Friday, January 31, 2014

Letting the train take the strain

So, I'm on my way to Brussels, and am waiting amongst a relatively jolly bunch of England rugby supporters - they're on their way to Paris - at St Pancras (I'm a bit early for my train, unusually).

It's been a good day so far, in that I've had good news at work - I've passed the third of four sets of exams - and my journey from the Gipping Valley has run smoothly thus far. If only my spine was working as well...

But ALDE awaits, and an adventure in loyalty too, so with the prospect of good beer and better company, it is goodbye to Great Britain for a day or two, and hello Europe!...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ros in the Lords: Railways in East Anglia

First buses, and then trains...

Ros and I are what one might describe as vocal commenters on the efficacy of our local rail franchise. National Express East Anglia were, to be extremely generous, bloody awful, and whilst Greater Anglia have tried very hard, they are hamstrung by more rail infrastructure and elderly rolling stock. Ros was keen to find out what plans the Government have to improve matters, and so it was her question to the Minister which was next up...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, I thought that I would start with a Michael Caine moment. Not a lot of people know this, but the east of England is one of only two regions that make a net contribution to the Treasury. That is quite interesting, because when people talk about English regions, they talk about Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle. They do not think about Norwich, Chelmsford and Ipswich. It is a really impressive feat, particularly when you consider the rather poor investment in road and rail infrastructure that the east of England has had for the past half-century.

I wish to focus my comments today on just part of the region: the counties of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and of course my home county of Suffolk. I am really pleased to see that those areas are all represented by speakers in today’s debate. Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are of course within the eastern region in government terms, but in rail terms they are quite a separate region, so I will leave them to one side. I want to try to make the case for more strategic investment in our region. Given her background, I know that the Minister will bring a real understanding of the issue and of the importance of investment.

Many parts of our regional rail infrastructure have had no modernisation in the past half-century. Much of the rolling stock is now 40 years old. Recent problems with the franchise holders and now with the franchise process itself have resulted in a miserable passenger experience for far too many people in our region. Passengers are being asked to pay higher fares every year, but experience a worse service overall. The award of an interim franchise to Greater Anglia, which has now been extended for a short period, has meant that investment in rolling stock, which is so desperately needed, cannot be made. It has improved the reliability of the service, but faces an uphill struggle against problems caused by poor infrastructure; notably signalling, which brought the entire line into London to a complete halt on Tuesday this week. I would appreciate an update from the Minister on the question of the franchise for our region.

It does not have to be like this. A few years ago, one of the very worst areas in our region was the misery line from Southend to Fenchurch Street, which has now been transformed by new investment. Right through the region and particularly on the main lines, keeping costs down in the old BR days resulted in a number of inadequate stretches of track. I am really pleased that some of these false economies have now been rectified. It is not on the tip of everyone's tongue, but the completion of the Beccles loop, which cost £4 million, has been transformative. On the East Suffolk line, usage has gone up 12% since December, because the Beccles loop and the associated signalling have enabled an hourly train service to run. That indicates how a relatively modest investment can pay dividends.

The eastern regional economy is driven by centres of growth in Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Chelmsford and Southend, supported by the market towns and their rural hinterland. Our region also plays a key part in driving forward the capital’s economy. That is especially true of Essex. At its most basic, without the tens of thousands of people who endure a daily commute into London from Essex, our entire economy would grind to a halt. Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Chelmsford and Harlow are already hubs of science, innovation and new technology.

East Anglia’s ports have an unparalleled opportunity to develop the offshore energy industry. Felixstowe is already the fourth largest container port in the world and has created around 40,000 jobs in the area. If it is to compete with Antwerp and Rotterdam, it needs infrastructure that is fit for purpose. Some improvements have been made, but further improvement to the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight corridor is an essential part of ensuring the continued growth, given the congestion on the adjacent A14. Investment in the Ipswich chord is another good start but we need to continue investing. I am very pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in his place today and speaking in this debate. He has done more to keep rail freight on the agenda than anyone else in the country.

East Anglia is one of the fastest-growing parts of the UK. Both commuters and long-distance travellers are growing in number on all the routes under discussion, both to London and between towns and cities in the region. More housing is planned—about 360,000 more houses in the four counties over the next planning period. When I talk to planners across the region, they say that they are concentrating the building, the new-housing growth, in areas with good access to the rail network. Of course, this is good transport planning, but only if the network has the capacity to cope with the growth.

Network Rail is currently basing assumptions on a 75% growth in passenger use over the next 30 years. This simply does not accord with the growth in recent years, and is considered by people who know to be a serious underestimate. The burgeoning economic strength of the region is being increasingly threatened by gridlock, congestion, and capacity shortfall on the network. Local business and quality of life are being undermined. Rail investment has transformed other parts of East Anglia.

I have mentioned the misery line, but the introduction of the Cambridge express service and other improvements on the King’s Lynn-to-London route have made a massive difference. They can unlock areas for sustainable housing and business growth. We need significant but not unrealistic investment in additional infrastructure and rolling stock, including tackling congestion in and around London Liverpool Street and lines to the north through north London, Essex, and Hertfordshire.

In Cambridgeshire, the Ely North junction is a bottleneck which causes problems throughout the network in our part of the region. This really needs to be unlocked to allow the growth of regionally significant routes, including freight. In Suffolk, a passing loop at Wickham Market would further improve the East Suffolk line and will be absolutely essential if Sizewell C gets the go-ahead. This needs to be coupled with more frequent inter-regional services.

A longer-term aspiration for the region, and one which has been talked about since long before I first came into local government in the early 1990s, is the east-west rail link, a link between Cambridge and Oxford. It is not about linking the two old rivals but about providing access between the south-west and south Midlands to the east of the country in a way which bypasses London and releases valuable capacity there.

