Friday, June 26, 2020

Ros in the Lords - Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, Motion to Approve

Never let it be said that you don't learn anything here at Liberal Bureaucracy. It would be fair to say that a piece of Northern Ireland specific legislation might not normally draw an intervention from Ros, but sometimes context is important.

Ros sits on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, a deeply obscure Parliamentary Committee which consists of members of both Houses, and its role is to consider statutory instruments made in exercise of powers granted by Act of Parliament. One of the key aspects is to decide whether or not a Statutory Instrument is ultra vires or not.

This particular Statutory Instrument had, to put it mildly, drawn some ire from the representatives of Northern Ireland, as well as the anti-abortion lobby generally, and it had been suggested that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments should have acted in a manner beyond its remit.

And so, Ros went into bat for the Constitution and due process...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. As we received a high volume of correspondence on these regulations — indeed, it has been mentioned in the debate today — I thought it might help the House if I briefly outlined the role of the committee. Our role is to draw the attention of Parliament to statutory instruments on technical grounds, including retrospection, defective drafting and the scope of enabling powers. The merits are strictly not within our scope.

For this order, it is apparent that the strong differences of opinion include on whether it is within the enabling powers. However, the opinion of the committee was that we were unable to report this SI to the House as being outside the scope of enabling powers. This is not to argue that it is within them, but it is to say that these debates need to take place on the Floor of the House to preserve the political independence of the Joint Committee. The merits and the law of this instrument need to be decided by the House in debate, as it is today.

El Returning Officer rides again...

It seems like a very long time ago that I was asked, very nicely, if I would act as the Returning Officer to the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats. And, indeed, I suppose it was - I've been in post now for nine months without actually delivering a result. It's a long story...

There had been some problems. A mass exodus of the leadership over the Philip Lee affair had created something of a leadership vacuum, and the membership list had become a little unstable due to issues about renewal. Nothing that time and a little bureaucracy couldn't fix, but somebody rather needed to take a grasp of things, design a route through the process and deliver an election that could be widely seen as meeting the requirements of due process.

And so I found myself in the position of being that somebody. And that's where things rather went wrong. We needed to confirm the membership list and produce a reliable electoral register, which in turn needed the support of the Federal Membership Team. And that was underway when the snap General Election was called...

Eventually, we got things back underway again, and we're now in a position where we have a membership list which can be relied upon, with renewals processed and eligible voters determined, and so nominations are open.

So far, things appear to be running smoothly enough. There are some questions which are rather for me to answer, as their Constitution is silent on them, and I've had to rather broadly interpret some of its clauses because such a situation as we find ourselves in was never really allowed for - if the rules revolve around holding a physical AGM, how do you respond when such a thing can't happen? - but I'm a transparent sort of Returning Officer, so happy to explain "what and why".

Best of all, everybody appears to be utterly lovely (that's not an invitation to be otherwise, please) and prone to behaving reasonably. I have spreadsheets that allow me to maintain a grip on the nominations - I know when you contacted me, when I replied, and whether or not you are properly nominated. You, the candidates, know what your status is, and those that have nominated you likewise.

I do have some more rulings to make, and guidance to publish, but I think that I can handle that easily enough, so watch this space...

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Ros in the Lords - there's a first time for everything...

The House of Lords is an odd place sometimes. When confronted with something that doesn't perhaps fit neatly into the procedures, the procedures are applied in unexpected ways. And so it was, three weeks ago, that Ros made what was described as a Written Ministerial Statement.

Don't worry, Ros hasn't gone over to the dark side - I'm sure that she'd tell me if she had done - but, in accordance with Clause 17.2 of the Parliamentary Relationship Agreement between the Corporate Officers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons and the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Board, the Sponsor Body shall nominate two Parliamentary members of its Board (one drawn from each House) and agree substitutes as required, to act as spokespeople in each House and to answer Parliamentary questions, make written statements and participate in debates on the Works as required. For the Lords, that would be Ros...

