Saturday, March 29, 2014
Friday, March 28, 2014
Where was I? Ah yes...
So, after my mini-epic journey across Northern Europe, I had safely reached Copenhagen and, despite a few difficulties in finding the suburban train to Orestad, a new community south of the city near the airport, I arrived at our hotel and waited for Ros to arrive.
The hotel was unexpected, having won a plethora of awards for being the greenest hotel in Europe, but of more interest was the Club Lounge, which we had access to, with unlimited free alcohol - I applied my own, quite modest, limit, thank you - and free snacks, including salt liquorice, one of my favourites.
Ros turned up soon enough, having flown in from Aalborg, where she had been moderating the 25th Anniversary Conference of the North Sea Commission, surrounded by Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Scots (it would be fair to say that a good time was had by all, I believe), and we had a pleasant dinner before getting a good night's sleep.
The next morning dawned bright, and we peered out of our thirteenth floor window to see the airport and, beyond it, the Oresund Bridge, which links Copenhagen with Malmo. We needed to get out, so in spite of the gusty conditions, it was into the city for a walk around the Parliament district and on towards Nyhavn and the Little Mermaid.
Copenhagen is a very walkable place, and rather less paranoid, as we discovered when we reached the Parliament. Yes, you need to have security, but instead of the ugly metal barriers that we have at Westminster (and no, painting them in black and yellow doesn't help), the Danes have big rocks strewn in a curve. It's a bit like the Ring of Brodgar, but not as bleak - or impressive, now I think about it. It is, however, rather more human than metalwork.
We headed towards Nyhavn, with its restaurants and bars, stopping for coffee and then made for the waterfront, all very nice. Past the headquarters of Maersk, the shipping conglomerate, with models of big ships to look at, and the Royal Danish Cast Library, we strolled, before reaching the Kastellat, the fortress that protected Copenhagen rather unsuccessfully from, amongst others, Nelson.
The Little Mermaid is, as almost everyone seems to say, rather smaller than you'd expect, but tourists still come - it's a bit like Graceland in Memphis, or the Taj Mahal, if you've come all that way, you really ought to see it - but it was pleasant enough, and we turned back towards the centre, stopping only for some smorgasbord.
Wonderful? Probably. But certainly Copenhagen...
The first debate is done, the dust begins to settle, and something that resembles a debate on Europe, our place in it and what we want from it has lurched into life. I'm not getting too excited, but it is an improvement on what has come before.
But it appears to me that there is an opportunity for Liberal Democrats to look towards the future, one where international co-operation allows us to make our lives a little easier, just as UKIP look backwards towards a time when there was more certainty and less interdependence - a time which is unlikely to come again.
Every morning, I get an e-mail from the European Parliament, telling me what they're up to in Brussels, and today's is typical, in that it isn't terrifically exciting, but points towards changes that will help.
The first item is an assessment of the implementation of the European Rail Traffic Management System, which sounds like a thrill a minute, doesn't it? And yet, by including a common standard, trains will be enabled to cross national borders, allowing a real European rail network, reducing the need for short-haul flights, lowering pollution and enabling trade and movement. It offers the possibility of Birmingham to Dijon, Barcelona to Turin, or Prague to Ljubljana services if demand exists, not limited by needing to change locomotives or rolling stock.
Further down the e-mail is a reference to a report on enhancing worker mobility by improving the acquisition and preservation of supplementary pension rights, something that is so much easier done at a supranational level than on a bilateral level.
These are not 'big' or 'sexy' topics, but they represent a fraction of the daily work of the European Commission and the Parliament. And, for the most part, they go utterly unnoticed. But what they do demonstrate is that, if you are minded to take up the opportunities that come from living in such a huge market, there is a body which is trying to help and support you - and it isn't the United Kingdom Parliament.
And, at the European Parliament, whilst UKIP don't turn up, or vote against everything discussed when they do bother, Liberal Democrat MEPs are busily getting on with the job of representing our interests and building a Europe that works more effectively and efficiently.
I don't claim that it's an easy sell, because Europe is complex and imperfect. But if we don't, or can't, make the case, you can't imagine that anyone else is going to, can you?
Friday, March 14, 2014
The trai having been safely divided at Hamburg - the back half is going to Aarhus, where my international political life started twenty-five years ago - the last leg of my journey began. No compartment this time, and the diesel version of the ICE train, still grey but better laid out.
The DB lounge at Hamburg is very nice, and the first class treatment starts there, as a nice lady brought me a bowl of vegetable soup, with lentils and an extra German touch, sliced sausage, which I approve of. I was able to use their free wi-fi, catch up with the world, before strolling in a leisurely manner to my train, en route to Lubeck, Oldenburg and Puttgarden, before a crossing of the lower Baltic and a dash across the islands of Eastern Denmark.
