Thursday, June 26, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords: the role played by the voluntary and charitable sectors

It was Liberal Democrat debate day in the Lords, and Ros had sought a debate on the voluntary sector, a subject close to her heart, and here is her speech opening the debate

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD):

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce today’s debate, and I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness and my noble friend Lord Newby for selecting this topic on one of two Liberal Democrat debate days. I declare an interest as chair of the National Volunteering Forum, as a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust, and as patron of Ace Anglia, which provides advocacy and support to people with learning disabilities in Suffolk, and of Wings of Hope, which is an educational charity focused on India and Malawi. I very much look forward to hearing from the other 20 noble Lords who will speak in the debate. With all due respect, between us we have many hundreds of years of experience in this sector, and I think the insights today will be very valuable.

What makes this sector so vibrant, so flexible, often challenging and occasionally frustrating, is its very breadth. Charities such as the National Trust, the RSPB and Oxfam are household names. They have hundreds of thousands of members and significant incomes. There are thousands more tiny local charities set up to respond to particular circumstances, sometimes even the plight of one individual who needs help. There are around 161,000 registered charitable organisations, and an estimated 600,000 which are not registered. However, 90% of charitable income is made by the top 10%. I would not want this morning’s debate to go by without paying tribute to the millions of volunteers and family carers who, often under very trying circumstances, display a quiet daily heroism.

This sector provides both quality of life services, such as those of the National Trust, and lifesaving services, such as those of the RNLI and the Red Cross. The Society of Friends reminded me of the important role which charities play in the campaign for change, and how important that is at a time when people are increasingly disengaged from party politics. Of course, as we go into the general election next year, I reflect that most of the political activity which is undertaken in this country is done by unpaid volunteers. We should remember that contribution, too. In some cases, the volunteers provide the service, and in others they raise money so that professionals can do their jobs. Charity shops alone raise around £300 million every year for their organisations.

With this variation, finding the right policy framework for all of these circumstances is very difficult to get right, both for government and for regulators such as the Charity Commission. It also makes it quite difficult for the sector to speak with one voice. I will leave it to other noble Lords with more experience to talk in depth about the legal and financial framework for charities. However, I want to start with a few general comments on that aspect, before going on to talk about volunteering, which is the main thrust of what I want to say today.

The total yearly income of the charitable and voluntary sector is £39.2 billion. That is down £700 million on the previous year, largely as a result of reduced public funding. Despite the recession, NCVO says that charitable giving is holding up reasonably well, although anecdotal evidence suggests that organisations are having to work much harder to raise their money. Voluntary organisations are also reporting an increase in demand for their services, and there is now a real question about how long they can afford to do more with less.

The recent cross-party report, Creating an Age of Giving, referred to a civic core of givers, but it refers to the fact that that core is ageing and shrinking. Investment in schemes such as payroll giving and technology that enables text donations, for example, and the use of social media, have proved to be very worthwhile. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government will continue to provide the seed corn money required to develop such schemes.

Gift aid is really important, but the new small donation scheme is looking significantly underspent. Anecdotally, it would appear that that is because it is just too complicated. Will the Government undertake to see whether that is the case and make changes quickly if they need to be made?

UKCF’s Shine a Light research of December last year found that people are nearly twice as likely to feel confident when they give money locally, as opposed to nationally, that it is actually going to help those who need it most. More than half of them would give more and give it locally if giving was easier and they could see the impact of their donation. That is emphasised by the publication, just this morning, of a report by the Charity Commission on public trust and confidence. It makes the same point about people wanting to see how their money is being spent and the impact.

One area where you can best see that at work is in the community foundation movement. Like most shire counties, Suffolk has a community foundation, which supports a wide variety of charity and community projects throughout Suffolk. By making endowment-giving easy, it has provided a sustainable way to support local organisations. Match-funded schemes such as Community First have been a real boost. I hope that the Government will keep that success in mind and work with the community foundations to see how the schemes might be expanded. Recent evidence is showing an increase in local giving and a more thoughtful model of giving, which is a really important part of building a strong civic society.

Of course, what makes the charity sector is the volunteers. The best estimate is that there are about 15.2 million people volunteering every month, so there is clearly an incredible capacity for volunteering in this country, but there are concerns that the volunteer workforce is ageing. People are working longer, caring for very elderly relatives themselves, perhaps even becoming less altruistic, and it is becoming difficult to recruit new volunteers. It takes money to resource organisations and projects specialising in helping people to access volunteering opportunities, but we need to do that to widen the pool from which our volunteers are drawn. For example, the Access to Volunteering fund, piloted in three areas, supported about 7,000 disabled volunteers to become involved. That brought with it reports of improved well-being and significantly reduced isolation.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a researcher who was looking into something called micro-volunteering. Partway through, I realised that what she was actually talking about was what I would have called “doing someone a favour”. In today’s disconnected, slightly impersonal world, that sort of thing is dying out. It seems very odd to people of our generation, but there is a huge role for social media, for example, in making those connections between people, because the old community connections are lessening.