Her formal debut was a written one, which went like this;

I wish to inform the House regarding certain documents that have been  agreed by virtue of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 ('the Act').

On 8 April the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body was established as a corporate body by section 2 of the Act with overall responsibility for the Parliamentary building works. As required by section 3 of the Act the Sponsor Body established the R&R Delivery Authority to carry out the works.

Section 4 of the Act requires the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority to enter into a programme delivery agreement (PDA) regarding the arrangements for the definition, development and delivery of the works. The PDA was approved by the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority Boards on 18 May and it will be reviewed after six months.

Section 5 of the Act requires the Sponsor Body to prepare a strategy for consulting Members of both Houses in relation to the works, which must be published by 3 June. The Sponsor Body Board approved the strategy on 23 April and the Commissions of both Houses took note of the strategy in May. The Act requires the strategy to be kept under review with subsequent versions published accordingly.

Section 6 of the Act requires the Corporate Officers of both Houses to enter into a parliamentary relationship agreement (PRA) with the Sponsor Body. The PRA sets out the arrangements for how both Houses and the Sponsor Body will work together during the works, including their respective roles and responsibilities, and what they should expect of each other across a wide range of areas. The Commissions of both Houses and the Sponsor Body Board approved the PRA in April and it will be reviewed after six months.

I have attached these documents, which are also available on the Programme website.

Not left, not right, but liberal?

So, Layla versus Ed, unless something very unexpected happens. And you're expecting me to have an opinion on which of them I believe will lead the Liberal Democrats into government at the next election.

My answer? Neither of them, to be honest. Going from eleven seats to government, even as a junior partner, is pretty unlikely, if you ask me. We can safely rule out forming a majority government - that sort of thing doesn't happen in fairy tales, and it certainly doesn't happen in British politics. Even the Labour Party don't believe that they can increase the number of seats they hold by 60% under normal circumstances, and in a country where 40% of the population still believe that the Conservatives are the best choice to run things other than a bath, you do wonder how bad things would have to get before opinion turned against them.

That said, the combination of COVID-19 and a hard Brexit might just do it...

A hung Parliament where adding Liberal Democrats would swing the outcome? Possibly, but how many seats would you want to have a real influence, as opposed to being a human shield? Coalition with the Conservatives? Regardless of whether or not it might make sense - and I really don't currently see how it could - the membership would never wear it. Coalition with Labour? Their activists hate us, and their MPs aren't exactly wearing their respect for us on their sleeves. No, either Labour would go for "one last heave", or they'd try minority government and dare the Scottish Nationalists to give the Conservatives a second chance.

That leads to the question, what are the Liberal Democrats for then?

We've tried to be a party of the centre-left, defining ourselves by comparison with a nominal political centre. We've tried equidistance, which means that we are defined by the behaviour of two other political forces. My gut feeling is that we're there to be liberal, because the other two sure as hell aren't going to be unless there's some short term advantage in it for them.

That means values, which drive policies. Now, from a personal perspective, this is some of what I mean (other liberals may vary);
  • does this decision offer new freedoms without necessarily taking freedoms from others?
  • is it transparent and accountable, i.e. is it explained and can it be challenged?
  • does it encourage people to take control over their own lives and provide them with the tools to do so?
  • does it balance the relationship between the individual and the State?
The thing is that liberalism does mean having to compromise along the way. There are very few perfect solutions, no policies that make 100% of the populace happy. You have to consider the benefits and the harms, but applying the four themes above might lead you towards a collection of pretty obvious policy stances.

And that's part of the challenge of being a liberal in any event. that our creed isn't really definable by a sentence as much as a set of guidelines. Not catchy, not really soundbite material, but something that you are and do.

And sometimes, that will be more "left" than Labour, and sometimes more "right" than the Conservatives - the latter's view of freedom being the right to do things that they approve of. But it will, or should, always be liberal.

And so, whilst I'd love to think that my endorsement carries some small amount of weight (it really doesn't, I'd suggest), I won't be offering one. I'll watch the debate, read the commentary, ponder the views of friends and colleagues, and then try to judge which candidate is most likely to lead and build a properly liberal political force before quietly marking my ballot paper in their favour.