This rather flat bit of Germany, the Holstein bit of Schleswig-Holstein, is well-suited to wind turbines, and there are rather a lot of them to be seen from the train. It's a good thing too, as Germany's dependence on gas supplies from Russia means that their decision to close their nuclear power stations makes them more than a little vulnerable. Lucky for Frau Merkel that spring is coming...
Which reminds me, why are so many people at home so hostile to the notion of wind turbines? They're quiet, they don't pollute and, compared to a regular power station, they're far easier on the eye. Perhaps we just need to paint them in pretty colours?
You might have noted the reference to crossing the Baltic and been a mite puzzled for, having checked, you'll know that there isn't a bridge. Instead, at Puttgarden, the train rolled onto a ferry, whereupon we were evicted and the train locked, whilst we struggled upstairs to the boat deck, with its duty-free shop, restaurants and video game arcade. They don't mess about - as soon as the train was safely aboard and the stern door closed, the ferry left, no more than eight minutes after our arrival at the station.
It was, still, rather grey - must everything colour-coordinate with my train? - but the crossing was smooth, and it wasn't long before Denmark hove into view, so I headed back to the train for the remaining two hour journey to Copenhagen. Denmark is flat, even more flat than Suffolk, and the miles slipped by before, as darkness fell, the Copenhagen suburbs appeared, and my train odyssey was at an end.
So, how would I sum up my journey? Well, it's much less stress-inducing than flying, the view out of the window is relaxing too, and Deutsche Bahn, in particular, do know how to look after their passengers, in first class at least. If, however, time, or money, or both are an issue, you're almost certainly better off flying. I have to say though, if the opportunity arises to go somewhere by train again, and I have the time, I'd be minded to do it.
And now, with Ros at my side, a weekend in Copenhagen beckons...
Having been a bit harsh on German fashion sense, I ought to balance the ledger a little. Fortunately, that isn't too difficult.
I've spent the morning pottering around the city, as only an Englishman can, and a very charming city Hamburg is too. And before anyone reminds me, I gave St Pauli and the Reeperbahn a wide berth, although I very much suspect that it has changed somewhat since its 'glory days'.
The Hauptbahnhof is, as is often the case in big German cities, very imposing and full of retail opportunities, but the walk from there, through the shopping area is very pleasant. I took a slight detour to admire the Binnen Alster, the southern end of the lake which stretches north-east from the city centre, before passing the Rathaus, a very impressive structure.
But my destination was Hafen City, the newly developed dockland area, full of museums, culture and new apartment blocks. The old warehouses, presumably rebuilt after World War II, have been left, mostly for commercial use it seems, with new blocks built between them and the Elbe. It's all a bit like the London Docklands used to be in the early days, a bit desolate and slightly dead, but by putting the new Elbphilharmonie building there, it might well develop into a vibrant neighbourhood.
The weather hasn't been so nice here in Hamburg, which perhaps doesn't help, but I like the contrast between the stylish apartment blocks on one side of the Elbe, and the gritty, industrial port on the other. And with a university campus at one end of Hafen City, and a smattering of interesting restaurants and bars, I think that they've done a better job here than we did in London.
It's an easy city to get around too, with buses, U-bahn, S-bahn and the odd ferry too, and I think Ros might like it. I'd better add it to an increasingly long list then...
I've always wondered why a country as wealthy as Germany has such a curious relationship with fashion. And, walking back towards my hotel after dinner, I was reminded of an interesting contradiction. Hamburg is not a city of poverty, as evidenced by the glitzy stores on Neuer Wall, and yet Germans do casual in a way which makes you wonder who actually shops in them.
Now, you may be thinking, where does Mark get off, having a go at our German friends in such a way, after all, I'm not exactly an advert for haute couture either. It is a puzzle though.
The Italians and the Spanish seem to dress better than the Northern Europeans, although the Dutch do formal pretty well, so it can't be that simple. The British have a reputation for men's fashion, which we've exported quite successfully. But the German contribution to fashion? That's a bit harder to find.
Oh yes, there is Adidas, but that's sportswear, which doesn't really help much, and there are some interesting jackets which Ros wouldn't let me wear outside the house - or in it, for that matter - but why is it that such a wealthy, populous country, capable of building a thing of beauty like a Porsche, seem to make so little impression on the fashion scene?
Ah well, perhaps someone out there can explain it to me...
