Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Don't mess with Pat

I'm grateful to the Parliamentary authorities for confirming the limits to the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker may suspend a sitting (usually due to rowdy behaviour) or might allow an unscheduled emergency debate. But the Speaker does not have the authority to re-schedule a debate which has already been timetabled.

So in that respect, if Cornwall Council's interpretation of its own constitution is correct, council chairman Pat Harvey is more powerful than the Speaker of the House of Commons. I somehow doubt that this is what Cornwall's wise elders had in mind when they wrote the constitution, so despite the clear absence of any skull-duggery I'm continuing to make a nuisance of myself by seeking clarification. Apologies to all concerned.

Monday, 29 November 2010

So nothing to do with getting the votes out, obviously

This press release from Cornwall Council:
"The Chairman of Cornwall Council Mrs Pat Harvey has made the decision to postpone the meeting of the full Council due to take place tomorrow, Tuesday 30 November, as a result of the weather conditions.

The meeting was due to set the Council's emergency budget and Mrs Harvey made the decision to postpone the meeting in the interests of safety of those who would be attending the meeting and, in particular, following consideration of the distance that both Members and interested members of the public will have to travel, in some cases from some parts of Cornwall that have been the hardest hit by the adverse weather.

The meeting will now be held on Friday 3 December 2010 at 10:30am in the Council Chamber at County Hall in Truro.

The agenda will be the same as that already published by the Council and no additional agenda items will be added.

As the Agenda and public reports pack for the meeting have already been published in advance of the postponed meeting the Council is able to rely on the provisions in section 106A of the Local Government Act 1972 that allow a meeting to be called at less than five clear days notice. These provisions are reflected in Council Procedure Rule 6 in the Council's Constitution. By publishing this notice today, 29 November 2010, the Council is still giving three clear days notice of the holding of the postponed meeting.

"There has considerable public interest in the emergency budget and I am aware that there are many people and groups who wanted to attend the meeting in person" said Mrs Harvey.

"It is always difficult to make the decision to postpone such an important meeting at the last moment but I think it is vital that both councillors and members of the public are not prevented from attending because of the weather conditions".

Cornwall Council scraps tomorrow's budget meeting

and promises a new date in due course. When it's not so cold. How about July?

Cold weather council

Some interesting chatter from the Twitter gang about today's West Cornwall snow and it's potential to disrupt tomorrow's full council budget meeting in Truro. They raise the following questions: will the meeting be quorate? Will the "wrong kind" of councillors attend (ie those minded to vote down the budget?) Might the meeting be re-located to that (majority) part of Cornwall where there is no snow? And so on. Hours of harmless fun. I think the sun is coming out now...

STOP PRESS: Cornwall Council itself is now tweeting about the possibility of scrapping tomorrow's budget meeting. A decision due this afternoon. I'm sure this isn't a case of phoning around to make sure that enough "right kind" of councillors can attend...

Winter wonderland

Two thirds of Cornwall has not yet seen one single snowflake today. Just thought I'd mention it.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Reality AV

What if X-Factor and Strictly were decided on the Alternative Vote system? Just a thought...

The Press we deserve

Some time ago I promised to blog about Cornwall's media. I have to confess I have been putting it off, somewhat daunted by the scale of the project. I reckon the thing to do is split it up into printed publications, radio, television and new media - although the word "new" in relation to blogs and web-sites these days seems a bit strange.

First up then, printed publications, daily and weekly. I reckon we have at least 16 local newspaper titles to chose from.

It can be argued that almost every word of most local newspapers in Cornwall is published by just three men. To say that "it can be argued" does not mean that this is a view I hold myself, but stick with it because it gets more interesting...

The Western Morning News, the Cornish Guardian, The West Briton and The Cornishman are all published by Cornwall & Devon Media, owned by Northcliffe Media, owned in turn by the Daily Mail & General Trust in London. The chairman of DMGT is, at it seems it has always been, Viscount Rothermere. Jonathan Harmsworth now controls a media empire launched by his ancestor, Lord Northcliffe, in 1896.

The Cornish Times, the Cornish & Devon Post and the Sunday Independent are all owned by the Surrey-based Tindle Newspapers, whose chairman is Sir Ray Tindle. In 2003 Tindle told his reporters they should no longer cover protestors demonstrating against the Iraq war.

The Packet and Gazette titles also have their parent company HQ in Surrey, although Newsquest is particularly interesting as its ultimate parent company is the US-based Gannett media group. The President and chief executive of Gannett is Texas-educated Craig A. Dubow, whose annual salary package last year was worth $2.4 million.

The St Ives Times & Echo, and the Newquay and St Austell Voice newspapers, as far as I can tell, remain relatively small, independent publications. Some will say I have neglected the glossy mags market, and they are right, but I've never read Cornwall Today or even Brides In Cornwall (also both DMGT) and have no plans to start now. If I have missed any titles, please feel free to correct me.

