Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Goodbye, Mr Ruffley. You didn't really get it, did you?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThis evening's news that David Ruffley, my local Conservative MP, has announced that he will not be contesting next year's General Election is, I have to say, very good news for anyone who, like me, believes that there must be some standards for those in public life.

When the news broke, courtesy of Guido Fawkes, that the police had been called and that a caution for common assault had been accepted, I was surprised that the story appeared not to attract very much interest. After all, given the acres of press coverage given over to accusations of sexual misconduct in other cases, the acknowledgement of guilt on a charge of domestic violence might perhaps lead to open season on the guilty party by the press.

The outgoing MP for Bury St Edmunds
And yet, the story seemed to be going nowhere, with even the local newspaper, the Bury Free Press, very slow to pick up on the matter, and as for the national media - the Daily Mail being an unusually honourable exception - well, you might almost have thought that a conspiracy of silence applied. It was alleged that Mr Ruffley's public silence was being combined with a private campaign to 'sweet-talk' the media but, as long as the story didn't snowball, it looked as though he would get away with it.

I admit that my working assumption had been that his local Conservative Association would have a quiet word, and he would announce his retirement - his political career wasn't really going anywhere following the unfortunate incident not long after the General Election. And, perhaps, a bright young thing, or a prominent local member, might suit local circumstances nicely. However, the public support of the Association's Chair appears to have given him the belief that he might get away with it.

There is always a danger that a partisan campaign to drive someone out of office backfires, so when the Labour PPC for South Suffolk, Jane Basham, started to publicly call for his to go, I half expected local Conservative activists to rally round, but the blunt statement from the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, Tim Passmore;
Those of us in a leadership role in society must do our level best at all times and try to set a good example to others in what we do and how we behave – that includes all politicians regardless of any party affiliation.
In my opinion there cannot and must not be any hiding place for the perpetrators of such crimes.
and an equally unequivocal statement from the Conservative county councillor and Chair of the Suffolk Domestic Abuse Partnership, Jenny Antill;
I cannot condone any incident of domestic abuse, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator or his or her position in society or political persuasion.
rather put the pressure back on the Association.

It took nearly four weeks for even a grudging public apology for his actions to emerge, an apology which seemed to have been crafted so as to accept a minimum of blame - as if the fact that his victim had accepted his apology somehow mitigated his behaviour.

But his apology evidently didn't satisfy, and when a letter from the Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral emerged, calling on senior local Conservatives to act, combined with forty thousand signatures on a petition calling for him to go, it seems that his position had become untenable.

David Ruffley is alleged to have some serious anger management problems. I have never had the misfortune to experience his anger at close range, but the rumours of his poor treatment of his staff, his unnecessarily rude and aggressive treatment of witnesses at Treasury Select Committee, combined with this final incident, does appear to suggest that Parliament is a slightly better place without him in it.

Naturally, he leaves an extraordinarily attractive opportunity for an ambitious Conservative - a majority of over 12,000, no obvious opponent for anti-Conservative voters to rally to - and given the hordes that applied for the South Suffolk seat torn out of Tim Yeo's hands not so long ago, I can expect a lot of people in smart suits, male and female, to be buzzing around Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket and the villages over the coming weeks. It's probably a job for life, but then that's almost certainly what David Ruffley thought...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords - European Union Committee: Report on 2013-14

Every year, the European Union Select Committee in the Lords reports back on its activities. And oddly, given the huge fuss made about the influence of the European Union on our day to day lives, very little attention is given to its work, and that of its six sub-committees - even by members of the House of Lords. As Chair of one of those sub-committees, responsible for agriculture, fisheries, environment and energy, Ros was keen to tell of the work of her colleagues and staff...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, I wish to focus my remarks on the work of Sub-Committee D, which I have had the honour to chair since May last year. This is not in any way to downplay the important work undertaken by the Select Committee itself. Our report into the role of national Parliaments is a timely and valuable contribution to a growing debate across Europe and reflects the leadership shown by my noble friend Lord Boswell, whom I thank for his personal support for my work. In my work on the sub-committee, I try very hard to reflect the principles outlined in the report on the role of national parliaments —namely, that of engagement with counterparts and officials from across the EU and looking at policy before it reaches its final legislative form.

Our work this year was dominated by the topic of food waste, to which I shall return in a moment. Some of our scrutiny work followed up on the excellent work undertaken by my predecessors, the noble Lords, Lord Carter of Coles and Lord Sewel, and it shows, I believe, the value of well considered inquiries undertaken early in the policy-making process. This is a hallmark of much of the work across the sub-committees and it is something that we do well.

