Friday, December 18, 2015

So, Venezuela. What's it all about?...

I came, I saw, I was a bit bemused. But what did I learn?

Firstly, it is remarkably easy to drive an economy off of a cliff, especially if you're socialist and a bit paranoid. There is no doubt that it takes some flair to create such an economic mess when you have the highest level of untapped oil reserves of any country on Earth. However, in fairness to Hugo Chavez and his followers, they meant well, and given the alternative when he came to power, a corrupt administration which failed to invest in its people and oversaw huge levels of wastage, you could see the attraction.

What they failed to do was make much provision for the future, in terms of diversifying the economy and creating alternative industries. They did improve the education and healthcare systems, which most people could approve of readily. However, their focus on what the United States was doing to undermine them led them to attempt an almost imperial overreach, using their oil wealth as diplomatic leverage to little advantage, and to assume that internal opposition was entirely inspired by American foreign policy.

Yes, one cannot doubt that U.S. foreign policy did not look favourably upon the notion of a serious hemispheric player carrying out socialist policies within and beyond its borders, but in declaring an effective state of siege, some very poor decisions were taken to attempt to engineer a false market economy.

The outcome, when combined with the loss of a vast amount of income when oil prices slumped, was never likely to be pretty. Take away the ability to make profit and you remove the incentive to trade, which creates shortages, thus inflation, tending towards hyperinflation unless stabilising action happens urgently. The bolivar is, effectively, almost worthless, and remedying that has to be a first order of business for President Maduro and the opposition-led National Assembly.

It is a pity, as there is definite evidence of a spirit of entrepreneurship in Venezuelan society. The streets are filled with individual traders, selling whatever they can get hold of, or make, or add value to, mototaxis have emerged, whereby motorcyclists carry a spare helmet and will take you where you want to go for a price (petrol is highly subsidised, making such a model entirely viable). The black market thrives.

And, surprisingly, despite the obstacles that the economic crisis has thrown up, Venezuelan society is still robust. If overseas media were to be believed, the electoral system was utterly rigged in favour of the ruling government. And yet, despite the allegations, the opposition won nearly two-thirds of the votes in a system which is rather more proportional than ours in some ways (Venezuela has a top-up list system which elects some Assembly Members using the D'Hondt system), which appeared broadly reflected by the number of seats won.

I do have some fears about the newly-elected MUD coalition. It isn't a particularly right-wing reactionary force, but a key part of its coherence is underpinned by it not being the Chavistas. What unites it may not be enough to allow the development of a credible alternative policy platform.

The economy is going to be very hard to turn around unless oil prices return to levels not currently foreseen, which means some painful decisions will need to be taken to balance the books. And time is short, gold reserves are being spent fast, and there is little in the way of funds left to meet debt repayments as they arise.

It will probably mean that the good things that Chavismo wrought will wither as desperate attempts are made to turn things around, something to be regretted. Alternatively, there will need to be a significant default on the country's debts, something that will deter the inward investment that Venezuela would benefit from, if the terms are right.

The best hope is that political opponents can come together in the interests of preserving what is best about a nation which, potentially, could yet be a economic powerhouse, driving growth and development in the area bounded by the Caribbean Sea. It will be a tough task though, and I only hope that the toxicity of domestic politics can somehow be neutralised.

Venezuela Day 7: up, up and away above the city...

I had grown vaguely fond of Caracas, developing a grudging admiration for the ability of people to carry on despite all of the obstacles put in their way. Because, in all fairness, Venezuela is quite a progressive place. For example, using cable cars as a means of public transport is an imaginative solution to the issue caused by housing developments on steeply-sloped hillsides.

And the grandfather of such infrastructure lies in the northern suburbs, the teleferico. Built as part of a gondola lift system designed to carry people from the coastal town of La Guiara into Caracas and vice versa and opened in 1952, it ran successfully enough until the early 1970's, when it was closed. Subsequently, the section from Caracas to the crest of the coastal range at Ávila, was rebuilt and reopened, and is a major tourist attraction for the city.

The base station is at about 1000 metres above sea level, but the Ávila station is another 1100 metres up, 3.5 kilometres away, and it is a spectacular fifteen minute ride over the cloud forest for an astonishingly reasonable 250 Bolivars (about £1.25 at the tourist exchange rate). Even on a midweek day, it attracts caraqueños to the park at the summit, with fast food, great views and stalls to buy souvenirs, and it was nice to wander around.

Interestingly, much of the original infrastructure for the northern end, which was never refurbished, is still there, poking out from amongst the undergrowth and one does wonder if, were the funds to be available, it might ever be reinstated.

Eventually, it was time to head back down the mountain, as I had to get back to the hotel and pack for an early morning departure the next day, so I caught a gondola back down, which I was fortunate enough to have to myself.

