Thursday, March 26, 2015

Of loss and of memory, a family gathers to mourn and recollect

It's mid-afternoon on a typically sultry day in the Mumbai suburbs, and most of my family are taking an afternoon nap. And, given the circumstances, it is good that they are, for it has been a difficult week for the Valladares family.

On Saturday, news reached us that Sinclair, my father's younger brother, had been seriously injured in a traffic accident - he had been crossing the busy road between Mahim and Bandra and had been struck by a motor-cyclist. Tragically, it quickly became apparent that he wasn't going to make it.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, in Auckland and Toronto, London and Boston, passports were being unearthed, emergency visa applications completed and flight tickets booked, as the implications of diaspora came into sharp focus. My cousins, Sinclair's sons, Clyne and Clint, live in Canada and the US, his elder brothers, Windsor and my father, live in New Zealand and London. As for me, I was booked on the evening flight.

By the time I arrived on Sunday afternoon, the house was already filled with a stream of neighbours and friends, there to express their condolences and to tell stories of how Sinclair had touched their lives. Fortunately, my Aunt was already visiting, and Daphne, his sister, who lives across town, had arrived to take control of things.

The funeral was arranged for Tuesday evening, and as sons and nephews, brothers and cousins arrived, we sat and retold stories from our shared past. A stream of friends, neighbours and those whose lives Sinclair had touched came to the house to tell us their stories too, of generosity and support, of favours done and lives changed, of redemption and heroism.

Three hours before the funeral mass, the coffin was brought to the house - open, as is the way here - and prayers said over the body, both by the priest and by a nun - we are never short of the latter here - before a small New Orleans-style band turned up to play some tunes. Eventually, the coffin was carried to St Michael's, the band leading the way, the rest of us following along behind.

I admit to being a less than entirely devout Catholic - I am guilty, rather than practicing, but not so guilty that I feel I should be practicing. But it was a very nice mass, nonetheless, with friends of the family, plus Clyne and Clint, performing some songs as part of the service. It was only when I got up to read a eulogy on behalf of the family that I realised that the church was full, a thousand or more people there, filling the pews, up in the mezzanine, looking through the windows. It was a deeply touching demonstration of his place in the community and the affection in which he was held.

Afterwards, a blur of condolences and reintroductions, as the coffin was interred into the family plot and rose petals scattered, before we returned to Eagle's Nest to talk and eat and reflect.

Such an event in the life of a family is strangely terrible yet moving in equal measure. When that family is as far flung as ours is, it is however an opportunity to reconnect, to strengthen the bonds that tie, regardless of how tenuous they might have become through age and remoteness. Whilst I mourn the passing of my uncle, I am grateful to have had the time with my family here.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Life has its little surprises sometimes. Not all of them are happy ones, it seems...

There are those of you out there who may be expecting me to do something, or come to a meeting, over the next few days. Unfortunately, having woken up this morning with nothing more onerous on the schedule than a bit of light gardening and an evening dinner with friends in Woodbridge, I find myself en route to the airport, with a 21.30 flight to Mumbai (via Delhi) to catch.

So, comment may be a bit thin over the next week, but do bear with me...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Budget 2015: to those that have, shall be given more...

I was dwelling on some of the more dramatic elements of the Budget, and found myself drawn to the introduction of a Personal Savings Allowance, to be introduced from April next year. Under the proposals, anyone receiving interest on their savings will be exempted from income tax on the first £1,000 of any interest received. Now, given that interest rates on savings accounts are, at best, around the 1% mark, you would need to have £100,000 in savings to get the maximum benefit from it.

However, how many people have that level of savings? Indeed, how many households have savings of even as much as £1,000? According to research carried out by HSBC published in late 2013, 25% of households had no savings at all, and another 10% had £250 or less, and those figures are unlikely to have changed significantly since then.

In addition, savers already have a tax-free vehicle for their cash savings, one that has been made highly flexible by recent reforms, the Individual Savings Account, or ISA. Most savers have taken the opportunity to use ISAs to shelter their savings from income tax already - why wouldn't you? So, what George Osborne has done is to offer a tax break to those who, in all honesty, probably have quite a lot of liquid cash. And do such people really need even more incentive to save?

Don't get me wrong, the creation of a savings culture is undoubtedly a good thing. Financial resilience is one of the core requisites for stable families and communities - the impact of relatively minor financial shocks in poorer households is dramatic and frightening - but for those struggling to meet their day to day living expenses, the idea of building savings is just a pipe dream.

It would have been nice if we could have found funds to provide financial advice to those who are struggling instead. Baroness Jenkin took rather a lot of stick for suggesting that some of those who currently struggle might improve matters by better use of the food they buy - she was right in some ways, but clumsy in her language. People today, myself included, have less experience of reusing leftovers but, whilst he comfortably-off can afford the waste, the poor can't.

