Thursday, June 30, 2016

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Bus Services Bill, Committee Stage (2)

It isn't just about enabling rural communities to get about, because buses are also a means of getting to the countryside, as Ros noted yesterday evening...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)

My Lords, I added my name to this amendment with great pleasure. I have no particular interest to declare with regard to national parks except as someone who visits them and loves them, and I want to make sure that everyone else has those same opportunities as far as possible. I was thinking on the way here about the Peak District National Park, which has, within an hour’s travelling time, very many millions of people who live close to it and for whom access to it is an important part of their lives. I would hate to think about that being an opportunity that is available only to people with cars. That would be a great inequality issue. If we are sensible about this, we should remember that there are people who live in cities who would rather not have a car, so it helps cities too. It would be ridiculous to punish people by not providing access to a treasure that is on their doorstep.

In particular, we have to remember that national parks are not museums. They are areas of the countryside where people live and work, and there is a really interesting tension for the national park authorities themselves between wanting to encourage visitors and managing the impacts of that, such as congestion; we have all seen problems where people park and cause damage and so on. There is a very difficult balancing act for national park authorities. On the whole, they do it extremely well and they act as very good brokers between the people who live there and the people who want to visit. It could only make their job more difficult if they were to be ignored and not consulted when some of these important decisions about local transport are made. They know their area best.

The other point about national parks is that they do not entirely conform to the same rules as some other areas. Bus services on Sundays, for example, are often seen as unimportant, whereas in a national park Sunday is the most important day that you need to provide transport for.

Finally, there is the question of jobs. The briefing that I received said that something like 68,000 jobs are dependent on tourism to national parks. We want ​people to have access to the jobs as well, and if people without cars want to have access to them, we need to manage public transport too. I hope the Minister will look favourably on this, because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that it is much more powerful to have something like this in the Bill rather than in guidance.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Bus Services Bill, Committee Stage

Whilst the rest of Westminster (and beyond) is talking about Brexit and the emerging leadership contests in both the Conservative and Labour Parties, legislating continues in the House of Lords at least.

Ros has been a proponent of transport policy for many years, and this particular bill is especially important to her, offering as it does a chance to improve transport links for those living in rural communities like Creeting St Peter. She isn't terribly impressed by the response of the Government to some of the points that she has already raised though... 

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)

My Lords, I wish to speak to my Amendment 5A, which is in this group. When I reread the Second Reading debate and reflected on the amendments which have been tabled, it struck me very forcefully that a huge number of them relate in some way or other to the question of accessibility, whether that is accessibility of ticketing and information or in terms of proper provision for people with disabilities or people in rural areas or of different age groups. That led me further to think that perhaps the fact that so many amendments are being tabled about accessibility suggests that there is something fundamentally missing in the ambition of the Bill. I have tabled this amendment because it is important sometimes to have aspiration and to say right up-front that this is not just about stopping the decline, as my noble friend said earlier, but about something more than that and about actually improving the standards of services. That is why I have tabled this amendment. Otherwise, there is a danger that it becomes primarily a sort of regulatory and financial Bill that is not underpinned with aspiration.

I am particularly concerned about rural bus provision—coming from a rural area, I guess that that is inevitable. As I said at Second Reading, I can understand why tiny villages like mine no longer have bus services, but we are now in the position where quite sizeable communities no longer have bus services after, say, 6 pm, or at all on Sundays. Some quite large villages now have no bus services at all. The community transport network has, to a large extent, stepped in to meet that provision, but in Suffolk and other local authorities that is under threat, too. I am disappointed not to have received a written response from the Minister’s department to the points I raised at Second Reading, and, specifically, to one which has emerged in Suffolk, where the retendering of community transport in the Mid Suffolk area, where I live, has resulted in passengers no longer being able to use their concessionary bus passes. The noble Lord is an imaginative man, and I am sure he can understand how much distress this has caused people locally. I would like to review this issue in the regulations which say that a nine-seater vehicle cannot be eligible for the use of bus passes. I did raise this, and I would like him to respond—not today probably, but in writing.

My understanding was that we would also have something about rural proofing in time for this stage, and we have not received that either, unless it is in the impact assessment, which I have not had time to read in detail. I have had a look through and have not spotted very much—my noble friend is now indicating there is very little. I think that means there may be some rural issues that we will have to return to on Report, as we clearly cannot deal with them now.

This franchising approach can really deliver for rural areas if we get it right, so I am very positive about the general provision. I have been in contact with people in Jersey, where they brought in a franchising system. They have 80 buses serving a population of 100,000; yet, in that very small pool, they have had an increase of 32% in passenger numbers in the last three years, and, significantly, they have saved £1 million in public subsidies. This shows that this is not just about scale—you can have a win-win situation of saving money and improving accessibility. I do think that, if we get this Bill right, we can deliver that for our rural areas.

I asked the Minister at Second Reading about links with home-to-school transport, which is again significant in rural areas. It is not just about access to education—although, goodness knows, that is the most important reason for the provision of transport to young people—because there is a close relationship between the provision of education bus services and the normal services. However, it goes deeper than that, because local authorities spend a significant amount of money on public transport for pupils, particularly those with special education needs. Young people and children with special educational needs are encouraged to use public transport as a way of preparing them for leading full lives later. Indeed, the Children and Families Act 2014 specifically encourages the giving of bus passes to young people with SEND. Yet in rural areas there are increasingly no buses on which to use the bus passes. For example, Surrey currently spends £25.5 million a year on SEND transport. If we can find a way of bringing some of this together, we can get much better value and improve the services. But there is a fear among community transport and smaller operators that the Bill as drafted is just there for larger companies, and will not help them.