On arrival, I decided to walk back into town, given that it was downhill, and my route took me through some of the less touristed suburbs. It never ceases to impress me how so many people are willing to do what it takes to find a way of overcoming the obstacles that a failing economy places before them, with some creative entrepreneurship sprouting up everywhere. And, for all of the alarming reports in the media, Caracas appears to be no more dangerous than a number of places I have been, at least during the hours of daylight.

And so, my trip to the City of Eternal Spring was over. I was alive and in love (with Ros). What more could a man ask for?...

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Venezuela Day 6: At least they haven't eaten the elephant...

The sun was shining (again) but my mind was set on some culture, so my first item of business was a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, reported to have a pretty good collection of modern art from across Latin America. I have to admit that I have a rather uncultivated view of such things, in that I know what I like, without necessarily being able to explain why. At least, unlike modern dance, it doesn't put me to sleep...

The Museum itself is in a rather attractive building, and although it has seen better days, the curators have made an effort to keep it up. And the art is... interesting, if not of an order that demands your attention. But, again, it is free, something that implies that, whilst President Maduro and his colleagues shouldn't be allowed to control an economy, they aren't your classic authoritarian regime.

It made for a pleasant meander, nonetheless, but my plans for the afternoon were less high culture and more populist.

Caracas Zoo is in one of the more outlying suburbs at the end of Metro Linea 2, and whilst the reviews weren't altogether positive, I do enjoy seeing animals, having visited a great many zoos over the years. And, so, after another comfortable metro ride, I found myself in Caricuao, where, a short walk away, I found the zoo entrance. Admittedly, it was a bit quiet, but admission was again free, so I wandered in.

Parts of the zoo have been colonised by wild capuchin monkeys, who seem to go where they please, and whilst the animal collection is not extensive, the facility does seem to provide an opportunity for young Venezuelan couples to spend some relatively private time together. Facilities are a bit sparse too, with limited food and drink options, although the zoo itself, and the animals in it, do seem to be well cared for.

The elephant was a bit of a surprise, and whilst it was the wrong type of elephant (African, as opposed to Asian), it seemed healthy and contented enough, as did most of the rest of the animals, even if some of the enclosures were too small.

So, all in all, a nice day out, leaving me with just one more day to survive...

Venezuela Day 5: a bureaucrat goes shopping (unsuccessfully)

It was time to take a closer look at the impact of a currency that is worth something, or not much, or nothing, depending upon your view, and so I set off on the Metro to Chacao in search of the (allegedly) fourth biggest shopping mall in Latin America.

The Sambil Mall Caracas is one of a family of shopping malls in Venezuelan cities, with further malls in Santo Domingo, Curaçao and Madrid, and it is perfectly big enough for a non-shopper like me. Actually, that's not quite true. If I'm in the right mood, I can clothes shop with the best of them, often for things that I don't really need but like. It's not common though.

The mall was rather quiet though, and a look at the goods on offer, and the prices, somewhat explained why. You see, at the black market rate, somewhere between Bs.800-900 to the dollar, things were pretty reasonable. At the SIMADI rate, available to tourists Bs.200 to the dollar, things were very expensive. At the official rate, Bs.6.3 to the dollar, prices were eye-watering.

And, in order to import anything, you need to be able to pay for the goods in foreign currency, as nobody in their right mind would accept Bolivars outside Venezuela. Admittedly, most people in Venezuela would rather take dollars or another core currency. The Nautica outlet, for example, was reduced to a few items on one small table, with three staff trying to keep themselves occupied. It was quite dispiriting.

Another difficulty is getting hold of Bolivars. The maximum amount of Bolivars that can be withdrawn using an ATM is ridiculously small and, as a result, everywhere I went, there were long queues at cash machines.

The mall also contains the local branch of the Hard Rock Cafe chain. I passed it in time for an early lunch but would have been entirely alone, not a concept I found particularly inviting.

It was time for a walk so, escaping the air conditioned comfort of Sambil, I set forth across the city, heading back towards the Sabana Grande, where my hotel was. One of the good things about Caracas is that, whilst it is warm, humidity seems quite bearable, and with my Panama hat on, dressed down, I look a bit like a mestizo, so I go unnoticed.

On the way, I popped into a more local kind of store, to find that the shelves aren't bare, but stock unexpected things. For example, panettone seemed really easy to find, yet beer seemed rather more difficult. Some items, such as bottled mineral water, are heavily price-controlled, so a bottle of water costs Bs. 3. If you want it sparkling though, it costs more like Bs. 200. Toothpaste is heavily subsidised, which came as a bit of a surprise.

It was a pleasant walk back, on a day which seemed perfectly calm, even as the outcome of the election was beginning to become apparent. And, on such a day, you can easily forget that you're in a city with such incredibly high crime levels. Unless, of course, people are worrying about you...