Still to come - radio, newspapers and new media. But does this apparent concentration of media ownership matter? Over to you.

Camelford Leisure Centre update

It looks as if the 1991 contract between Cornwall county council, North Cornwall district council and the governors of Sir James Smith school won't, after all, save the Camelford leisure centre. While there are some robustly-held and diametrically-opposed opinions (my thanks to Cornwall Council lawyer Matt Stokes for copying me in on the various emails) I gather the latest view from Camelford is that it would simply cost too much to challenge the council's interpretation in the courts. Hopes that the leisure centre can be saved appear now to rest on working out a detailed business plan which doesn't require more council subsidy than that already promised. I forecast a busy next 24 hours in the County Hall leisure services department.

At last - snow meets politics (sort of)

My thanks to St Austell & Newquay MP Stephen Gilbert for tweeting that he was unable to dispense flood-advice at his constituency surgery yesterday - because of snow.

Please don't let it snow on Tuesday

From my diary for next week - Tuesday 30th November: Cornwall Council finally sets its budget, with long-term life-changing implications for almost everyone in Cornwall. And at Westminster, the final roll of the dice for peers hoping to amend the Devonwall Bill - with implications for Cornwall's political boundary. These are stories which readers of this blog are able to influence. If it snows - well, wrap up warm and listen to the radio.

Autopilot journalism

Clearly this is a sign of ageing, but it seems funny how the past couple of weeks have rushed by even more quickly than usual, and yet I struggle to remember what I've been doing. My diary's not much help, as many pages for the last two weeks in November are completely blank - yet I presumably did something on those days.

Fortunately my body responds to industrial quantities of hot, strong coffee and slowly the cogs start to turn. The diary's blank pages are flood stories. Remember the floods? If you live in the affected areas, I'm sure you do. But if you don't live in or near Mevagissey, Lostwithiel or St Blazey, you could be forgiven for asking "which floods?" - not to deny that they happened, but because heavy rain and consequential flooding are becoming routine elements of the Cornish seasons.

As an easily-bored short-attention-span reporter, I struggle with "routine" - although of course there is nothing routine about the threat to life or damage to property. Threat to life and damage to property are definitely news and demand to be reported. There are also genuine new angles to explore, such as planning and insurance issues.

I guess it's all about proportionality: my antennae is tuned more finely to the implications of biblical-scale mega-death flooding in Pakistan or China than soggy-but-insured bridal gowns in Lostwithiel, which in any event were for display purposes only.

Last weekend. What was I doing last weekend? Again, my diary is no help. Got it! I was reporting on the St Austell Carnival! The one that wasn't cancelled because it wasn't affected too badly by the flooding. Actually, no carnivals in Cornwall were cancelled because of the flooding. "Triumph over tragedy" is a well-established journalistic formula - but usually the formula does actually require a tragedy.

I think my difficulty is that with weather stories, once you move beyond reporting what has actually happened, you need every ounce of imagination and creativity to keep the story going. I have a further difficulty: there are lots of other stories which need no such life-support, but which do need space in the bulletin.

And now I suppose I'm in for a week of snow stories. Or maybe a week of "it's not snowing but we're still jolly excited" stories. Groan.

Snow can disrupt travel. It is news, for a while. But life goes on. If it snows it will no doubt bring inconvenience and irritation - and that's just for me.

Don't get me wrong - when the weather disrupts normal life, local radio excels as a genuine public service. Everyone works extremely long hours to broadcast information which most listeners find very useful. And I know that it has to be done. It's just that I find it hard to be genuinely interested and a week later I've forgotten all about it.

I dare say my BBC bosses will read this and despair. There's probably a correctional training course to re-adjust my editorial antennae.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Camelford Leisure Centre - here comes the Judge

M'learned friends are dusting off their contract law textbooks in response to the discovery of an ancient-looking document found in a file at Camelford's Sir James Smith school. It appears to be an agreement imposing upon Cornwall Council a requirement to give a minimum of two years notice of any proposals to alter various administrative and funding obligations which have been in force since 31st July 1991. One effect would be to scupper the "Camelford Leisure Centre" budget line agreed by the council's Cabinet last week, and which is due to be considered by the full council next week. I've sent the document off to Cornwall Council and await the response...

