Friday, 23 December 2011


As one year passes and another one beckons there are some certainties in modern life, one of which is the post-Christmas train fare rises. As of January 1st train fares will rise by an average of 5.9%. For what it's worth, in his Autumn Statement last month, the Con Dem Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne capped fare increases at 6%, instead of the expected 8%. Since privatisation, rail fare rises have been linked to inflation, currently 5.2% as measured by the Retail Prices Index.

The Association of train Operating Companies, has said that fare increase would be used to pay for "new trains, faster services and better stations". Verbally at least this makes a pleasant change from simply using the increases in fares to maximise the dividend for shareholders. At the moment, passengers make a contribution of around £6.5 billion to the running of the railways, with taxpayers picking up the remaining £4 billion.

Let's be honest, the sooner our railways are run as not for profit organisations, with the profits being reinvested back into the railways the better. The public have tolerated what has become on occasion an often shoddy minimalist unconnected service. Most reasonably minded people would concede that historically the Department of Transport’s interest in Wales has been peripheral at best.

We need to prioritise investment in our railways and provide a decent affordable and reliable service for the passengers. We should get in a few years time a single rail franchise that directly answers to and works for Wales, rather than boosting company profits. A not for profit railway company that serves Wales could break up the cosy financial relationship that exists between the political establishment and the franchise holders – which would be no bad thing.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has rightly criticised "cosy" deals between HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and big businesses over the way they settle their tax bills. Serious concerns have been expressed by MP’s about just exactly how some of the large tax settlements were reached. MPs believe that potentially there may be some £25 billion pounds worth of outstanding tax issues with some of the UK’s largest companies and they want HMRC to be much more open about its dealing with large firms.

Not surprisingly HMRC has said that the MPs had misunderstood the facts. If the MPs are correct and I see no reason why they should not be as whistle-blower from inside HMRC passed them some interesting information (according to Radio 4 on Tuesday morning). Perhaps they should do some digging to find out how many former HMRC employees have moved to potentially lucrative employment in the private sector.

Coincidentally the tax campaign group UK Uncut is taking HMRC to the High Court (today - Thursday 22nd December) to seek a judicial review to try to get them to reclaim millions of pounds in uncollected tax from Goldman Sachs. It's all a little awkward for David (‘Call me Dave’) Cameron as it either touched a raw nerve or at least exposed the lie at the heart of his much trumpeted “We are all in it together” – apparently not!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Alexei Navalny (REUTERS)
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and a key figure in the rallies after Russia's disputed parliamentary elections, has been released from prison in Moscow. He served fifteen in custody for “obstructing police“ and was freed this morning in the early hours. Mr Navalny told journalists and reporters that "extraordinary efforts" would be made to continue the protest movement. Protesters have demanded a re-run of the flawed 4th December elections when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party won a narrow majority. Democracy activists have identified instances of ballot-stuffing and used social media to report them. In the days following the elections Alexi Navalny was detained (6th December) and Moscow (and other Russian towns and cities) saw the largest anti-government protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More mass protests against ballot-rigging are planned on Saturday in Moscow.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


News that the Con Dem Government has brought in the planned reduction of the feed-in tariff before the consultation process has even closed should not come a much of a surprise. The consultation process runs until Friday, 23rd December yet the changes to the feed in tariff were brought in on Monday, 12th December – so much for consultation. Friends of the Earth and two solar power companies have rightly challenged the UK Government in the High Court (Tuesday 20th December) over the plans.

The Feed-in tariffs (FIT) scheme was primarily designed to encourage investment in renewable energy and reduce costs for households, it's reduction could have a significant impact on the renewable energy sector in Wales. Developing renewable solar energy should be an integral part of developing sustainable future energy supplies and should play a key role in helping to combat the growing challenge of climate change.

The apparent speed with which the changes were brought in and the public demonstration of any lack of real sincerity in what could be described as a nominal consultation process is disappointing. The renewable energy sector is a growing employer in Wales with real potential for significant growth in future years, yet this ill-thought out change could put jobs at risk and derail expansion plans.

