Friday, 30 November 2012

EUROPE’S LAST DICTATOR?

In Belarus, Europe last old style Soviet style dictatorship, a prominent human rights organization in Minsk is being evicted from its office. The Deputy Chairman of the Vyasna (Spring) Human Rights Center Valyantsin Stefanovich reported on November 19th that the unregistered organization had received papers from Belarusian authorities saying that it should vacate its office by November 26th.

Back in the USSR?
Belarus has a bad Human rights record, something which lead to the imposition of sanctions (including a travel ban for government officials) by Western governments. An Amnesty International report on Belarus noted that restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly had increased during 2012. They noted that the Belarus government continued to carry out executions and that prisoners of conscience remained in detention and were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Amnesty also noted the right to a fair trial was also restricted.

The Human Rights centre’s office is situated in the apartment of Vyasna chairman Ales Byalyatskim, who  is currently in prison for tax evasion, a charge he has denied since his arrest last year. Back in November 2011, a court in Minsk sentenced him to 4 and 1/2 years in prison and ordered the confiscation of all his property. The human rights centre has been working in Byalyatski's apartment for 12 years. Viasna’s activist have been subject to systematic harassment for years, the Human Rights Organisation was de-registered by the state authorities in 2003, yet has continued to operate.

The opposition boycotted elections in September of 2012 which the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) described as unfree with the electoral authorities clearly showing a lack of “neutrality” or “impartiality”, not to mention serious concerns about electoral procedures. Oddly enough the observer mission from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) led by Belarus's ally, Russia described the election as being "transparent and open".

Back in June (2011) 1,000 people defied a ban in Belarus to hold a silent protest at the economic crisis in the capital Minsk, with police holding back. The protestors gathered peacefully in streets close to President Alexander Lukashenko's main administration building. The rally  was organised through social networking sites despite threats from the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko (who has been in power since 1994) that he would "strike hard" against protesters.

Protest rallies in Belarus are becoming increasingly rare as the authorities have been engaged in a crackdown against dissent since December 2010.  After the Presidential election in December 2010 five former candidates and 37 opposition activists to be accused of incitement after tens of thousands of people took part in protests after the 19th December vote which was described by international monitors as "lacking transparency".

Thursday, 29 November 2012

A BIG ‘YES’ TO SEVERN ENERGY

Being a big believer that we need to tap the energy potential of the Severn Estuary and no friend of a Severn Barrage I welcome the report produced by Regen SW and Marine Energy Matters on the energy potential of the Severn Estuary, which suggests that the estuary could generate 14GW of energy and create massive economic benefits without resorting to a financially costly (£34 billion pounds) and widespread environmental damage of a Severn barrage.

Tidal fence
The report (‘Bristol Channel Energy: A Balanced Technology Approach) found that by using a combination of renewable energies more low-carbon energy could be generated than that previously offered by proposals for a full Severn barrage. The report suggests using tidal lagoons and tidal fences, deployed in conjunction with tidal stream technology, wave and wind power to harness the “massive” energy potential of the estuary.

Tidal Turbines
Energy generation schemes in the Severn Estuary can benefit the communities on both sides of the estuary. It’s time for the Welsh Government to wake up and start the ball rolling with some tidal lagoon and tidal turbine development projects to test the already existing technology.

We in Wales are certainly well placed when it comes to potential for sustainable energy generation in terms of resources, people and skills. Our country has an abundance of natural resources whose potential, if sustainably developed could both protect the environment and help grow green jobs and balanced sustainable energy economy.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

STALKING LAW WILL SAVE LIVES

The successful efforts of an independent inquiry, chaired by Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd MP, were rewarded on Sunday when laws making stalking a criminal offence were brought in. The UK government has introduced two offences of stalking and stalking involving a fear of violence. A parliamentary inquiry which found the previous laws on harassment and stalking were "not fit for purpose". The inquiry found that about 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year.

The inquiry, which was launched almost twelve months ago, was unprecedented in its nature due to the involvement of members of all parties, Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords, external experts, and stalking victims and their relatives. This is the first time in the history of Parliament that an independent inquiry has succeeded in implementing new legislation and Mr Llwyd hopes it will serve as a blueprint for future use in campaigns where the focus is people, not party policy.

Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd MP, who spoke ahead of a press conference marking the implementation of the laws said:

“We are very pleased that these laws will be implemented on Sunday creating two offences of stalking.

“One of these is punishable by up to six months imprisonment, the other by up to five years.

“These are of course welcome but, one of the things which gave rise to our inquiry which led to this change in the law is the fact that the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 did not concentrate on conduct amounting to stalking.

“Furthermore, we do need to ensure that there is a culture change among police officers, prosecutors, probation officers, social services, and the judiciary. These are serious offences and no longer can we tolerate palming people off by saying they are mere ‘domestics’.

“In addition to this, there will be a need to ensure that forensic psychologists are available to treat these individuals because in the vast majority of cases it is possible to get them to desist from this behaviour.

“This is vital because otherwise we are merely looking at a revolving door syndrome of going to prison, coming out, and going back in again.

“I am privileged to have led a team of dedicated parliamentarians whose hard work and commitment to this subject led to this remarkable result.

“At the end of the day the introduction of these offences will improve the lives of thousands of people each year and they will save the lives of many too.”

Monday, 26 November 2012

A REGULATED ENERGY MARKET?