STOP PRESS: Council statement says there was no need to consult the local school governors as, in its view, they are not parties to the agreement about termination. The council says this was to be determined exclusively between the former county and district councils (ie itself.) But in Camelford, the response is "look at Clause 11" - which does indeed state that notice must be served "to the School Governors at Sir James Smith's School, Camelford, Cornwall." Clause 13 says that "any claims, dispute or thing whatsover" - between the governors and the council(s) about any of the other clauses must be resolved by arbitration. This story has legs.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Cornwall's Lib Dems lose their first council seat since general election

As usual, all the political parties are claiming "victory" after last night's Camborne Town Council by-election. All, that is, except the Liberal Democrats who failed to find a candidate to defend the seat they had previously held. So the result is a Conservative gain from the Lib Dems. For Labour and Mebyon Kernow, this was a scrap to see which of them would mop up the former Lib Dem "anti-Conservative" vote - not surprisingly, both parties saw dramatic increases in their share, which divided neatly to produce a Conservative victory. Conservatives: 478, Labour 318, Mebyon Kernow 279.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A message from Prezza

Former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott tweets: "And why isn't a minister down in Cornwall for the floods? I went straight to Boscastle, Too busy briefing non-stories." The answer, I can reveal, is because the minister is taking part in today's "how to cope with floods" training exercise. As with Prezza's visit to Boscastle, a phrase involving bolted horses and stable doors springs to mind...
STOP PRESS: Just heard that Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman has cut short her participation in the flood training exercise in Surrey and is now on her way to Mevagissey.

What do we think of K8?

As a reward for (usually) not breaking the House Rules, "youngcornwall" gets a thread on the forthcoming Royal wedding. Catherine Elizabeth Middleton is now front-runner to be the next Duchess of Cornwall. I think I know where this is going, but please try to stay on topic and make it interesting.

Number crunching

Funding shortfall needed to save Camelford Leisure Centre: £42,000
Annual cost to Cornwall Council of hospitality tent at Royal Cornwall Show: £46,000

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Swap shop

The deadline for the submission of alternative Cornwall Council budgets is next Tuesday. So if you know how to save leisure centres, swimming pools, libraries and a host of other services, post your comments now. I'm sure councillors would be grateful for your suggestions. The final decision will be taken at the full council meeting on 30th November.

I am not making this up

The government and the Environment Agency are holding a training exercise tomorrow to test their response to flooding. It's called "Exercise Watermark" and starts at 12 noon.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Cornwall's border with Devon is where it is. How did it get there? Does it matter? And if so, why? No excuse for going off-topic. Fill your boots.

From the vicar

Sometime after 11pm last night the Rev Jim Benton-Evans, vicar of Camelford, sent me this email. He's clearly not happy:
There was considerable anger tonight at the meeting between representatives of Cornwall Council, including Joan Symons, Portfolio Holder for Leisure and the Camelford community, when it became clear that the much-vaunted "full funding for twelve months" for Camelford Leisure Centre promised by Cllr Symons and the Leader of the Council to head off certain defeat in last Thursday's Scrutiny Committee was in fact less than 45% of the sum needed. All three ward members - along with representatives from local schools, the town council and community groups expressed their disappointment and reaffirmed their commitment to
fight both financially and politically to save the Leisure Centre. Members of the campaign have worked extremely hard to put together a realistic and considered process that could deliver a sustainable and transformed facility. All that is required of Cornwall Council is the reciprocal level of commitment to enabling a transition to a genuinely localist solution and community ownership. It is extremely disappointing that the Council seem to be promising one thing in the Committee Room and another thing entirely when we get down to brass tacks. It is hard to think of another organisation who understands "substantial" to mean "less than 45%".
I have asked County Hall for a response and will post what I get back.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The question is...

These are the words of the 5th May 2011 referendum question:
"Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?"
A 10-year-old asked me this morning what AV would have meant in Cornwall if it had been used for the general election earlier this year. Perhaps foolishly, I replied that it was impossible to know, but theoretically, following re-distributed votes, it might have increased the chances of the party which had come second. Quick as a flash the child, who I suspect had been put up to it by his parents, said "So instead of Conservative and Liberal Democrats, we could have had Liberal Democrats and Conservatives!"

Meanwhile a Labour bid to split into two parts the AV referendum and the constituency boundaries proposals in the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill was defeated earlier today by just 14 votes in the House of Lords.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Definitions of Cornwall

First of all very many thanks to everyone who thought this worthy of a reply - 122 comments so far, even if ten of them did break the House Rules. And despite the fact that more than half the comments seemed designed to prosecute the various nats vs anti-nats disputes, there were some very good entries.

I know that by ranking them in order of my personal preference I am inviting a good (virtual) kicking. My criteria was, as I made clear, for 30 words describing Cornwall in much the same way that Orwell tried to describe England in The Lion & The Unicorn. Some of you might need to check the word-count feature on your computers, although where I think you've actually tried to enter into the spirit of the game I've simply selected the first 30 words.

Here goes:

1. At 08:35am on 08 Nov 2010, Dave the rave wrote:

Pasties, beaches, Eden, sea, sun, cliff tops, happy people, long summers, Truro cathedral, Fish & Chips, moors, farms, tin mines, Humphrey Davey, Lands End, merry maidens, Minack, Tamar bridge.

2. At 02:39am on 07 Nov 2010, Rialobran wrote:

Cornwall: A Picasso, beautifully framed (the coast/ Tamar) with a canvass full of colour and vibrance, that you can't quite make out, or put into words that give credit.