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Ah Germany, the home of beer and wurst and people in leather shorts with braces. And so, naturlich, I am in a bar. With beer. And weisswurst mit sweet mustard. Fortunately, there appears to be nobody in leather shorts, although an accordion player would be tolerable. Nobody has smuggled in a flugelhorn, nor are beer drinking songs being sung... yet (the night is still young though).
I freely admit that it didn't take very much to tempt be from my hotel, very nice though it is. When you have an entirely new city to explore, U-bahn to ride and things to see - the Rathaus looks as though it might repay a visit in daylight - it seems like a terrible pity to stay in a sanitised, could be anywhere really, chain hotel and eat in an 'international' restaurant devoid of atmosphere.
Here at the Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht, there are four regular beers on tap plus a seasonal special. I am fortunate enough to have caught the Winterbier, dark and cloudy, and really rather good. I've even got a nice table for people watching, which is good, although the wooden bar stools are a mite uncomfortable (some upholstery and a little cushioning would be nice, guys!).
Hamburg appears to have a lot of water if the number of bridges is anything to go by, and I'm looking forward to having a wander around tomorrow - there may be more beer involved - before I catch an afternoon train tomorrow.
But first, pork. I've ordered my schnitzel, a second beer is due any moment, and it's looking like a very nice evening...
Whilst my arrival into Cologne was delayed by about twenty minutes, the DB Lounge was very comfortable, and had wi-fi, thus the postings earlier. However, time waits for no bureaucrat (except if tea is involved, naturally), and I had a connection to make... which was running fifteen minutes late from Stuttgart - so much for this German efficiency I hear so much about.
The train pulled in, only to reveal an unexpected treat - six seat compartments. Better still, I had a window seat for my four hour journey to Hamburg. My fellow passengers looked relatively normal, a smartly dressed man in a suit with an orange tie and a laptop to my left, a man wearing a semi-ironed white shirt reading some papers covering in evidently small print from the way he was holding them close to his face, and a woman who had clearly decided to colour-coordinate with the train (yes, more grey, I fear) enlivened by a teal striped scarf. Even her eyes were a steel grey/blue. It seemed that we were all travelling individually from the lack of conversation.
The train was scheduled to stop in Dusseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund, Munster, Osnabruck and Bremen, before calling at a series of Hamburg stations, leaving me plenty of time to enjoy the facilities, including the bistro car. Even better, the bistro car comes to you, and a very nice man brought me a beer with which to enjoy the ride.
At Dusseldorf, we were reduced to just the lady in grey and I, and I felt relatively safe, so I put some madrigals on the Kindle Fire, and read for a bit as we headed through the Ruhr Valley. At Dortmund, we were joined by a husband and wife, probably in their sixties, and who seemed quite harmless, so I sipped my beer and listened to some Brahms trios whilst I basked in the sun. It was all very pleasant.
The German scenery - a bit flat (so unlike my dear Suffolk) - passed by before, almost before I knew it, we were in Hamburg, where my next break was scheduled. A short cab ride and I was safely ensconced in a very nice hotel room...
Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the number of female directors on FTSE 100 boards.[HL5589]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con): There are around 229 female Executive and Non-Executive Directors on FTSE 100 boards.
Women now account for 20.4% of board members in FTSE 100 companies (figures from January 2014), up from 12.5% in February 2011.
Government supports a voluntary business-led approach for increasing the number of women on FTSE boards and, following Lord Davies’s recommendations, set a target of 25% of the membership of FTSE 100 company boards by 2015.
My train was, somewhat unexpectedly, five minutes late. It did look good though...
First class on ICE trains comes with waiter service, very efficient waiter service, in fact, but on the Brussels to Cologne route what doesn't seem to exist is wi-fi, which wasn't expected either. It is all a bit stark though, with the designer having clearly exchanged notes with his opposite number at Eurostar, using a palette consisting almost entirely of shades of grey, made even more cold by the leather seats - unlike Eurostar who at least have cloth upholstery.
|ICE35 to Frankfurt arrives at Bruxelles Nord|
That said, we were making excellent time with speeds reaching 250 km/h until the train began to slow, gliding effortlessly into the station at Ans, whereupon it stopped completely. There was a seemingly embarrassed silence from the trilingual train manager, before it was explained that we had trespassers on the line, and that we would be delayed a bit.
Whilst it is probably the most exciting thing to have happened in Ans for some time, I do have another train to catch, so as the train purred back into life, gliding slowly into the manta ray that is Liege-Guillemins station, I was pleased to see that we were only twenty minutes late.
So, how would I sum up a journey on the ICE train? Smooth, efficient in a way that only our Teutonic cousins can really do, but slightly soulless. Indeed, it is a romantic form of travel in the same way that giving your spouse a steam iron on St Valentine's Day would be romantic.
