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Liberal Bureaucracy

The musings of a liberal and an internationalist, living in Suffolk's Gipping Valley. There may be references to parish councils, bureaucracy and travel, amongst other things. And yes, I'm a Liberal Democrat.

Last Build Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2018 11:53:48 +0000


@BaronessRos in the Lords: Buses

Tue, 13 Mar 2018 11:32:00 +0000

Alright, not perhaps the most glamorous subject in the world, but for those of us who rely on public transport, buses are absolutely core to our options. Ros wanted to remind the Minister that, for rural communities, buses provide a much needed connection to local services...I thank my noble friend Lord Bradshaw for tabling today’s debate and for being so effective in keeping the woes of the bus industry on the agenda because buses tend to get overtaken by railways.Like the noble Earl, I shall use my time to speak about rural bus services in England, where there is a particularly intractable set of problems. Last year, when the Bus Services Bill was going through this House, rural issues were raised quite a number of times. The Minister, to his credit, was forced to admit that not enough attention had been paid to the potential benefits that could come from the Bus Services Act if it was implemented in the right way. I know we are not so far on, but it would be very interesting to hear from the Minister what work is going on in the department to make sure that rural areas are not forgotten. During the passage of the Bill, we talked about the way in which the commissioning process could use the Public Services (Social Value) Act criteria to level the playing field with social and community providers of transport. That was something the Minister was quite responsive to, so I would like to hear a little more about that.I shall make two points which at one level are rather obvious, but which are not always well understood. First, there are different sorts of rural areas. The village I live in in Suffolk is tiny. There are about 200 people in the parish, and it has never had a regular bus service. People stay there only if they have access to a car, and community transport plays an important part for a very small number of people with particular needs. A mile away is a village 10 times the size, which is a completely different kettle of fish. It has always had a very good bus service. People moved there ​knowing that they had access to the nearby market town and then onwards to Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. The service has undergone successive contractions and it is now getting harder and harder for people to use the bus to get into work, or to hospitals and other places. These are both rural communities but they have very different expectations and needs.The second point is that it is convenient to think about rural and urban areas separately, but of course they are inextricably linked. The overall health of the bus industry, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Bradshaw, is very bad, and if it is bad overall, it is dire in rural areas. We have to understand that they are linked. Also, there is the congestion problem: given that most rural journeys might originate in a rural area but are going to an urban area, they are also impacted.The CPRE has recorded that supported mileage by local authorities has fallen by 24%. It is using the term, “the Beeching of the buses”. Many of them are in rural areas. It is quite illuminating that the Campaign for Better Transport worked out that the total of those lost grants is £225 million in England. That is a lot of money for local authorities, but in government terms, it is the cost of a single bypass. It represents 17% of bus journeys but the ones that are the most socially necessary for some groups.In 2016, this House published a report on the way in which the Equality Act is being delivered. There was a particular strand of evidence from users about the way in which local authorities fail to do proper impact assessments when they are making decisions about bus provision. As a consequence, a number of groups now face very real problems, which are bad enough if you are in an urban area—in a rural area, it is hopeless. Many older people are unable to drive and depend on public transport. Reimbursement of the bus pass is not keeping up with the costs and, in any case, in many places there are no services on which to use a concessionary pass. In some areas, including my own, a [...]

Mid Suffolk: the Local Government Boundary Commission for England tries again...

Mon, 12 Mar 2018 22:59:00 +0000

Readers might recall that, three weeks ago, I noted that the proposed new ward boundaries for Mid Suffolk had been delayed. It now transpires that they weren’t wildly convinced by the population predictions offered to them by the District Council and, as it turned out, they indeed contained some anomalies, as pointed out by some of the Parish Councils. And so, it was back to the drawing board in the light of some revised data.

For Creeting St Peter, there is no change from the original proposals, in that we are included in the expanded Needham Market ward, a notional Liberal Democrat seat, I would guess, given that it mostly comprises of the town itself, held at District Council level since 1991, and four outlying parishes which have all returned a Liberal Democrat councillor at County or District level in the past decade... except one. Yes, that’s right, Creeting St Peter. I did try in 2011, honest, but we did win the vote in the Parish in that election if my box count was even halfway accurate.