The rolling stock on the main line is simply not fit for purpose. The Great Eastern main line is badly in need of new intercity stock or new and refurbished trains. We have a hotchpotch of rolling stock which has been scraped together from the rejects of other areas. It has an average age of 25 years. Greater Anglia has made some improvements in cleanliness which are greatly welcome, but, with the uncertainty of the franchise in recent years, travelling on our main line trains can be a pretty unpleasant experience, with tatty seats, malfunctioning doors, and, even worse, malfunctioning toilets.

It is not really just about the links between the main towns and cities. I live close to a market town, and I am very well aware not only of how important rail is to the prosperity of my town but also of the importance of branch lines to many of the smaller market towns. These lines across our four counties offer commuter, tourism, and everyday travel opportunities for communities. This connectivity can be further exploited to offer further economic opportunities and housing growth if the services were faster and more frequent.

Services are operated with basic trains, which, in many cases, have serious accessibility constraints. Line speeds are often poor and impaired by issues such as single sections and level crossings. Experience has shown that improving core services, frequency, speed, and so on vastly increases rail usage. The many different users of the lines to Southminster, Braintree, Sudbury, Harwich, Felixstowe, and so on would all increase in number if these constraints were improved.

These lines have been much promoted by thriving community rail partnerships, such as the Crouch Valley, the Gainsborough, Mayflower, Wherry, and Bittern lines. There are 11 community rail lines in Suffolk which have been really successful in raising the profile of the railway locally and in some cases doubling the number of passengers using them. Just to echo the point made by the Minister in the previous debate on buses, they really show the value of harnessing local involvement, because community rail partnerships are harnessing this enthusiasm, recruiting volunteers to work with local authorities in the rail industry, securing improvements to the appearance of stations, and so on. It has involved a lot of hard work by dedicated people.

But they can only go so far and in the end it comes down to the need for the continuation and security of local authority funding to keep the work of these community rail partnerships going, and the need for additional rolling stock to accommodate the greater number of passengers being carried.

I hope I have been able in this brief time to make a case for more investment in our thriving region and for the fact that it could produce even more revenue for the Exchequer than it currently does. I look forward to hearing contributions from other noble Lords and from my noble friend the Minister.

Having a nice chat with my new friends at @Eurostar...

I like Eurostar. I like the sense of speed, combined with a view. I like travelling from city centre to city centre. And now that I have the taste for train travel, if I'm going somewhere without Ros, or travelling separately from her for some reason, the idea of going by train is quite appealing.

Eurostar have, evidently, seen me coming, as I discovered today. I had received an e-mail with an up to date statement of my Eurostar Plus points, and I noticed that this weekend's trip wasn't shown. So, being vaguely efficient - mostly Ros's doing, I accept - I rang to check things.

"Ah yes,", said the very nice woman at the other end of the phone line, "you should have those, and I'll sort that out, they'll be on your account tomorrow.". I noted how helpful this was, and that I was using Eurostar to travel further afield in March.

She then told me that, from next month, I'll be able to buy through tickets to a whole range of places across Germany, presumably connecting through Brussels and Cologne, which sounds quite exciting for someone who, like me, gets pleasure out of making their own travel arrangements and exploring alternative routes.

So, a task done and useful information gleaned, not bad for one day...

ALDE: competing loyalties as Clegg and Verhofstadt square up

Alright, where were we? Ah yes...

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was "federalism". Guy Verhofstadt is a federalist, and a very passionate one at that. He's also Belgian, but that isn't all that important, after all, good things come from Belgium, like beer and frites... and Magritte, now I think of it. It is, however, a combination that makes some people nervous, and others angry.

Mr Verhofstadt wants to be the Liberal candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission, an unlikely, but not impossible, eventuality. However, there are those liberals who don't think that his candidacy is a good idea, so they went away and found a potentially credible alternative. Olli Rehn was that alternative, currently serving as European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, and a Vice-President of the European Commission. He's a Finn, and not as frightening to those who find charismatic, passionate Belgian federalists scary. He isn't as charismatic, but this is Europe, where charisma is optional, so that's alright.

A campaign ensued, with the early running being made by the Manchurian Belgian candidate, snapping up endorsements from all of the Benelux member parties and generally being everywhere. The Rehn campaign, however, struck back with a concordat signed by a number of liberal leaders, including Nick Clegg, endorsing him. It all looked to be quite exciting, and given that the Germans and the British were expected to vote for Rehn, it was going to be quite close too, assuming that the British delegation voted as instructed.

And that's where the wheels fell off. As a friend once said, trying to organise Liberal Democrats can be like stacking frogs in a wheelbarrow sometimes, and so it was decided to 'manage' the delegation to ensure, as far as possible, that it voted the 'right way'. Luckily, I made the cut, which is nice.

But, behind the scenes, one of the candidates may have concluded that he might not win, and the contest was causing some concern amongst the member parties. So, the Dutch Prime Minister and the new National Chairman of the FDP were sent off to make a deal. The deal was done, the candidates shook hands on it, and it was decided. Verhofstadt is to be the candidate for the Presidency, with Rehn to be nominated for a key position in the next Commission. Very neat, you may think.

Well, yes, but for the fact that our Leader doesn't like it...
This isn't a deal Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats have signed up to, and we won't be supporting it. We will continue to back Olli Rehn, and we regard him as being at the top of the liberal ticket across Europe, certainly in the UK. Nick Clegg will not be campaigning with Guy Verhofstadt and does not support at all his views of a federal Europe.
That's telling me, isn't it? So, obviously, I will be voting against the deal, as he would like me to. But I am being lobbied to vote for the deal by my MEP, Andrew Duff, someone I have a lot of time for. He makes some very good points, and I find myself wondering, "Exactly what does voting down the deal actually achieve?". Presumably, even if it were to be voted down, Rehn would withdraw from the contest, leaving Verhofstadt to be elected unopposed. And who else is going to vote against it, now that both men have written to us all, asking us to accept it? What, apart from a gesture, is the point?

