on health matters, so I thought long and hard before venturing into this area, but I do know about the voluntary sector, and here I declare an interest as chair of the National Volunteering Forum, and it occurred to me that I should table the Motion precisely because I do not come at this from a health expert’s perspective. We have all agreed that the time for silos is over.

It seems a long time ago now, but in 2010, the Secretary of State for Health took measures to manage emergency readmissions, which had risen, in part at least, because hospitals were reducing the length of stay. Despite this, about 19% of emergency readmissions—about 190,000—occurred in 2012-13. The evidence shows that people from lower socio-economic and vulnerable persons groups are at a higher risk of avoidable emergency readmission.

The Government and the NHS have made a good start on getting to grips with this problem by creating individualised discharge plans and ensuring that hospital-led discharge teams provide continuity of care. Of course, the better the integration of primary, secondary and social care, the better the contribution by prevention, early diagnosis and self-treatment. However, as Simon Stevens noted in the NHS Five Year Forward View,
“voluntary organisations often have an impact well beyond what statutory services alone can achieve”.
Last week’s report on patient-centred care from the Royal College of General Practitioners makes specific reference to the role played by community groups and the voluntary sector in achieving self-management of health conditions. Also last week, the NHS published Stephen Bubbs’s report into the commissioning framework for people with learning disabilities and autism, in which he, too, notes the role played by the voluntary sector in the sort of community-based support which reduces both initial admissions and readmissions. It is an area that I am beginning to know well as a fairly new patron of ACE Anglia, which provides just that kind of advocacy and support to people with learning disabilities and autism living in my area. Of course, they are all right. Voluntary organisations can help with early intervention by spotting problems early on and by helping to join up fragmented services. They often bring specialised and local knowledge and, precisely because they are not from the statutory sector, they tend to be trusted.

Provision of hospital-to-home services in a range of contexts can often give patients the time and space they need to make a recovery and avoid readmission to hospital, with all the trauma that that entails. The British Red Cross gave an example of Mrs Jones, a widow in her mid-80s suffering from dementia. Discharged from hospital but needing treatment for a urinary tract infection, staff referred her to the BRC, which arranged for a volunteer to meet her in hospital and then visit her at home to make sure that she completed her course of medication. It ensured that the social services team was aware of her needs, and that she felt supported. She not only recovered well at home but, because of the ongoing support and encouragement she received, her quality of life actually improved on a long-term basis.

AGE UK Cornwall carried out a pilot scheme where volunteers worked closely with patients to identify their needs and offer support. It acted as a key link with the NHS and social services. Under that scheme, emergency readmissions were reduced by 25%. The Midhurst Macmillan Service is a specialist palliative care service covering a 400 square mile area of rural England across three counties. By offering a host of roles from shopping and gardening to emotional support for the patient and their family and liaison with the NHS, the scheme is aimed at reducing the number of hospital admissions. Although they are not strictly emergency readmissions, nevertheless, its work is very successful: 73% of its patients died at home or in a hospice rather than having to be admitted to hospital.

In its recent report, Going Home Alone, the Royal Voluntary Service highlighted its own scheme in Leicestershire which showed that a package of support reduced emergency readmissions by half, from 15% being readmitted in 60 days to 7.5%. It was not rocket science. Contact was made with patients before they left hospital, and someone went home with them and made sure that the house was warm and lit, and that some food was available. They offered support to collect prescriptions, make follow-on medical appointments and liaise with the statutory services. Many of these actions are so simple, but make so much difference. However, like many simple things, they are not always easy.

Like most other services, voluntary organisations have had to deal with funding cuts. In many cases, when they wish to bid to provide services, they are disadvantaged against the private sector because they want to provide decent terms and conditions for their staff and are not going to go down the zero-hours contract route. In some cases, these organisations simply lack the capacity to engage in complex and expensive tendering processes.

The reorganisation of health and social care at a local level has meant that new relationships between the sector and the commissioners have had to be developed. Some health and social care providers are simply not aware of the range and extent of the work of the voluntary sector in their area and so patients miss out on the support they can offer. Then there is the vexed question of substitution. Volunteers do not want simply to replace public services which have been cut, but want to add value.