My only request of the candidates and their supporters is this - play nice. if your chosen candidate is so great, they'll win on their merits, not because they're slightly less awful than the other one. And frankly, if that's the requirement for winning, the prize really isn't worth it...

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Water Industry (Specified Infrastructure Projects) (English Undertakers) (Amendment) Regulations 2020

It is a mark of how wide-ranging the debates in the Lords are that, in six weeks, Ros spoke on volunteering, food waste, the National Archives and here, on 8 June, water infrastructure regulations...

My Lords, it is a mark of the new arrangements that in recent weeks I have spoken in debates on food security, the charity sector and heritage and had between one and two minutes in which to do so. With the luxury of five, I will start with the usual courtesy of thanking the Minister for his comprehensive and useful introduction, and his officials for producing an extremely readable and useful set of accompanying documents.

Although narrow in its scope, this SI gives us a very useful chance to carry out some post-legislative scrutiny. I am not clear why a sunset clause was introduced in the first place. It might be because it was only ever envisaged for one project, but it would be useful to understand that better. I would rather know precisely what it was intended to do and what the risks are in removing it. The regulations as they stand have certainly done an extremely good job for the Thames tideway tunnel project. It will remain to be seen whether it is suitable for projects going forward. I am interested in the Minister’s thoughts about why this might not be a suitable framework for the four projects which he outlined, because it seems to have been successful.

It would also be helpful if he could give a bit more detail on the timetable for the proposed major new projects, as I did not quite hear what it was. In recent years, the emphasis seems to have been on improvements —particularly environmental improvements—to existing assets, and I welcome that. I am old enough to remember the 1970s, when the UK was known as “the dirty man of Europe”. UK standards have played a huge part in driving improvements in water quality across the piece. I am sure that all noble Lords would welcome an assurance that the UK will not, in any way, be slipping back once it is removed from EU standards.

Managing those assets, getting better value and using water more efficiently is an interesting challenge for the industry. Can the Minister say a little more about the limits? How much more water efficiency can we get out of existing infrastructure before we have to start thinking about new infrastructure, especially given the combination of climate change, increased population and differences in the way we lead our lives? It is good to hear that this model has worked so well for Tideway. It has suggested that the regulatory and contractual arrangements have given it a framework which has incentivised delivery on time and on budget—I would like to hear an update on that—as well as lower expected costs of capital.

The Consumer Council for Water has observed that customer handling in this project was not effectively done, because it was not sufficiently financed. Is that inherent in the regulatory structure or just an oversight that we can learn from and change next time? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ros in the Lords - Covid-19: Museums, Galleries and Historic Buildings

In a very short speech on 21 May, Ros was moved to refer to a sometimes forgotten element of our cultural heritage...

My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive board member of the National Archives. While the National Archives has closed its building, given the importance of its function, I wanted to reassure noble Lords that it remains highly active in very important ways.

For the duration of its closure, it is providing free online access to its wide range of digitised records. Through, it is aiding legal certainty through the rapid publication of emergency legislation, operating a seven-day-a-week service. It is capturing the comprehensive record of the Government’s evolving response to Covid-19 by archiving key government websites and social media channels.

Given its role as leader of the wider archive sector, I close with a plea to consider the impact of this crisis on archives more widely. Its economic impact puts at risk the survival of the irreplaceable archives maintained by businesses, charities and local authorities.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Food Supply and Security

On 14 May, Baroness (Rosie) Boycott moved a Motion to Consider from the Crossbenches. Given Ros's activities in this particular field, she was keen to raise the issue of food waste...

In 2014, the EU Sub- Committee which I was chairing at the time held an inquiry into food waste, the first ever such inquiry in Parliament. It was very much a reflection of our concern that around a third of the food that we produce for human consumption ends up being thrown away. Since then, the issue has certainly come up the agenda, but it has remained a very difficult nut to crack.

