Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Andrew's fair wind

The St Ives MP Andrew George has reservations about increasing VAT from 17.5% to 20% because he correctly interprets analysis from a host of think-tanks that it will impact disproportionately and unfairly on the low-waged economy of Cornwall. But that didn't stop him from voting in favour of the increase on Tuesday evening, despite having tabled an ammendment to the Finance Bill which would have inserted an impact assessment before the VAT increase could go ahead.

Andrew says he wanted to give a "fair wind" to the government on VAT. Well, two Liberal Democrat MPs, Bob Russell and Mike Hancock, found their way into the Opposition lobby and did vote against the increase. Does Andrew think these Lib Dems were being unfair?

It's even worse than I thought

My speculation about the sudden increase in the size of the cuts facing Cornwall Council was wrong - the jump from £3.8 million to £13.668 million appears to have taken place before officials realised what was happening with education. On Friday chief exec Kevin Lavery sent his weekly message to all staff, detailing what he then knew. Michael Gove's assault on education spending will be in addition to these cuts.

Welcome to Narnia

A fantasy world? A parallel universe?

The senior officers' remuneration disclosed in the latest Cornwall Council annual accounts really does make it look as if, for some people, stepping through the doors at County Hall grants membership to some exclusive club of lottery winners.

Chief Executive Kevin Lavery's total package, including pension, is £238,800 - about £100,000 more than David Cameron gets for running England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

More than 30 officials earning over £100,000? Someone's having a laugh...and it's not the majority of Cornwall Council's 21,000 staff, who are lucky if they make £23,000 in a year and who now face an uncertain future as public spending is slashed.

Sita waste contract

Cornwall Council's annual statement of accounts reveals that the Secretary of State's decision on the proposed waste incinerator at St Dennis is not expected until February of next year. The accounts repeat the oft-stated council line that if the council wins the planning inquiry, it will cost taxpayers £200 million to tear up the Sita contract and start again. (Much much cheaper to lose the inquiry and just pay the legal costs. Unless you live at St Dennis.)

The author of the accounts demonstrates a real talent for understatement:
"The waste scheme...has presented significant difficulties in interpretation under the new accounting requirements as it is clearly not operating in the manner anticipated by the financial model that formed the basis of the original contract."

The implications of the Sita waste contract are so profound that the Audit Commission is paying particularly close attention to this item. The Commission will deliberate during July and August and present its findings at a meeting on 27th September - five months before anyone knows what's happening at St Dennis.

An age old old age problem

It's now routine for journalists to use the words looming, pensions and crisis in the same sentence and this blog post is no exception. Cornwall Council's pensions liability appears to have nearly trebled in just one year:
"Also reflecting the general economic downturn is the change in the net pension fund liability, which has increased from £303m to £872m, valued on the basis required by financial reporting standard FRS17. (I have absolutely no idea what this is - GS) Just over £100m is due to the addition of the net pension liabilities of the former district councils."

Notwithstanding the addition of the old district councils, it seems previous valuations of the pensions liability were wildly over-optimistic.

Bean counters lose their marbles

You don't have to plunge too deeply into Cornwall Council's annual statement of accounts before the first headline-grabber smacks you in the eye: the old district councils over-inflated valuations on their property assets by £23 million.
"In five of the six districts, the valuations were out of line with auditors expectations, based on an independent survey undertaken for the Audit commission. This resulted in those districts receiving technical qualifications (due to limitation of scope) on their accounts. Those valuations have indeed been revalued downwards, by approximately £23m. The change in the valuations has been reflected by way of an adjustment to the asset values brought in from the district councils into the opening balance sheet."

In standard English, this means we're £23 million worse off than the we thought we were.

The long goodbye

Peter Lewis
Back in March I probably contravened BBC editorial guidelines on chequebook journalism by offering to buy Peter Lewis a pint in return for his version of why he was leaving his job as Corporate Director for Support Services at Cornwall Council. I now understand why he could afford to decline my hospitality.

The council's annual statement of accounts, presented to the Audit Committee yesterday, reveal the total cost of Peter's 12-month stay at County Hall was £231,274.

This was made up of £127,742 basic salary, £24,782 pension contributions and £78,750 compensation for loss of office.

At the time, the council's chief executive, Kevin Lavery, issued a brief statement which suggested the two men had disagreed about the pace of structural reform within the organisation. But when I asked the direct question, "was Peter sacked?" I was told he had made his own decision to leave.

So here are some more questions: if Peter was not sacked, why has he been paid nearly four times the average annual wage for Cornwall as compensation for loss of office? What were the specific differences between Peter Lewis and Kevin Lavery over structural reform within Cornwall Council? Which elected members were involved in appointing Peter Lewis in the first place? And which elected members were involved in negotiating his exit compensation?