Finally, there is one way I think this might be dealt with. It came to me rather late, and I apologise for that—otherwise, I might have tabled a separate amendment. We do have the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which includes transport services. I wonder whether the Minister could undertake to include reference to this in the guidance to remind local authorities that, using the social value Act, they can take a broader view of the services they provide in terms of placing a value on social as well as financial outcomes.

For the rest of the debate, here's the link to Hansard...

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Europe and the United Kingdom - a pause to reflect

It seems fair to suggest that we've just experienced one of the most depressing and disturbing campaigns in our nation's history. Ironically, the result is one of the least of my concerns in that sense, grim though it is if you're a liberal, internationalist sort of person.

No, with a 52-48 split, you can at least hold on to the possibility of 'buyer's remorse', although I personally wouldn't count on it. You can even entertain the hope that, when push comes to shove, either the European Union will panic and offer the United Kingdom concessions, or that the prime movers of Brexit will blink. Frankly, I'm not getting my hopes up there either. Gove and Johnson have painted themselves into a corner here, and whilst they may think that they can intellectualise their way out, the people they've persuaded aren't likely to be as forgiving, especially with Farage goading them to go further, move faster.

For me, there are worse developments from this campaign.
  1. Migration and the re-emergence of 'acceptable racism'
Is migration an unalloyed good thing? Probably not, if you live in, say, Wisbech. Probably yes, if you live in a multicultural society where there is rather more opportunity, mobility and education. However, the political debate has been couched in terms of dealing with a problem, rather than taking a holistic view of the pluses and minuses. It was understandable that the Conservatives would treat it that way, after all, there has always been a minority in their ranks who see outsiders as the enemy. And, of course, they've spent more and more time trying to fend off the UKIP threat, perhaps not understanding that, by pandering to the extremists, you merely legitimise them.

But, increasingly, Labour have gone the same way. And yes, they risk losing a chunk of their support to UKIP too, given that they've similarly pandered, as the likes of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham have demonstrated in their responses to yesterday's result. The old Labour Party might have seen it as an opportunity to call for an expansion of council house building, or for higher taxes to build new facilities, or a redistribution of public spending to achieve the same ends. But oh no, it's talking about 'what we do about migration'.

Nobody, well nobody relevant anyway, is talking about unrestricted migration. They never did, which is why we have immigration rules, vast swathes of them, that impact on individuals, on families, on business. Heavens, there are times when it seems like Parliament talks of little else.

But the whole idea of freedom of movement within the European Union was that it would be multi-directional, that economies that were doing well would be able to attract people from across Europe to do jobs that needed doing, skilled or unskilled. The expectation was that, as the emerging European economies grew through access to this huge market, their standards of living would improve making it less likely that they would travel and more likely that they could afford to buy our goods and services. A rising tide lifting all boats, if you like. It was about removing barriers and increasing freedom, something that liberals across Europe could support.

The British people have indicated what they think of that as a concept, one must assume. But then, they were given every reason to look darkly upon the idea, by the media, by politicians looking for popular support at the cost of their principles. In that sense, it feels good to be a Liberal Democrat this morning.

It doesn't feel anywhere near as good to be a foreigner in the United Kingdom this morning, I suspect. On my flight to Luxembourg this morning, one young woman said that she'd already been told to go home, doubtless related to her darker skin. And, whilst not all Leave supporters are racist, the ones that are have been emboldened by the result of the referendum to believe that their view is mainstream and, accordingly, acceptable. Outside of our urban centres, there will be a sense of unease amongst our minority communities, and even where voters opted to remain, there will still be an undercurrent of tension. And, for all of Boris's talk of confronting racism, he is a poster child for the easy option, and has to accept his share of the blame for what happens next in terms of community relations.

2. The Advertising Standards Authority isn't going to help you here...

£350 million per week for the NHS? No, that was never promised, says Nigel Farage, confronted with a picture of Boris Johnson standing next to a poster saying that, if you voted to leave, that's what you'd get. And, of course, Nigel never did promise that. He was happy not to deny it until after the vote, but then he wasn't part of the official Vote Leave campaign. It was Boris and Michael who promised that, even though they knew it not to be true.

Heavy restrictions on immigration? No, that isn't going to happen, says Dan Hannan. And, after all, he was promising the Asian community that it would be easier for family members in India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, to come here to visit them. Dan believes that. Strange that he's a member of a political party that doesn't, but nonetheless, he does believe that. Nigel doesn't. He wants you to be scared of them, millions, billions of them coming here, taking your jobs, that sort of thing. He was, of course, lying about that. There is no credible prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, and given developments in Ankara, what prospects there ever were are diminishing fast.

No, we've learnt a valuable lesson here. If you tell enough lies, and you can find enough people willing to believe them, you can win an election, even when it is demonstrated that you've lied. And it's not because people are stupid, it's more that they're ill-informed or, more likely, uninformed. After all, who knew that this stuff mattered?

And how could you campaign against such seductive lies? The truth was multi-layered, complex, not conducive to Twitter-sized rebuttal. Let's be clear here, many pro-Europeans support the concept, not necessarily the actuality. Many of us wanted more democracy, more transparency, more accountability. Ironically, it was British Prime Ministers, amongst others, lest it be forgotten, who stood in the way of a more credible European body politic - subsidiarity was only ever words for too many national leaders. No, the lies, so easily told, were most effective. Winning mattered, apparently, rather more than what might happen next.

So, we are where we are. It's not necessarily where we thought we'd be, and one has a growing sense that it isn't where the Vote Leave leadership thought they would be either. The calls for informal talks (with whom exactly, over what precisely?) prior to submitting an Article 50 request, smack of bet hedging. Perhaps they always meant to use a Leave vote as a bargaining chip? But did those who voted Leave see it the same way? You'll pardon me if I'm unconvinced...