In 2008, the committee published a report on reform of the common fisheries policy. Five years down the line, I am delighted to say that the work came to fruition. Regulations to reform the CFP were adopted that strongly reflected the key themes of our committee’s 2008 report, including the decentralisation of decision-making and the introduction of a discard ban. Last summer, when the deal was done, the committee turned to the practical implementation of these policies, particularly the discard ban. It remains one that we should be watching.

The second major dossier that reached its end point last year was the reform of the common agricultural policy—although, of course, it never reaches an end; it is like painting the Forth Bridge. Under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, the sub-committee had undertaken an inquiry into innovation in EU agriculture. Redirecting the juggernaut of the CAP is no small task, but incremental steps have been taken along the lines proposed by the committee in its report, and I am pleased to say that the committee continues to press the important themes of research and knowledge transfer as the process of implementation returns. It has also clearly become more of a priority for the Government because this week they have announced new investment in agricultural research.

One way in which we pressed those themes was through our recent report into the prevention of food waste in the EU. On-farm innovation is a very important element of tackling food waste at the initial stages of the food chain. The press and public interest that our report drew surprised even us; the press office tells me that it received more coverage than any House of Lords report it could ever remember. I want to trade anecdotes with my noble friend Lady O’Cathain and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. The Independent described our committee as a “true adornment” of your Lordships’ House.

It is very important now for us to follow up this work. The European Commission recently produced amendments to its waste legislation that very strongly reflect the recommendations that we made in our report to have an aspirational food waste reduction target — not legislatively binding — and to work on standard definitions across the EU. We are awaiting more information from the Commission and a non-legislative communication from it in the autumn. We will also hold a seminar to look at the practical barriers to redistribution of surplus food. I am now constantly being briefed by organisations and businesses across the country and, indeed, Europe on the work that it is doing to reduce food waste. I think that demonstrates that we are regarded as leaders in this thinking.

I turn briefly to some other work. We are currently in the midst of a very intensive period of work, within the EU and internationally, on future approaches to energy and climate policy. It was very pleasing that messages in our report last year with regard to EU energy policy have been reflected in the Commission's proposed policy for energy and climate change through to 2030. This relates particularly to the importance of creating a stable environment to support long-term investment. I am also very pleased that, as the Energy Bill was making its way through this House, noble Lords made a number of references to the work that we had done in our committee. This shows that there is a crossover between the work that we do in the European scrutiny context and in the wider work of the House. Work on energy and climate change will be at the headlines of our next inquiry, into EU regional marine co-operation, which we launched at the beginning of this week. We are trying to bring a number of these things together, such as fisheries, energy interconnectivity and knowledge transfer. I hope that what I have said gives a sense of the work that we have been doing and that we plan to do, and demonstrates that we continue to seek to build and follow up on previous work.

There is a further point that I wish to make. It is a matter not for the Government but for this House. The new rotation rules that have now been introduced for the European committees will result in a two-thirds change of membership of my committee and that of a number of others next year. I suggest that a two-thirds change really runs completely counter to the principles of gathering experience and ensuring the effective running of the committee. As if that were not bad enough, after I had thought about it, I realised that the changes will mean that, every third year, two-thirds of the committee will disappear. I hope that the House will rethink that because it will make our work very difficult indeed.

I am grateful to all members of my committee, who are a joy to work with. They contribute a huge amount of their time, their experience, their expertise and, above all, their enthusiasm to make us successful. I should like to pay particular tribute this evening to Lord Lewis of Newnham, who died earlier this month after a long illness. His interest in all aspects of our work, coupled with his immense knowledge of chemistry, made his contribution invaluable. We miss his deceptively gentle, incisive questioning and his kindness.

Finally, we would not be so effective if it were not for the work of our staff. I put on record my thanks to our committee assistant Mark Gladwell, our clerk Patrick Milner, his predecessor Aaron Speer and our policy analyst Alistair Dillon, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the range of work we cover is always truly astonishing.

For anyone interested in finding out more about the work of the European Union Committee, here's a link to the rest of the debate...

Friday, July 25, 2014

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Agriculture and Food Industry - Motion to Take Note

Lord Plumb, a former EU Commissioner and President of the National Farmers' Union, had sought a debate on the role of agriculture and the food industry in the economy of the United Kingdom and, in her capacity as Chair of the relevant European Union scrutiny committee, Ros felt that she should make a contribution to it...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, I join the thanks to my noble friend Lord Plumb for securing this afternoon’s debate. As chair of EU Sub-Committee D, which has agriculture within its remit, I appreciate enormously his long experience of both agriculture and Europe and really value his contribution to the work of the committee.