The first straight answers might deserve a pint...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A letter to the chief

Kevin Lavery
Chief Executive
Cornwall Council
29th June 2010

Dear Kevin

Many thanks for your letter of 16th June, concerning my Freedom of Information application for details about the Falmouth Town Council Penwerris ward by-election held on 27th May.

Naturally I'm disappointed that you feel disinclined to provide the information I'm asking for. I thought it might be helpful if I now briefly set out the reasons why I think the public interest would be well served by the limited amount of research required to answer my question.

Because the turn-out in this by-election was small (16%) the total number of votes cast was only 795. Of these, approximately 40%, or just over 300 votes, were cast by post. And because the winning margin in the election was only 20 votes, it would have required only 6% (or one in 15) of these postal votes to have been cast from second home addresses to have significantly influenced the result.

The point behind the question is that modern technology now allows for such storage and retrieval of data that well funded, professionally-organised political parties can potentially build huge "storage tanks" of postal votes, which they can later harvest at will. This is particularly true of low-turnout local elections where the winning margin is narrow. I wonder if local authority election officials have the resources they need to keep up with the increasing power of the political parties?

My question was simply to ask what percentage of the 318 postal votes were cast from addresses on the council tax discount register. Is it really going to put such a strain on resources to answer this question? Could you perhaps let me know how much it would cost to undertake the research?

If the answer to my original question turns out to be less than 6% then my concerns may have been groundless. But if the answer turns out to be more than 6% then there is perhaps a case for increasing resources in the Electoral Services department in order to better promote democracy in Cornwall.

I accept that even if second home voters did wield such influence, no electoral laws were necessarily broken. I have no interest in trying to find out whether second home voters supported any particular candidate.

I do hope you feel able to reconsider.

With best wishes

Yours sincerely

Graham Smith

Friday, 25 June 2010

25 Cornwall schools interested in becoming academies

According to the Department for Education, becoming an academy gives a school:
* freedom from local authority control
* ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff
* freedom from following the National Curriculum
* ability to change the lengths of terms and school days.

Here are the schools which have expressed an interest:

Penair School, Penryn College, Treviglas Community College, Pool Business & Enterprise College, Falmouth School and Penrice Community College.

Newquay junior school, St Hilary school, Sandy Hill community primary, St Buryn primary, Mabe county primary, Gwinear community primary, Trenance infant school, St Francis C. of E. primary, Mawgan-in-Pydar county primary, Goonhavern primary, Bosvigo, Grade Ruan, King Charles, Lewannick, Mounts Bay, Parc Eglos, Rosemellion county primary, Sir Robert Geffery, St Cleer primary.

The full Department for Education list is here.

"Expressing an interest" is not the same as applying to become an academy, but this list will worry County Hall.

When is a council meeting not a council meeting?

Anyone loitering near County Hall's Trelawney Room a few weeks ago might have noticed Cornwall councillors Jackie Bull and Lisa Dolley patiently (but unsuccessfully) trying to persuade me that just because the Gypsy & Travellers Working Group was not open to the press or public, and did not publish agendas, it was not necessarily secret.

The discussion prompted me to ask how many other "informal" working groups there might be - the qualification being that a working group should look like a council meeting, sound like a council meeting, take place on council premises and be attended by full-time council staff. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I now have the answer.

There is the Fire & Rescue Service Improvement and Integrated Risk Management Planning Group, the Housing Task Group, the Empty Homes Strategy Task & Finish Group and the Review of Community Equipment Loan Service Task Group. There was also the Homelessness Strategy Task & Finish Group which wound up in February.

Since June 2009 there have been 15 meetings, involving about a dozen councillors, and nearly 200 hours of officer-time to draw up agendas, take notes and write reports.

The purpose of these groups, mainly, is to "add value" and provide "constructive challenges" to the work of parent committees.

The points on which Jackie and Lisa convinced me is that that the Gypsy & Travellers Working Group (a) has value despite (b) being rather boring (probably.) The point on which I remain unconvinced is that it is not for councillors to decide what is boring and what is not.

The danger is that informal working groups replace the role of those council committees which are subject to proper public scrutiny. They might be convenient, but few people would claim that democracy was about convenience.

In any event, when councillors really need to discuss anything in confidence, they already have adequate powers to pass a resolution and exclude the press and public.

Dave's gift

I forgot to mention, in all the budget day excitement, that Julia Goldsworthy told me her appointment as a Special Advisor to Danny Alexander had been approved personally by the Prime Minister. Does this make David Cameron the first Conservative Prime Minister for a very long time not to read the Daily Telegraph?

Camborne & Redruth's Conservative MP George Eustice, who took some flak from Julia during the election campaign over the inappropriate influence of hired-guns at Westminster, takes it all very stoically. "We're all on the same side now," he tells me.