But enough of my complaining, as we're arriving in Cologne...
Now that I have reason to come to Brussels from time to time, I have a hotel that I prefer, in a neighbourhood that I like, the Holiday Inn Brussels-Schuman. And so, with an overnight stop, it made sense to book a night there.
The hotel is just off the Schuman rondpoint, and is very convenient for the 'EU Zone' to the east of the centre of Brussels, but it is also close to Place Jourdan, home to Maison Antoine, allegedly the best frites stand in the city, and a number of nice bars and restaurants.
I did need dinner though, and found a local brasserie, where I had some brown shrimp croquettes followed by the rabbit in gueuze, washed down with a Tripel Westmalle - all very nice. And then it was back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.
This morning, the sun is shining brightly, the sky is blue, there's not a cloud to spoil the view. And with the benefits of a decent, if continental, breakfast, I'm off again. I've made it from Schuman to Brussels Noord, which is where I am now, and my next leg is by ICE train to Cologne. This should be good...
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
So, I'm in Brussels, and it's dark. It was surprisingly dark outside the train, as a dark and gloomy sky 'welcomed' me to France. Frankly, there wasn't much point looking out of the window unless one's life is so depressing that looking out at a vista like that might cheer you up. You'd have to be pretty depressed though...
I did manage to find a pair of vacant seats, which allowed me to escape my neighbour's snoring (something that Ros, at least, will find vaguely amusing) and gave me a window seat to enjoy. Or not, as it turned out.
One of the things that makes Eurostar so attractive is the city to city aspect of travel. Many years ago, when I used to travel to Brussels regularly, the fastest option was to fly from London City Airport to Zaventum, but even with the ten minute check-in that City Airport offered, you still needed at least three and a half hours to get from city centre to city centre, assuming that everything ran like clockwork - which it seldom did. Eurostar can cover the same ground in under three hours easily, even allowing for the minimum twenty minutes for check-in, security and passport control at St Pancras International.
And, given the increasing time required to clear security at airports, and the time taken to get to and from airports, connections from Brussels, in particular, Lille and Paris make a number of destinations as convenient by train as they would be by air - Amsterdam, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Cologne and Lyon, to name but a few. Better still, the experience, especially in first class, is more like travel than a glorified bus ride, as economy class flying usually feels like these days.
If you're organised, first class train tickets aren't even that expensive - I paid €99 to get from Brussels to Hamburg, and just €69 for the Hamburg to Copenhagen leg, which are both pretty reasonable, and the differential between second class and first isn't that great.
But it's time for dinner, and beer, so if you'll excuse me...
As I have noted before, I do like a nice train ride, which is why this post comes to you from St Pancras International. But, instead of taking the Midland Main Line service to Market Harborough for stations to Bonkers Halt - hope that you enjoyed the cake, my Lord - my train will turn right and head for the Continent, en route to Brussels.
I am off to meet up with Ros, who is safely ensconced in her hotel room in Aalborg, where she is preparing for the 25th Anniversary Conference of the North Sea Commission. She had to be there today, whereas I don't have to meet her until Friday evening, so I thought that I might take the pretty(ish) route by land.
It can be done in a day, with a very early start, but I don't do early starts and like to look out of the window, so that rules out travelling by night. Accordingly, my journey is in three parts - London to Brussels today, Brussels to Hamburg (via Cologne) tomorrow and Hamburg to Copenhagen on Friday.
My journey starts in a slightly down at heel way, in Standard Class on the 17:04 Eurostar to Brussels Midi. I usually splash out on Standard Premier but, on this occasion, I've decided to put the saving towards a good meal and some beer. Eurostar could do with a bit of refurbishment, with its grey upholstery, grey carpets, grey walls and general greyness, all made that little bit more depressing by the fact that the train is crowded, space is limited and little things like powerpoints to charge my gadget only exist in Standard Premier and Business Premier.
But it is only for two hours, my neighbour at the window seat is reading something unbelievably tedious-looking with lots of statistical data and calculations, so he shouldn't be much trouble. And, at the end of it all, is Brussels, a city I like and know well.
So, off we go, and let the journey begin!