There are some interesting adjustments, with Stowupland being combined with Old Newton, Haughley and Wetherden to form a two member ward which must be an excellent prospect for the local Greens, given that they hold both Haughley and Wetherden and Stowupland wards currently.

Barking and Somersham, the scene of a Green upset in 2016, gets torn apart, with Somersham going into the proposed new Blakenham ward, and the remainder going into Ringshall and Battisford, a potential three way contest between the Greens, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Much there will depend on how the Conservative vote holds up and who is seen as the most credible alternative.

Despite the loss of six councillors overall (from forty to thirty-four), Stowmarket keeps its seven councillors, but instead of being divided into three wards (North, Central and South), there will now be three two-member wards (Chilton, based on the northern estate of the same name, Combs Ford, broadly equivalent to the old South ward and Stow Thorney, which is everything east of the railway line). The central part of the town will become St Peter’s, and have one councillor.

And, whilst these are all provisional, it would be helpful if they weren’t changed again, as Election Day is less than fourteen months away...

Mid Suffolk - the Local Government Boundary Commission for England rethinks?

Wed, 21 Feb 2018 18:57:00 +0000

We’ve been awaiting the final recommendations for new ward boundaries here in Mid Suffolk for some time, and whilst the proposals are put out for final consultation are not to everyone’s liking (and that includes the Liberal Democrats), they did look like an imaginative and credible solution to the problems caused by a combination of rapid growth in Stowmarket and a reduction in the number of councillors to thirty-four from the current forty.Creeting St Peter was proposed to be transferred from Stowupland ward into Needham Market ward, which would at least give me a reasonable prospect of living in a Liberal Democrat ward for the first time since I left East Dulwich in 2007.The final proposals were due to be published two weeks ago, on 6 February, but on the day itself, all went quiet. So, I wrote to the LGBCE’s press office;Dear Sir/Madam, I was led to understand that the final recommendations were due to be published today, until the website was updated at some point this morning to change the date to ‘TBC’. Is it possible to find out what the issue is that has caused the delay, and when might we find out what the final recommendations are?Now, in truth, I wasn’t expecting a rapid response. I know the score as a public official, there is never enough time to answer random questions from ordinary members of the public, but, to my surprise, a reply came back the next morning;Dear Cllr ValladaresThe Commission has delayed publication of its final recommendations for its Mid Suffolk and Babergh reviews. We are currently examining the electorate data and forecasts that underpin all the recommendations and will be in a position to make a further announcement about the completion of both reviews following the Commission’s next meeting on 20 February. We will update the website immediately following that meeting and directly contact everyone who has taken part in the reviews thus far shortly after that. Apologies for the delay. Marcus --Marcus BowellDirector of Strategy and CommunicationsLGBCEI have to admit that I was impressed. And so, the wait goes on, although today in 21 February, and there’s no sign of an update. It’s early days though, and our elections aren’t until next May, so we wait with bated breath...[...]

One sweet day, I’ve made her mine...

