Monday, 8 February 2016

THE VISION THING

The Commonwealth Games in Cymru / Wales in 1958 
With the 2016 Six Nations Rugby Championship kicking off today over the weekend it was particularly fitting for Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood to outline how a Plaid Cymru government would work to make Wales a globally recognised sporting stage by attracting some of the world's greatest championships and tournaments. If elected in May, a Plaid Cymru government, will bid for Wales to host the Commonwealth Games in 2026/2030, as well as bidding for the Tour de France to come to Wales, for both men and women. This would not only help raise Wales' profile as a nation that consistently punches above its weight in the sporting world, but would also secure a welcome boost for our vital tourism industry and leave a long lasting legacy.

Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood said:

"2016 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for Welsh sports. With our national football team making history by qualifying for the European Championships, and the Six Nations rugby tournament kicking off this weekend after a strong World Cup for Wales, we must make the most of these occasions.

"Plaid Cymru wants to harness the excitement and ambition that comes with our nation's great sporting successes, and prove that we can not only produce world-class athletes but also act as a world-class for some of the greatest championships and tournaments on earth.

"A Party of Wales government would want to bring the best international sporting occasions to Wales.

"We will develop a Commonwealth Games bid with Wales as the host nation in 2026/2030 - something that would not only have the potential to inspire a whole generation to get involved in sports but also secure a welcome boost for our tourism sector.

"We will also bid to bring the Tour de France to Wales, for both men and women, and work with sports associations and the tourist industry to identify other opportunities for Wales to act as hosts.

"Plaid Cymru knows that Wales has all the ingredients to be a global success story. Under our leadership, the next Welsh government will ensure that our nation is renowned for excellence, on and off the pitch."

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

HERE WE GO AGAIN



On the 6th February the 6 Nations rugby internationals kick off, rugby fans will prepare themselves for over crowded trains and the usual excuses from the rail franchise holders. On Friday 28thFebruary Wales play France. Rugby fans will face the ordeal of a Friday night international match, with an 8pm kick-off and the logistical perfect storm that awaits them. 

Simply getting to (and from) Cardiff on a Friday evening, with the lack of late trains, and scheduled maintenance – may more than try fans patience. It will be grim for Welsh Rugby fans, travelling south and east to Cardiff before kick-off, but it may be even grimmer afterwards when they try to get home. 

Bitter experience relayed by supporters (and would be rail travellers) tells me that the franchise holders will run short trains, when these trains reach Abergavenny, Pontypool, Cwmbran, Chepstow, Caldicot, Severn Tunnel Junction and Newport (not to mention Hereford, Lydney and Gloucester) they will be so full that passengers cannot board them. 

Prepare for the usual excuses from Arriva Trains Wales as to why this overcrowding problem happens and how it will be avoided next time. The reality is that the short-term rental costs of hiring extra trains would be cost prohibitive. The day the rail franchise moves to a not for dividend profit cannot come soon enough.

Friday, 29 January 2016

REDEFINING DULL

A close call near Caerleon, near Newport in the lower Usk Valley
It’s been a bad winter for floods, with the north of England and southern Scotland getting particularly badly hit, along with parts of Wales, and we are only halfway through. As has been noted previously there can be no blank cheque for flood defences; we need to make rational and cost effective sustainable choices when it comes to coastal defence. We need to decide how we are going to deal with the weather related effects of a warming world with expanding and rising oceans.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment the wholesale abandoning of large tracts of our country to the ravages of the ocean, although unless climate change is taken on then we may end up facing that eventuality. Rather we need to make rational long-term sustainable choices about flood defence and the development of a comprehensive planning system for our country. At a time when several of our councils are considering building on known flood plains the issue of flooding remains important.

We need to actively build in flood prevention / flood avoidance into as the planning application process and make efforts to avoid building in those areas that are vulnerable (or will be vulnerable in the future) to flooding or at least build to take into account the possibilities of flooding. If we are going to build on flood plains or other areas that are vulnerable to flooding then we must use flood resistant or flood hardened modern intelligent design and building techniques to reduce potential future damage, loss and inconvenience as is done elsewhere. 