It is also important to recognise that the old model, where volunteers would commit a certain amount of time every week and would do so over a lengthy period is very challenging for a lot of younger volunteers who have work and family commitments. They need more flexible volunteering opportunities. In Suffolk, the 2012 Olympic volunteers have formed a sort of permanent cohort of volunteers who come in and out for all the major events in the county; its success is in its flexibility. New technologies can be really important.

There was a time when the public, private and charity sector all had separate but very well understood roles. The picture is now much more complex and the lines between them are really quite blurred. Some of these developments have welcome aspects, but there are challenges. One of the most difficult issues facing the sector is the use by government of volunteering as part of unemployment policy. As I said before, we can all accept that volunteering can play a really important part in getting unemployed people out of the house, learning new skills and generally increasing their self-esteem. However, there is sometimes a question of compulsion. Someone who is made to volunteer in order to get their benefits is not a volunteer, and we should not call them one. These are work placements, and we have to understand that it makes life quite tricky for the existing volunteers to be working alongside people who are there only under duress.

Secondly, the Government need to remember that charities and voluntary organisations do not have an unlimited capacity to absorb volunteer labour wherever it comes from. There are too many reports of jobcentres simply sending people along to voluntary organisations with no thought as to how the organisation is actually going to use them. The voluntary organisations themselves need enough professional staff to be able to manage volunteers effectively, even when they are welcome.

All this is made very complicated by the increasing use of the third sector to deliver public services. Current estimates are that the contracts are worth just over £11 billion. I am in favour of this development, but we have to recognise that it limits the ability of the charity or voluntary organisation to set its own priorities. What happens then is that gaps in service begin to appear. It also compromises the perception of the public about the charity as independent of government. That has come out very clearly in the report published by the Charity Commission today: when a charity becomes dependent on public contracts for its survival, its independence can be jeopardised.

I shall make one or two points on the question of tendering for public services and the issues facing charities that wish to participate. First, the bidding process is often based on driving down price, which usually means labour costs. Most voluntary organisations do not pay their staff particularly well, but they do want to be fair. They want to pay the living wage and give their staff decent terms and conditions, but it is often difficult for them because they are competing with the private sector, which has no compunction about the use of zero-hours contracts or short-term contracts or with paying less than the living wage. Quite often the third sector is heavily disadvantaged when it comes to tendering. It is not just a moral question; evidence from the Living Wage Commission demonstrates that the Treasury could save more than £3.6 billion per year if everyone was paid the living wage. I wonder whether it is the business of the public sector to be discouraging the voluntary and charitable sector, which treats its workers well, by favouring the private sector.

Too often the relationship between the voluntary sector and the statutory commissioners is “us and them”; the commissioners are very controlling and do not really look at value or service delivery; it is really just about the money. Of course, when budgets are so pressed and when financial survival, territorial ambitions and all these things come into play, we can see why this might happen, but I think it is time for the Government to review it. Government and local government are major commissioners of services from the charity sector, so I support the NCVO call for a review of public sector markets to see whether they are still fit for purpose. A lot more training is needed for commissioners to ensure that when they say that service users’ needs must come first, it actually means something and is genuinely reflected in procedures. That means that we have to talk to the users. That is one reason I became patron of Ace Anglia in Suffolk: it provides advocacy for people with learning disabilities. It is really important to have a dialogue with people when tendering for the services that are going to affect them. Too often, it is either all about the money or it is about a superficial judgment of what people might like. You actually have to talk to people.

Sam Younger, just before he left the Charity Commission said:
There is too much duplication in the charity sector and too many charities are inefficient and poorly managed. Too many people set up a new charity without establishing whether there is a genuine need or whether another charity is doing similar work … the result is duplication and inefficiency … especially in an environment where charities are competing for resources.
That is the dilemma. When you look at it like that, from a strategic point of view, what he says makes absolute sense: there is not enough money to go around so duplication is a luxury that we cannot afford. However, if you look at it from the bottom up, from the point of view of individuals, there are many examples of where, collectively, the private, public and even voluntary sectors are simply failing to meet their needs. When that happens, the obvious response is to set up a new charity. That is why something like 2,500 new charities are being set up every year.

As I said at the beginning, the picture is complex and in many ways is getting more so. However, and I think that we would all agree with this, everywhere across the country we see volunteers, charities and community groups of all sizes taking an active role in addressing the problems of their area, building communities and campaigning for change. They are building a stronger civil society and a new social economy, and we should do everything that we can to help them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Is David Ruffley a fit person to represent me in Parliament? Only the local Conservatives can decide...