What we are now calling austerity looks likely to be the new norm. It is hard to take that on board, but we should be planning for it. Government spending should be much less reactive and give some priority to preventive spending, which involves a genuine forward look at the likely impacts of spending decisions made now on outcomes in a decade hence. Policy and funding changes which push costs off into the future are no different from borrowing, and the sooner we understand that, the better.

I am looking forward to hearing from other Members about how we can better harness the collective strengths of the statutory services and the voluntary sector. The old dividing lines have become blurred and the picture has become more complex as a result, but the need has never been greater.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Good news from Moldova. Probably...

Moldova - EU neighbour, but friend?
Yesterday's election in Moldova looks like returning another pro-European coalition to power - good news for those who support building a bigger, more inclusive Europe, bad for Russia, not great for UKIP supporters and possibly a headache for the European Union.

The elections saw allegations of Russian interference - the new Patria party was disqualified three days before polling day amidst accusations, probably well-founded, that the party was funded by Russia. The fact that its leader promptly fled to Moscow might imply guilt, although the OSCE rather wisely raised its concerns that the timing of the disqualification might have been, how might one put it, convenient.

The impact of the disqualification appears to have been that Patria supporters reverted to the pro-Russia Socialist Party, who want Moldova to reject its recently signed Association Agreement with the European Union in favour of a Eurasian Union with Russia and others. With what appears to be the largest share of the vote (21.1%), they will doubtless be seen as the big winners. The two members of the ruling pro-Europe coalition, the Liberal Democrats - somewhat confusingly associated with the European People's Party - and the Democratic Party, came second (19.6%) and fourth (15.8%) respectively, whilst the Communists came third with 17.9%.

Of rather more interest to liberals is the performance of the Liberal Party, who are observer members of ALDE, and who resigned from the ruling coalition last year. Their vote is slightly down on 2010 (9.5% compared to 10%), but as seats in Parliament are proportionately allocated to all parties who reach the required minimum share of the vote (6% but with some interesting provision for electoral pacts), they may well end up with an extra seat in the 101-seat Parliament.

Their support, presumed but not guaranteed, for the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Party, would ensure that the pro-EU forces would have a working majority.

The result is probably bad for Russia, as their widely presumed interference in Moldovan politics may well have backfired, and Moldova is likely to move on its bid for EU membership as early as 2017.

UKIP supporters will probably not be too keen on the fact that Moldovans now have visa-free access to the European Union. Luckily, there are only 3.5 million people in Moldova...

But the headache for the European Union is that it brings into sharp focus the 'frozen conflict' of Transdniestria, which is currently something of a rogue state, having declared itself independent of Moldova and which has applied for annexation by Russia. With 1,000 Russian soldiers in its territory who show no signs of leaving, and rather a lot of weaponry still lying about the place, Federica Mogherini and her team will almost certainly have to add it to the list of issues to be raised when dealing with Vladimir Putin and his charming cohorts.

But, regardless of what the future may bring, congratulations to Mihai Ghimpu and his colleagues, and we look forward to congratulating them on their success if they are able to join ALDE Council delegates in Oslo in May.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dear members who read Liberal Democrat Voice, it seems that we aren't as representative as you thought...

So, Sal Brinton is the new President of the Liberal Democrats, a result which seems to have come as a surprise to some people. Me, I had no clue in advance of the declaration, as the Presidential campaigns almost entirely bypassed Mid Suffolk, which is my connection to what one might describe as 'ordinary members' (they aren't ordinary, as I note here).

Nobody visited us, nobody approached any of our members to canvass support on their behalf as far as I can tell, and all we saw was the mailing and, for those of us on e-mail, three messages from each candidate, one of which was probably too late to matter, especially given that nearly three-quarters of members voted by post.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI don't think that Mid Suffolk was particularly unique though, as unless you were easily accessible, or had some Party event taking place on your patch, it was unlikely that a candidate would come your way - Liz Lynne being the honourable exception to that statement. And even she could only visit so many places in the time available.

Naturally, I kept my eye on Liberal Democrat Voice and my Twitter feed, although given my Local Party's bemusement at both, I was never likely to be convinced that what I was seeing online was likely to reflect the outcome. Hell, I didn't believe it in 2008, when it was pretty accurate as it turned out.