The UK mainland has around 5,000 miles of coastline, not all of which is inhabited or at prime risk, but even so, going Dutch with wholesale widespread sea defences would be an expensive option for Wales, let alone the UK. Now those coastal roads and railways that are at regular risk of being damaged by a combination of bad weather and high tides may well need to be re-routed.

In Wales we do need to take a longer view and seriously consider the possibilities of relaying railway lines and building roads away from those more vulnerable coastal areas. Additionally we need to harden our power network and our communities to the effect of severe weather events. That said we are in a much better position to make more rational coastal defence choices than some countries in the developing world and to seriously consider just exactly where we put key infrastructure.

The quick fix (and short term gain) may be one of our biggest problems here in Wales along with the lack of sensible detailed all Wales development planning. Across the border, Westminster’s institutionalised short term view led to the cutting of £500 million pounds from the Environment Agency budget (between 2010 and 2013, and at the time (in 2014) anticipated another ‘saving £ 300 million pounds by 2015 and the cutting of some 1,500 jobs.

The Pacific island nations and Bangladesh will face the potentially catastrophic social, economic and political consequences of rising and expanding oceans before we will.  Even the Dutch have after over 500 years of experience trying come to the conclusion that in some cases it is better to build in flood room, setting aside some coastal wetlands and other land as places that will be allowed to flood to take the pressure of other areas. 

Coastal flooding and bad weather may hit some parts of our country hard, other areas may literally dodge the storm, but we may not be so lucky all the time. Westminster budget cuts mean (which are unlikely to be reversed) that in England (in in Wales) there will be less money, less resources and less people to work to prevent future floods. We in Wales cannot afford that short of dull short term thinking... we need to start the process of better flood prevention now 
before the next time.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

DON’T STAND BY

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, which is commemorated on the 27th January (the date upon which the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp) each year. It is important that we take time to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the HolocaustNazi Persecution and in other subsequent horrors which have followed more recently in CambodiaRwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and Syria.

Neither should we forget the genocides inflicted on the Armenians and the Ukrainians. It is only right and proper that we honour the survivors and continue to challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had perished in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps. As Allied troops made progress across Nazi-occupied Europe, they began to uncover concentration and extermination camps. The camp of Majdanek in Poland was the first to be liberated, in summer 1944.

Nazi forces burnt the crematoria and the mass graves in attempts to hide the crimes that had been committed - the Operation Reinhardt camps of Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were dismantled by the Nazis from 1943, and Auschwitz was evacuated in late 1944. The surviving prisoners, weak from starvation and ill-treatment, and poorly clothed against elements were forced to walk into the interior of Germany, away from the Allied armies, many thousands died on the enforced ‘death marches’. 

Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27th January 1945, where they found several thousand emaciated survivors, and the smouldering remains of the gas chambers and crematoria (the Nazi’s had attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes against humanity). In the following months, the Soviets liberated Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.

In the west, US troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, followed by Flossenburg, Dachau and Mauthausen. British Troops liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15th April 1945. It is estimated there were over 60,000 prisoners in Belsen by April 1945. Approximately 35,000 prisoners died of typhus, malnutrition and starvation in the first few months of 1945.

Tony Blair (the then UK prime minister) once asked Jewish leaders do we need Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain? Jonathan Sacks (formers Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years, until 2013) noted that this was the question as Tony Blair in 1999, when it had been proposed that the UK have a Holocaust Memorial Day, and Blair wanted the opinion of British Jewish leaders. They explained that they did not need it as Jews.

When it comes to remembrance Jewish people already had Yom ha-Shoa, their own memorial day, which falls soon after Passover in the Jewish calendar. Every Jew literally (or figuratively) lost family in the Holocaust. For Jews, Yom ha-Shoa is a grief observed. The Jewish leaders said that the Holocaust was not just a crime against Jews and other victims – Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the handicapped and Jehovah’s Witnesses among them; it was an assault on all of humanity.  As one of the survivors said earlier today perhaps we need an eleventh commandment – Don’t be bystander!

Monday, 25 January 2016

ALL IN IT TOGETHER – NOT!