Tories suspend Bill Jenkin

The Conservative Party tells me that Cornwall councillor Bill Jenkin, arrested last Friday in connection with two counts of indecent assault, has been suspended as chairman of Camborne Conservative Association pending the outcome of the police investigation. Bill Jenkin has not been charged with any offence and police inquiries are continuing.

MK 1 - 0 Labour

Mebyon Kernow's Stephen Richardson beat Labour's Steve Richards by 187 votes to 77 in yesterday's Illogan parish council by-election. There were no other candidates, so to some extent this could be seen as a straight contest for "anti-coalition" sentiment. Certainly no evidence to support Labour's claim that disillusioned Lib Dems are now heading their way.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Game on

I am hugely grateful to Cornwall councillor Jeremy Rowe for offering to pursue my Freedom of Information request about second home voters.

Cornwall Council's chief executive, Kevin Lavery, has said he has no obligation to answer my questions because he does his job as Cornwall's senior election official in a "personal capacity" and is therefore not subject to FoI laws. The same cannot be said for his job as the most senior official working for Cornwall Council's Electoral Review Panel.

By making this issue part of Cornwall Council's official business, Jeremy might just have found a way to cut through the red tape.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Turkeys welcome Christmas

Cornwall's three Liberal Democrat MPs issued a statement yesterday welcoming the budget. Expect to see this statement re-published, five years from now, in the election leaflets of their (non-Conservative) opponents.

Kevin's too busy to probe second home voters

Remember I asked Cornwall Council's Electoral Services team to tell me what percentage of postal votes were cast from second home addresses in the recent Falmouth Town Council by-election? I've now had a reply to my Freedom of Information application and quote the following extracts:

"The Electoral Registration Officer does not carry out the duties on behalf of the local authority but in his own personal capacity....the Freedom of Information Act does not list any person appointed under the Representation of the People Act 1983. It follows that the Electoral Registration Officer, Returning Officer or any other person appointed under the Act are not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Due to the current high level of work in progress and the level of resources required to undertake this exercise, I do not intend to investigate this request at the present time.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin Lavery

Electoral Registration Officer
Cornwall Council"

Naturally I'm disappointed - I chose this particular by-election to study because the turnout was low, the percentage of postal votes was high and the winning margin only 20 votes. It's hard to see how the "level of resources required" to investigate could be smaller.

It looks like Cornwall councillor Jeremy Rowe has his work cut out if he is to overcome the bureaucracy and make any progress on this issue, despite getting it on the agenda for the Electoral Review Panel next week. I wish him the best of luck.

Cornwall Council's extra £10 million cuts - education now in the front line?

I'm sure Cornwall Council deputy leader Jim Currie was trying to be helpful when he took the opportunity of a BBC Radio Cornwall interview yesterday afternoon to announce an extra £10 million spending cuts which have to be achieved in the current financial year.

Jim made it clear that these cuts were on top of the £3.8 million reduction in central government's Area Based Grants, announced and widely reported on 10th June. The total cuts package, he said, was now more than £13.6 million and he had only nine months to figure how to do it. Unfortunately Jim wasn't able to say where these additional cuts had come from and the council today still insists it will not be giving a breakdown.

Apart from making the council look rather foolish in the eyes of central government ("What do you mean they're making £10 million extra cuts, but can't say why - that's crazy!" - Whitehall press officer,) the council has only itself to blame if people like me now start speculating.

The Communities & Local Government Department says it has not announced any additional cuts since the widely-reported ABG reductions on 10th June. The Transport Department says it has not asked for any further savings since putting some big capital projects, such as the Isles of Scilly ferry link and the Camborne-Redruth road, in the freezer until October. Various employment and training schemes for 18-24-year-olds were axed by the Treasury within days of the election.

That leaves the Department for Education. On Friday, Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to local councils. Gove makes it clear he's looking to councils to slash education spending by up to 24%. Playgrounds, anti-bullying projects, free school meals, grants for specialist Gove's letter and make up your own mind.

At the same time, the government is de-ringfencing certain budget headings to give local councils the "freedom" to chose between losing an arm or a leg. With, of course, an increased role for the voluntary sector. Welcome to the Big Society.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

We're all in this together

I'm reliably informed that former Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy can expect an annual salary of at least £63,000 once she concludes her pay talks with new boss, Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander. The total cost of Special Advisors to the taxpayer in 2009/10 was £6.8 million. These are the same Special Advisors which, only nine months ago, Nick Clegg promised to remove as burdens on the public purse. At least they don't get expenses for £1,005 rocking chairs.

Sooner or later this Parliament will see its first by-election in a safe Conservative seat. As Julia herself has noted, the government's front bench is woefully short of women. Will Julia become the first "coalition" candidate? I wouldn't rule it out...