Feed-in tariffs give ordinary people the chance to take part in the fight against climate change through generating their own renewable energy and to make savings on their own household energy costs. Naturally these changes will make it more difficult for people to do this and in my opinion this change is driven by a short term desire to save money. So much for the Con Dem pledge to produce 15% of the country's total energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Part of the problem is the lack of any real sincerity on the part of the last few UK Westminster Governments when it comes to developing the vital renewable energy sector. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (and its predecessors) have effectively slowed down the development of the renewable energy sector and actively blocked the development of tidal lagoons and wave energy having a bias towards the grossly expensive nuclear industry.

The last thing that the UK Government and the cartel of Big Six energy companies want is for people to be saving money and to be less dependent on the large energy providers. It should be pretty clear to most people by now that the UK Government simply does not favour or wish to encourage smaller scale community beneficial energy projects.

Perhaps if you take the long view, a rapidly expanding small scale renewable energy sector would (eventually and perhaps quite quickly) threaten the energy company profits, their virtual monopoly on energy supply and useful taxes on the energy companies profits. Would any Westminster government want to reduce it's income and help people to save money and break their dependency on large scale energy providers and large scale energy developments. Hmmm...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

VACLAV HAVEL (1936 - 2011)

Vaclav Havel 1936 - 2011
News that Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic's first president after the Velvet Revolution against communist rule, has died at the age of 75 will sadden many and bring back memories of the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989. Havel a former dissident playwright, had suffered from prolonged ill-health, died this (Sunday) morning. Havel was born in 1936 to a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia and as a result was a marked man, considered by the Communist authorities as "too bourgeois", he was banned from going to University, so he studied at night school. He wrote, had his writing banned and his plays forced underground after the 1968 Prague Spring. He first came to international prominence as a dissident playwright in the 1970s through his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77. In 1977, he co-authored the the Charter 77 movement for democratic change and faced along with other prominent dissidents near constant harassment. Havel was imprisoned and became Communist Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident and refused to compromise with the Communist authorities. Havel given the choice by the Communists, refused to leave the country preferring to stay and continue the struggle against Communist tyranny. Havel and the charter 77 dissidents were heavily involved in the successful velvet revolution in November 1989 which saw the effective peaceful demise of the Communist dictatorship. He was elected as Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president in December 1989. Havel successfully oversaw the difficult transition from authoritarian communism to democracy, and presided over the "velvet divorce" which saw the peaceful creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Havel, left office in 2003 and continued writing. He died at his country home north-east of Prague.

Friday, 16 December 2011


Gadzhimurat Kamalov, the founder of a newspaper that has reported on corruption and police abuses in Russia's southern republic of Dagestan, was shot dead outside the offices of his newspaper Chernovik ("rough draft"), in Dagestan's capital Makhachkala, on Thursday. Kamalov founded the newspaper in 2003 and had edited it for several years and remained its publisher until his death.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has noted that Chernovik staff have been persecuted and harassed by the authorities. The CPJ called Kamalov's murder "a massive loss for independent journalism in the North Caucasus, Russia's most dangerous place for reporters". Violence (nominally political and wholly criminal) remains rife in Dagestan, where police have been battling Islamist insurgents since the 1990s.

The CPJ notes that Russia has one of the worst records in the world for attacks on journalists, with 18 unsolved press murders since the year 2000. Whether or not there is a list of journalists who happen to criticise the policies of the Russian Government (and some of the local corrupt elite's activities) is a mute point but there do seem to be an awful lot of coincidences.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


News that the Committee on Members Expenses has recommended that MPs should scrutinise their own expenses should come as no surprise. Some MPs have called for the reinstatement of the much discredited Fees' Office which was deeply involved in the revelations in 2009. If these moaning MP's get their way, then we could be one small step away from returning to the old discredited expenses system, which turned the House of Commons into an old fashioned sleazy gentleman's club, and claims for duck houses and moat cleaning would not be far away. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) established in 2010, has made sue that MPs have to account for every penny of taxpayer–funded expenditure.