Plaid is right to call on the Welsh Government to pull its finger out when it comes to ending the injustice in the energy sector. The big six energy cartel members are busy ramping up fat profits while they can and successive Westminster Government’s have quietly looked the other way. We have excessive profiteering on the part of the energy companies, while Welsh consumers pay around 5-10% more for their energy than anywhere elsewhere in the UK due to a combination of poorer energy infrastructure, the effective demise of competition in the nominal free market, and older housing stock.

I can see no good  reason why the energy market in Wales should not be regulated in here in Wales - we would be hard pressed to make it any worse. Energy wise things have not been helped by the Labour in Wales Government (in Cardiff) which shows no signs of stirring from its s elf-induced lethargy to do anything significant about developing the energy sector. They have done little save to bleat occasionally about excessive on-shore wind-farm development and the lack of any real planning input in the process due to the 50 MW (onshore) and 1 MW (off-shore) rule, something that ironically is their fault.

We need not be in this situation, if the party formerly known as New Labour and the Conservatives had actually honoured their Welsh general election manifesto promise in 2011 to increase the 1 MW limit for off-shore and 50 MW for on-shore threshold for planning for energy project. This failure effectively prevents the development of realistic community beneficial energy schemes, some of which may be over the threshold, so they have to be decided on in Westminster rather than in Wales, and since when has Westminster seriously had any time for Wales?

Back in January (2012) Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards called for energy powers to be transferred to the Welsh Government; his bill would have given the Welsh Government powers over energy generation in Wales. The bill, which was blocked by Labour and Conservative MPs (and defeated by 239 votes to 44), would have ensured equality with Scotland and Northern Ireland and would have meant that Wales would have been better placed to fight fuel poverty with responsibility for our own resources.

Last week Plaid Cymru’s Simon Thomas AM outlined what he saw as excessive profits by energy companies. He called for the Welsh Government to work towards the devolution of energy policy so that it can protect the people of Wales form unjust practices.

The Party of Wales Mid and West Wales AM Simon Thomas said:

“As winter approaches, families are finding it more difficult than ever to pay for their heating bills, yet energy companies are reporting enormous profits. We cannot protect Welsh consumers from price rises without obtaining further energy powers and the ability to regulate the energy market in Wales.

“It is clear that something needs to be done. It isn’t fair that Welsh consumers pay 5 or 10 per cent more for their energy than other UK regions. We have heard allegations of price fixing at a time when figures also show that there are thousands of excess winter death each year. If energy companies are found to have been price-fixing then there will be serious questions for them to answer about those excess deaths.

“The Party of Wales is convinced that the devolution of powers over energy is the only way to protect Welsh customers from the unfair practices in the energy market.

“But we also want the Welsh Government to use the powers it already has to help more people. Through extending the Arbed scheme we could help more families bring down their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient – this could have a huge effect on their bills. Heating bills are one of the biggest worries that Welsh families are facing this winter, and a Party of Wales Government would do much more to help them.”

A pressing question remains, whether or not Carwyn Jones will actually trying to do something or anything about trying to develop our countries energy potential over the remaining years of their term in office? I suspect that the answer is going to be a resounding no! Sadly I suspect that he and his Labour in Wales government will sit quietly and do nothing merely waiting for the Westminster cycle to run its course and duly (they hope) return a Labour in Westminster Government – what a waste of time and (admittedly limited) opportunities.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

HONOURING THE MILITARY COVENANT

Homes fit for Heroes! Post war house building
Sadly it won't come as much of a surprise to even the most impartial observers that UK Government's have a tendency to treat former (and serving) service personnel badly. On occasion you may well be driven to wonder if anything has changed since 1918; once again our service personnel are serving in a distant land and their families live quietly at home in sub-standard accommodation.

Back in 1918 the solders that served through the First World War (some of my relatives amongst them) were promised 'Homes fit for heroes'. Oddly enough the last but one Conservative / Liberal Coalition found that honouring promises to live heroes cost too much (what price the sacrifice made at the front?) once the war was over it turned out that dead heroes were cheaper to honour than live ones - thus fell the Geddes Axe.

In the last one hundred years the only honourable exception to this roll of shame was the 1945 Labour Government which made significant efforts to help the veterans with access to education, jobs and decent housing, The other post war governments have quietly and consistently betrayed the military covenant and any promises to our service personnel (and former service personnel) have not been honoured.

Last week we observed another Remembrance Sunday, this one some 94 years after 1918 and we have a UK Westminster Government that is not honouring the military covenant. In 2012 we still find ourselves in a situation where soldiers families are living in sub-standard accommodation and our veterans get shoddy treatment for services rendered after completion of their service.


Last week Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd used a Parliamentary debate to stress the importance of the Military Covenant, expressing concern that it is not being enforced as robustly as possible in all areas. He warned that many veterans face isolation and suffering as a result.

Mr Llwyd, who has campaigned extensively for veterans' rights and chairs the Veterans in the Criminal Justice System Parliamentary Group fears that a postcode lottery is at work in which some veterans requiring post-service support are discriminated against purely as a result of where they live or how long ago they served.

He added that, although the majority of armed forces personnel adjust to civilian life normally after discharge, it is vital that those who do require care receive the utmost support in accordance with the Military Covenant, highlighting its importance as something which must be put into practice rather than merely exist in principle.

Speaking after the debate, Mr Llwyd said:

"While it is hugely encouraging that the Covenant has now been enshrined in law, it is vital that it forms the basis of robust action, rather than merely empty words.