Julia stalks the corridors of power once more

Congratulations to former Camborne & Redruth Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy, who tells me she has just been appointed as a Special Advisor to Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander. Details of her salary, which will be paid from the public purse, have yet to be negotiated. At the moment she is working unpaid, having received the equivalent of half a year's MP's salary as a result of losing her seat in the general election.

Hot rocks update

Plans to build one of the UK's first large-scale geothermal power stations in Cornwall might come a step closer on Thursday. Geothermal Engineering Ltd wants to drill three big holes, each about three miles deep, at the United Downs industrial estate at Carharrack, near Redruth. Eventually, they say, the hot rocks will generate 7MW for the National Grid and provide an additional 7MW of heat for local use. Planners will probably opt for a site visit before coming to a decision in the weeks and months ahead.

True Grit

It's not easy being a Cornwall councillor. Tomorrow's weather is again forecast to be fine, warm and sunny. A good day for the beach. And where will we find members of the Environment & Economy Overview and Scrutiny Committee? In the Trelawney Room at County Hall, talking about salt management and how best to keep the roads open next winter.

A close call

Have discovered to my horror that on Friday 2nd July I will have to miss a meeting of Cornwall Council's Electoral Review Panel because I will be at Wimbledon's Centre Court, watching the men's singles semi-finals. I nevertheless plan to follow all the Tweets and blogs as they report details of how councillor Jeremy Rowe pursues his campaign on second home voters.

It would be nice to think that the second-home-voters issue was one which commanded all party support. But then it would also be nice to think that a British player will be in the men's singles semi-final. Rare, but not impossible.

Bill Jenkin quits police authority

Cornwall councillor Bill Jenkin resigned from the Devon & Cornwall police authority yesterday afternoon.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Without comment

BBC Radio Cornwall asked today when there would be a statement about the appointment of a Minister for Cornwall. A spokeswoman for the Communities & Local Government department said:
"The appointment of Ministers is a matter for the Prime Minister. However, the new Government believes the priority is to give more power to locally elected representatives in Cornwall - just as by giving more powers and discretion to Cornwall County Council, abolishing the South West Regional Assembly and devolving down the funding and role of the South West Development Agency."

Bill Jenkin arrested over sex pest claims

Bill Jenkin
Today's one o'clock news bulletin on BBC Radio Cornwall will break this story:

Detectives have questioned a member of the Devon and Cornwall Police Authority over an allegation of indecent assault. A woman has claimed that Cornwall councillor Bill Jenkin, who's 79, made unwanted sexual advances and tried to kiss her against her will.

Councillor Jenkin, from Camborne, has had a long and distinguished career in Cornish local government - until May he was chairman of Camborne Town Council and the town's Mayor; he's also a member of Cornwall Council and sits on several committees, including the one responsible for how councillors conduct themselves. He's chairman of Camborne Conservatives - and a member of the Devon and Cornwall Police Authority.

But now a woman, thought to be in her 40s, has accused him of being a sex pest - claiming he tried to kiss her even though she'd made it clear she did not welcome any sexual advances. She's made a formal complaint. Police say a man was arrested at his home on Friday in connection with two counts of indecent assault, and bailed until 16th July. He has not been charged with any offence and police inquiries are continuing.

I telephoned Bill Jenkin about the allegations last night. It was a short conversation. He said: "I'm not discussing this with anybody. I'm telling you nothing. Sorry."

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Labour leadership contest comes to..........Bristol

It's starting to look as if Cornwall's Labour Party members will have to travel to Bristol to attend a hustings event involving all four contenders. In September. Just before the election takes place at Labour's annual conference. Which this year is in Manchester.

Worried about second home voters? Nick can fix it (if he wants to)

Can anyone think of a reason why Nick Clegg's soon-to-be-published Parliamentary Reform Bill should not include the necessary measures to iron out any unfairness in the current arrangements for second home voters? Such as an automatic disqualification for addresses claiming council tax discount? And greater clarity over what is meant by "primary residence" and the responsibilities of returning officers.

I know that old habits die hard, but presumably at some point those who are used to complaining about the government have to accept that things have changed - because now they are the government.

Flyaway costs

Newquay airport is nearly £1 million over budget. A report to Cornwall Council's budget monitoring committee next week says this is due mainly to the fall in passenger numbers, down from the projected 523,000 to an actual 359,000 for last year. Global recession gets the blame.

Council webcasting triumph

Credit where it's due: the webcasting of Cornwall Council meetings is very, very good.

The vagaries of BBC shift rotas kept me off my usual County Hall beat yesterday, but - sad person that I am - I tuned in to watch proceedings on-line. It was almost like being there.