Sun, 18 Feb 2018 17:31:00 +0000

Last year, I celebrated St Valentine’s Day by presenting Ros with sixty thousand breeding pairs of Magellenic penguins. Not literally, you understand, because whilst they’re cute, they do smell a bit, and the cottage is really too small for sixty pairs, let alone a thousand times as many. But you get the drift.And so, my task this year was to find something similarly unusual. So, why not flamingos? In the middle of a desert...Luckily, flamingos like saltwater, and the Atacama is famous for its salt flats, in which can be found three of the six varieties of flamingo - the Andean and Chilean, plus the James’s version, a winter visitor.But first, we had a gentle warmup, with a visit to the Valley of the Moon, so called because, well, it looks quite a lot like the moon, and it’s such a forbidding environment that NASA tested out a Mars rover there. It’s not far from town, and we had a guide, Gustavo, who would be taking care of us for the rest of our stay, organised by the hotel.And it is pretty daunting. The recent rain had caused salt to appear on the surface, looking at first glance as though there had been a light frost. We gingerly made our way across the barren terrain, because you don’t really want to fall over onto the jagged rocks.Our next stop was an abandoned salt mine. It seems that the miners would drill holes into the rock, insert dynamite and stand well back. If a lode of salt was found, they would dig it out and then repeat the process. It is a bleak spot, with no water other than that you could carry there, and no shade either. Perhaps it was no surprise that they abandoned the mine.After a break for lunch, it was time to head for the salt flats. The Salar de Atacama is the third largest salt flat in the world (the two bigger ones are across the Andes in Argentina and Bolivia) and it holds about 30% of the world’s known lithium reserves. This appears not to concern the flamingos, which is fortunate, who eat the brine shrimps to be found in the sinkhole lakes that occur here and there.Laguna Cejar is the nearest of these lakes, and is an obvious place to visit if you want flamingos. They very kindly provide some useful information to read as you follow a path through the reserve, albeit entirely in Spanish, and you get to find out how the whole thing works. And then, you get to watch the flamingos as they go about their business, dabbling the shallow water to stir up the tiny brine shrimps which somehow give them their pink colour. Don’t ask me to explain how this works, as the brine shrimps aren’t pink, but there is science involved.I was quite excited to find a lizard, which patiently stood still whilst I photographed it, but the flamingos were undoubtedly the stars of the show, gracefully making their way across the shallow water. Generally, we see them in zoos or parks, against a green backdrop, and whilst they look pretty, they seem vaguely uninteresting. But, against a background of crystalline salt, they look somehow more real and slightly less garishly pink, as though painted onto the landscape. Helpfully, Andean flamingos are paler than their Chilean counterparts, which allows you to tell them apart.But it was time to head back, we had a dinner to eat and sleep to get before the next adventures...[...]

Breathe deeply... very deeply...

Sun, 18 Feb 2018 09:15:00 +0000

We had to leave the seaside goodbye, for our next stop was beckoning. An efficient transfer to Santiago Airport got us there in good time for our flight to Calama, in the north of Chile. Calama is a mining town, the centre of Chile’s copper industry, and apparently relatively unlovely as a result. But we were onbound to an oasis.

San Pedro de Atacama is just that, an oasis in the heart of the Atacama Desert. And, as you might guess, it’s dry, very dry, so I was somewhat surprised to be greeted on our first evening by a gentle shower of rain. This seems sensible, as the town is on the western side of the Andes range, and my ancient geography lessons taught me that the western side of a mountain range is usually wet. But the cold current that runs along the shoreline to the west apparently sweeps rain clouds south, so San Pedro de Atacama receives, on average, about 42 millimetres of precipitation per year - about 1.67 inches.

The town is also at approximately 8,000 feet, which means that altitude sickness is a factor. And, let’s face it, anything above 80 feet in Suffolk is a hill, so we were determined to take our time before rushing off into the desert or the surrounding mountains.

I still had to get in my 10,000 steps though, which meant strapping on oxygen tanks and going for a walk. Luckily, all that time on treadmills walking steadily uphill meant that, whilst taking it easy, I was able to ease my way to the town’s bus terminal, located on the edge of town, to see what opportunities existed should I ever find myself in San Pedro de Atacama with a need to get out of town quickly.

I was reminded that we weren’t far from either the Argentine or Bolivian borders, and there are regular bus services to Uyuni in Bolivia and Salta in Argentina. Admittedly, they involve long journeys over mountain passes - over 4000 metres in each case - but you could if you really needed to, I guess.

The other task was to arrange our excursions. And we were to have a stroke of luck there...

A day on the beach with the Chileans...

Sat, 17 Feb 2018 18:34:00 +0000

Valparaíso is the port town, and its neighbour, Viña del Mar, is the beach resort. The two are connected by Metro Valparaíso, which runs a very efficient service, seven days a week, at frequencies of as little as every six minutes. Fares are about 50p to travel from one town centre to the other, and it seemed like the easiest way to get some time by the seaside.

And indeed it turned out to be as simple as it looked, despite my total lack of functional Spanish. I managed to buy us a Bip card, the local equivalent of an Oyster card, with enough cash on it to get us to Viña del Mar and back, and off we went.

The line follows the shore in Valparaíso, and then cuts under the coastal highway before diving underground and following the main thoroughfare that runs up the valley. I’d successfully worked out which station to get off at, and we set off for a gentle stroll down Avenida Valparaíso before cutting right towards the Hotel del Mar and a pleasant cafe across the street, where we stopped for an emergency coffee break to watch the pelicans.