Today's news that our local Member of Parliament, David Ruffley, accepted a caution for common assault three months ago after attacking his then partner, is his second unfortunate incident in this Parliament, following his apparent attempted suicide just a month after his re-election in 2010. Then, I was entirely sympathetic, especially given that very few people would throw themselves under a train unless they were very troubled indeed. However, this time, I really can't be.

Firstly, violence can never be acceptable, except in self-defence (and even then it has to be proportionate) and it is especially heinous when the victim is someone likely to be more vulnerable.

Secondly, should someone with a tendency to abuse people be in a position of authority? Heavens, even Guido Fawkes, that well known whatever the opposite of a shrinking violet is, thinks that something should be done about him.

There is a catch, in that the Bury St Edmunds constituency is a pretty safe Conservative seat - the Liberal Democrats are in a fairly distant second place, and Labour are absolutely nowhere - no County councillors, just three District councillors. And, given the usual inability of local voters to punish miscreants - so many of the worst expenses offenders survived, after all - the chances are that, should he be the Conservative candidate next year, he'll be re-elected.

So, the only real hope is that the local Conservative Association will act. It's a pretty slim hope though, given the comment of its Chair, Andrew Speed;
We are sure it has been a very difficult time for both of them. But the incident in March was dealt with by the police at the time and no further action was required.
It doesn't look as though they'll be made to act either, if this spokesman from Conservative Party headquarters is to be believed;
This matter was investigated by police and dealt with by them at the time.
 I guess the last word should be left to David Ruffley himself though;
... too often domestic violence is a taboo subject and although one incident of domestic violence is one too many... We must do all we can to stamp out this despicable crime which can ruin lives and shatter families.
I wonder what has changed over the past seven years... 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dear Nick, would you mind awfully keeping out of the disciplinary process?

I note that, according to the media, Nick Clegg is being called upon to expel Mike Hancock from the Party, in just the same way that he was called upon to expel Chris Rennard from the Party not so long ago. And, regardless of the offence, I have the same advice for him and the Leader's Office - stay well out of it, and offer no comment other than to confirm that the matter is in the hands of those whose hands it should be in.

You see, the Leader has no more say in the disciplinary processes of the Party than you or I, a point made abundantly clear by the disciplinary aspects of its membership rules. He (in this instance) can, however, distort or damage the process by merely expressing an opinion, and we can already see how well that has gone. All that has happened is that the media have been allowed to control the agenda, and given their disdain for due process, and frequently expressed dislike of the Liberal Democrats, it can hardly be said that they have justice at heart.

In both of the cases noted above, the Leader's Office have responded by trying to manage the story - badly. All that has been achieved is to inflate the story to being one of leadership, and they don't intend him to come out of it looking good. Instead, had he said, "A complaint has been made against X and, in accordance with the constitution of the Liberal Democrats, a disciplinary process has been initiated. I look forward to the matter being handled in accordance with the Party's rules, and await the result of their deliberations.", the matter could have been properly investigated, a judgement reached and disciplinary action taken as appropriate.

But in a world where the distance to the political horizon can be measured in minutes rather than years, the temptation to treat each situation as a media test to be 'managed' leads too many key people to react rather than respond. And, given the apparent disconnect between the leadership and the voluntary leadership - the very people who manage, amongst other things, the disciplinary processes of the Party - the scope for unhelpful interference is almost unbounded.

You see, the advantage of having published rules and processes is that they deal with most situations, and provide a framework for action where they don't. They won't satisfy everyone - some people only want one outcome and don't always care how they attain it - but they will usually reach a verdict that is in accordance with natural justice and can be justified on the basis of the evidence. Of course, they aren't designed to deal with certain types of cases - issues pertaining to legality, for example - as the full range of investigative powers is not available and nor would we want them to be. But, if my memory serves, that's what the police and Crown Prosecution Service are for.

I have no real optimism that lessons will be learnt from this - there are those who, when push comes to shove, don't really like the idea of internal party democracy, or due process unless it suits. But that doesn't mean that an aging bureaucrat like me can't wish for rather more respect for those who, like me believe that respect for the rule of law is a basic underpinning of liberalism in a democratic society.

It hasn't been a good week for the Valladares nation...

At one point, I did try to find a few famous people who share my relatively unusual surname. It wasn't a very successful effort, as the name is obscure at best. But four years ago, Noel Valladares became possibly the most famous Valladares of recent years, as the Honduran goalkeeper in the 2010 World Cup.

Sadly, they lost their first two games, against Chile and Spain, and although he was the man of the match in their final game, against Switzerland, his performance merely denied the Swiss a possible place in the last sixteen - a two goal winning margin would have seen them through.

However, the plucky Hondurans made it through qualifying again this time, and drew a place in Group H with Ecuador, France and Switzerland. And this time, Noel was the captain. History tells that he was unlucky enough to score an own goal which, whilst it confused Jonathan Pearce no end, and was the first instance of goalline technology being decisive in determining whether or not a goal had been scored, it wasn't a moment he will want to remember. Losing 3-0 to France wouldn't have helped, either.