Poor people pay more for their energy, reliant as they often are on meters for electricity and gas, they pay higher bank charges by running overdrafts or living in areas where the banks have withdrawn free cash machines (poor people really aren't that profitable for banks, they argue), they aren't able to take advantage of bulk purchases in the same way that the relatively well-off can.

Helping the poor, the vulnerable and the unlucky to make better use of their limited resources would help them in terms of financial resilience, and perhaps make it more likely that they could build up even a small reserve for a rainy day. After all, most people don't want to be poor, they don't want to be dependent.

As a Liberal Democrat, I don't want people to be enslaved by poverty. I also suspect that giving a bonus to relatively well-off people at a time when the nation is still running a significant deficit is not necessarily the best use of our national wealth...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A budget for whom, exactly?

Given my interest in matters financial, I was listening to the Budget Statement whilst wrangling a technical problem with my computer (I won in the end, thanks to a colleague). And, in terms of rhetoric, it was an interesting forty-five minutes or so. Lots of references to the Leader of the Opposition and his kitchen, his family issues, his personal tax affairs - anything to wind him up, although you would need to be either inside, or a keen observer of, the Westminster bubble to have gotten all of the jokes.

And, there is little doubt that some of the measures are probably a 'good thing'. Continued efforts to take more of the 'working poor' out of income tax should be applauded, although as the noble Lord Greaves of Pendle rightly pointed out two years ago, we're not actually doing that much now for those who were taken out of income tax by earlier increases in the personal allowance. We could, and should, have addressed the threshold for National Insurance Contributions - swapping the threshold per discrete job for a higher overall threshold, perhaps? - and the logic of subsidising low wage employers by giving their staff tax credits to make up the gap between subsisting and living.

It does strike me as perverse to allow such a obfuscation of the cost of employing people to do tasks. I require, for example, someone to stack the shelves of a supermarket so that I can find the things I want to buy. The price I pay for an item is therefore not the entire cost if I am paying taxes to subsidise the shelf-stacker's salary. Perhaps it would be better if I paid more for the item in the first place, therefore gaining a clearer understanding of the actual cost of my purchase.

And, of course, we need to address the issues surrounding those who want to work but can't, for whatever reason. At the moment, we seem to be happy to allow those in receipt of benefits to run the gauntlet of a system of sanctions for failures that may, or may not, be deliberate. Stuff happens, buses run late or are cancelled, meetings are missed because of ill-health or conflicting demands of childcare or personal crisis, and the system of sanctions kicks in without consideration of the impact.

Don't get me wrong, there should be a sanctions regime in place, but it needs to be considerate of its impact on individuals, not punitive and impersonal. We are, after all, trying to help bring people back into the productive economy, not driving them towards hunger and despair.

And, with Labour offering merely more pressure on benefit claimants, which undoubtedly means more sanctions (and please don't patronise me by trying to explain how you can be tougher on benefits without being more intrusive and more draconian), there is a space in British politics for anyone wanting to explore how you can focus DWP compliance and investigation work so as to enable those genuinely wanting to do their bit to focus on seeking work, and those who are playing the system to be tackled. That should be the Liberal Democrats, but if at present it is, we need to be more vocal in making the case.

@BaronessRos in the Lords: time to do something about the North Sea

Over the past few months, Ros and her colleagues of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee D have been working on the latest report, which was published yesterday. Entitled "The North Sea under pressure: is regional marine co-operation the answer?", it looks as the range of issues that impact on this vital habitat, trade route and natural resource.

Here, Ros introduces the report...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

All quiet on the Mid Suffolk front...

Just fifty-eight days until polling day - we've got Parliamentary, District and Parish elections here in Creeting St Peter. Admittedly, you'd probably never know it if you were relying on one of the political parties telling you. Apart from during last year's European elections, not a leaflet of any sort has come to our home, although our District councillor may deign to pay us a visit from Eye one of these days (I'm not counting on it though...).

It shouldn't come as a surprise, really. Four years ago, despite my doing everything in my power to attract attention (what do you mean, Mark? You were delivering what? Leaflets?...), the Conservatives waited until the last four weeks before bothering to tell anyone what their councillor had done - not much, as it turned out. The year before, we had received some beautiful leaflets urging us to vote for Dr Dan Poulter. The fact that we weren't in his constituency appeared to have passed them by... although he would have been far better than David Ruffley...

