Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ros in the Lords - Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society (Charities Committee Report)

As you might expect, Ros has been keeping busy since standing down as Chair of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Energy and Environment, and as part of that, served on an ad-hoc Committee on Charities, chaired by Baroness Pitkeathley.

Whilst the charitable sector responded almost immediately to the findings of the report, the Government was rather slower to come up with a reply, leading to a lengthy delay in debating the subject. Ros was keen to take the opportunity to talk about some of the things happening here in Suffolk...

My Lords, I start by drawing the attention of the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register, particularly as a trustee of Community Action Suffolk and a member of the advisory board of the NCVO. It is a pleasure to participate in today’s debate, and to be able to do so having had to wait such a long time for the Government to respond. In contrast, the ink had barely dried on our report before the sector nationally began deciding how best to implement the recommendations. 
During 2015 and 2016, the charity sector came under intense scrutiny as a result of the fundraising issues brought to light after the death of Olive Cooke, the collapse of Kids Company and the introduction of new rules on lobbying. My strong feeling is that, during that time, both government and Parliament got the tone wrong. Of course it was right to expect a serious response from the sector to these problems, and for it to learn from them and prevent them happening again. However, there were times when the dialogue was over-confrontational and left the whole sector feeling as though it was taking the blame for the problems caused by a few. Dialogue should be robust, yes, but not confrontational, and it should be respectful of the amazing job that charity groups do in our society. 
I am pleased that the committee decided to focus on the needs of smaller charities: 167,000 registered charities have incomes under £100,000 a year and they make up three out of every four charities. While many of our recommendations and conclusions apply equally to charities of all size, the real difference is the capacity of smaller charities to make the changes that they need to in order to thrive in an increasingly challenging environment. We pondered whether there are just too many small charities, although I do not subscribe to that view. The whole sector is about service—people spot a need and they try to fill it, often showing ​immense passion, commitment and dedication to do so. That is what makes the charity sector so wonderful, so vibrant and so inspiring. 
I agree that new charities should be encouraged to take a long, hard look at whether someone else is doing similar work, and the point of application to the Charity Commission is a useful reminder to do so. I also agree that trustees should be encouraged to regularly review whether the original need still exists and, crucially, whether they are meeting it. I welcome the Charity Commission’s commitment to look further at its guidance on mergers and the need to make winding-up charities more straightforward. 
On the whole, however, I would prefer to see emphasis on support for small charities to deal with the major issues that face them; namely governance, regulatory compliance and operational effectiveness, including fundraising and digital skills. This is where the infrastructure bodies come in, and I am keen to ensure that local infrastructure bodies are encouraged. They can provide support to small charities in a way which is tailored to local need and perceived by stakeholders as relevant, affordable and more easily accessed than London-based provision. The overwhelming evidence we received was that smaller charities struggle to access the advice, guidance and training that they need. Yet a quick glance at our report shows that over 25 organisations gave evidence on who might provide such help and support. When you add in the local and sectoral bodies, it seems to me that the problem is less about the amount of advice and support that is available and more about how to access it. So I strongly urge Members to support our recommendation 67, which urges the sector to look more closely at how advice is signposted. 
Community Action Suffolk was founded in 2013 and was a coming together of 10 community groups in the county, many of which were struggling. Coming together has provided a better scale for good delivery, better value for money and, above all, a stronger voice in the county and more leverage in creating local partnerships. The inevitable pain and compromise of merger has proved very worth while.
As we highlight in our report, trustees are the key to good governance, but in small charities focused on and motivated by their wish to deliver their own objectives they are often seen as more of a legal nicety than as integral to the success of the organisation. Trustee boards often lack diversity, not just in gender and ethnicity but in background. Legal, financial and digital skills are often absent, and failing to look for trustees outside the charity sector runs the risk of boards losing or not having the right skills mix to be fully effective. Regular skills audits can be very powerful and larger charities should hold genuine open recruitment.
This is one of the areas where government can make a difference, promoting trusteeship both within its own workforce and to business. I should like to see the Government consult on statutory time off for trustees, which would be of great practical help and would send out a powerful message about the value of being a trustee.
Because I have not mentioned Suffolk for at least a minute, I should like to highlight the Suffolk young trustee programme. This will give young people a ​shadow trustee role initially, along with a mentor and appropriate training, to give them a taste of the work of being a trustee. We hope it will encourage voluntary organisations to welcome young trustees and young people to come forward. It is not only commendable from a diversity perspective but could help to promote the digital understanding that so many trustee boards lack.
Noble Lords will have picked up by now that I am a fan of infrastructure bodies, particularly local ones, but they cannot run on fresh air. They face a real conundrum because charging at even a modest level acts as a barrier to smaller charities getting the support they need the most. There is a reluctance from donors, stakeholders and commissioners to cover the core costs of charities, particularly governance costs. 
We have heard evidence that the relationship between local government and charities is not always a positive one, despite the fact that their work should be complementary. This is something that government at local and national level needs to address. Perhaps the new regional devolution settlements will provide such an opportunity, but this requires real partnership working between government at all levels and the sector, which we have failed to see so far.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Ros in the Lords - Social Media: News