Since then MPs have been moaning that the system is overly bureaucratic not to mention that some MP's object to having to account for every penny of taxpayer–funded expenditure. The Committee on Members Expenses has called for the Ipsa to be stripped of responsibility for administering expenses payments by April 2012. The Committee (chaired by Conservative MP Adam Afriyie) has accused Ipsa of damaging democracy and called for it to be stripped of key responsibilities. They want Ipsa to simply regulate the system, with a department created within the Commons to control payments - this would effectively re-establishing the old Fees Office.

Oddly enough, I suspect that most members of the public have little or no problem with MPs being required to account for their expense claims in public. The Daily Telegraph, which broke the scandal of MP's expense claims has noted that a recent survey conducted for Ipsa by YouGov for Ipsa suggests strong public opposition to a system of allowances for MPs - 69% believe MPs should continue to make claims for costs incurred and those claims should continue to be published. It is quite amazing at how rapidly out of touched some 'elected' can become once they become ensconced in the Westminster Village.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


There was a time when most Government’s would at least pander to the idea of taking a longer more thought out view when it comes to economic development. They would at least try to provide the best conditions and framework to enable the private sector to grow and flourish. Sadly while that concept appears to have quietly died sometime in the 1980’s as politicians concentrated on short term popularity and tax breaks and getting their noses back into the trough after each election.

Much has rightly been made of the state of our High Streets, the economic consequences of their imminent demise and the pressing need to do something about it. No doubt all the politicians will roll out the usual cliches about redevelopment and regeneration and then after having paid some lip service to the idea of reviving our high streets carry with business as usual.

This is not cynicism on my part merely a result of some twenty five years of observation on what has happened to my home town (Newport) and to the small towns of Monmouthshire and much of the Gwent valleys. We have all seen far too much talk over the years and scant action on the part of local politicians and the inhabitants of the Westminster village.

There are two key elements (amongst others) when it comes to creating economic circumstances which will favour the growth and development of small to medium sized local businesses and enterprises. Firstly there is a need to give local high street based businesses a fair and level playing field upon which to operate and secondly there is a need to give the public relatively easy and cheap (If not free) access to the high street.

More locally when it comes to development (or redevelopment for that matter) our Local Authorities need to develop a realistic and sensible long term economic view when it comes to planning policies and regeneration. Planning polices need to favour local businesses and small to medium sized enterprises – there needs to be a more thought out and more consistent approach to dealing with planning applications for in, out and edge of town retail developments.

Our Local Authorities are still far too often tempted by planning gain as developers offer includes, sweeteners and inducements to ease the passage of proposed developments. Council's fear the costs of planning applications (particularly those from larger retailers) being taken to appeal if original outline planning permission is refused. They may even be advised by Council officers of these potential costs if a development proposal involving a larger (potentially more aggressive) retail company goes to appeal - so much for local democracy!

Local Authorities also often fail to have properly researched retailing policies within their development plans. If retailing needs have not been assessed properly then it is very difficult for Local Authority planners to refuse any potentially damaging planning applications from developers, which results in local small businesses, consumers and our communities paying the price.

Since the 1980’s every Westminster Government has talked about promoting the vitality and viability of our small market towns, or at least paid a form of lip service to it. Over the last twenty five years many retail developments have consistently undermined this aim, as local authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to the consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments on the edge of market towns in England and Wales. The economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, a quick look at the damage that has been done to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth within Monmouth constituency and elsewhere in Wales.

Let’s at least be honest, how can we local regeneration schemes to work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete with the aggressive tactics of supermarkets and larger retail chains chasing an ever larger market share. More than ever, our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements from developers.

If you live in various parts of Gwent or are intimately familiar with your home community, then over the years you will have noticed that redevelopment / regeneration comes and goes in phases, in any particular community or town regeneration schemes will have cleaned areas up, built in cycle routes, created transport plans, pedestrianised streets, reopened them to traffic, re-pedestrianised them and (as is the case in Newport and no doubt elsewhere) made certain streets shared space with both cars and pedestrians (this is not as crazy an idea as it sounds, and actually works) and so on.