So, as I'm an elected delegate, elected by Federal Conference delegates, what do you think I should do? The vote takes place on Saturday afternoon, so time is short...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

'I vote Liberal', a website for the European elections

This weekend sees a special Election Congress to select the Liberal candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission, and whilst the two erstwhile candidates, Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn, have shaken hands on a deal whereby Guy will be the candidate and Olli will be nominated for a prominent role in the next Commission, the deal itself still has to be ratified.

But Saturday also sees the launch of a new pan-European website,, which will allow voters to find out more about all of the European liberal and democrat candidates for May's election, including a profile of each with contact and social media details.

The site will allow anyone to find candidates based on their specialist interest, country or political party, as well as to find out what European liberals stand for.

I'll certainly be adding a link to it from here...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Ros in the Lords: Bus Services

It was ironic that 10 October saw two transport debates for the incoming Minister to deal with, but as Susan Kramer is an old friend, I'm fairly confident that she didn't mind too much.

In the first, Bill Bradshaw renewed his annual challenge to the Government to do more to support the bus industry and Ros took up the debate on behalf of rural non-drivers such as myself. Readers may note that I am referred to as a gentleman at one point. I try not to take it personally...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Bradshaw for tabling and introducing today’s debate, which has become a sort of annual fixture. It is a real pity that the importance of buses to the public is not reflected in the interest that the House takes in public transport generally and buses in particular. It is not just a courtesy at this point to say how much I welcome the presence of my noble friend Baroness Kramer at the Dispatch Box. I have known the noble Baroness for many years and I know that her hands-on experience of transport, particularly the financing of it, is going to be of real benefit to the House, to the department and to the Government, so she is very welcome.

I wish to focus my few remarks today on the question of rural bus services, which is a topic close to my heart. Like many Members of this House, I split my time between my home in the country in a village of fewer than 200 people, and my flat in London, which is close to a main road along which around a dozen services run about every five minutes during the day and then continue to run through the night, so the contrast is very stark. About seven years ago when the gentleman who is now my husband first came to see me in Suffolk, he asked the Londoners’ question: “When is the next bus?”. “Thursday”, I told him. “We don’t need real-time passenger information; we just need a calendar”. Now my village does not have a bus service at all and I do not have a problem with that. When I was first elected to the county council in 1993, I recall looking at bus routes where the per-passenger subsidy was greater than a taxi fare, and that is clearly untenable. However, people who live in small villages still need to access services and not everyone can run a car. In my village the answer has come in the form of demand-responsive transport. It is called Suffolk Links and it is run by a not-for-dividend-profit organisation called Optua. Using a mixture of paid and volunteer staff it provides a very good service to villages like mine and, while it is not as convenient as a car, it is very much better than a weekly bus and much cheaper than a taxi.

These demand-responsive services are suffering from a combination of local authority cuts, regulatory burdens and an unhelpful financial regime, so I would appreciate it if the noble Baroness could perhaps write to me setting out what the Government’s current thinking is on the demand-responsive transport sector. It is becoming quite urgent as there is now very real pressure on these services because of the withdrawal of bus services from larger communities which in my day on the council would not have been considered marginal. Central government cuts to local authorities and to the bus operators’ support grant, along with changes to the concessionary fares scheme, have meant that many services are no longer seen as viable. Close to us in Suffolk is the village of Stowupland. It has a population of around 1,800 so it is a decent size. Due to its previously good bus links—it had an hourly service—it has a large population of retired people. There are also quite a number of people in the village living in socially rented housing. Having lost their weekend and evening services some time ago, First has recently announced the withdrawal of all bus services from the village. This is a terrible blow to the many people who rely totally on buses will have a major impact on the fabric of the village.

Lest noble Lords think that I am focusing too much on Suffolk, North Yorkshire County Council is consulting on a proposal to cut a further 25% of bus support, and Dorset 28%. In Norfolk, the popular Coasthopper service is to be cut by a third; that is perhaps what my noble friend Lord Bradshaw was referring to. These are all rural counties and many small communities will be badly hit by this level of cuts. We need to remember that 10% of the rural population does not have access to a car. Those people will suffer increased isolation and have real problems trying to access essential services. It is all very well for the Chancellor to stand up at his conference and say that jobseekers are going to have to go to the jobcentre daily, but how on earth are rural claimants to get there? There is a desperate lack of joined-up thinking in all of this.

As another example, most Suffolk villages, even the smallest, have a group of a dozen or so council houses which were built after the war. They were built at a time when land was cheap and families were larger, so on the whole they are quite big. It is therefore not always easy to find tenants for them. Having no access to bus services is not going to make it any easier to find tenants for these houses, especially when you couple that with the changes to housing benefit, which are making larger properties much harder to let.

I would like the noble Baroness to outline for us how the Government’s role in bus policy is currently being defined. Is there still a role for government or is it simply being left to a combination of market forces and cash-strapped local authorities to deal with? I wonder whether the Department for Transport is aware that there is a real perception that the Government are no longer supportive of the bus industry and its needs. We have heard the questions about the changes to the concessionary fares scheme and the Bus Service Operators Grant, which have not helped the bus industry one bit. The mood music really is important. For example, Eric Pickles’ proposal that people should be allowed to park on the road for 15 minutes is just plain daft. A succession of cars parking for 15 minutes is as bad as one being parked there for the whole day. If it blocks the road and makes the smooth running of buses and cars and safe pedestrian crossing more difficult, it is a very silly idea. Billing it as a pro-high street measure reveals a failure to understand the dynamics of people and traffic on high streets.