This afternoon, Ros contributed to a debate initiated by crossbench Peer, Beeban Kidron, on social media and the news, perhaps of particular interest given the Government defeat yesterday relating to the Leveson recommendations...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)

Until the last decade, media platforms were pretty much locked into a one-size-fits-all broadcast model. Success with advertisers depended on producing content that would appeal to the widest possible audience. The recent development of tablet and smartphone technology has been the game-changer, creating a delivery system available pretty much everywhere, 24 hours a day, along with highly personalised and segmented channels.

We are in a wonderful new world of information, education and communication but, as we have heard, there are also serious downsides that we have to address. In a powerful article in this month’s Washington Monthly an early investor in Facebook, Roger McNamee, describes how the algorithms created by Facebook analyse your responses to what you see and then give you more of the same. He argues that negative and hostile messages provoke the strongest responses and demonstrates how these have been used in the referendum campaign here, as well as in the French, German and US elections. Tristan Harris, formerly of Google, has talked about the public health threat from social networks such as Facebook. He calls it “brain hacking”.

We are legislators and we like to legislate: if you have a hammer, all problems tend to look like nails. Widespread, piecemeal legislative change is not the whole answer here. We need to ensure that our education system builds in an awareness of issues such as privacy and safety online, harassment and bullying, as well as critical analysis of the news. The major platforms must do more to create fake news warnings. Education about how data is used could create more pressure from users for transparency about how their data is used. I do not think most users of social media recognise that they are not customers; they are the product. The terms on which users engage—the permissions—should be rebalanced in their favour. Ideally data should belong to the users, not the platforms, and its use should certainly be time-limited. 

There are some signs that things are beginning to change. An article in this week’s Politico notes that,

“a growing number of internet users are turning to new applications and tools that prevent companies and governments from building up a profile of them”.

This is in its infancy and mostly in the business sector but I believe that more will emerge. Education needs to extend beyond school and should definitely include legislators. We—I include myself in this—are not sufficiently well equipped to make judgments in this area. In New York, a city council member called James Vacca promoted a Bill to provide greater transparency of the algorithms now used to determine how public services are allocated. He has recognised that transparency in this area is a key to modern political accountability. 

There is also the issue of net neutrality, currently provided for by the EU regulation on open internet access. This means that ISPs cannot block or slow down data for competitive or commercial purposes. Post Brexit, we need to ensure that companies selling content and services are not able to reduce consumer choice by abusing that position. 