The Hondurans did at least score against Ecuador, but that only kept the score down to 1-2, as Hondurans extended their winless run in World Cup finals tournaments to eight (three draws, five defeats). Despite that, they're still in the competition, albeit by their fingertips. A win against Switzerland, combined with a French win over Ecuador might be enough. It's at least more hope than England have...

Monday, June 16, 2014

Me and the guanaco, we're probably both a bit bemused...

So, here I am at the other part of Berlin Zoo, Tierpark Berlin, the former East Berlin Zoo. It is slightly unusual, in that there is a cemetery tucked away in the woods, and an anti-fascism memorial faces one of the exhibits. It also has just a hint of communism, in that the animals are scattered about with long walks between them, as if to give the impression that there is more here to see than there actually is. It is very peaceful though.

The other thing about the zoo, on a more positive note, is that the enclosures are rather bigger. Yes, they probably could be bigger, but by the standards of most zoos, they're still pretty impressive.

The other thing about the Tierpark is that it doesn't seem very commercial. Unlike Zoo Berlin's main site, there aren't many opportunities to buy junk food, or plush toys, or anything really. There doesn't appear to be an opportunity to watch various exciting animals being fed. It's almost as though someone has said, "Alright, we'll round up some animals in one place and people can look at them if they want. Just don't ask us to get involved beyond that.".

Funnily enough, the guanaco across from where I'm sitting appears to be deep in thought too. At least it doesn't have a plane to catch later...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A dreadlocked harpist, a Catalan soprano and a night to remember in Potsdam

I am, I freely admit, not entirely 'down with the kids'. I listen to very little radio, watch very little culture on television, attend very few live performances.

And, when I do listen to music, it is seldom mainstream. I like madrigals, I enjoy chamber music, which doubtless puts me in a fairly small minority, one that might under normal circumstances be termed 'elitist'. I was extremely fortunate, though I didn't know it at the time, to have been exposed to classical music at my North London comprehensive by teachers who thought that it was part of a proper education.

And tonight, I am reminded just how much joy can be had from live performance, as I hum, slightly wistfully, one of the tunes from this evening's concert of Catalan songs at the Nikolaisaal in Potsdam. The performers, Nuria Rial, a Catalan soprano, and L'Arpeggiata, an early music ensemble led by Christina Pluhar, came to my attention quite by chance when I was searching You Tube for performances of 'Zefiro Torna' by Monteverdi - there are two different works with the same name to complicate matters.

But, when I discovered that, by utter chance, that they would be performing at the Potsdam Sanssouci Festival whilst I was in Berlin, what else was I to do but get myself a ticket (the story of which, in itself, deserves a post)?

I must tell you, dear reader, that the effort was well worth it, for I had the good fortune to watch a group of amazing musicians clearly enjoying themselves in an equally amazing performance space, performing music that ran the gamut from solemnity to cheer and which, at times felt almost like 'early jazz'.

I was also reminded that classical music is not just the preserve of the somewhat more mature. The harpist, a young woman with decorated dreadlocks, was in no way out of place, and looked as though she was thoroughly enjoying herself. The audience clearly liked her too, as she received very warm applause during the five curtain calls and two encores that the audience demanded.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening - if only they would come to Snape...

Musings on the misuse of language - it's a matter of scale

I was on my way to Potsdam this evening, when I was shaken from my gaze out of the window by the announcement of our next halt, Wannsee.

It's quite a pretty place, on the bank of a largish lake, but is perhaps famous for being the location for what is probably the most infamous planning and administrative meeting in history. For those who have not studied history, it was at Wannsee that the 'Final Solution' to the Nazis' 'Jewish problem' was agreed, leading to the deaths of millions of people whose sole mistake was to be deemed to be of a religion determined to be a threat to the German race.

In our political discourse, we often see the word 'evil' used in an almost throwaway manner - the Guardian's comments sections are riddled with it, usually aimed as an individual politician, or a political party, or a specific policy, as though it is intended to cause pain and suffering, perhaps death, to those affected. And, of course, it isn't. We simply don't live in a country like that, and even those perceived to be on the lunatic fringe of British politics wouldn't publicly call for such consequences.

Most, if not all, mainstream politicians understand that, especially when money is tight, there will be those who lose out because of the impact of a policy decision. Sometimes, they are so blinded by ideology that they fail to consider, or do not want to consider, the negative impact of their legislative and administrative acts. But it is seldom deliberate, or made where they know that there is a less damaging option.

And yet we continue to bandy around the 'E' word because it seems improbable at best that our opponents do what they do because they think it best, because their solution fits within a philosophical underpinning that is broadly consistent.

