Saturday, September 21, 2019

ALDE Party Congress, Athens 2019 - "Resolution on Transnational lists and the lead candidate process"

One of the things about the ALDE Party's Individual Members group is that it has a keen interest in what, to national parties, is rather esoteric. There is no "nation agenda" and thus they don't have an interest to protect, so to speak. The idea of transnational lists is not a new one, indeed, Andrew Duff has been championing the idea for some years now, seeing it as he does as a way of creating a "European demos".

Resolution on Transnational lists and the lead candidate process

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Athens, Greece, on 24-26 October 2019:

Notes that:
  • more than 50% of the EU citizens eligible to vote took part at the last European elections in May 2019, marking the highest turnout in 20 years and the first time since the first direct elections in 1979 in which turnout increased. Significantly more young people with a pro-European mind-set cast their vote, according to a Eurobarometer survey across all 28 Member States. Among the main reasons identified for voting were “being in favour of the EU” (25%, +11 percentage points) and “the desire to change things by voting” (18%, +6 percentage points);
  • regardless of the encouraging turnout increase, disaffection with politics, particularly but by no means exclusively among young people, is continuing to be a trend, and is one of the driving forces behind the rise of extreme and eurosceptic forces in many parts of Europe. While politicians are increasingly viewed as distant and out of touch with voters, the topics on the European agenda continue to be far-off to the voters;
  • the political struggle following the elections in nominating the President of the European Commission, was vastly seen by the European citizens as a highlight for one of the fundamental structural challenges in European integration, as it was perceived to be an embodiment of behind-closed doors policies and lack of democratic transparency in decision-making;
  • the “Lead candidate system” for the election of the President of the European Commission should therefore be maintained, but improved through the introduction of pan-European transnational lists for the European elections in 2024. This would ensure that the vote of the pro-European voters effectively matters and that a transnational, European political sphere is put in place as a precondition for the strengthening of the European citizenship.
Points out that:
  • the European Parliament has called for the introduction of transnational lists on numerous occasions, the first time being in 1998, followed by a proposal with an ALDE Group rapporteur in 2011, and just recently in the last mandate of the European Parliament with a strong support by the ALDE Group;
  • that the ALDE Party has already acknowledged in its resolutions in 2013, 2016 and 2017 that “The elections of some members of the European Parliament via transnational lists will increase the importance of European political parties and contribute to the creation of a European public sphere”, that “the ALDE Party is well positioned to bridge the gap between national and European politics; (and) transnational coalitions have the potential to strengthen European democracy and can help to reconnect European citizens with European institutions, policies and issues;” and that lead candidate system needs to be supported and “a modified process to be developed to make the appointment of the President of the European Commission even more transparent and inclusive and to put an end to non-transparent backroom politics”;
  • transnational lists will create a common European constituency for the entire European Union, alongside the constituencies of the Member states thus fostering the European citizenship and reinforcing the topics on the EU agenda. In addition, transnational lists will not affect degressive proportionality, and would be geographically and gender balanced to reflect the plurality of the European citizens;
  • transnational lists have the potential to increase the visibility of pro-European parties and at the same time improve the balance between national interests and the common European goal.
Calls on the ALDE Party and its Member organisations, Party leaders, Commissioners, members of Governments, members of European and national parliaments to:
  • work for the creation of transnational lists for the 2024 European elections that will allow citizens to vote for candidates from across the EU;
  • make sure that European political parties are equipped with the legal frameworks for European - wide campaigns and budgeting for conducting a truly transnational campaign;
  • ensure in the future, that the candidate of the party with the most votes should not necessarily become President of the European Commission, but rather the candidate who is able to unite a majority in the European Parliament and manage to gain the citizens’ support in a transnational lists’ European electoral system;
  • reaffirm the commitment to the lead candidate process, but one that is reformed and improved to an electoral process in which the European citizens can directly participate in the appointment of the President of the European Commission;
  • insist that the possibility to vote directly for lead candidates appointed by the different European political parties as heads of the transnational lists is the best way to ensure a pan-European political sphere and strengthening the interest in the European elections and the voter turnout;
  • promote such system in the discussion of a conference and in any other high level event that may be organised by the European Union's institutions for reaching the political agreement on transnational lists by all pro-European parties.