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Venezuela Day 4: And as the band played on, how did the Sharks do?

The Opposition having won decisively, and the Chavistas having accepted the result with rather more good grace than had been predicted, it was safe(ish) to walk the streets.

I spent the morning and early afternoon visiting what is, apparently, the fourth biggest shopping mall in South America. It was, compared to El Recreo, surprisingly quiet, with some of the American brand stores somewhat lacking in stock, before walking back in the bright sunshine.

But I had plans for the evening. The only catch was that it meant going out... after dark... on foot. For the Tiburones de La Guiara were playing the Aragua Tigres not too far away. In other words, Venezuelan Winter League baseball.

A ticket cost 500 bolivars, which was good, and the stadium had beer - another plus.

After the national anthem (another of those examples where you think it's over, only for it to have another burst of life), the hosts got off to a flyer, taking a 3-0 lead in the first. The game then went scoreless until Los Angeles Angels pitching prospect, Tyler DeLoach lost his control in the fifth, hitting the first batter and walking the next two, conceding his first run of the night, compounded by an error by the second baseman which loaded the bases with just one out. A slightly fortunate dink over DeLoach's head, a firmly struck line drive to left field, and a three run lead was, almost before you knew it, a one run deficit. DeLoach was gone, and Los Tiburones had it all to do again. 

There was hope though, as the Tigers were more than just error-prone in the field. After all, their two mistakes in the first inning had been a major contribution to the Sharks three to nil lead. And so, it wasn't much of a surprise when dozy fielding allowed second base to be stolen, and an outfield error made it 5-4 Sharks. And with designated batter, Alex Cabrera, up next and with a tiring pitcher, you just knew what was going to happen next. Sure enough, a 3-2 pitch was muscled beyond the distant fence for the night's first home run. 7-4 Sharks and the band went berserk. Can we trade them for the band that follow England around?

A fifth inning that yielded eight runs split evenly, followed by an insurance run for the Sharks in the sixth, left the Tigers with it all to do.

In the seventh, a missed catch leading to a double, a wild pitch and more sloppy play by the Tigers made it 9-4, and it looked done and dusted.

That looked even more certain after three Tigers converged on a simple fly ball and in an exquisite 'after you, Juan, no, after you Cesar' moment, all failed to get a glove to it. The wild return to the catcher just put the tin lid on it - 10-4 Sharks.

And that was it. All I had to do now was walk the mean streets of Caracas to reach the safety of my hotel...

Monday, December 07, 2015

Venezuela: the Opposition wins. But by how much?

The fireworks that went off over parts of Caracas were a good sign, considering the alternative, indicating a victory for the Opposition. So, with many seats declared, where are we?

In the constituency contests, La Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) has won seventy-two seats out of ninety-six, the balance going to the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). Pretty clear cut, I'd say.

In the list contest, the D'Hondt system used means that, with two seats to be won in each state, the Opposition have to get more than twice as many votes as PSUV in order to take both seats. Ironically, D'Hondt makes the result less proportionate, and MUD have won twenty-seven seats, as opposed to the PSUV's twenty-two.

There are seats for indigenous people, and whilst three have been decided, it isn't clear yet what impact they have.

So, with twenty-two results still to be declared, MUD lead by ninety-nine seats to forty-six, and a majority is theirs.

One notable outcome is the election of Venezuela's first transgender Parliamentarian, here in Caracas. Tamara Adrian was elected via the state list with 74% of the vote, as MUD swept the board, in both the list and constituency contests.

Venezuela Day 3: a nation votes, a bureaucrat takes a stroll (and a train ride)...

Polling day dawned mostly sunny and quiet which, in itself, was something given recent electoral history here. I don't have a role here - this is an entirely private trip - but thought that it might be nice to get a feel for the atmosphere.

Security was definitely heightened around the hotel, but there was a lengthy queue outside the polling station across the street from the El Recreo mall when I passed it at 11 a.m. Apparently, voters were keen to vote early in case of trouble later, but all seemed peaceful enough.

Voting started at 6 a.m. (so much for good morning leaflets then...) and ended at 6 p.m., which is sensible given the increased risk of crime during the hours of darkness. It is computerised, as is the count, so results should, theoretically, come quickly.

I was off to see the National Assembly building though, across town. After all, it did seem a pity not to take a look around. The hotel lobby appeared to have a pair of UNASUR observers in it, observing who knew what at 11 a.m. But I was on my way back to the Metro to catch Linea 1 to El Capitolio, only to find that rides were free (admittedly, the fares are so low that they might as well not charge). 

The National Assembly building is picturesque, if surprisingly unimposing, which came as a bit of a surprise. In a lot of places, Parliament is designed to impress, and given the oil wealth that Venezuela theoretically has, you might have expected a ghastly, concrete monstrosity to be built to replace the nineteenth century building. But no, the building sits nicely alongside Plaza Bolivar, with its statue of the Liberator on his horse.