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Last night in the Lords saw a debate on the current situation in Gibraltar, which raised a number of concerns about the relationship between Gibraltar and Spain. Ros chose to pick up on the failure of the European Union to address the freedom of movement issues involved...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD):
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for tabling this debate and for her speech in which all her experience was brought to bear in a characteristically incisive and robust style. I should make clear at the outset that I am not an expert on Gibraltar, but last year, as the serious damage done by the level of Spanish border checks became clear, one aspect of the situation reminded me of somewhere that I know well at the other end of the Mediterranean, on the island of Cyprus. In both cases, a historic legacy is causing monumental problems for citizens today, and they are not receiving adequate support from the institutions that ought to be protecting them. The people of Gibraltar are UK citizens and have been for 300 years, and while the bilateral relationship between the UK and Spain is paramount, Gibraltarians have another citizenship as members of the European Union, and it is that issue on which I wish to focus my remarks.
It is an irony that while the EU has become increasingly active in the diplomatic field as a result of the creation of the External Action Service, it not been sufficiently active in resolving tensions within the EU itself, as Cyprus and Gibraltar graphically demonstrate. To be slightly tongue in cheek, I wonder whether there ought to be an internal action service. A recent report on enlargement from the House of Lords EU Select Committee noted that, when countries join the Union without prior resolution of bilateral disputes, it results in the import of those disputes into the everyday decision-making of the EU. We see that constantly with regard to Gibraltar and Cyprus, and I fear that Serbia and Kosovo may be coming down the track.
There is an inconsistency at the heart of the Commission’s approach to these situations. One the one hand, it quite rightly does not get involved in sovereignty disputes but, on the other, it does not always uphold EU legislation in a neutral way. Despite the agreement made in Cordoba in 2006, for example, recent EU passenger rights legislation excluded Gibraltar. The result of this would have been that not only Gibraltarians but any EU citizen passing through the airport would not have benefited from the passenger rights. The European Parliament has subsequently accepted an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson, which remedied this situation. The matter is now coming to the Council and I hope that the Minister can say today that the Government will fight hard to keep the amendment in.
On Wednesday of this week there will be further votes at the European Parliament plenary session on the same set of issues—only this time it is about the safer skies initiative on air traffic control. Amendments tabled by the Spanish centre right party at the transport committee have succeeded in removing Gibraltar from this legislation, which is disgraceful. We now have to hope that the Parliament will overcome that and put Gibraltar back in. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Government are doing everything they can.
I believe that the Commission needs to take its responsibilities much more seriously. After years of problems with Spanish authorities carrying out border checks, the escalation of the problem last autumn has meant that the Commission cannot continue to turn a blind eye to it. I am surprised that the conclusion of its investigation was that no EU law had been breached. It seems a strange interpretation of free movement; perhaps future visits should be unannounced and incognito so that the real picture emerges. It was disgraceful that neither the Commission nor the Spanish Government were prepared to publish the conclusions that had been reached. It took an official access-to-documents request by Sir Graham Watson to ascertain that the Commission had described the intensity of the border checks as “unjustifiable”. Therefore, I ask the Minister to outline what steps the British Government are taking with the Commission to ensure that the rights of the citizens of Gibraltar will be upheld.
What we really need is a lasting settlement to stop these incursions, and there is one other potential course of action regarding the border which the Minister might consider. Is it possible to create a legal position whereby Gibraltar, alone from the rest of the UK, could join the Schengen agreement? If this could be done for Gibraltar, then the border crossings could be removed. It has been done—in reverse, so to speak—in that there are islands which are part of France but which have been excluded from Schengen. As both Britain and Spain are members of NATO, I, too, would be interested in hearing whether the incursions of the navy into Gibraltarian waters have been discussed.
European Commission President Barroso recently said:
Free movement of people is a fundamental principle of Europe, a fundamental principle of the treaties, indeed one of the core elements that distinguish our Union ... the principle of free movement exists and … is applicable throughout the Union, without discrimination, because we don’t want citizens of first class and citizens of second class in Europe.
He is quite right to say that, but he now has to act on that with regard to Gibraltar.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Yes, I know, I missed a week… already. What can I say?...
As the Lords heads towards its proroguement for the session, voting tends to intensify, Committees finalise reports and thoughts turn to the Queen’s Speech on 3 June – what will be in it, if anything, what messages for the General Election might be gleaned, that sort of thing. However, there’s still plenty of work to do…
Monday is relatively quiet, as the House deals with Day 3 of the Committee Stage of the Immigration Bill, whilst Ros will be speaking in a debate on the current situation in Gibraltar, requested by Baroness Butler-Sloss from the Crossbenches.
Another sign that the Parliamentary session is nearing its end is consideration of Commons amendments, and Tuesday sees two such exercises, firstly on the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, and then the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The latter is where the controversy will lie, with the Commons proposing that those found to be the victims of a miscarriage of justice will only be eligible for compensation if they can prove that they did not commit the offence. Personally, this strikes me as a mean-spirited, penny-pinching piece of legislation which suggests that the destruction of an individual’s life by the State need not have consequences for the State.