There is a part of me that supports the notion, that believes in a European demos and sees the logic of transnational lists. And yet, there is a problem that the European political groupings are not represented across the Union, and the ability of transnational parties to campaign across twenty-eight nation states is utterly underdeveloped, with little sense that Europe-wide manifestos mean very much for now.

I also sense that there isn't a lot of agreement on the way, so this may well face quite a lot of opposition.

ALDE Party Congress, Athens 2019 - "A framework directive on soil protection"

I have an unexplained fondness for Radicali Italiani, who tend to write very intellectual resolutions which read like academic texts. This is one of their more accessible efforts...

A framework directive on soil protection

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Athens, Greece, on 24-26 October 2019:

Is convinced that:
  • soil is one of the irreplaceable resources for the life of ecosystems and of man and that it is a substantially non-renewable resource;
  • soil conservation, which is one of the main reservoirs of organic carbon, is one of the tools to reduce the effects of climate change.
Notes that:
  • the main functions of the soil are: the offer of a physical and cultural environment for man and his activities, the production of biomass, food and raw materials, storage, filtration and transformation of nutrients substances and water, the provision of support for the development of biodiversity, the establishment of a carbon reserve and the conservation of the geological and archaeological heritage.
Considers that:
  • European environmental directives compelled Member States to adopt appropriate legislation that in the last years has contributed to a change in citizens' behaviour and to improve the quality of environment;
  • European policies on air and water protection, proper waste disposal, phytosanitary products influenced Member State legislation;
  • in 2006, the European Commission adopted the "Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection" (COM(2006) 231) but the draft of the framework Directive envisaged therein has never been adopted;
  • the above-mentioned strategy accurately lists the threats affecting European soils;
  • soil is one of the biggest organic carbon reservoirs, therefore soil protection is a crucial tool to combat climate change;
  • some Member States, such as Italy, don't have a specific legislation on soil protection.
Calls on all member parties of ALDE Party, Renew Europe Group members of the European Parliament and Liberal Prime ministers:
  • to promote at the European Commission a proposal for a Framework Directive on Soil Protection in order to influence Member State legislation, aiming to reverse the trends and improve the conditions of this irreplaceable environmental resource.

Again, there's not much there to argue with, and it should pass without much dissent.

Friday, September 20, 2019

ALDE Party Congress, Athens 2019 - "Chick culling – A European concern"

Sometimes, you end up with resolutions that don't appear to be terribly important, and this one is one of those. Yes, animal cruelty should be challenged, but at a time of stress, you do wonder if this is worth debating time...

Chick culling – A European concern

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Athens, Greece, on 24-26 October 2019:

Having regard to:

  • the resolution “The Link between Animal Welfare, Public Health and Resistance to Antibiotics” adopted at the ALDE Party Congress in Helsinki, Finland (October 2010).
Notes that:

  • as of 2018 around 7 billion day-old male chicks were culled per year in the egg industry worldwide;
  • not all culled chicks can be used as animal feed (e.g. for snakes);
  • the practice of chick culling produces millions of unnecessary deaths of chicks and is therefore unethical;
  • the EU needs to have equal livestock husbandry standards to ensure fair competition;
  • unilateral measures at national level cannot stop the practice of chick culling in the EU as a unilateral approach leads to millions of day-old chicks to be transported to those countries that still allow chick culling.
Calls for:

  • all EU Member States to introduce an alternative procedure to timely identify masculine chicks before they are able to feel pain;
  • all EU Member States to ban the practice of chick culling;
  • all EU Member States to decide which alternative procedure to timely identify male chicks they want to implement. Currently, countries can choose for example the ovo-gender determination or the magnetic resonance imaging;
  • the EU to invest in research projects about alternatives to culling chicks;
  • the EU to install a system that ensures the enforcement of the ban on chick culling.
I have to be honest and admit that I know nothing about this, but would expect it to be passed without much comment.