So, if I might be so bold to ask, the next time you look to cast accusations of evilness, remember this - there is real evil in this world, where almost unimaginable cruelty is inflicted on people because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have done nothing to merit it. That, my friends, is evil and we shouldn't belittle it by lumping it together with the politics of austerity.

From station to station...

Travelling across Europe by train, I am always reminded of Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express", a tribute to the notion of international travel well before the emergence of low-cost airlines that allow you to travel across Europe at a price our parents could not have imagined. I have to admit though, that I still cling to the notion of a means of travel less banal than Ryanair and less inconvenient than having to beat my way out of the city, check in an hour or more before my departure time, wait for my luggage at the other end, and then beat my way back into the city again.

And so, yesterday morning, I checked out of my hotel in Brussels and, forty minutes later, was in my comfortable first class seat as my ICE train to Köln pulled out of platform 4 at Gare du Midi. It is, it must be said, a very pleasant experience, with a steward to bring you drinks and snacks at your seat at reasonable prices. And, if you sit in the 'quiet zone' in the front carriage, you can see through the driver's cabin as the train dashes through the countryside.

At Köln, the staff at the Deutsche Bahn lounge will even bring you free beer and soup to sustain you between trains. It is all very civilised.

Köln to Berlin's Hauptbahnhof is just four hours and thirty minutes without ever really getting up to high speed, but a mid-afternoon ice cream meets the need for a sugar hit, and you get to see places like Wolfsburg, which you would never see if you flew instead. Admittedly, Wolfsburg appears to be an enormous Volkswagen factory with a town (with a decent football team) attached, but you can't have everything.

And, at the end of it all, Berlin, a city with so much to see and do. I'm here to visit the zoo, take in a concert at the Potsdam Sanssouci Festival, eat pork and drink beer. The sun is shining, and I can see an okapi, so if you'll excuse me...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Published elsewhere: @ALDEParty Council preview - "How was it for you?"

Not all of my regular readers follow Liberal Democrat Voice, so here's an opportunity to read my piece published there earlier this morning...

It seems like mere weeks since the last Council meeting of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), when optimism was in the air - admittedly helped by the presence of our Austrian hosts on that occasion, who were running an unashamedly pro-European campaign. Sadly, just six weeks later, delegates from across Europe gather in Brussels under rather less cheery circumstances.

The decimation of the British, German and Italian member parties in the European Parliament, plus the defection of the Romanians to the European People's Party following merger with a former rival, was somewhat offset by results elsewhere, with ALDE members doing particularly well in Scandinavia and the Baltic. And, with new political parties still searching for a pan-European home, the final outcome remains uncertain.

The centrepiece of today's agenda is a review of the campaign across Europe, and the value or otherwise of the support given to member parties in the run-up to May's elections. No doubt much will be said about the possible clash between the European Parliament and the European Council over the next President of the European Commission, and about how the 'spitzenkandidat' (lead candidate) concept worked for liberals - it had no impact in the United Kingdom because barely anyone knew anything about it until afterwards.

There are other consequences from the loss of seats, in that funding for the various pan-European political parties is linked to success in winning seats in the European Parliament. Some potentially difficult decisions will need to be taken over the next few months, and some thoughts on that will doubtless be aired during the financial report by ALDE Treasurer, Roman Jakic, who is taking time off from his day job as Slovenia's Defence Minister.

It isn't all doom and gloom though, as Latvijas Attistibai (Latvia's Development Party) is seeking membership, and Council will be asked to agree that this year's Congress should take place in Lisbon in November, allowing us to meet with an emerging liberal group in Portugal, Nos Ciadados (We Citizens).

Finally, on a more reflective note, it will be interesting to see how ALDE looks going forward. In recent years, the influence of the German FDP and the Liberal Democrats has been particularly strong. Now that both have taken such an electoral beating, will ALDE see the emergence of new power bases within itself, and what philosophical impact will that have? Today might be very interesting indeed...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

From there to there, from there to here, but with a hat

Back to Brussels again, this time for an inquest into the European Parliament elections at an Extraordinary Council meeting of ALDE.

Naturally, given the well nigh catastrophic performance of the Liberal Democrats - if Catherine Bearder hadn't survived, it certainly would have been catastrophic - our plucky delegation will be the recipients of a little sympathy, and quite a lot of regret. We have, rather too late, discovered just how punishing D'Hondt can be. There is some personal consolation, in that it does mean that I'm back in Brussels, enjoying some fine beer, with the opportunity to eat fine food and generally potter around. The meeting doesn't start until after noon, so I even have the morning to take a stroll around the city.

I had, in my haste to leave the house yesterday, forgotten two things - my Berlin guidebook and a hat. Given my lack of hair, a hat is a must, so I picked up a Panama hat whilst passing through London this afternoon. The guidebook will have to be done without...

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Perhaps, instead of demanding that someone do something, have you thought of being that someone?