Otherwise, the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Bill receives its Third Reading, and Ros has a busy day, with Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy (EU Sub-Committee D) meeting under her chairmanship in the morning to consider the latest draft of its report on Food Waste, and then the European Union Committee itself meeting in the afternoon.
There is more legislation on Wednesday, with the Third Reading of the Pensions Bill, and another (probably depressing) day of the Committee Stage of the Immigration Bill. However, there are two interesting Oral Questions, one from our very own John Sharkey on encouraging banks to refer small and medium-sized enterprises which apply unsuccessfully for credit to other sources of credit, and the other from Baroness Rawlings on future funding for the BBC World Service.
Elsewhere, in the Committee Corridor, the Constitution Committee continue their look at the constitutional implication of a Yes vote in this autumn’s referendum on Scottish independence, taking evidence from Alistair Carmichael and Jim Wallace. Alistair will be in something of a hurry, as he’ll be giving a speech in Aalborg the next day under Ros’s watchful eye.
Thursday is one of those relatively uneventful days, although Olly Grender does have an Oral Question on encouraging social landlords to amend new and existing tenancies to make it easier to work from home.
Sunday, March 09, 2014
It was a lovely day, wasn't it? Here in Suffolk, at least, the sun shone out of a clear blue sky, and the spring warmth drew people out to bask in the best weather we've seen for months. And so, we went to Woodbridge, a gentle drive across country, on the lower reaches of the River Deben.
And as Ros and I walked along the river bank, the world seemed like a nicer place, as dogs splashed in the shallows and a curlew explored the mud for a snack or two with its elegantly curved bill. We were reminded that, despite all the travelling we do, and all the things that we have seen, we are lucky enough to live in a rather lovely corner of the world. Not dramatic, not majestic, but gently attractive nonetheless.
But there was another reason for our trip to Woodbridge - the search for cordial. On a recent trip to Southwold, we had picked up some rather special cordial, which I like to serve warm on a winter's evening, or when I am feeling slightly jaded. And, unfortunately, we were running out, so we popped into the Adnams Cellar and Kitchen store for wine, beer and three sorts of cordial.
And then we went home, where beer and cordial were drunk, chicken casserole eaten, and a newspaper read. All in all, it was a lovely weekend, and as a prelude to a rather more hectic week ahead, it has set us up nicely....
Saturday, March 08, 2014
I have become quite a difficult person to buy presents for - I don't need very much, my life is fairly busy and, if I really want something, I'm lucky enough to have sufficient funds to go out and buy it (within reason of course, I'm not rich). And so, when my parents asked me what I would like for Christmas, I did have to think for a bit.
And then it came to me, having been to the Needham Market vs Cambridge United match a few weeks earlier, that I could sponsor one of my local Ryman League Division 1 North team's home games - think Division Eight (Home Counties North and East Anglia) and you'll have an idea of where they fit in the English soccer pyramid. So, I did a little research, discovered that it was within their price range and agreed that this would be their gift.
It then fell to me to do something about it and, I must admit, I've been a bit rubbish at sorting the matter out, until this week, when Ros asked what was happening about it. So, I thought that I'd better try to contact the club and see what could be arranged. And, this afternoon, it has all been agreed, a cheque is in the post, and my day out is arranged.
I've got my papers and my voting delegate badge, I've downloaded the conference app onto my iPad Air, so everything is set for this weekend's Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in York. There is but one catch, in that I'm not there.
I was going to attend, but I have to admit to being a bit jaded by politics at the moment. Actually, let's be a bit more precise, I'm a bit jaded by domestic politics, the lack of meaningful dialogue, the emptiness of the debate, the inability of the media to hold our leaders to account, the narrow-mindedness of so much public opinion, the lack of horizon, the seeming inability of so many to think beyond tomorrow afternoon (if you're lucky).
I'm probably being a bit harsh, and I don't particularly blame any individual or group, but I suppose I've spent too much time wondering about possible second-order consequentials and being puzzled as to why others aren't doing the same. And, perhaps, the advantage of not being there is that I can take a deep breath, gather my thoughts, and get on with some other things that really do need doing.
In the meantime, there is beer, football and quite a lot of travel in my future. Oh yes, and a career-critical exam. But the least said about that, the better...
In the meantime, there is beer, football and quite a lot of travel in my future. Oh yes, and a career-critical exam. But the least said about that, the better...
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
In what can only be described as one of the year's more bizarre contributions to political debate, one of UKIP's candidates for the European Parliament has called for the right of businesses to discriminate as they choose on grounds of ethnicity or gender. And no, it isn't a white, male candidate.