3. At 09:18am on 12 Nov 2010, Andrew Jacks wrote:

Within the boulders in a sun-baked rock pool a grand-dad can be seen standing up to his knees, lifting the net to an eager grand-daughter who awaits the next haul.

4. At 13:22pm on 10 Nov 2010, youngcornwall wrote:

The tourist trade the life blood
pumping through Cornish vein
seed sown on departure of the
Paddington to Penzance train.

5. At 10:12am on 07 Nov 2010, Mike Chappell wrote:

To my beloved Kernow

As solid as rocky Carn it is
As deep as Dozmary Pool
As plain as the surf on the sea it is
The love I have for you

6. At 10:42am on 08 Nov 2010, AccurateChronometer wrote:

The Celtic Nation and Duchy Of Cornwall - a land next to England, like Scotland and Wales, whose language is redacted and denied expression by the BBC.

7. At 08:37am on 10 Nov 2010, Peter Tregantle wrote:

I look around the Cornwall I love
A joyful society
On the internet
I see radicals with nothing better to do
To Emmet's everywhere
Cornwall is a serene English Shire

8. At 15:54pm on 13 Nov 2010, Rialobran wrote:

On a rock strewn shore, on a storm filled night,
a ship is led by the wreckers light.
with wealth to spread, throughout the land,
and nothing for the Duke, and his greedy hand.
In this land of giants, saints and sinners,
For once the English, aren't amongst the winners.

9. At 12:20pm on 07 Nov 2010, Slimslad wrote:

"Next to Devon.Like Somerset"

And finally this one, despite being way over 30 words, if only for the image of firm hands fondling...

10. At 14:31pm on 12 Nov 2010, CJenkin wrote:

This a view that epitomises Cornwall for me:
Pro-Cornish but not anti anyone else ...

"Hail to the Homeland "
Hail to the Homeland,
Great bastion of the free,
Hear now thy children
Proclaim their love for thee.
Ageless thy splendour,
Undimmed the Celtic flame.
Proudly our souls reflect
The glory of thy name.
Sense now the beauty,
The peace of Bodmin Moor,
Ride with the breaker
Towards the Sennen shore.
Let firm hands fondle
The boulders of Trencrom,
Sing with all fervour, then
The great Trelawny song.
Hail to the Homeland,
Of Thee we are a part.
Great pulse of freedom
In every Cornish heart,
Prompt us and guide us,
Endow us with thy power,
Lace us with liberty
To face this changing hour.

Sorry there are no prizes, but you know how it is...and thanks again for taking part. If you want to keep it going, feel free to do so on this thread.

Shouting loudest

My techno-skills are probably not too bad for someone of my generation (think heavy manual typewriters and carbon papers) but I'm puzzled by the difference between "liking" something on Facebook and being a "member" of various campaign groups. For example, the Keep Cornwall Whole campaign this morning has 1,588 Facebook members. The Facebook campaign to save the Bude Sea Pool is currently "liked" by 3,072. Should politicians be worried by numbers like these?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Bill Jenkin quits

Bill Jenkin has resigned as the Cornwall councillor for Cambone North. He won the seat as a Conservative in 2009. The by-election is unlikely to be held until the New Year.

MK conference

It's not every day that Bodmin hosts a party conference and the 50+ Mebyon Kernow members who made it to their AGM this afternoon seemed as cheerful as could be expected for a party which six months earlier had lost every single one of its general election deposits. As forecast, the conference agreed to contest at least 50 Cornwall Council seats in 2013, to field a full slate of candidates for the European Parliamentary elections in 2014 and to again contest every Cornish constituency at the general election in 2015. Much passion in the MK debate over Devonwall and the Keep Cornwall Whole Campaign, with words like "treachery" and " betrayal" heard more often than usual. The Devonwall issue has its second reading in the House of Lords on Monday.