Daisy's campaign, whilst it was lively and enthusiastic, didn't appear to have anywhere near as much reach beyond social media, and given her late emergence as a candidate, it was never likely to leave enough time for her to raise her profile to reach beyond the Internet. That isn't, by the way, a criticism. After all, it took Ros two years of travelling the country to establish her credibility as a likely contender for the Presidency.

So, if you're an ordinary member, confronted with three candidates of whom you're likely to have little personal connection, what are you likely to do? The most likely thing is to read the manifestos and study them for marks of credibility. Who else thinks this person is good, and are they someone that I know and trust? In 2008, Ros's campaign had Regional Chairs, all of whom were well connected and well respected. Her background in local government over two decades meant that there was a network of local councillors who knew her, or knew someone who knew her. There were, even in areas where we had relatively little strength in local government, people willing to endorse Ros if asked for an opinion.

It didn't strike me that any of the campaigns had that network available to them - again, time didn't really permit. So, the endorsements were key, and that's where Sal scored hugely. Ordinary members see the names of Paddy and Shirley and, if they vote at all, are likely to be swung by that in the absence of a personal connection. That is, I presume, why candidates seek endorsements.

My friends and fellow readers, you are more Internet-savvy than ordinary members on the whole, more engaged with the day to day stuff inside the bubble - and Liberal Democrat Voice is within the bubble, I'm afraid. You're disproportionately male, disproportionately young, disproportionately politically engaged (well, two out of three isn't bad in my case...), in short, somewhat atypical of the Party's membership. You are, because you're more engaged, less likely to be swayed by endorsements. You are, perhaps, more likely to be swayed by a candidate who engages with you on social media - you were rather more supportive of Tim Farron in 2010 than the membership as a whole (LDV readers favoured Tim by a 2:1 margin, whereas the result was 11:9).

So, are Liberal Democrat Voice polls worth the bandwidth they take up? Possibly yes, possibly no. They may signify trends - ministerial popularity measured over a sufficient length of time might be a signpost towards future problems, or might signal potential future leadership contenders, perhaps. Do they reflect membership opinion more widely? That, I guess, depends on the question asked.

But should we, or anyone else take them terribly seriously? I can't help feeling that I shouldn't, merely seeing them as they are, a snapshot of our views as Liberal Democrats who read Liberal Democrat Voice. And, until there is some other, more truly representative means of measuring opinion amongst members, I don't doubt that Liberal Democrat Voice will continue to poll readers, and that those who wish to interpret the results as being of great import will continue to do so...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Transport - Women's Safety

Tuesday saw Ros return to the subject of transport, something that she has taken a keen interest in over many years, when she took the opportunity to raise something which is somewhat puzzling, i.e. the lack of regulation of cycle rickshaws...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): Does the Minister share my concerns about the cycle rickshaws or pedicabs that operate in parts of central London? Unlicensed, the drivers are not required to be trained or insured; nor do they undergo CRB checks. Do the Government intend to take up the recommendation of the Law Commission and create local authority licensing for them?

Luckily, the Minister is on the ball, as you would hope from a Liberal Democrat Minister...

Baroness Kramer: My noble friend is absolutely right: the Law Commission has provided some instructive direction on this. We received the Law Commission’s report in May. We will be following up on that and providing our response shortly. As she knows, the situation on licensing is somewhat different in London from elsewhere.

I can't help feeling that this is a good thing, given that they are quite vulnerable when mixed in with buses and the like...

Friday, November 28, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Deregulation Bill

Ros does not lodge many amendments to legislation as it makes its way through the Lords but, last Tuesday in Grand Committee, the Deregulation Bill offered her an opportunity to introduce a change which would be cheap and popular...

Amendment 87B

87B: After Clause 78, insert the following new Clause—

“Births, marriages and death registration: historical searches

(none) After section 34 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, insert—

“34A Historical searches

(1) The Registrar General may provide a copy of an historical record held by him, which need not be a certified copy, to any person who makes a search and requests such a copy.

(2) A copy provided under subsection (1) may not be used in place of a certified copy as proof of an entry in the register.

(3) For the purposes of this section—

(a) an “historical record” means any entry in a register held by the Registrar General which is more than one hundred years old on the date on which such a request is made;

(b) a copy of a record which is not a certified copy means a paper, electronic or other duplication as may be prescribed in regulation.

