Wednesday, 31 October 2012


It’s quite simple really; Russia wants to award the Medal of Ushakov to Britain's Arctic convoy veterans as a symbol of Russia’s gratitude to the naval and merchant navy veterans who ferried supplies to Murmansk and Archangel during the Second World War. The veterans risked their lives time and time again convoying crucial supplies through often atrocious weather and hostile seas to the hard pressed (then) Soviet Union, which was fighting for survival.

The Foreign Office (and the Ministry of Defence) has repeatedly (under both Labour and Conservative Governments) blocked this move saying that it would break the rules surrounding acceptance of medals. The Russian Embassy has expressed its 'deep regret' at this decision, which has understandably been condemned by surviving convoy veterans and their families.

Between August 31, 1941 and May 22, 1945, some 78 Allied Arctic Convoy (more than 1,400 merchant ships escorted by ships of the British, U.S. and Canadian Navies) sailed to the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.  Some 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were sunk by Nazi submarines and approximately 3,000 British servicemen were killed during the Arctic campaign.

The significance of lend-lease supplies for the Eastern front by Soviet-bound Arctic convoys and their role in defeating fascism is still emerging. The convoy veterans and the vital supplies they delivered were temporarily lost in the often hot rhetoric of the Cold War. Oleg Rzheshevsky, the Russian war historian, has noted that apart from everything else, the convoys were a powerful moral influence.

"The moral aspect of the Arctic Convoys meant a lot. This was an extremely important factor both for the army and for all our people as it signalled that we were not alone in that war but had strong allies such as Britain and the United States. This helped boost our troop morale on the battlefield and supported our people on the home front."

Many of the arctic convoy veterans are still with us, back in May 2010; surviving veterans were all awarded special medals by Russia in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of Victory over fascism. The awards ceremony took place aboard the historic Belfast cruiser, the last surviving UK warship that served the Arctic Convoys, a fresh reminder that World War II was not just a Soviet war, or a British war, but a common war against fascist tyranny.

Prime Minister David Cameron, just like the rest  of them has broken his election promise to create a special medal for veterans of the Arctic Convoys. Successive Westminster governments have promised to create a medal, yet have failed to deliver on their promise. The Russian Government has awarded our veterans three medals, the arctic convoys are now part of Russia’s school curriculum. The Russian Government and the Russian people understand the convoy’s importance, yet successive UK Governments seem to really struggle with this.

I think it’s time for the National Assembly to explore ways we can honour our surviving arctic convoy veterans.  I believe that we need to do this quickly because it is the right thing to do and because I sat for many hours listening (as a small child) to heavily edited stories from my great uncle, a naval veteran of the Arctic convoys to Russia and of much else. Our veterans should not be left out in the cold again, the medal needs to be created and awarded to the veterans and their families before it is too late.

Monday, 29 October 2012


The Irish Republic may be close to securing oil revenue that could run into billions of euros, something that could, if wisely spent or saved help to reduce the financial consequences of the recent banking crisis. An Irish and UK company, Providence Resources Plc, says its Barryroe site, some 30 miles off the Cork coast, should yield around 280 million barrels of oil. Any Oil revenues generated will be dependent on the price of oil when its extracted and on licensing arrangements between the Oil companies and the Irish Government.

Providence Resources Plc rig at Barryroe, Ireland (Finbarr O'Rourke/Providence Reso/PA)
When production comes on line this could mark the beginnings of the Irish oil industry. Oil companies have spent decades of exploring around the Irish coast and off-shore. Providence Resources Plc plans to use multi-national energy giants to work within its licence, which the company secured from the Irish government for a nominal fee. The company has already secured the expertise of the world's leading oil multi-national, Exxon Mobil, to explore its site at Drumquin.

In Ireland, campaigners have been calling for Ireland's relaxed laws with relation to its natural resources to be overhauled and upgraded. At the moment Ireland gets around 25% of all profits, rising to 40% depending on the volume of oil and gas extracted. This tax take is significantly lower than it is in Norway and the UK, both of whom have much larger oil and gas resources. At the moment a barrel of oil comes in at about $110, €85 or £69, even 25% of the revenue should prove a huge boon for a country that has never successfully extracted a drop of oil before.