There is, not unexpectedly, much debate on what needs to change after the fairly ghastly events of the past three weeks. A change of leader, a change of policy (or perhaps an adherence to the policy we already have), a reorganisation of Party structures, withdrawal from the Coalition, I've heard them all. And, in fairness, some, maybe all of them are necessary. But they aren't going to be easy, as some are beginning to discover.

Gathering signatures in the hope that a beleaguered Leader will see the light having failed, and a bid to obtain a leadership contest by dint of resolutions passed by seventy-five Local Parties having seemingly run into the sand - it seems awfully quiet out there all of a sudden - unless the Parliamentary Party in the Commons mutinies (not likely... yet), one might assume that we will enter next year's General Election under the current leadership.

Policy offers equally difficult challenges. There appears to be relatively little disagreement with Party policy, and the issue is about how much of that policy survives as far as government, whether the remainder is fought for sufficiently vigorously and whether the inevitable compromises that coalition, and events, bring are acceptable. For some, the outcomes haven't been good enough. But some of that comes down to the ability of either element of the Coalition to overcome its own internal dissension, something that we can't control in the case of the Conservatives.

George Potter has written an interesting piece in Liberal Democrat Voice with his suggestions on how the Party structure might be redesigned. I don't really agree with most of it, because he seems determined to ignore the fact that, in volunteer run and led organisations, leadership and organisation are limited by the talent available. In an area like mine, you might have to expand the size of an organisational unit quite a lot to find one willing and able Treasurer, for example. And, at that point, they may not want to travel so far to get to meetings.

But, ultimately, every part of the Party structure is only as good as the people who make it up. And, sadly, those people are often only too familiar, because they're the only willing volunteers. You can get a long way in this Party without meeting any significant opposition - for example, I served five terms as Regional Secretary and was opposed just once. English Candidates Committee is often elected unopposed, and as for Local Party officers, well, arm-twisting is often the order of the day.

So, rather than demand change because the current structure appears not to work, perhaps it would be better to find out why it doesn't work first and, if necessary, do some of that administrative work rather than leave it to those who are willing, but under-resourced or under-skilled.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats select a PPC

It has been a very busy week. I had been looking forward to a relatively quiet week until my phone rang on Friday, asking me if I would be willing to be the Returning Officer for South Cambridgeshire. I wasn't keen - I'm already dealing with two selections, but it was explained that this was urgent, and would need to be done quickly, as a by-election was potentially in the offing.

And so, an expedited selection took place. I probably can't tell you how it works - the details are available on request but not otherwise available, but what I can say is that, from publication of advert to result, it took less than one hundred and forty-eight hours.

Hilary Clinton once famously wrote that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, as a Returning Officer, I can tell you that it takes a village to select a potential by-election candidate - with the goodwill of shortlisting committee members, by-election panellists, Candidates Office, Membership Services, the Campaigns Department and some hard-pressed but highly motivated applicants. And, in this case, a baroness.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIn the middle of this, armed only with a set of rules and a protocol, sits the Returning Officer. Queries regarding procedure, questions regarding membership issues, hustings organisation and all manner of things must be answered courteously and swiftly, paperwork prepared and distributed, candidates informed and nurtured.

There are some consolations. There is no appeal process, so the Returning Officer is, in a small way, the ruling deity of Planet Selection. Actually, that's the only certain consolation although everyone else made the process so much more pleasant than it might have been - and here I pay tribute to the shortlisting committee, who I would happily bring home with me.

And so, this evening, accompanied by Ros, who was to chair the members' meeting, I went to a village just outside Cambridge, where a very decent crowd, all things considered, gathered to select a prospective by-election candidate.

It tells you a lot about the way social media can spread news more quickly than ever before, that, as the Returning Officer, I have been scooped by Jonathan Calder and by the Cambridge News, but I should congratulate Sebastian Kindersley on his adoption as the candidate, after a very high-class hustings with excellent performances by all three short-listed applicants.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

A day in the life of a Returning Officer

It has been rather busy over the past week, through no real fault of my own, apart from saying, "Alright, I'll do it.". In respect, that might not have been entirely the most sensible thing for me to do.

But, despite everything, I've made it to the penultimate day of the process. Candidates are campaigning, my ballot box is assembled, with a silica gel packet at the bottom to absorb moisture, ballot papers have been printed, a membership list is printed and noted with the names of all those who need to renew their membership before being able to vote. I've e-mailed a copy of the Selection Rules to my Kindle so that I have it available to me if I need them, as well as an archive of e-mail in case there is a problem.

All is calm for the time being, and the sun is shining. I've even managed to find time to assemble a piece of garden furniture, string up some garden lights and go to the gym - Ros made me (a bit).

It probably can't last...