(4) The Registrar General may charge such fees as appropriate in relation to making and delivering a copy of a record which is not a certified copy, but such a fee shall be no more than £3.00 per record.””

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): I rise to offer the Government an early Christmas gift, cunningly disguised as Amendment 87B. It is a rare jewel; a genuine piece of deregulation which no one as far as I can tell opposes, which saves money and does not cost anything. I shall explain.

In 1837, a system of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was introduced into this country. For most of the time since then, it has been a legal requirement to register these events with the district registrar who issues a certificate. The framework has remained largely unchanged since then. Anyone can order a copy of a certificate from the General Register Office, which is currently set at a cost of £9.25. Because possession of a certificate does not confer identity, these certificates could be used for any purpose and many of us at some point or other may have used this service to order a copy certificate.

The one group of people in this country who could really use this service much more extensively are those, like me, who are researching their family history. Should noble Lords think this is a minority pursuit, one website alone, Ancestry, has 2.7 million global subscribers. The success of programmes such as, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, along with the relative ease of internet searching has led to an explosion of interest in genealogy. This will almost certainly increase this year as the result of the wonderful coverage of the centenary of World War I.

Genealogists from across the globe can trace their ancestors back to these islands. The Irish and Scottish Governments have been much quicker than the English and Welsh Governments to appreciate the great tourist value in people looking for their roots. For genealogists, the information on general registration certificates is invaluable. Birth certificates contain the father’s name and occupation and the mother’s maiden name. A marriage certificate will record both the father’s name and occupation, so in theory, you could use the general registration to trace ancestors back for well over 200 years. An ancestor dying in 1837 at the start of registration might well have been born in the 1750s.

Sometimes, the GRO is the only way of resolving the matter by distinguishing between individuals of the same name on census and parish records, but this valuable resource is nothing like as well used as it could be because the only form in which it is legally allowed to be given is by ordering and paying £9.75 for the full certificate. That is not the case in many jurisdictions. In Ireland, for example, the essential information is provided for €4. In Scotland, an extract can be ordered online through the authorised provider, ScotlandsPeople Centre. The General Register Office issues many thousands of historic copies every year. Even at £9.75 it does not make a profit from them. As I will explain in a moment, it would almost certainly be happy to find a less onerous way of doing this kind of historic business. It would also fit in very well with the Government’s deregulation agenda and the drive to digitise public services.

Turning to my amendment, I recognise and say at the outset that my limited expertise will not have produced an amendment that the Government would accept in its current form. But the fundamental point, aimed at allowing the GRO to change the regime for historic events of more than 100 years ago, is one that I hope the Government will take away for consideration. It would mean that for a much reduced fee - I have suggested £3 - the data could be sent by e-mail, rather than issued in a long-form certificate. One hundred years simply reflects the period at which census data is made public, and was the period chosen in the 2002 White Paper. A different time could be chosen, or differentials between births, marriages and deaths established.

This issue has been discussed since 1990. A public consultation in 1999 showed overwhelming support for such a change. The GRO itself proposed similar changes in a 2005 regulatory reform order. Ironically I was a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee at the time, but sadly the GRO proposed a whole package of measures rather than simply this specific change. Had there been this change only, it probably would have been successful, but unfortunately the package was considered far too wide ranging for a regulatory reform order.

I caution the Government against putting off making this modest reform until a wider package of measures can be drawn up in their own Bill. The reality is that GRO reform is always unlikely to be a priority in the legislative programme of any new Government. The fact that the GRO has been unable to get a Bill in three terms of the Labour Government and one term of the coalition Government says it all. As I said, this is a probing amendment only, which I hope that the Government will take away and consider. I recognise that the GRO will need time to consult on changes and draw up the details, but this can be done by secondary legislation. The important thing is to get this change into this Bill. I beg to move.

It shouldn't really have been any easier as, in footballing parlance, Ros was rolling the ball gently across the face of the penalty area for the Minister to slot into an open goal. Sadly, said Minister, who shall remain nameless, chose to smack it against the crossbar. I can only hope that he tucks away the rebound... 

Monday, November 24, 2014

@ALDEParty Council - a bureaucrat has a good day

"Vorsprung durch Verwaltung" has always been my motto. By creating systems which inspire confidence, you can allow those with a flair for ideas to take an organisation forward on a secure footing. And, in a personally satisfying manner, I felt that I was able to achieve that at the ALDE Party Council meeting on Friday morning.