Parking has been restricted, created and removed, made it free and charged for it, bus lanes have been created, removed and the hours when bus lanes operate varied. Now this is all well and good and may reflect the latest trend in regeneration and development, but at the end of the day has it made the places where we live, work and shop any better? Has the regeneration process or scheme increased or generated wealth in our communities or provided people with the opportunities to get jobs, to go into business for themselves or generate wealth?

One of the unintended features of redevelopment is that quite often it is (or is perceived as being) driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies whether they be Town or County Councils or the National Assembly. Regeneration is a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed. Local communities and towns and cities of South Wales have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success?

Measuring a regeneration schemes success should be a key factor in any regeneration scheme. This is the key question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the development / redevelopment / regeneration professionals have banked the cheque and moved on - have the various schemes made a difference. I mean beyond any immediate physical improvements to the environment, have they made a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme?

If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively syphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success? How do you make regeneration projects work beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised during the regeneration process is the communities greatest resource - its people.

If we truly want to build and develop strong sustainable communities then any regeneration scheme should from the start and at every stage of the process. We don’t need regeneration professionals coming into an area and engaging in a largely token consultation process. They should directly talk to local people (who are an asset to the process) and actually find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their community and their town.

Regeneration schemes and projects should be directed from the bottom up rather than the top down model (with a built in token consultation element) that we often seem to pursue. If you are spending public money, then you need to work it hard and squeeze out every possible benefit for the length of the project and afterwards.

We need to maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build in local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources and / or local skills and local input. If you are reusing or renovating old buildings (and this idea has worked very well in Poland and other places) then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished.

If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will with hard work deliver tangible benefits for our communities. After all regeneration should be a process not merely an event.

Monday, 12 December 2011


The current wave of demonstrations and protests in Russia over what outside observers have said were seriously flawed elections are important, but, they may not yet be another Russian revolution, even though one is well overdue. The focus of the protests have been Vladimir Putin (current Prime Minister and previous two-term President) and his ruling United Russia party, who has stated his intention to run again for President of Russia in 2012.

United Russia, known to some Russians as ‘the Party of Thieves and Swindlers' (because of its fairly blatant involvement in corruption) suffered a significant and visible electoral setback in Russian elections a week ago. Embarrassingly for Putin his United Russia's visibly reduced vote was only made possible by widespread and well organised electoral fraud.

Unfortunately this time the traditional ballot stuffing procedure was actually filmed by opposition protesters and plastered across the internet for the world and ordinary Russians to see. What followed has been some of the largest Russia wide public protests since the demise of the Soviet Union. From one end of Russia to the other, large crowds have gathered openly and loudly demanding that the elections be re-run.

The protesters raised a number of common key issues:

• freedom for political prisoners;
• the annulment of the election results;
• the resignation of Vladimir Churov (who heads the election commission);
• the opening of an official investigation into vote fraud;
• the registration of opposition parties
• new democratic legislation on parties and elections;
• new democratic and open elections.

What we are witnessing may not be the end of the Russian oligarchy more likely it's the end of the beginning of the end of the oligarchy. A Russian spring may yet be some way off, that said it's probably worth a recap of how Russia got here. Russia has only recently emerged from 70 years of Soviet style Communist tyranny. For many Russians the nine years of relative democracy under Yeltsin were pretty grim difficult years.

The country's living standards plummeted collapsed, criminality on many levels openly flourished and the country's assets were looted (sorry privatised) and pillaged for quick profits and any social consequences of the privatisation process were simply ignored. Any remaining influence that the inheritor state of the USSR had abroad for good or bad was squandered. The West lectured the re-emergent Russia rather than helping the Russians to bed in democratic and legal processes and looked for rich pickings.

