Friday, February 28, 2014

Compassion and American Airlines, apparently not a meeting of minds

Today's news that, apparently, American Airlines have decided to withdraw the arrangement whereby those unexpectedly bereaved could fly home without breaking the bank to do so, perhaps doesn't come as a huge surprise, given the curious lack of correlation between customer service and flying in the US.

The reason given is linked to the recent merger between American and US Airways (probably my least favourite airline) as, it seems, US Airways didn't offer such a deal - not a huge surprise, frankly. And so, reaching for the lowest common denominator, American have withdrawn it.

Now I do see the scope for abuse, and yet American had thought that it was worth it, presumably as a means of generating some goodwill and displaying a little compassion to those experiencing personal loss. And now they don't, and in doing so, they risk the accusation that the only thing that really matters is the bottom line. In a genuine market, little things like that create brand loyalty, but with the number of big players in the US airline industry reducing slowly but surely, and some routes now without meaningful competition, I guess that someone thought that it wasn't necessary any more.

And that is the problem with markets, especially ones that don't work very well. As effective monopolies emerge, the idea of customer service as a relationship between provider and customer tends to fade. After all, what choice does the customer really have?

It is an issue that has affected us here too, in that the benefits of contracting out public services have been increasingly dissipated as the number of companies capable of servicing big contracts has shrunk. We have contractual obligations, not service, as the humanity is slowly stripped out as an unnecessary and unprofitable extra.

As for American Airlines, it will probably make little immediate difference to their bottom line, and someone somewhere will get a bonus for the suggestion. And a little glow of kindness in an increasingly impersonal world will have been extinguished forever...

"Thank you, Tom" - paying my respects to a man who is far from dead

On a day so gorgeous that it could only be a harbinger of spring, I sped to London on a late afternoon train for a rather special dinner, one intended to celebrate the reign as Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the Lords of Tom McNally, who stood down recently.

On Wednesday, the sun shone as my train skirted the Stour estuary, putting me in as good a mood as one could hope for, and Greater Anglia co-operated to the extent that the train ran on time, always a bonus, before I took the Circle Line to a secret location in an SW postcode. I was, very unusually, very early, and was indeed the first to arrive, so I found a quiet corner and waited for the rest of the attendees to, well, attend, I suppose.

One of the unexpected benefits of being one of the spouses is that I get to spend time with some very wise, very considerate people, i.e. the other spouses. Ann Dholakia and Diana Bradshaw are two of those who are often present at Lords social events, and I tend to gravitate to their company - we all understand how this works and we enjoy each other's company. Ann, in particular, was something of a role model for my time as Presidential consort.

And, having married into the family that is the Parliamentary Party in the Lords, Ros's colleagues have been, and continue to be, generous in their welcome, which I suppose is why I make a point of coming to events when I am invited.

I rather like Tom, perhaps because I enjoy his sense of humour, and have developed a respect for the difficulties of the role of Leader, especially with a group as diverse as that which he led. I refer to him as 'Glorious Leader', which he graciously tolerates, accepting that it is meant with affection, and he has been very kind in return.

It was therefore nice to be present for a series of tributes, from his successor, Jim Wallace, his second Chief Whip, Dick Newby, from his Special Adviser, Elizabeth Plummer, and from a very polite, well-spoken young man called, and I'm hoping that my notes were correct here, Nick Clegg, all of whom told stories about Tom that made us laugh, before Tom himself talked about his pride in having been able to make a difference as a minister, and what he had learned about politics over his long career. He has now taken up the reins as Chair of the Youth Justice Board, something he feels very strongly about, and I'm sure that he'll fill the role with integrity and flair.

All in all, it was a delightful evening, and it was only the prospect of missing the last train back to mid-Suffolk that dragged me away in the end...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The benefits of confusion...

I was writing a piece on my new ringtone and, in searching for a video performance of the piece of music, I carried out the obvious search and came up with this;

For the madrigal scholars amongst you, and I know that there are so many of you, here are the lyrics, first in Italian, and then in English;

Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti
l’aer fa grato e’il pié discioglie a l’onde
e, mormoranda tra le verdi fronde,
fa danzar al bel suon su’l prato i fiori.

Inghirlandato il crin Fillide e Clori
note temprando lor care e gioconde;
e da monti e da valli ime e profond
raddoppian l’armonia gli antri canori.
Sorge più vaga in ciel l’aurora, e’l sole,
sparge più luci d’or; più puro argento
fregia di Teti il bel ceruleo manto.

Sol io, per selve abbandonate e sole,
l’ardor di due begli occhi e’l mio tormento,
come vuol mia ventura, hor piango hor canto.

Return O Zephyr, and with gentle motion
Make pleasant the air and scatter the grasses in waves
And murmuring among the green branches
Make the flowers in the field dance to your sweet sound;
Crown with a garland the heads of Phylla and Chloris
With notes tempered by love and joy,
From mountains and valleys high and deep
And sonorous caves that echo in harmony.
The dawn rises eagerly into the heavens and the sun
Scatters rays of gold, and of the purest silver,
Like embroidery on the cerulean mantle of Thetis.
But I, in abandoned forests, am alone.
The ardour of two beautiful eyes is my torment;
As my Fate wills it, now I weep, now I sing.

It is quite marvellous, and so I thought that I ought to share.


Rosenberg & Cooper – not as black as I painted them, perhaps...