On a sunny day, it seems like everyone is either out for a stroll or headed for the sand, but as we aren’t really beach people, we settled for a promenade along the shore. And it’s a very nice stroll, with people selling various handmade art, or useful beach stuff. So, we strolled on, enjoying the sunshine, watching the people.

Eventually, we needed lunch though, and so we retraced our steps until we found the Sheraton Hotel, perched on an outcrop on a curve of the shoreline. Now normally, big chain hotel means garish monstrosity, but I have to give Sheraton credit, they’ve done a decent job here, putting something airy and sympathetic to the landscape. Their barbecue chicken wings aren’t bad either, and sitting on the terrace with a cold beer was a very civilised way to bring our outing to a close.

I managed to find the Miramar station, and we were off back to Valparaíso...

Journeys by trolleybus, a quirky solo adventure...

Sat, 17 Feb 2018 10:12:00 +0000

I am, still, methodically recording my 10,000 steps each day, and I needed another walk to make sure that I got there on our second day in Valparaíso. And what better way than to take a properly long trolleybus ride?So, I walked down the hill, boarded the ascensor, and made my way to the trolleybus stop near to the Armada de Chile headquarters - a wonderful building in the French style that was apparently popular when it was built.And, as luck would have it, one of the elderly Pullman built American trolleybuses rolled up almost immediately. I handed over my C$280, found a seat, and settled back for a gentle glide across the city to Avenida Argentina, which defines the northern limit of the flat, coastal part of the city.Glide is the right word, for they move almost silently, the only sound being that of the tyres on the road surface. They’re very comfortable, despite their age and the upholstery, which is amazingly similar to that on buses in Mumbai, a green plastic material. Luckily, unlike Mumbai, it doesn’t get as warm, so you don’t get burnt by the seats.At Avenida Argentina, I took a gentle stroll towards the shoreline, stopping only to explore a local hypermarket. Prices are not too dissimilar to those at home, although as you might expect, the cost of Chilean wine is significantly cheaper. Otherwise, ignoring the language differences, you might find yourself in familiar circumstances.The western end of Avenida Argentina has a commuter rail station, of which more later, and, having checked it out, I headed back to the trolleybus terminus, detouring only to explore the long-distance bus terminal.Now I would be the first to admit that my interest in buses is limited to local ones, but it is interesting to see where you can get to from any particular town or city, and Valparaíso is very well connected, not only to Santiago, but to cities up and down the country, as far north as Iquique, and as far south as Puerto Montt, which is broadly where the roads end and ferries take over. They’re long rides though...I caught a Swiss trolleybus back, stopping only to take some photographs... of trolleybuses.I’m beginning to really like this country...[...]

A gentle stroll amongst the cerros, and an antique ride...

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 20:30:00 +0000

Our hotel, amongst its many virtues, offered a walking tour of the city as part of our stay, and the next morning, we were greeted by Cynthia, who has been leading walking tours in Valparaíso for seven years or so.

We started with a gentle stroll around Cerro Alegre, our own area of the city, before taking the ascensor down to Plaza Sotomayor. The highlights of the square were duly noted, but we were then led to the side of a building to take a ride on the city’s trolleybus route.

Alright, I can sense your thought - why a trolleybus, and why is it interesting? Well, Valparaíso has the oldest trolleybuses still in service anywhere in the world, some of which date back to 1947, and they are American in construction. The newer ones, a mere fifty years old, were imported secondhand from Switzerland, but all of them still serve the locals admirably, and the fare is very reasonable.

Now, I admit to being a bit of a bus enthusiast, indeed, a public transport enthusiast, so a ride on an obscure and unusual form of transport suited me just fine. It was a short ride though, as Cynthia needed to make a stop at her preferred butcher, which gave us an interesting glance at Chilean life, plus lots of free samples of cured pork and salami.

Back on the trolleybus, our next stop was the Queen Victoria ascensor (see, I told you that the British influence is strong here!), which was our link to Cerro Concepción, the other prime hill of the city. The architecture is... unexpected, with a lot of buildings clad with corrugated iron sheets, including the various churches.