The Irish Government argues that the low rate is attractive to foreign companies as Ireland does not have the expertise or revenue to exploit any oil and gas reserves itself. Critics in Ireland point out that all exploration costs can be off-set against any tax liable ones, and that claims can go back as far as 25 years.  Providence Resources Plc, who are believed to have spent around £0.5 billion pounds exploring Irish waters, has divested itself of any UK onshore assets (28th September 2012) so they can focus their resources on bringing on-stream its drilling programme off the Irish coast.

Some campaigners in Ireland have warned that the oil from Barryroe may never even be landed in Ireland, but taken to refined in Europe or elsewhere, something that will mean fewer jobs on Irish soil. The Irish Green Party has reservations about just exactly how much oil and gas is actually there, as the quoted oil resource figures have not yet been tested. The RSPB (in Northern Ireland) is also concerned about potential oil and gas extraction from around Rathlin Island, off the County Antrim coast, which is a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Protection Area (SPA).

Meanwhile Providence Resources Plc says its aims to bring any oil from Barryroe to Cork, but that any decision will be made on a commercial basis closer to the time of extraction. For Irish politicians (and the media) though the prospects of even some 25% of the revenue from what may potentially been billions of euros worth of oil will be a significant boost to the country in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

One significant advantage that Ireland by being independent has over Wales is the fact that a significant percentage any oil and revenues generated will flow into Irish coffers rather than into the bottomless pit that passes itself off as the UK Treasury.  Scotland by virtue of having a parliament (with significant influence over Scottish finances) will also (unlike Wales) get a significant portion of any oil and revenues generated rather than simply sit and watch it get siphoned off into the UK Treasury.

Friday, 26 October 2012


The UK Supreme Court ruling should mean that thousands more women could bring equal pay claims against their former employers. One hundred and seventy four former Birmingham City Council workers can now pursue compensation claims over missed bonuses after the council lost a court appeal. They now have six years to make claims.

The Global Gender Gap Report produced by the World Economic Forum shows that significant progress has been made in closing the gap in healthcare and education between women and men over the past six years. The report shows that women continue to struggle more than men to get top jobs and political decision-making positions.

Some 88 percent of the countries covered in 2006–2012 have improved their performance, but 12 percent have widening gaps. The report said that (on average) more than 96 percent of the gap in health outcomes and 93 percent of the gap in educational attainment has been closed.

Only 60 percent of the gap in economic participation and 20 percent of the gap in political empowerment has been closed. The report, which covers 135 countries representing more than 90 percent of the world’s population, was released a few hours after the failure of a European Commission proposal to set a 40-percent quota for women on the boards of listed companies.

Nordic countries are doing the best job of closing the gender gap. Kazakhstan (ranked 31st) moves up 18 places from its ranking last year due to a decrease in the gender wage gap and an increase in the percentage of women in parliament and ministerial positions. Moldova fell six places to the 45th on the ranking, mainly driven by losses in economic participation and opportunity.

Croatia gains one place to reach the 49th position with a minor improvement in the representation of women in ministerial posts. Serbia entered the Index for the first time in 50th position. Kyrgyzstan fell ten places to take 54th position, primarily due to a drop in economic participation and opportunity, as well as educational attainment and health. Russia has dropped to 59th position due to declines in economic participation and political empowerment.

Macedonia moves down eight places to 61st rank. The country’s improvement in the percentage of women in ministerial positions is balanced out by decreases in perceived wage equality and estimated earned income. Ukraine, one of the 20 lowest performing countries on the political empowerment subindex, remains in 64th place despite a slight overall improvement in score. Romania comes in 67th.