It was all very calm, very tranquil, with people doing what people do on a warm Sunday morning, sitting on benches, playing with children, chatting away as if nothing particularly exciting was happening.

I walked through the quiet streets of downtown Caracas, and back to the Metro for a journey to La Rinconada, at the end of Linea 2 (still free). At La Rinconada, there is a connection to the railway line to Cúa and, as I like stations, it seemed like something to photograph.

As it turned out, the station wasn't that interesting, a new steel and glass job. However, the trains were free too, and so it was time to explore for real. The train heads southwards out of Caracas, through forests and hills, with some impressive tunnelling to enable the modern trains to make good speed up the Tuy valley. It was very pretty, green countryside.

Cúa was a bit of a surprise. The main town of Urdeneta municipality, in Miranda state, you step out of the modern station and into something that resembled the Mumbai suburbs. Actually, the not so nice Mumbai suburbs. The municipal market had that familiar smell of raw meat that could probably have benefitted from refrigeration rather than six hours at 29 degrees Celsius. It was peaceful enough though, despite being a relative bastion of support for President Maduro and the PSUV.

Time to leave, I thought.

Back in the city, things were even quieter than they had been in the morning. It was 4p.m. and the crowd outside the polling station at El Recreo had shrunk, the queue gone. I took the gentle hint and headed back to the hotel to await the results...

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Venezuela Day 2: So far, still alive

It seemed that my luggage had decided that, rather than take any chances with the baggage handlers at Simon Bolivar Airport, it would prefer going to Disneyland, and had redirected to Orange County, California. I'm guessing that it now has more frequent flyer miles than I do. Nonetheless, it arrived in sufficient time so that I could start exploring.

And so, what to do in a city with the second highest murder rate in the world (allegedly)?

In fairness, Caracas is never going to be in many people's top 100 destinations. Whilst its setting is quite dramatic - a range of green-clad mountains nearly seven thousand feet high separate it from the sea just fifteen miles away - there are no 'unmissable' attractions. Personal safety is, naturally, another concern - it might be hard to relax when the fear of crime is as high as is reported.

So, I decided to go for a ride. Caracas is located in a valley, and the city has developed as in a number of Latin American cities, with houses clinging to the surrounding hills. And so, to serve some of those communities, a cable car has been built, linking the Parque Grande metro station with San Agustin.

Thus, my first interaction with Bolivarian socialism. A ticket, good for ten journeys on the Metro, costs thirty-six bolivars. At the official exchange rate, that's not bad at 36p per ticket. At the SIMADI rate, available to tourists like me, that's a penny. The State wants the people to be able to get around, and hugely subsidises the system to enable that.

Into the Metro at Plaza Venezuela I went, bought my ticket (which had no print on it - ink appears to be in short supply) and entered the system. It is popular (unsurprising, I guess) and thus very crowded, even on a Saturday. Having found my platform, the train came soon enough, and off we went. At Parque Grande, I got off, exited the station and found the cable car. Inserting my ticket into the barrier, I was surprised to see it rejected, but this is clearly a common problem, as a man in the ticket office wrote upon it and then let me through the barrier.

The cable car is very efficient, with Austrian technology, and smoothly glides up the hillside, over houses with corrugated iron roofs, to a musical accompaniment from below. Halfway, you switch cable cars and are whisked back down the hillside to... well, hard to tell really.

Time to walk, I thought, with the aim of heading in a north-easterly direction. And, on a sunny afternoon, it was pleasant enough. Across the expressway, on to Belle Artes station on the Metro (closed, which does not augur well...) before entering Los Caobos Park. At the entrance are two museums, one dedicated to the fine arts, the other to science. I opted for the latter, and was surprised to discover that admission was free. And yes, it isn't much of a museum - the building itself is worth a look - but given the state of the Government's finances, it is impressive.

Then, through the park, past a gold elephant (and why not?), before cutting diagonally back to Plaza Venezuela, along Avenue Abraham Lincoln (a main shopping street) and back to the hotel.

All in all, a rather more reassuring experience than I might have expected. Given the reporting, one might imagine that this is a country living in fear and dread, yet the atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed, given that a critical election was taking place in less than twenty-four hours.

That may be about to change though...

Venezuela Day 1: Welcome aboard the SS Gran Meliã...

One of the things about staying in good hotels is that sense that you've shut the real world out, that you have a refuge from the craziness that lies beyond its confines. It's a place to draw breath, or rest between expeditions. Really good hotels do that whilst retaining a flavour of wherever it is you are.

This, however, is Venezuela. Things are not quite the same and the outside intrudes in strange and unexpected ways.