Some time ago now, I was less than entirely complimentary about a cold call I received from Rosenberg & Cooper. It was, in truth, written because the person who called me was far more persistent than I was happy to deal with, and because the concept of being cold-called with an offer of coloured diamonds seemed, how can I put this, rather unlikely.

Subsequently, I received a telephone call from them, seeking some feedback, which I was happy to give. They were also a little unhappy with the comments that I had made in my blog post, so I offered them an opportunity to guest post a response, which never happened, for reasons only they can supply. Needless to say, I assumed that the matter was at a close.

And then, one day, I got a telephone call from a very polite, possibly youngish man, noting that my blog post was impacting negatively on their business – it is just about the first thing you encounter if you Google their name. Apparently, my comments put people off, which is understandable, I guess. And I did rather suggest that I might write something to mitigate my earlier comments.

But you know how it is, you get distracted, stuff doesn't get done and, to cut a long story short, I didn't do anything about it.

And I do feel vaguely guilty. They did tell me that they had taken action to rectify some of the failings that I had perceived, not necessarily the action of a company with something to hide, and the gentleman did seem genuinely keen to make amends. Also, as a reputable blogger, one should occasionally remind oneself that cynicism is not always based on fact, and that people can be perfectly credible and have the right to trade as they see fit.

So, if you've read my earlier piece on the unfortunate exchange between me and a member of their staff whom, I am told, no longer does customer contact, I have some advice. If you have been called by them, and you are minded to consider them seriously, do some research about the investment, satisfy yourself that it is right for you, and if you are content that Rosenberg & Cooper offer a reputable service that is in your interest, then go ahead and invest. This is, admittedly, the advice that I would give to any friend thinking of making an investment of a type that you wouldn't find on the high street, but there is no reason why coloured diamonds might not work for you.

A quick Google does not uncover any obvious dissatisfaction with their public dealings, which in this era of instant outrage augurs well, so my initial suspicions are assuaged, although not so much that I'm tempted to invest myself – I'm a rather conservative investor normally.

And accordingly, if they are the sort of business my caller claims that they are, I wish them the very best.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act - the ripples reach Wales...

Gosh, this is complex. I had forgotten that the Devolved Administrations have powers that are impacted by this legislation, and in Wales, the list is as follows;
  • Council Tax (Prescribed Classes of Dwellings) (Wales) Regulations 1998
  • Care Homes (Wales) Regulations 2002
  • Registration of Social Care and Independent Health Care (Wales) Regulations 2002
  • Leasehold Valuation Tribunals (Fees) (Wales) Regulations 2004
  • Service Charges (Consultation Requirements) (Wales) Regulations 2004
  • Adult Placement Schemes (Wales) Regulations 2004
  • Selective Licensing of Houses (Specified Exemptions) (Wales) Order 2006
  • Child Minding and Day Care (Wales) Regulations 2010
  • Residential Property Tribunal Procedures and Fees (Wales) Regulations 2012

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act: I fear disappointment for someone...

As I noted yesterday, the Same Sex Couples Act 2013 has an effect akin to that of a stone thrown idly into a pond, impacting on legislation as unlikely as the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and the Harbours Act 1964. But, there are rather more exciting consequential results, and this one is probably my favourite...

Provision disapplying the effect of section 11(1) and (2) of the Act in respect of the common law

1. Section 11(1) and (2) of the Act does not apply to the common law concerning the right of a person— 

(a) who marries, or who is married to, the King Regnant, to the title of Queen, or

(b) who marries, or who is married to, the Prince of Wales, to the title of Princess of Wales.

2. Section 11(1) and (2) of the Act does not apply to the common law concerning the acquisition of a right to, or interest in, a peerage, and all titles, rights, offices, privileges and precedence attaching to it, by a person who marries or who is married to a peer holding that peerage.

Which does lead to the question, what title does the same sex spouse of a reigning monarch get awarded?...

William Wallace doesn't think that a courtesy title for me is important. I don't think that I quite agree...

As I noted in Sunday's review of the coming week in the Lords, yesterday saw an oral question from Baroness Deech regarding equality in the use of courtesy titles.

At the moment, the wife of Baron X gets a courtesy title, becoming Lady X. The husband of Baroness X doesn't, which is why I am, for purposes of etiquette, Mr Valladares (at least, when people aren't calling me Mr Scott - a perfectly understandable error which I correct with humour and good grace when it happens). Curiously, a surprising number of people, when they first discover who I am married to, ask whether or not I get a title and many of them seem surprised to hear that I don't. Of course, as a member of the liberal family, my friends have come up with the entirely typical solution of referring to me as the Honourable Lady Mark, an elegant poke in the eye of convention.

As I have remarked before, I'm not particularly bothered, a stance which is clearly not that unusual, as noted by William Wallace, responding on behalf of the Government;
I have asked some female colleagues in this House how much their husbands care about not having a title and a number of them have told me robustly that their husbands not only do not care but positively do not wish to have them.
He had already suggested that the issue was rather complex due to long-standing custom and practice, which appeared not to impress Baroness Deech, although her suggestion that;
equality has to start in this House
did at least raise a laugh or two beyond the chamber

But, whilst I don't particularly feel the need for a title myself, there is the principle of equality to be considered. Yes, it isn't a big issue, like equal pay, or equality of opportunity in the professions, but it is indicative of an attitude that you can give lip service to the notion of equality of treatment which runs contrary to the way society has changed.