Some are more equal than others

After hearing from several Cornwall councillors about how they see their role as effectively a full-time job, and work so many hours per week (at a rate below the minimum wage), I thought I'd try to analyse the performance of some of those seen less often at County Hall, based on meetings they were expected to attend over the past six months. Five of the ten are Lib Dems.
1. Bill Jenkin (unspecified) Camborne North - 33.3% 4 out of an expected 12
2. Michael Callan (Ind) Perranporth - 46.1% 6 out of an expected 13
3. John Oxenham (Lib Dem) St Austell Bay - 50% 2 out of an expected 4
3. Robin Teverson (Lib Dem) St Mewan - 50% 4 out of an expected 8
5. Paula Dolphin (Lib Dem) Flexbury & Poughill 54.5% 6 out of an expected 11
6. Nathan Bale (Lib Dem) Bude & Stratton 62.5% 5 out an expected 8
7. Neil Plummer (MK) Stithians - 66.6% 4 out of an expected 6
8. Bryan Preston (Lib Dem) Saltash Burraton - 80% 4 out of an expected 5
9. Lance Kennedy (Con) Bodmin East - 85.7% 6 out of an expected 7
10. Dave Saunby (Ind) Falmouth Trescobeas - 100% 6 out of an expected 6
The data presented above is taken from the council's official attendance register and does not take into account appointments to outside bodies. Neither is it a definitive guide to whether a councillor is hard-working or not - Lance Kennedy, for example, as a Cabinet member, almost certainly attends many more meetings than the six recorded. Similarly Falmouth's Dave Saunby features despite scoring 100% attendance for the meetings at which he was expected - it's just that he was expected to attend only six.
The data must also be read in the context of this explanation from the council:
Total expected attendances
The number of meetings that the councillor was expected to attend in their capacity as member of that committee. This only includes meetings for which the councillor's actual attendance status is known.
Present as expected
The number of meetings that the councillor attended in their capacity as member of that committee.
Some councillors are members of more committees than others. And I'm sure some councillors will protest that they work 24/7 on behalf of their constituents without needing to attend meetings. A table which looked at the other end of the scale, though, would almost certainly feature Lib Dem Chris Pascoe (Threemilestone & Gloweth) whose 97% attendance record is based on turning up for 35 out of an expected 36 meetings. That's nine times as many meetings as Bill Jenkin.

The poverty yardstick

Journos are always on a quest to find "real people" and case studies to illustrate complex stories, so I'm grateful to the generally excellent Cornwall Council website for directing my attention to the Redruth North ward, where (last year) 66% of children lived in households wholly dependent on benefits. The government's shake-up of the welfare system will clearly have a major impact on this part of Cornwall.

Anti-racist Cornish blog to close

It seems the One Kernow blog, formerly Cornish Against Racism, has only a week to go unless someone volunteers to take it over. Only a handful of posts in its brief life, but some of them very interesting.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Bude sea pool "a burden" - Cabinet member

Cornwall councillor and Cabinet member Mark Kaczmarek has upset the citizens of Bude with this email to a council colleague:
"There are many difficult decisions we as councillors will need to take regarding the proposed budget cuts, this pool has been a burden on the council tax payer for many years and is not a statutory council service. Regards Mark"
Can't fault Mark for his honesty - no one could accuse him of trying to face both ways. And as an independent councillor for St Day & Lanner, he probably doesn't use the Bude sea pool that much. But not surprisingly, the question they're asking in Bude is if the council's leadership found a pot of extra cash to bail out Camelford's leisure centre, why can't they do the same for Bude?

MK considers its future

Bodmin's the place to be tomorrow for Mebyon Kernow's annual conference. Recommendations from the top table include a plan to contest at least 50 seats in the 2013 Cornwall Council elections, to contest the 2014 Euro elections (deposit currently £5,000) and every Cornish constituency at the 2015 General election (deposit currently £500 each.) Before anyone scoffs, I should point out that despite the huge cost of campaigning, most political parties, MK included, actually make a profit out of elections thanks to the increased opportunities for raising political awareness and fundraising.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Unison to propose alternative council budget

The Unison Cornwall local government newsletter contains an interesting article by branch chairman Nick Olgard, reporting details of discussions with Cornwall Council senior management. Although nothing is yet finally decided, Nick notes with concern the following ideas: a pay freeze, reduced sick pay, reduced mileage allowances and the introduction of parking charges for staff who bring their cars to work. There is also talk of further reductions in severance payments and a "nuclear option" of wholesale staff dismissals, with some then being offered re-employment on inferior terms and conditions.
"Our strategy therefore is to seek to reduce the impact on members," writes Nick. "We will propose an alternative `Trade Union' budget. We will be campaigning publically and lobbying councillors and Cornish MPs."
The article ends with talk of a ballot. Sounds like the talks are going to be tough going - and the "alternative budget" is going to be very interesting.

Words fail me

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Just making sure the kids are all right

I think I might need to apologise to the young man from Cornwall College who was responsible for taking about 70 students from Cornwall up to London for yesterday's demo. On reflection, the rising note of incredulity in my voice when I spoke to him on the phone was misplaced. He's not a member of the National Union of Students, he's not a member of any union, he's not even a student, he's a full-time member of college staff. There was a prior risk assessment. It was his job to organise the coach trip and make sure everyone got to London and back without any problems. And thanks to the wonders of modern communications, the Cornish students were steered safely away from the pitched battle outside Conservative Party HQ. Everyone got home after an exciting day in town. I'm relieved that no-one from Cornwall was hurt. But it does sound a bit more like a Duke of Edinburgh Awards trip than a political protest.

This morning's Bude sea pool protest

Bude sea pool protest from Graham Smith on Vimeo.

For those who missed it - here's this morning's report on BBC Radio Cornwall.

Just like the old days...