Fundraising is key to expanding the capacity of any organisation, and the ALDE Party is no different. The catch, and it is a serious one, is that reputational damage is an ever present possibility - is a donor's other activities likely to bring you into disrepute by association? And it was for that very reason that my colleagues on the Financial Advisory Committee and I had drafted a code of conduct for consideration and adoption by the Bureau. Indeed, I had 'stolen' most of the text contained within it from a similar document used in another organisation I have been involved in.

So, when it became clear that there were widespread concerns over the creation of a business club, relating to questions of ethics and transparency, it was nice to be able to step up to the microphone and point out that the means of reassurance were at hand. I was also able to propose a route via which that reassurance could be transmitted, thus avoiding an unnecessary debate at the Congress subsequently.

Everyone won - the Bureau, who look like they are on top of things, the Secretariat, who were able to demonstrate their efficiency, and me, because I come across as reasonable and helpful. Whilst that tends to be my default position anyway, it never hurts to give people a demonstration.

I even found an opportunity to raise one of my favourite topics - how to support emerging liberal parties and those operating in difficult environments - when discussion turned to revising the membership structure. The new rules mean that such parties don't get travel reimbursements at all, which strikes me as making it less likely that they will attend meetings. If one of the aims is to build stronger liberal forces, this may be a retrograde step, so I asked the Bureau if they might consider ways to overcome this. Their response was a hopeful one, but it's something I will follow up as need be.

All in all, I feel that I made a useful contribution, which seems to me to be rather the point of the exercise...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A somewhat unexpected double triumph for the rural bureaucrat

When the text came from Ros that I had been successful in both Party elections I had stood in, I will confess to a degree of astonishment. After all, I am not a 'party celebrity', or a holder of high-profile positions, I am someone who happily works in backroom functions for the most part. But, to be elected to the International Relations Committee and re-elected to the Party's delegation to the ALDE Party Council is a tremendous honour and privilege.

I should therefore thank all of those who were generous enough to grant me their support, be it a first preference or otherwise, as well as Ros for instilling in me the confidence to run in the first place and for her lobbying on my behalf.

The next two years will be very interesting. There are moves to seek new arrangements for liberal and democratic forces across Europe which may come to fruition next year, there will be continued work to support liberal groups across the globe, there may even be greater clarity over the possibility of a referendum on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union. And, in a fast-moving world, geopolitics has more influence on our day to day lives than ever before.

My modest role will be to work with others to connect up various parts of the Party to our international activities, to encourage involvement and to support those people doing great work already - in short, to enable as best I can. In doing so, I have a lot to learn, and much to catch up on, and look forward to attending a meeting before Christmas as a means of getting up to speed.

So, once again, many thanks, and congratulations to Merlene Emmerson, Phil Bennion, Ed Fordham and Jonathan Fryer, who have also been elected to the International Relations Committee, and to Phil, Jonathan, David Grace, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Antony Hook, Ruth Coleman-Taylor and Iain Smith who are the other directly elected members of our delegation to the ALDE Party Council.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The okapi and I, we have an arrangement...

Regular readers will be aware that I like zoos, so what better when you have most of a spare day than to visit one. And so, I made the short journey from my hotel to the Jardim Zoológico on what was turning out to be a rather damp, dreary sort of day.

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - European Defence

Never let it be said that there is no space for idealism in politics, and who better than LYMEC, the umbrella organisation for European young liberals, to supply some. There is, however, no shortage of people suspicious of anything that smacks of a 'European Army', and there are plenty of amendments either deleting the resolution in full or removing most of the content. I can't see this one surviving...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014;

Considering that
  • Europe is facing internal and external threats to its peace and security. These include regional conflict, terrorism, weak democratic structures, human rights violations and economic instability;
  • security is the foundation of economic stability and democratic structures within and around the European Union;
  • the developments of international relations over the past decades have caused a shift in focus away from state-against-state aggression and threats to digital and fundamentalist threats;
  • contributing to a peaceful and stable world cannot only be achieved by 'soft power’, but requires a strong military for diplomatic leverage;
  • the efficiency of defence spending within the European Union is seriously limited due to the fragmentation of units and materials between Member States;