In truth, this is the sort of place where democracy is relatively notional. There is little organised opposition to the Conservatives, and it becomes harder to envisage much as political parties dwindle in terms of their capacity to campaign. Rural campaigning is, in any event, more labour intensive and incumbents, especially Conservative ones, come with an inbuilt advantage. Unless someone breaks with the normal pattern whereby little happens between elections, inertia tends to be the order of the day.

At Parish level, we have five councillors in situ, and presuming that they want to continue, it is unlikely that we will have an election at all. That said, in the unlikely event that we had one, nobody would campaign anyway.

I'm going to have to seek excitement somewhere else, I guess...


Politicians: the most obvious reason for plain packaging for cigarettes

I have to admit that I am sceptical about the idea that plain packaging will do much to reduce smoking. Given that my father is in advertising, he may well disagree with me, but as a non-smoker, I am slightly bemused by the idea that pretty packaging lulls otherwise sensible people into believing that cigarettes are anything other than bad for them.

Frankly, if big signs on the packets that say things like, "Smoking Kills!" don't stop people, taking the colour of the packets is hardly likely to have a significant impact. However, I bow to the knowledge of those who have done the research on this and, as long as they don't ban cigars - I like the smell of a good cigar - I'm fairly relaxed about it. It isn't, after all, impinging on people's right to smoke.

But I had begun to assume that cigarette packets were already, at least on the back, plain. After all, Nigel Farage must be writing his party's policies somewhere...


Monday, March 09, 2015

Ed Miliband demonstrates exactly why Labour are so frustrating...

It seems that young Mr Miliband has got it into his head that what we need is legislation to ensure that debates between party leaders take place. In doing so, he reminds me of the Labour belief that you can legislate for anything and everything.

Having chaired, or managed, far too many hustings in the past, I have to admit that they're usually pretty dull. Or, if they aren't dull, they consist of a series of soundbites designed to wind up the opponent. It was one of the reasons why, when the Party's Selection Rules were last reviewed, I sought to remove the obligation to have a classic hustings as part of the process, instead introducing a rule where by a members' meeting was held and that it offered an equality of opportunity to every applicant making it through to the all-member ballot.

What that meant was that candidates might, for example, make a presentation or tap dance or whatever, so long as every candidate was given the freedom to make their case in a way that suited them and showed them to best advantage.

So, whether we want them or not, and I suspect that many people really don't care, we will have televised debates, including any party which has more than 5% of the vote (how does that impact on the Nationalists?) but which reinforce the dominance of the big two by ensuring that they have a debate to themselves.

It would be far more entertaining if, by deciding to opt out of any debate, the broadcasters left an empty chair. Giving an uncontested opportunity to your opponents so that they might attack your policies or your record wouldn't look good, especially as it would give them even more time to do so. And yes, the broadcasters would have no obligation to offer a right to reply, because one has already been turned down.

I would rather see a range of formats on offer, on different media, to reflect the changing way in which we now seek information. That might mean via Facebook or Twitter, using You Tube or radio. I would also like to see policies presented, rather than soundbites delivered, what a Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative or Green government might look like, what their ambitions for our country are.

We have one of the most complex tax codes in the world, thanks mostly to thirteen years of Labour government. Now, it seems, we may have the most complex electoral rules too, and all to such little effect...

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Nigel Farage and the Electoral Commission - "He doesn't like it up him, Mr Mainwaring!"

It seems that Nigel Farage UKIP policy is now to abolish the Electoral Commission, following Our Nigel's speech in Torquay yesterday. Apparently, it is the Electoral Commission that is responsible for the fall in the numbers on the electoral register, and it is failing to do its job in terms of ruling out joke or spoiler parties.

Perhaps Nigel should check on its remit in the first instance. Electoral registration is handled by local government - is that to be abolished too, Nigel? - and is good in some places, not so good in others. Perhaps he might encourage UKIP councillors to provide more funding for this...

And, as for joke or spoiler parties, is he referring to "We Demand a Referendum Now" or "An Independence from Europe"? They were, after all, political parties with MEPs (alright, ex-UKIP MEPs but whose fault was that?) and Mike Nattrass did pick up 234,000 votes. The 1994 European Parliamentary election in Devon and East Plymouth, in which a Literal Democrat candidate took 10,000 votes - Adrian Sanders lost by 700 - was a far more egregious attempt to mislead and led to the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998.

It is perhaps necessary to look at one comment from his speech in particular;
Yes, it is true that many of these impacts are specifically targeted at UKIP, but that is neither here nor there.
One is minded to ask, is there some relationship between Nigel being fined by the Electoral Commission over omissions from his financial reporting and his view that they should be abolished?

There is, I suppose, only one more question to ask Nigel UKIP - if the Electoral Commission is to be abolished, what are you proposing to replace it with? And no, the answer doesn't involve the words 'Europe' or 'immigration'...