Not Saussure

March 9, 2007

Tony: the legacy — Another New Labour Achievement

Filed under: local democracy, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 12:12 am

God Almighty!

Britain could be the first western democracy to face monitoring over vote-rigging and electoral fraud, Guardian Unlimited has learned.

A European human rights watchdog is considering plans to scrutinise the UK’s council and regional government elections this May following concerns over vote tampering and postal ballots.

The move would prove highly embarrassing for Tony Blair’s government, since the majority of countries already monitored are fledgling democracies from the former eastern block.

Despite the protestations of the elections minister, Bridget Prentice, a delegation from the Council of Europe* visited London last week following concerns that vote tampering was undermining UK democracy.

Via Political, who have a good article and innumerable comments on the subject.   As Political Betting comment, What a finale for the final days of Tony Blair

*Not the EU, I’d emphasise.

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January 13, 2007

The Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath Question

Filed under: England, local democracy, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 6:53 pm

As people doubtless know, the West Lothian Question is that posed by Tam Dalyell, then MP for West Lothian:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate… at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

It’s a question that’s never really received a satisfactory answer; it seems most odd that, for example, Gordon Brown, the Hon Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, can vote on matters like top-up tuition fees for students from England at English universities but not for students from his his own constituency who attend St Andrew’s University or on smoking in public places in England but not in Scotland.

Among the answers proposed, of course, include having only English MPs vote on matters that affect only England, either by changing the rules of the House of Commons so that only MPs for English constituencies may vote on matters that only affect England or by setting up a completely separate English Parliament, with similar powers to those of the Scottish Parliament, and leaving Westminster to get on with reserved matters such as defence, national security, foreign affairs and monetary and economic issues.

Such arrangements do not go down well with the Hon Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, who warns in today’s Telegraph against

“English votes for English laws” – a Trojan horse for separation.

As it happens, I agree with him. That’s precisely why I thought devolution for Scotland was a bad idea, since I thought it would inevitably lead to similar demands for England, to the detriment of the Union.

Since apparently Lord Irvine of Lairg thinks the best answer to the West Lothian question is to stop asking it, let’s have a new question, similarly named after the constituency of the MP who first raised it, the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath Question:

Why, since “English votes for English laws” is a Trojan horse for separation, is not “Scottish votes for Scottish laws” not a similar Trojan horse? And why did the hon member not foresee this when he helped introduce this Trojan horse north of the border?

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September 23, 2006

Best practice from the private sector?

Filed under: local democracy — notsaussure @ 1:35 pm

Hilarity at the news that

A council faced with budget cuts has spent almost £2,000 to issue staff with “thinking caps” and puzzles to help them come up with money-saving ideas.Officers are being asked to wear the baseball caps at “brainstorming” meetings and compete to come up with thrift schemes.

but I’m sure I remember reading that this same gimmick was one of Archie Norman’s innovations at Azda when he was brought in to turn the company around, which, of course, he did with great success. If it worked for Azda…

September 4, 2006

Prescott’s legacy… councillors can’t vote

Filed under: local democracy, Politics, standards board, UK — notsaussure @ 12:36 pm

Via Tim Worstall

Councillors have been banned from discussing local park-and-ride schemes if they own a car under an ethical watchdog created by John Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister is accused today of undermining local democracy and stifling free speech by imposing “draconian” rules on thousands of councillors. A damning report reveals how local authority members are being barred from speaking or voting on subjects simply because they are perceived to have taken a position on the issue. Even councillors who have been elected specifically to fight a particular issue have fallen foul of the rules and found themselves told they cannot speak or vote on it

Telegraph | News | Prescott’s ethics fiasco ‘hampering democracy’

The report is by Owen Paterson, the shadow transport minister, and Gerald Howarth, the shadow defence minister, for the Conservative Cornerstone Group (might not yet be on their website) and tells the story of how some of the Standards Board‘s ‘monitoring officers’, both national and local, have been giving councillors utterly bizarre advice on what constitutes a ‘personal and prejudicial interest’ in a matter — and thus prevents them not only from voting but from participating in any discussion of it — and on what the ‘monitoring officers’ take to be the common law principle of ‘predetermination‘, sometimes leading to absurdities such as this:

A reductio ad absurdum of the Board’s argument came during the 2006 council elections, when all candidates for election to Chester council were sent a letter by the city’s monitoring officer Charles Kerry. This stated that any prospective councillor who had expressed a ‘pre-determined’ view on any issue could not, ‘as a matter of law’, take part in any decision relating to that issue. This covers ‘any expression of opinion in any election material, newsletters, letters of press coverage’. The only way a candidate could refer to contentious issues, Mr Kerry advised, must be along the lines of “From what I know at the moment, I am concerned by…”.

and advice like this

When the Council is making a decision on whether to impose charges on its car parks and if so which ones and how much it should charge, it is exercising a discretion. Whenever the Council does this you as a Member of the Council should under no circumstances reach a final conclusion on the matter before you come to a decision on it. This is the common law concept of predetermination that has always applied to local authority decision-making and is also enshrined in guidance on Members Code of Conduct issues by the Standards Board for England.

Members of the District Council should therefore resist making comments in public forums that could be interpreted as your having already committed to making a particular decision about the introduction of the revised car parking enforcement regime. If this could be interpreted from the comments you have expressed and you subsequently speak at a Council meeting at which the decision is being taken, I do not believe that the decision would be flawed. However should you then proceed to vote on the matter the decision could be open to a legal challenge.

(Quotes taken from the report).

Note, by the way the advice is ‘the decision could be open to a legal challenge’; this is the same sort of thinking that gets things banned, or not insured, on Health and Safety grounds because there could be a compensation claim, so it’s safer not to risk it; the fact that ‘this is the common law concept of predetermination that has always applied to local authority decision-making’ and has never yet been interpreted in such a manner might have given someone a clue that it’s a ludicrous fear. As it happens, when the Chester case was reported earlier in the year, I asked a councillor friend of mine — Conservative — what he made of it, and he said the monitoring officer for his council reckoned the advice was nonsensical. Seems to depend very much on where you live.

The report also raises some more sinister manipulations of the Standard Board’s Code of Conduct, whereby complaints are lodged — and investigated at vast expense — by political opponents and, worst of all, where Central Government appears to use the code to stop councillors voting against projects — building programmes, for example — that Central Government want.

One rather strange omission, though; I can’t anywhere find a reference to the Standard Board’s dealings with Ken Livingstone; seems a bit odd. Anyway, it’s hard to disagree with their conclusion that

The Standards Board and all it represents has been a disastrous move in the wrong direction. It is a centralising agency which diminishes rather than strengthens local government and puts far too much power in the hands of unelected officials. It is a drain on the taxpayer. It should be abolished without delay.

A Missed Trick?

Filed under: environment, local democracy, Politics, recycling — notsaussure @ 10:36 am

Tim Worstall on a recycling scheme:

there’s something I find really rather odd in the tone of the discussion. That it is somehow immoral for someone to attempt to make money out of recycling. We faced this a few years ago, we were looking into computer recycling. If you can get hold of a mountain of the stuff it’s profitable to extract the metals (yes, even without sending it all to China).

So I spoke to a few local councils (who were, at the time, complaining about getting mountains of the stuff) and said, well, give it to us (it was, at the time, ultra vires for them to charge for it) and we’ll recycle it.

We met with blank refusals because we admitted that yes, we were hoping to turn a profit by doing so. Very weird to my thinking. No one was in fact reprocessing this scrap (only reasonably modern machines that still worked were desired by the charities) so what did it matter what was the motivation? Surely getting the recycling done is the important thing?

Apparently not. Motives must be pure or Gaia is not appeased I suppose.

Possibly had he approached the councils offering to remove and dispose of their old equipment (in an environmentally friendly manner, of course) for a moderate fee, the councils would have found his approach less surprising.

I suspect, though, that he’s right about people feeling uncomfortable with introducing the profit motive into recycling.

For one thing, it raises the uncomfortable question of whether some recycling is environmentally sound or not. I’m told by people who understand these things, for example, that recycling paper is frequently downright environmentally hostile, since the amount of energy you use collecting the stuff, taking it to a factory and then cleaning and reprocessing it into something is usually considerably greater than that of producing the stuff from scratch.

Worries about ‘saving the trees’ are, of course, a bit misguided; you don’t normally make paper and cardboard from tropical hardwoods or Brazilian rain forests, so worrying about conserving commercially farmed softwoods is a bit like not eating chips because you want to conserve potatoes.

Putting recycling on a commercial footing, so the actual energy costs are exposed, makes all this a lot clearer, which is why I suspect some people would rather not worry about it and prefer to feel virtuous about sorting and putting the stuff in recycling bins. It may, of course, turn out that recycling paper is still the least bad way of disposing of it, since turning it into landfill is expensive, but I’d be very to see a comparison of the energy costs plus greenhouse emissions, etc, of recycling paper vs just burning it.

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