For UK households, the problem is intention. People recognise that it is a problem, but they say that they have a lack of knowledge, their shopping habits perhaps encourage food waste, and the behaviour of retailers almost certainly does.

The leader in this field, WRAP, has just reported after two weeks of lockdown. It has found that people are shopping much less because they do not want to risk going into stores, but they are buying more, and of course people are eating out very much less than they were before. Therefore, the incentive now is not just time and money; it is people’s safety. They have begun to do all the things that we have advised, such as planning meals, checking stocks and making lists, managing portion sizes and using their freezer. WRAP has found that one in three households is now throwing away less and only one in 25 is throwing away more. Crucially, WRAP has found a clear correlation between those throwing away less and those who recalled seeing information from campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste.

Therefore, I now ask the Government to work with WRAP to really ramp up practical advice that will help households save money now but also, crucially, will help to instil a lasting behaviour change going forward. In this way, we can reap the environmental benefits of reducing the emissions and water footprint of the food that we throw away. This is a one-off chance to change behaviour for good, especially in younger people, and we should not miss it.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Charitable and Voluntary Sector

30 April saw a Motion to Take Note, moved by Dominic Addington from the Liberal Democrat benches. Here's what Ros had to say...
We live in an age where we have an obsession with numbers—that is, analysing and counting—but we occasionally forget what really matters: the outcomes. As inspiring as it was to see 750,000 volunteers come forward for the NHS, the fact is that many of them have been given no tasks to perform. In the meantime, 1.5 million of our most vulnerable shielded citizens have not been receiving the support that they were promised.

Volunteers need to be organised as well as mobilised, and that requires structure. It makes no sense to create large new centralised systems when existing local provision is already there. It may look fragmented at the local level, but it is much more likely to be effective than any other way when properly organised. Local providers are much more likely to be trusted, to be aware of ​local needs and conditions and, crucially, to be able to draw on resources quickly when they are needed. For those needing specialist help, it is much more likely to be at hand in a local network.

In Suffolk, we formed the collaborative communities board, made up of a range of statutory providers and the VCSE sector—including Community Action Suffolk, of which I am a trustee. Town and parish councils are also represented; they are an important link into many communities, especially in rural areas. We have 1,500 community groups registered on our app. The Home But Not Alone helpline is taking around 1,300 calls a week and is organising help for people in need, including food packages, medicines, transport and befriending. A 24/7 mental health hotline was opened on 15 April. Providing accommodation solutions is a major strand of work for all these organisations, which are working together to provide accommodation and the support that people need.

I urge the Government not to neglect the local dimension in all this.

And here is an excerpt from the reply from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Baroness Barran...
On volunteering, we have seen an overwhelming response from the public, expressing their willingness to step up and volunteer to help those in need during this time. We have seen this through local volunteer networks such as the 3,500 Covid mutual aid groups that have sprouted up on Facebook, WhatsApp and ​Nextdoor, as well as the incredibly important established charity networks, large and small, which have been able to respond quickly and effectively, based on a deep knowledge of their communities and trusted local relationships. Having had a wonderful visit with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, to her local community organisation, I can tell noble Lords that it is an exemplar of all those things.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ros in the Lords: questions and answers

Yes, the "Virtual Lords" is up and running, and Ros has already been active. Here are her questions since the House returned, as well as the Ministerial answers...

Passenger Train Services - 29 April

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
To what extent will demand for rail services be taken into account when deciding which sectors will be unlocked? How will this be managed given the significant regional variations in the use of rail for commuting?

Baroness Vere of Norbiton
That is an incredibly important question. I am sure the noble Baroness will understand that we are considering all these issues at the moment. There will be regional variations according to which services are more likely to be used. There will also be variations with long-distance services and short-distance commuter routes. All these considerations are being put in. Also, when restarting public transport, one of the key things that we will have to do is look at local impacts—working with metro mayors, for example, and local transport authorities to make sure that they feed into the system and help us plan for their local economies, to get people back to work.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund - 21 May

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, the voluntary community and social enterprise sector has made very effective use of EU structural funds. However, generally it can be very difficult for the sector to access public sector procurement and bidding processes. Therefore, will the Minister undertake to consult the sector before the details of this new scheme are put in place?