Georgia has climbed one place to 85th position. A decrease in its educational attainment score is balanced out by improvements in economic participation, health, and political empowerment. Albania ranks 91st, slipping down 13 spots from the combined effect of lower scores in perceived wage equality, estimated earned income, secondary education, and the percentage of women parliamentarians. Armenia falls eight places, ranking 92nd due a significant decrease in the estimated earned income ratio.

Tajikistan remains at 96th; it shows a slight increase in its overall score. Azerbaijan slips eight spots to 99th position, partly due to decreases in secondary and tertiary education. Iran slips to the 127th position due to a worsening of the estimated earned income ratio and Pakistan loses one place to 134th position due to a worsening in the perceived wage equality.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


The Party of Wales has criticised the lack of detail on borrowing powers to Wales provided by the joint statement issued by the UK and Welsh Governments. The statement follows twelve months of bilateral talks between the two governments. The party has also criticised the lack of a clear commitment to the reform of Barnett or a formula to fix the Barnett floor.

Ieuan Wyn Jones AM, the party’s Shadow Finance Minister said:

“The Welsh Government entered into the bilateral discussions with the twin aims of securing borrowing powers and fixing the Barnett floor at 115% of spending in England as originally proposed by Holtham. This statement shows that they have failed on both counts.

“Wales has already lost over 40% of its capital budget, and the economy is in crisis. We need to have borrowing powers immediately so that we can kick start the construction sector and boost jobs. The Treasury’s weasel words on borrowing shows that they have failed to grasp the enormity of the economic crisis we face with 50,000 young people unemployed. The statement doesn’t even tell us how much Wales will be allowed to borrow at some future unspecified date.

“The failure to agree a formula to fix the Barnett floor also shows that the Treasury is now clearly complicit in perpetuating the underfunding of Wales.

“This announcement has the Treasury’s paws all over it, and I can’t understand why any First Minister of Wales would sign up to it. I would have been ashamed to have signed up to this weak and bland statement. There is no mention at all of the longer term need for a wholesale reform of Barnett.”

Wednesday, 24 October 2012


At a meeting last night, in Torfaen, the ruling Labour group (naturally bereft of any fresh ideas), voted to include the land between Sebastopol and Cwmbran in the new Torfaen Unitary Development Plan (UDP). The area has now been earmarked for Housing development, in the new Local Development Plan (LDP), the new UDP itself will run until 2021.

Back in February 2012, Torfaen councillors removed the land from the Local Deposit Plan and reduced the number of proposed new houses in Torfaen to 600. A National Assembly planning inspector objected and the site has now been reinstated to the LDP and earmarked for housing. One big unanswered question related to house building in Wales is who exactly are they being built for?

Across the south east, particularly along the coastal belt around Newport and in and around Torfaen, over the last twenty years has seen a spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which has never been aimed at fulfilling local housing needs. The infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor is struggling to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site.

The north of Newport has now effectively been linked to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to either urban area. Similarly lining Cwmbran with Sebastopol will bring little benefit to local residents. Even if eventually housing is built on the land just exactly how much of it will be affordable to local residents?

We need to take the long view and to create Welsh Green belt land with the legal and planning protections then, we might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning. This would also enable us to introduce a longer term element into the process by which our elected officials (and council officers) plan and view development and redevelopment within and around our urban and not so urban communities.

This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue. It is worth noting that Wales only has one notional green belt, and that lies between Cardiff and Newport, Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each of which has its own policy guidance. It is important to note that once the Green belt or Green wedge is gone it is gone for good.

The Westminster government (in England) aims to get planning officers "off people's backs" with a relaxation of current rules. In true Spiv fashion ‘for a limited period, people will be able to build larger extensions on houses (up to eight metres for detached homes and six for others). Shops and offices will also be able grow to the edges of their premises as Plan A (harsh Public Sector Cuts) fails and a note of desperation creeps in Westminster ministers seek to boost the economy.