It was not wonder that for many Russian's the arrival of Vladimir Putin, in 1999, was a breath of fresh air and stability. While Putin's methods were far from gentle, the results were relatively spectacular, as order was re-established. Living standards (fed by a rise in world oil prices) rapidly shot up and Russia influence overseas mattered. The price was a mercenary driven fraudulent political system – which to many seemed a small price worth paying at the time.

Despite the fact that the system was inherently fragile Putin/Medvedev popularity peaked at around 80 per cent or more. The unfolding Ukrainian Orange revolution caused panic in the Kremlin and led to a significant spend of accumulated oil money to dampen down any social protest and discontent. Internationally Russia has consistently worked to thwart any potential international support for the “Arab Spring” and is working to block any effective UN Security Council action on Syria.

The question is has the wheel begun to come of Putin's wagon? And if so why? One reason why Putin's star may be fading is that much of the planet is in recession and the demand for oil and gas has fallen (which leads to a corresponding drop in revenues) and a drop in Russian economic growth. Putin is also facing a new younger generation of Russian politicians and ordinary Russians who have no nostalgia for a watered down Soviet pastiche. The new younger Russians are well educated and well-travelled who are desirous of the same material benefits and civic society as the rest of us Europeans.

And thanks to the internet (which is free in Russia – now that's a novel concept) they know exactly who other societies function and how well or how badly people live. We and the modern Russians are no longer living in the 1980’s, despite the lack of free press and any real degree of impartiality in the Russian state (or oligarch) controlled mass media, most Russians can simply go on-lien to see what state their country is in and as Lenin said ‘What needs to be done?’

Ironically it was a failure on the part of the coup plotters in the old Soviet Union to understand the impact of faxes (the then brand spanking new communications technology)during the coup attempt in August 1991 that brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it will be internet and various internet applications that will bring down the oligarchs in Russia the dame way it has brought down the tyrants in the Middle East.

We may see the start of a belated attempt to close the open door that is the internet over the next few weeks and months in Russia. Certainly last week, Alexei Navalny, one of Russia’s best-known opposition figure and a crusading anti-corruption blogger, was somewhat cack-handedly and un-subtly locked up. In recent months democratic opponents of United Russia have been detained without trial in psychiatric hospitals in an unpleasant echo of the old Soviet Union.

Naturally Putin has put the blame for the protests on Western driven agitation – any old Soviet ploy. The Russians election period saw a significant increase in web based attacks on opposition websites and discussion forums. A veritable flood of pro-Putin and pro-regime tweets has taken place. If the Putin regime survives these current protests this is one problem won't go away and potentially a problem that cannot simply be bought off beyond the short term with a wedge of oil money from Russian government slush funds.

While the March presidential election is important it is very likely that Putin (who is still popular with many ordinary Russians) will win it. Russian authorities have played fast and loose with elections and electoral law in the past and opposition candidates may find themselves outside the electoral process next year. The Russians state, despite the economic downturn, has around $100 billion to dip into as pre-election sweeteners between now and polling day.

It is worth remembering that the Kremlin machine can play subtle and well as hard ball when it wants to or feels the need to. Russia is a powerful state and is flush with gas and lucrative energy contracts and is pretty willing to use control of its energy supplies against those states that won't toe the line. So what should we in the energy hungry / energy dependent West do about the situation in Russia? In recent years, Western governments repeatedly looked the other way when elections have been stolen or rigged in Russia or kept their silence.

Officially the Russian state has signed and committed itself to conventions committing itself to open political debate, fair elections and a free press. Russia, just like any other state should live up to those standards, and the West should be critical when Russia does not. What happens in Russia is important and Russia is an important European state and one of our neighbours. A Russian spring may well be around the corner and we may be seeing the first steps in the process that leads to Russia taking its rightful place among the other leading European democracies.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


When I was a child there was a TV programme called Fantasy Island, now it seems we have Fantasy Barrage, which makes much of promising all things to all people – but at a price (financially we are now talking about up to £34 billion pounds). The resurrection of the Severn Barrage scheme (once again) could make you wonder about the sanity (financial or otherwise) of some of the usual suspects. I have no doubt that the usual suspects will trot out the usual glib statements about the project being the solution to all of South Wales’s economic woes.