"If this is not achieved - as I fear is happening in some cases at present - there is a real danger that some veterans face discrimination as a result of where they live or how long ago they served. This postcode lottery is wholly unacceptable and does a great disservice to those who have sacrificed so much for their countries.

"While the majority of armed forces personnel adjust to civilian life after discharge, unless the Covenant is practiced properly then those veterans who do need help face a whole range of problems such as isolation, lack of welfare support, mental health issues and in some cases, alcohol problems.

"The mere fact that a debate was held on this topic today clearly indicates that concerns exist over the Military Covenant's shortcomings.

"What we need is more resources to deal with mental health problems, greater recognition of the welfare needs of veterans, and urgent action to address the dependency on alcohol and other substances which many armed forces personnel develop.
  "These individuals have shown great commitment and sacrifice throughout their time in service and while recent years have seen positive developments in the field of veteran care, much more must be done in order to prevent more men and women falling into a downward spiral of suffering."

Friday, 23 November 2012

A HAPPY NEW YEAR (NOT)!

No end in sight for Tolls!
The UK (Westminster) Government has announced (via a written answer in Westminster) that commuters and drivers using the Severn Crossings will get hit by an inflation-busting toll rise of 3.3%. From January 1st cars crossing the Severn bridges on the M4 and M48 crossings will pay £6.20 – up from £6 this year. Stephen Hammond, the Con Dem Transport minister also revealed that the charge for vans and minibuses crossing the bridges will rise from £12.10 to £12.40 (2.5%) and from £18.10 to £18.60 (2.8%) for lorries and coaches.

The new toll levels will be confirmed in an order made by the Secretary of State in December While the Westminster Government has been happy to subsidize the Humber Bridge, which had its tolls reduced by 50% nothing has been done to reduce the impact of tolls on commuters, motorists and small to medium sized businesses based in Wales. Whether we have a New Labour or a Conservative run Government it should be pretty clear that Wales or Welsh interests are unimportant.

Barely a year ago, a major cross-party report revealed that the Severn Crossings had a yearly income of £72 million pounds but running costs of just £15 million pounds. The Welsh Affairs committee recommended that with tolls as low as £1.50 for the bridge to be self-financing.  Meanwhile in Scotland, tolls on the Skye Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge have all been scrapped.

The new toll increase have been revealed less than a fortnight after Labour in Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones demanded talks to transfer control over the Severn Bridge tolls to the Welsh Government. The UK Government ignored the First Minister and publically stated that there would be no change to ownership agreements which will see control of the bridges and the lucrative income from the Severn crossings go back into UK Treasury. News that the First Minister has half an eye on the income from the tolls which might be used to improve the M4 (and maintain the crossings) will bring no comfort to commuters and businesses as it suggests that there will be no end to the tolls.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

NASRIN SOTOUDEH

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has reportedly been on hunger strike for more than a month, appears determined to continue the act of protest indefinitely.

The lawyer's husband, Reza Khandan, has written on his Facebook page that Sotoudeh told him on November 20 that she was on an "unlimited" hunger strike.

"I asked her, 'How long will you continue your hunger strike?'" he wrote. "She said: 'The hunger strike is unlimited. You know what 'unlimited' means?'"

Khandan said he was allowed to meet Sotoudeh a day after she was transferred from solitary confinement to the general ward of Section 209 in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. He said that his wife's weight had dropped to 43 kilograms.

When he is allowed by the authorities to visit, Khandan has informed the public about the conditions of his jailed wife via Facebook, which has in recent years become a platform for news that is censored or ignored by the state-controlled media.

Nasrin Sotoudeh (Courtesy Photo)
Sotoudeh, who was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought this year, defended political activists, opposition members, and juvenile offenders on death row before she was jailed in September 2010.

She was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from working as a lawyer for 10 years on charges that include acting against Iran's national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime.

Sotoudeh's courage and outspokenness have earned her the respect of many inside and outside of Iran and turned her into a symbol of resistance against the establishment.

A mother of two, Sotoudeh reportedly stopped eating in mid-October after prison authorities prevented her relatives from visiting her. Her husband and 12-year-old daughter have also been barred from leaving Iran.

"I can't sit here and do nothing and let them do whatever they want with my child and family," Sotoudeh was quoted by her husband as saying in their prison meeting this week.

An October 24th editorial in "The Guardian" compared Sotoudeh to Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who was also once separated from her children.

Iranians wanting to express solidarity with Sotoudeh, whose first name means "jonquil"  in Persian, have posted images of that white flower on their social-media profiles in recent weeks.

Source: Golnaz Esfandiari (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

THE CONTENTS OF GEORGE’S IN-TRAY?

Tax evasion! Surely not!
One way or another, tax evasion and tax avoidance is rarely out of the headlines especially as many heavily indebted governments are increasingly keen to hunt down every tax dollar / euro or pound that is owed. Considering that the Conservative elements of the Con Dem coalition government continues to looks slightly uneasy whenever tax avoidance and tax evasion comes up I cannot help wondering whether or not the National Audit Office report on tax evasion will make it out of George Osborne’s in tray.

A National Audit Office report has revealed that of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is struggling to curb aggressive tax avoidance schemes is costing the UK billions of pounds in lost tax.  HMRC is faced with a backlog of 41,000 cases with potentially up to £10.2 billion pounds worth of evaded tax at stake. The National Audit Office (NAO) said tackling tax avoidance was difficult but HMRC had to do better. In the last two years HMRC has successfully challenged 40 tax avoidance schemes.