For Valparaíso was indeed an international city, and permission was given to the Anglicans and the Lutherans to build their churches, so long as they weren’t too obvious. Apparently, they have the best pipe organ in South America, but I’m unable to personally vouch for that.

All that was left to do was to get back to the hotel, made slightly more complicated by the need to get from one hill to another. It meant climbing up the hillside, cutting across and then making our way back down again.

Luckily, we’re both a lot fitter these days...

Unexpected perfection on a cluttered hillside...

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 08:17:00 +0000

And so to Valparaiso, Chile’s primary port, via a brief but pleasant stop at a vineyard in the Casablanca Valley for a bite of lunch and a sensational Syrah.

I had found a recommended hotel but, you know how it is, the guidebooks and the website don’t always tell you the full story. And so it was with a little trepidation that our driver pulled up at the end of a dead-end street. A cheery greeting from the desk clerk was a promising start, and we were shown to our room, all dark wood and comfy furniture. And then I opened the door onto the balcony...

Laid out in front of us was the port, with enormous container vessels at the quayside, plus a chunk of the Chilean Navy, the main Plaza Sotomayor, with its monument to the War of the Pacific (of which, more later), and views out over the surrounding cerros.

The hotel turned out to be an old mansion, on five floors, with a rooftop terrace for evening drinks, a very good restaurant, a pool, sauna, jacuzzi and spa, sprawling down the hillside. Everything was going to be alright...

It was time to explore, so I set off down the hillside, past the Museum of Fine Arts, in search of the Ascensor El Peral, an interesting means of connecting the hills to the central core of the city. Built at the beginning of the last century, they are very steep funiculars, once steam powered but now electrically driven, and very reasonably priced at C$100 (about 12p). They’re certainly well used, with long queues to use them during the morning and evening peak hours.

I wandered down to the waterfront, taking in the railway station along the way, and took a stroll along the streets that parallel the shore. Valparaiso is never going to win awards for glamour, it’s a working port city that has seen some pretty tough times, but it has an intriguing history, and some unique features worthy of a visit. It also has a strong British connection, which is not overlooked.

But we had a walk planned, and a gentle bus ride. And not just any old bus...

A sombre reminder of the inhumanity of a dictatorship

Mon, 12 Feb 2018 11:32:00 +0000

Modern day Chile, with its stable democracy, modern economy and emerging tourism industry, seems like such a serene place relative to its neighbourhood, so it is easy to forget that, less than thirty years ago, it was a dictatorship which inspired worldwide protests.And, as has been the case in a number of similar countries, it had to go through a process of reconciliation and recognition. Part of that process was the building of the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memories and Human Rights), which seeks to tell the story of the military coup of 1973, the oppressive regime that followed and the campaign to bring democracy back to the nation. It is not a cheerful place, but it is an inspirational one, demonstrating the power of the human spirit and the yearning to be free.The building itself is quite remarkable, a piece of modern architecture which looks rather forbidding on the outside, but offers a wonderful multimedia display space for the films, photographs and displays that make up the collection.You are taken through the events of the dictatorship from the aerial attack on the Presidential Palace, on to the roundup of political opponents to torture and execution, the emergence of protest groups both inside the country and in exile, and the battle by the ruling junta to suppress dissent through a mixture of fear and constitutional reform.They rather graciously don’t mention the support received from right wing politicians in Europe and the United States which, given what eventually happened to General Pinochet, is probably a blessing for United Kingdom-Chile relations.It is a bit squeamish in parts, with witness testimony of torture, both physical and psychological, but coming from a country like Britain, where we don’t really do that sort of thing, it is a poignant reminder that we are comparatively fortunate in terms of the democratic structures we have, and the freedoms we blithely enjoy.Yes, the exhibits are in Spanish for the most part, but there is a very good audio tour, which takes you through the entire exhibition, so you get a true feel for what you’re seeing.And, importantly, admission is free. Ros was of the view that you wouldn’t want to charge admission, as that might be seen as seeking to profit from the dark events of the dictatorship, and it also serves to make the exhibition open to all, keeping the light shining on the heroism of so many of the Chilean people.All in all, a humbling experience, and one that should cause all of us to reflect on how fortunate we are to live in an established, mature democracy.[...]