Tax evasion! Surely not!
The news that Google has done a deal with the Conservative Westminster government over it’s unpaid UK tax bill, might be considered to be a step in the right direction.  Save for the fact that Google is no chain of high-street shops or a supermarket, but a global tech superpower with an annual turnover of close to £40bn with £4bn accrued in the UK. Compared to ordinary tax payers, they’ve got off lightly. Vast numbers of decent and conscientious tax payers and small businesses struggling with a mass of red tape will be understandably aggrieved at the Chancellor’s cosy deal with Google.

These giants excel at avoiding tax; tax which should have been paid over many years. At best the donation of some  £130m in taxes from Google over the last ten years is merely a tokenistic gesture from a Government more concerned with luring multinationals than clamping down on tax avoidance. When multi-national companies avoid paying their fair share of tax, it simply means we end up with a bigger national deficit, a larger burden on hard working people who do pay their taxes and that we end up with less money to spend on our essentials, such as the NHS, schools and rubbish collections.

At a time when families are struggling with the cost of living, and local services are under pressure from government cuts, it is outrageous that multi-national companies and rich individuals are merely getting a slap on the wrist for not paying their taxes. This is nothing new, it’s been going on for years, the point scoring on the back of Osborne’s deal with Google simply means, that probably much to the quiet irritation of David Cameron, that tax evasion is back in the news.  

It may be a matter of semantics and legality when it comes to the differences between tax evasion from tax avoidance, one is a criminal act and one is permitted under the law.  It is a matter of public record that the current PM is against aggressive tax avoidance schemes. He has also been pretty forthright in stating that tax evasion is illegal, and that people can be prosecuted for that, and people can go to prison – so his relative silence and inaction on tax avoidance may be telling

It is also a matter of public record that the former Con Dem and current Conservative government’s are pursuing ideologically driven public sector spending cuts which have seriously cut staffing levels in HM revenue and Customs. The PM interestingly enough was firm enough when it came to rejecting calls for particular individuals to be stripped of public honours for wrong doing. From the perspective of the Westminster elite, if you started stripping individuals of titles and honours for wrong doings, who knows where it might end - even the possibility of former Conservative and former Labour and Lib Dem party donors ending up embarrassed.

Previously various Westminster governments have been more than a little half-hearted when it comes to clamping down on tax avoidance or fiscal consolidation. The PM may have slagged off celebrities, for using a tax avoidance scheme in Jersey, a couple of years ago. Yet he remains reluctant to deal the tax havens that just happen to be UK Crown Dependent territories.  Successive Labour and Tory governments turn a blind eye to this problem allowing the UK's tax gap to grow to an eye-watering £34 billion each year. 

Total fiscal consolidation over the course of the Parliamentary term (2010 – 2015) amounted to some £120 billion pounds, which may indicate the scale of the scandal. The last Labour UK Government (in 2005) merged Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise and then proceeded to cut a nearly a third of jobs in five years (99,000 to 68,000).   The party formerly known as New Labour also slashed the budget for tackling the tax gap by nearly 50% (£3.6bn to £1.9bn) between 2006-10.

In February 2015, it was a scandal that involved HSBC's Swiss accounts, that made the news, the numbers were quite something:

·                106,000 clients with Swiss bank accounts
·                203 countries involved
·                $118bn total assets held in Swiss accounts
·                11,235 clients from Switzerland held $31.2 billion Dollars
·                9,187 clients from France held $12.5 billion Dollars
·                7,000 clients from UK held $21.7 billion Dollars

Source: ICIJ/Panorama

Now most reasonable people accept that there is a real need to deal on a global basis with the problem of off-shore companies and those individuals who are actively engaged in tax avoidance, tax evasion and / or money laundering. It’s all a little embarrassing as the problem is that the UK is at the heart of the problem and has chosen not to regulate its own crown dependencies let alone the periodically iffy, if not periodic criminal or questionable financial goings on in the City. 