Curiously, a surprising number of people, when they first discover who I am married to, ask whether or not I get a title and many of them seem surprised to hear that I don't, which perhaps suggests that such a change would barely be noticed.

There are, as I see it, two options. Firstly, take all of the courtesy titles away, excepting those that have already been assumed - it is to my mind unnecessarily cruel to take something away that it of little practical import. Second, grant the entitlement to all spouses, or civil partners, of those being honoured. I suspect that this is more complex, because you would need to determine what the courtesy title would be. If the wife of a baron is a Lady, should the husband of a baroness be a Sir? Or is 'the Honourable' more suitable? I, for one, have no idea, but I'm sure that someone at Debrett's can probably come up with a suggestion.

But I put it to William, which is less illiberal, gender inequality or the maintenance of a system of privilege? And why should it be left to a Liberal Democrat to defend either?...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Today in the Lords: is Baroness Sharples the Black Widow?

In today's brief discussion on courtesy titles and equality in the Lords, I was intrigued by the intervention of Conservative backbencher, Baroness Sharples, who noted;
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I have actually killed off three husbands so perhaps the question does not arise for me? Are there not much more important matters that the Government should be concerned with?

She may well be right, although it does lead one to wonder exactly what happened to her husbands. That bag looks pretty vicious...

I've got a brand new ringtone...

We're very keen on technology, here in Creeting St Peter. Admittedly, I understand far too little of it, but one must try to keep up. Ringtones intrigue me, following exposure at work to a colleague who is a pretty serious musician. Andrew hated my ringtone, describing it as sounding like an enraged wasp, and I admit that the usual tinny ersatz tunes that you get are a bit annoying.

Accordingly, having discovered that I could upload music onto my BlackBerry, I changed the ringtone to a Bach fugue. Instantly distinctive, there could be no doubt that it was my phone ringing, and given that Andrew is a pianist, keyboard music was tolerable to him - I'm so considerate like that.

Following my promotion and change of job, we have been separated now, so he doesn't have to endure my choice of ringtone. Despite this, I have maintained the habit of keeping my ringtone as real music, and pleasantly obscure. So, here's a performance of my new ringtone by La Compagnia del Madrigale. Enjoy...

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act and the ripple effect

There are times when you begin to realise just how complicated Government can be, and, whilst writing yesterday's preview of next week in the Lords, I came across The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order 2014. Being a curious soul by nature, I read Schedule A, which lists a series of pieces of legislation that require revision as a result. For your delectation and delight, here's the list in chronological order;

  • Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869
  • Pensions Commutation Act 1871
  • Local Government (Emergency Provisions) Act 1916
  • Population (Statistics) Act 1938
  • Marriage Act 1949
  • Reserve and Auxiliary Forces (Protection of Civil Interests) Act 1951
  • Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953
  • Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Special Provisions) Act 1957
  • Transport Act 1962
  • Harbours Act 1964
  • Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969
  • Consumer Credit Act 1974
  • Social Security Pensions Act 1975
  • Fatal Accidents Act 1976
  • Legitimacy Act 1976
  • Rent Act 1977
  • Transport Act 1978
  • Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979
  • Family Law Reform Act 1987
  • Housing Act 1988
  • Child Support Act 1991
  • Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992
  • Social Security Administration Act 1992
  • Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
  • Pension Schemes Act 1993
  • Jobseekers Act 1995
  • Pensions Act 1995
  • State Pension Credit Act 2002
  • Civil Partnership Act 2004
  • Mental Capacity Act 2005
  • Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006
  • Welfare Reform Act 2007
  • Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007
  • Welfare Reform Act 2009
  • Equality Act 2010
  • Welfare Reform Act 2012

"Liberal Bureaucracy", proud to bring you the facts that you never knew you needed to know. Don't thank me...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Next week in the Lords: 24-28 February

I used to write a column for Liberal Democrat Voice looking forward to the week's events in the House of Lords. As far as I could tell, hardly anyone ever read it, and I was, admittedly, a bit erratic in terms of writing it every week. And so, with a somewhat smaller, but perhaps more perfectly formed and courteous audience here, I'm going to give it another go. This time, it might be a bit more personal, however...

I'm sure that Ros is in there somewhere...
Monday sees an oral question dear to my heart, as Baroness Deech continues her campaign to get her husband a courtesy title gain gender equality over courtesy titles. Whilst I really can't see me using one, it does seem odd that, in an age where women have achieved technical equality in most spheres of modern life, and where same sex couples are able to marry, that such an obvious anomaly has been overlooked.

Perhaps more important, however, is the first day of the Report stage of the Pensions Bill, when suggested changes covering state pension credit and bereavement support payments are likely to be discussed. They will also discuss a proposal for a pension scheme charge cap. In Grand Committee, the Regulations increasing penalties for failure to apply the National Minimum Wage are up for debate and, hopefully approval. I, for one, take a dim view on allowing employers to effectively require the state to mitigate low pay, and would like to see action on this.

On Tuesday, the Communications Committee takes evidence from, amongst others, Janet Brown, Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, as it looks at broadcast General Election debates. I'd like to see Nigel Farage be included next year, as well as the leaders of the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru in their national debates, even if it is unlikely that UKIP will win many seats.

In the main chamber, a number of relatively minor Bills, including the Deep Sea Mining and International Development (Gender Equality) Bills have their Committee Stages, whilst Christine Humphreys has what I believe to be her first oral question, regarding the implementation of recent Ofsted recommendations on careers advice in schools, and Paul Tyler wants to know what steps local communities might take where their local authority doesn't have an up-to-date local plan.

I'm pleased to see that, on Wednesday, Mike Storey has a question on support given to young people living in rural areas to enable them to travel to school or college. In a debate on bus transport last year, Ros made the point that the buses that carry children from the villages to school are only viable because they are then used to provide scheduled services, often sponsored by local authorities. As bus subsidies are cut, those services disappear, leaving the buses potentially unutilised and unproductive. We'll see what Susan Kramer has to say on the subject in response.

The Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, Lord Kakkar, appears before the Constitution Committee for the first time since his appointment, to answer questions about its work. Given that Ros sits on the Commission, I'll be taking a close interest on what he has to say. And, talking of Ros, EU Sub-Committee D, which she chairs, meets to continue work on their forthcoming report on food waste.

Andrew Phillips, Suffolk's other Liberal Democrat peer, has an oral question on Thursday about mitigating the social and cultural consequences of the weakening of community life in the UK, whilst Liz Barker initiates a debate on the effectiveness of the Charity Commission. It might not be a very long debate, as they're not very good, a point that the Public Accounts Committee made rather forcefully in a report published recently.

Amongst some general tidying up is the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order 2014, and I'll touch on that separately. There is also a debate, initiated by Dominic Addington, a keen rugby player, on advice given regarding concussions sustained in sporting injuries, an issue that has been in the news somewhat of late.

So, there you go, the first review here on "Liberal Bureaucracy". If you have any suggestions, feel free to make them, either by leaving a comment below, or by reaching me on Twitter or by e-mail...

Witch swimming in Wickham Skeith

Once you get away from the River Gipping, the villages of Mid Suffolk become increasingly remote and far flung. Don't get me wrong, that remoteness is entirely relative - it isn't like the Scottish Highlands, for example - but until the advent of radio, news could take a little longer to reach them, and they were somewhat behind the curve. Indeed, it is said that it took a few days for news of the end of World War I to reach some of the more distant villages in these parts, although I suspect that is entirely apocryphal.

The rural communities hung onto their belief in superstition long after more enlightened attitudes had taken root in the towns and cities, and given that Suffolk had been in gradual decline over centuries, it comes as little surprise that some ideas held sway for rather longer.

"She's a witch... but we're out of firewood..."
Witch swimming has its roots in laws made by King Athelstan (928-930), where trial by water was a general test for all crimes. And although Henry III removed it as an official tool of the judiciary, it was considered most efficacious in identifying witches for centuries after that. The theory was that the witch would float, but was innocent if they sank - the fact that, if innocent, they might well drown apparently appears not to have set off any irony alarms.

Therefore, it perhaps doesn't come as a huge surprise to discover that the last 'official' swimming of a suspected witch took place in the mid-Suffolk village of Wickham Skeith... in 1825. Isaac Stebbings, a 67-year-old itinerant pedlar, was accused of black magic, driving two people - a thatcher's wife and a farmer - insane, and, in the presence of the village constable, was 'swum' three times in the Grimmer (the exquisitely appropriate name given to the village pond), floating on each occasion.

Stebbings demanded a retrial the following week, but before this could take place, the local clergyman and church wardens intervened. The villagers, it seems, did get their man though, as local historian, Clive Aslet, writes;
It was not quite the end of the matter, however. A local cunning man was paid three pounds to ensure that Stebbings suffered a lingering death.
It is reassuring to know that we don't treat the unfamiliar or the scapegoat in such a way any more. Character assassination on the internet is so much easier...

Ukraine: the President is gone, so how could we help?

The events of the past few days in Kiev are a reminder both of the attraction of Europe as a concept, as a means of bringing nations together and as an aspiration for those countries still groping for a freedom of the sort we take for granted. It is a dream that, whilst many here are cynical about it, is real to the young people of the former Soviet republics, something I witnessed myself in Armenia two years ago.

And with the newly-released Yulia Tymoschenko announcing her intention to lead Ukraine into the European Union, that yearning is about to run head on into the bureaucratic sands that are the acquis which must be dealt with prior to accession, even assuming that Europe could cope with such a member. They are, especially for a country which has little democratic history, a daunting challenge, and one which will frustrate those young people in a hurry.

Yet, meeting the required standards, even if membership of the European Union is not imminent, is the best hope for the Ukrainian people, implying as it does rights and freedoms that they have not hitherto been that used to. And so, I suggest, the European Union has an obligation to engage in, and support, whatever quick, necessary steps can be taken to demonstrate that change is real and that Ukraine will be welcome amongst the European family.

That is not to say that accession will be easy, and whilst the Russians have any opportunity to impede and interfere, they certainly will, but by demonstrating that a relationship of equals can bring greater benefits than the big brother alternative that Putin offers, we can persuade those who are fearful for their future to take courage. And, in doing so, we send out a message to other former Soviet republics that they are not alone...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

In praise of... Jonathan Calder

In a time when there is so much unpleasantness on the internet, especially in the sphere of politics, it is occasionally nice to be reminded that quality tends to outlast outrage, that humour outlasts insult, and this was brought to mind recently when, in my capacity as Newsletter Editor for my Local Party, I was asked if it was possible to publish Lord Bonkers' Diary for the edification of our members.

Admittedly, I wasn't entirely convinced that it would work here in Mid Suffolk, but I gave my word to ask. And it dawned on me that, if our Chair was so keen, it says an awful lot for the work of probably the consistently best writer amongst the Liberal Democrat blogosphere that his influence has reached our quiet corner of East Anglia.

It may be a mite unfair, but to some extent the genius that is Lord Bonkers has perhaps overshadowed the sheer diversity and quality of the rest of his blogging and column writing, which is a dreadful pity, and a loss to a wider audience. I will admit here that his writings on Shropshire occasionally pass me by - is it really as wonderful as Suffolk? - but his writing on authors, his occasional chiding of the Party leadership, his publication of videos of a world now almost lost, is usually thought-provoking and nearly always well-crafted.

And yet, despite his prodigious posting rate, and the high regard in which he is generally held, he remains as award-free as I am, which seems a little wrong.

These days, with more time on my hands, I have the scope to read more, and if some of that time is spent reading Liberal England, It won't be time wasted. So, thank you, Jonathan, and do let Lord Bonkers know that Ros is looking forward to a visit to Bonkers Hall at some point - she might be able to reduce the levels of food waste at the Home for Well Behaved Orphans...

Will seeing the back of Atos actually make a difference?

The news that Atos Healthcare are in negotiations to withdraw from their contract with the Department of Work and Pensions to carry out fitness-for-work tests has been welcomed by many, especially those who oppose the way the current assessment regime works. Images of protestors with Socialist Worker placards - never terribly helpful to my mind - and reports of death threats against Atos staff demonstrate the passion with which groups have fought against the way things are done. But I can't help feeling that Atos are the symptom, rather than the cure, and that simply replacing them will make little difference, and might even make matters worse.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWithout a sight of the contract, one must presume that Atos are obliged to carry out their assessments at a specified price, agreed in advance with the DWP. They are then free to order their affairs in such a way as to deliver the contract within that cost, maximising profit as far as they can. The profitability of the contract is, it appears, less of a concern than their competence.

But what incentive is there to do the job so poorly as to attract such a high rate of successful appeals as, presumably, Atos have to meet the cost of dealing with them, and the Ministry of Justice have to resource the tribunals - presumably what is driving consideration of levying charges against appellants. It appears to make little sense.

Perhaps it is the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are part of the problem. What targets might you set as part of a contract to deliver fitness-to-work tests? A simple throughput incentive would provide little or no incentive to do the job properly, as the service provider could just pass everyone as being unfit to work. A target rate for failures would incentivise towards failing claimants regardless of whether that is merited.

How flexible is the assessment regime? The application of discretion would suggest that those people with long-term, incurable conditions need assessing less frequently, if at all, after an initial assessment, whereas others might benefit from a more frequent assessment. Does the current system allow that, and what is the impact of assessment on those who feel that they should strive, when tested, to demonstrate the limits of their capabilities, and thus give a falsely optimistic test result?

There is, of course, an underlying problem, that of who should qualify as being in need of support, and how do you ascertain whether or not an individual applicant meets the criteria set. Indeed, what should those criteria be, and what should be paid? And those questions drive the design of any assessment process.

So, unless we answer some of these questions, make relevant changes and discuss them properly, the chances are that, whoever takes the work on, be it a private supplier or by taking it back inhouse, little will change as far as those being assessed are concerned, as I find it hard to believe that Atos are any more heartless or inept as any other similar provider,. And, in any case, the staff who carry out the assessments will probably come from the same pool or have their contracts transferred over to any replacement provider.

There are some short-term solutions, however. Not charging people for appeals would be a good first statement of intent, as it indicates an acceptance that the assessment process is not without flaw - even the best system will have marginal cases. And yes, you may want to consider a means of dissuading frivolous appeals, assuming that they are significant in number, but not in such a way that puts at risk the genuinely vulnerable.

Publishing the terms of the contract as far as is possible would be the right thing to do, especially the Key Performance Indicators. Yes, some of the details will be covered by commercial considerations, but transparency when spending public money is, generally speaking, a good thing, likely to engender greater trust.

Ensuring that any new contract allows for sufficient time to carry out a proper assessment on applicants is important too. The appeals process is stressful, expensive and time consuming, an unnecessary waste of finite resources. Its impact upon those genuine borderline cases, and on those evidently mis-assessed, is traumatising and damaging. So, anything that increases the accuracy rate of assessments is beneficial to all of us.

Other issues, if you like, the bigger ones, require more reflection. Questions of who, how much, and to what end, need a more public debate, which is not shorthand for exchanges of abuse and death threats. If Atos have recorded an average of 163 death threats against their staff per week, that's either going to drive out those who genuinely care, or harden the hearts of those that don't, assuming that any of their staff are so heartless.

But there will always be a need for assessment of some kind, and a requirement for someone to carry out such assessments. There will always be error, and marginality, because the decisions are taken by humans about humans, and as even the Pope doesn't claim to be infallible, there will need to be a right of appeal. We should build compassion and humanity into those processes, whilst understanding that, for some people, compassion has a limit, and our humanity is not there to be abused.

Liberal Democrats, Regionalism and the House of Lords

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the House of Lords is dominated, at least in terms of membership numbers, by London and the South East - it's been a generally held assumption for years. And now, thanks to a recently issued Library Note, the House of Lords has provided some data to demonstrate it, data which does show some interesting news for Liberal Democrats in the rest of England.

Of the Peers who declare the location of their main residence, 492 reside in England. Based on the 2011 census, a proportional split by English Region would be;
  • East of England - 55
  • East Midlands - 42
  • London - 75
  • North East - 24
  • North West - 66
  • South East - 80
  • South West - 49
  • West Midlands - 52
  • Yorkshire and the Humber - 49
The actual figures are;

  • East of England - 63
  • East Midlands - 14
  • London - 152
  • North East - 21
  • North West - 24
  • South East - 114
  • South West - 54
  • West Midlands - 23
  • Yorkshire and the Humber - 27
which demonstrates that, apart form the North East, which is fairly close to its expected figure, what power resides in the Lords is definitely tilted south of the Trent.

The Liberal Democrat benches should, on the same basis, given that there are sixty of them declaring the location of their main residence, be split as follows;
  • East of England - 7
  • East Midlands - 5
  • London - 9
  • North East - 3
  • North West - 8
  • South East - 10
  • South West - 6
  • West Midlands - 6
  • Yorkshire and the Humber - 6
Again, the actual split is;
  • East of England - 6
  • East Midlands - 1
  • London - 17
  • North East - 3
  • North West - 4
  • South East - 11
  • South West - 13
  • West Midlands - 0
  • Yorkshire and the Humber - 5
So, not bad in the East of England, the North East, the South East and Yorkshire and the Humber, not withstanding that Yorkshire should never knowingly be under-represented. However, if anyone in the Leader's Office is reading this, our only Peer in the East Midlands is a hereditary who doesn't show up much, and doing something about both Midlands regions might not be a bad idea.

Throw in someone from the North West, add at least one BAME person, and ensure gender balance at the very least in future lists, and we might end up with a Parliamentary Party in the Lords which ticks a few more of the diversity boxes.

And if someone would like to bring the East of England up to par, I'd be only too glad to offer my services...

Friday, February 21, 2014

As honest doubt lies bleeding and bereft...

It has been a trying day on the internet. In attempting to defend the notion that making change is complex, and that actions have consequences, I have been accused of being in favour of the suffering of the poor and the vulnerable, the retention of Trident, the preservation of the monarchy and of wanting a disproportionately large military.

The defence put up by one formerly rather senior figure in local government is that he presumed that I believed in such things because I didn't entirely agree with him, and therefore must be bad and evil. And, having done so, then demanded that I make my position clear on all of those things. Life is, to be honest, too short. If that's the level of debate I can expect, I've got better things to do, the company of friends, family and loved ones (often combining two or more of the three), country walks and an interest in my local community, where people are generally more real and less tribal.

I have, at least for the time being, seen too much "black and white" debate, too much "I disagree with you, so you must be evil, and bad, and wrong...", even amongst Liberal Democrats. We used to be a bit better than that, something of a family, but I'm not sure that we are any more.

So, I'm going to retreat to the safety of my own small corner of paradise that is the Gipping Valley for a while, and leave the rest of you to carry on as best you can. I'm sure that you'll cope. I'll probably pop up from time to time, with some encouragement, or a moral hug, or some friendly advice, and if you need me, or want to chew the fat, or share a good story or a laugh, do feel free.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Unemployment in Mid Suffolk falls to 4%

Today's labour market figures are, it must be said, pretty encouraging. They're not 'great', because having more than two million unemployed scars the lives of those individuals who are out of work, and I'm not one of those who do triumphalism. However, they augur well for continued economic recovery, for closing the budget deficit, and for spreading the benefits of both so that as many of us as possible benefit.

We are particularly lucky here in Mid Suffolk, in that unemployment is half that of the United Kingdom as a whole, 4% as opposed to 7.7% at the end of September, and the number of JSA claimants is down by more than a quarter over the past year (848, as opposed to 1,135 this time last year).

There are those who have condemned the approach of the Coalition in terms of economic policy, and we will never know the truth of that, especially as the nuts and bolts of the alternatives were never really clearly stated. Besides, economic modelling is still really only an art, not a science, so any arguments either way are conjecture.

But it cannot be denied that the worst of the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008 has now passed, and the mission now is to find ways of ensuring that the vulnerable are sustainably supported in the future. I can't help feeling that politicians need to start turning their attention to that aspect of our economy as policies are fleshed out over the next fifteen months.

Sadly, I fear that we'll have rather more of the heat of blame allocation than the light of long-term policy exposition until May 2015...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Things that I have learned from being a member of a gym

Now that I've been a member of a gym for three months or so - and no, that's not showing off, as I'm still a walrus - some things are becoming apparent.

Firstly, I'm really not young any more. My fellow gym users are, for the most part, in their late teens and twenties, except those who are clearly there to build vast muscles that make them look a bit like bison. Each to their own on that one, I think.

Secondly, the music they play in gyms is suited to people who go to Ibiza to dance and party. That isn't me. However, unless I invest in some serious headphones, or find a gym that plays chamber music whilst one works out, I'm just going to have to put up with that.

Next, tattoos. I don't have one, and this clearly puts me in a fairly small minority, at least within the subgroup described as male users of Klick Fitness in Ipswich. Some of them have lots - it's the sort of thing that one can't help but notice. I'm still not tempted...

And then there's what to do to keep your mind occupied whilst you work out, especially if, like me, you are attempting to burn fat and rebuild aerobic capacity, rather than look like a bison. I tend, for now, to do arithmetic calculations in my head (yes, I know...), but if anyone has any better ideas...

Finally, and much to my surprise, I'm actually beginning to enjoy it a little. Not hugely, as the temptation to opt out is still there, but a little. Perhaps, inside this walrus is a leopard seal waiting to get out?...