Time to make like a snowbird...

Sun, 11 Feb 2018 09:17:00 +0000

It was snowing in Ipswich. Admittedly, whilst it was surprisingly heavy, it wasn’t destined to last, and it was mere coincidence that, beside my desk at work was a large purple suitcase, packed with a surprising amount of warm weather clothes... For it was time to head for the airport again, and despite the weather, I made my way to Heathrow’s Terminal 5 without alarm to catch a British Airways flight. Next morning, I would awake in Latin America.

The Santiago flight is, by long haul standards, pretty civilised. You leave London at 10 p.m., and arrive at 9.45 a.m., which means that, if you can sleep, you arrive reasonably fresh and can emerge into the bright sunlight in good order.

Best of all, our hotel room was available despite our early arrival, and we could freshen up with a shower before heading out into the warmth. From snowfall to temperatures in the high eighties could be a bit of a shock to the system (albeit not as much as the switch in the opposite direction), but we’re fairly adaptable these days. I was able to organise a massage to get the knots of travel out of my aging body, and a walk in the area around the hotel enabled me to nail down another 10,000 step day.

So, what brings us to Chile so soon after our last visit?

Simple really, we rather like the place. Warmth is pretty much guaranteed unless you head south, the food and wine are great and, unlike much of Latin America, things work here. Hotel staff are efficient but friendly, there are no unexpected surprises other than good ones, and you do get the impression that they’re glad that you came.

And so, another adventure begins...

Ros in the Lords - Environment: 25-year plan

Thu, 01 Feb 2018 09:44:00 +0000

On Monday, Ros was in action again, during a debate on the Government's 25-year plan for the environment. Now, one must always be suspicious of any document which talks about aspiration but leaves much of the detail to the imagination, especially from a Government as inadequate and incompetent as this one, but...I start by offering a welcome to this 25-year plan for the environment, even though it is by no means perfect and has been justifiably criticised as heavy on aspiration and light on detail. The plan outlines some progress that has been made: it highlights significant improvements in water quality made in recent decades. Most of us in this House are old enough to remember that we were once “the dirty man of Europe”; bathers waded through raw sewage on their trips to the seaside. So what does success look like? Last May the European Environment Agency reported that in 2016 96% of Europe’s beaches met the basic standards and 85% met the most stringent requirements. How do you achieve such success and what can we learn from it?It started with campaign groups making a fuss and raising awareness among the general public, leading to political pressure. The response to that was legislation that included binding targets, an enforcement regime and penalties. This changed behaviour. Pressure groups continue to act to highlight shortcomings and the whole process becomes iterative. Of course, because water quality is a cross-border issue, EU legislation such as the bathing water directive and the water framework directive were the legislative underpinning. It seems to me that campaigning groups are fundamental to holding Governments’ feet to the fire. In recent years changes to charity law have been made regarding what the Government describe as “lobbying” but is in fact the rightful campaigning role of this sector. The rules have been described as having “a chilling effect” on charities’ ability to get their concerns across, especially during election time. These groups must be able to tell truth to power.The plan recognises that many of the proposals will need to be put on a statutory footing. However, there is already a huge body of existing EU legislation which does much of this work: around 80% of the UK’s environmental law comes from the European Union. A number of environmental organisations have expressed the view that the provisions in the withdrawal Bill simply do not provide sufficient safeguards, while constitutional experts query the legal status of retained EU law: we will continue that debate tomorrow. Many of the objectives in the plan are weak, they lack statutory force and targets remain aspirational. The Government have already missed non-binding targets for halting biodiversity decline, phasing out horticultural peat, achieving good ecological status for water and others. Some objectives are unambitious. For example, the target for water quality does not set a date for achieving good ecological condition, unlike the water framework directive, which does. Experience of climate change legislation shows that targets should include realistic delivery dates, with milestones for achieving them.As we have heard, the plan commits to an independent environmental watchdog as a replacement for enforcement at EU level. For such a body to be effective, it must be properly resourced. We are currently seeing serious funding issues with other statutory regulators, such as the Charity Commission, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation. This has to be a concern. Such a body must have an effective complaints mechanism and access to remedies for the whole of ​civil society, and should definitely be accountable to Parliament, not to government. As the Minister emphasised, cross-border working i[...]