Outside, the nearby department store has lots of Christmas decorations and children's toys, but no underwear. Whole sections are empty due to the government's stance against excessive profit - in effect, making it financially catastrophic to sell at all given the rate of inflation (0.5% per day). Accordingly, things disappear from the market, or are priced in ways that seemingly price them beyond reach of most people. For example, a bottle of mineral water costs about seven bolivars. Add gas to it, and it becomes nearer three hundred.

This is where the multiple exchange rates kick in. The official rate of exchange is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar. As a tourist, I get about 200. If, on the other hand, I am willing to take my chances on the black market, I can get upwards of 800.

So, as I said, things disappear from the shops. They may be available on the black market but, hey, I don't speak Spanish and people have a habit of dying on the streets here. But, in a good hotel, part of an international chain, no problem, right? Wrong. For example, in a country where a lot of beer is drunk, there is no beer, not even here. It's enough to drive a man to drink... ah, yes, there isn't any.

The restaurant is, how best can I put it, a bit basic, as availability dries up. There is, intriguingly, a Japanese restaurant elsewhere in the building, which I might check out at some point. And yet, the hotel staff hold things together. The fabric of the hotel is maintained somehow, the lights and lifts work, as does the wi-fi (albeit a bit erratically). The outside world is definitely washing against the hotel walls.

On the other hand, security appears to be low-key but effective - possibly linked to the fact that the government-approved election observers are staying here - and people are friendly enough.

It is, however, probably time to take a look around...

Friday, December 04, 2015

Labour: is it really the 1980's all over again?

It has been a particularly bloody few days for the Labour Party. Already riven by discontent between the Corbynistas and a swathe of their Parliamentary Party in the Commons, the last thing they needed was a Commons vote on whether to take military action in Syria. With a new leader and a membership swollen by people who think that they have, or can, end Blairism within the Labour Party, the moral dilemma that is interventionism has become less angst and rather more vitriol.

I'm old enough to remember a time when the Labour Party was at war with itself, and received an education in how Militant Tendency worked more than thirty years ago, courtesy of a work colleague. I had been posted to an office known as the 'Maida Vale Soviet' - not entirely without cause it must be said - and found myself as an out liberal amongst the hard left. It wasn't so bad - I was seen as irrelevant in the wider struggle - but it was an education.

A former member of the Militant Tendency was generous enough to explain just how easy it was to take over a Constituency Labour Party by organisational means, taking on administrative roles that nobody else wanted, using meetings that few ordinary members attended, gaining power by dint of simply being there. It was actually quite easy - most ordinary members pay their annual subscription and do little else.

The difference between then and now is access - access to the (social) media that is. In the old days, if you were going to be rude to your MP, to subvert his or her position, you had to do it to their face, or in hard copy writing. It was rather more personal and, whilst the Labour wars of the late seventies and early eighties was deeply unpleasant, it was mostly out of public view.

Now, you can be unpleasant to people via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail - the choices are endless and immediate. Not only that, but the world and, most important, the media, can see it. Oh yes, you can delete a tweet, but it's out there, being screen grabbed, being transmitted onwards, beyond the control of the initiator. And, I have to say, it is deeply unedifying.

It is also a cause for deep concern to anyone who cares about the health of the body politic. For ordinary people, i.e. the 98% plus of the population who aren't members of political parties, it suggests that politics is only for the ultras of left and right, and therefore not for them. For the more thoughtful and/or sensitive, it acts to drive them from the arena - it takes astonishing devotion to do a job when your reward is to be threatened and insulted. And what does that potentially leave you? Those with the thickest hides, those able to shut out the noise of the crowd? Is that what we want?

Politics is, ultimately, about the art of compromise. By coming together in search of particular goals, if you only allied with those who agreed with you on every point, you'd be pretty lonely, and mostly ineffective. Political parties are, by their very nature, compromises - I accept that I get enough of what I want to be able to deal with those aspects of group policy that I am less convinced by.

Of course, the Labour Party isn't alone in having a problem with a lack of tolerance. Conservative activists need only look as far as the Mark Clarke scandal to see what happens when respect for your colleagues goes out of the window, and as for the Liberal Democrats, I have been astounded at how quickly some people have threatened to take the door marked 'exit' over a decision to support military action. Whilst I respect those whose strongly held beliefs, expounded over years and even decades, have been consistent in their opposition to intervention, some of our more recent members have provided evidence that their membership was not based on any adherence to liberalism as a concept but more a desire to oppose.

It will doubtless be said by some that they will find a pressure group to join, one which requires less compromise, and I wish them luck with that. But, regardless of how passionate a pressure group is, ultimately, to be successful, they need to persuade politicians and political parties. And that's why engagement, tolerance and mutual respect are so important.

The alternative is too ghastly to think about...

A trip to the wild side - welcome to Venezuela!