The NAO revealed that between 2004 and 2011 some 2,300 avoidance schemes were disclosed to the tax authorities, but as around 100 new schemes have emerge every each year. It has been estimated that there are potentially some 30,000 users of what are known as employment intermediary schemes and partnership loss schemes - where partnerships that make record a loss to shelter their other income from tax. The loss is artificially inflated via "circular loans" (or deferred expenditure) which are never actually incurred to exceed the amount actually invested in the partnership.

HMRC has tried to tackle the practice with enforcement action in a few “lead" cases, but investigations can take years to resolve and any rulings cannot always be applied successfully elsewhere.  Despite this since April 2010, HMRC has been started 110 avoidance cases and despite being successful in the vast majority of cases where judgements have been reached the NAO suggested that there was no evidence that litigation was proving an effective deterrent to tax evasion and avoidance.

Tax evasion is only part of the problem, as Tax Research UK estimated that the Exchequer loses out to the tune of £64 billion pounds per year through shadow economic activity, which is 16 times larger than the estimated £ 4 billion pounds that the UK Government misses out on due to tax evasion. That works out at roughly about £1 pound out of every £8 in the economy.

Despite this the Con Dem Government continues to pursue a reckless slash and burn (cut) approach to the public sector. They have reduced the number of staff in Revenue and Customs from around 100,000 to 65,000 and there are further plans to reduce the numbers to around 50,000 by 2015.

To expect the Tories or New Labour for that matter to seriously tackle tax evasion is perhaps a little naive as they are part of the problem. It would be a bit like expecting the Lib Dems to deliver on electoral reform or any of the three Westminster parities to have an honest debate about Party funding.

Perhaps the ordinary tax paying citizens just expect too much, I mean the UK Government continues to be heavily involved in aiding and abetting tax evasion worldwide via British Overseas territories (including the Cayman Islands). They help to hide some £ 1.6 trillion pounds from various nations’ tax authorities, and some of the city banks remain hand in glove with drug dealers, dictators and terrorists when it comes to money laundering. So clearly we are not all in it together.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

DOING THE NUMBERS

The Labour in Wales Government’s reaction to the report of the Silk Commission, which recommended limited tax varying powers be devolved to Wales, is somewhat subtle, if not unexpected. Carwyn Jones, First Minister, has said that there should be no question of the raising (or perhaps using) the power to vary tax rates being devolved until the unfair funding formula which ‘robs’ Wales of some £350 million pounds a year is reformed.

Oddly enough when in government from 1997 until 2010 the Labour Party (whether in Wales or Westminster) consistently refused to accept that Wales was underfunded and that there was any problem with the Barnet funding formula. Now in opposition and (despite the surface gloss) fairly hostile to the idea of devolving further powers to Wales (if not to the concept of Wales itself) things have somewhat unsubtly changed.

Sleeping soundly for Wales, because of the financial disaster left by the last Labour in Westminster Government, Carwyn can safely call for fair funding, in the knowledge that he won’t get it.  Loudly calling for something he knows Wales won’t get he can safely ignore the recommendations of the Silk Commission and focus our attentions on the fair funding issue. All well and good, save for the fact that Labour in Wales (and London) did precisely nothing to fix the problem of fair funding in Wales when they had both the power and the opportunity.

The Commission has recommended that control a number of smaller taxes be devolved to Wales including air passenger duty on long haul flights (a reduction of which could benefit Cardiff-Wales airport); stamp duty, the aggregates levy, landfill tax, and the full devolution of business rates, etc. I have no problem with any of that at all, or the devolution of the power to vary income tax by up to ten pence in the pound.

The failure to consider the devolution of corporation tax (unless it is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland) is in my opinion a missed opportunity. I welcome the proposed if limited devolution of borrowing powers for capital projects, current spending and tax revenue variation. The proposal to create a Welsh Treasury function for better financial accountability should also be welcomed if a little belated.

As for the referendum, Wales only got one last time because Labour in Wales had to pay that price to be in government. I have no doubt that whatever the Labour in Wales National Assembly manifesto includes for 2016 it won’t include any reference to the Silk Commission’s findings or another referendum. Labour has been consistently ambivalent on further powers and remains (however well camouflaged) decidedly ambivalent on the issue of devolution project.

The Commissioners, who have hitched the whole financial package to a further referendum, may have potentially brought the whole devolutionary process to a grinding halt. Any referendum cannot be held until it gets the support of a Welsh Government, two thirds of elected AM’s and the support of the Secretary of State – who may well be a Labour Party selectee by 2016

By 2016 the political landscape in Westminster may have changed - we could be a good year into another Labour in Westminster government who would by fairly indifferent to making parliamentary time for Wales related issues in their first year of office. By way of comparison, Peter Hain’s delaying tactics prior to the last referendum on legislative powers might pale into insignificance when compared to what the self-interested Labour in Wales parliamentary representatives might accomplish.

Yet perhaps if Labour in Wales found itself faced with the prospects of no majority (and no trimmings) in Cardiff Bay after May 2016 it would either be forced to choose between forming a minority government or going into coalition with Plaid of the Lib Dems (if there are any left by then). Post 2016 the political situation in the bay could be much more complicated with Conservative AM’s and a smattering of UKIP AM’s. So any chance of a rainbow coalition and a referendum will be entirely dependent (no pressure) on Plaid’s performance, with a new Leader and the desire to stand up for Wales – so there is everything to play for over the next three years.

Monday, 19 November 2012

A FIGHTING CHANCE?