Lord Greenhalgh
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. It is very important that we consult the local community and voluntary sector. This is an opportunity, through one fund, to reduce bureaucracy and avoid form-filling, and for precisely that reason we will engage with the wider voluntary and community sector.

Covid-19: UK Border Health Measures - 4 June

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
Can the noble Baroness reflect on the difficulties experienced by police in the early days of the lockdown concerning regulation and law versus guidance? Can she tell us what lessons her department learned from that, and how we can make sure that the three agencies involved are very clear about the difference between statute and guidance?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
Yes, this was the subject of a question to me a few weeks ago. There were some hiccups at the beginning of this process, and of course the media ran the odd story about the police perhaps being a bit overzealous. The police have, to a huge degree, got not only the consent but the support of the public. Something like 74% of the public think that the police are doing the right thing in how they go about enforcing—in fact, some people think that they should have been even stricter. But I totally take the noble Baroness’s point that people should understand the difference between what the law is and what the guidance is. The regulations are the law and the guidance assists in the application of the law.

Local Government: Economy - 9 June

Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, the response to lockdown has shown that, where a full range of digital tools is available, people and businesses can locate almost anywhere. This could be transformative for rural economies, so will the Minister commit that, when we get details of the shared prosperity fund, there will a dedicated stream for rural areas that could work alongside new funds outlined in the Agriculture Bill?

Lord Greenhalgh
My Lords, I have already made the commitment that the UK shared prosperity fund will see no diminution in the support to enable us to level up our economy, including support for rural areas.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Creeting St Peter - dreaming about local government finance?

One of the personal advantages of the pandemic is that, as I’m working from home, I have rather more time to think - the eight hours or so I would usually spend commuting are mine to enjoy, for the time being. Now, I acknowledge, that isn’t necessarily an entirely good thing, because it does tend to lead me to think of things that I might do. However, given that life is usually quite hectic on Planet Bureaucrat, it is nice to have some relative downtime.

But, simultaneously, I don’t have anywhere near as many responsibilities as I might have done in the past. As part of the ongoing process of tapered withdrawal from anything other than local Liberal Democracy, my activity is more focused and less burdensome - I do things that I want to do, rather than those that other people would like me to do for them. Thus, the things that I ought to, or might, dedicate more time to are fewer.

The biggest one, or at least, the role with widest significance, is Creeting St Peter Parish Council, which I have the astonishing privilege of chairing. It isn’t an obviously onerous job, although I probably spend more time on it than I tend to suspect. And I’m moved to dwell on what it is that I, and we, do.

We are, in local government terms, well resourced relative to our activity. We have a clutch of ring-fenced funds which are intended to support various aspects of village life, and healthy levels of reserves - probably healthy enough not to require further bolstering. That said, financial management is light touch - we don’t meddle, and don’t have a philosophical stance on capital expenditure excepting that we understand that you have to spread its cost rather than simply spend as issues arise. We are, I should emphasise, highly rated by our auditors in terms of record keeping, due diligence and transparency.

So, the question is, what might we do better? That takes me back to a point that one of our councillors raised last year when we considered this year’s budget - should we maintain, increase or, whisper it quietly, reduce the precept given the health of our finances?

But you know how it is, life intervenes, and you “park” the idea at the back of your mind, fully intending to act upon the thought at some point. And then, that point never really arrives. It’s a bit like that e-mail you get that you think, “I really must read that at some point, it looks really interesting.”, and then find in a pending folder six months later, long after the information stopped being useful.

And now, I suddenly, at least theoretically, find myself with some time. So, I’ve decided to look at our ring-fenced funds, to see what we might to with or about them. There are opportunities to clarify functions, increase participation and, perhaps most importantly, do some good.

Wish me luck. I may be gone some time...