To end on a positive note, Reuters business news carried a story on Tuesday about how some investors in high tech are becoming increasingly concerned about the addictive aspect of their activities and their impact on children. They are changing their investment patterns accordingly. Pressure on institutional investors to pressurise the digital giants could have a significant impact. That would be especially true for the huge public sector pension funds around the world. 

As I left to come over for this debate, I received an invitation from the Westminster Abbey Institute to a talk about truth in politics and the ethics of negative political messaging in social media. Perhaps we should all go.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Hello jet lag, my old friend...

Alright, so I’ve made it home after the best part of two weeks in conditions so cold that, without multiple layers of clothing, you might die of hypothermia fast. Despite getting four hours or so sleep - the East Coast is about six hours away if you’re heading downwind - the journey from Heathrow to Suffolk was a bit of a drag.

But I started on the laundry, and once Ros had reached home too, we made a surprising amount of progress. The suitcases were unpacked, clothes sorted or put away as appropriate, and we were able to get to sleep reasonably easily.

What is increasingly obvious though is that I handle jet lag less well as I get older. In my youth, and even in my late thirties, I could almost disregard the impact of crossing time zones. Now, I feel sluggish unless I can get a decent amount of sleep, and it takes days to readjust my body clock.

Yes, I’ve learned some of the tricks - picking flights to suit my circadian rhythm, adjusting my waking hours a little at a time whilst I’m away, that sort of thing - but I’m afraid that I’m just going to have to accept that middle age is that bit less tolerant of disruption...

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

I drink, therefore I do not freeze...

Portland, Maine, is a hub of craft brewing in the United States, which might explain the surprisingly high number of young bearded men who drink IPA around there. There are craft breweries everywhere, it seems, and I had organised a brewery tour for the last day of the trip to take advantage of this. As it turned out, given that the high temperature for the day was a rather hostile -16 degrees, a hearty ale or two was just what the doctor ordered.

Our hosts were the Maine Brew Bus, which turned out to be a green school bus - one of the shorter models - and our guide, Alex, turned out to be a real aficionado of the brewing art, as she explained how the day would work, where we would go and what we might expect.

The first stop was at Thompsons Point, on the edge of the town, just beyond the railway station, where the Bissell Brothers Brewery is located. Their signature beer is called The Substance Ale, at a chunky 6.6% ABV. That was my first surprise, the sheer weight of alcohol content, as I explained, we tend to drink beers at about 4.2% ABV, with strong ales at 5-6%.

But not at Bissell Brothers, whose beer list includes Angels with Filthy Souls at 9.3% (a maple porter), Umbra at 7.5% (an oatmeal stout) and my personal favourite, Here’s to Feeling Good All the Time, a 7.8% double IPA. They also do an interesting Flemish ale with raspberries, whose name I didn’t catch.

We had a bit of a tour, with the brewing process explained, and I noted with interest that my fellow tourists were evenly split male/female, with the women just as enthusiastic about their beer as the men. It’s interesting that beer is becoming a lifestyle product, with the quality of the ingredients key to its appeal, and that whilst men do dominate the industry, their customers are more diverse.

But we had to move on, with a drive to Freeport, home of the Maine Beer Company. The first thing that I noticed was the artwork on their labels, in that it is very minimalist. One of the things about craft beer is that there is a link to art, with beer labels designed to attract the eye. Here, the labels were white, with the name of the beer, a small symbol and the name of the brewery, all relatively small. This was, apparently, deliberate, to indicate that their focus was wholly on the beer.

We were offered a flight of four 5 oz glasses, and I chose Pilot, a coffee stout, Mean Old Tom, a regular stout, Zoe, an amber ale and Lunch, an IPA, all of which fall into the 6.2-7.5% ABV range. The Pilot was very good, the others very drinkable, but the Mean Old Tom was pretty spectacular.

Time to head back to Portland, but with a hand pie to eat on the way - a vegetarian one. It was, from the perspective of a committed carnivore, pretty good.