These sounds good; it seems reasonable, save for the fact that somewhere amongst the smoke and mirrors the plan to reduce developer’s obligations to build proportional amounts of affordable housing. Not that long ago, a matter of a few months, the Westminster government rewrote the entire planning framework (for England) despite some fierce resistance from countryside campaigners. Now Westminster ministers want further changes to planning rules (in England) in an attempt to boost house-building and revive the economy.

Not wanting to be left out, the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff is also considering major changes to planning rules in Wales aiming to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This decision may be aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits.

South Sebastopol
This is bad news for those residents of Torfaen, who have been fighting the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who have been fighting to retain the livestock market. Not to mention the concerned residents of Carmarthen who are worried about the impact of over large housing developments or the concerned residents of Holyhead who are opposed to new marina development. In Wales we have over the years been ill-served by the planning system, by our local authorities and by our own Government in Cardiff...

Monday, 22 October 2012


On the train to where?
There comes a moment, when you have had a long day, when it can become difficult to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction or comedy drama and reality. That moment for me came on Friday night when I watched Newsnight on BBC 2. For the best part of twenty minutes I might as well have been watching an  episode of In The Thick of It, rather than actual news coverage of the Con Dems latest collection of self inflicted wounds e,g. George Osborne’s First class PR disaster,  Andrew ‘Thrasher’ Mitchell’s belated resignation (after 28 days of hoping the problem would go away) or David Cameron’s blundering intervention in relation to the ‘energy market’... perhaps  Malcolm Tucker can drop is and help get DC (and his clique) out of the mire...

Sunday, 21 October 2012


As UK householders brace themselves for increased energy bills, they are also going to take a hit from increased world food prices.  The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)World food prices has revealed that world food prices rose 1.4% in September (in July food prices went up by 10%), driven up by higher meat, dairy and cereals prices. The rise follows two months of relative stability when food prices remained steady.

Here in the UK, we will end up paying higher prices for the food on the shelves. Elsewhere on the planet there are real concerns about possible food shortages as drought hit grain crops in the US Midwest, Brazil, Russia, Europe and central Asia. The UN has also forecast a decline in global cereal production this year.

The FAO is predicting that 2.286 billion tonnes of cereal are likely to be produced, this is slightly down from the 2.295 billion tonnes that had been estimated a month earlier. This forecast would mean a 2.6% fall in cereal production from 2011's yield, which was a record crop. This would result in a significant reduction in world cereal stocks by the end of 2013, yet there may be some light at the end of the tunnel as the early indicators for wheat crops in 2013 are said to be good.

The UN and the US Department of Agriculture says that  around one third of all food goes to waste and that consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. To feed the worlds expanding population basically we will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 and this despite the fact that Global corn stocks (reserves) have basically halved since 1998.

More than 100 million more people across the world now suffer from hunger due to recent food price rises. Of all the humans on the planet, one in eight not have enough food. The situation is being made worse because we are turning food into fuel. The UN food agency (aback in August) called on the United States to suspend its production of biofuel ethanol.

US law requires that 40% of the US corn harvest be used to make biofuel, the UN says that this quota could contribute to a food crisis around the world. The harsh drought and heatwave across the US has made the situation worse by destroying much of the country's corn crop, and driving up prices. The US is not alone in relentlessly chasing biofuel, many countries are increasingly exploring the possibility of growing some of their fuel rather than importing it.

The FAO's Food Price Index rose 3 points to 216 in September, but this is still below the record 238 reached back in February 2011. Cereal prices rose 1% from August, wheat and rice offset a decline in maize. Meat prices were up 2.1%. Dairy prices rose 7%, the sharpest monthly increase since January 2011.

Sugar prices fell 4.2%, reflecting an improved sugarcane harvest in Brazil, the world's largest sugar exporter. Oil prices fell by 0.4% in September and the International Energy Agency is predicting a fall in oil and gas prices. This no doubt explains why the energy companies are going to charge us more for our energy over the winter – or perhaps not!