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

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 12:39:00 +0000

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 str[...]

Ros in the Lords - Social Media: News

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 22:51:00 +0000

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 institut[...]

Hello jet lag, my old friend...

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 22:34:00 +0000

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...

I drink, therefore I do not freeze...

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 23:41:00 +0000

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.[...]

North to Alaska, sorry, Portland...

Sun, 07 Jan 2018 23:23:00 +0000

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...[...]

Ros in the Lords: Women and the State Pension

Fri, 05 Jan 2018 21:00:00 +0000

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 thei[...]

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

Thu, 04 Jan 2018 20:46:00 +0000

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...[...]

A polite reminder about the role of the Civil Service

Wed, 03 Jan 2018 02:47:00 +0000 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...[...]

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

Tue, 02 Jan 2018 23:19:00 +0000

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...

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

Mon, 01 Jan 2018 19:18:00 +0000

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...[...]

Catch the bus, if you can...

Sat, 16 Dec 2017 10:26:00 +0000

As a recently returned member of the Liberal Democrat Voice editorial team, I have the good fortune to receipt a copy of every press release issued by the Party. Well, I say good fortune but, most of the time, I simply delete them as being of little personal use. That isn’t a criticism of our Press team, but is a reflection of the fact that I’m only really an amateur journalist one day per week.Sometimes though, one of them catches my attention, as it did on Thursday.Local bus routes slashed by 14% in areas outside London read the headline. Given that I live outside London, and rely on buses to get out and about in the absence of both a car and the ability to drive one, I wanted to find out more.It seems that the number of miles travelled by supported bus routes, which are subsidised by local authorities, fell to 125 million in 2016/17 in areas of England outside London. This is a fall of 20 million miles, or 13.8%, compared to the previous year.In truth, this comes as no great surprise. My village lost its last scheduled bus service a few years ago, but given that it ran once a week (on Market day) and was so obscure that even my then fellow Parish councillors didn’t know of its existence, its failure to survive was inevitable.The service was replaced by Demand Responsive Transport, funded by the County Council. I could ring the contact number, talk to Margaret or Francesca, and we would agree pickup and drop off times, based on the needs of other users. It was surprisingly reasonable in cost and very efficient, helpful given that it was my only connection to the outside world apart from a long walk across the fields to either Stowmarket, Needham Market or Stowupland.Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration is inordinately proud of its record of freezing Council Tax, and of increasing reserves each year in excess of inflation. The down side of that is increasing pressure on what are seen as non-core services, and rural buses fall into that category, with subsidies reduced year on year.My bus service was put out to tender as part of that programme of cuts, and the new operator was tasked with reducing the required subsidy to nil over five years. What that meant was a sizeable rise in fares - the cheap return was replaced by two singles (my fare went up by 54% as a result) but, worst of all, the County Council had, by design or by accident, excluded the Mid Suffolk service from the concessionary fare scheme for the elderly. That was hardly likely to help make the service viable, but nonetheless, it was done anyway.It was noticed that the equivalent services in Waveney, Babergh, St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Suffolk Coastal all retained a right to use the concessionary fares scheme, and even in Ipswich, there were plenty of regular buses on which the scheme applied.But, it was, and is, all about the money. The County Council continue to make cuts, rural bus routes shrivel up and die, and the villages become that little bit harder to get to and from. Once a bus runs on a less than hourly basis, the chances are that more and more people will simply switch to private vehicles. And if you make the schedule unpredictable, you’d better believe that you have problems.iA death spiral ensues - less people ride the bus, so higher subsidies are required, which the County Council can’t, or won’t countenance. Thus, more cuts, less buses, further passenger switching to private vehicles. I can’t object to the app[...]

Venezuela: Maduro gets his retaliation in first...