I'm a long marcher. I didn't join the Liberal Party in the expectation that it would sweep to power, nor do I expect the liberal cause to sweep the country in response to this referendum result. But change is often not what those driving it intend, so I'm going to wait and see how this plays out. And when the dust clears, we can start to fight for what we believe in.

In the meantime, we need some core principles to articulate. Here are my thoughts.

1. We believe that the United Kingdom is better off working with others to solve our common problems. That means being part of multinational groupings and, as necessary, pooling sovereignty to do so.

2. We believe in opportunity and freedom, and that in order to advance that, we may have to offer the same to others.

3. We believe that change has to come with consent, and that this means properly explaining what is being done in the name of the people.

I'm sure that other, cleverer, people can come up with something better, more thorough. But it feels right to me at this point, and it offers something for most people, which is better than the Punch and Judy stuff that seems so prevalent at the moment.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Want to be a European Parliamentary Candidate? Not approved yet? You had better get a move on...

There is an article on the Party website encouraging members to apply to be candidates for the Party. It is, obviously, the sort of thing that I approve of. At the end, it notes that the advert for the European Parliamentary selection will be published almost immediately after the Referendum.

What it doesn't say is that applications are currently scheduled to close on 22 July, and that, if Article 17 of the Selection Rules is to be believed (and trust me, as a Returning Officer, it will be), applicants must be approved European candidates by that date.

This offers an interesting challenge, as I wonder how many Regional Candidates Chairs have made provision for candidate development days to deal with a late rush of applications for approval...

I also have a nasty feeling about the eligibility of all of those who joined the Party after the General Election, whose renewal date is 31 July.

However, I'm sure that the powers that be (English Candidates Committee) thought about this when setting the schedule for the selection. They did, didn't they?...

Monday, June 13, 2016

@BaronessRos in the Lords - EU: Energy Governance (EUC Report)

Despite the fact that Ros is no longer the Chair of the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment sub-committee, the work done under her leadership still rumbles on, partly due to scheduling delays, as she notes in the speech that follows.

In her speech earlier today, she noted the paucity of the Government's response to her Committee's report...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)

My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity this evening to debate the sub-committee’s report on energy union governance. It is some six months since our report was published, although having just heard that the Digital Skills Committee has waited some 16 months for its debate, perhaps I should not grumble as much as I thought I would. However, I make the general point that Members of this House put a huge amount of effort into Select Committee reports, the staff work extremely hard, and outside witnesses and organisations take a great interest in the work we do, so it is a great pity when the House does not find time to debate these closer to publication. Nevertheless, I am pleased to be able to present the report this evening.

For any Government, nothing is more important than keeping the lights on, but we are trying to maintain a supply which is not only secure but affordable for consumers, whether they are individuals or businesses, and which is environmentally sustainable. That challenge—that trilemma—has focused minds on the benefits of co-operation as a means of achieving those goals, and the EU energy union is one vehicle for that co-operation.

I have had the privilege of chairing the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee for three years, and I can honestly say that it has been the most rewarding and fulfilling experience I have had in my 16 years in this House. But now I have, sadly, been rotated off. It is a painless but not entirely pleasant experience, and I shall miss the work a good deal. The members of the committee have always been immensely supportive, and one of the great joys of the work is that we have never been hampered by discussions or debates of a political nature. Our debates are robust at times but have always focused on the issues, and are all the better for that. I therefore extend my sincere thanks to each current member of the committee and to those who, like me, have been rotated off.

I also place on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, the chairman of the European Union Committee. His leadership, encouragement and personal support have been a great help to me. My noble friend Lord Teverson, who I see in his place, has now taken up the position of chairman of the committee and I have no doubt that he will enjoy the experience as much as I have and bring to it his great knowledge of the wide range of subject areas covered by the sub-committee. He served in the European Parliament and previously chaired an EU sub-committee. I wish him well. He, like all of us in this House, will be supported by efficient, knowledgeable and highly-skilled staff, whose commitment to our work, and indeed to the House, is absolute.

As your Lordships may know, the remit of the sub-committee includes agriculture, fisheries, environment, energy and climate change. The subject of the short report for debate this evening is firmly within the realm of energy. It is clear to most of us that energy policy in the 21st century cannot be formed from an isolationist perspective. The European Commission’s energy union strategy recognises this reality and attempts to ensure that Europe has a secure, affordable and low-carbon supply of energy. It aims to deliver energy security, reduce emissions and provide a better deal for consumers, and uses energy efficiency measures, the completion of the internal energy market and research and innovation to deliver this. An agreed EU energy governance framework will be essential to underpin the relationships between the EU institutions on the one hand and member states on the other. Such a framework will seek to meet the energy policy objectives of both the EU and member states but also to respect member states’ national sovereignty.

Before I go on to speak about the report itself I will make one or two comments about the background to it. The committee’s report was published in December and was the result of a short inquiry following a stakeholder seminar and a ministerial evidence session, as well as written submissions. The inquiry was timely; the European Commission published the first state of the energy union report last November and is expected to bring forward legislative proposals on energy governance later this year. Our report offers some thoughts and recommendations ahead of those legislative proposals. I extend my thanks to the specialist adviser to the inquiry, Antony Froggatt, whose comments and guidance on complex and rather technical matters were invaluable.

Our report called on the European Commission to ensure that the proposals for a future energy governance framework include legal clarity, a respect for member state sovereignty, a strong focus on security of supply, a commitment to the consumer, real ambition for decarbonisation, and increased regional co-operation. Indeed, we argue that the EU-wide binding 2030 renewables target will not be delivered unless it is backed up by a monitoring and enforcement mechanism which acts as a guarantor for the agreement and ensures that member states share the effort equitably.