There is another area about which I am concerned, and I would be interested to know whether the department has had consultations and discussions with the Department for Education and the Department for Transport on home-to-school transport. In rural areas this has always been provided by a combination of large and small operators using the same buses on the school runs and the service runs. As the services are disappearing, the school runs by themselves will almost certainly not be viable for the operators. This is particularly key where there are smaller operators in the rural areas, because they are the ones who are finding the going tough and withdrawing from the industry altogether. Councils have a statutory obligation to provide home-to-school transport, so they could, ironically, end up having to run a bus fleet in order to get children to school, which would be very much more expensive than subsidising transport. I would like to know a little more about that.

Finally, it would of course be churlish not to welcome the Government’s Better Bus Areas programme, particularly the announcement today. My heart sings for Merseyside and so on. However, my plea to the Government, particularly to the noble Baroness, is not to forget rural areas. People rely on buses and they will be badly impacted by these changes.

Putting a 50% tax rate into a little perspective...

I am not exactly young, a point that I am reminded about every morning when I wake. However, one of the advantages of age is that you do tend to gather experience, and if you are blessed, as I am, with a pretty good memory, some of it sticks.

Like tax rates, for example. When I started work, in the mid-eighties, my speciality was income tax and, because computers were only really beginning to come into use, a lot of the work was done manually, meaning that it was much easier if you knew things like tax rates, bands and allowances. But, for those of you in younger age brackets, it has become rather easier over the years. Most people get a basic personal allowance these days, altered for various allowances, true, but relatively simple, and, until recently, there were relatively few tax rates to play with.

So, having taken a stroll down memory lane, one is reminded that, in 1986/87, there were six tax rates, wives were still treated as though a chattel of their husbands, the basic rate was 29%, and the top rate a fairly penal 60%. And for those who revere Margaret Thatcher, remember that she was still Prime Minister, and at the top of her game then.

But those sort of tax rates were only paid by the rich, right? Not so, indeed the 60% rate kicked in at what would be the equivalent of about £114,000 per year for a married man, something that makes Ed Balls' proposed 50% rate look positively generous. And we all paid a lot more income tax, rich and poor alike, as a proportion of our income.

Since then, for a number of reasons, the burden of taxation has shifted. New transactional taxes have emerged, the rate of VAT has increased, and the system has become increasingly complicated. Taxation seems designed almost to extract money from us without our noticing.

So, if Ed Balls is serious about reintroducing a 50% tax rate, don't buy the hype about French-style levels of tax. Yes, there is a debate to be had about whether or not it actually increases revenue, and at what medium or long-term cost, but, in historic terms, it isn't all that penal.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is Liberal Democrat blogging dying, becoming more 'concentrated', or simply less fashionable?

I was idly browsing Lib Dem Blogs recently, as one does, when a thought crossed on mind. "Is it me, or does the site seem less busy of late?". And so, given my fascination with numbers, I thought that I should take a look...

I've taken today's date as a reference point, and here are the numbers of active blogs in each year since 2006;
  • 2006 - 55
  • 2007 - 107
  • 2008 - 222
  • 2009 - 186
  • 2010 - 231
  • 2011 - 235
  • 2012 - 230
  • 2013 - 177
  • 2014 - 126
Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWhat I find interesting is that the drop in the number of active blogs has come in the last two years, and not rather earlier. Yes, perhaps we've lost councillor blogs as we've lost councillors, and there's no doubt that blogging comes less easily if you feel that you have to defend a less than utterly popular administration. Alternatively, perhaps blogging is now passé, now that we have Twitter, Facebook and the like.

However, it is a pity, in that it is another way for us to reach people, offers an online archive of who we are and what we think, and is easier to maintain than a diary. And, I suspect, there are quite a few Liberal Democrat bloggers out there who haven't found out about the aggregator, or have but haven't chosen to sign up. Are you one of them?...

Labour: is messaging enough to re-establish credibility, and how much does it actually matter?

Recent pronouncements on benefits from Rachel Reeves, and on taxation from Ed Balls, have come in for much criticism from their political opponents, and I myself have not been particularly convinced. But, I am reminded, I'm not the target of their messages, as I'll be voting Liberal Democrat anyway. And it makes me wonder, are we in danger of rather missing the point, which is that Labour don't necessarily need to persuade that many people, if current polling is to be believed.

There is a lot of talk amongst the political 'chatterati' that, despite the current numbers, Labour might not be able to form a majority administration. No opposition party with such a narrow lead at this point in the political cycle has won, etc. etc. And yet we know that Labour held 250 seats despite polling less than 30%, the electoral geography operates in their favour and a whole bunch of left-leaning voters who voted Liberal Democrat last time currently feel betrayed by the Party and are minded to vote Labour instead.

And if the evidence of polling by Lord Ashcroft is to be believed, Labour are doing rather better in the seats that really matter, i.e. Labour/Conservative marginals. So, if you think that you're probably doing enough, the priority is to make sure that you keep your supporters motivated. Which brings us back to cutting benefits and reintroducing the 50% rate band.

Forget the argument about whether or not raising the highest rate of tax brings in more revenue, because to most voters, it either doesn't matter - it doesn't affect them - or it involves rich people who can apparently well afford it anyway. And how many people earning £160,000 plus per annum do most people know anyway? And as for benefits, it is still the case that the majority believe that the welfare system is too generous, and goes to too many of the wrong people - the undeserving poor, if you will.

Now I do hear you say that this is massively oversimplistic, and that it's all so much more complex than that, and you'd be right. The catch is, you and I are politically engaged and take an interest in the details. We can discuss the Laffer curve without assuming that it's part of a Grand Prix circuit, even if we don't know too much about the detail, and we have an idea about the actual amounts paid out in various benefits. The general public? Many go along with whatever they've heard which fits sufficiently with their personal biases and experiences - that's why political campaigners write leaflets and stick them through letter boxes.