Many millions of people around the world are hungry. In some places it is because of natural conditions and in others it comes as the price paid by ordinary people for the ambitions and mismanagement of their leaders. Close to home, an estimated 5.6 million people are struggling to afford food. Many more people in this country have plenty to eat but are probably malnourished or on the verge of it because they are consuming food which is high in calories and low in nutrients.

It seems strange, given that food is essential to life, that we have no strategy for it. It is certainly true that the food sector is heavily regulated. It is not the Wild West out there. Everything from hygiene to labelling and packaging, from competition law to the Groceries Code Adjudicator, is regulating food, but there is no discernable strategic approach to food production and distribution which looks at our food from local, national, European and global perspectives into the future.

The assumption is that the free market will deliver for us because it is in its interests to ensure that we continue to have easy access to a range of cheap and plentiful food. Retailers have done a great job in providing this. The variety of food on offer has increased enormously in my lifetime, and as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, noted, we spend significantly less on food than we used to. However, cheap food comes at quite a high price, and the price is often paid by growers in developing countries who are tied into unfair contracts and by exploited workers in sectors such as tea and coffee, cashew nuts and prawn fishing. The price is paid in rooted-up rainforest, soil depletion and other environmental degradation. In places, people are going hungry because their land is more profitable to fill our food and energy demands, not their needs.

This is a matter not for government to address through legislation and regulation, but for retailers and consumers to give much more thought to the impact of their purchasing decisions. I welcome the fact that the major retailers are really starting to focus in on the ethical and environmental consequences of our food consumption.

Our sub-committee recently carried out an inquiry into food waste. It became evident that much of the problem lies within the nature of the food chain. Farm to fork has become something of a cliché, but long food chains consisting of individual businesses, each of which is concerned with its own bottom line, can result in practices which are bad overall. In the case of food waste, we identified the relationship between supermarkets and growers as a major problem, particularly where cancelled orders and overzealous specification results in growers being left with surpluses of food which they have had to produce to avoid penalty, which has then not been used. Without a market for that food, it gets ploughed back or anaerobically digested.

Those lengthy food chains are also where safety and verification problems come in. The horsemeat scandal was a real wake-up call both to the public and industry because, as supply chains become longer and extend geographically, the enforcement of regulation becomes harder. Will the Minister update the House on Professor Elliott’s report into food supply networks?

The sub-committee thought that the Government could do a lot more to understand food chains better and to promote expertise and understanding. Witnesses told us that expertise in food chain management is in short supply, and this is partly why tackling food waste and other issues has become so difficult. It not just retailers. Equally problematic are the large food service companies, which provide meals in our schools, hospitals and prisons, and the hospitality sector.

One of the issues identified by many witnesses in our food waste inquiry is that people understand food far less well than they used to. In the context of food waste, it means they do not know how to use leftovers, and they do not understand basic facts around the storage of food and particularly when it is safe to eat it. It goes far wider than food waste. Many people do not know how to cook any more, so they spend far more than they need to buying expensive prepared food and take-aways. Ironically, this is hitting the poorest hardest. A recent report from Kellogg’s showed that 45% of children said they do not learn about food at home or at school, although 79% said they would really like to. I would like the Government to give much more thought as to how people can learn about food. Most commentators now agree that, as the global population rises, food will become a much scarcer commodity. With basics such as land and water coming under pressure and the impact of climate change and agriculture making dramatic fluctuations more common, basic food security cannot be taken for granted. This is not in the distant future. Asda’s corporate affairs director recently told a conference that 96% of the fresh food that Asda buys is already at risk from changes to weather patterns.

We need to think long and hard about this. Are we right in our assumption that, somehow, we western countries will continue to take priority in global food markets and that we will have the same access to food? Can we just leave it to supermarkets to ensure plentiful food and, if we do, what is the price we are likely to pay financially, environmentally and socially? We need to consume more food produced closer to home. There are already growing signs of the impact of improving diets of people in China and India. Competition for food is becoming much more of an issue and it is already happening. Parts of the fishing industry in Asia are no longer prepared to supply EU markets because they can easily supply markets closer to home, where the ethical and safety demands are much less stringent.