Hearty congratulations to all involved. If you haven't tried it yet, here's the link:

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Secret ballots and second home voters

Cornwall Council leader Alec Robertson told members today that one reason it was difficult for the Electoral Services department to investigate fully the issue of second home voters was because of secrecy rules.

The 1872 Ballot Act introduced the principle of secret voting and these days few would argue that it is vital to prevent intimidation and promote democracy. But ballot papers are numbered, and election officials match this number to a voter's registration number.

After an election, ballot papers are held in secure storage for a year - after that they can be destroyed. The reason they are kept is in case there are allegations of fraud which might prompt an investigation by an Election Court. No Parliamentary election has been questioned in this way since 1911 but challenges are more frequent in local council elections.

When vote tracing is needed, it is usually to find out if the "elector" was actually entitlted to vote, rather than identify which candidate they voted for.

According to the Electoral Commission:
"If vote tracing were to be prohibited, it would be necessary to try to identify alternative means of dealing with allegations of personation. One alternative would be to declare the result void and hold a fresh election. However, this would be time-consuming and costly, and difficult to justify solely on the basis of an allegation of personation.".

So it seems pretty clear - if you are planning a specific allegation, you need first of all sufficient evidence to persuade an Election Court to open the ballot papers, and you need to take action within 12 months of the election.

For anyone hoping to challenge the result of any Parliamentary elections in Cornwall, on the basis that some second home owners might have (illegally) voted in more than one part of the UK, this is a tough call. It would require simultaneous investigations in every constituency where the second home owners might have voted - an almost impossible task.

In local council elections, with much smaller turnouts, it is usually easier for well-organised political parties to stand outside polling stations and identify who has actually voted. There will also often be some "local intelligence" about which properties are second homes. However, this pursuit of the second home owner does not really go very far, for as the Electoral Commission reminds us, subject to the returning officer's judgement about "residency," local council elections are different:

"If an elector is registered to vote in two different electoral areas, they are eligible to vote in local elections for the two different local councils."

An electoral system based on property ownership? The returning officer's judgement about primary and equal residency will become increasingly important as the number of second homes in Cornwall increases.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Celtic League recognised by United Nations

Many thanks to my friends in the Kernow branch of the Celtic League for their press release announcing they have been granted "Roster Status" within the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) at the United Nations.

As the League says, Roster Status was set up to improve and enhance the involvement of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) at the UN. The Celtic League will join only another 979 organisations from around the world with this privileged status.

Roster Status is normally restricted to NGOs with a narrow and/or technical focus and includes the Association for World Education, International Federation for the Protection of the Rights of Ethnic, Religious, Linguistic & Other Minorities and Refugees International.

As the League's press release says:
"The League is in limited consultative status with the UN and can be called on by the UN to contribute to discussions to help it form an opinion on certain topics in particular areas. The status also means that the League can attend UN meetings, are invited to attend international conferences, contribute to forums and designate UN representatives."

The League's recognition by the UN is thanks to a proposal from Egypt. The UK's UN mission, based in New York, tells me that such proposals are very rarely turned down unless there is an objection raised by the nation which hosts the NGO. In the case of the Celtic League that would have been either the UK, France or Ireland.

The League made news recently when some of its members called for a boycott of the flag of St George during the World Cup, claiming it represented a symbol of pro-English cultural oppression in Cornwall. A spokeswoman for the UK UN mission said the UK does not block "Roster Status" proposals on the grounds of freedom of speech, or unless there are clear links to terrorism.

Meanwhile the League celebrates "a fantastic result!"

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Born to be wild

easy rider
Councillor and reporter discuss the finer points of transport policy

Discovered to my joy the other day that the Cornwall Council cabinet member with responsibility for transport, Graeme Hicks, and I share an interest in old British motorcycles. He rides a Triumph; I'm on a Royal Enfield. Expect to see more stories extolling the mantra: "Two wheels good; four wheels bad."

The nightmare agenda

I'm grateful to my new correspondent blueskygreysky for the opportunity to revisit the subject of how best to prevent acts of terrorism.

My initial blog post on this, three months ago, was The Power of Nightmares.

It certainly ruffled a few feathers at County Hall, once officials realised their words "identifying potentially violent religiously-motivated extremists" could also mean "spotting suicide bombers." Actually, it's hard to see how their words mean anything else, although my reports on BBC Radio Cornwall made it clear that Cornwall's Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) is also planning to tackle eco-terrorism and some of the more radical elements of the Cornish National Liberation Army.

The SACRE's £3,500 seminar designed to advise Cornwall's teachers about all this is planned for this summer and is part of a Home Office initiative called the "Prevent Agenda." Notwithstanding the case of Plymouth's Nicky Reilly, jailed for 18 years for trying to blow himself up in an Exeter restaurant, the civil rights group Liberty has condemned the Prevent Agenda as a waste of time and money which risks the reverse of what it is trying to achieve.