Noting that
  • many nations in Europe have a certain specialty in their military force;
  • Europe has to divide its attention between European interests and the obligations of the Member States within the NATO structure, with the addition of non-EU NATO-members (Iceland, Norway and Turkey), and non-NATO EU-members (Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland), for whom a special status must be created;
  • Military cooperation between Member States is taking place already, without European coordination;

Affirms that a European Defence Force must be created, and that it
  • shall include all European Union Member States, either as full or associated members;
  • shall not lead to a situation, in which Member States feel isolated or threatened;
  • shall be overseen by the European Parliament, European Commission and the European Council;
  • shall have commanders issuing orders to multi-national European units, without the prior agreement of Member States’ Ministries of Defence;
  • shall have one single military planning capacity and one single operational headquarters;
  • shall include land, naval, air and special tactical units with rapid response capabilities;
  • shall focus on strengthening the international rule of law, fighting conflicts, maintaining peace and fighting terrorism, both internally and externally;

Believes that
  • external and security policies can only contribute to a peaceful and stable world if supported by a credible military;
  • both the assets and the burden of the European Defence Force shall be pooled and shared between Member States;
  • European cooperation shall be prioritised over NATO cooperation.

  • European liberals to advocate the formation of a European Defence Force that operates in line with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union;
  • members and member organisations to advocate expanding military cooperation between member organisations;
  • the formation of a European Defence Force to coordinate military units and materials, with a single operational headquarters and overseen by the European institutions.

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - The relations of the EU with Russia: towards a new security architecture in Europe

Of course, it is the liberal curse to always want to appear reasonable, and here is a demonstration of that urge. There is, of course, a catch, in that the proposers make no mention of territorial integrity - can it be right that, without some sort of independently verified democratic process, countries in the shadow of Russia must tolerate the loss of territory through illegal state action? Personally, I think not...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014:

Notes that
  • since the end of the Cold War, the reaction in Russia to its loss of influence in former Soviet Union Republics has become increasingly defiant, its deliberate fanning of ethnic conflict and its military actions resulting in a series of so called "frozen conflicts";
  • the enlargement of the EU and NATO towards the East has only strengthened frustration in Russia about the crumbling of its former sphere of influence;
  • the wish of a large part of the Ukrainian people to strengthen ties with the EU was met with an aggressive reaction in Moscow, resulting in the annexation of Crimea and in deliberate actions to destabilise the Eastern part of Ukraine. The ensuing armed conflict having already caused more than 2,500 people killed and more than 800,000 refugees;
  • on top of the strained diplomatic relations with Russia and the fear for a military escalation, a trade war looms between the EU and Russia, threatening to cause further damage to the already vulnerable economic situation;

Believes that
  • it is in the interest of all on the European continent to leave the path of confrontation and to search for a de-escalation of the diplomatic, military and economic conflicts currently raging;
  • a lasting stability on the continent cannot be achieved without the cooperation of Russia;

Calls on
  • the European Commission to manage the negative consequences of the trade conflict with Russia for the European economy, inter alia by encouraging the geographical diversification of energy supplies and by further trade liberalisation;
  • the European Union and its Member States to strive for a military de-escalation in Ukraine via negotiations with Russia;
  • the European Union and its Member States to favour broad negotiations with Russia on a new security architecture in Europe which must lead to a solution for the conflict in Ukraine and the so-called "frozen conflicts". This solution to be based on these principles: it should follow the model of the Helsinki Final Act comprising both security, economic development and human rights; it should respect the sovereignty of all countries concerned; it should settle the geographical limits of possible NATO and EU enlargement for the next 10 years.

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - We need a stronger Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union - now more than ever

It would be fair to say that the role of Federica Mogherini, the European Union's nearest equivalent to a Foreign Minister for Europe, is not seen as being terribly credible. In fairness, I've always sensed that the big nations, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, are quite happy to have it that way, but if you really want Europe to have a voice that is listened to on the world stage, something is going to have to change. 