Thursday, June 05, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Motion for an Humble Address

Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
My Lords, I beg to second my noble friend’s Motion for an humble Address. It is an enormous privilege to have been asked to speak this afternoon. Historically, the honour of seconding the Motion for an humble Address is given to fairly new and up-and-coming Members of your Lordships’ House, so having entered my 15th year here, it is really good to hit the ground running.
This is always a great day in the House and it is an astonishing thought that no one under the age of 62 has lived in the reign of a monarch other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Her record of dedicated service to the nation, now well into its ninth decade, is both remarkable and a genuine inspiration to the nation.
It is a real honour to follow my noble friend Lord Fowler, who I know is respected right across this House and far beyond it. I feel confident in saying that without the leadership he showed as Secretary of State for Health when the threat of AIDS first revealed itself, hundreds of lives would have been lost and many thousands more blighted. It is magnificent that he is still campaigning on this issue, and that his new book Aids: Don’t Die of Prejudice is due to be published next week. It is only £14.99 from all good bookshops.
I had the pleasure of serving on the Communications Committee under his chairmanship and it was a most informative and interesting experience. I have never confessed this to him before, but six months before, as a member of the Liaison Committee, I had strongly opposed the formation of the committee. Well, he was right and I was wrong; it has gone on to do some great work.
That of course is one of the strengths of this House: the way in which a range of expertise and knowledge is used not just to hold government to account through debate and legislative scrutiny but to take evidence, deliberate and then contribute to public policy. The range that we cover is quite remarkable. In the coming Session we shall have new committees on the digital economy and on the challenges facing the Arctic region. Our European Union scrutiny work is respected across the EU and I am very proud of the work done by the members of Sub-Committee D, which I chair. Our recent report on food waste has sparked a genuine national debate. I gently say to the leadership of the House that our sitting schedule does not have to be totally dominated by the legislative agenda; we have other valuable work to do.
Noble Lords:
Hear, hear.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
One of the big changes that I have seen in my 14 years in the House is the increasing size of the House. This is testing both the procedural and operational capacity of the House, as well as its staff and facilities. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in thanking all the staff who do so much to make sure that we can do our job effectively. Not only are they efficient and good at what they do, but their friendliness and genuine commitment to the work of the House is remarkable.
On the subject of change, I am sure that the House will join me in thanking my noble friend Lord McNally for a decade of service as the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, and as Deputy Leader of the House and Minister for Justice. He is not in his place today, but I do not think that the House will begrudge his day release; even for a Liberal Democrat, a whole-life tariff might have been a little harsh.
We wish him well in his new role as chair of the Youth Justice Board. He is a hard act to follow, but I can think of no one better to do so than my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness—or, as my computer spell-check likes to call him, Lord Tenderness. He has long earned the respect of this House for his work both in the Scottish Parliament and here in this House. I have one piece of personal advice, Jim, just between us: at the Dispatch Box, calm down. There is too much passion, too much irascibility. Just ask our noble friend Lord McNally; he will give you some tips.
Noble Lords:
Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
It is one of the many conundrums of this House that while new Peers are invariably given an individually warm welcome, sometimes the overall impression is that new intakes of Peers are not entirely welcome. Well, I for one do welcome them and believe that the contribution made by the Peers introduced during this Parliament has been excellent. This House needs to be constantly refreshed with new thinking, approaches and experience if it is continue to be effective. We cannot afford simply to pull up the drawbridge behind us. It is worth reflecting that in this fast-moving world, the technologies that dominate our lives did not even exist a single generation ago.
The work that many of us do outside the Chamber also makes our contribution to this House all the more rich. Like many noble Lords, I am involved with the voluntary sector both nationally and at home in Suffolk. I am sure that we all stand together in gratitude for the contribution that volunteers make to the well-being of our nation. I was pleased to hear in the gracious Speech that the question of legal liability for people acting in good faith in the public good will finally be clarified.
I also very much value my external role on the board of the Harwich Haven Authority. As a maritime trading nation, our ports should be drivers of job creation and growth. I hope that the forthcoming infrastructure Bill will encourage the road improvements to our ports that the sector has long been calling for. Stormy seas, hidden rocks, the occasional man overboard and even mutiny—and when I have had enough of the party, it is always good to go up to Harwich.
In 2010 many commentators believed that the first Queen’s Speech of the coalition would also be the last. It was—and for some still is—very difficult to comprehend that two political parties might manage their differences and produce a programme for government. We do not have much experience of coalition in this country, either as voters or when it comes to the machinery of government, and there is a lot to learn from the past four years. It is ironic that while the public are not showing any particular enthusiasm for coalition per se, their voting intentions make it a likely outcome again in the future.
I was president of my party in 2010. I was proud then, and remain proud, that my party did not shirk its responsibilities, either by telling voters to think again at a second general election or by permitting an unstable minority Government. At a time when the country’s finances were in jeopardy, the eurozone faced collapse and the global economic crisis continued to unfold, to do so would have been wholly irresponsible. My party has paid a heavy price for that decision, but even in hindsight I do not believe it was the wrong thing to do.
The irony is, all Governments are coalitions; compromises between different wings of the party, or even between No. 10 and No. 11, have to be thrashed out, and no one ever gets everything they want. But in the end, it is about balance. Next year the Government can reflect on their achievements, most notably in rebuilding the economy, for no Government has a greater responsibility than its stewardship of the public finances. I was very pleased to see the emphasis in the gracious Speech on stability and security for the economy, and a recognition of the importance of the role of small businesses.
The measures announced today on pensions, affordable childcare and apprenticeships are not about tomorrow’s newspapers but about people’s lives for decades into the future. They sit alongside raising the income tax threshold, reforming the pension system, introducing the pupil premium, the Green Investment Bank, equal marriage and fixed-term Parliaments. These measures all reflect long-term thinking and, I venture to suggest, will not be quickly overturned by any incoming Government. They say that success has many fathers, but a DNA test of those policies would show definite Liberal Democrat paternity.
The gracious Speech has outlined many measures for which proper scrutiny will keep us fully occupied, although I applaud the emphasis on the business of governing. I note that there are always calls for more and more regulation—and then we have to have a deregulation Bill to undo all the regulation that we have made.
To use the old phrase, we live in interesting times. There are some huge decisions facing our nation which will determine our place in the world. They will start with the choice that Scotland will make about its future and will go on to the general election next year and beyond. Debate in this House will no doubt be lively and, at times, fractious, but while our beliefs may differ, and despite what the cynics would have you believe, what unites us here in this House is a desire to do the very best for our country.