The European Commission response was received on 3 March and was largely supportive. The UK Government’s response to the report was received on 29 February and was accompanied by a covering letter from Andrea Leadsom. It would be fair to say that the response has focused on current UK Government policy and the domestic measures which are already in place. In many cases the response simply avoids commenting on specific EU-level conclusions and recommendations. Overall, it lacks detail and comprehensive engagement with the arguments put forward by the report. I fear that this is due to current circumstances and that the Government are nervous about saying much at all because of the way things stand now. Nevertheless, I will make four points and I will be grateful if the Minister could reply to them at the end of the debate.

In paragraph C of the response, the Government avoid commenting on the report’s headline recommendation that the Commission should be able to propose new measures to guarantee existing EU-level commitments. The response contains a broad statement that agrees with the streamlining of reporting requirements. However, we argue that given the political importance of the EU-wide binding renewables target of 27% by 2030, it is noteworthy that there is no elucidation of the Government’s position. While we know that the Government are sceptical of the sort of enforcement measures proposed by the Commission, we would have hoped for some real engagement with the recommendation, even if only to disagree with it and to suggest what an alternative might look like.

In paragraph B the Government are silent on the committee’s recommendation that they should be transparent, timely and comprehensive in reporting their own progress against each of the dimensions of the energy union. Can the Minister say what the Government’s policy on this is?

In paragraph D the Government comment on bringing forward new renewable support schemes to bring forward additional offshore wind generation. However, they seem to have confused ongoing industry support with the more important need to maintain investor confidence through long-term and consistent policies. This point about investor confidence was a major theme in the committee’s 2013 report No Country is an Energy Island, and its conclusions are as valid now as they were then.

Finally, the Government’s comments on capacity markets are at odds with the view of the sub-committee in a number of areas. The sub-committee recommended that there should be a common framework at EU level to assess the need for and the means of achieving adequacy standards which secure availability of supply without escalating prices to consumers. The Government appear to disagree, arguing that this is a political decision that cannot take place until the internal energy market is completed. In fact, in the sub-committee’s view this is a technical task and would contribute to the completion of the internal market. The Commission agrees with the sub-committee that a common framework within the EU should be developed. Therefore are the Government really opposed to common adequacy standards? On measuring generation adequacy, the Government seem to agree with a common methodology at EU level but also seem to want national assessments. There seems to be an inconsistency here. Finally, on energy storage and demand-side measures the report argues that they should be given equal access to domestic capacity markets. The Government point out that these are already eligible to participate in the capacity market but do not comment on the inequality which we have highlighted.

I have one final point about the UK Government’s overall approach to regional co-operation. The previous report authored by the sub-committee on regional marine co-operation, The North Sea Under Pressure, 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 management of the North Sea basin, and we argued for the re-establishment of a North Sea Ministers’ conference. This recommendation was rejected by government on the grounds that such co-operation was taking place elsewhere. I fear that our calls have fallen on deaf ears. Last week the Vice-President for Energy Union and the Commissioner for Climate Action, with Ministers from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, signed a political declaration and action plan on North Sea co-operation. The declaration will facilitate the building of missing electricity links and allow more trading of energy and further integration of energy markets. Reinforcing regional co-operation will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve security of supply.

The UK was, sadly, absent. The announcement, like much these days, was reported on Twitter and there were lots of comments asking, “Where’s the union jack?”. I fear I know the answer to that but, even if the UK felt that in the current circumstances it was not able to be highly visible, I would like to think that we are engaged in this process. After all, if that well-known maritime nation Luxembourg thought that it was worth while attending and co-operating, it would seem very odd for the UK not to be there. The benefits of co-operating and the savings that come from it are enormous, so it really makes sense to do so.

Energy is crucial for all of us and the objective of secure, affordable and low-carbon energy can be aided by co-operation across borders. The EU has a really important role to play in bringing member states together, whether in a legislative framework or in a spirit of voluntary co-operation. The UK Government need to do more to demonstrate that they are serious about leading in this endeavour, whatever the outcome of 23 June.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A good day for @breckland... how to respond when something goes wrong.

So, what was the mysterious parcel that UK Mail decided was so important it had to be delivered in the middle of the night?

Ros and I had been out and stopped for a light lunch. Allards, in Stowupland, do a very nice bacon roll, so we ordered one each, plus something to drink. I had a pot of tea, whilst Ros went for the strawberry and rhubarb 'Posh Pop' from a company called Breckland Orchard. It went down rather well, so well indeed that we decided to order some for home delivery - it makes an interesting alternative to wine on a pleasant summer's evening.

And so the order was made, and the delivery arranged.

After the delivery, Ros rang Breckland Orchard to raise the issue, and they were genuinely apologetic. It wasn't their fault, clearly, but they took responsibility, offering to apologise to our next door neighbour, and throw in some free products for her. They also contacted her to apologise in person.

I am suitably impressed that a small business should take such trouble. They could have washed their hands of a problem not of their own making, especially given that no reasonable person could blame them for the incompetence of a delivery company employed by a third party - they deliver through a collective website which services a number of small food and drink producers. But they didn't.

So, a round of applause for Breckland Orchard. And, just so that you know, their Plum and Cherry squash is really very good indeed...

Thursday, June 09, 2016

A night to forget for @officialUKMail...

I had ordered something to be delivered to the house. Not such a complex task, I thought, although I acknowledge that our home isn't as easy to find as it could be. You see, we live in a village where most houses have names, not numbers. To make matters worse, our house is set back from the road, behind other houses. Accordingly, I give pretty good directions, and always supply my mobile phone number so that the person making the delivery can call me if all else fails.

I'm not an ogre, after all...