"I believe that all business owners, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, should be allowed to withhold their services from whomever that choose whenever they choose."
"It's their business. Why should they be forced to serve or sell to anyone?", said Donna Edmunds, one of UKIP's candidates in South East England.
Now, she is entitled to her views, no matter how repulsive they might be, and voters are entitled to discriminate against her because of those views, but it is the way in which she has responded that is probably more depressing.
I regret what I wrote and can see how an essentially libertarian stance could be broadly misinterpreted.
I in no way endorse any form of discrimination. I believe in cutting red tape for business and I also strongly believe in an individual's personal and religious freedoms, but I stand against any form of prejudice.
I hope this remark has not caused any embarrassment for the party.
I have to say that "regret' is a rather weak word, especially when it is combined with the hope that she hasn't embarrassed her party. It is the sort of weasel-like semi-apology that brings politicians into disrepute. A proper apology might, for example, touch upon any offence that she might have caused. She might also like to reflect upon the implications of her claimed belief in libertarianism - some of my acquaintances may well scoff at her claims, given her desire not to accept the potential consequences of her actions.
What should her response be? Well, she might like to consider the suggestion she has made to Harriet Harman as a marker. After all, if resignation for allegedly taking an unacceptable view thirty years ago is a resignation matter, espousing one in 2014 must surely be one.
Reading my morning newspaper, I note that Jeremy Hunt is suggesting that the NHS must copy banks and budget airlines by using the internet to give a better service whilst cutting costs. And yes, there is no doubt that the internet does offer opportunities to increase efficiency and open up new possibilities for patients, but are banks and budget airlines really the sort of organisations that you'd want to see the NHS aspire towards?
One envisages a Ryanair-style website, where you start off with what looks like a simple transaction and then you find yourself confronted with a plethora of choices, do you want an anaesthetic for your surgery, or extra convalescence time, or clean surgical instruments, that sort of thing. Perhaps, taking a cue from the banks, you could be offered spare body parts that you don't need because you've already got one, and when you do try to use them, they tend not to be compatible with you.
And it is ironic that, as Jeremy makes his suggestion, elsewhere in my copy of The Times, there is news of a report from the Financial Ombudsman Service, noting that the number of complaints made to it about banks last year reached record numbers.
However, he makes a point which exposes a slight lack of understanding of how public services work, in that he notes that retail banks have cut a third of their costs by persuading us to do the work they used to do themselves. He is right, but he misses the point that, by doing so, the economic costs of transactions have not necessarily fallen, as the work, instead of being done by a trained professional, is being handled by an inexperienced, untrained amateur, who is likely to spend rather longer doing it.
I'm also not necessarily convinced that I have benefited financially from the arrangement either, as fees haven't fallen and senior employee salaries have increased.
So, yes, encourage the NHS and, for that matter, the rest of the public sector, to use the internet more intelligently by exploring new ways of operating by all means. But just don't forget that it's not the same as a retail transaction, in that most dealings with public services are seldom voluntary, and there's seldom a choice, because, ultimately, you're dealing with human beings with all of the irrationality and foibles that come with them...
Debates in the Lords don't always run to schedule. Peers make shorter speeches than expected, or there are less of them than allowed for in the estimated timings for the day. And, sometimes, that means that someone is caught out, as was demonstrated on Monday afternoon in Grand Committee...
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, before we start the next business, due to the efficiency with which we have executed our previous business, we are rather scratching to find a spokesman. I wonder whether we might take a 10-minute break for the Opposition to find a spokesman for the next round.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees: My Lords, yes, in due course but the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, is being a little previous.
Lord Tunnicliffe: I am so sorry.
Luckily, the notion of decency and fair play is not lost at that end of the Palace of Westminster and, a minute or so later, Hansard records;
The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale) (Con): My Lords, I think by general agreement the Grand Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Ros in the Lords: Social Security (Maternity Allowance) (Participating Wife or Civil Partner of Self-employed Earner) Regulations 2014
Occasionally, as a member of a Parliamentary Party, you need someone to step in at short notice to deal with a piece of legislation - perhaps the usual spokesperson is ill, or absent, or double-booked, and yesterday saw one of those days, as Ros was asked if she could speak for the Liberal Democrats on a piece of secondary legislation. As you can see, she was able to demonstrate her versatility here...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, I support the social security regulation which we are debating today - not just because it avoids an €11 million fine. I think it is a good thing in its own right. For once, we have a welcome change to the benefits system in that it is beginning genuinely to reflect the diversity of people’s lives and the lives of women in the workforce. That is a very good thing indeed. It is bringing a new group of women, predominantly from the very small, micro-business sector, within the ambit of maternity benefit. I just wish that the gold-plating had been left in place just on this one occasion so that they could have had a benefit more in line with everyone else.