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 11:00:00 +0000

I’ve written here before about Venezuela, a potentially wealthy country brought to its knees by first corruption, then quasi-imperial overreach and finally rampant paranoia. And I return to the subject following the news that President Maduro, a man ill-equipped to run a bath, let alone a country, has decided that, following a widespread boycott of recent municipal elections, those Opposition parties who chose to join the boycott will be barred from contesting next year's Presidential election.It should come as no real surprise, given his nonchalant disregard for the democratic process. He has, after all, subverted Parliament by creating a Constituent Assembly in his own image to override it, removed an uncompliant Chief Prosecutor (who, by the way, is in The Hague trying to bring a case against him in the International Criminal Court) and done everything possible to paralyse the Opposition in the country.All of this, remember, against a backdrop of a collapsing economy, with inflation at 650% and expected to reach 2,300% next year, the country said to be in selective default of its debts and with the average Venezuelan thought to have lost 9 kilos in weight in the past year - Venezuela imports much of its foodstuff.The Maduro Administration still has some friends - the Russians have deferred $3 billion in debts over ten years - but with $140 billion in debts, just $9.6 billion in reserves and an income stream heavily dependent on oil sales to the United States, it is only a matter of time before the wheels fall off completely.This has been a slow motion train wreck, in plain sight of the world, in a supposedly developed country, and yet there appears to be no will to do very much. One can see why, perhaps. There is no grounds for military intervention, as Venezuela is no real threat to anyone, and the Government is clearly immune to persuasion. Aid is difficult as the chances of it reaching ordinary Venezuelans is remote, unless they support the Government. And a boycott of Venezuelan oil is likely to put prices up - an unpopular notion - and cause even greater hardship amongst the people.What remains is to continue to condemn the Maduro administration both as individual states and as collections of states, explaining to the Government that their behaviour is unacceptable, and that assistance is conditional, hoping that desperation leads them back to democracy.It’s a long game, and the Venezuelan people are likely to suffer more before it reaches a conclusion. One can only hope that, should they be driven to revolution, that it be quick and relatively merciful and that the outside world stays out of it - Latin America has seen enough outside interference over the past two hundred years and needs no more.May God have mercy on the Venezuelan people - they need all of the help that they can get...[...]

Is there a best time to take a position if you know that doing so will cost you support?

Thu, 14 Dec 2017 16:15:00 +0000

The Labour frontbench’s decision not to support a Liberal Democrat amendment which would hold open membership of the Single Market was an interesting one. If, as is reported, it was simply an attempt to keep the option on the table, then one might reasonably argue that, by allowing it to be defeated, Labour reduced their own wriggle room in the eventuality that they become the Government.And they’re entitled to do that, if they see that it is to their political advantage.But, as a political party seeking to gain the support of those voters who wish to remain in the European Union, it might be a risky strategy. Yes, the options available to Remain voters are quite limited in many ways - the Conservatives and UKIP are obviously ruled out, the Greens and Liberal Democrats are too far back to be credible alternatives in many places just now - but that might not last.Which brings me to my original question. Labour can, for now, get away with not really taking a clear view on Britain’s future inside or outside the European Union. With the Government displaying quite astonishing levels of incompetence and unreliability, merely not being them makes Labour look better than they might otherwise do. But, at some point, if they get into power (and it shouldn’t be ruled out as the implications finally dawn on the Conservatives that Brexit is not going to be easy, cheap or painless, or even what any of them want), they’re going to have to take a stance.Less than three weeks ago, I was at a conference of the Save Romania Union, a new political party, who have gone through some teething pains. Having formed as an anti-corruption, pro-reform, pro-European Party, as they have formed a set of working principles, they have lost some of their initial supporters, who don’t want to adhere to those principles, or at least, some of those principles. As policy decisions are taken, you lose people who don’t like that particular choice.And Labour have the same problem. Take a clear stance on membership of the Single Market, and you risk losing either the support of left-wing Eurosceptics, or of young, pro-Remain, voters. Similarly with the Customs Union, or freedom of movement. But, if you don’t have a clear stance going into Government, you’re not likely to make a good fist of negotiating with the European Union, who do know what it is they are trying to defend.There’s a possible election to be fought and won,  preferably with the aid of an army of young, committed activists, who may not be quite so committed if they think that Labour are a pro-Brexit party at heart.So, Labour are in a bind. They need to gain and retain as much support as they can to get elected, but risk early disenchantment of those supporters at the very time they will need loyalists most. What is a political party to do?...[...]