For those of us who care about carbon footprints, how do we reduce them when less of our food is being grown close to home? The Government should give a high priority to research in agriculture, working with academia and industry to improve yield, reduce food losses and waste, and improve storage processing and packaging. There are a lot of very valuable partners in the EU, which can build with organisations such as the University of East Anglia, closer to home. I was delighted to see the Prime Minister’s announcement, earlier this week, of a new agricultural research fund and I believe that should focus on yield, food loss and waste and particularly, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and others have described, the question of land stewardship. We need social research to try to understand how best to nudge consumers into making choices which are safe, affordable, healthy and sustainable. A number of noble Lords have talked about the future. The Kellogg’s survey showed that just 1% of the Kellogg’s children wanted to be farmers so where, I wonder, is the next Henry Plumb coming from?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The 'Bedroom Tax' - a predictable flesh wound, when all is said and done

There is a certain relief in reports that the Liberal Democrat leadership have finally seen reason with the 'bedroom tax' - 'sinners repenteth' and so forth. After all, the concept that a policy might be implemented, tested in the field and, if found wanting, changed or scrapped, is a good one.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe problem is, and always was, that they were warned at the very beginning by those with experience of local government - predominantly in the Lords - that you couldn't introduce such a penalty unless there was sufficient social housing availability to allow tenants to downsize easily and provision made for the disabled, neither of which applied. The rebellion in the Lords, which included a number of Liberal Democrat Peers not amongst 'the usual suspects', didn't get much attention, but then there is an impression given that the leadership don't give much credence to many people beyond their immediate circle.

As I've noted previously, the concept of providing incentives to encourage those in social housing to downsize if possible is a sound one - we need to use our limited stock of social housing as efficiently as possible, even if we build more. The way that this was done, however, smacked of punitive action against those less able to protect themselves.

Has it been as vicious as has been suggested by some? Probably not, although it has been mean-spirited. Have Labour authorities applied it in such a way as to create anger against the Coalition? Possibly, there are some deeply unpleasant, highly cynical people out there, but not many, I suggest. But, regardless of any such considerations, the current policy is pretty idiotic and does not reflect well on the competence and compassion of those involved in its introduction.

Sadly, the response has been pretty cynical, with suggestions that Labour should use this as a means of causing division amongst the Coalition, and even some Conservative commentators calling for David Cameron to call Nick's bluff. I wouldn't object to discussions between the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches to agree a line and put it to the Conservatives - it might be a useful trust-building exercise prior to possible Coalition negotiations in the future. And if it were to lead to a better policy, than it could only be good for our democracy, demonstrating that political parties don't have to be confrontational.

So, the challenge to both Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians is this, do you want to win, or do you want to help?...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A day at the races, and a profitable one at that...

Buying gifts for my parents has become increasingly difficult as the years have passed - they presumably now have everything that they want, and have never wanted that much anyway, so when Ros suggested that I take them to a race meeting at Newmarket, my problem was solved (at least for one year).

So, having agreed a date, I booked a VIP package for the four of us and kept my fingers crossed for the weather.

Three days out, I was not optimistic, as the forecast predicted a series of vicious thunderstorms over west Suffolk but, as Saturday drew closer, things looked more hopeful.

The July Course at Newmarket
That hope was somewhat dampened by the heavy rain that fell as Ros and I drove along the A14 towards Newmarket but, as we arrived at the July Course, the rain had stopped. Driving across the grass as directed by the car park stewards, Ros said, "Isn't that your mother?". It was, and by amazing good fortune, we had arrived within seconds of each other and were parked with just one vehicle between us.

It did begin to rain lightly as we waited for the gates to open but, at 11.50 sharp, we were invited to enter and the rain stopped.

The VIP package is not cheap, but it includes car parking, close to the Premier Enclosure, racecards for each person, entry to the premier enclosure, a table in the Summer House Restaurant all day, champagne and canapes on arrival, a four course dinner, afternoon tea, a hostess to look after you and a nice lady from the Tote to take your bets at your table (and pay out if you win), so we sat down and caught up with each other.

Meanwhile, the sun had come out, and the predicted thunderstorms were holding off. It was time to give some thought to picking horses...

My mother has a tendency to pick horses whose jockeys have green in their colours. As a theory, it apparently works because most of the serious Arab owners include green in their colours, and they can afford good horses. It certainly worked in the first race, as the 16/1 outsider, Balty Boys, came in to win handily. My father, on the other hand, likes to look at the available data. In the second race, he picked Noble Protector, who promptly won at 12/1.