Monday, June 02, 2014

The race for the Party Presidency: a few things that you might have forgotten

It has been four years since we last had a contest for the Party Presidency, and for those people who might not have been around in 2011 for the Tim Farron versus Susan Kramer contest, here are some of the things that need to be borne in mind.

The President is the principal public representative of the Party and shall chair the Federal Executive. The President is elected by the members of the Party for a term of two years starting from 1st January in the year immediately following the election and shall hold office until death, incapacity, resignation or the election of a successor; the President shall be eligible for re-election once only.

The timetable for the election shall be no shorter than 7 weeks and no longer than 12 weeks.

To be a validly nominated candidate, you need the nomination of not less than 200 representatives entitled to attend the Federal Conference in not less than 20 Local Parties. Liberal Youth, and their Scottish and Welsh equivalents count as Local Parties, and don't forget the Local Parties overseas and in Northern Ireland. You don't have to be a Federal Conference delegate yourself, although it will be very helpful to attend the Autumn Conference, as it is the easiest place to collect nominations.

Candidates (and their campaign teams) don't have access to the membership lists. That means that reaching members is that much more difficult, so it helps if potential supporters can reach you.

There is a spending limit for all candidates, to be decided by the Federal Executive. It would be nice if they decided upon that early, so that potential candidates can organise accordingly. The Federal Executive are also supposed to review the Regulations for Presidential elections six months after an election takes place. It doesn't look as though they felt the need for change...

If there are three or less candidates, each is entitled to a double-sided A4 election address, printed and paid for by the Federal Party. If there are four or more, the entitlement is reduced to double-sided A5.

So, there are some of the key factors that candidates and their campaign teams will need to consider over the weeks and months ahead.

It's going to be interesting...

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A day out to the seaside

It's been a mite hectic over the past couple of days so, as the sun was shining, Ros suggested that we might go out, with Harwich being the destination of choice.

In a straight line, it isn't that far, but because of the estuaries of the Orwell (I still think of it as the Lower Gipping) and the Stour, you have to go as far south and west as Manningtree before you can final turn east. And, as it was such a nice day, instead of taking the fast road, we meandered down the A137, through Brantham, before heading out of Manningtree on the B road that meanders on, or near, the shoreline.

The Pier at Harwich, a really rather nice hotel
All was well until we got to Bradfield, where we were flagged down to be told that there had been an accident ahead, and that it might be better to take the alternative route through Wix and the A120. It wasn't much of a hassle, and we were in Harwich soon enough. It was agreed that we would have lunch at the pier, which I misunderstood to mean at The Pier, the rather nice hotel on the waterfront there.

Luckily, they had a table free, and the specials were tempting. Ros had the crab, whilst I plumped for the pork Holstein, before Ros had some rather good walnut ice cream and I went for the cheeseboard. I rather like that sort of misunderstanding...

After lunch, we went for a walk along the seafront, past the radar tower and round towards Dovercourt. Despite the persistent breeze off of the North Sea, it was all very nice.

Harwich is an interesting place, with the feeling of a town that has been set in aspic. There are very few shops to serve the community, the port is actually more than two miles away, and on a winter's day, it can be a bit bleak, especially given that it is surrounded on three sides by water. But, on a sunny day, it makes for a very pleasant day out.

Sadly, there were still things undone at home, and we had to be off. Doubtless we'll be back soon though...