Take a wander around most of our town centres and the out of town retail parks and with your own eyes you will see that impact of the ongoing recession in the rising number of empty shops. With this in mind the recent study produced by the British Retail Consortium which has revealed that the town centre vacancy rate (high streets and shopping centres) in the UK was 11.3% in October 2012 will come as no surprise. This grim statistic is this highest figure that the BRC has recorded since they began the Monitor in July 2011. The highest shop vacancy rates were recorded in Northern Ireland (20.0%), Wales (15.1%) and the North & Yorkshire (14.6%). The BCS has noted that these are the worst vacancy rate since the survey began in July 2011 and tend to confirm that financial challenges for both customers and business retailers are far from over yet.

It not just the local shops that are feeling the pinch, in my home town (where this has been going on for a while) and in more than a few other places even the old high street big names are bugging out, not necessarily because they are necessarily making a loss more that they trying to maximise their profits in the teeth of the recession and the growth of on-line business. Creating the conditions for a stable future for our town centres and high streets will not be easy, but we have to do something and relatively quickly. Obliterating or at least driving a coach and horses though the planning regulations will not provide a sustainable solution, ending business rates and replacing them with a local income tax might go some way towards giving local businesses a fighting chance of keeping their heads above water until the recession begins to end.

Friday, 16 November 2012

GAS PRICES AND GAS PROFITS

Here we go again - British Gas - owner Centrica is to raise its average prices by 6% from today (Friday 16th November 2012), they have stated that the price rises are due to costs that are out of its control. Meanwhile Centrica, with 15.8 million customers, says that required investments and measures to meet carbon reduction targets have added about £50 to the average bill. The company, which recently issued a trading update, stated that wholesale gas prices were now 13% higher this winter than last. The company will report its full-year profit figures in February 2013.

Centrica stated that average UK residential gas consumption for the first 10 months of 2012 was 9% higher than for the same period of 2011, while average electricity consumption was 1% lower. On Wednesday (14th November 2012) SSE (one of the UK's biggest energy suppliers) reported a 38% rise in half-year profits. They made £397.5 million pounds profit in the six months to the end of September, this compares with £287.4 million in the same period last year. SSE, along with most of the members of the big 6 energy cartel, raised its domestic gas and electricity prices by an average of 9% one month ago.

Plaid has long voiced its concerns over allegations that the 'Big Six' energy companies have been manipulating wholesale gas prices in an attempt to save millions of pounds. The allegations, brought forward by a whistleblower, are currently being investigated by City watchdog the Financial Services Authority, whose findings could trigger a crisis of confidence in the energy sector similar to that in the banking industry following the rate-fixing Libor scandal. Plaid is concerned that the people of Wales are suffering disproportionately as a result of the 'Big Six' monopoly due to the fact that they're less likely to switch energy suppliers and therefore receive higher bills than anywhere else in the UK.

Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams said:

"These allegations against some of the 'Big Six' energy companies are deeply troubling and hold the potential to prompt a fresh crisis of confidence in yet another sector of British society.

"Just as was the case with the Libor scandal where the inter-bank lending rate was fixed, claims that wholesale gas prices have been manipulated raise serious questions over scrutiny and transparency.

"Most of the 'Big Six' energy companies are already under fire having declared intentions to push up their prices before the end of the year. This will see ordinary families having to keep an even closer eye on their budgets while the eldest and most vulnerable face an increasing risk of hypothermia or malnutrition as they're forced to choose between heating and eating.

"It is clear that the competitive market fails the neediest within our society. The Party of Wales believes that utilities should be operated on a not-for-distributable-profit model, like Glas Cymru, where profits are reinvested rather than pocketed by shareholders.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

LUKE NICHOLAS AND CARDIFF SOUTH AND PENARTH

Luke Nicholas, Leanne Wood AM, Plaid leader  on the campaign trail
It seems like a long time ago now that I was selected to stand in Cardiff South and Penarth for the by-election on November 15th that is less than a week away.

It was only six months ago that I was stood, with my fellow candidates, in the Star Centre in Splott, watching the last round of votes being counted. We’d been up all night and just for a moment it looked as if we’d recorded a historic win for Grangetown in May’s council elections.

In the end we were only a couple of hundred votes short of winning those Council seats. All of our candidates actually gained more votes than the Councillors who had won the seats in 2008. So we were very close, but the statement was made; Plaid Cymru is becoming a major force in Cardiff and Penarth.

The Council elections had been hard work and it had taken a lot out of everyone. Many of us were looking forward to a period when we wouldn’t be fighting another election so we could get back to the everyday campaigning we do in the community.

But we had to pick ourselves up quickly. So we got organised and by July I was selected as the candidate. And I have to say, I’m glad that I was. I had been encouraged and asked by others to stand in the first place and their support was the deciding factor for me.

To stand in Cardiff South and Penarth for Plaid Cymru is a privilege that few people get to enjoy. The constituency is absolutely integral to the modern history of Wales and continues to be one of the most important and interesting areas of the country. This is a point the historian John Davies, like me a Grangetown resident, made to me very forcefully in May.

The Cardiff Docks and Penarth played a key role in the industrial revolution and the British Empire. The Empire is gladly over but its gift was that it brought new people to Wales who have enriched our culture. Muslims from Yemen who built the first mosque in the UK in Cardiff in the 19th Century, sailors from Somaliland (still an internationally unrecognised state) who worked on the coal ships, Gujaratis from Uganda who were fleeing Idi Amin and people from across the Indian sub-continent who are now proud to call themselves Welsh. And of course, many people from elsewhere in Wales.