As I write this, a busload of students from Cornwall is on its way to London to protest at planned increases in tuition fees. St Austell & Newquay MP Stephen Gilbert, who was one of three Cornish Lib Dem MPs to sign a pre-election pledge vowing not to raise the fees (but who now finds himself in one of the most spectacular post-election U-turns of modern times) has just Tweeted that he hopes to meet the students later today. It's sometimes said (possibly by Grumpy Old Men like me) that today's students are apathetic and not interested in politics, failing to burn down their campuses and riot in protest at far-away wars. I'm quite prepared to be wrong, and look forward to hearing from the new generation of recently-radicalised young people any day now.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Old & Sad, AV and the view from the ERS

I sent the same question to the Electoral Reform Society and got this reply:

Dear Graham,

Thanks for your email.

The Phil Woolas case was rather unusual, and seems to me to be more a legal matter than a voting systems issue. I can't see that the choice of voting system affects the way we deal legally with political campaigning. The scenario you envisage certainly hasn't materialised in Australia, where the alternative vote has been used for over a century.

If it were the case that a third-placed candidate was found to have campaigned illegally, then I expect the judge would make a decision about the extent to which this invalidated the result of the count. If it did, then of course a re-run of the election would be the obvious solution, but this could equally happen under the present system - the prevalence of tactical voting and 'vote splitting' in FPTP elections means that third- and fourth- place candidates already have 'spoiler' effects as it is. The US Presidential election of 2000, where Ralph Nader split the left-leaning vote is a perfect example of the phenomenon.

Overall, then, I very much doubt that the introduction of AV would bring with it such a blatantly underhand style of campaigning - and decent campaign legislation ought to prevent it from emerging.

Kind regards,

Andy White
Senior Research Analyst
Electoral Reform Society

Have the Old and Sad judges just mucked up AV?

To: Andrew George, George Eustice, Sarah Newton, Dan Rogerson, Sheryll Murray and Stephen Gilbert

Dear all,

I'm trying to fathom the implications of the Oldham & Saddleworth election court ruling for any new voting system, such as the Alternative Vote, which might replace First-Past-The-Post next year.

I understand how AV works if there are no post-count challenges - but what if the candidate who comes third is challenged by a candidate who comes fourth (and the first-round candidate is still short of 50%)? Won't that make the re-distribution of losing votes almost impossible until after the courts have ruled? And, therefore, the temptation to field "spoiling" candidates whose intention is merely to disrupt the election by publishing false leaflets about each other may prove irresistible.

I appreciate the slogan "make every vote count" has a certain appeal - but perhaps Oldham & Saddleworth has provided a reason why not every vote should count!

I know you recently sat through days of debate on the Bill so I'm hoping you'll have the answer.

Many thanks



Monday, 8 November 2010

Number crunching

Amount Cornwall Council is cutting this year from speech therapy, as a result of government reductions in Area Based Grant: £10,000.
Amount Cornwall Council is spending this year on the Cornish Language Partnership: £20,000.
"As the Council hosts the Partnership, there is an additional in-kind contribution which
is not identified in the budgets." - Cornish Language Partnership business plan 2009 -11

A wheel falls off

Cornwall Labour Party has quit the "Keep Cornwall Whole" campaign.
"It is very obvious to us that the idea that this is a cross party campaign is dead in the water," says the press release.
"In the Labour Party, we feel very strongly that we can achieve more by holding Cornwall's MPs to account than by providing a smokescreen behind which they vote with their parties and against Cornwall. Political responsibility for the 'Dornwall' seat when it comes will lie squarely with the Tory/Lib Dem coalition and it is our role as the opposition to expose this, not collude in excusing it.
"Given the coalition's majority in the House of Commons and in the unelected House of Lords, it is going to be very difficult for Labour to amend or defeat the Bill but we will not give up. We wish the Lib Dem and Tory supporters in Cornwall, who are genuinely opposed to the Bill the best of luck in trying to persuade their MPs and peers to vote against the party line. Cornwall Labour Party continues to work with our colleagues at Westminster and our fight now moves to the Lords. People from all parties are welcome to join us."

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Irony is dead

Steve Gilbert MP, having voted in favour of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, Tweets to the Keep Cornwall Whole campaign: "If you haven't written (to the House of Lords,) write now. If you've already written, write again. Don't leave it to someone else."

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Competition: a definition of Cornwall

There is no prize for this competition but in a shameless attempt to give the usual suspects something to comment on, I wonder if any can suggest a 21st century and Cornish version of some of George Orwell's imagery from The Lion and the Unicorn (I did warn you I was about to read it again.)

I wonder if the "nationalists" and "anti-nationalists" (I fear I've been unable to think up better labels) will find anything to agree about. Please accept that as part of the challenge.

No more than 30 words each, but you can of course submit as many comments as you like. For example, Orwell thought that England was (partly) defined by "the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning." He also thought England was a family, with the wrong people in charge. A country of pubs, and people with bad teeth. He was rude about the ruling classes, who he thought were stupid, but not wicked like Hitler or Mussolini. I won't quote the whole essay but if you're really keen it won't hurt to read it.