It sounds good the problem is that it's a fantasy, yes we need to develop the renewable energy resources of the Severn estuary, we would be mad not too. I have serious concerns about any Severn Barrage, firstly is does not generate enough energy over a log enough period and secondly it would be environmentally damaging. A more logical solution would be to build tidal lagoons (one in Swansea Bay would be ideal to test out the technology but has been repeatedly stalled and delayed by a hostile Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and previously powerless (but now vision-less) Welsh Government.

A combination of tidal lagoons, tidal fences, turbines based in tidal current rich areas and wave energy generation technology (currently being tested in Scotland) and some carefully situated off-shore wind farms could generate a significant amount of sustainable energy. The need is to stretch the period of generation beyond the 3 hour energy pulse offered by previous incarnations of the barrage have offered. This is something that a combination of tidal lagoons and other energy schemes could offer release energy for a far longer period than 3 hours. By using a variety of options we could generate sustainable jobs and skills not to mention make Wales a world leader in developing the energy generation technology – any takers?

Friday, 9 December 2011


News that the Chancellor, George Osborne has promised to look at the cost of the Severn Bridge tolls, after halving Humber Bridge fees in his Autumn Statement last week is interesting news. There may be a deal on the Severn crossings as the Chancellor is willing if not keen to talk to the Welsh government. From January 1st Tolls for cars on the Severn bridges are due to rise to £6, while vans and small buses will have to pay £12.10 (a 60p increase) and heavy goods vehicles and coaches will pay £18.10 (an increase of 90p).

The tolls on the Humber Bridge between East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire are paid in each direction and are currently set at £3 for cars and up to £20.30 for an articulated lorry. The chancellor announced that he was writing down the outstanding debt on the Humber crossing by £150m which would allow tolls to be cut in half. This decision was included in the UK Treasury's National Infrastructure Plan; which also included a pledge to work with the Welsh government to improve the M4 in south east Wales - which if nothing else shows how bereft of ideas concerning Wales the Con Dems are.

The UK government is apparently "holding open the opportunity of a discussion" on the Severn crossing tolls. The Welsh Government First Minister, Carwyn Jones has pointed out that the Treasury has failed to match the cuts given to the Humber Bridge Board. A Welsh government spokesperson stressed it was for UK ministers to take action as “the Severn crossings are owned by the UK government. The Welsh government does not set the tolls, nor do we benefit from the toll income."

Very true, but a little inconsistent, as while there was consistent and persistent bleating from duly elected Westminster Labour sheep between 1997 and 2010 along the lines of there is nothing we can do to reduce or stabilise the tolls! It turned that this is or was not quite true as the last New Labour Government intervened in October 2009 in relation to the Humber Bridge. Perhaps New Labour’s representatives in Wales hoped that no one would?

The (then) New Labour Minister of Transport Sadiq Khan, announced a grant of £6m to the Humber Bridge company, saying that, “the Government was committed to doing everything it can to protect communities and businesses from economic downturn and help the country to recover. That is why I decided not to accept the Humber Bridge board’s proposed toll increases”. New Labour, then fully in control at Westminster and in coalition Government in Wales did precisely nothing to try to reduce the impact of the Severn bridge tolls between 1997 and 2010, which somewhat ironically may not be the case when it comes to the Con Dems.

Thursday, 8 December 2011


So David Cameron is to travel to Brussels for a major EU summit on the eurozone debt crisis. Both Germany and France are keen to have a new EU treaty which would include measures to stop a repeat of the problems threatening the euro's future. Cameron is under increasing pressure from the anti-Europe wing of Tory MPs who want him to resist moves to strengthen the power of Brussels over EU members.

The PM has pledged to stand up for Britain, he will display some of the tenacious bulldog spirit, etc. Some old same old you might think, but there is more to this than meets the eye. Not quite, in a joint letter, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for the 17 eurozone countries to have common corporation and financial transaction taxes.