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014:

Notes that
  • the Treaty of Lisbon created the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, whose role is to conduct the foreign policy of the European Union;
  • the High Representative of the Union also has a duty of representation. He or she conducts political dialogue with third countries and is responsible for expressing the EU’s positions globally;
  • EU Member States have committed themselves to a Common Foreign Security Policy for the European Union and the European Security and Defence Policy aims to strengthen the EU's external ability to act through the development of civilian and military capabilities in conflict prevention and crisis management;
States that
  • to tackle the challenges a multipolar, complex and quickly changing world is facing, the EU needs to act as a common force on the world stage;
  • issues such as climate change, lack of social and economic opportunities, breaches of human rights, lack of democracy, rule of law and market economy all need leadership from the EU
  • since the Treaty of Lisbon was adopted, there has not yet been a common understanding of what position a Common Foreign and Security Policy would have for the Member States;
  • the absence of a strong and united European voice has been highlighted during the recent crisis caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine;

Calls on the EU Member States and the institutions of the European Union to strengthen the role of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy so that it will be clear to everyone that the High Representative represents the will and understanding of all member states;

Further calls on EU Member States and the institutions of the European Union to support the High Representative in order to
  • strengthen its common policy towards and dialogue with Russia in order to speak with a unified voice;
  • develop and pursue a clear strategy to act proactively in the Middle East, taking into consideration the threat caused by ISIS and the situation in Syria and the rest of the region affected.

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - Strengthening the Global Role of the European Union

Meanwhile, the Finns from Suomen Keskusta offer some proposals for who we should be talking to and why...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014:

Notes that
  • the European Union is the leading global actor in the fields of trade, development and environmental policies and has a key role in ensuring the stability of the global financial system;
  • these policy areas are strongly linked into each other and they have growing strategic importance for the EU;
  • in these policy areas we can play a positive global role by promoting the common interests and the common values and ideals of mankind - the fight against poverty; environmental, economic and social sustainability all over the world; democracy, human rights and equality as the basis of social sustainability;
  • at a global level we can create transatlantic partnerships with the United States since our basic values and interests in these policy areas are close to each other. In development policy we already have close cooperation launched at the Washington Summit in November 2009. Similar partnerships can be created in the fields of trade and the environment;
  • the EU has traditionally close ties with the ACP countries and other developing countries, these must be further enhanced;
  • China and other emerging countries have growing influence on global development; our dialogue and cooperation with them must be strengthened;

Stresses that
  • the European Union can strengthen its global role by coordinating its action in different policy fields and by setting clear strategic goals;
  • the EU can counterbalance the role of other global players by creating partnerships with like-minded countries;
  • the EU can influence the policies of other countries and groups of countries through an open dialogue on the common challenges facing mankind;

Calls on
  • the ALDE Party to work for the strengthening of the global role of the EU. The EU should have a comprehensive global strategy as a central part of our external policies;
  • the ALDE Member Party representatives in the European Parliament, in the national parliaments and the European Council to work for the strengthening of the global role of the EU.

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - Improving European defence cooperation

This is the first of six foreign and security policy resolutions, which may end up being coalesced into one final document, brought to you by two governing parties, Democraten 66 (the Netherlands) and Open VLD (Belgium)...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014:

Notes that
  • recent turmoil in the Ukraine and Russian expansionism have shown that the EU’s capacity to defend its territory still is, and will remain, crucial for its safety and well-being;
  • in light of recent events, member states are increasingly prepared to increase national defence budgets and no longer rely on peace dividend alone;
  • the European Union’s response to the different crises in its Southern and Eastern Neighbourhood and beyond was in many cases inadequate and did not allow the European Union to play a pivotal role in international affairs;
  • the efficiency of defence spending in the EU is seriously hampered by the fragmentation between the 28 Member States;

Referring to
  • the External Security and Defence Policy of the European Union, aiming to strengthen the EU's external ability to act through the development of civilian and military capabilities in Conflict Prevention and Crisis Management;
  • the European Parliament Report on the Annual Report from the Council to the European Parliament on the Common Foreign and Security Policy of October 2013 which stressed “that the EU needs to establish a new and credible foreign policy in response to the current challenges in the world”;
  • the declaration of European leaders in the wake of the recent NATO Summit in Wales in which they pledged to increase military spending to 2% of gross domestic product over the next 10 years;