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Police Bill - Angie Harris uses a pointy stick to beat the Government

It is not often the case that I take against Party Coalition policy, but I'm one of those who remain wholly unconvinced that elected Police Commissioners are a good thing. The idea of a partisan, politicised appointee flies in the face of neutral, needs based crime and justice policy, and so it was with great interest that I noted an amendment sponsored by Baroness Harris of Richmond, or Angie to her friends.

Amendment 1 to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill didn't mess about, it sought simply to remove Police and Crime Commissioners from the proposed legislation. I won't quote from the debate, except to highlight her summation...

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, the time is late. We have had nearly three and a quarter hours of debate on one amendment. First, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her thoughtful and sensitive summing up of what has been a very important debate and the way that she has responded to the concerns that your Lordships have eloquently and strongly put this afternoon.

It has never been my practice in the 12 years that I have been a Member of your Lordships' House to vote against my Government - I am proud to say that this is my Government - so today I find this very difficult. This Bill has brought forward something that I consider a true principle. It is an appalling Bill. I simply cannot believe that having directly elected police commissioners will improve the policing of this country, which is what we want. That is what we all want. I have heard all the arguments about how different police authorities have not been very good: I know that. But they have been a jolly sight better than they ever were before and we can improve on them. We should improve on them. My biggest concern, therefore, remains about putting so much power into the hands of one person in the form of police and crime commissioners.

I do not want to waste your Lordships' time any more. The debate has gone backwards and forwards and I have to say that I simply do not believe that these proposals will be beneficial in any way to improving policing in this country. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

The division was called, and when the dust had settled, Angie returned to the chamber with the pointy stick of righteousness (I must find out what it really is...) as teller for the 'contents', those in favour of her amendment, to hear that it had been passed by 188 votes to 176.

Interestingly, this is being treated as a Liberal Democrat rebellion, which is an interesting spin, and as a response to Nick Clegg's call for a stronger liberal voice. It might well be the latter, but it isn't really the former. In fact, only 13 Liberal Democrat Peers supported the amendment, whilst 33 supported the Government. That said, the number of our Peers who let their displeasure be known by simply not voting was significant...

So, time for the roll of honour, as I salute the gallant thirteen - Avebury, Bradshaw, Cotter, Goodhart, Greaves, Harris of Richmond, Linklater of Butterstone, Maclennan of Rogart, Methuen, Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, Steel of Aikwood, Strasburger and Tonge.

And you'll note that they're a pretty serious bunch, so I think that the Government will want to give some real consideration to the matter before they overturn it in the Commons where, of course, it will rely on Liberal Democrat votes to do so...

A good reason to pick up that thrown away aluminium can...

Yesterday, I noted that Ros and I had collected a few cans whilst walking near our home. And, whilst today I forgot to bring a bag, we did collect four more cans to go in our recycling bin. But apart from the aesthetic value of doing so, I did wonder just how much good it does otherwise, so I've had a look.

Apparently, making an aluminium can from raw materials uses twenty times as much energy as doing so from recycled material. The energy saved by recycling just one aluminium can is enough to power a television set for three hours, so it seems like a no-brainer, really, except that the benefit to the person recycling the can is, at best, indirect.

reuse, recycle, etc...
That said, if the soft drinks, or beer, producer can pay less for the can per unit, they either pass on those savings to purchasers, or pay out more in dividends to shareholders, either of which is probably a good thing. And yes, I acknowledge that they might pay more in terms of salary to senior staff - more likely, one might cynically conclude - but the possibility is still there, and if the market is working effectively, all of those things are likely.

The environmental benefits are slightly more explicit too. Aluminium smelting, apart from using a lot of energy, produces sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide, two of the nasties that form smog and acid rain, plus the process of extracting a ton of ore creates an equal weight in caustic mud.

You can recycle an aluminium can over and over again, multiplying the effect as much as six times per year - an recycled can is processed and back on the shelves in sixty days, it seems.

So. as we've apparently saved enough energy to power our television for a day, I can feel quite good about my day's effort...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

UKIP support Suffolk Tories and vote to cut children's services

Being childless myself, I am fortunate in that the inadequacies of Suffolk County Council when it comes to education don't directly affect me. On the other hand, when your local authority ranks 146th (out of 152) at primary level and 137th at secondary level, you have to wonder whether cutting expenditure on Children and Young People services is really that good an idea.

For a 6% cut in real terms is what our local Conservatives have come up with for the coming year, which can hardly augur well. Of course, it does mean that the council tax precept is frozen once again, which is fine for Suffolk council taxpayers in terms of their wallets, but not necessarily great for those of us who see education as an investment. But, to add insult to injury, it appears that the Conservatives intend to add the "Pickles bribe" to the reserves rather than to protect services. 

And whilst the Conservatives probably send their children to private schools, or are too old for it to matter any more, you do have to wonder why UKIP were so happy to support the Conservative budget for 2014/15. After all, as our nearby UKIP councillor was so proud to claim how pleased he was to be fighting for our country again, having underperforming schools is something he might want to oppose.

But, for those people who were so keen to vote UKIP to pull Suffolk out of Europe send a message, the idea that, as UKIP councillor for Oulton, Reg Silvester, said; 
the UKIP group as a whole supported the budget, and he felt the administration had done a good job.
what exactly was the point of voting for them when, if more cuts and unaccountability were wanted, one could just have voted Conservative instead?