That meant that they would be taking home a profit, regardless of their success or otherwise during the rest of the day. Ros and I weren't being as successful, sadly. I'm like my father - I like to look at the data, even though I understand that it is only guidance - but it wasn't working for me until the fourth, when Athenian won at 5/1. Ros's choice, Lady Horatia, came third, and as we were placing 'each way' bets - half our stake to win, the other half to place - we had now all won something.

It was at this point that I departed from usual practice. In the sixth race, the horse I had initially chosen was scratched, leaving me to pick a replacement at short notice. So, I picked a horse with a liberal theme. And, lo and behold, Liberty Jack romped home at 7/1, before Gold Trail came second in the final race at 4/1, leaving me some £40 up on the day.

My only regret is that I didn't find my theme earlier - What A Party came third at a starting price of 100/1...

Winning always makes a day a little better, but even had our luck not been so good, it was huge fun to spend the day with my parents, and to have the time to chat about a whole range of topics in a relaxed environment. We're going to have to do this again, some time...

If you were holding out the hope that an incoming Labour Government would end austerity...

Party members have endorsed the tough fiscal position Ed Miliband and I have set out. We will balance the books, deliver a surplus on the current budget and get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament.
You can't get plainer than that. With those comments from Ed Balls, the course of the next five years is set. An incoming Labour administration will eliminate the government deficit - £105.8 billion in 2013/14, lest we forget - and run a surplus by the end of the next Parliament, possibly sooner.

Given the optimism priced into the prediction by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that the deficit will be eliminated by 2018/19, based on current plans, it is clear that Labour are going to have to either raise more income, or cut spending further.

Ed Balls has, perhaps, given a clue as to which of those options he prefers when he goes on to say;
But we will get the deficit down more fairly.
Well... yes. But Rachel Reeves has been laying down some of what she means by this as Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions...
A Labour government will introduce a Basic Skills Test to assess all new claimants for Job Seekers Allowance within six weeks of claiming benefits.
Those who don’t have the skills they need for a job will have to take up training alongside their jobsearch or lose their benefits.
Labour’s Basic Skills Test will give the long-term unemployed a better chance of finding a job and will help us to earn our way out of the cost-of-living crisis.
She had already said;
If you increase what you give to some people then presumably you have to reduce it for others. We are not in an environment where there is more money around. It is a difficult thing to achieve.
Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government. If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important.
It is not an either/or question. We would be tougher [than the Conservatives]. If they don't take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit.
So, fairer might not be what you hoped for. There will be compulsion, and there will be those who are worse off after reform of the welfare system, if Ms Reeves is to be believed.

There will also be additional costs to the public sector arising from the insistence that those bidding for government contracts pay the living wage to their employees - although, in fairness, that may well be mitigated by a fall in the amount of benefits paid out to bolster low wages and an increase in tax revenues.

And, of course, the OBR forecasts include the expectation that departmental budgets will be cut further - the expectations for local government and the NHS are already looking gloomy at best - so an incoming Labour Chancellor will need to wave an axe with more enthusiasm than his supporters might think seemly.

So, not much to look forward to for the next five years, is my prediction. And yes, the books may be balanced, but we're all going to have to accept that we'll experience more austerity, and have to take rather more responsibility for what goes on around us. And that goes for politicians and voters alike...

Saturday, July 05, 2014

UPDATED: South Suffolk Liberal Democrats select Grace Weaver as their prospective candidate for 2015

And so to Hadleigh, on a day somewhat confused as to the time of year. Ros drove me through her old County division through heavy rain and bright sunshine to the County Library, where members were gathering to anoint a new Prospective Parliamentary Candidate.

As a Returning Officer, I take a relatively relaxed view as to process, especially when I know the Local Party involved and can be confident that, even if things don't run entirely as planned, applicants won't be disadvantaged. So, the speech phase safely negotiated, when the question and answer session turned into more of a group discussion, I sat back quietly, ready to intervene if required to do so. After all, it is useful for potential candidates to find out how their Local Party thinks and feels.

Eventually, I did feel that I needed to gently remind some members that they were there to question candidates, not each other, but despite that, after an hour, it was time to issue ballot papers and then count them.

Luckily, it wasn't a complex count, and I was able to declare Grace Weaver as the new PPC for South Suffolk. I'm sure that she'll do well, especially as she has strong ties to the area, having been educated in East Bergholt. The Local Party seem to be pleased with their choice, and I look forward to hearing good things from the Stour Valley and the Shotley Peninsula in the months to come...

And Grace herself has now commented on her selection, via Twitter;