It must be said that there are more obvious holiday destinations in the world than Venezuela. It has the second highest murder rate of any country not actually in a state of war (Honduras is, apparently, worse), the only country whose economy is declining faster is Syria, and it is strangely difficult to find an up to date guidebook - even Lonely Planet don't appear to offer a Venezuela guide (and they do offer Antarctica).

Apparently, the main road from the airport has a reputation for crime, the Central Bank have stopped publishing inflation figures - estimates range from 159% to 700% - and the black market rate for the bolivar against the dollar is 800:1 (the official rate is 6.3:1).

So, readers (especially Ros and my family) will be pleased to hear that I made it to the Gran Meliã hotel, here in Caracas. Admittedly, my luggage is still in Houston (thanks, United!), but the journey was otherwise uneventful. I have made a taxi driver very happy, by paying in dollars, but luckily, I was prepared for such an eventuality.

And I've already had one of those conversations that you can only have in a country with a fully functioning parallel economy. In order to check in early, I not unreasonably need to pay a little extra. "How much?", I asked the young lady at reception. "Four thousand, eight hundred bolivars.", she replied. "And in dollars?", I smiled. "About five...".

I am sharing my hotel with the election monitors from UNASUR - the only observers permitted by the Government in advance of Sunday's elections to the National Assembly. They wear blue tabards and, to be honest, don't look wholly convincing as guarantors of free and fair elections (I may be being harsh though). I really ought to strike up a conversation with them at some point...

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The journey continues... a short connect in the nation's capital...

So, I've made it to Washington, and in good time. I've managed to operate the new technology they have at Dulles, and made it to the lounge for a quick break and a catch up with my e-mail before my next flight, a relatively short hop to Houston.

There, I have four hours and eighteen minutes before the final leg. All is still good...

In search of a liberal hero of a forgotten war, commemorated in song...

Many years ago, I went on one of my more quixotic journeys inspired by a song. And yes, it was a quite mad reason to go anywhere, but I could, and that was the end of it. My journey started with a United Airlines flight to Washington D.C. and my destination was Albuquerque, New Mexico. Some of you may remember the song.

Much has changed since then. I'm older, greyer, slower, to name but three. I'm also married to the lovely Ros. However, not everything is different. I still have a sense that travel can be romantic, that new experiences make for a better person. And, I still have a yearning for song.

So, whilst Ros is occupied elsewhere, I'm back on a United Airlines flight to Washington DC, with an onward connection. Actually, to be precise, two onward connections. This time, it's a bit more comfortable and there are warm chocolate cookies (which may explain the slower bit).

My first challenge is to make it through immigration at Dulles Airport, collect my luggage, recheck it and make the next flight. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Syria: the agonies of a liberal sceptic are as nothing to those of the Syrian people

It's dark in Syria right now, in every sense. The horror that is everyday life in most of the country has unfurled itself before our very eyes as key regional players have intervened in pursuit of their own agendas to the detriment of ordinary Syrians.

And, not unreasonably, most Syrians who are capable of fleeing have done just that, desperate to find a place of safety, flooding across the borders only to find themselves unwelcome in countries who cannot cope with the numbers of refugees and reduced to living in temporary accommodation without the means to sustain themselves, reliant in aid that has been given grudgingly if at all.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceTonight's vote in the Commons will do little to change that. Death will rain from the skies from any number of adversaries and those who have little enough to lose will continue to be the most punished. And yet, I find myself on the side of those who, like Tim Farron, have voted with the Government tonight.

It isn't because I wholeheartedly support either the Government or its proposals. I don't. I haven't been convinced by Philip Hammond - his narrow, petty-minded effort to score political points sullied the office of Foreign Secretary. It is because we have a responsibility to attempt to do something which might offer succour to those poor wretches inside and outside Syria who simply want to live in peace in their homes.

Ideally, our actions in Syria would create the conditions for safe zones where people can rebuild their lives and allow a diplomatic solution to the Syrian problem in parallel to the elimination of Islamic State in the region. And yes, I accept the inherent, possibly foolish, optimism in that statement.

As an active participant, we earn a right to influence the broader strategy, one more focussed and targeted on the real threat to us all. And, using our diplomats, we can and must work towards persuading Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia that dealing with Islamic State as a problem to be solved as opposed to an opportunity to be exploited is in all of our interests.

We also need to look upon air strikes as part of a wider response - supporting those countries currently hosting the overwhelming majority of refugees, cutting off the flow of funds and weapons, taking in the most needy of the displaced and providing them with care.

Tim has said that he intends to keep holding the Government to account, urging them to do more to support the humanitarian effort, and he is right to say that. It would be too easy to vote for action and then sit back and let them get on with it. We know that the Conservative administration has been slow to act and sometimes grudging in its compassion.