The scale of the on-going off-shore tax avoidance problem may leave you breathless. The Cayman Islands were home to some 12,000 corporations yet have a resident population of 50,000. They were home to around 70% of the planets hedge funds (as of June 2012). The British Virgin Islands with a population of some 22,000 people just happens to be home to some 823,502 registered companies.

General Electric who paid no tax in 2010, made a $14.2 billion dollar profit. Barclay's had 181 subsidiaries (as of June 2012) registered in the Cayman Islands and paid little UK tax on its worldwide profits. News Corp managed to base 152 subsidiaries in tax havens across the planet (according to the US Government) and yet managed to pay no UK corporation tax between 1998 and 1999.

US President Obama was 100% right to suggest that the governments of the world should jointly tackle the issue of tax evasion and tax havens. By tackling the tax havens, the tax avoidance and the questionable dealings of the derivative traders, hedge funds and the off balance sheet trading then we might go so way towards dealing with the consequences of the worldwide financial crash. Yet that nice Mr Cameron and the other 18 millionaires in the cabinet (in 2015) pretty much stalled when it came to closing tax loopholes.

The scandal of HSBC’s Swiss accounts was but the tip of a large iceberg. The British Virgin island (BVI) incorporated over one million such offshore entities since it began marketing itself worldwide in the 1980s (with the convenient connivance of HM Government). Company owners' true identities are never revealed. Even the island's official financial regulators normally have no idea who is behind them. The British Foreign Office depends on the BVI's company licensing revenue to subsidise this residual outpost of empire, while lawyers and accountants in the City of London benefit from a lucrative trade as intermediaries, claiming that the tax-free offshore companies provide legitimate privacy.

In November 2012 a National Audit Office report noted that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) was struggling to curb aggressive tax avoidance schemes that were costing the UK billions of pounds in lost tax. No doubt much to the embarrassment of the then Con Dem Coalition Westminster Government, and the now Conservative Westminster Government , tax evasion and tax evaders and the hunt for their concealed cash remains a big issue in the USA.

In the UK the impression that we are left with is that the Conservative Westminster government (and perhaps the Party formerly known as New Labour) sincerely hope that the issue of unpaid tax, will quietly go away. The US government continues to actively pursue tax evaders, both foreign and domestic, yet in the UK, the then Con Dem Government quietly reduced the number of staff in Revenue and Customs from around 100,000 to 65,000 and hoped to further reduce the numbers to around 50,000 by 2015.

The UK Government remains firmly up to its neck in it when it comes to tax evasion; it’s heavily involved in aiding and abetting tax evasion worldwide. British Overseas territories, including the Cayman Islands, help to hide around trillions from pounds from the different nation’s tax authorities. Deep in the belly of the beast lies the City, which may explain Cameron’s reluctance to do anything about the problem as some of the city banks are hand in glove with drug dealers, dictators, rogue states and terrorists when it comes to money laundering and perhaps offers comfy lucrative seats on the board to former Westminster politicians.

Plaid Cymru will not compromise on its commitment to tackling tax evasion. Tax evasion, tax avoidance or fiscal consolidation has resulted in vast sums of money being squirrelled away. Plaid believes that taxes should be collected properly and invested in vital public services such as health and education. The Westminster based parties, perhaps seeking future post Westminster employment, may wish to appease the City bankers and their wealthy backers, but Plaid Cymru believes in putting Welsh communities first.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

50,000 NEW APPRENTICESHIPS


Rather than promising nothing and delivering even less – as per the current trend for Westminster governments and Labour administrations in the Bay – politics at a very basic level should be about making deliverable public commitments. This is why Plaid is right to commit to a landmark investment in 50,000 new apprenticeships for young people in Wales over the next five years. These 50,000 extra apprenticeships can be funded with Wales’ share of the UK apprenticeships levy, which is worth £150m each year. A Plaid government will be committed to ensuring that no young person in Wales is not in education, employment and training while between the age of 16 and 24, and in order to improve prospects for the next generation. At the moment 12,200 young people between 16-18 years old in Wales – one in every 10 - are not in education, employment or training, which most people will agree is far too many. Apprenticeships can offer an equally valuable route into employment as university degrees, and is committed to securing parity of esteem between these two paths in future.