In fact, police Inspector Robin Hogg's "Prevent" presentation to the SACRE made specific mention of Nicky Reilly as precisely the sort of lone fanatic that teachers should be alert to.

But consider an alternative scenario: an 11-year-old girl is fond of her pet rabbit. She writes an essay which is broadly critical of vivisection. In theory it is possible that her teacher, who is after all only human, and who is also perhaps inexperienced and over-enthused with the "Prevent Agenda," uses the Special Branch hotline supplied by the SACRE. I'm not saying that before she's 12 she'll be kidnapped and sent for waterboarding in Pakistan but have we been assured that the police and MI5 systems are sensitive enough to screen out well-meaning false alarms and prevent a file being opened on her?

As a society we have to balance our individual freedom (not to be spied upon) with our collective freedom (not to be blown up.) The point about my original blog post was to question whether Cornwall's Advisory Council on Religious Education was really the best organisation to lead the fight against the bad guys. Do we not all have a responsibility to keep an eye out for the next Nicky Reilly? But that doesn't mean we can, or should, think of ourselves as characters from Spooks.

In response to blueskygreysky's question about whether there are laws to prevent MI5 spying on minors, the answer is "no." The first duty of MI5 is to keep us safe. Back to the question about balance. But Cornwall is a county where children have to have their fingerprints taken before they can borrow a school library book. How about a Liberty Agenda?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Councillors can talk about housing after all

It looks as if Cornwall councillor Mario Fonk has won his battle to debate housing policy at a meeting of the full council on Tuesday. I understand many councillors have lobbied council chairman Pat Harvey, who now regards it as "convenient and conducive to the despatch of business" to have a proper debate, rather than simply refer the issue to Cabinet.

To be fair, Pat's initial opinion had nothing to do with the merits of Mario's motion - she was simply defending the council's constitution. It is a constitution which renders full council meetings largely irrelevant. But a review of the constitution would open up the question of why Cornwall Council needs 123 members. I don't expect it to happen any time soon.

Isles of Scilly link to be axed?

The proposed £44million new ferry link between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly is among the transport schemes which the government says might be axed. The Department for Transport tells me:
"At least until the conclusion of the spending review, the department can give no assurances on its intention to fund any schemes that were awarded conditional approval by the previous government."
I hope to speak to Transport Secretary Phil Hammond later today and will seek clarification.

Second home voters

Cornwall councillor Jeremy Rowe is planning to ask a question at next week's meeting of the full council about second home voters.

Jeremy's concern is that in two Cornish Parliamentary constituencies, where the winning margin was very small, people whose main home is outside of Cornwall might have influenced the outcome. Full marks to Jeremy for raising this issue - although, er, didn't all of Cornwall's winning candidates end up on the government benches anyway?

Nevertheless, great minds clearly think alike: last week I submitted a Freedom of Information application in respect of the recent Penwerris ward town council by-election in Falmouth, where postal votes accounted for nearly half of the total. I chose this example because the turnout was low and comparison with the register of council tax discounted properties (second homes) is relatively straightforward.

Under current rules, well organised political parties can easily build up a "postal bank" of absent voters, particularly for local council elections. I have asked what percentage of the Penwerris ward postal votes were cast from second home addresses. Cornwall Council has promised to reply to me by 5th July.

Flying the flag?

World Cup kick off just a few hours away.

David Cameron's announcement that he will be flying the flag of St George over 10 Downing Street to show his support for England prompted me to call Cornwall Council, where the flags of St Piran, the Union Jack and the European Union have for many years wafted gently in the breeze.

"Are there any plans to fly the flag of St George at County Hall?"

"Er, don't know. We'll get back to you."

I'll keep asking for as long as England remain in the competition.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Silence please - council meeting in progress

This is the email which told Cornwall councillors Mario Fonk and Bill Maddern that they could not debate housing policy in a full council meeting:

Dear Cllrs Fonk and Maddern,

Motion - Homechoice

Thank you for your motion. As you are no doubt aware from the Constitution, motions automatically stand referred by me to the Cabinet or relevant Committee. Given the fact that there are resource implications, I will now be referring this motion to the Cabinet, to be fed into the consultation process which is already underway.

This means that it will not be debated on the day but that you and your seconder will be invited to the Cabinet Meeting to give you an opportunity to speak to the Cabinet.


Councillor Mrs Pat Harvey
Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council is now one year old. In the past 12 months, only one motion has been allowed for debate at a full council meeting - the one about about webcasting and access for TV cameras.