Cardiff has always embraced newcomers but it remains a uniquely Welsh experiment. The Welsh have never lived like this before; so many of us together in one place; engaging with each other; socialising with each other; expressing new ideas with each other. There are new frontiers for the language too, which is now flourishing in a modern, urban and Welsh environment that it has never experienced before.

Nonetheless, Cardiff has significant problems. I’ve knocked on literally thousands of doors over the past few months but you only need to knock on a couple to realise that all is not well. The cuts being made to social security are beginning to have a devastating impact on the people of Cardiff and Penarth.

Many people here are close to losing faith in politics. The economic crisis, the Leveson inquiry, the injustice suffered by the families of the Hillsborough victims, and the general out-of-touch attitude of successive governments in Westminster - all have contributed to the breakdown in people's trust and faith in politics.

A layer of society now thinks that there is little point in voting - that there are too few differences between the so-called "major" parties. But what I’m telling people is that there is always a point to vote for Plaid because every vote for us is a statement that Wales does have a voice and we are going to use it to chose our own path. And I have to say, many people are agreeing and will be voting for us for the first time on November the 15th.

People are now discovering that Plaid Cymru has played a major part in reforming the constituency, despite having never held the seat. Our influence has in fact been felt across the whole nation. But a major problem in Wales is that we haven't had enough Plaid Cymru. We may have just achieved our highest ever popular vote in Cardiff, but there still remain parts of the city where we haven’t told people enough about the party. My job is to begin turning this around, a job which I am pleased to say is already very much underway.

What is so unique about Cardiff is its ability to keep reinventing itself and we as a party must do the same. Cardiff has gone from being one of the busiest ports in the world with Tiger Bay - to the home of Welsh democracy with the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay, all in less than a century. This is what inspires me about standing in this constituency, because I know that once again Cardiff South and Penarth will be at the forefront of reinventing Wales and Plaid Cymru will play a major part in this.

In the future we hope that Cardiff will be a modern, European capital; with clean, electrified railways that connect the south Wales region, an airport regularly connected to the city that brings in tourists and business people alike; jobs in green energy production and sustainable industries, a growing cooperative sector; and, of course, a culture that will continue to develop in our two national tongues, with contributions from many others along the way.

It’s building this future that drives me and this is why I’m standing in Cardiff South and Penarth.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH...

It started as a story in the Gruinad (The Guardian 13.11.2012) stating that the City watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, is now investigating claims by a whistleblower that the UK’s £300 billion wholesale gas market has been "regularly" manipulated by some of the big 6 power companies. The Guardian also notes that Ofgem (the energy regulator)  has been separately warned by a company responsible for setting so-called benchmark prices, ICIS Heren, that it had seen evidence of suspect trading on 28th September (this is end of the gas financial year) and gas prices on this date can have an important influence on future prices.

The claims suggest that dealers made unrealistic bids (on the 28th September) when information was being gathered to set the wholesale gas price, basically to suit their own trading position (maximise profits). The alleged manipulation is said to have reduced the wholesale price, and as such does not imply any knock-on impact on the retail price paid by customers. Later today the Con Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey will make a statement to the House of Commons later as regulators investigate claims that wholesale gas prices have been manipulated.

Now the wholesale gas market includes everything from the UK's own North Sea gas supplies, to gas from Norway or elsewhere, or arriving in the UK by ship as LNG, liquefied natural gas. Energy companies buy gas at the wholesale price and then sell it on to businesses and domestic users. The cost of wholesale gas makes up the majority of our energy bills - 45% of the average energy bill is made up of the cost of wholesale gas, supply costs and profit margins.

The whistleblower, who worked for ICIS Heren, flagged up their concerns after identifying possible attempts to distort the prices reported by the company. These prices are especially important because many wholesale gas contracts are based on them and even small changes in the gas price can cost or save companies millions. These revelations come at an unfortunate time for UK’s energy sector, with many of the big six suppliers (the cartel) under fire for alleged profiteering on household energy bills and mis-selling on the doorstep. So far four of the UK's big six energy suppliers have released statements denying any involvement.

When it comes to regulation of the energy market the silence from the Con Dem Government has almost deafening. In the heady days of opposition, back in October 2009 the then Tory Energy Spokesman, Greg Clark (now Financial Secretary to the Treasury) stated that the "cartel" of the big 6 energy firms would be referred to the Competition Commission by a Conservative Government. He also  condemned the unacceptable lag between the cost of wholesale gas prices and household energy bills and noted that customers were on average being charged some £74 pound too much for their energy per year.

An 'independent' investigation into the Energy Company’s refusal to pass on reductions in wholesale energy prices to customers would still be welcomed by many hard pressed energy customers. As would the promised 'Energy Revolution' which was supposed to overhaul the energy sector billing structure and charges.

In many ways it is somewhat ironic that we find ourselves here, as a Conservative Government started the whole sorry mess in the first place, by 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 and since the effective demise of any real competition in the ‘market place’ we have all been regularly fleeced.

As for any inquiry into irregularities in the energy market, it is worth noting that once in Government that was consigned quietly to the too difficult pile. The 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. So I won’t hold my breath.

Monday, 12 November 2012

ABERGAVENNY LIVESTOCK MARKET

KALM’s legal battle to prevent the closure of Abergavenny Livestock market and its removal from the town has drawn a blank as a High Court judge has rejected claims that Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) has acted unlawfully. MCC aim to replace the one hundred and fifty year old livestock market with a new market near Raglan they have already agreed to sell the old site with planning permission for a supermarket and library. The judicial review heard KALM had many complaints about Monmouthshire council's decision to grant planning permission in June last year to Optimisation Developments Ltd.