And so, when I received a voice mail yesterday afternoon, asking for more information about my address, I wasn't entirely surprised. I called back, in a spirit of helpfulness - I wanted my delivery to arrive safely - to be told that the goods had been delivered already. "So why was I being asked for more information?", I asked. "I don't know,", was the reply, "but I'll find out and get back to you.". So far, so not entirely impressive, but these things do happen.

It was mid-morning when Ros called. Apparently, the delivery had been made. At 1.45 a.m. To our next door neighbour.

It would be fair to say that she was not impressed. I can't say that I was either. I rang the number in Ayr that had contacted me the day before. They were somewhat surprised, but were keen to wash their hands of the matter, suggesting that I talk to the supplier of the goods. Luckily, Ros had already done that. I, meanwhile, expressed a degree of dismay that the person making the delivery should choose to do so at such an ill-judged time, to a village without street lights. Explanation was there none.

It seems that someone at UK Mail is under the impression that they can deliver whenever they feel like it, and that if that means waking up random strangers unconnected to their task in the process, so be it.

Perhaps I am supposed to be impressed that someone could find my next-door neighbour's house at 1.45 a.m. in pitch darkness, walk across the gravel, wake them up and set off their security lights. It could, of course, all be part of their service.

Somehow, I suspect that it isn't...

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

@BaronessRos in the Lords: Bus Services Bill

Ros has, over the years, been quite critical of Government efforts to interfere with the way buses and bus services are regulated. However, the current proposals offer some cause for optimism.

She wasn't going to let slip an opportunity to condemn what Suffolk Conservatives are doing to a service which has hitherto been pretty successful...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, it is 16 years almost to the day since I made my maiden speech in this House. At the time I was chair of the Local Government Association transport executive, so it was quite natural to make my debut in the Second Reading debate of the Transport Bill 2000. Nowadays, I am that rare being in your Lordships’ House, a vice-president of the LGA. I declare that interest.

The 2000 Act was a wide-ranging piece of legislation and contained an extensive section on the bus industry that was based on a big piece of work, From Workhorse to Thoroughbred: A Better Role for Bus Travel. It was intended to be a major advance for the bus industry. Sadly, it is now available only on the National Archives website. Clearly, it failed in its ambitions because, as we have heard, the bus industry as a whole is in some trouble.

The 2000 Act created a quality partnerships and contract framework which, if we are honest, was not fit for purpose. It omitted the two single most important things for passengers: the fares they pay and the frequency of the buses. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw and I argued at the time that what was needed was a franchising model more on the lines of London, which gave local authorities all the powers that they needed, including enforcement. It is worth reflecting on some work done by the campaign group Greener Journeys, which highlights that average traffic speeds in our cities have now fallen below 10 mph. This of course creates a vicious circle: as the buses slow down, people stop using them and get into cars, which then makes the problem worse.

The point about London that we made then, and which still applies now, is that it is expensive; it costs money to run a franchising scheme like that. My big fear is that by bringing forward this scheme now, when local authorities are in such trouble financially, may doom it to fail because there simply is not the money to do it. Yet, when you look at the figures in London, passenger journeys have increased by 227% since the mid-1980s. If we were able to somehow monetise that in terms of the savings in time, congestion, air quality and so on, it would probably prove to have been good value for money—but that is not the world that we live in.

The Urban Transport Group made the point that the previous legislation, the 2000 Act, was so complex as to be virtually undeliverable—a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. It was inevitable that deregulation would result in an emphasis on profit-making routes at the expense of low-income or non-income generating routes. Bus operators are businesses after all and we need them to be successful. It fell to local authorities to subsidise routes where they felt that there was a social value. These routes are now being lost in very large numbers as local authorities become ever more strapped for cash. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, a total of £22.2 million has been cut from supported bus funding in the current year. One in five supported bus services has been cut back since 2010; that is a picture that we recognise right across the country.

Living in rural Suffolk, I see at first hand all the problems that have been highlighted by the Campaign for Better Transport and the Campaign to Protect Rural England and in an excellent report produced by Age UK that has powerful testimony on the impacts of transport poverty. Older people are more dependent on public transport for access to medical appointments, shopping and even the simple human activity of keeping in touch with friends and family. Younger people, too, are struggling with access to transport to look for work or to get to appointments at job centres. There are even instances of people being sanctioned when they have not kept appointments because the transport does not exist. Low-income groups are more reliant on public transport: nationally they make three times as many journeys by bus as those in the highest income groups. As we have also heard, 60% of people with a disability have no car in their household. The situation is bad for anyone in these groups, but for people in these groups living in rural areas, the situation is dire. I would like to hear whether any rural-proofing has been done on these proposals.

I understand that we have to be realistic about financial realities. Indeed, after I was first elected to Suffolk County Council in 1993, we carried out a review of sponsored bus services and found a surprising number where the per-passenger subsidy was significantly higher than a taxi fare would have been—well, you cannot go on like that. When my now-husband first came to visit me in my tiny Suffolk village nine years ago, he assumed, as a Londoner, that he would just get a bus from the station. I had to explain that in my village, real-time passenger information says “Thursday”. We do not even have that nowadays, and I can understand why.

What we do have is a rather good demand-responsive community transport system called Suffolk Links, which has recently been used in a case study published by Passenger Focus. But even that is now being seriously impacted by budget cuts and the situation has deteriorated in the short time between the report being produced and published. Suffolk County Council announced a new contract just two weeks ago which has removed the ability of pensioners to use their concessionary passes because it has reduced the vehicle size to a nine-seater, which takes it outside the scope of the concessionary fare scheme. What a shoddy trick to pull on pensioners, and I really hope that the Minister will undertake to have a look at those regulations so that we can bring them back into scope.

Like a number of other noble Lords, I am less than clear about the powers that will go to non-mayoral areas as a result of the Bill. I had understood that franchising powers would automatically go to mayoral areas and that the others would have to go through some sort of application process. But there seems to be some confusion about that so I would appreciate clarity. It is absolutely essential that the regulations are clear and well understood so that local authorities do not embark on a process of expensive work that is doomed to fail from the start because they will not meet the criteria.

I would like to raise a new issue which I do not think anyone has mentioned yet: home-to-school transport. Cuts to school bus services are now generating 100 million extra car journeys every year, according to the Campaign for Better Transport, which also says that 300,000 children outside London have lost their school transport since 2008. Obviously, this is a major access issue in rural areas, but it also impacts on the viability of bus operators because many of them rely on school contracts and use the normal service buses for short periods of time every day during term time.

The provisions in the Bill that relate to passenger information are significant and very welcome. If you want to travel from somewhere to Needham Market—you would, would you not? It is a wonderful place—it is not at all easy to find out how to do that. The rail industry has nailed that. It is still rubbish on tickets and clarity of pricing but at least you can find out how to get from one place to another. It is key for passengers to have this information so that they can use public transport with confidence. It is also essential at a more technical level, if franchising is going to work properly for both the operators and local authorities, to really understand the data about how bus services are being used and how they make money.

When I was heavily involved in transport matters, we had a major problem with the competition authorities. I would like confirmation from the Minister that the department is confident that this issue has been sorted. Basically, the competition authorities stopped public transport operators talking to each other. When I was dealing with this in Suffolk, I could not get local bus operators together in the same room because they were so paranoid that they were going to fall foul of anti-competition laws. Clearly, if the sharing of data and so on is going to work, operators have to be confident that they can do it.

The future for bus services across large parts of England is pretty bleak unless we do something fairly dramatic. The Department for Transport’s own figures predict that by 2040 bus journeys will have dropped faster than journeys by any other form of transport. This could severely impact England’s rural and vulnerable populations, and increase congestion and CO2. It is an enormous task to halt this decline. Whether or not the Bill can do it remains to be seen, but it is a step in the right direction. I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward. It is absolutely right that it has started its life in this House because there are things that we can do to improve it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Baroness Hamwee - a cause for celebration

I have, in the past, noted my respect (and not a little affection) for Sally Hamwee. She has been a key figure within the Parliamentary Party in the House of Lords, a valued President of the London Regional Party and, put simply, a nice person. She made my time as a member of the Regional Executive a little more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been. And, it should be noted, she and Ros worked closely together as frontbenchers over a period of years. Yes, I like the noble Baroness.

And so, when Ros mentioned that we had been invited to a gathering to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of her arrival in the House of Lords, I was at first surprised that it had been that long, and then keen to attend myself. It also meant that I could wear a favourite old jacket that now fits again, and renew old and valued acquaintances. What could be better?

The sun was shining, and Ros and I had drunk coffee before wandering over to the Liberal Democrat corner of the Lords, where nibbles and something to drink had been laid on, and the Parliamentary Party had gathered to mark the occasion. There was a speech by the Leader, Jim Wallace, saying how valued she was, and then Sally was prevailed upon to say a few words, before applause broke out.

It was a really pleasant evening, and whilst Jim Wallace did offer a toast to another twenty-five years, I would rather that she had an opportunity to do all of those things that she would rather like to do. She owes the Party nothing at this point - I might instead suggest that the Party rather owes her a debt of gratitude for being such a great proponent of liberal ideas and a keen observer of the all-important detail that bedevils bad legislation. It should also noted how effective she has been in the Home Affairs brief, a combination of sound legal knowledge and innate liberalism.

Thank you, Sally, it's been great. And so have you...

A late night encounter with Mr Grumpy

Nearly ten o'clock on a Monday evening, a rail replacement bus service awaits to convey me from Colchester to Ipswich. I get on the coach (a very nice one, I must say) and look down the vehicle. Every pair of seats has one person in them and so, noticing that there's a spare seat in the front row, I politely ask the person occupying the aisle seat, his briefcase occupying the other seat, if I could take it. He looks at me. He looks over his shoulder down the coach. He looks at me again, as if to say, "why are you bothering me?".

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI stand my ground. I'd quite like to sit at the front, and the seat isn't occupied, much as though he'd like it to stay that way. Eventually, with agonising slowness, he gathers himself together, evidently hoping that I might still give up and go elsewhere. I don't. He gets up, makes room, and I settle in the corner, placing my bags in front of me and my iPad on the shelf in front of us. He sits down again, struggles with the seatbelt. He is not happy.

We don't talk...

In the course of the journey, a passenger approaches the driver to ask if he'll drop him off in the Ipswich suburbs. No dice. My neighbour makes some comment, to which the other passenger responds jokingly. It doesn't go down well.

On arrival in Ipswich, we get off of the coach. Further words are exchanged, hostile ones on the part of my neighbour. I leave him in his unhappiness at the world.

He really must be very unhappy...

Monday, June 06, 2016

When retailers fail: feeling a little bit like a vulture (a slightly better dressed vulture, but nonetheless...)

I was reading my newspaper yesterday, perusing the business section, when I came across an article which noted that all of the Austin Reed stores would be closing. Now, I admit, I've never shopped there, but it was a chain that I knew of, albeit the prices were above what I'd normally pay - I've never been extravagant when it comes to my wardrobe.

And my first thought was, "there'll be some decent savings to be had". I noted my diary to drop into the Ipswich store midweek to see what might be had, especially as I need a few new things what with my recent weight loss and all.

However, today, I had an unexpected opportunity to do a little shopping, as I was in London anyway, with a little time to kill. So, I made my way to the Austin Reed at the bottom of Regent Street, emblazoned with closing down posters, and had a look around.

As I did so, I encountered an employee, possibly a little older than myself, who looked somewhat glum, and it reminded me that, when a large company fails, it's the ordinary workers who suffer the worst blow. I felt a mite guilty, coming into the store in search of a bargain.

Now, it is true that, by buying goods, even those marked down, I am helping to generate funds that might go towards redundancy payments, and might even help a potential rescuer by giving them cause to salvage something, some jobs, from the wreckage. It might not be much consolation for the employee.

Of course, it could be that Austin Reed never stood a chance. Britons buy more online than the citizens of other European countries, and retail outlets reliant on in-store purchases are competing in a shrinking market. But I'm an old-fashioned soul, I like to see and feel the merchandise before I buy. I like shops.

The market is often cyclical though. As supermarkets moved away from personal service in the 1970s and 1980s, so they returned to cheese counters and fishmongers in the last decade. Perhaps we'll see a similar cycle in our purchases of clothes. One can only hope...

Sunday, June 05, 2016

@unlockdemocracy - it may only be one vote, but it's precious to me...

Yesterday, the postman brought a largish envelope from Electoral Reform Services, containing my ballot paper for the election of a new Council for Unlock Democracy. I am reminded that time flies, having opened the envelope only to find that most of the names are relatively unfamiliar. Given that I was not only on Council myself, but was even a member of the Management Board until four years ago, that might come as a surprise to some.

And so, I have the challenge of deciding how to cast my vote. Ruling out those who haven't managed to submit a manifesto - sorry, but that must surely be a minimum requirement - as well as those whose political views appear to contradict the aims of the organisation, leaves me with a gratifyingly long list.

In order to find out a little more about them, I've asked those on the list a question via e-mail;
Is it ever right to personalise a campaign by attacking individuals, as the UD Lords Reform campaign has tended to do, and if so, when and why?
And for those candidates who didn't supply an e-mail address, please assume that you will be ranked further down my preference list than those who did. It's a participatory democracy, and if you don't want us to play, you might not be entering into the spirit of the thing...

I await some answers... and reserve the right to ask follow-ups...

@BaronessRos in the Lords - Queen's Speech Debate, Day 4

Day 4 of the debate on the Gracious Speech, as the Queen's Speech is referred to in the Lords, saw attention turn to proposals on home, legal, constitutional and devolved affairs. Ros wanted to address the contradiction between the will to devolve significant areas of civic life to the voluntary sector, and the means supplied...

Like my noble friend Lady Barker, I will speak on the relationship between the Government and the charity sector. It is worth starting with the reflection that charities contribute around £12.2 billion to the UK economy and that on top of the millions of people who volunteer on a regular basis around 827,000 people are actually employed in the sector, which is about 3% of the total workforce of the UK. The relationship between the Government and the charity sector is an important one that the Government should take care to get right. All too often we see a lack of understanding in Westminster and Whitehall about the way the sector works, and a tendency to impose change rather than work with it.

The gracious Speech contained reference to a new statutory framework to be set up to deliver the National Citizen Service. I urge the Government to work very closely with the sector on this, because it will not be easy to get it right. Charities cannot just absorb large quantities of volunteers—they need professional staff to train and manage them. In fact, many charities do not lend themselves to the way the NCS will operate. We want volunteering to be a positive experience. That means that we need to take care to match the individual and the organisation. Local volunteers’ centres can be brilliant at doing this, but they have been closing fast due to funding cuts. The whole point of the big society is that it works best when it is small.

Lately, we have seen from government a strategy of announcement, furore and then withdrawal: the PIP changes announced and dropped, outcry at the anti-advocacy clause, and now sending elements of housing benefit reform back to review. Members have marched through the Lobbies, Conservative MPs go on the airwaves to defend the indefensible, and then the Government change their mind. I am not going to lose sleep over the difficulties that that causes for the Conservative Party, but what troubles me is what it says about the Government’s attitude to the voluntary sector.

Coming back to the anti-advocacy clause, Answers to Written Questions from my noble friend Lady Barker show that the Government could offer no evidence of the use of government grants to fund lobbying activities. I know that it is radical, and perhaps I am naive to expect evidence-based policy, but really—no evidence? Do not get me wrong: charities should be scrutinised and appropriately regulated, but the Government should not give the impression that problems exist where they do not. The damage to the sector in the long term will harm all of us.

The governance of charities is in the spotlight more than it has ever been. That is only right. Regardless of whether charities’ income comes from taxpayers through the award of contracts, or from the philanthropy of individuals currently giving around £19 billion a year, they have a right to expect good standards of governance. The NCVO has done a good job in responding to issues such as inappropriate fund raising, while the collapse of Kids Company demonstrates that no matter how good the cause, or how charismatic the leader, not only do trustees have to take their responsibilities seriously but public bodies need to do more to assure themselves that the standards of governance of those to whom they award contracts is in good order.

Traditionally, charities funded their work through donations and grants. That is still the perception. However, over the last decade that has transformed. Charities earn more of their income—55 pence out of every pound in income now comes from providing services or from trading. There are around 163,000 charities in the UK, with a total income approaching £44 billion. Around £15 billion of that comes from working with government. This was increasing between 2000 and 2010, driven by the voluntary sector delivering more contracts. However, as public spending has reduced, charities are now receiving less.

The last time I spoke about this issue in your Lordships’ House two years ago I expressed my concerns about public commissioning and procurement practices. They tend to be focused more on the way the private sector works and do not tend to favour small local enterprises of any kind. I ask the Minister to ask the Commissioning Academy to take more heed of this. The doctrine of economies of scale is driving out innovation and local flexibility. It increases risk and deters new entrants from the market.

The UK boasts a strong and vibrant civil society. Charities are at the heart of that. This core is incredibly diverse, with an army of volunteers and staff providing help and support to individuals and communities nationally and overseas. If the Government truly want to deliver the aspiration of improving life chances outlined in the gracious Speech, they will not do so without the charity sector.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Creeting St Peter: learning how to clean road signs...

There are only two ways out of the village by road, Creeting Lane to the north towards Stowupland, and Pound Road which runs south before reaching a T-junction (left for Creeting St Mary and Needham Market, right for Cedars Park, Stowmarket and the A14).

And, as you enter the village, there are signs identifying it, above which are 30 mph speed limit signs. One of the two at the south end has been annoying me for some time, as it has been covered with green slime all winter. Today, in my capacity as Parish Councillor and concerned citizen, I decided to change that.

My first job was to cut back some of the tree growth that was obscuring it and, in the knowledge that I would have to pass it on my way to get my morning newspaper, I took a pair of secateurs with me. A quick trim, and the sign was clear of obstructions. Naturally, I tweeted the fact that I was tidying it up. It still looked awful though.

Liberal Democrat Party President, Sal Brinton, thought so too, and wanted to see what it looked like once I'd finished. And so, armed only with a washing-up sponge and a pump action plant sprayer filled with warm, soapy water, I set to work.

Actually, it did the job, and whilst I'm not convinced that the washing-up liquid actually has much effect other than to complicate matters, the slime came off nicely. So, I did the reverse side as well - it's the "National speed limit applies" sign - just to complete the job.

I think that it's come up quite nicely, although the sunshine helps, doesn't it?...

@gdnmembership - are you ever going to give up with the begging letters?

This morning, I received an e-mail from Guardian Members, asking for my support. I used to be a Guardian reader. Yes, I admit it. I'm a liberal, internationalist and socially aware, the very sort of person who fits the stereotypical Guardian reader profile.

However, a few years ago, I gave it up. "Why?", I hear you ask. Because it had become really annoying. Bloody Polly Toynbee didn't help, with her usual "this Liberal Democrat idea is a good one, vote Labour" shtick, but it had become, how can I put this, too worthy, too right-on. And so I switched to the Times.

"The Times? A Murdoch paper? But why?"

I know, evil tax dodger, too happy to tell us what we should be doing but not committed enough to actually bear the consequences by living here. And yes, the Times has an agenda. But I know what that agenda is, and retain sufficient critical faculties to be able to filter what it reports through my own liberal sensitivities.

However, the Guardian refuses to leave me alone. I get, through various channels, repeated begging messages, asking me to support Guardian Media Group by giving it money. I will be frank, if I wanted to give them money, I would buy the newspaper. I choose not to, which perhaps should be a hint.

So, accordingly, I've pressed the "unsubscribe from all" button today, following the link from the e-mail. Ah well, that's one more job out of the way...

Friday, June 03, 2016

Creeting St Peter - a return to the Parish Council

In the midst of the hubbub of my unsuccessful campaign to be elected as a District Councillor for Barking and Somersham, the resignation of the Chair of our Parish Council, not only as Chair but as a Councillor full stop, created an unexpected vacancy.

It was suggested that I might put myself forward, given the changes in the make-up of the council, and I decided that, if I was likely to be welcome, I would do so. It turned out that I was, and so, on 16 May, having raced from the Annual Parish Meeting at Offton and Willisham, I arrived at the Church Room at the end of The Lane, slightly breathless.

Having caught my breath, a somewhat easier task now that I'm a couple of stones lighter, the relevant agenda item was moved, having been postponed pending my arrival, and after a brief speech by me to say how pleased I was to have an opportunity to serve my village again, my co-option was passed unanimously. They had also held back the appointments to outside bodies, and I was promptly put back onto the Stowmarket and District Road Safety Committee. I also share duties as our representative at the local Suffolk Association of Local Councils group with our new Chair, Machala Peecock.

Do you know something? It's good to be home...

"Connecting Communities" - a better service at a lower cost, says our Conservative County Councillor...

At last month's meeting of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, I raised an issue under 'Any Other Business', having been newly co-opted (and I'm really pleased to be back), i.e. the new demand responsive transport service for Mid Suffolk, which comes into effect on Monday week.

The new contract is a worry, for a range of reasons. Funding for the service is to be cut each year for the next five years, and one of the side effects of the change to smaller vehicles is that bus passes will not be valid - a real blow for the rural elderly who face potential isolation. Fares have also gone up due to the withdrawal of return fares - my daily return journey will rise in cost from £2.60 to £4.00. We are also yet to see what effect the combination of three free-standing services into one combined one will have on vehicle availability.

I merely noted that the impact of the new contract would need to be monitored, when our County Councillor, Gary Green came up with the line that is the title of this post. It was a familiar line, in that it was the line spoken by the County Council's Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport when the new package was announced. He is, as ever, on message.

I did wonder at the time of that announcement how you could cut the costs of the contract so dramatically without there being some impact on passengers, and now we know. The service providers now provide their own vehicles - they previously used vehicles supplied by the County Council - so the risks are now placed solely upon the contractor. The existing staff have had their contractual hours reduced, which implies that there will be less cover for sickness and holidays. And, as noted above, the elderly will use the right to use their bus passes.

My fear is that, if the elderly abandon the service, or use it less, it will become less and less viable, to the point where the County Council can walk away from providing such a service all together, a fierce blow to the small villages dotted across Mid Suffolk.

For me, the increase in the fare will be a hit to the pocket, but one that I, at least, can afford. I'm not sure that most of my fellow passengers will be able to be quite so sanguine...