Let's give it a week, then I'll put my neck on the block and rank my favourites. You can be political, poetic, romantic, geographical, historical - whatever you want. I might be able to persuade my superiors that the best entries should be read out on air. No prizes - far too much BBC paperwork for that (and no money) - but of course, it's the taking part that counts.

Got any dodgy election leaflets?

I wonder if anyone has kept any general election leaflets which might fall foul of Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983)? I imagine that this morning there will be some very nervous election agents in almost every constituency in the land.

The High Court ruling which expels from Parliament the Labour Party's Oldham East candidate, who told lies about his Lib Dem opponent, is arguably 99 years overdue. The last similar ruling was in 1911.

Two thoughts: the Oldham East by-election is going to be fascinating - will the Conservatives field a candidate or give their Lib Dem coalition partners a free run? And wouldn't a similar by-election in Cornwall be even greater fun?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The value of politics

A few days ago Launceston councillor Alex Folkes posted on his blog details of 27 rural bus routes which were under consideration for having the plug pulled on their off-peak subsidies.

BBC Radio Cornwall noticed the post and investigated further - it was a really strong story which lead the breakfast programme this morning, prompting dozens of phone calls from listeners. It seems a fair number of councillors were also keen to know more, because at the scrutiny committee meeting today the proposal was scrapped in favour of an alternative way to save the money, which left the bus routes intact.

The list of threatened bus routes had not been among the official council background papers released to members of the press, public or councillors and I was curious to know where Alex had obtained his information. "I asked for a briefing," he told me. Simples, but only Alex thought of doing it.

I wonder if the bus routes would have been saved if Alex had not taken the initiative and made his inquiries. I wonder if the bus routes would have been saved if Alex had not blogged about it and other media, including other bloggers, not then piled in. I rather suspect that it would have been much easier for councillors to vote through a package of transport cuts if the details had not been in the public domain.

I know that some councillors feel they are sometimes ignored by the media and that some of their colleagues get more than their fair share of coverage. The simple fact is that those councillors who work hard to dig up important stories, and then make them known, will inevitably get more attention than those that don't bother.

Hearty congratulations to Alex on his scoop.

Andrew voted both ways

I have to confess this is a new one on me - Andrew George voted in both lobbies last night, both for and against the Devonwall Bill. Apparently this is the only way MPs can record a "principled abstention" and should not be taken as evidence of confusion.

Devonwall - the final score

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill got its third and final reading in the House of Commons last night with a government majority of 57. Ayes 321, Noes 264. All six of Cornwall's MPs voted in favour of the measure which will abolish Cornwall's political border with Devon.

Apart from the potential for embarrassing the MPs, does it matter? I think the answer is that potentially, yes it does, and the MPs themselves recognised this in their failed attempts to amend the Bill. The reasons have nothing (or very little) to do with nationalist sentiment but are rooted in hard-nosed economics.

For more than a decade now, Cornwall has been able to draw upon a huge treasury of European economic aid. A pre-condition for securing this aid had been Cornwall's "divorce" from Devon, for statistical purposes, to present a greater contrast between rich and poor parts of the Cornwall and Devon economic areas. As a result, Cornwall's Members of Parliament had been able to make a much more coherent case.

Similarly, Business Secretary Vince Cable has just approved a new Local Enterprise Partnership for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to take over the economic regeneration responsibilities held formerly by the South West Regional Development Agency. The new LEP may well find that in the months and years ahead it is competing for funds with similar organisations in Plymouth and the rest of Devon. Any MPs with a foot each side of the Tamar will consequently find their jobs much more difficult and constituents in both Cornwall and Devon risk losing out.

A final thought on Devonwall, which has consumed far too much of this blog since I first wrote about it on 2nd June - hardly a word has been heard about the thing which was supposed to be really important, the referendum on the Alternative Vote system. Polling day is only six months away.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

How to be Cornish

I know of few better ways to wind up some of my BBC colleagues than to start a discussion about what it is that makes them Cornish. Birthplace? Ancestry? A five-year-residential qualification? Suggestions, within House Rules, please.

On the topic of being off-topic

Some blog comments stray signficantly off the subject of the original post. The House Rules are clear and designed to promote discussion and debate - not censorship.

MPs lose their virginity

Four of Cornwall's MPs did something they'd never done before last - they voted against their own political parties. To be fair, Sheryll Murray, George Eustice, Sarah Newton and Stephen Gilbert have been Members of Parliament for only six months and it takes a while to pluck up courage...but when the moment is right, you just know, and I'm sure none will have cause for regret.

Andrew George and Dan Rogerson have been MPs rather longer and have both managed to rebel on various issues before. Last night, of course, was Devonwall and the MPs found themselves in the same lobby as (mostly) Labour MPs, nationalists, and Charles Kennedy.