Our last stop was at the Rising Tide Brewery in Portland’s East Bayside neighbourhood. I had already drunk their Ishmael, a copper ale, at the bar of our hotel, and was pretty impressed. The Waypoint, another coffee stout, was equally as good.

It was, all in all, an excellent tour. Not cheap, but certainly not nasty, and I would recommend the Maine Brew Bus if you’re interested in beer, and in particular, craft beer. They’re a fun bunch, engaging and knowledgeable, and I wish them every success in the future.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

North to Alaska, sorry, Portland...

We were tired of the cold of New Hampshire, so it was time to head north for the weekend, using the Amtrak Northeaster service, which runs between Boston’s North Station and Brunswick, Maine.

I am, I must admit, not hugely impressed by Amtrak. Their rolling stock is primitive by European standards, their locomotives underpowered and speeds embarrassingly low for the most part, which explains why Americans don’t use them much. And, upon arrival at the Dover Transportation Center, the news that there wasn’t any news about our train was slightly disturbing. It turned out that a switch had frozen near Exeter, New Hampshire, blocking the line, and trains were being rerouted. The previous train, due two hours earlier, was yet to arrive.

What to do? Portland is only an hour away by train, and not much further by car, and there was a debate about whether or not to drive. We were having the discussion when, good news, trains were moving and we would only lose twenty minutes or so.

One thing that must be said about Amtrak is that their carriages are warm and cosy, and you wouldn’t have guessed that it was minus 16 degrees outside. And so we made our way north, into Maine.

At Portland, I was surprised to notice that the platform is only really long enough to handle one carriage, thus all passengers exit the train through one set of doors. Portland is a terminal station but, like so much of Amtrak, is built to the cheapest scale imaginable, a rather bleak concrete platform with a little shelter and not much in the way of facilities. The only saving grace it has is that, as a Transportation Center, you can connect to long distance buses to further points across Maine and the surrounding States. But it’s quite a way from the downtown area, in a neighbourhood that doesn’t encourage walkers.

We grabbed a cab, driven by a friendly Sudanese guy, and headed for our hotel.

The Press Hotel is the former headquarters of the local newspaper, and is described as a “lifestyle boutique” hotel. I have no idea what this means, but there are newspaper references everywhere, old typewriters liberally distributed about the place, and interesting features abound. All very hipster...

It is, still, very cold...