ALDE Party Congress, Athens 2019 - "Carbon Capture and Storage: Reaching the Paris Goals"

More environmental policy making, this time from our Norwegian sister party, Venstre...

Carbon Capture and Storage: Reaching the Paris Goals

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Athens, Greece, on 24-26 October 2019:

Taking note of:

  • the fact that carbon capture and storage (CCS) enables deep decarbonisation of the economy, and in particular for a number of industries that have few or no other options to significantly reduce emissions;
  • the challenge posed by waste management, as global waste is predicted to reach several billion tonnes by 2050 and a significant part of this waste is expected to be incinerated, a process which leads to high levels of CO2 emissions;
  • the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s estimate that CCS can bring about 19 percent of global CO2 emission cuts by 2050;
  • the work of countries such as the Netherlands, the UK and Norway in developing CCS through a series of pilot project;
  • the IPCC 1.5 degree report, highlighting the urgency for climate action, and the need to successfully implement affordable CCS solutions to be able to significantly reduce global emissions by mid-century.

  • cross-border cooperation on CCS can help rapidly drive down costs of decarbonising the European economy
  • in a European approach to CCS that connects infrastructure and supports research and development funding in a way to maintain the competitiveness of European industry in a low-carbon economy;
  • that CCS, rather than prolonging the life of the fossil fuelled economy, is a necessary solution to decarbonise industries where no other options currently exist;
  • that the successful reduction of costs for CCS technology will also lay the groundwork for potential carbon dioxide removal technologies in the future, which might prove necessary if global emissions aren't reduced rapidly.
Calls for:

  • recognition by all European countries that CCS technology has been deployed at scale for decades, and is readily available;
  • recognition that cooperation on CCS across Europe is a necessity to enable deep decarbonisation of the European economy;
  • all ALDE Party members to work in their respective countries to increase support and, where necessary, develop funding schemes for CCS technology;
  • all ALDE Party members to work in their respective countries towards developing storage facilities for CO2 and/or transportation infrastructure nationally, and thus contributing to realising the continent-wide uptake of CCS technology;
  • all ALDE Party members to work to support increased EU funding for CCS pilot projects.

I tend to the view that there's little in this resolution to oppose, but sense that it might be combined with the previous resolution, "A Climate Policy that Delivers on the Paris Agreement" for the sake of coherence.

ALDE Party Congress, Athens 2019 - "A Climate Policy that Delivers on the Paris Agreement"

So, as promised, here we go with the draft resolutions submitted for debate at the end of next month...

A Climate Policy that Delivers on the Paris Agreement

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party convening in Athens, Greece, on 24-26 October 2019:

Taking note of:
  • the alarming trends of climate change and environmental deterioration in the last couple of decades;
  • the fact that the rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade and that the rate of sea level rise in the last two decades, however, is nearly double of that of the last century and is accelerating every year;
  • that according to the European Environment agency, EU greenhouse gas emissions increased by 0.6% in 2017, following a 0.4% decrease in 2016, and projected reductions fall short of the 40 % emissions reduction target for 2030;
  • that human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels and global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate;
  • that shipping emissions are predicted to increase between 50% and 250% by 2050, depending on future economic and energy developments, and that global international aviation emissions are projected to increase 300-700% by 2050;
  • that global warming is a phenomenon witnessed in most land and ocean regions, causing hot extremes in most inhabited regions, heavy precipitation in several regions and the probability of drought and precipitation deficits in some regions. That this poses the rising concern of access to water and food security and climate migration; 
  • that according to the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change published in 2006, estimates that the costs and risks of climate change inaction will be equivalent to losing from 5% to 20% or more of the global GDP each year, while the estimate for the annual cost of achieving stabilisation of the levels of CO2 emissions is amounting to around 2% of global GDP per year;
  • the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol;
  • the Paris Agreement and the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC and the 11th Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP11) held in Paris, France from 30 November to 11 December 2015;
  • the commitment of all countries under the Paris Agreement to limit the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C;
  • the IPCC 1.5°C Special Report from October 2018 in which the world’s leading climate scientists warn there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C, and call for urgent action to require unprecedented efforts to cut fossil-fuel use in half in less than 15 years and eliminate their use almost entirely in 30 years;
  • the UN Climate Action Summit held in New York 23 September 2019;
  • the growth of employment in the environmental goods and services sector in the years 2007-2011 by 20% in spite of the crisis;
  • the global market for environmental goods and services is estimated at €1,000 billion per year and is growing fast;
  • that according to the Commission, better eco-design, waste prevention, recycling and reuse could bring net savings for EU businesses, estimated to represent up to €600 billion, or 8% of annual turnover, while also reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 2-4%;
  • the crucial role of non-state actors, and especially the private sector, in decarbonising our economy and combating climate change;
  • the collective nature of environmental threats, meaning that no country goes unaffected by the actions of another;
  • the moderate progress for the preparatory work ahead of the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the UNFCCC;
  • the European Council’s failed attempts to commit to climate neutrality by 2050;
  • the student-led climate change marches across the world against government inaction on climate change, inspired by Greta Thunberg. 
  • the Commission's strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral economy by 2050;
  • the new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s promise to within her first 100 days to deliver a European Green Deal to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050;
  • the adoption of European Union climate and energy legislation such as Emissions Trading System (ETS), Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR) and the Governance Regulation;
  • the adoption of the agreement reached at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) on an initial strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping. 
Believes that:
  • the Paris Agreement and the outlined path towards decarbonisation will give reliable guidance for decision-making, avoid costly lock-ins to high-carbon investments, provide certainty and predictability to business and investors, and encourage a shift from fossil fuel investments towards more sustainable alternative investments;
  • the adoption of the revision of the EU Emissions Trading System for the period 2021-2030 and the Effort Sharing Regulation for the same period is an important step that needs to be followed by higher ambition within a mid-term review if the Union will stay on track to meet the Paris Agreement;
  • raising the ambition, as was done in the revision of EU legislation regarding energy efficiency and renewable energy, was important in order to show that higher ambition is not only needed but also very much possible;
  • a sustainable bioeconomy and circular economy will be a crucial part of the green transition;
  • the role of private actors in ensuring the achievement of environmental goals cannot be understated, and that it is crucial that the necessary frameworks, stability for investments and long term goals exist for the private sector to fulfil their full potential in the environmental area;
  • youth engagement plays an essential role in climate policy, as it is the youth that will have to face the results of the decisions of today;
  • facilitating the development of market solutions, new technology, and green private investment is crucial if we are to reach our common environmental goals;
  • it is important that the EU shows global leadership through established climate frameworks and that they, where appropriate, are open to non-EU actors;
  • Europe must take global leadership in combating climate change through reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to a fossil free economy;
  • the EU and its Member States must take action in prevention and necessary adaptation of present and future climate change impacts, for example by strengthening its resilience in all areas and making use of all funding instruments available;
  • a robust and credible rule book on how to fully implement the Paris Agreement is needed if the aims of the agreement are to be met.
Calls on:
  • the Commission to swiftly propose an ambitious European Green Deal, including at least a trillion Euros of investments over the coming decade, and an effective climate law that raises the targets for the EU greenhouse gas emissions to be at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, also including considerable economic consequences, for example economic fines or withheld payments from the EU budget, for countries failing to reach their climate and energy targets, ensuring that the Union will meet its commitment under the Paris Agreement;
  • the European Council to commit, as soon as possible, to the target of climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest;
  • the Commission to come up with a strengthened governance framework to prevent and respond to climate risk and climate-related disasters in the European Union;
  • the Commission to promote sustainable agriculture practices and investments including sustainable practices to prevent and control pests;
  • the Commission to propose measures to strengthen the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS), including to increase the linear reduction factor reducing the number of allowances distributed each year, reducing the surplus more rapidly by keeping the withdrawal rate to the market stability reserve at 24% a year even after 2023, to include more sectors such as shipping and international aviation, and move to full auctioning of allowances for all sectors, in order to ensure a sufficiently high carbon price and investments in low carbon technologies and innovation to drive 142 own emissions at the rate needed to reach climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest;
  • the Commission to propose a framework at the EU level in order to promote technical solutions for negative emissions;
  • increased and binding EU energy targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy to at least 40% for 2030 in order to achieve EU climate targets;
  • the Commission to propose a strategy to promote and simplify rail transport across borders to make it more competitive with aviation;
  • the Commission to propose a strategy for greener aviation, in particular by promoting technical solutions for aviation biofuel and electric aircraft;
  • the building of bridges and common frameworks between all European countries to promote environmental and climate cooperation towards the agreed international goals of the Paris Agreement;
  • the European Parliament and the Council of the EU to agree on a Paris-compatible Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 that rules out fossil fuel subsidies and supports the transition to a more sustainable, competitive European economy;
  • all ALDE member parties to work towards ending the $65 billion (€57.5 billion) fuel tax exemption for international aviation, and insist on an update of Article 24 of the Chicago Convention from 1944 in order to end the obsolete fuel tax exemption for international aviation;
  • the Commission to propose a contingency plan on how to handle the consequences of climate change, including natural disasters, climate migration and the projections of its impact;
  • all ALDE member parties that substantial progress is needed at the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the UNFCCC, in particular in finalising the outstanding issues for the rule book on how to implement the Paris Agreement from COP24 in Katowice, in particular on cooperative mechanisms under Article 6.