The market which covers a 1.9-hectare site is surrounded by the Abergavenny Conservation Area on three sides. KALM arguments included the claims that demolition would seriously affect the local economy and threaten to contaminate the River Usk. All the  complaints were rejected by Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, who said the council had take all conservation, environmental and socio-economic issues properly into account when reaching its decision.

MCC deputy leader Bob Greenland made much of the suggestion that the supermarket scheme could potentially bring in over of 200 jobs for local people. Interestingly enough a study by the National Retail Planning Forum (in 1998) of 93 new superstores found that each one resulted in a net loss of 270 local jobs per development. The opening a large supermarket can lead to a loss of jobs as local businesses close. Supermarket domination of the retail trade puts the local food infrastructure at risk threatening the viability of local abattoirs, wholesalers and small farms and the associated jobs.

This effect was spotted by the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England who noted that following the opening of a large supermarket there was a loss of choice as it becomes harder to buy local foods. 64% of the local shops in Fakenham, Norfolk, and 75% of those in Warminster, Wiltshire, closed when new superstores were built in those towns. Most supermarkets sell very little locally sourced produce, with only 1-2% of their turnover coming from local foods, so, when local shops close, the outlet for local produce disappears with them.

As has already been noted by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) our local retail traders are in trouble, The UK is losing approximately 2,000 local shops every year and that of this continues then by 2015 there will be no independent retailers left in business, something that effects consumers and communities as they effectively lose any real choice in the marketplace.

I think that Government and elected representatives at almost every level (and from almost every political party) have failed the good people of Abergavenny and for small farmers from the surrounding area. MCC has been allowed to act as judge, jury (not to mention jury sector), executioner and main financial beneficiary, from the closure of Abergavenny Livestock market, which if nothing else should focus minds on the farcical planning process.

Friday, 9 November 2012

REMEMBRANCE 2014

In Flanders fields...
In a few days time it will be Remembrance Sunday, when some of us pause to remember the veterans and survivors of historic and more recent conflicts and those who never came back. My family like far too many others in Wales and elsewhere lost relatives in the First World War, one of my grandmother’s lost two brothers in the First World War, including her elder being a regular soldier, who wrote home and told them not to allow his younger brother to join up and to come out to France, but he did and was killed in action in 1918 and buried near Amiens.

In two years time, Remembrance Sunday will fall at the end of a few months’ worth of David Cameron’s (£50 million pounds worth) "historic" commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War I. While I have absolutely no problem remembering those who lost their lives and the courage and endurance of those who served in the First World War and other conflicts (including some of my relatives); I have no time for rose tinted nostalgic flag waving foot tapping pap.

As US President Abraham Lincoln rightly noted that the fallen have given their last full measure of devotion. Soldiers don’t die for the politicians, for patriotism or even us but for their friends and comrades who they serve with. Too many lie in corners of foreign fields, are names on a war memorial, faded photographs, faded memories or have no grave at all. The Lions may have been led by Donkeys (at times), but from our (21st century) perspective they were governed by bumbling incompetent idiots who were entirely out of their depth and managed to plunge the UK into an entirely unnecessary war.

Fritz Fischer’s suggested that the Imperial German government’s foreign policy was developed after Social Democratic gains in the 1912 election and that it aimed to start an aggressive war in 1914. He developed this idea in Germany's Aims in the First World War (1961) and War of Illusions: German policies from 1911 to 1914 (1969). Fischer suggested that a War Council held by the Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reich's top military-naval leadership on December 8, 1912 was a key point in the run up to a war of aggression set for the summer of 1914. The Kaiser and the Army leadership wanted to start a war in December 1912 but Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, successfully argued that the German Navy needed more time to prepare and asked for the war be put off until the summer of 1914.  Fischer later denied claiming that war was decided upon at this meeting.

August 1914
Fischer’s work revealed Imperial German government documents which called for ethnic cleansing of Russian Poland and colonization to provide Germany with living space as a war aim, showed disturbing continuity between the foreign policies of Germany in 1914 and 1939. Andreas Hillgruber suggested that the Imperial German government tried to break the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Britain). Austria-Hungary was encouraged to invade Serbia on the assumption that Paris and London would have no interest in another Balkan crisis and would not support Russia. Austria attacked, Russia mobilized, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg panicked activated the Schlieffen Plan against France and a Balkan crisis became a European war.

A.J.P. Taylor's 1969 book War by Timetable, suggested that none of the great powers wanted a war but all of them wanted to increase their power in comparison with their rivals. This fatal combination of an arms race and complex railway timetables for mobilization came to a head in 1914 when a perceived need to mobilize faster than their rivals trapped the political leaders in a mesh of complex logistics. Mobilization failed to deter war and led to military action.

In 1972 US historian Paul W. Schroeder, in his "World War I As A Galloping Gertie" essay, blamed Britain for the war. He suggested that the war was a "Galloping Gertie” that it got out of control, dragging in the Great Powers into an unwanted war. The key to the situation was British foreign policy which as anti-German and even more anti-Austrian. Britain never took Austria-Hungary seriously, and British diplomatic policy aimed to constantly force concessions from the Dual Monarchy regardless of any consequences to the balance of power. So 1914 was basically a preventive war forced on Germany to maintain Austria as a power, which was faced with a crippling British encirclement policy aimed at the break-up of that state.