Friday, January 05, 2018

Ros in the Lords: Women and the State Pension

Before Christmas, Ros opened a Short Debate in the Lords on the impact of increasing the age at which women became eligible to receive the State Retirement Pension, an issue which has highlighted some pretty astonishing thoughtlessness on the part of a Government Department. I thank Hansard for recording her contribution...
My Lords, I tabled this debate to bring the attention of the House to a major injustice which has been carried out against a large number of women in this country: some 3.8 million women who have been impacted by accelerated changes to the retirement age. In doing so, I pay tribute to the campaign being run by Women Against State Pension Inequality, which has so effectively highlighted this major injustice. I support the campaign but I am not a member of it. I am not affected and therefore have no personal interest, but I do believe that there is a point of principle here. It is not the principle of equalising the retirement age, for there is no argument about that, and the WASPI campaigners accept that. Nor is there an argument about retiring later, given the increased life expectancy nowadays. The principle is about the fair treatment by the state of those affected by the decisions it has made. In our democracy, it is right that Parliament makes changes but it is a basic role of government to ensure that those changes are implemented effectively, efficiently and in good time and are underpinned by principles of natural justice. And it is the basic role of Parliament—of this House—to hold the Government to account for the way they implement changes in legislation and policy. 
Changes in legislation going as far back as 1995 were not acted upon, in some cases, for 14 years. For women born between April 1950 and April 1955, the Department for Work and Pensions began the task of writing to them in 2009. It completed the task in 2012. It is impossible to justify a delay of this length. I do not believe that Parliament would ever allow a private pension provider to behave in that way, but we seem to think it acceptable when the Government are doing it. 
As far back as 2004, the department published a report about how the changes to pensions were being implemented. At that time, it indicated that only 43% of the women affected were aware of the impact on them. In other words, the Government knew about it but did not take any steps to address it with vigour. 
Many women got to within 15 months of their retirement and at that point were told that they would have to work for up to another six years. During the summer, I met someone in exactly that position. She had retired what she thought was two years early to help her daughter with chivldcare and to assist with the care of her 90 year-old father. Having done so, and based her planning on a two-year wait until her pension would arrive, she was then told that she would have to wait an extra five years. 
In this and other stories like it, the Government have failed a generation of women very badly indeed. This is a generation many of whom spent years at home looking after children and therefore have very poor pension provision to start with. Figures show that some 33% of men will rely solely on a state pension, while 53% of women will do so. This is a generation many of whom left school at 15 and worked all their lives with a significant gender pay gap; a generation who did not receive maternity leave and were not entitled to long-term sick pay until later on in their careers; a generation many of whom have caring responsibilities for parents in their 80s and 90s, and are helping their children with childcare duties.​ 
Ministers have suggested that retraining and apprenticeships offer a way forward for those women, and sing the praises of jobcentres in helping to find new opportunities. Of course, if that is the route that someone wishes to take, I would not stand in their way, but the idea that this is a suitable option in the majority of cases is frankly risible. Jobcentres are closing all over the place. Good luck trying to find an employer who will take on a recently retrained 61 year-old. And what on earth happens to the elderly parent or child who is dependent on you for their care? 
If all this was not bad enough, the whole issue continues to be handled very badly. Freedom of information requests have revealed that the DWP has received more than 4,500 complaints from WASPI women. Of these, six have been resolved. Three case workers have been assigned to this review. This is just adding insult to injury. We are recruiting thousands of civil servants to deal with Brexit, but cannot resource this task properly. 
I am sure that other speakers will provide graphic illustrations of the impact these changes have had and the way the mishandling of this issue has affected individual women and their families, but there is one particular group that I would like to focus on this evening: women who have moved abroad to retire. Some have done so for health reasons, some to be closer to family, some because they worked abroad before they retired—in other cases, simply because they chose to move, as they are entitled to do. Many of these women made their decisions based on receiving the state pension at the age of 60. One woman told me that just after she moved, she discovered that her pension age was 63, not 60. She reorganised her finances to manage the three-year gap, only to be subsequently told that it would be 66.

These issues are common to all WASPI women, but those living abroad face particular challenges. For example, state pension age is also the point where these women would receive an S1 form giving them entitlement to reciprocal health care, so this is now an added financial burden. What the Government describe as mitigation—bus passes, apprenticeships and so on—are of absolutely no value if you live outside the country.
Another woman told me: “Before we left, my husband checked that we had enough years to qualify for a full pension and was assured we had, but I’ve now been widowed and I’ve been told I haven’t paid enough and that my rate will be reduced.” Of course, for women who have retired to EU countries, there is now the extra anxiety of not knowing what the ultimate agreement will be about their rights when, and if, we leave the EU.
I will not ask the Minister whether there has been an impact assessment on this, but I have one particular and specific question. Currently, pensions to those living outside the EU are frozen at the point of retirement, while those who live within the EU are treated the same as if they lived here. Post Brexit, will British pensioners in EU countries be treated as they are now, or will their pensions also be frozen? If British pensioners in the EU receive updated pensions, what plan do the Government have for those who have retired elsewhere?​
We all agree that there is a crisis of trust in politics and politicians. Is it any wonder, when an issue of this importance is subject to ludicrous party-political bickering in the other place? The truth is that all political parties are in part culpable here, and we have a duty to work together to put it right with workable and fair transition arrangements.
This is impacting most seriously on poorer female pensioners. Research has shown that poverty levels in women aged 60 to 64 has risen by 6.2% as a result of these changes. Let us be clear: if these women are poor now, there is a likelihood that they will remain poor right the way through their retirement, and that these numbers will grow unless the Government act.
The Government should concede that the administration of these changes was fundamentally flawed and come up with proposals to put right this wrong. It is not about reversing the changes to pension age, but recognising that where implementation is flawed, the Government have a duty to come up with proposals to protect those impacted by those flaws. The Institute for Fiscal Studies report published in August estimates that the changes in women’s pension age have boosted government coffers by £5.1 billion. Surely to goodness, some transitional help is affordable and must be afforded.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