Friday, 19 October 2012


The news that the Severn Bridge tolls are unlikely to drop once the vital crossings come into public ownership does not surprise me very much. The  UK transport minister Stephen Hammond stated that the government has substantial debts on the bridges that need to be repaid.  Both the Severn Bridges are run by a private company, the concession agreement is due to run it course in 2018, at which point the bridges will return to government ownership. It had been suggested that once that concession agreement ran out, the bridge tolls might have dropped to around £1.50.

Sadly this appears not to be the case, the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee, was told that there would be no drop bridge tolls when the concession ends. Even though the bridges would come back into public ownership there were apparently "substantial government debts that needs to be repaid" from building and maintaining the river crossings amounting to around several hundred million. It is enough to make you wonder after the best part of twenty five years of a private company fleecing the people of south Wales and ramping up fat profits at our expense why the bridges were ever privatised in the first place?

Back in June 2010 a Plaid Freedom of Information request revealed the significant difference between the large amounts of money raised by Severn River Crossing plc from the toll, and the relatively small amount being spent on treating the damage to the cables on the old crossing. The FOI request revealed that (since 2006) some £15 million has been spent on main cable work on the first Severn Crossing (the M48 bridge).

The Highways Agency (back in 2011) revealed that another £5.8 million's worth of maintenance will take place over the next five years.  This was despite the fact that some £225,733,000 has been collected in bridge toll revenue since 2006. Back in October 2011 I speculated on whether we were going to get saddled with major work to maintain the bridges while the toll profits were being siphoned off by the concession holding company after the bridges are finally returned to public ownership (then in 2014 or 2016) now 2018. Depressingly the answer is Yes...

Thursday, 18 October 2012


The Party of Wales leader Leanne Wood has pleaded for rail services to be returned from the private sector to the ownership of the people of Wales.

Speaking during a Plaid Cymru debate on rail in the Senedd on Wednesday, Leanne Wood argued that the Wales and Borders franchise should be transferred into the hands of a not-for-dividend company, once the current franchise ends in 2018.

Leanne Wood also wants to see the powers and budget for railway infrastructure to be devolved to Wales, as happens in Scotland.

The Plaid leader stressed that The Party of Wales had consistently opposed the privatisation of the railway network.

“We believe that major infrastructure should operate for the wider benefit of our economy and our communities, and that money which could be spent on improving these services should not be diverted into the pockets of shareholders taking minimal investment risks.

“A not-for-dividend model could be a publicly owned company, or it could be a co-op, or an independent company limited by guarantee, along the lines of Network Rail or Glas Cymru.

“Our most important aim is that the Welsh Government ensures that a model based on reinvestment of profit is what finally happens.”

Leanne Wood said that the Welsh Government should have full control of the Wales and Borders franchise and not have to rely on the agreement of the UK Government, although it would be fully consulted.

The Plaid Cymru leader highlighted the case for the powers and budget for railway infrastructure to be devolved to Wales.

“While welcoming recent infrastructure developments such as the electrification announcements from London to Swansea and the Valleys Lines, this does not make up for the fact that such developments were taking place around most of England and even from London to Glasgow up to 40 years ago.

“Wales has been left behind on the platform – at the whim of successive UK government,” Leanne Wood added.

“Self-government gives us a chance to break new ground and reject the failures of privatisation and fragmentation.

“Devolution, if grasped to its full extent, will allow us to put our rail services in the hands of the people of Wales, where they belong” declared the Plaid leader.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Norway's sovereign oil fund currently stands at around or about £400 billion (around $640 billion); the UK has no sovereign oil fund. The UK, basically, rather than thinking in medium or long terms the UK, basically during the oil boom years, blew the North Sea cash on cutting national borrowing and keeping down taxes. Whatever revenue came in disappeared into the day-to-day budget.

In Norway for the last 16 years Norway, various governments saved the government's petroleum and gas revenue - arising from levies on oil and gas companies which operating in Norway and from its stake in national energy giant Statoil – into its national oil fund. The income from the fund cover 11% of Norway’s national spending. Even more ironically, the UK is buying large quantities of Norwegian gas, adding to Norway’s nest egg, which happens to be one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world.