Several councillors have told me they disagree with the practical consequences of approving Mario Fonk's motion, but nevertheless believe it is such an important issue it should be debated by the full council. The alternative, they fear, is to simply accept or reject a recommendation from Cabinet which might (or not) reflect the original intention. Either way, they say, democracy it ain't.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Tail wags dog

Councillor Mario Fonk's attempt to raise an issue of housing policy at next week's meeting of the full Cornwall Council has been thwarted. His motion has been taken out of the hands of the 123 elected members and will be determined instead by the 10-member ruling cabinet. Mario is not happy. It raises the fundamental question: what is Cornwall Council actually for? More on this when I get it.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Labour leadership contest

Some confusion over whether there will be a hustings event in Cornwall, or even any kind of campaigning, for the Labour Party leadership. A few Labour Party members in Cornwall tell me yes - but when I ask him, this comes as news to David Milliband. Can anyone clarify?

Are you local?

Mario Fonkl
The Gulval and Heamoor Lib Dem councillor Mario Fonk has tabled a motion to go to next week's full council meeting which tries to answer the question: "Are you local?"

Mario's proposal:
"resolves to change the current Cornwall-wide criteria for local connection on the Housing Register to give those who live within the town or parish and who have registered as their first choice to stay in that area precedence over those who live outside the area."

Mario's concern is that some people have been forced to accept offers of accommodation more than 40 miles from where they live. He points out that the current system can result in some applications creating a "false need" in areas which are simply thought of as desirable places to live.

The proposal is already supported by councillors Stuart Cullimore, Ruth Lewarne, Chris Pascoe, Sue Pass and Tamsin Williams and all the signs are that it will succeed. After all, which councillor would want to be seen as acting against "local" interests?

Nevertheless some housing officials are uneasy. They say anything which undermines their objective, professional assessment of "need" should be treated with caution - particularly quirky, wiggly lines on a map.

Pushing the boundaries

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg yesterday gave the first clues about what we might expect in his Parliamentary Reform Bill, which I think will be published in the next few weeks. Of particular interest to Cornwall is what it will mean for both the number of MPs (probably five rather than six) and where their constituencies will be (er, in Devon?)

Mr Clegg said the approach to making constituencies the same size had to be consistent. The current imbalance in the size of the electorate in different constituencies could not be defended because it resulted in "the ultimate postcode lottery, where the weight of your vote depends on where you live."

So will Cornwall have to share an MP with Devon? Not necessarily. We still don't know. "There will be no rigid mathematical formula," said Mr Clegg.

As ever, the ability to hold simultaneously contradictory positions is the hallmark of a true politician. No wonder the Boundary Commission sounds so nervous about this issue. As one civil servant put it: "If it was easy, we'd have done it years ago."

Austerity news

The cost to the taxpayer of saying goodbye to former Cornish MPs Julia Goldsworthy (defeated,) Colin Breed and Matthew Taylor (both retired) is at least £100,000. Add pension costs and the bill is considerable more. For each MP the payments are tax free for the first £30,000.

The minimum resettlement grant, paid to all departing MPs, is half the £64,766 basic annual salary. MPs with more than five years' service, or over the age of 50, can get more. The total resettlement pot for all departing MPs is today put at £10.4 million.

BBC Radio 4's "File On Four" programme (tonight, 8pm) reports how the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority plans eventually to examine resettlement grants as part of its post-expenses-scandal-stable-cleaning. The Taxpayers' Alliance, naturally, froths outrage.

MPs claim the resettlement grant is simply a form of redundancy payment (albeit considerably more generous than you're likely to find in most workplaces.)

Is there not a case for treating MPs as if they are on fixed-term contracts which end (and might be renewed, if the voters agree) after a maximum of five years? I'm told that in this age of belt-tightening and ever-thinner gruel, we are all in this together.

Monday, 7 June 2010

In a bit of a pickle over election promise

My BBC Radio Cornwall colleague Martin Bailie has just recorded an interview with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles - you can hear it after 5pm. In answer to a question about the Conservatives' pre-election promise that Cornwall would have its own minister, Mr Pickles said there would be an announcement "in the not too far distant......" When Martin pressed him to say when, Mr Pickles said it would be soon. And when Martin protested the failure to answer, Mr Pickles said: "I've gone further than soon. I've said fairly soon."

You couldn't make it up.

Penair school to opt out?

Truro's Penair comprehensive school is one of the 299 "outstanding" (according to Ofsted) schools which have registered an interest in opting out of local council control and becoming an academy. It would be the first in Cornwall. Headteacher Barbara Vann tells me she has an open mind about the issue and looks forward to getting the government's information pack. If it arrives in time it'll go on the agenda for the next governors' meeting on 1st July.

They tweet no more

To be honest, several of our Parliamentary candidates were pretty half-hearted about their Tweeting, even in the midst of battle. But since 6th May we have heard nothing at all from defeated Conservatives Derek Thomas (St Ives,) Caroline Righton (St Austell & Newquay) or Sian Flynn (North Cornwall.) Defeated Lib Dem Terrye Teverson (Truro & Falmouth) has tweeted once, as has Karen Gillard (South East Cornwall.) But Julia Goldsworthy (Camborne & Redruth) seems to tweet more now than when she was an MP - and with 2,135 followers she appears to have a growing fan club.

Just going through the motions?

The excellent blogger Mudhook draws my attention to how busy the St Ives Lib Dem MP Andrew George has been when it comes to signing Early Day Motions in the House of Commons.

Andrew has signed 87 EDMs since the general election - the other five Cornish MPs none. EDMs are the Parliamentary equivalent of graffiti; the government ignores them but they do tell us something about what's going on inside an MP's head.

Andrew's enthusiasm for signing up to Leftish causes, such as extending minimum wage protection, increasing public spending on disability issues, and the pursuit of "policies to eradicate poverty and promote equality," seems somewhat at odds with the government's declared priority - to slash the deficit.

Another two-horse race

Illogan Parish Council
On 24th June: The Labour Party vs Mebyon Kernow

It really was a two-horse race

Newquay Town Council Gannel ward by-election
Lib Dems 591; Conservatives 405.
Turnout 22 per cent.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Two out of three voters don't know what Lib Dems are for

A worrying snippet for many in the Cornwall political classes from yesterday's ComRes poll in the Independent: 65 per cent don't know what the Lib Dems stand for. On voting intentions, Lib Dems are down 3 points to 21 per cent, Labour up 3 to 33 per cent, Conservatives unchanged on 37 per cent, compared with the actual May 6th general election result.

Will turkeys vote for Christmas?

A few of Cornwall's MPs tell me my previous blog post about a possible consequence of the Parliamentary Reform Bill, as outlined in the Queen's Speech, has put them on "high alert" to fight any suggestion that parts of their existing constituencies might be lost to Devon.

The Boundary Commission is waiting to see what the draft legislation looks like but we do know what the various bits of the coalition government were thinking before the recent general election.

Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties want every constituency to contain roughly equal numbers of voters. For example, each of Cornwall's six MPs currently represents more people than their two counterparts in Plymouth.

Before the election, the Conservatives were looking to cut the number of MPs by 10 per cent (65 constituencies.) The Liberal Democrats were looking for a cut of 23 per cent (150 constituencies.) A happy compromise would be around 16 or 17 per cent, which would spell the end for about one in six of our MPs. Any volunteers?

The Queen's Speech promised the Parliamentary Reform Bill would enable the Boundary Commission to complete its work during the current Parliament, before the next general election on 7th May 2015. Nick Clegg has taken personal responsibility for this Bill, which the Boundary Commission expects to see in draft form "very soon."

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Crossing the line

One potential consequence of the coalition government's enthusiasm for another review of Parliamentary boundaries is that it might pose a threat to Cornwall's exclusive ownership of its own constituencies.

The basic idea is laudable - every Parliamentary constituency should contain, as far as possible, the same number of voters. The Boundary Commission routinely changes the map as it tries to keep up with an electorate that likes to move house.

Recent trends have seen upwardly-mobile voters moving out of relatively deprived inner-city areas to the leafy green countryside. One consequence has been that Conservative and Liberal Democrat constituencies tend to be larger than Labour ones - which is one reason why Labour got more MPs than its general election vote share implied.

The drive to make all UK constituencies contain the same number of voters has unusual implications for Cornwall, particularly the South East Cornwall constituency. We don't yet know the detail, but if the aim is to reduce the number of constituencies, while moving some voters into city seats, there is clearly the potential for something like "Plymouth & Saltash."

There could be trouble ahead....

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Fed's exit

Just watched Robin Soderling thump a tennis ball harder than I ever thought possible, and knock the world's best-ever player Roger Federer out of the French Open.

For an old has-been like myself, plummeting down the rankings faster than one of Soderling's serves (currently a mere 668 places behind Andy Murray in the GB lists,) it's the painful, reluctant acceptance that most of today's athletes really are bigger, faster and stronger than they were in the 1960s and 70s.

They are much more professional, of course, and the financial rewards far greater. Is the same true of our politicians? Would David Cameron beat the living daylights out of Harold Wilson? I have to say I doubt it - a line of argument I would be happy to make my last trench.

Council prayers

Listen to Donna Birrel's programme on BBC Radio Cornwall on Sunday morning for an in-depth discussion about why so many Cornwall councillors still say their prayers before some meetings. I'm grateful to councillor Jeremy Rowe for reminding me about this oddity - his blog post is the best exposition of the issue I have read for a long time.