So, had it been me sitting on the green benches tonight, I would have voted yes. Not with unalloyed enthusiasm, indeed with regret. Our record in Middle Eastern affairs over the past two decades has been one to be embarrassed about too often. But a liberal foreign policy is not a pacifist one, and whilst I respect the deeply held views of many on my Party who believe this to be a step too far, I don't share them.

I want to see discussion of our goals, our strategy and our diplomatic effort in the public domain - we deserve nothing less. We, the people, in a properly informed democracy, need access to the thinking of those who guide us in matters of life and death, and given the risks that intervention entails, support is not blind.

It is the worst of times in Syria tonight. We owe it to the people of Syria to strive to make things better.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Ros in the Lords: North Sea Under Pressure

Some eight mionths ago, the Select Committee that Ros chairs, the EU Energy and Environment Sub-committee, published its report on the North Sea. The report was, at the time, well received. However, the Government was, it seemed, not so keen. Last night, the report was debated in the Lords, and here is Ros's speech introducing it...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD):

My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate this report this evening. It is fair to say that while regional marine co-operation in the North Sea is not the snappiest of subjects, the inquiry that led to this report was truly a worthwhile endeavour.

As your Lordships may know, the remit of what was then Sub-Committee D, which I chair, includes agriculture, fisheries, the environment, energy and climate change. Unlike the House of Commons Select Committees, one of the strengths of Select Committees in your Lordships’ House is the cross-cutting nature of our inquiries and reports. The report before your Lordships this evening is one such example, because the governance of the North Sea covers topics as diverse as reform of the fisheries policy, cross-border energy installations and the effect of persistent organic pollutants on seabirds.

I am grateful to the members of Sub-Committee D at that time who took part in the inquiry, many of whom were rotated off because of the new procedural rules. I am also pleased to see current members of the energy and environment sub-committee here this evening. As is often the case with inquiries, they lead you into places that you never quite expected at the outset, so we learned rather more about the Dogger Bank and radial and meshed energy grids than we thought possible. I extend my thanks to our specialist advisers, Dr Irene McMaster and Mr Rodney Anderson, the clerk, Patrick Milner, and our policy analyst, Alistair Dillon. Before going any further, I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Harwich Haven Authority, which is a trust board.

Before I go on to speak about the report itself, I would like to mention my concerns about the timing of the debate this evening. The reports produced by Select Committees of your Lordships’ House are widely read as they offer authoritative, well-researched and thoughtful contributions to whatever topics they look at. A great deal of effort is expended and they are usually very well received, far beyond this Chamber. It is therefore a great personal disappointment that we are here this evening debating a report that was published more than eight months ago and for which we took the evidence a year ago. Timely debate can be critical for the overall impact of an inquiry’s conclusions and recommendations. This is far too long to wait to debate a report here in your Lordships’ House, and I regret to say that this is not an isolated case. I would underline the need for the Government and the usual channels to take note of various resolutions of the House which call for regular debates of Select Committee reports in prime time.

The Government’s official response to our report came two months late and, when it came, it was sadly dismissive in tone. A letter from George Eustice MP, Minister for the Marine Environment, explained that the response was delayed by a “circumstance” outside the Government’s control. I would appreciate it if the Minister could elaborate on what that particular circumstance was.

The North Sea is one of the most industrialised seas in the world and is under enormous pressure. My committee found that attempts to manage the competing pressures in a strategic manner are embryonic and unpredictable. We are expecting more and more from this single natural resource, both economically and environmentally. These objectives should not be mutually exclusive, but delivering them in harmony requires effort to co-operate—between countries, between sectors, within sectors and on the rules that govern the sea. Whereas it is now common practice to manage a river by taking into account the whole system from source to mouth and including its surrounding area, rather than through each local authority managing its own part separately, we still manage the North Sea by administrative or national boundaries. We found this segmented approach to be unsustainable.

In our evidence, we found that the need to co-operate was universally acknowledged but that the main stumbling block is lack of political leadership. This is where we believe government has to step up to the plate. If it fails to give such leadership and to co-ordinate and co-operate effectively, we risk failing to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the North Sea and risk its long-term sustainability. My committee concluded that no existing body or mechanism has a sufficiently broad remit to facilitate the political co-operation required to make the necessary step change in managing the North Sea basin. We argued for the re-establishment of the North Sea Ministerial Conference. Our main recommendation to the Government was that they should convene this ministerial conference in an effort to deliver the urgently required political and strategic vision that will sustain the North Sea for generations to come. It was bitterly disappointing that the Government’s response to the report dismissed the recommendation, arguing that the previous North Sea Ministerial Conference came to an end because,

“all the significant discussions and legal developments were taking place in other fora”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could explain which other fora exist for this work, because in all our evidence, with the single exception of that for energy, we were unable to identify any.

We also concluded that English local authorities must be more engaged in North Sea co-operation and recommended that the Government work with English local authorities to identify and, most importantly, address barriers to their participation. This is currently minimal for English local authorities compared to those in Scotland and from other North Sea countries. Once again, the Government dismissed our recommendation. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether he believes it is important for local authorities to engage with the North Sea Commission and why the Government will not work with the LGA and local authorities to facilitate this.

My committee found that although a lot of data are collected around the North Sea, by academic researchers and industries alike, very few of them are shared. We were concerned about a duplication of effort and that the best and most cost-effective use is simply not being made of those data. Having most of the data in one place would allow researchers and planners alike to develop a much clearer understanding of the sea and to plan for its future. It is telling that we were unable to source a single map depicting all the seabed uses of the North Sea. Commitment to a single database would allow resources to be allocated accordingly. It could become a one-stop shop, covering the costs not only of data collation but of quality assurance, which we heard can be expensive.

We called for greater progress on electricity interconnection. The North Sea has enormous potential to provide cross-border energy supply. This could be hugely important to every business and consumer if it can reduce costs by delivering energy more efficiently. Encouragingly, the European Commission has expressed its active support for greater energy co-operation around the North Sea and has committed to the development of an action plan. We heard that currently offshore wind farms are connected to national grids individually and that national grids are then linked independently through interconnectors. We recommend a pilot project creating a more “meshed” approach, which would integrate both offshore wind farms and interconnectors. We heard that there are technical obstacles to this measure, but they are mostly of a regulatory nature, relating to trading options, cost allocations and so on. We understand that the Government are already working to overcome these through their involvement in the North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative. Could the Minister update us on that work?

The report was well received in other North Sea states, including Germany and the Netherlands, and a number of stakeholders have submitted their own responses, making helpful suggestions on how to take the issues forward. These include the East of England Energy Group and the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology’s joint Marine Special Interest Group. They told us told us that our recommendations, if implemented, could,

“start a process of unmatched international co-operation in the management of the North Sea”.

The North Sea Commission’s Assen Declaration with the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe followed up our key recommendation by calling for the Dutch presidency of the European Council, starting in the new year, to develop a North Sea agenda. Similarly, the European Commission’s response was positive and receptive to our message that increased regional co-operation is the key to harnessing the full potential of the North Sea.

To use the opening words of the report:

“Often out of sight and out of mind, the North Sea is the lifeblood of more than 60 million people who live on or near its shores”.

The North Sea is a shared resource and plays an important part in the lives of many of us, whether we are mindful of it or not. Regional co-operation enormously enhances the possibilities open to North Sea countries and industries and can bring significant benefits for the environment. We should not lose sight of this approach. I beg to move.

I have to admit that I wasn't impressed by Lord Gardiner of Kimble's response, but at least Tony Greaves displayed his grasp of the subject in a speech redolent with disappointment in the poor performance of a government he does rate very highly.

For the rest of the debate, Hansard can be found here...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Unless anyone knows different... a first tonight in Cambridge(shire and Peterborough) as a PCC prospective candidate is selected

Tonight found me having to deal with a bit of a diary clash, as two major commitments coincided - International Relations Committee was meeting in London from 6 p.m. until 8, whilst the members' meeting for the Cambridgeshire PCC selection was scheduled to start in Cambridge at 8 p.m. Given that I work in Ipswich, there was always going to a problem, but fortunately, International Relations Committee is civilised enough to allow the more distant amongst us to dial in.

So, only detouring home to pick up the last minute postal ballots, I set off for Cambridge, and dialled into the committee meeting in time for its scheduled start. The problem was, I was on a train in West Suffolk, where mobile reception is, and I'm being diplomatic here, patchy. It would be honest to say that I did miss parts of the meeting...

But I got to Cambridge easily enough, found the venue for the meeting, and found a corner where I could resume the call. So far, so good.

And, at 8 p.m., the sole candidate was invited to address the gathered throng. I've known Rupert Moss-Eccardt for some years, but never really seen him 'politick' and, I have to say, he does seem to know his stuff. He spoke knowledgeably about early interventions, restorative justice and all of those other good things that Liberal Democrats get shouted at about by the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade, i.e. Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP.

Questions from the audience were thoughtful, and received equally reflective answers - a lot of crime and punishment issues can be addressed through a variety of early, targeted interventions that might have no police involvement at all. Rehabilitation of offenders through training and education, for example, would go a long way towards reducing reoffending rates.

An hour passed, and it was time for the final ballots to be cast, and the count to start. Luckily, it didn't take too long, and I was able to declare that Rupert had beaten 'reopen nominations' by one hundred and six votes to seven, with four spoilt papers. I think that such a result might reasonably be described as overwhelming...

So, Rupert is, we think, the first Liberal Democrat prospective PCC candidate to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. I wish him, and party activists across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the very best of luck with the campaign ahead...