Norway’s global investment arm of the Government Pension Fund, as the oil fund is formally named, is one of the biggest investors in shares across Europe, even though its share holdings took a hammering during the financial crisis, the fund is now acquiring significant trophy properties across Europe. Some 4% of the fund (around £16 billion pounds) is diverted each year to subsidise Norwegian government spending.

In effect, this keeps Norwegian hospital beds open, helps pay for social benefits and has paid for significant infrastructure projects within Norway and the Faeroes. Norway’s fund continues to grow as levies on oil and gas production and on oil companies bring in around £30 billion annually. As the oil and gas continue to flow and oil and gas prices remain high, then Norway’s fund continues to grow.

The UK, under Labour’s James Callaghan in the mid to late 1970s considered setting up an oil fund, but as economic crisis worsened it simply grabbed the money. In Norway they followed the British, but, wisely had second thoughts after the oil price collapsed in the 1980s. So they decided to consciously bank the benefits from the oil bonanza for future generations of Norwegians.

The Brits chose not too and squandered a fortune on bailing out the economy and subsidised tax cuts. It did not have to be this way – in Shetland, the council set up an oil fund which contains around £185 million today, even after upgrading roads, ferry terminals and local swimming pools. In Scotland, the Scottish Government advocates setting up a special fund supported by North Sea oil revenues.

While the North Sea oil is well past its peak, continued high oil prices and future prospects of West Coast oil fields could deliver for Scotland. The prospect of future energy revenues being banked in Scotland rather than squandered south of the border may concentrate the mind of the Westminster elite.

This may go a long way to explain David Cameron and the Labour Party’s inherent nervousness about the prospects of Scottish independence. What Wales needs is a sovereign energy fund where the tax revenues from energy generation schemes should reside for future generations rather than vanishing into the Crown Estates and the UK Treasury.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


The Lithuanians, given a chance to express their approval or disapproval of the austerity programme, appear to have voted out their Conservative Government. With some results still to come in yesterday, the two leftist parties, Labour and the Social Democrats, appear to have finished first and second, and their leaders have met to discuss terms of a coalition. Lithuanian PM Andrius Kubilius' government has been punished for cutting pensions and public wages.

Voters passing judgement on austerity in Lithuania (Associated Press)
In a seperate referendum, the Lithuanians have voted against plans for a new nuclear power station, which the government had previously said the plant would cut dependence on imported Russian energy. Environmentalists and other political parties had questioned its affordability. The result from Sunday's referendum is non-binding, but surely leaves a vast question mark hanging over the future of the proposed plant.

The former government enforced a harsh austerity programme, to stave off national bankruptcy. Lithuania’s economic output dropped by 15%, unemployment soared and thousands of young people emigrated in search of work. Of late the Lithuanian budget deficit has largely been dealt with and GDP reached growth of 5.8%.

Lithuania's harsh approach won praise from other governments and the International Monetary Fund. Yet the price paid by ordinary Lithuanians’ came far too late to be translated into a political revival for the conservative government, who have paid the price at the polls. The opposition had promised to raise the minimum wage, make the rich pay more tax and put back euro entry until 2015.

In the Lithuanian general election, with election counting complete in three-quarters of voting districts, the Labour party are on 21%, the Social Democrats on 19%. The former Prime Minister Kubilius' Homeland Union Party is on 13%. The bottom line may well be that if you give the people a change to express their option on austerity and you may get a decisive answer...this scenario may increasingly play on David Cameron's mind over the next few years.

Monday, 15 October 2012


Wave Power
In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond has launched a £103 million pound fund for Scottish renewable energy projects. The Renewable Energy Investment Fund (REIF) is designed to attract more private investment to the sector, its priorities include wave and tidal energy, and renewable district heating. Mr Salmond announced plans to set up an advisory group to support those seeking finance from the new UK Green Investment Bank and £4.3m funding for SSE's offshore turbine test facility. The Scottish government also plans to invest in the Hunterston offshore wind turbine test facility.