So, the important question is not, could Labour deliver on such promises if elected, it is whether enough voters believe that they could, and the bar is set rather lower on that one...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Balancing the budget, or is it merely juggling with Balls?

The news that Ed Balls is promising that, if elected next year, Labour will achieve a budget surplus within their first term is interesting. That isn't to say that I particularly disapprove of the notion - it is sort of laudable to have such an aim. The catch, however, is how one achieves it from where we are now, and what impact it will have on those most affected by the measures deemed necessary.

The total lack of clarity on whether this means higher taxes or further spending cuts makes any judgement on the credibility of the promise quite difficult. But you can consider the relative benefits and penalties of each option to see how likely they are and what compromises might be necessary.

Perhaps a nice cup of tea will help, Ed...
Economic growth might, in itself, help to close the gap if it feeds into tax revenues. However, unless tax revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation, without further real terms spending cuts it won't solve the problem, and the required growth in tax revenues is surely too big to overcome the current £96 billion budget deficit without any other adjustment.

He might choose to increase taxes, but is somewhat boxed in by previous statements. Labour's criticism of the increase in the standard rate of VAT to 20% surely means that increasing that isn't a runner, and raising taxes for 'hard working families' would be particularly difficult given how hard they've pushed the issue of the 'squeezed middle'. That doesn't leave very many people to 'squeeze until the pips squeak', and a lot of the really wealthy are potentially mobile for tax purposes. Just how much more can you extract from the rich, or from further enhancements to the resources that HMRC has to pursue the non-compliant?

It therefore seems likely that spending cuts will need to be made in order to fulfil the commitment, but where from? Can a Labour government not commit to protect the NHS and what will be the cost of doing so given inflation rates in the healthcare sector? We can, if Rachel Reeves is to be believed, expect cuts in some benefits, although unless the protection of the state pension and benefits for the elderly is ended - not very likely, given their disproportionate influence on party policies - that might not be enough.

And such uncertainties play into the hands of Labour's opponents, as it means that they can simply quote a shopping list of possible cuts that will hurt potential Labour supporters or, if they assume that Labour aren't serious about cuts - and Labour would need to establish some credibility to challenge such an assumption - a cocktail of potential tax increases would be pretty toxic too.

So, I'm a long way from asserting that Ed Balls doesn't mean it, or is anything other then sincere in his intentions. It's just that, if Labour are going to continue to assert that they will be tough on spending whilst opposing every specific measure, they're going to have to come up with some answers eventually. The clock's ticking, Ed!...

So, are UKIP offering the British public the first ever blank manifesto?

With just four months to go until the European elections, the announcement by Nigel Farage that he is, seemingly unilaterally, junking the entire policy portfolio of his party is, I admit, intriguing. Describing the 2010 manifesto as "486 pages of drivel... a complete nonsense." does at least have the virtue of honesty, but does rather beg the question, "is UKIP a political party or the Nigel Farage Fan Club?".

In fairness, I don't suppose that it mattered that much in 2010 - they weren't terribly significant in terms of being likely winners anywhere - but, now at least, it does matter somewhat, for UKIP supporters and the rest of us.

If you're a UKIP candidate or activist, you find yourself reduced to glib sound bites when extolling the virtues of your party on the doorstep or in public forums, vulnerable to the "so what are you going to do about that?" question, let alone "how are you going to do that?". Apparently, you have spent three years spouting drivel at potential voters, assuming that you have been actively campaigning at all. It's all a bit embarrassing if you believe in ideas rather than just slogans.

And, if your leader can just junk your policy, demand the suspension of members and generally dominate party affairs like he does, what are you for? What influence do you actually have? It all rather assumes that you "agree with Nigel", rather than with UKIP. That's all very well if your leader is seen as relatively charismatic, consistent and resonates with a significant chunk of public opinion (or at least, a significant chunk of those going to vote). It allows you to gain votes from those who want to send a message, rather than those who want to see specific things happening, but it doesn't give you a basis on what you'll do, if elected, when confronted by political choices.

That's bad news for our democracy, bad news for voters, and, in the long term, not great for UKIP either, who need to decide at some point what they believe in other than wanting their country back. Because, as Liberal Democrats will tell you, there's no point in being a protest party forever...

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ros in the Lords: European Union Committee Report 2012-13

In Ros's new role as Chair of the House of Lords European Union Committee's Sub-Committee D, she plays a key role in the scrutiny of proposals coming from the European Commission, and on 30 July, she contributed to the debate on the report of the Committee's work in the past year which took place on 30 July... 

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I will speak on the work of Sub-Committee D which, for the uninitiated, deals with agriculture, fisheries, environment and energy. I have had the honour to chair it since the start of this Session in May, but all credit for the past year’s work must go, of course, to my predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles. I extend my thanks to him and to his committee during that session; he has set a remarkably high bar. I also note that since May, without the benefit of quotas, we now have 50% female and 50% male chairs of the EU sub-committees.

The obvious feature of the past Session for Sub-Committee D was the addition of energy policy to the remit following the reduction in the number of sub-committees. While this was a substantial new policy area, it was very well aligned with the committee’s existing responsibility for climate change policies. As one might expect, the sub-committee approached its new remit with great enthusiasm and, as we have heard, chose to focus on EU energy policy for its principal inquiry during the previous Session.

The energy report was debated only yesterday in Grand Committee, so I will not dwell on content. However, I am pleased that many noble Lords made reference to our report during the debate in Committee on the Energy Bill. It is pleasing that an EU committee report has served the House in its wider context of scrutinising UK legislation—which helps to emphasise the obvious point, that UK legislation cannot be scrutinised in isolation from EU legislation, and vice versa.

Our energy report received widespread press coverage in the UK and beyond and has been referred to by the members of the parliaments of many other member states. Our report was primarily timed to feed into discussions at EU level on its future energy and climate change policy framework. It is pleasing that the report was published in good time to do that. I know that the Commission has been drawing on some of the material and phrases from our report in its consideration of future policy options. Our phrase “the energy trilemma”, to describe the balance between affordability, sustainability and security of supply, is now coming into common parlance.

Beyond the inquiry, the sub-committee’s scrutiny focused on major reforms to the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policies. Both have demonstrated the long-term added value of the work that we do in this House on EU scrutiny. In the case of fisheries reform, for example, the thrust of the new package very much reflected the sub-committee’s 2008 report. In the case of agricultural reform, the new rural development policy reflects several of the recommendations that the sub-committee made in its Innovation in EU Agriculture report some years ago. While EU decision-making is slow, and it is difficult sometimes to show immediate policy impact, I think that we can demonstrate the long-term beneficial effects of examining policy areas at an early stage of their development.

Not content to just leave these issues as they lie, the sub-committee is undertaking short pieces of work on how these reforms will be implemented. In fisheries, we have recently held evidence sessions to examine issues relating to the new ban on discards of over-quota fish. In agriculture, we will hold several sessions with stakeholders in the autumn to have a look at implementation issues and concerns on CAP reform.

Turning to the sub-committee’s plans for the new Session, we are about to launch a new inquiry into food waste prevention, examining how EU policies can assist rather than hinder attempts to prevent food wastage, and how local, national and EU initiatives can be harnessed most effectively. This will build on previous work that we have done on agricultural innovation and fisheries discards. We hope that this will feed into work being done by the European Commission on food waste and on waste policy more generally. In particular, it is our aim to produce a piece of work that will be helpful to the incoming European Parliament and the Commission next year; it is an attempt to build a “coalition of the willing” with other member state parliaments.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, and I have been very fortunate to have an enthusiastic and knowledgeable committee backed by a skilled and dedicated secretariat. They absorbed the new area of energy policy with great enthusiasm. However, I flag up my strong belief that any further attempts to reduce EU scrutiny committees should be resisted. From my experience on Sub-Committee B previously and now Sub-Committee D, I do not believe that either could take on a new major policy area without the quality of the work suffering in some way.

The Minister for Europe and the Foreign Secretary have recently flagged up the importance of national parliament scrutiny of EU legislation, and they are right to do that. However, if we are to do such work, it needs to be properly resourced and supported, not just in this House. Frankly, I am dismayed at how much time my small team of three has to spend chasing up government departments which do not provide information on time and within deadlines, or which produce explanatory memoranda that are neither explanatory nor particularly helpful. Above all, we must be very cautious not to see the important issue of national parliament scrutiny of the EU obscuring the need for effective scrutiny of government action within the EU. That is a very important part of the scrutiny role of this House and it is one that we must hold on to.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Exactly how much power do you want a leader to have?

The recent debate on the disciplinary structure of the Liberal Democrats has been fascinating, albeit in a "gosh, that's an awful train wreck, I hope that nobody's been too badly hurt" sort of way. And whilst I really don't have anything to say on the specifics of the matter, the question of the power of the Leader has intrigued me.

Not to be used on the membership, please, Nick...
There have been demands for action that seem, on the face of it, to be quite attractive. Something must, it seems, be done, although what exactly it should be, and by whom it should be done, is the subject of much angst. The media have it easy, in that they can attack Nick Clegg for not assuming dictatorial powers and simply issuing orders. And, indeed, some of our members and activists appear quite relaxed about that. "Change the disciplinary rules!", is the cry, "Deny the whip!".

And yet, if my understanding is correct, we are a political party based on the notion that power is to be shared, indeed to be almost given away by our currently over-dominant centre, so that power can be exercised at the most appropriate level. Indeed, our constitution is an attempt to demonstrate how it might be done, empowering Local Parties, Regions, Specified Associated Organisations and the like to take on a range of functions within a defined framework. For the most part, it works, and whilst one might grumble about the quality of leadership at various levels in particular instances, I seldom find myself wishing that it were fundamentally different.

What I don't want is for an unaccountable person in the Leader's Office to have the ability to override the democratic checks and balances of the Party, regardless of how legitimate their intentions are, just because it's 'easier' that way.

So, instead of demanding that something be done, why not respond in a properly liberal manner, and establish some proper transparency and accountability within our Party? Instead of a myriad of anonymous committees, why not publish details of the structure of the Party on its website, explaining what each committee does, and who sits on it. You could, if you wish, include contact details.

What we have at the moment is a political party which believes in democracy, indeed lives it in its every action, yet accountability, especially at more senior levels, is blurred. Revisions to the membership rules would require the approval of the relevant State Party, in my case, via English Council, so it would be nice to know who they are, in order to lobby them should I feel so inclined.

Knowing who represents us, and how they were appointed, is a vital element of our democracy, something which is just as true as a member of an organisation as it is as a citizen in a participatory democracy. As Liberal Democrats, we are in a position to set an example, and I can't help feeling that we have a duty to take a lead.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ros in the Lords: Common Agricultural Policy

Tony Greaves posed the Minister a question about the greening of the Common Agricultural Policy on 30 July and, as the Chair of the relevant scrutiny committee, Ros thought that she ought to raise an issue that had troubled it in the recent past...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, given the very different patterns of agriculture across the 28 member states, to what extent is there flexibility within the new arrangements for member states to implement the greening measures in a way that suits British farmers and builds on some of the very real progress that they have already made?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. We have fought hard to achieve an element of flexibility in the greening requirements. Perhaps we have not got as far as we would have liked but we are negotiating with nearly 30 other states and, of course, the Parliament.

ALDE Party: what do I have in common with thirteen MPs, eleven Peers and twelve MEPs?

The list of voting delegates for the ALDE Election Congress, scheduled to take place in Brussels on Saturday week, is an intriguing one.

Whilst I admit that I've not been involved in the international work of the Party for that long, the list of Liberal Democrat delegates does include an extraordinary number of highly reputable people who I've never seen at an ALDE event previously. Indeed, so prestigious a list is it that, were it not for the fact that I'm an elected member of the ALDE Party Council, I probably wouldn't have made the cut. Indeed, given that I've upset Fiona Hall, who helped to decide upon the final list, I'm almost surprised that I made it anyway.

Admittedly, I may not see all of them in Brussels, as it was decided in Pula last May that online voting would be permitted, so delegates don't even need to show up in Place Flagey for the event itself unless they want to.

I'll be there, with Ros, because we wanted to make a weekend of it - we both rather like Brussels - and with various friends around, it looks likely to be quite a lot of fun. I may even have a little work to do, as scrutineers will be needed to ensure fair play.

Terry Pratchett offers some advice on the subject of justice and mercy...

I admit to being a big fan of the work of Terry Pratchett. It may well be that I read between the lines in a manner influenced by my liberal world view, but a lot of his work appears to expound a moral code that challenges many of our lazier assumptions. Here, in "Hogfather", Death is arguing with his grand-daughter, Susan...

"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"


"So we can believe the big ones?"


"They're not the same at all!"


"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"


It would be nice if this resonated better with some of my colleagues at the moment...

Food that tells you when it's time to eat? Not as unlikely as you'd think...

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is reference made to the Ameglian Mega Cow, a ruminant specifically bred to not only have the desire to be eaten, but to be capable of saying so quite clearly and distinctly. This is, of course, very silly, and should not be taken seriously at all.

However, it seems that scientists are working on a computer chip that can be added to food to tell you when it is going past its prime. This was apparently news to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management, Dan Rogerson, who was heard to muse, "Chips for chips.", when this was put to him by the Chair of the House of Lords European Union Sub-Committee D, to whom he was giving evidence yesterday.

Naturally, Ros, for it was her, is very knowledgeable on such things, having led the Committee through their inquiry into food waste. Apparently, this development was vouchsafed to the committee during their recent visit to the Netherlands, and it isn't expected to be long before such a thing becomes financially viable.

I'm intrigued by the idea that your food might, say, send you a text to suggest that you pick up a few items on the way home so as to make best use of it. At the moment, I have Ros to do that, but for the evenings when she's in London and I'm here in Suffolk, it might be quite useful...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Returning to duty with Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats...

Having sat the exam, pruned my portfolio of activities somewhat, and recovered from the jetlag that followed our fabulous holiday - and no, I didn't wish that most of you were there - I can finally settle down to catching up with the stuff that needs catching up with.

First on my list is my Treasurer work, in part nailing down the 2013 accounts for Bury St Edmunds Local Party, but also setting things up for its successors, Mid Suffolk and St Edmundsbury/Forest Heath. And it is now that you realise just how unhelpful some people can be - failing to provide critical information, failing to forward documents that you really should have had a year ago or, in the case of Party HQ, not replying at all.

So, why bother? Well, despite my increasing disenchantment with Liberal Democrats 'over there', my respect and admiration for my local colleagues remains undimmed. And, regardless of how I feel otherwise, they deserve my support, so I carry on regardless.

There is an advantage to the relative anonymity of bureaucracy, I suppose, in that if I decide to give something up, hardly anyone notices. Alright, perhaps people notice if the things you were doing aren't being done any more, or have to be done by them instead, but generally, you can slip off quietly. But, when it's your friends, who you see frequently, and who campaign for values you share, it's so much harder to walk away.

So, with cheque book in hand, bank statements filed and bookkeeping training to the forefront, I'd better get on...

Changing the Party's disciplinary rules: you may not like what you get

There aren't many of us who read constitutions, even within a political party as full as anoraks as the Liberal Democrats, a point that has given me great entertainment in the past, and the occasional political coup de theatre. I might well be correct in suggesting that not many Party members have been involved in its disciplinary processes. But, having written the framework for dealing with disciplinary matters in the East of England, I ought to offer some thoughts before the bandwagon to rewrite the disciplinary rules rolls too much further.

The rules are, in part, required to protect ordinary members from abuse of power

One of the best ways to remove dissent is to (ab)use the disciplinary powers available, so you want rules that protect the eccentric, the argumentative and the socially awkward within reason. Therefore, you can't have processes that make it too easy to punish people. You have to have the right of appeal, you have to allow the accused to construct and present a defence, because, no matter how unpleasant the nature of the complaint is, he or she has rights that we, as liberals, cry out for elsewhere.

Justice should be efficient, not hasty

Both complainants and accused have the right to see that complaints are dealt with within a reasonable time scale, as is currently the case. Process can be a pain sometimes, but trust me, shortcuts tend to generate much more pain over a lengthier period.

The process should be clearly explained and accessible to most, if not all

There should be some simple rules to start off with. Complaints should be in writing, rather than made as part of a conversation. The rights of both complainant and accused should be clearly stated, preferably in writing. Privacy and confidentiality should be respected, especially that of third parties.

Prejudicing a disciplinary hearing by calling publicly for a particular outcome rather compromises those who have to make any decision

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of a case, having a senior figure call for a particular outcome from a disciplinary hearing tends to create a momentum all of its own. Unfortunately, in a democratic political party, especially one with as many civil libertarians in it, riding roughshod over the sensitivities of those who believe in due process is unlikely to end well.

It has taken twenty-five years for the Party's disciplinary rules to evolve into the form that we see before us, and some pretty clever people have striven to provide the best framework we can have. It won't always make sense, and it may lead to some unexpected consequences.

So, think long and hard about what you might want from revised membership rules, because, if we get this wrong, we may have quite a long time in opposition...

ALDE Party: Verhofstadt and Rehn shake hands on a deal that Nick doesn't like

The news that Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn have shaken hands on a deal whereby Verhofstadt will be the ALDE candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission, whist Rehn will be promoted for a key role in the new Commission as part of a joint ticket, will have come as a disappointment to Nick Clegg.

The deal. drawn up by the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and the National Chairman of the FDP, Christian Lindner, was confirmed by Guy Verhofstadt yesterday afternoon.
As a result, subject to the agreement of the ALDE Bureau, a resolution will be proposed by ALDE Party President, Sir Graham Watson, calling for acceptance of the deal, and that, if passed, the scheduled election between the two men will be abandoned.

Not everyone is happy. From the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister came the response;
This isn't a deal Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats have signed up to, and we won't be supporting it. We will continue to back Olli Rehn, and we regard him as being at the top of the liberal ticket across Europe, certainly in the UK. Nick Clegg will not be campaigning with Guy Verhofstadt and does not support at all his views of a federal Europe.
Given claims that a majority of the Liberal Democrat MEPs were backing Verhofstadt, and that there are, amongst regular participants at ALDE events, some who might favour a more robust, more overtly federalist approach, that's brave, or possibly foolhardy, talk indeed. It implies that, having picked a fight with the Parliamentary Party in the Lords over the "Rennard affair", the European Parliamentary Group might be next to come under pressure.

I have a funny feeling that this may not be the last we hear on this matter...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Taxi for Rachel Reeves... for as sure as hell there isn't a bus...

Labour's proposals for the unemployed just get better and better, it appears. Listening to Rachel Reeves, it seems that Labour policy is now to require claimants to take numeracy, literacy and IT tests within six weeks of lodging a claim to Jobseekers' Allowance.

Now, I do see the importance to those seeking work of having some basic skills, but what we aren't hearing is the "or else", i.e. what the penalty for failure, either to attend or to reach the standard set, will be, because you just know that there will be - she is, after all, boasting that she'll be tougher on welfare than the Coalition. And is it just another way of picking on migrants, whose English language skills might not be as good as those of the locals?

I'm sure that others, more knowledgeable about the benefits system, will have plenty of grounds to question the efficacy of such a proposal, unless they're Labour activists, of course, in which case they'll clam up, but I want to focus on the impact on the rural unemployed.

One of my local Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidates is forever complaining about local transport provision in small towns and villages. In that it isn't great, we can agree. In terms of what can be done, we differ - at least I presume we differ because she simply complains rather than indicate what might be done. So, how do the rural unemployed get to their local FE college to gain the skills required to meet the standard? Running a car is expensive, buses are scarce, to put it mildly, but Rachel Reeves wants to place an obligation upon unemployed villagers to travel, potentially quite some way, to study.

Of course, you could study remotely, but given that my village has, following an upgrade, got slightly less rubbish broadband access than it had previously, and the fact that you'd need a computer and a landline - not necessarily the prime essentials for a low-income household - it isn't perhaps the slamdunk that it appears at first glance.

It is, in short, another policy dreamt up by urban politicians, who know nothing of rural life, from a political party which, in Suffolk at least, barely shows up on the rural political map.

I look forward to the promotion of this policy by Labour PPCs outside of Ipswich and Waveney. I won't be holding my breath though...

Ros in the Lords: Business and Society

It was the Chief Rabbi, perhaps unexpectedly, who had called for a debate on the interaction between the business community and wider society on 12 June, and Ros saw an opportunity to espouse her belief that businesses benefit from greater community involvement...

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

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

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

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

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

ALDE Party: just who exactly am I accountable to?

I appear to have upset most of the Liberal Democrat European Parliamentary Party, at least, if a recent e-mail is to be believed. Given that I haven't spoken to any of them for more than a month, and don't come into contact with them much, this may come as a bit of a surprise - it certainly did to me.

The details aren't terribly important - they seldom are - but I was reminded of a dilemma which has troubled me for some time, i.e. who, or what, am I accountable to, and for what? The nub of the matter was that I was accused of having made a decision which was potentially damaging without consulting on the matter - a quite serious assertion, at least to my mind.

There was a catch, however. The committee I serve on, and which was indirectly accused of making said decision, has no decision-making powers, and is only advisory in nature. So, effectively, I was being accused of something that I couldn't have done, in a capacity where I might have opposed the decision but been in a minority on. You might understand why I was less than entirely pleased.

So, for the benefit of Fiona Hall, and in the hope that she might tell her friends, perhaps an explanation of what I do, whose interests I am responsible for safeguarding, and what principles I intend to uphold in my capacity as a member of the ALDE Party's Financial Advisory Committee is in order.

My job is to advise the Treasurer, the Secretariat and, indirectly, the Bureau on issues relating to the finances of the ALDE Party, accounting, fundraising and any related ethical and moral questions, and I do so as one of a group of six - currently, I serve with a Croat, an Italian from Catalonia, a German, a Swedish-speaking Finn and the Dutch Treasurer of LYMEC (Liberal Youth's European umbrella group).

So, who do I serve? Not the Liberal Democrats, at least, not just the Liberal Democrats - I am just as responsible for protecting the interests of the United Democrats of Cyprus, the Alandsk Center and Fianna Fail, and I do so by seeking to ensure that, as far as possible, Belgian law, which applies to the ALDE Party, is adhered to, and that, when giving advice on potential sponsors, ALDE Party policy is respected.

Quite simple, really...