This is something Cameron (“the bankers friend”) is obviously set dead against. Cameron has cleverly hidden the real reason, why and on whose behalf he is actually going to the Brussels summit for, by playing the Tory patriotic card, saying he would fight for the UK national interest in any EU Treaty talks.

Cameron's real concern is the issue of corporation tax and the proposed financial transaction tax – something that could seriously hinder the effective money laundering that goes on in the City of London. The last thing Cameron wants is any bright light shone on the questionable financial practices that operate in and around the City of London. Cameron will be busy in Brussels acting on the banker's and the tax evaders behalf not on behalf of the inhabitants of these islands.

Interestingly enough, the previous New Labour government made much of its light financial regulatory touch, at least until the wheels came spectacularly off the wagon. It's a tad difficult for the Con Dems to make anything positive out of their refusal to take any action over banking regulation (at least until 2019). In the wake of the banking collapse and at a time of real financial austerity when we are all supposed to be in it together, this is pretty rich.

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. The European transaction tax initiative favoured by France and Germany is long overdue and a small step in the right direction.

What a surprise! it turns out that the UK is at the heart of this problem as it has consciously chosen not to regulate some of its crown dependencies. The scale of the off-shore problem can take your breath away. The Cayman Islands; are currently home to some 12,000 corporations and have a population of 50,000, yet are home to 70% of the planets hedge funds.

The British Virgin Islands (population 22,000) is home to 823,502 registered companies. General Electric paid no tax in 2010, yet made a $14.2 billion dollar profit. Barclay's has 181 subsidiaries registered in the Cayman Islands and paid little UK tax on its worldwide profits. The Dirty Digger's News Corp has 152 subsidiaries in tax havens across the planet (according to the US Government) and paid no UK corporation tax between 1998 and 1999.

So much for all being in it together, if developed countries exchequers lose out then it's significantly worse for developing and underdeveloped countries. Tax dodging costs developing countries around $160 billion dollars per year (Christian Aid). Around $ 1.2 trillion dollars was illicitly removed from poor countries in 2008 (US Integrity Research Centre).

President Obama rightly suggested that the governments of the world actually got together to tackle the issue of tax evasion and tax havens. The US President was entirely correct, if we actually tackled 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.

There again, perhaps if that nice Mr Cameron and the other 18 millionaires in the cabinet were to work with other governments worldwide to close the tax loopholes then perhaps we truly would all be in it together? Perhaps not! So over the next few days when Dave (and no doubt the Daily Mail) makes much of standing up for Britain in the Brussels summit its worth remembering that he is actually there on the bankers behalf not ours.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


News that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, desires action to be taken in the New Year (after due consultation) to improve transparency and curb excessive executive pay packages in the public sector, should welcomed. The move, is apparently, intended to ensure that public sector workers don’t feel they were bearing the brunt of the cuts while their bosses are not. The Deputy PM indicated that there would be moves to increase transparency and that legislation could be brought forward in the New Year. I wonder if he has told Dave and George yet? I suspect the answer might be not yet, as apparently senior Conservatives are said to be sceptical about the plans and say no government work is under way on implementing them.

Monday, 5 December 2011


A Roman ring found near Caerphilly has been returned by the British Museum for permanent display in the Winding House Museum at New Tredegar to put on permanent display. The silver ring, around 2,000 years old, was found on Cefn Brithdir, in the Darran Valley, earlier this year by a man with a metal detector. The finder alerted the authorities to his discovery and the ring was passed to the National Museum in Cardiff which identified it as a typical Roman silver finger ring from the 1st or 2nd Century AD, although its gemstone is missing.

A good local example of the portable antiquities scheme working well here in Wales, you might think. However, then the ring was declared to be treasure trove and placed in the care of the British Museum, whose officials eventually offered it to the Winding House, a former colliery building, as the relevant local museum. The question is not so much that the ring was declared treasure trove, but, that it was sent to the British Museum in London, when we have a perfectly good institution more that's more than capable of assessing the artefact's significance in the shape of the National Museum in Cardiff.