Believes that
  • a window of opportunity has arisen in which European defence can be markedly strengthened due to financial commitment of Member States;
  • the EU can only fully contribute to a peaceful and stable world order if its foreign policy is strengthened by a credible military force;
  • a comprehensive European approach to promoting peace and security should be based on conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict institution building;
  • peace enforcement operations with a UN Security Council mandate are part of Europe’s External Security and Defence Policy;
  • due to the budgetary constraints and geopolitical threats, enhanced defence cooperation in Europe has become a necessity rather than a choice;
  • the pooling of military capabilities at the EU level would allow to both increase the efficiency of European defence and bring about savings to the national budgets by exploiting the effects of economy of scale;
  • more European coordination is needed to make sure that an increase in defence spending by a Member State has a maximal impact on the European defence capacity;

Calls on
  • the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to present in the first year of her mandate a comprehensive and ambitious agenda on advanced EU defence cooperation, with the aim to establish a credible European defence capacity within the next five years, including:
  • the establishment of one single military planning capacity and one single operational headquarters in the EU;
  • a much stronger coordination of the defence procurement policy of Member States;
  • enhanced cooperation in military education and training;
  • investment in force multipliers to quickly improve Europe’s deployment capacity at longer distances;
  • pooling and sharing of critical military assets based on the principle of burden and risk sharing between the Member States.

Frankly, I can't see the Liberal Democrats being wildly keen on this. A single military planning capacity seems like a step towards the coalescing of our armed forces into a European command, and given Europe's inability to take a firm, agreed stance on key aspects of foreign and security policy, I'm not sure that the time is ripe for such a move, if it ever will be.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - Increasing equality - making paternity leave an option for all fathers in the EU

Just one resolution with a Liberal Democrat 'stamp of approval' on it this year, in a joint effort with Radikale Venstre (Denmark) and Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (Spain... sort of), on something that should not be controversial, a policy that we have championed at home...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014:

Considering that
  • several EU member states, such as the Netherlands, Cyprus and Ireland only have a system allowing the father to take paternal leave for a few days or no leave at all;
  • there is still a gender pay gap, mostly rooted in women’s historically greater childcare responsibilities;
  • making it possible for parents to share the leave will give the individual family more freedom and make it easier for mothers to return to the labour market earlier if they wish to do so;

Noting that
  • the principle of equality of men and women is a common and central value of the European Union as stated and promoted in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union;
  • remedying all inequalities in all aspects is and has always been a top priority for European Liberals;

Calls for
  • ALDE Member Parties to ensure that both parents have a legal right to take leave with their child in their national legal system;
  • the ALDE Group in the European Parliament to push for new EU legislation requiring all Member States to give parents this option.

Tomorrow, I'll be looking at the foreign and security policy resolutions...

@ALDEParty Congress resolutions 2014 - Azerbaijan – freedom under pressure

Whilst most attention is on the various moves, covert and overt of Vladimir Putin's Russia, in the furthest reaches of Europe, something unpleasant stirs as the dormant contest between Armenia and Azerbaijan heats up again. Whilst Armenia's democracy might not be perfect, opposition to the Azeri Government is becoming more and more difficult as it cracks down on dissent. Democraten '66 offer the following resolution...

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party convening in Lisbon, Portugal on 20-22 November 2014:

Referring to
  • the worrying reports on the deteriorating political and security situation in Azerbaijan as documented by the European Stability Initiative(ESI)[1]; 

Notes that
  • the Azeri government, led by President Ilham Aliyev, has markedly stepped up the political repression of its own citizens since taking over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe (CoE) on 14 May 2014;
  • an increasing number of journalists and human rights activists have been jailed without fair trial by the Azeri authorities in recent months;

Believes that
  • the EU should take a firm stance with regard to Azerbaijan’s brutal crackdown on civil society;
  • membership of the CoE comes with duties with regard to respect for human rights, political and economic freedoms and the rule of law;
  • the European Union should review its current cooperation framework with Azerbaijan and ensure that joint activities in the societal, political and democracy and human rights sphere are conducted solely with organisations and individuals that are completely independent from the Azerbaijani government and associated entities;

Calls on
  • the European Union to come up with a unified and strong response to the ongoing assault on civil liberties in Azerbaijan, including: strong political and economic sanctions, directly targeting the Azeri political and business elites; enhanced cooperation in supporting Azerbaijan’s civil society.

[1] ESI-report ‘The Jails of Azerbaijan’– August 2014: