Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Committee doesn't happen by itself, you know...

So, an election took place, and six members of the new Federal International Relations Committee were elected. So far, so good, especially as one of them was me. But what happens next?

Naturally, the Committee has to meet, and someone has to organise that. But who, and who makes sure that all of the members are invited? Indeed, who has the job of finding out who the members are? In the case of FIRC (no sniggering at the back, Jennie...), the questions are made more complex because it isn't always easy to establish who you would ask in the first place. How do you contact the State Parties, for example, and who do you need to reach?

Luckily, the outgoing Committee had taken the precaution of appointing a Secretary, and whilst I have no mandate beyond 31 December, I can at least make a start. So, I've sent out a stream of e-mails far and wide, seeking answers. This is what I've found out so far...

There are fourteen voting members of the Committee;
  • Phil Bennion, Merlene Emerson, Jonathan Fryer, Paul Reynolds, Robert Woodthorpe Browne and myself, all directly elected
  • a representative of the Federal Board, who meet on 14 January and will presumably decide then
  • a representative of the Federal Policy Committee
  • a representative of the English Party, whose Executive meet on 21 January
  • Roger Williams (yes, the former MP for Brecon and Radnorshire), representing the Welsh Liberal Democrats
  • a representative of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, whose Executive also meet on 21 January
  • Hannah Bettsworth and Andrew Martin, the job-sharing International Officers of the Young Liberals (they only get one vote between them though)
  • Catherine Bearder, our sole MEP
  • Tom Brake, our Parliamentary spokesperson on Foreign Affairs
There are seven non-voting members;
  • a representative of the Liberal International British Group, whose Executive meet on 9 January
  • Nick Hopkinson, Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group
  • a representative of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Committee of the Regions
  • a representative of the Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats
  • Ros Scott, as a member of the Bureau of the ALDE Party
  • John Alderdice and Kishwer Falkner, as members of the Bureau of Liberal International
There should also be a representative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but as there is no Liberal Democrat there, the position lies vacant.

We also need a Chair. According to the Federal Constitution, only those members who were directly elected are eligible to run. Accordingly, as I didn't want the job, I opened nominations to the other five, only to find that we had but one nominee, Robert Woodthorpe Browne, whom I declared elected.

We need a regulatory framework too, as specified by Article 7 of the Federal Constitution. But, because we were a sub-committee of the Federal Executive, we apparently didn't have one, so we need one fairly quickly. The good news is that there is a member of Party staff who is responsible for this sort of thing, so I've dropped him an e-mail. We'll see what comes of it, but it needs to cover transparency, conflicts of interest, diversity, and all sorts of other good things.

Finally, we need an agenda for our first meeting or, at least, an outline one. Luckily, I'm on top of that too, so a draft is with the new Chair and our International Officer, the estimable Harriet Shone, for their comment prior to circulation to the emerging Committee.

I think that we've made a pretty good start, and once we've worked out a communications and engagement policy, I sense that we might have a pretty good story to tell. There's an awful lot that can go wrong before that though...

An oath, an oath, my kingdom for an oaf... Sajid Javid needs a lesson on values...

It's never a promising sign when a Minister comes up with a proposal to promote integration that requires some of the most integrated members of civil society to swear an oath declaring their commitment to it whilst leaving many of those who are supposedly the problem unaffected. And so, Sajid Javid's idea that civil servants should swear an oath of allegiance to 'British values', is a pointer towards an administration who are desperate for anything that might deflect even a little attention from the elephant in their particular room, Brexit.

Sajid, I joined the Civil Service precisely because I believe in the democratic process, and because I understand the vital nature of civil society. You need people who believe in tolerance, the rule of law and due process because, without them, people like you have no means of governing. A politically-neutral Civil Service is the mechanism by which the aims of any administration are delivered and, believe me, regardless of what we think of you as an individual, most of us understand that, even if we don't agree with you, you're the Government, and you get what you want, so long as it's legal and possible.

I certainly didn't join for the money - indeed, I am effectively paid for a four-day week because of the impact of years of real terms cuts in pay, brought about by people like you who don't understand what happens when you consistently undermine the pay and conditions of those who are expected to deliver your priorities under fire from both the public and, more insidiously, you, your colleagues and your friends in the national media.

No, I joined for reasons that would now seem altruistic at best, naive at worst. I thought that, by doing my job well, I could make society a little bit better, government a little less impersonal. And, I like to think, I've achieved that, despite the obstacles that have littered my path.

Like you, my father came here from the Indian subcontinent, so the concept of British values comes with some mixed connotations. One might joke that British values revolved around invading someone else's country, stealing the raw materials and imposing a Parliamentary system that seldom worked well for the locals. But, seriously, there is a debate to be had about what British values really are in a country as divided as Britain is at present.

Is tolerance a British value when we've just undergone a campaign where migrants have been vilified for political advantage? Is democracy a British value when 37% of the voting population can cause a major change to our society and then insist that the rest of us blithely accept it? Is respect for the rule of law a British value when elements of our national media seek to undermine it and distort it when it doesn't agree with them?

Now, I believe that those things are part of a decent, value-based society. And I believe that most British people believe in them, and live by them most of the time, albeit occasionally grudgingly. But then, so do most people, in most countries, so why are they described as 'British values', as though other nations are somehow less principled?

And, to be honest, oath swearing is something done to convince others and is, in itself, pretty meaningless. Swearing loyalty to a concept implies that it is constant, unchanging, whereas society is fluid, adapting and changing as circumstances develop. Besides, how do you determine whether or not someone actually means it when they swear an oath? What penalty is there for breaking it, and who decides upon it?

No, it's a stupid idea from a desperate politician, and that comes from someone who has no problem with the principles of civil society, of democracy and of tolerance. Perhaps that's why I criticize Mr Javid whilst not denying him his right as a Minister of the Crown to introduce the idea, should he really believe that it's worthwhile.

My advice to him, however, would be to dedicate the effort he's expended on this to better effect. Finding a solution to the housing crisis might be more helpful, but I'm sure that my readers can come up with other ones...

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A bureaucrat on the edge - triumph and disappointment...

It's that walrus again...
Well, I managed to get myself re-elected to International Relations Committee, elected on the sixth count in third place, which was somewhat unexpected, given the quality of the opposition. Various people had been very supportive but, given the size of the electorate and my lack of 'celebrity', for want of a better word, one can never take anything for granted.

So, thank you to all those of you who supported me, regardless of where you put me on the ballot paper. I'm already hard at work preparing for the new committee, so you'll hopefully see a more visible Federal International Relations Committee over the coming weeks, months and years.

There will be a new Chair of the Committee to elect, which won't be me - I'm not running. However, one of the other five directly elected members will be taking the job on, and I have initiated a process of seeking nominations from them so that we can move forward quickly, if possible. I will  be seeking to stay on as Secretary though, and we'll see if anyone else comes forward to oppose me. 

The result of the election of the ALDE Party Council delegation was not so great. I came fifth which, given that there were five places to be elected, sounds good. However, I fell foul of Election Rule 10(b);
As required by the September 1992 conference motion elections to the ALDE Council delegation shall include a minimum of one person from each State Party and one person under the age of 26 at the time of election.
This meant that I was overtaken by Peter Price, the only Welsh candidate (there were no Scots or young people standing). There is, I would suggest, a certain irony in losing an election due to a twenty-four year old rule that very few people had realised was in existence. I'm guessing that I'll be first reserve in the event that someone drops out, but I'll need to check how that works.

So, I'm going to be busy in 2017, regardless. I'm going to have to be better with this blog though...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ros in the Lords: National Citizens Service Bill (Second Reading)

It isn't that often that I appear in Hansard. Ros has occasionally referred to me in terms of rural transport, but I'm not the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Mrs Bone. But, in this instance, my colleagues and I (or at least some of them) receive a little bit of praise, as Ros calls for proper focus by the new scheme on hard-to-reach, under-represented groups...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)

My Lords, I join in the thanks to the Minister for introducing this short but important Bill. In doing so, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory council of NCVO. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I have spent most of the past 30 years in various forms of public service, and in different ways, most of the people I know are also involved: they are active in their communities and they volunteer. I think that we would all agree that our lives are enriched by that experience. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is right to say that the benefits of public service work both ways. So if the creation of NCS opens that sort of opportunity for more of our young people, that is, of course, to be heartily welcomed.

However, this large project, serving some 300,000 young people, will come at a cost of £1 billion in the forthcoming five years. That is not a reason not to do it, but it is a reason why we should look very carefully at all aspects of the scheme—starting, of course, with the legislation that establishes it. Having set budgets in local authorities for some years, I am always acutely aware that expenditure on one thing means that you do not have that money to spend on something else, so it is simply not good enough to say we should do ​something because it is a good thing to do; the question is whether it is the best thing we can do. In its briefing, the LGA points out that this investment is being made at a time when most local authorities have spent the past few years cutting services under their youth budgets because of cuts in their own financial settlements, and we have heard from my noble friend Lady Barker about the quite stringent conditions under which many charities are operating.

It is interesting that there has been quite a sea change in the past few years in that more young people are volunteering. I have seen reports that there has been a 52% rise in youth volunteering. To some extent, social media and on-line tools make certain sorts of voluntary engagement easier than they have ever been. For that reason, it is important for this scheme to have a relentless focus on those who are hard to reach or disadvantaged through poverty, disability, dysfunctional family lives and so on because they are the ones who potentially have the most to gain. For people with serious disadvantage, a cost of £50 is a big hurdle, so I was pleased to hear the Minister comment on ways of making that affordable. That should be one of the key indicators when Parliament carries out its scrutiny.

The National Deaf Children’s Society raised very important points about the cost of delivering the programme to young people with particular needs, such as British sign language interpreters or speech-to-text reporting, It is currently left to NCS providers to meet the cost of supporting disabled young people, and they are concerned that this funding will not be forthcoming. I am sure that similar issues would arise with visually impaired young people and those with other disabilities. I have a close family member dealing with ME. I hope that there will be enough flexibility in the scheme to manage those sorts of difficult intermittent conditions.

It is very important that we focus on how this scheme is to be promoted within hard-to-reach groups. I am a bit concerned about the emphasis being put on mailings from HMRC to promote it as that seems rather dependent on parents receiving mailings and then acting on them. In dysfunctional families, this may very well not happen, and those who need it most may be passed by.

I was also very taken with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that young people do not like government schemes. If they do not like government schemes generally, something coming from HMRC might be particularly problematic for them. I know that there are wonderful people in HMRC - indeed, I am married to someone who works for HMRC - but there is a question about the tone of that very first engagement coming from HMRC. It also seems odd that in a scheme designed to transition young people into adulthood, the first engagement is through their parents. I am not entirely sure that we have got that right. I know that local authorities have fought very shy of becoming too closely involved with this, but they certainly need to be involved in a whole range of ways. I also wonder whether there is an opportunity to work with local authorities on voter registration in the context of this scheme because it seems to me that a great part of becoming a citizen later in life is to vote when you have the opportunity.​

To a large extent the success of this scheme will depend on the providers, so I have been interested to hear from a whole range of people who have been involved so far as well as from NCVO and other parties. While there are some areas of disagreement, they are not significant and there is widespread consensus on a number of things. The first is that the scheme must sit firmly within the context of the whole of a young person’s life from the age of five to 25 and not be about just this brief period. Secondly, we need to ensure that the whole experience is of high quality and, as Justin Davis Smith, formerly of NCVO, put it, that the programme becomes the,
must-do choice for young people.
I think that is right.

Thirdly, the programme needs to sit within the wider volunteering system and make effective use of the knowledge and expertise of specialist charities, social enterprises and providers, especially in their localities. The scale of this programme could mean that smaller providers get frozen out of the commissioning process, as is often the case. The social action part of the programme should be not just a one-off but the start of a long-term involvement with volunteering and social action. However, finding meaningful voluntary activity is not always easy. Voluntary organisations themselves need more resources to manage an influx of volunteers; without them young people either cannot participate or will receive a poorer quality experience as volunteers. Fourthly, partner organisations need to be effectively and adequately resourced. One of the existing providers, The Challenge, explained how it provides personal coaches for young people who have been involved with the criminal justice system or who have been in care. This is almost certainly effective, but, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, it is very expensive.

The Bill also makes a number of provisions to make the NCS Trust accountable to Parliament and the public, which is welcome. We have to think acknowledge and, perhaps in later stages of the Bill, think about how we manage the tension between the sort of independence which the noble Lord, Lord Maude, talked about and the need to manage a very large sum of taxpayers’ money. I got slightly nervous at the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Maude, about the morass of public appointments. As boring as process sometimes might be, it usually ensures that you get a solid outcome in which people can have trust. With Kids Company we saw what happens when you have exuberant, charismatic leadership. It does not necessarily work well. We need to learn those lessons.

Conventional reporting - the annual report, the accounts and so on - can be of limited use. Charities now quite rightly focus on the impact they have, and NCS reporting should be exactly the same. Some of it will be qualitative, drawn on the experience of participants, but given this amount of public money, I expect to see a lot of data about the numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who complete the programme rather just start it and those with disabilities. Over time, I expect some outcomes with regard to those who remain involved with voluntary service and to whether there have been impacts on employment, reductions in crime and so on, both on a personal level and in aggregate.​

It is no longer good enough for something to mean well; we have to get it right. I cannot put it better than the youth social action charity City Year UK. In its briefing it said that it is vital, now more than ever, to give the next generation the chance to play their part in shaping our country and themselves through service to others and that NCS at 16 should be the beginning and not the end of those opportunities to serve.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A big beast breathes his last. Fidel Castro's legacy isn't as black or white as is being painted...

The news that Fidel Castro has died shouldn't really have come as a huge surprise, even if you did begin to wonder if he was ever going. He had retreated from public life for the most part, and I suspect that the obituary writers had edited their drafts more often than for most people. But he is gone, and the opinion makers are off and running.

For the left, Fidel is a hero of the anti-imperialist movement, for the right, an authoritarian who impoverished his people, repressed dissidents and was a threat to world peace. And it's easy for those whose experience is limited to foreign reporting filtered through their own cultural bias.

For me, it's a bit more complex. One should bear in mind that Cuba in the 1950's was a corrupt dictatorship, where freedom only really extended to the Mob and to the wealthy, and where the influence of a foreign power acted to cement that dictatorship in place. Most of us, had we had much knowledge of what was going on, would have sided with the freedom fighters, rather than the regime. 

After all, Fidel and his freedom fighters won, against an entrenched military dictatorship, which could only have been possible with the support of much of the population at large. The fact that the Americans immediately tried to overthrow his government and replace it with something far more amenable to their interests, could only act to reinforce him in power. You could almost excuse the missile crisis that then followed, given that a superpower was threatening them. Under those circumstances, pairing up with the other superpower becomes an attractive option, and it did deter the Americans from making another serious attempt.

The problem was that he adopted a political creed that was doomed to failure, handcuffed to a superpower that was purely a military one rather than an economic one. And, whilst he created a society that was far more equal than the one it had replaced, that equality wasn't terribly good at delivering for the people of Cuba.

He also orchestrated the repression of those who had other opinions on the future of the country, arresting and detaining the likes of Armando Valladares, and kept an authoritarian eye on his people. And interfering in the internal affairs of other countries merely demonstrated a sense of hypocrisy that his nation couldn't really afford, acting as a surrogate for the Soviet Union in exchange for a market for their sugar.

Ironically, it is his brother, Raul, who has gradually loosened the apron strings, introducing rights and freedoms that are bottom-up rather than top-down, allowing ordinary Cubans to enter the market economy whilst the big international corporations are held at arms length. And, having been to Cuba recently, there are all the signs of an entrepreneurial culture that has lain latent for a long time.

Fidel Castro was an imperfect man, a hero in some way, a villain in others. As a liberal, I tend to the view that, in the round, he probably did more harm to the people of Cuba than good, but that they might not all necessarily see it that way. After all, I'm not a Cuban, nor did I live through the events of the fifties and sixties. My view is a theoretical one, rather than lived experience.

In short, he was a creature of his time who, given a choice between giving his people freedom or controlling them, he chose the latter. He wasn't alone, nor was it a choice taken solely by the left, but it was still the wrong one from the perspective of a liberal.

What happens next is a bit of a mystery. Raul is, of course, no spring chicken, and the senior ranks of the Cuban Communist Party are little known. Would new leadership try to reverse the faltering steps towards a market economy? Is that even possible following President Obama's moves towards liberalising relations between the two countries?

Life is going to be interesting in the Caribbean's largest nation over the next few years...

EU Associate Membership? I can see why that might annoy the authoritarian right...

I see that the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen, is unhappy about suggestions that British citizens might be offered the option of some form of associate membership of the European Union. Diddums.

By throwing his toys out of the pram in such an ostentatious manner, he demonstrates what I have always suspected about Conservatives, which is that when they talk about choice, it is the choice to do things that they approve of (not that much, after all, they are conservatives), and that when they talk about freedom, it is with the caveat that they are to define the limits of that freedom.

In truth, the concept of associate membership is an interesting one, albeit one that I would want to have far more information about before I committed myself. But, for those who feel that it brings advantage and opportunity, I can see no reason why it shouldn't be on the table. It is, after all, about individual liberty, freedom and choice.

Mr Bridgen also demonstrates another feature of the Brexiteer mentality, which is to look at the relationship between Britain and the European Union through the wrong end of a telescope, discounting their views in favour of his desires. It is, for him and his friends, all about us. The nasty Europeans should give us everything we want, regardless of the cost to them. It is a selfish, narrow-minded view of international relations that impoverishes us all. Well, except people like him, of course.

So, remember, when Andrew Bridgen and his ilk talk about liberty and choice, they don't mean it. What they mean is that those that have should get to keep it, and that the world should cast itself in their image. They don't care about you, unless you agree with them, and even then, it's conditional. Their commitment to freedom is that of a mayfly.

So, I say this to Mr Bridgen, if the European Union wants to make me an offer, and it's an offer that I wish to take up, I'll take it up. And if you want to take it away from me, you'll have to make me a better offer. And frankly, bacon sandwiches are likely to grow on trees before you can come up with one.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Ros in the Lords: Bus Services Bill (Report Stage, Day 2)... again...

Ros was back again, later in the debate, supporting a Labour amendment on a subject close to the heart of Liberal Democrats everywhere...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I offer the support of these Benches for the amendment. It would be rather strange if we did not, because the ​Social Value Act 2012 was a Private Member’s Bill taken through this House by my noble friend Lord Newby. I raised the question of the use of this Act in Committee, so I am grateful to the Labour Benches for picking this up and transferring it into an amendment.

As we have heard, the Social Value Act allows public bodies to take a much broader range of issues into account than conventional procurement practices do, so they can think about the environment, community well-being and the local economy. It actually goes one stage further, because the Act makes people think about the considerable financial power of public procurement in an area and is a way of local authorities and local health authorities harnessing their own commissioning power for the benefit of their communities.

As we have heard, the evaluation last year by the noble Lord, Lord Young, was that, while there had been some real success stories, the Social Value Act was not being used enough and was not sufficiently understood. I have a lot of sympathy with an amendment which puts this on the face of the Bill because it forces commissioning authorities to really think about whether they have given sufficient consideration to this. Overall, it is a way of ensuring that compliance improves.

I was very taken with the conversations I had on this matter with HCT, formerly Hackney Community Transport, which is a social enterprise that provides bus services in a range of areas as diverse as London boroughs and Jersey. It feels very strongly—and made the point to me—that current procurement practices often freeze out smaller businesses. That is a great pity because some of the best bus operators in the country are the small, local ones. It is important to find ways to strengthen this aspect of the Bill and really help local authorities, in their various forms, to make the most of this considerable new power.

In response, the Minister noted that the guidance associated with the Bill would include appropriate references to the 2012 Social Value Act, which seemed to provide sufficient reassurance to allow the withdrawal of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch's amendment.

Ros in the Lords: Bus Services Bill (Report Stage, 2nd Day)

Ros has been a part of the Liberal Democrat Bill Team on this relatively unremarked upon piece of legislation, and was keen to make sure that the Government's proposals to allow franchising schemes for Mayoral authorities were properly monitored...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, Amendment 28 returns to the question of an independent audit of proposals for new franchising schemes. I thank the Minister for meeting me in September to discuss this matter and for his subsequent letter. The purpose of the amendment is to provide the House with an opportunity to look again at the question of an independent audit and for the Minister to elaborate and build on the letter that he sent me.

The issue here is protecting the public against the careless use of local taxpayers’ money. I have always believed in devolution; indeed, I have long thought it was a scandal that our major cities constantly have to go cap-in-hand to government whenever they want to undertake a capital programme. But I am also a great believer in democratic accountability, and there is a real problem in mayoral models in that the very concentration of power in the hands of one individual that makes it such an attractive option to government also runs a significant risk of poor decision-making because it is untested by debates in traditional committees or through effective scrutiny.

The Public Accounts Committee published a report in July in which it said:

“There has been insufficient consideration by central government of local scrutiny arrangements, of accountability to the taxpayer and of the capacity and capability needs of local and central government as a result of devolution”.

The committee went on to talk more about its concerns about capacity issues, particularly financial and technical skills, which have been exacerbated by budget cuts. Providing a requirement for a mayor to give information that proposed new schemes, potentially worth millions of pounds, have been independently audited is an important safeguard. The auditor usually engaged by a local authority may very well have their independence compromised by their wish to hold on to the contract.

Equally importantly in terms of public confidence is that the audit should be seen to be independent. The Public Accounts Committee had this to say:

“Robust and independent scrutiny of the value for money of devolved activities is essential to safeguarding taxpayers’ money, particularly given the abolition of the Audit Commission … Currently, local auditors focus on individual bodies’ financial statements and arrangements for securing value for money, rather than assessing value for money itself”.

In his letter to me, the Minister referred to the guidance on the matter that he had agreed to develop, and I would be grateful to hear more about that today. He referred to the availability of freedom of information as a means of achieving transparency. I wonder whether he can confirm today that such freedom of information requests will not be met with commerciality exemptions. I beg to move.

The Minister, Lord Ahmed, was sympathetic, but felt that existing safeguards would be sufficient. I'm not sure that he's right, but only time will tell, as Ros then withdrew her amendment in the light of Government opposition.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Suffolk's Parish councillors meet - nobody dead...

Back on the Parish Council after a few years in self-imposed exile, I have to some extent picked up where I left off, representing the Council to an unsuspecting outside world. And, in that capacity, I was called upon to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC) last week.

Our new Chair, Machala, had also decided to come along to find out how valuable (or otherwise) SALC is. And so, on a cold, drab evening, we made our way to Elmswell. The Community Centre there was our venue, and it was nice to see that they had managed to find somewhere within easy walking distance of a railway station - past meetings seemed to be held in Haughley, virtually impossible for non-drivers.

Having glanced at the agenda, one thing did stand out, the absence of women in senior positions amongst the elected members. The Chair, the President, all four Vice-Presidents, even the Auditor and Deputy Chairman - all men. I wasn't going to let that go unchallenged.

And so, at the point whereby the Vice-Presidents were to be adopted by acclaim, I sought the floor. "May I say, before I continue, that the slate of candidates are a fine body of men. Which is rather the problem, they're all men. Couldn't the Executive Committee do something about that?".

Apparently, they had approached all seven Suffolk MPs (all Conservatives, one notes), and neither of the women (Therese Coffey and Jo Churchill) apparently wanted to serve. It appeared not to have occurred to them that some of the excellent women in local government across the county might have been an option.

There was a promise to try harder next year and, as I'm not one to labour a point, I'll give them an opportunity to do better next year. I'm not terribly optimistic, if the truth be told, but why not give them a chance?

The reports were informative, if not exciting, before we moved on to our guest speaker, John Connell, who is the Head of Neighbourhood Policy at the Department of Communities and Local Government.

John appears to have an interesting view of the level of capacity at our tier of government and talked enthusiastically about the opportunities to take on responsibilities for social care and the like. One wonders whether he has ever experienced life in a small parish like Creeting St Peter, or spoken directly to parish councillors from communities like ours. We have no capacity, no budget, and no means to obtain either from our population of 275.

I can't say that I was impressed by him either, especially after he made a number of slightly cheap jokes at the expense of civil servants - you can always tell the ones who have come straight into the higher echelons from the private sector.

Finally, we had some motions to discuss. Leiston-cum-Sizewell wanted to enforce a satellite navigation system on lorry drivers to make up for police failings to enforce 7.5 tonne limits. Machala and I were opposed, as we couldn't really see how it was enforceable, but were nonetheless surprised when it was defeated.

Somersham wanted more support for Neighbourhood Watch organisations, which we supported and was passed overwhelmingly, whilst Claydon and Whitton Rural were opposed to automatic precept referendums - we, and the meeting as a whole, didn't need persuading there.

Finally, a poorly phrased motion from Hadleigh urged Government to make it easier to decriminalise parking enforcement. Initially, what they really wanted was unclear, but it emerged that they wanted district councils to have the power to enforce parking regulations. We were supportive of that, and I added an amendment to allow local councils to do so should they wish, something that towns like Haverhill, Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds might well be interested in.

Awards for best newsletters and websites were handed out, before the meeting came to an end.

Was it worth going? I'm not so sure. It is useful to make contacts with nearby parishes, but we can do that at our area meetings, and given that the National Association of Local Councils needs to do far better at lobbying, given my recent experiences of it, it is not obvious what the benefits of participation are at that level. It also looks a bit like a closed shop.

We'll see though, and if they pick an accessible venue next year, I might even go again...

Monday, November 14, 2016

"I vow to thee, my country..."

Yesterday morning, in my capacity as a parish councillor, I was on duty, laying a wreath on behalf of the Parish Council prior to the Remembrance Sunday service at St Peter's Church. Ours is a small village, and always has been, yet there are eight names on the memorial, six from World War 1 and two from World War 2, whilst there was one other casualty of the Great War whose name is missing from it.

Their names were read and remembered in the customary two minute silence that followed and, after a few words from our vicar, a former RAF officer, we returned to the church for the service of remembrance. Hymns were sung, the sermon given, readings made and prayers said.

It was a scene doubtless played out in small villages up and down the country, a opportunity to reflect upon the sacrifices made by others so that we might enjoy the freedoms that we too often take for granted.

I found myself reminded that, as something of an ersatz Englishman, I am, quietly, something of a patriot. I believe passionately in my country, for all its faults and idiosyncrasies, and in the values that go to make it, if not great, then a place I am proud to call home... most of the time. I believe in the ability of the British people to demonstrate compassion, ingenuity, heroism - some of the facets that make a nation potentially great.

And yet, there are people who would call me traitor, quisling, apologist, for I believe that Britain is better served by pooling some of its sovereignty with our neighbours for the greater good. They call themselves patriots too, and I presume that they think that they have the country's best interests at heart. And that, perhaps, is where our senses of patriotism diverge.

I think that their view of the world is defensive, exclusionary, negative. it presumes that we can wholly control our own destiny, denying the need to make arrangements with our neighbours that offer something to both parties. And maybe they're right, even if I doubt it with every fibre of my being.

And that makes my being a supposed member of the "liberal elite" rather a trial. You see, whilst I acknowledge their right to hold the views they do, even if I don't like them, they deny my right to disagree with them for, too often, their patriotism expresses itself in anger against those who don't share their world view.

I am told that I must understand their sense of anger, of frustration. There is no sense of quid pro quo though, no meeting part way over my fears that we will become isolated in the world, that our thinly veiled desire to exclude others will weaken our influence globally, that by denouncing this week's scapegoats (as designated by the Daily Mail) we deny minorities the hard-won freedoms that have enriched their lives and ours.

In short, I oppose the narrow nationalism that is this Government, waved on its way by Murdoch, Rothermere and Desmond and their friends, hailed by the UKIP leadership and endorsed by a sizeable chunk of the population who have no idea yet how little respect will be shown to them now that they've cast their vote.

And, out of the gutter, the racists have emerged. Don't get me wrong, I assume that most of the people who voted for Brexit aren't racists, or homophobes, or fascists. It's just that those who are think that they're the majority now, that their views are widely held. That gives them the confidence to express openly what was only said in secretive internet chatrooms by like-minded people.

Don't ask me to understand them. Don't ask me to meet them part way. I'm not going to. I believe in the values that made this country great, in an outward-looking, positive nation that plays its part in building a better world for everyone in it. I believe in freedom of expression, in the right to dissent and that people should be allowed to live their lives in peace. I believe that people should not be discriminated against because of their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, or for any other reason, by individuals or, especially, by the state.

For I am an Englishman, and proud of it, and the nationalists will never take that away from me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

So, why the @ALDEParty Council delegation?...

Yesterday, I wrote about what I offer in terms of the International Relations Committee. Today, it's the turn of the Party's delegation to the ALDE Party Council...

Traditionally, candidates for the delegation have talked about their commitment to the European idea, about their belief in policy ideas. And, equally traditionally, I mutter darkly about the small matter that the ALDE Party Council doesn't have much to do with policy making. I tend to focus on what the Council is for, monitoring the work of the Bureau and the Secretariat, considering new membership applications and the Statutes, querying expenditure and debating recommendations for future activities.

And the curious thing is that, for all the enthusiasm that some candidates bring to the contest, I'm still one of the relatively few who take a keen interest in the papers in advance of the meeting, and add my comments as and when I feel that they are of help.

There are even fewer who spend as much time on the inner workings of the ALDE Party as I do, given that I serve on its Financial Advisory Committee (think 'audit and compliance function'), and offer an initial view on such things as proposals for membership subscription levels, revised representation structures and ethical fundraising guidelines.

For, after thirty years as a Party bureaucrat, I have a pretty good idea where I would bury the bodies, were I so inclined. I know how organisations work, how decisions get taken, who is responsible and who should be. And, more importantly, I understand that process matters. I also have an acute understanding of what is possible, and what level of administrative burden is appropriate or even manageable. I'd say that this all goes to make me a good person to scrutinise the work of the Bureau and the Secretariat on your behalf.

I've managed, I think, to establish credibility with all concerned as being fair, reasonable and, above all, constructive. I want things to work for everyone, so I don't take a narrow view based on what is best solely for my Party.

Over the past six years as a member of our delegation, I've drafted those ethical fundraising guidelines, campaigned for a membership fee structure that reflects the ability of smaller parties to pay, picked budgets apart and supported innovative projects designed to add value to both the ALDE Party and its member parties. I've also reported back, via my blog and Liberal Democrat Voice, so that you have a chance to find out what is happening.

Why? Because effective political parties, be they national or pan-European, matter. They are the means by which the individual can influence the political agenda and, in a contest of ideas, you want yours to have a solid foundation for propagation.

So, I ask you to vote for me - for efficient bureaucracy, for keen scrutiny and for better governance.

Thank you.

Monday, November 07, 2016

It's time to announce my candidature for International Relations Committee and the ALDE Party Council delegation...

A bureaucrat (right) seeks policy compromise
that works for (nearly) everyone...
... the nomination papers are in, and accepted, the manifestos designed and submitted, and all that is left is the campaign.

So, why am I running, and why should you vote for me?

Let's start with the International Relations Committee...

I ran two years ago more in hope than expectation. Yes, I felt that I could contribute, but there are lots of Liberal Democrats who have an interest in international politics, and who are better known than I am, so I didn't set my sights much beyond making a decent showing. Coming fourth was a bit of a surprise...

Since then, I've rather thrown myself into the role, bringing to the table my knowledge of the inner workings of the ALDE Party gleaned from five years as a member of its Financial Advisory Committee, a firm grasp of constitutions and an awareness of when and how to keep meetings moving.

Earlier this year, in anticipation of the outcome of the Party's Governance Review, I assumed the role of Committee Secretary, thus taking a little of the pressure off of the professional Party staff. It will become a key role within the workings of the committee, as communication between our committee and, in particular, the Federal Policy Committee will become more important given the IRC's new responsibilities in policy making. The relationship between the two committees will need to be developed, so as to ensure a harmonious partnership rather than a turf war. As a bureaucrat with an eye for the important of stakeholders, I think that I have much to contribute here.

One thing that I think will be important over the next year or so is to evolve our approach towards our European sister parties in the light of Brexit. Assuming that Article 50 is invoked, our delegation to ALDE Party Congresses will have no formal say over the manifesto for the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. That means that we need to take a more conciliatory view, looking to take a more broadly European than narrowly British view. It also means showing a little more self-awareness than some of our delegates have in the past. We need to be seen as helpful, not obstructive.

I am also keen to see us use our international links to explore new policy ideas, sometimes simply referring them onto Federal Policy Committee for their consideration, in appropriate instances developing them further ourselves.

Finally, I am of the view that we need to do much more to engage the wider Party. We've just recruited 20,000 or so new members who joined because of our pro-European, internationalist philosophy. If the International Relations Committee isn't engaging with them, what is it for? I would want the new Committee to be much more visible, speaking at Conference, proposing motions for debate, writing pieces for Party publications and websites such as Liberal Democrat Voice. I have a record of engagement, and am proud of that.

Tomorrow, I'll write about the ALDE Party Council...

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ros in the Lords - Brexit: Environmental and Climate Change Policy

Returning from the summer Recess, Ros was back in action pretty quickly. As the former Chair of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Energy and Environment, you might have expected her to have something to contribute to a debate tabled by Kate Parminter...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)

My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking my noble friend for tabling today’s debate and giving the House an opportunity to debate an aspect of Brexit which was underdiscussed both during the referendum campaign and subsequently.

At the outset, it is worth reflecting on how far we have come in the last 40 years. Occasionally you still hear people of a certain age refer to London as “The Smoke”, which reminds us of what the air quality was like here in our capital just four decades ago. Many people who swam off Britain’s beaches will regale you with horror stories about doing the breaststroke through pools of raw sewage; just last week the Guardian published some pretty gruesome photographs of Blackpool beach 40 years ago, which showed just that. Standards of animal welfare have increased significantly, and measures to reduce the harmful effects of pesticides and fertilisers have had a significant impact.

However, of course there is still a lot to do. The World Health Organization recently warned that dozens of British cities were failing to meet air pollution standards and it is estimated that over 16,000 deaths in 2012 were caused by ambient pollution. Recently, 4.9% of bathing sites in the UK were revealed to have ​poor water quality. We are just beginning to understand the impact of tiny plastic microbeads in our oceans on marine ecosystems. The threat to native species from habitat destruction, alien species, or diseases such as ash dieback is very real. The State of Nature 2016 report found that more than 10% of species are at risk of extinction in the UK and nearly 60% have declined since 1970.

It seems to me that, in reflecting on how we have made the progress we have, we find the pointers to how we will deal with the challenges we have yet to face. It is true that some change has been effected by individuals and organisations who are motivated to do the right thing, and in some cases the power of public opinion alters behaviour. But overwhelmingly, public policy drives change, through fiscal instruments, regulatory measures or by using targets to alter behaviour.

The development of environmental policy in the European Union has taken place over the last 40 years and continues today. In doing so, it has revealed some of the many strengths—and, if we are honest, some of the weaknesses—of a common EU approach. However, it is based on the inarguable logic that most environmental issues are cross-border in character or impact, and are better addressed by co-operative action than unilaterally. The transboundary and sometimes global nature of many environmental issues means that a collective approach is either more efficient or simply essential to address them effectively. Obvious examples apart from climate change include the protection of migratory birds and air and water pollution.

The importance of the single market and its development has also given an impetus to create common EU rules, particularly for environmental and technical product standards, which enables benchmarking and target setting to take place. Negotiating common standards can allow a degree of environmental ambition which would not be available to individual Governments acting alone because of fears about short-term impacts on competitiveness. Common standards also inhibit the possibility of economic advantages accruing to those countries that have lower environmental standards. A further advantage of the EU system is that it has a range of legislative, funding and other policy measures which can work in combination, and of course EU environmental legislation is backed up by hard legal enforcement mechanisms of a kind that is rare in international agreements.

It is also true that the EU has several institutional advantages that other international fora lack. First, contrary to Eurosceptic myths, EU institutions make decisions on a democratic basis, through a process of debate and adoption by both the European Parliament and the Council, which gives them the authority to monitor, report back and enforce binding legislation. The requirement for member states regularly to report on progress has created a culture of transparency which allows citizens to see how their country is performing.

A practical example of that is air quality. Our Supreme Court ruled that the UK was in breach of the 2008 directive, which resulted in the UK Government publishing a new air quality plan last year. I am not ​convinced that British citizens would have known about the scale of the problem or that government would have done anything about it had we not been subject to EU law. Indeed, the breaching of EU quality regulations was cited by Zac Goldsmith as a reason not to extend Heathrow, which shows that even the most ardent Brexiteer is not above praying the EU in aid when it suits their argument.

In the debate about “taking control” very little has been said about what that means for the future of our environment. The outcome closest to where we are now, the so-called soft Brexit, leaves the UK outside the common fisheries and common agricultural policies. I argue that that is a mixed blessing. But both the birds and habitats directives and the bathing water directive would no longer apply, and those policies have provided the backbone of conservation in the EU and have generated significant improvements for species and habitats. Of course, if we were to maintain some sort of access to the single market, we would still have to comply with a whole raft of EU environmental legislation, while having no say in its creation.

However, it looks as though we are heading for hard Brexit, and there is a wide consensus that this will create identifiable and substantial risks to future UK environmental ambitions and outcomes. Either because of political ideology or necessitated by a damaged economy, there is a significant risk that environmental standards will be lowered to seek competitive advantage outside the EU.

As we move towards the date identified by the Prime Minister for triggering Article 50, we should be seeing much more clarity from the Government on the relative priority they intend to give to environmental issues. If the approach is, as we have heard, to keep all the legislation at the point of exit and then to review it as we go along, that seems perfectly sensible, as it will mean that we will not have immediate legal uncertainty and can debate individual elements as time goes on. However, it is worth reading the report, published today, from the House of Lords EU Select Committee, which shows that even this relatively straightforward-sounding approach is not as simple as one might think. In the longer run, there is no reason why we cannot adhere to EU standards, if that is what we agree, but of course we will then fall outside the legal enforcement mechanisms, so we would have to think about how we would do that.

What business needs above all is regulatory certainty, and ironically it is often the slow pace of getting agreement in the EU that provides that certainty. Things, once agreed, are not easy to change. There is now a significant period of uncertainty, which could go on for some years.

Taking control means taking responsibility. We now have to decide as a nation what sort of agriculture we want. Is it about the production of cheap food or do we continue to put value on the environment, landscape and animal welfare? And if we do, are the Government prepared to reframe financial support for farmers to sustain this? What sort of framework do the Government envisage for managing fisheries in a sustainable way, and how do they intend to work with our European neighbours to achieve this?​

The EU sub-committee which I chaired until May produced a report on regional marine co-operation which suggested that national Governments need to do much more in working together for the marine environment. I am afraid that the Government’s response to that was pretty tepid. They will need to rethink that because, outside the EU, that will be the only show in town. In any event, the WTO is about to start discussions on a global fisheries scheme, so taking control may not be as easy as it sounds. In addition, are we going to hold on to the principles enshrined in the habitats directives, and the targets for recycling and ending land-filling?

It seems to me that as we go forward, while we cannot expect detailed answers, especially today, from the Government on how they will tackle all these things, we should expect a sense of how they are going about it. Whom are the Government talking to? Whom are they consulting to identify the risks and opportunities as we go forward? Significantly, from the point of view of this House, how is Parliament to be involved?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A soft-spoken bureaucrat makes an unexpected departure from the schedule

You know how it is. You're minding your own business, catching up with some old friends, when, out of the corner of your eye, you notice that something isn't there. And so it was today with the Constitutional amendment F14, which was intended to introduce a structure for generating party strategy and reporting on its subsequent delivery.

I am, as previously reported, the Secretary of the Party's International Relations Committee. And what I had noticed was that, in the list of new committees, the proposed new Federal International Relations Committee did not appear. Oversight or deliberate strategy I know not, but I did feel that a few polite words from a genteel bureaucrat might be helpful.

Naturally, an entirely uncontroversial constitutional amendment was never going to attract a lot of cards, thus making the prospect of my being called rather higher than usual, and, sure enough, as Mark Pack was called to speak, I was asked to standby. There was a small, nagging problem though. I had no speech prepared.

This does not, traditionally, end well.

But, ironically, a speech that I didn't prepare for is the one that I have preparing for most of my political life. I have always believed that having a strategy is one thing, holding those responsible for its implementation to account is quite another. The proposals require those empowered to report back to us, which requires us to gently prod them if we feel that they aren't doing their job well enough. How could I not support that?

I did rather promise that the missing committee would not seize the opportunity not to participate in the reporting back although, given that my prospects for re-election to the committee are probably rather slight under the new 'One Member One Vote' system for electing our internal committees, it may turn out to be a commitment without personal consequence.

And so, dear reader, I got away with my unusually spontaneous intervention. Who knows, I may do it again one day...

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A new Leader in the Lords... some thoughts from a close observer

So, the count took place, with both candidates and the outgoing Leader present, under the close watch of the Deputy Chief Whip, Christine Humphreys, and I was able to declare the result as being;

Dick Newby 59 votes, Robin Teverson 44 votes

Close, but no cigar, for the former MEP, but it was no disgrace to pick up more than 40% of the votes.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him take on a leadership role in the future.

Dick Newby has been on my radar for more than three decades now, from his SDP days. He, like I, has a Civil Service background, he was predominantly a back room influence but now has the challenging job of leading a Group which is not always easily led.

His first task will be to persuade someone to come forward to assume his former role as Chief Whip, a job which some might say is a bit harder than that of Leader. After all, how do you instil discipline into a group of people who are there for life and who have done or been most things already? Not so much enforcer as persuader.

I will have to get used to a new Leader too. When I first started seeing Ros, Tom McNally was into his third year as Leader. I tended to refer to him as the 'Glorious Leader', at first as a mark of respect, and then, as we got to know each other, out of warmth. Indeed, I still refer to him as 'Glorious Leader' when we occasionally run into each other, adding the suffix 'Emeritus' in deference to the fact that we have had a new Leader since.

Jim Wallace hasn't been in post anywhere near as long as Tom was, and we haven't had as much contact - my relocation to Suffolk makes me a relatively infrequent visitor, and there don't seem to be as many gatherings of the Group and spouses as there were - but he seems nice enough.

And so, we wait to see what a Newby leadership brings. The Group will evolve, and almost certainly shrink too. There are a number of members in their eighties, who may not welcome many more years of service, and with replenishments at the mercy of Theresa May, who I don't think is likely to be generous, the burden of opposition will fall on those who remain. Luckily, the recent intakes of new blood are keen and sharp.

Me, I'll be an occasional visitor to Whips Office, as and when circumstance brings me to Westminster, and I'm sure that Ros will keep me up to date with those stories that she can share. And I wish Dick good fortune. He'll bring his own thoughts to the role, and I'm confident that he'll do everything he can to make the Liberal Democrat voice heard in the Upper Chamber...

Liberal Bureaucracy - ballot counter to the nobility

So, I'm on my way to the big city, on an unseasonably warm September day (it's apparently 33 degrees Celsius in Brentwood as I pass through on the train), to perform one of my more enjoyable roles, that of Returning Officer for the Liberal Democrat Peers, although, in strictness, I'm not the Returning Officer, the Chief Whip is. There is no forelock tugging required, which is good, because I'd have to look up what a forelock is, and it's probably not in the Liberal Democrat guidance for Returning Officers anyway.

Today, I'm counting the ballot papers for the election of the new Leader of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the House of Lords, because, although with only two candidates it is effectively a first past the post election, they rather like to have some external validation. I also come cheap, as I never claim expenses...

The contest is Dick Newby versus Robin Teverson, both of whom would be capable of doing the job, so no fears there. If Dick wins, the Parliamentary Party are in the market for a new Chief Whip, if Robin wins, there might be a vacancy for a Liberal Democrat Chair of one of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committees, as he chairs Ros's old Energy and Environment Committee.

So, I'd better get on, I guess. My quills are sharpened, the parchment is rolled, we're set to go...

Monday, September 12, 2016

Has Dermot Murnaghan forgotten what his job is?

It's a personal rule of thumb that, if a television or radio show includes the name of the presenter, it's intended to be entertaining rather than informative. So, the Morecambe and Wise Show was funny, Weekend World was serious news.

And so, the Dermot Murnaghan/Emily Thornberry exchange over the weekend merely serves to reinforce my theory. Giving the Shadow Foreign Secretary a pop quiz may have seemed vaguely humorous, but it was hardly news. Was it sexist? Possibly, you'd have to ask young Murnaghan that (and actually, why shouldn't he be held accountable for his actions?), but it is an unproven charge.

I suspect that if the tables had been turned, he might not have done at all well either, but it's all a distraction from the things that matter.

For in allowing Emily Thornberry to look vaguely sympathetic, the opportunity to quiz her on such issues as Syria, the next Secretary General of the United Nations, nuclear proliferation, has been overshadowed. And, funnily enough, that's what I assumed Dermot Murnaghan was for.

Her job is to hold the Government to account, and it's rather harder to know whether or not she'd be any better than Boris Johnson if we only get to hear whether or not she can identify the Foreign Minister of Japan. And, even if she can, it isn't that important, as they do change, even as the policies of the nations they represent remain constant(ish).

So, poor form, Mr Murnaghan, try harder and remember what it was that got your name 'in lights' in the first place...