Friday, 2 December 2011


I spent the first half of the week on a very intensive training course (complete with an exam - which thankfully I passed) so I missed the strike day entirely. It's literally taken until today for the deprogramming to kick in and to put thought to blog. Wednesday came and went, the Conservatives are feeling good, having a pop at the Unions over strikes for the Tories is like playing to a familiar audience.

The amply rewarded and well-paid card carrying largely Labour dinosaur Union bosses are happy as they got to have a go at a Conservative led Government. The current (New) Labour leader is quietly hoping that the strikes will go away and no one remembers that this whole economic mess originated when New Labour were running the show.

Now to be fair it's a devilishly awkward situation that the party formerly known as New Labour finds itself in. I mean they are trying to sit on the fence and avoid taking an official position, neither for or against the strikes. Fence sitting aside as the dust settle a lot of people who can least afford it are out of pocket at a time of year when they can least afford it.

The anger of public-sector workers who took part in strike action on Wednesday remains understandably undiminished. They are being asked to make significant financial sacrifices to pay for the mess, those responsible for the mess the private finance sector, are definitely not being asked to make the same level of sacrifice and by and large appear to have got away with it and escaped unpublished for their actions.

Understandably public sector, many of whom are not paid very much, are a tad upset that part of their pension, for which they were entitled to plan for many years, is going to be taken away. I have no doubt that the scale of government borrowing requires emergency action, yet any savings from changes to public-sector pensions won't actually come through until some years after this financial disaster has faded into memory.

Apparently the Government has moved some distance towards meeting the unions' objections, apparently by reducing the cuts for those nearing retirement. If this is the case, then serious efforts should be made to get a deal on the table and to sign it. Both the Unions and the Government should accept it an honour it.

Why do the cuts need to be so apocalyptic? Could not saving be made in other areas? Trident perhaps or a couple of aircraft carriers (one of which there are no plans to even use!). The UK Government can manage to find the money to spend on wars and their aftermath, but, not apparently when matters are deemed less urgent.

I wonder if the (subconscious or not so subconscious) motivation for the attack on the public sector workers is more ideologically driven rather than financially driven. It is worth noting that both Cameron and Osborne were heavily involved if not key players (coat holders) for Michael Howard’s thankfully unsuccessful campaign to be Prime Minister.

That thought aside, one financial cuckoo that's coming home to roost is that of PFI – something that the public sector was forced to use by the last Labour Government (and is still favoured by the current government) and for which we will all be paying for many years to come. We will all be paying for a whole raft of Blair’s legacies, including a couple of wars and the London based and largely London beneficial Olympics.

For the next ten years at least, public spending is going to be under severe pressure. Harsh choices will be made and priorities decided; and some changes may need to be made to relatively generous future pension rights of public-sector staff. I don’t necessarily dispute that, but, I question on whose behalf these decisions are being made and what efforts are being made to ensure that we all pay our fair share?

From where I am sat (in the cheap seats) this Conservative Government is the Trade Union leaders' best mate (if not a convenient ally). This is government for the rich and by the rich (for that's how it appears to me) has stood by while the City fat cats continue to be rewarded for failure and to rake in fat bonuses and done nothing.

The Con Dem's biggest problem is the acute lack of fairness, as boardroom pay has raced ahead, and tax evasion and tax avoidance largely goes unpunished. Excessive profiteering by the energy cartel has gone unpunished and those who can least afford are getting hammered. David Cameron and Mr Osborne remain utterly unconvincing as they continue to fail to convince most people that they (of all people) are genuinely "all in this together".

Last Tuesday George Osborne showed that he failed to even consider any idea for public disclosure of tax returns or a ban on honours to those who have already rewarded themselves pretty handsomely. Nothing was done about tax avoidance; and no consideration was given to a "Robin Hood tax" on financial transactions (something that needs to be done on global basis). Rather than criticising the strikers, Cameron might want to take steps to ensure that the bankers and the rich are in this, too, like the rest of us.