Well, you certainly can't describe it as sketchy or unambitious, and I suspect that it stands up well.

ALDE Party Congress, Athens 2019 - the draft resolutions for debate

Yes, it's coming up to that time of year again, when liberals from across the continent come together to meet, debate and swap ideas. There may also be the odd glass of something taken too... Over the next two weeks, I'll be covering the resolutions submitted for debate, and offering some of my thoughts where appropriate.

But first, here's the list (and I'll add links to each as I publish...)
  1. A Climate Policy that Delivers on the Paris Agreement (submitted by Centerpartiet (Sweden), Nowoczesna (Poland), Radikale Venstre (Denmark), Liberal Democrats and LYMEC)
  2. Carbon Capture and Storage: Reaching the Paris Goals (submitted by Venstre (Norway))
  3. Chick culling – A European concern (submitted by the Free Democrats (Germany)) 
  4. A framework directive on soil protection (submitted by Radicali Italiani)
  5. Resolution on Transnational lists and the lead candidate process (submitted by the ALDE Individual Members and LYMEC)
  6. Democracy, rule of law and knowledge during the digital revolution (submitted by Radicali Italiani)
  7. Creation of a European Rule of Law Mechanism (submitted by the ALDE Individual Members)
  8. Strengthening European democracy and values (submitted by Piu Europa (Italy))
  9. Supporting ALDE Individual Members in Central and Eastern Europe (submitted by the ALDE Individual Members)
  10. Improving Europe’s capabilities to address the rise of China (submitted by Centerpartiet (Sweden), Liberalerna (Sweden) and the Free Democrats (Germany))
  11. Strengthening the European Union as a Global Actor (submitted by the Free Democrats (Germany)
  12. The United Kingdom and the European Union (submitted by the Liberal Democrats)
  13. Reducing Harm for Migrant and Vulnerable Workers (submitted by the Liberal Democrats)
It's a varied list, with three resolutions either authored or co-authored by the Liberal Democrats. But bear in mind that these aren't the final versions, as amendments are possible until 27 September, and members of the Federal International Relations Committee, including myself, are already on the case...