I probably shouldn’t complain about the weather ever again...

Our trip to New England has been, I have to admit, unfavoured by the weather. We spent our five nights in Boston in the midst of the coldest week they’ve had since the winter of 1917/18, and whilst yesterday was rather nice here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, today has seen the impact of what is called a ‘bomb cyclone’, producing 8-12 inches of snow in blizzard conditions.

Actually, I’ve quite enjoyed it for the most part.

Today, to make up for the general lack of snow in my life in recent years, I put on my hiking boots, wrapped up warmly, and set off for a walk through the town. The snow was already falling thickly at 10 a.m. but with the blizzard really expected to set in during the afternoon, and Ros of the view that I was possibly being a bit foolhardy, I thought it better to go out early.

The snow is fine and powdery, and whilst it hadn’t gotten too deep, it was actually pretty easy to walk on. There were a few people out and about, tightly wrapped against the cold, some with ski masks on, which I did wonder about. And, in town, whilst most of the shops had taken the decision to close for the day, there were still sufficient places to stop.

The town council staff were out, ploughing the roads, and even the pavements, so the traffic was still moving relatively freely. Me, I was in need of a warm drink.

Portsmouth is, slightly unexpectedly, a rather charming place. I say unexpectedly, because I’d never really given the New Hampshire Seacoast Region much thought. It has history, some great restaurants, charming architecture and great beer, and if it wasn’t for the foot or so of snow or the freezing cold, I’m guessing that I’d find a lot more here to enjoy.

So one might not be surprised to find that my sanctuary turned out to be a coffee shop called Kaffee VonSolln, specialising in German pastries - a little outpost of Mitteleuropa. I settled in for a while, having recovered from being hailed as Frank when I walked in. I don’t know who Frank is, but he’s clearly a man with good taste, as their hot chocolate was very good indeed...

Having thawed out, I set off to cross the World War Memorial Bridge towards Kittery, across the state line in Maine. The bridge is dedicated to the soldiers and sailors of New Hampshire and Maine who lost their lives in the First World War, and marks the period from 1917 to 1919. It was a bit breezy, but traffic was still moving alright, and the sidewalk was swept.

But I did have a mission, to buy lunch and bring it back to the hotel, so I meandered back into town, bought some sandwiches, potato chips and drinks, and headed through the snow...

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A polite reminder about the role of the Civil Service

I see that my colleague on Federal International Relations Committee is somewhere rather warmer than I am. Unfortunately, his passionate opposition to Brexit has led him into dangerous waters.

An explanation is in order.

One of the jewels in the crown of our system of checks and balances is the concept of a neutral Civil Service. Its role is to deliver the business of government, enforcing the law of the land in as accurate a manner as is possible, drawing up plans for the introduction of Government legislation, advising ministers in terms of the potential consequences of a particular course of action. What it does not do is obstruct the Government of the day in its chosen path, unless that path is known to be illegal, or impossible due to other regulatory barriers.

So, the idea that the mandarins might cause Brexit to be halted is not only absurd but positively dangerous. Yes, it might deliver something you want, but what if the position was reversed, and the Civil Service was preventing the delivery of something you wanted to happen?

As a democrat, one should be horrified by the prospect of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats subverting our legitimately elected Government. Democracy itself relies on the people holding their tribunes to account in free and fair elections, and if bureaucrats were to believe that they were somehow above that, where would we be?