I want to ask two questions. The first is about disseminating information, because this is a very difficult group to reach. They do not tend to be members of chambers of commerce, and that sort of thing. I do not have a particular answer, but I wanted to put in the plea that all efforts are made to ensure that women who are likely to benefit actually know about it and are able to. We hope that the Government’s new enterprise allowance scheme will be successful, so we could have even more very small businesses starting up in the coming year or so, so we need to get on top of how we can ensure that women know that these benefits are available.
Secondly, I welcome the discussions on shared parental leave - I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has been very keen on this and it has some support within government. It would provide welcome flexibility, but I am curious as to how these arrangements might work if we have shared parental leave. With those questions, I welcome the instrument.
From the Labour benches, Maeve Sherlock, a former NUS President and one of their social security experts, was kind enough to describe her contribution as one of "excellent questions", which is nice. You couldn't really imagine that sort of courtesy in the Other Place, could you?
Sunday, March 02, 2014
There are some things about living in a town or city that are quite a bit easier, and one of them is energy. In the absence of a sizeable enough population, or proximity to a pipeline, gas is something you just have to do without. Instead, we rely on heating oil and, for warmth, firewood, both of which require a little more in the way of organisation - they both need to be delivered, and in such a way that you don't run out before new supplies arrive.
We have our firewood delivered, and at some point in the day, a lorry comes and lifts a pallet of wood, wrapped in plastic netting onto our driveway. Then, at the first opportunity, the wood has to be stored, which in our case means moving it all, by hand, to the woodshed. Usually, we buy wood in 0.6 cubic metre bags! which takes a while to shift, but is doable. This week, they only had 1.5 cubic metre bags, rather more of a challenge.
So, yesterday was spent moving and stacking logs. It's not as easy as it sounds, as you need to stack it tidily so as to get as much in, as safely, as possible. And, of course, the logs are heavy and roughly sawn, so splinters are a hazard. But, with the benefit of my regular(ish) workouts, I'm in slightly better shape, so I set to work, selecting logs by eye for length and shape, to make the stacks neat and safe.
The weather was alright, and I made pretty good progress between cups of tea, as the woodshed got fuller and the pile of wood outside shrank to less daunting proportions. And, eventually, we had a full woodshed.
I wonder what we do with the rest of the wood?...
Saturday, March 01, 2014
It's a funny thing, democracy. It's very popular when it delivers the outcome that you want, but a problem when it doesn't, a point which becomes all the more evident if you are an activist in a political organisation. Note that I say 'organisation' and not 'party', as I've encountered the same situation both as a Liberal Democrat and in other groups that I've been involved in.
Organisations develop their internal democracies in a manner which reflects their philosophy. For example, Liberal Democrats are suspicious of 'strong leadership' whereby the Leader and his/her key supporters have the authority to take important decisions without much, if any, in the way of consultation. Accordingly, the Party constitution is designed to diffuse power to Local Parties, regions and States, as Nick Clegg has discovered recently.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, appears far more collectivist, which makes sense, I suppose. Built upon a foundation of union strength, individual Unions have an influence that reflects their financial and organisational impact, whereas the fear of entryism of the form perfected by Militant in the seventies and eighties made empowering individuals risky.
As for the Conservatives, power appears to be top-down and rather directive. As a member, you have no real say in policy-making, and as the voluntary party melts away, the potential influence of large donors becomes more decisive. That said, I'm not actually sure who, apart from pollsters and Old Etonians, drives Conservative policy-making at the moment.
Changing the way your internal democracy works is quite a step, and is a means of defining who you are, or how you want to be perceived. And there are three reasons why, as a leader, you might do it;
- to protect yourself from events that might be otherwise beyond your control - rogue activists, unexpected policy initiatives - by holding power close;
- as a response to what those people you need/want to influence are telling you that they would like;
- because what you have doesn't work - societal and technological changes mean that your structures are obsolete.
But, whichever reason applies, change has to be faithful to the underlying political philosophy.
So, for all the speculation over what Ed Milliband is hoping to achieve by these changes, the success or failure of them will only emerge slowly, over time. If he's right, his party's internal democracy will flourish, and with it the loyalty of some, if not all, of those who make Labour stronger and more effective as part of a participatory democracy. In itself, it probably won't attract support, but any organisation where morale is high will be more successful than one where it isn't.
And for those of us who believe that a healthy democracy requires healthy political parties, we can only wish the reforms a fair wind.