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Leaving Conference with an unexpected spring in my step

There is a danger that, once you’ve been to enough Federal Conferences, you tend to become a wee bit cynical about the whole thing. Policy motions where speakers compete to agree most ardently, big set piece speeches from senior figures designed to rally the troops in the face of adversity, that sort of thing. And yet, and yet...

It has, in the end, been a rather satisfying four days. I have been given an unexpected opportunity to be useful, done something I’m good at, made a speech and been rather inspired to do something new. Somebody might yet pay for that...

Conference felt slightly unfamiliar - upbeat, confident, keen to get at our competition. For those of us who suffered the slings and arrows of the Coalition years - being mostly right was only partial consolation for the decimation of our Councillor base - with the expectation of taking another kicking, the notion that we might go into an election cycle looking to make significant advances is slightly bewildering, albeit in a good way. The enthusiasm is... catching.

I enjoyed Vince Cable’s speech. Self-deprecating, funny yet serious in turn, he got a thoroughly well-deserved standing ovation. Was he a great Leader? I leave others, perhaps more neutral than I, to judge that. He was, however, a thinker, and in a political era when sound bites and reaction seem to outweigh ideas and contemplation, he stood out from the throng.

But for me, the revelation was Jo’s speech. The first speech as Leader sets a tone and an impression that can determine what comes thereafter, and whilst I expected a professional, well-crafted effort, I don’t think I quite expected the manner of its delivery.

There was confidence, which I did expect, there was passion, which I think we need, but there was also a hint of vulnerability, of a human being beneath the “screen image”. It felt relatable, as if the subjects mattered, as if she “got it”. It wasn’t the sort of speech that Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson could ever give.

I could sense a air of anticipation before we were allowed into the hall after lunch, and Conference wanted to like her even as she came onto the stage. And there was, as an old friend said afterwards, a vague sense of an evangelical meeting to it all - a Conference that believed and wanted to go out and deliver that message.

It is, I guess, alright to be a Liberal Democrat again, and it feels surprisingly good...

Friday, September 13, 2019

Conference beckons...

I have to admit that, in recent years, I’ve rather drifted through Party conferences. I don’t really have a role, and I’ve not particularly sought one. This year is different though.

This year, I’m organised, with a diary of things to go to or do, a speech I’m minded to give, and nominations to get (I’ll say more about that another time...). I’ve even got a job, albeit one that I might have hoped was unnecessary.

The journey down to Bournemouth has been pleasant enough, with some scenery to look at, and everything has run to schedule so far. Ros is already at our hotel, and dinner is booked.

So, what are my prospective “highlights”?

I’ve got a meeting of the Federal International Relations Committee on Sunday afternoon, which should be relatively uneventful, if brief. We’ve had to squeeze it in because it clashes with Jo Swinson’s Q&A session. Unfortunately, that means that it clashes with the Federal Board report, which our Chair really ought to be at, I guess. I’m hoping to escape in time for the Constitutional Amendments, given that I’m partly responsible for some of them.

Oh yes, that. The idea of changing the requirements for calling a Special Conference was not mine, but I’m claiming the solution, a percentage of both membership and Local Parties. It struck me that why not allow this to vary automatically as the Party expands or contracts, rather than having to amend it if numbers change significantly? I may not be wholly popular in certain quarters, but it does strike me that, in the Internet age, it’s much easier to rally opinion and support, and our Constitution should reflect that.

I’ve got some training to do too, which is unusual. I hope to make the session on “Running a data led Local Party”, although it is a bit early on the Sunday morning. On Monday, I’ve set aside time for sessions on “Unconscious Bias” and “People behind the scenes” (people like me, I guess), and on Tuesday I’m keen to support the “Be a Councillor - Making a difference as a Town or Parish Councillor”, especially as I don’t think that ALDC have done much of this previously.