The reason I say the MPs will have no cause for regret is that come the time of the next election, they now have some Parliamentary evidence they can point to to defend themselves against the allegation that they connived to abolish Cornwall's political border with Devon. This could prove extremely useful, as it seems inevitable that such allegations will still be made, and to some extent, those allegations might yet stick.

It was Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who pushed through the coalition government's case last night and I'm sure opposition party candidates will be keen to remind us of this fact at the next election. Ultimately, it still comes down to a choice between a referendum on the Alternative Vote system and Keeping Cornwall Whole. Nye Bevan would no doubt have talked about the language of priorities.

Tonight is the Third Reading in the House of Commons and the last opportunity MPs have to vote on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I expect Cornwall's MPs to have put last night's indescretion behind them and to troop loyally as directed by their party whips. So tomorrow's Hansard will record that Cornwall's MPs actually voted in favour of the law which shares Cornish constituencies with Devon.

This will leave Cornwall's MPs vulnerable to the same "flip-flop" line of attack which harmed US Democrat candidate John Kerry when he said (of the decision to invade Iraq): "I voted in favour of it before I voted against it." At best, his supporters were confused.

Andrew George tells me he still has hopes of working some magic in the House of Lords. Possibly, although personally I doubt it - the timetable is so tight (to meet the deadline of a May 2011 referendum) that the chance of building a campaign in the Lord is vanishingly small.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Cornwall's MPs defy government but lose by 58

The Devonwall Bill prompted the first serious rebellion by Cornwall's coalition MPs last night - all six of them voted against the government on the key pro-Cornwall amendment, but were defeated 315 votes to 257. The Bill has its Third Reading tonight. Will the MPs defy the government again?

A message from Alec Robertson

My thanks to Alec for releasing to me the message he sent to Cornwall councillors on Friday:

"Dear Colleagues

You have probably heard of recent media coverage around one of our interim employees, Clare Metcalf, interim head of customer services, who was employed during the One Cornwall process, previous to Cornwall Council being formed. A number of you have asked questions and raised concerns around the subject, and I would like to address these with you.

First, to explain our position on temporary, interim and contract employees it is important to understand the difference.

At the inception of the new Council, there were a number of management consultants employed across the organisation carrying out different projects. We have now removed all of these management consultant groups from the organisation, and saved over £6 million this year.

We have, at any one time, around 1,000 temporary staff who fill roles where there is a short term need due to staff shortages. This might be in areas such as libraries, contact centres and other roles where the work must be carried out to deliver services efficiently.

We also employ senior management interims, who serve one of two purposes. They will either have been employed to fill a vacant post, and will be with the organisation until that post is filled, or they will be carrying out a role that is not deemed to be permanent but may not have a fixed term. In the latter instance, this means we have more flexibility on when we choose to remove the post from the organisation, without the associated costs and difficulties of a permanent member of staff. We currently have nine staff employed under this arrangement.

Finally, we use senior project staff to cover specialist roles during fixed term projects. We currently have seven contracted project staff carrying out this type of role. These staff are carrying out roles specific to the change programme and have been employed for the level of expertise they have in their particular field. In addition to these 16 employees (the total number of interim and contract staff), there is one person who fulfils half an interim post, for electoral services, while the electoral services manager is off sick and half a project role in the shared services area.

It is crucial to the success of the change programme that we use these kinds of experts to ensure we drive through the efficiencies needed to achieve the 90% savings as outlined in the emergency budget - which is £90 million of the £110 million savings required. As you are all aware, if we don't make those savings this will mean future cuts to services and jobs for permanent members of staff. High day rates can be justified in the short term to gain the necessary expertise and to get the job done, but clearly to sustain this over a long period of time is unacceptable and it is regrettable that this has happened.

There has been understandable concern that Members were not aware of the costs of senior interim and project staff. I would point out that elected Members would not ordinarily be involved in employing staff other than Directors and the Chief Executive. This is a management responsibility. However, in the interest of openness and transparency, please see the table below with full details of current interim and project management arrangements.

I would like to reassure you that, in line with the rest of the organisation, our interim and project employees will be having their contracts examined and where necessary renegotiated to ensure value for money for the organisation, and a fixed end date in line with whichever project or role they are fulfilling.

I hope this has answered your questions and please be assured that this is not an approach that we take without due consideration to the best outcome and value for the organisation."
Alec's message then details the day rates paid to various temporary staff as per Andrew Wallis's blog.

Who knew what, and when?

In response to my question about the £1,000/day temp, Cornwall Council has issued this statement:
"Clare Metcalf was appointed by the One Cornwall management team under the authority of the Implementation Executive, prior to Kevin Lavery being appointed. Elected Members are only involved in the recruitment of the Chief Executive and Directors."
Not sure that this really answers my question - or if it does, if it's good news or bad news! Meanwhile Indy councillor Andrew Wallis has posted a very interesting entry on his blog, detailing several other highly paid council temps.