I'm guessing that Stephen Searle won't be putting out a leaflet telling local residents what he has done (and now I come to think about it, what has he done?), as school cutbacks are hardly likely to be popular. And, if his colleague is to be believed, so much for the idea that they are independently minded and unwhipped.

It just goes to show, perhaps, that by voting UKIP you simply get do-nothings with a different coloured rosette. At least I know what their Conservative counterparts stand for...

Creeting St Peter: exercise, a good deed and some light environmentalism

Despite the wind, it's been quite a nice day in Creeting St Peter so far, and so Ros and I went out earlier for our usual walk up Creeting Lane towards Stowupland. And whilst it was good to be out, the amount of litter, even on a remote country lane, was vaguely annoying.

A small gesture for the environment
However, being vaguely annoyed doesn't achieve an awful lot, and shooting those who litter isn't encouraged, so I decided that, once we had turned for home, I would pick up some of the recyclable stuff and bring it home, and here it is - two lager cans, a Diet Coke can and an energy drink can, plus a squash bottle.

The way I see it, I have tidied our parish, protected wildlife and improved the Mid Suffolk recycling rate all in one go. And as there appears to be a never ending supply of idiots too feckless to take their litter home (although apparently not so feckless that they can't drive to a remote spot to dump their detritus...), I think that I might, when walking locally, have to take a bag in future...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Do not feed the sadist, sorry, troll...

One of the best pieces of advice to give anyone who wants to engage on the internet is "don't feed the trolls". Admittedly, it isn't always easy to detect trolls, as there are those who define 'troll' as 'anyone who doesn't agree with me', but the general rule is still a wise one to adhere to.

And it now appears that the theory that such people are merely firestarters has some basis to it. Research done in Canada suggests that Internet trolls are more likely than others to show signs of sadism, psychopathy and "Machiavellianism": a disregard for morality and tendency to manipulate or exploit others.

Now, one does need to be cautious, and this was an online survey, but as someone who has occasionally mused out loud on the tendency for an online minority to behave in a manner that they would surely never replicate in 'real life', it does appeal as a possible theory, and offers a means of dealing with them, or an excuse not to tolerate their behaviour.

Apparently, sadism is the most prevalent influence causing trolls to behave as they do, and as most of us don't knowingly interact with sadists in real life, it's little wonder that we struggle with such behaviour online. And for those of us who take the view that, as reasonable people, we're willing to engage in rational debate, the notion that there are people out there who simply prefer to abuse allcomers is a trying, and ultimately depressing one.

So, the advice holds - don't feed the trolls - and, if in doubt, stick to fora where moderation is effective and complaints about conduct taken seriously.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Swiss to become poster children for second order consequentials?

This weekend's referendum vote by the Swiss to impose strict migration levels into the Confederation is a demonstration of how the political understanding of the implication of free movement of people is not shared by a significant chunk of voters. The Swiss people may now be about to find out just how far the world has moved on.

One presumes that, in order to enforce this, they will need to tighten border controls, which will make life a little more annoying, but that is entirely their choice, and it will give Government, at both the Federal and cantonal levels, more control over population levels. So far, so good, presumably.

However, the Swiss have to get out of the country, and being surrounded by the European Union on all sides, the unanswered question thus far is, "What will the European Union do in response?".

Early suggestions include a review of trade access agreements, and a restriction on the right of Swiss citizens to live and work in the European Union, neither of which is likely to do the Swiss economy much good.

Many Swiss voters, especially those who voted 'yes' in the referendum, may not have understood the potential consequences of voting as they did, as they aren't direct beneficiaries of free trade and free movement of people, and it is perhaps a failure of those who do understand to make the case, but they may not like what happens next much.

I'm going to Vienna in May, and had in mind a pretty journey by train from Zurich. But, as I'm seemingly somewhat unwelcome in Switzerland, perhaps I ought to take a different route instead. For no country is an island any more, and the Swiss might find themselves dwelling on that point in the weeks and months ahead.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Salamander - who knew that the Belgians could make a decent thriller?

My Twitter timeline has, on weekends past, been full of people commenting on the latest Scandinavian drama on TV, but I've never really gotten into any of them, not even Borgen (yes, I know...). And it is true that BBC4 has found some really interesting stuff, including Inspector Montalbano. I want to be Salvo, I want the three hour lunches, the fine wine, the generally looking cool and solving mysteries in an eccentric but morally upright(ish) manner. The swimming I can do without, but otherwise...

And so, when Ros flicked through the television section of today's paper and discovered a new Belgian series, I was sufficiently intrigued to give up the endless task of managing my e-mail to take a look. And well worth doing so, I must admit.

The series opens with the final stages of a bank robbery in a private bank in Brussels, where the robbers clearly have a plan, as they have targeted certain bank boxes. It becomes apparent very quickly that the boxes contain highly sensitive material involving sixty-six of the most senior figures in Belgium, and a cover-up is organised.

Unfortunately, the break-in comes to the attention of Chief Inspector Paul Gerardi, clearly not a 'by the book' man, who insists on investigating further...

I won't say any more, for fears of spoiling it, but for those with an interest in politics, think of this as Borgen meets The Bridge, although I wouldn't like to say where it will go next. Needless to say, Gerardi is already on the run, and the body count is steadily rising, after just two episodes - tonight was a double header.

So, for some Flemish drama, plus some interesting architecture, catch up on i-Player and settle down next Saturday for Episode 3, perhaps with some decent Belgian beer. I think you might be pleasantly surprised...