I’ll probably be at the Peers fringe event (do come along, they’re mostly lovely!), and will be putting in an appearance at the LGBT+ Lib Dems AGM. Following recent events, they find themselves in need of a Returning Officer and, as they asked nicely...

I’m minded to put in a card for the debate on Business Tax, sensing that there might not be very many, and that I have an unusual perspective on the subject. The motion itself is a bit “motherhood and apple pie”, and I often suspect that politicians are happier discussing how to spend money rather than how it might be raised, but it is rather important. There’s also a motion on railways, but I’m not enough of a train geek to feel that a contribution would add value. But who knows?

So, fingers crossed, I’ll be doing things rather than drifting semi-aimlessly. And, if you run into me, do say hello. I’m a friendly soul and I don’t bite...

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Talking about a constitution...

Never let it be said that this blog is not focussed on the big issues, such as constitutional reform. Yet, funnily enough, having written about the importance of our unwritten conventions, this evening I found myself debating a new constitution for our county umbrella group, the Suffolk Association of Local Councils.

Apparently, the current version has developed over many years and almost as many iterations, finally becoming so overloaded that it was felt easier to just start again. And, indeed, it is a far more streamlined, accessible document. But, as is often the case, I felt that it could be better.

This evening was billed as being one of the three means by which members could make their opinions and suggestions known and, after the Chief Executive had introduced the document, I had intended to raise two issues of immediate concern. It was perhaps then unfortunate that the debate segued almost seamlessly into a discussion of issues relating to planning enforcement, which the chair of the meeting not unreasonably ran with, as it was clearly the will of the meeting to raise mutual concerns.

I let the debate blow itself out, before the Chair attempted to move on to next business. Politely, I noted that the accompanying document to the draft constitution stated quite clearly that the meeting was an opportunity to raise issues of concern or to seek clarification, and that I wanted to do just that.

There was a little uneasy shuffling, but I felt that I needed to stand my ground. So I did.

I wanted to question why the constitution as drafted appeared to make no reference to issues of diversity and equality, noting my previously stated concerns about the lack of gender balance amongst the Honorary Vice Presidents three years or so ago (they were all male). Where was the commitment not to allow such things to happen again? What message did the apparent lack of interest send out to women and other under represented groups?

In fairness, both the Chair and the Chief Executive acknowledged that SALC needed to do better in this area, and promised that my concerns would be conveyed to the Board (I now intend to be at the AGM to follow that up).

There was also a proposal to remove term limits for officers. Funnily enough, I might have let that slide a few years ago, but it is clear that best practice for public bodies is to have term limits, and I have been convinced by that argument. Long-established leaders in most groups tend to become ossified, and hard to shift, and I noted that SALC appeared to be heading away from acknowledged best practice.

The logic was, apparently, that people had simply ended up rotating through the Board positions, which perhaps indicates a closed-shop mentality amongst some of them, conscious or subconscious. Or, in other words, “we’re not very good at developing new leaders, so we’ll give up trying”.

Finally, whilst I had the floor, I raised the issue of holding an AGM during a workday. Yes, I can see the attraction, but it does send a subliminal message to non-retired Parish Councillors that they aren’t perhaps as important as retired ones, who possibly have more time on their hands.

So, a small blow for diversity, and a marker to the SALC Board that somebody is watching them. Transparency, as one of my fellow councillors noted, is a good thing, and it tends to lead to better decision making.

Here’s hoping, eh?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

As Wednesday turns into... more Wednesday?

It’s late in the evening, the time of the day during the work week when I usually FaceTime Ros and we catch up on each other’s days. Except that, today, Ros’s day hasn’t finished, nor does it look much like finishing anytime soon.

The debate on a business motion to secure time to debate what is now the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill, has been scarred by the submitting of 101 amendments by Conservative Peers who have chosen now to conclude that, whilst they might well have been in favour of Parliamentary sovereignty at first, all they really want is to crash the country’s economy regardless of the impact that this might have on its citizens.