I am a civil servant, I serve the Government of the day, and thus the public. If I don’t like that idea, the door is that way. In return, politicians should not seek to interfere in individual decisions unless required to do so by legislation. They set the legal framework, we deliver upon it, the judiciary rule where the law requires interpretation or where arguments need to be determined. It’s a fairly simple division of responsibilities and one that has worked pretty well thus far.

Mess with it at your peril...

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Welcome to the icebox... a nation shivers...

I’ve seen in the New Year in Boston, home of the American Revolution, where the temperature has been stuck below -10 degrees Centigrade since we arrived. Add, or more accurately subtract, the wind chill, and it has usually felt like -20 or worse. Going out requires multiple layers, face masks, hats, gloves etc etc., which does lead you to ask the question, “is my journey really necessary?”. And the answer is, often, “no”.

Apparently, Boston hasn’t experienced such a spell of weather since 1872, which isn’t much of a consolation, it must be said.

Today, however, it has been time to head north, to New Hampshire’s Seacoast Region, more specifically, Portsmouth, home of a Naval Shipyard (they handle nuclear submarines, apparently). We took the Amtrak train from Boston’s North Station, the Downeaster, which runs between Boston and Brunswick, Maine, via Portland.

The train is slow but comfortable, with heating and decent wi-fi, which allowed me to catch up on events at home.

Portsmouth, at first sight, appears to be one of those quintessential small New England towns, very pretty and ordered, but full of interesting shops, bars and restaurants, and so the prospect of the temperature getting close to freezing tomorrow is excellent news.

As for our hotel, the Hotel Portsmouth is utterly charming. And whilst I expect to run into Angela Lansbury in the lobby, visiting an old friend before solving a murder, I’ll at least have the benefit of a good night’s sleep first...

Monday, January 01, 2018

Published elsewhere - a (day) editorial thought for a New Year...

This piece was published on Liberal Democrat Voice earlier today, and it drew more attention than I normally do...

One of the unexpected advantages of being the Day Editor on New Year’s Day is that you can, perhaps, make a resolution for the year ahead. And nobody can stop you... 

Mwah, hah, hah, hah...

And it dawns on me that, as the person technically responsible for moderation today, I have the tools at my disposal to actually change a small corner of the Internet, and make it a better place, if only for a little while. Call it “taking a stand for decency”, if you like. Or, as someone is bound to say, “censorship”... (you’re wrong, in the nicest possible way, because this is a liberal, rather than libertarian, website).

So, let’s lay down some ground rules for today. Firstly, treat fellow commenters with respect, even if you don’t agree with them. I am the judge of whether or not you’re showing sufficient respect and, as the Day Editor, my word is law. If you don’t like that, go somewhere else, at least for today. You aren’t being censored, as I have no control over anything you say anywhere else, you’re just being managed.

Secondly, try to make a positive case for whatever it is you believe in. You’re trying to persuade people as to the virtues of your argument, not trying to browbeat them into submission. You probably won’t succeed in the latter here anyway, and all you achieve is to ratchet up the level of unpleasantness. And, frankly, it’s all a bit tedious. As my mother might have asked, “How old are you? Five?”.

Thirdly, and this isn’t a rule but merely a suggestion, sarcasm and irony work relatively well when there’s body language to read. Here, there isn’t any. So, why not consider how your witty barb might read sans context before you post it? And, if in doubt, think again.

Unhappy? Get in touch with me via I’m five hours behind you, and whilst I am on holiday (it’s very cold, and thank you for asking), I’ll answer as quickly as I can. Remember, I’m on holiday, so you are not my uppermost priority, but I’m a courteous soul at heart. Oh, and yes, my fellow editorial team members are celebrating New Year as well, so cut us all some slack, if you’d be so kind.

And so, on with the medley... Have fun, and be careful out there...