REIF  was set up following a deal between the UK Treasury and the Scottish government over the release of funds from the fossil fuel levy. The levy was originally introduced in Scotland back in 1996  to raise money from traditional energy sources to invest in renewable power. The new fund aims to complement existing public and private sector finance schemes in Scotland, by providing loan guarantees and equity finance alongside co-investment partners. REIF will be delivered by the Scottish Investment Bank on behalf of the Scottish government and its enterprise agencies, with the first deals expected to be completed by the end of the financial year.

Now that’s sounds like a good plan to me...

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Here we go again; British Gas has announced increases to the gas and electricity prices it charges customers. The company (a member of the ‘Big 6’ energy cartel) has announced that it will raise its charges for both gas and electric by around 6%, which will add around £80 a year to the average dual fuel bill, from the 16ht November 2012. This not unexpected decision follows SSE (which trades as Scottish Hydro, Swalec and Southern Electric) announcement that it will increase its domestic gas and electricity prices by an average of 9% from 15 October.

SSE (also one of the ‘Big 6’) has blamed the increases on the extra cost of using the gas and electricity networks and rising costs in energy wholesale markets. Around 3.4 million gas and five million electricity customers will be affected with an average standard dual-fuel bill will pay an extra £102 for the year, or £1,274 in total. Back in May 2012, British Gas, reported a 2% rise in annual pre-tax profits to £1.33bn, though profits in its division which supplies electricity and gas to homes and businesses fell 20% to £321.6m.

Npower has also joined its fellow cartel members (sorry colleagues) British Gas in and SSE by announcing it is increasing gas and electricity prices in the UK. Npower announced that it will increase the price of gas by an average of 8.8% and electricity by 9.1% from 26th November. And then there were three…

In 2011, all the big-six energy suppliers raised their prices, in some cases twice. Earlier this year the ‘Big 6’ all staged a token gesture round of small price cuts, which affected their gas or their electricity customers. SSE cut its gas prices by 4.5% in March this year. British Gas last raised its tariffs in August 2011, gas prices rose by 18% and electricity prices by 16%. Back in January 2012, it cut its electricity prices by 5%. Centrica (which owns British Gas) in May 2012 warned that continued increases in the wholesale price of gas might lead to renewed domestic price rises this autumn.

The silence from the Con Dem Government is almost deafening. Truly we have come a long way from the heady days of opposition, when back in October 2009 the then Tory Energy Spokesman, Greg Clark  (currently Financial Secretary to the Treasury) said that the "cartel" of the big 6 energy firms would be referred to the Competition Commission by an incoming Conservative Government. The then Tory Energy Spokesperson also condemned the unacceptable lag between the cost of wholesale gas prices and household energy bills - noting that customers were on average being charged some £74 pound too much for their energy per year.

An 'independent' investigation into the Energy companies refusal to pass on reductions in wholesale energy prices to customers would have been very welcome along with the promised 'Energy Revolution' to overhaul the energy sector billing structure and charges. Oddly enough a Conservative Government started the whole sorry mess in the first place, privatising the energy market in the first place. This threw any rational energy pricing structure upon the whims of the 'market' by allowing the newly privatised energy companies to price gouge customers in the first place?

Oddly enough that pre-election pledge for an independent inquiry into the £25 billion-a-year energy industry which has been subject to lengthy and repeated criticisms surrounding accusations of profiteering on electricity and gas, was quietly dropped by the Com Dem Coalition Government. Heaven forbid that principle get in the way of profit. No doubt in the next few weeks the other cartel members will feel duty bound to roll out energy price increases to their customers, I mean you have to keep the dividend up somehow and keep the shareholders happy.

Few of us this winter will have as snug and cozy a relationship with the energy companies as that which exists between the political parties within the Westminster village (and without) and the energy supply companies. Prior to the last Westminster general election, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made repeated criticisms (and much political capital) from New Labour for its failure to tackle prices charged by the Big Six suppliers and repeatedly demanded an inquiry by the Competition Commission.