And so, methodically, each amendment has to be moved, debated and, after due consideration, moved to a vote. That means, in non-Parliamentary language, telling the mover or his colleagues to shut up and sit down, by order of the House. This takes time, lots of time. And that, after all, is the intention, to talk out the Bill and thwart Parliamentary sovereignty.

There is another convention at threat here, that of the elected House ultimately having the right to have its legislation passed, albeit after proper scrutiny - you wouldn’t believe some of the rubbish which passes for scrutiny at the Commons end.

But, of course, for the Brexiteers, the ends justify the means. Attack the judiciary, attack the neutrality of the Civil Service, undermine all of the supports that underpin our Parliamentary democracy, regardless of the long-term impact of doing so. And there is a long-term impact because, once you’ve scrambled the egg, you can’t unscramble it again. Because if you can do it, anybody else can too - “bad people”, for want of a better phrase, more dangerous people. And they can do it to you.

Now, in truth, whilst I respect our unwritten constitution, with all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies, I’ve always favoured a written alternative, laying out the rules so that anyone (theoretically) can find out how the game is played. And, if ever there was a time to move on this, it is now. The need to resort to procedural jiggerypokery to allow a majority in both Houses of Parliament (and that’s what we have, make no mistake) to make law, leads us ever further down the road to an American style of politics which would serve this country very badly.

And so, Ros and her colleagues are settling in for a long night of voting down wrecking amendments. It’s a terrible way to do business, but there’s a whole raft of principles at stake here, and somebody has to stand up for the rule of law and the notion of fair play.

Meanwhile, the radicalisation of the Conservative Party continues unchecked...

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Ros in the Lords: Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, Report Stage

Ros is a member of the Shadow Sponsor Body tasked with overseeing the essential work of dragging the core of the Parliamentary Estate into the modern age, or perhaps as accurate, salvaging the building before it explodes, catches fire or is flooded with sewage. In that capacity, she had some thoughts to outline in response to what turned out to be a rather short, and harmonious, Report Stage...

My Lords, I will add my thanks to all those who have worked during August to come up with a solution that meets not just the needs of those moving the amendments but the sentiments that were expressed during the debate. As a member of the shadow sponsor body, I think that this gives some clarity about the wishes of the House and the responsibilities of the sponsor body when it gets its substantive form. 

Right from the beginning, outreach and education have been an absolute priority for the sponsor body. I assure the noble Earl that we have had a lot of discussions with the education and outreach department already, and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that flexibility is one of the key things that we are thinking about in design. Obviously not every room in the Palace can be entirely flexible - there are too many constraints, particularly of heritage, for that - but one of our overall objectives will be to end up with a much more flexible space because, as the noble Lord said, we simply cannot predict where we are going to be in future.

The shadow sponsor body has always felt, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has previously so passionately described, that the renewal of Parliament is not just about the building—that is extremely important to us. When we think about overall renewal, some of the issues are matters of operation - about how we do things - some are procedural and some are cultural. The Houses of Parliament are extremely conservative organisations that are quite resistant to change, so we have to accept that there is also cultural thinking. 

A lot of these matters need attention from Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, was right to talk about the need for close working between the shadow sponsor body - the sponsor body, going forward - and the rest of Parliament, and how we do these things together. It is certainly not for the sponsor body to start telling Parliament what its procedures should look like and so on—so there is very much a need for close working on that.

My final point is that it has become clear to me, having chaired a number of sessions - particularly on the question of accessibility, but the point is wider - that there is an awful lot that we could do now. We do not have to wait for the physical restoration of this building. I urge the House to find ways of exploring some of the things that could be done right now to make the building more accessible - and I mean accessible in its full sense in terms of the language that we use and the way that people engage with this place - while we wait for more tangible physical accessibility improvements further down the road. 

We need to think about how Parliament creates the space to think about those things when there is so much else going on. If Parliament is to come through what is a particularly torrid time at the moment, we really must give some attention to these matters.