Sadly any faint hope that an inquiry into the nefarious activities of the energy supply cartel which might have had the power to reform the industry, encourage new entrants to break the hold of the Big 6 on the nominal free market and even possibly impose price caps quietly died in the summer months of  2010. Perhaps there should be an inquiry into the dubious (and financial rewarding) relationship between the Westminster based political parties and the representatives of the energy supply companies who are pretty keen to shower enough goodies around during Party conference season (and beyond) – perhaps not?

Friday, 12 October 2012


It can be argued that in the end with people that it comes down to land, who lives on it, who owns it, what we do with it and what other people want to do with it. The issue of land tenure, land rights and land use is set to become one of the dominant issues of this century. This is an important issue that affects people in both the developed and the developing world as local people and local resources (including land) come under increased pressure from various levels of Government for development.

Forced evictions
An Amnesty International report states that forced evictions in China have risen significantly in recent years as local communist party officials sell off land to property developers, out from under the people living on it.  Amnesty International reports that many cases involve violence and harassment, and amount to “a gross violation of human rights". Local officials are under pressure to meet economic goals and vested interests are behind the coercion, the report noted.

The problem of security of tenure for farmers and local people is made worse by the fact that all land in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is effectively controlled by the state, and laws allow local governments to claim land for urban development projects. The on-going evictions are a serious cause of ongoing social discontent and resulted in public protests across the country. Communist Party local authorities are seizing and selling off land to pay back funds borrowed to finance stimulus packages during the economic downturn.

The PRC Communist Government promotes officials who deliver growth regardless of the cost, and the development of roads, factories, residential complexes on seized lands delivers visible results. Amnesty International has reported that the system is open to abuse and evictees often received little notice, no consultation and barely a fraction of the value of their land and homes in compensation.

There have been a number of violent clashes between local people and police or private security guards across different areas of China.  Amnesty International has interviewed lawyers, housing rights activists and academics, in and outside China. Standing Their Ground (an 85-page report) has looked at 40 cases of forced eviction (between January 2009 to January 2012), nine of which it said resulted in the deaths of people who were resisting being evicted.

Peoples resistance in Wukan
There have been some successful localised resistance to some of the evictions, Amnesty notes the example of Wukan village (in Guangdong province in 2011), here local residents demonstrated on the streets after a village negotiator protesting against local officials over a land grab died in police custody.

The protests resulted in the removal of two local Communist Party officials and the punishment of others in 2012. Local villagers also won the right to fresh local elections as part of the deal.

Amnesty suggests that any optimism in relation to the Wukan case may be premature might be premature, as so far there has been no independent investigation into the death of Xue Jinbo ( the village negotiator). Also villagers have still not got any of their land back. There are also reports that Communist authorities are harassing and spying on local activists in Wukan. The Communist Dictatorship does nominally have laws in place to protect farmers and local residents, but these are often ignored by Communist Party officials at local level.

Communist Party Leaders in Beijing have acknowledged the problem exists and are pledged to improve the situation. Amnesty International has called on the PRC to put an immediate stop to all forced evictions and ensure safeguards were put in place in line with international law. Amnesty also has urged the PRC to implement new regulations (that it adopted in 2011) which should provide for proper land compensation and outlaw the use of violence in these cases.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


U-turn if you want too? 
Having been away for the best part of a week – it is easy to lose track of things – so I missed out on one of those decisive Cameron U-turn moments – when the rail franchise bids got derailed. This is one of those moments when political comedy drama and actual politics / governance almost seamlessly blend into one. The Omnishambles that the English West Coast Main Line bid seems to have become suggests to me that it’s time to rethink of the whole privatised rail industry structure. This Whitehall shambles brings into question the competence of a private franchise being responsible for the electrification of the Great Western line from Swansea to London. The whole process has been discredited, we would be better off with a publicly owned rail industry, something that would widely supported by the electorate and would be far better able to meet commuter and economic needs than private firms.