Not everyone has bought into this theory, Samuel R. Williamson (a US historian) laid the blame on the Austro-Hungarian elite rather than the Germans in his 1990 book, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. Niall Ferguson (the Scottish Historian) in his book, The Pity of War (1999) rejected the Fischer thesis, and squarely laid most of the blame on British diplomatic bumbling.  More recently, David Fromkin (a US historian) in his book Europe's Last Summer (2004) blamed military elements in the German and Austro-Hungarian leadership.

Fromkin argued that there were two key war plans; one by Austria-Hungary (and the German Chancellor) to start a war with Serbia to reinvigorate a fading Austro-Hungarian Empire. The other one, a secret plan created by the German Military aimed create a wider war with France and Russia.  The German military leadership, in the middle of a European arms race, thought that they would be unable to further expand the German army without extending the officer corps beyond the traditional Prussian aristocracy.

Thus Austria-Hungary was encouraged to go to war with Serbia; Russian intervention would provide an acceptable excuse to launch a preventive war. This theory suggests that the German military believed that by 1916–18, they could not win a war with France, Russia and Britain. Fromkin argued that Kaiser Wilhelm II was kept in the dark, as the German General Staff believed that he tended to resolve crises short of war. He also noted that all participating countries (especially the Central Powers) systematically destroyed or forged documents to shape future understanding of the origins of the war.

Some forty five years after its publication Fischer’s theory is still not without its critics. Annika Mombauer (Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the Open University) suggested in her book, Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War (2005) that despite the debate and research there was no direct evidence to suggest military decision-makers understood December 1912 as the decisive moment when the date of a future war had been set.

Christopher Clarke, in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (published in September 2012) argues that the Europe (of 1914) was actually in a more of a mess than we realise with clashing ideologies, terrorism, political and economic militancy and chronic instability. To make matters worse Europe was lumbered with an exceptionally ineffectual set of political leaders. The rulers of Europe, who boasted of their modernity and rationalism, in reality stumbled through crisis after crisis and until they ended up at war.

In the hundred years since its outbreak interpretation of the origins of the First World War has often been shaped by politics. Certainly since 1918 the left (from Karl Liebknecht onwards) has always been more comfortable blaming militarism for the First World War rather than their own failure to stop it at least until the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union (1988 – 1992).  The old SPD argument that within pre war Germany there had been an alliance of agrarians and industrialists who with the Prussian aristocracy had encouraged militarism and this led to war.

The idea that militarism fed the industrialists and fed popular state nationalism helping to reduce the influence of the left is still popular in some circles. It sounds good; the problem is that it’s probably not true, as noted by Niall Fergusson amongst others. There were other factors which were increasingly important in the run up to 1914. In many countries the franchise was expanding (if only slowly in some countries) and political parties with an anti militarist streak were rising in popularity. Industrial discontent and strikes was also pretty widespread between 1910 and 1914 across much of Europe.

Across the water in Ireland home rule was the key issue and probably the significant issue in domestic politics on the UK mainland. Britain in 1914 rather than enjoying a post Edwardian summer was on the verge of civil war over Irish Home Rule and faced massive industrial unrest. Italy had been rocked by the Red Week of June 1914, France and Germany were faced with ever-increasing political strife. Russia faced a huge wave of strikes and Austria-Hungary faced rising ethnic and class tensions.

So rather than marching in step towards war political anti militarism was increasing. Most businessmen, financiers and bankers were pretty unenthusiastic about the prospects and consequences of war because of the loss of markets and the economic disruption that war would bring. Liberalism itself was in trouble, collapsing in face of challenges from the extreme right and left in Britain, France and Italy while was pretty non-existent in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

The key factor as the countries on the European mainland blundered into war in 1914 due to a complex web of treaties and mobilization dependent war plans may have simply been ineptitude on the part of their leaders. The British state drifted into the ensuing conflict because its rulers were not bright enough to manage to stay out of it. Britain went to war in 1914 for no great principal and certainly not for the sake of Belgium’s neutrality. That alleged great principal was only created after the fact to hide British diplomatic blunders and miscalculations which resulted in the death and maiming of millions.

Putting the historical analysis to one side, I personally have a major problem with wrapping up the consequences of a combination of idiocy, short sightedness and lack of any understanding of basic consequences on the part of a mostly public school dominated nominally democratic elite in miles of bunting and union flags. Britain (in 1914) was barely a democracy, votes for all (at 21) did not finally come in until 1928, and post war governments soon found that live heroes (‘Homes fit for Heroes’) cost far more to remember and honour than dead ones.

From Cameron’s perspective even the choice of dates to be 'celebrated' may also prove somewhat controversial in itself? June 28th (2014) will mark the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo that started the European slide into war. Yet the Brits never really got involved in the mounting crisis until the very end of July 1914. August 1st which saw Germany declare war on Russia and Serbia is important. France mobilized on the evening of August 2nd, when Germany invaded Belgium and attacked French troops. On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France. August 4th is more significant on this side of La Manche, as Britain declared war on Germany, nominally because of the invasion of Belgium.

Royal Fusiliers in Mons 22nd August 1914
When it comes to selecting battles to commemorate the choice will be interesting with Mons (23rd – 24th August 1914) and La Cateau (26th August 1914) both relatively small and largely British battles. What followed in rapid succession was First Marne (5th and 12th September 1914), First Aisne (13th September – 28th September 1914), La Bassée (10th October – 2nd November 1914) and First Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914).After the Mons and La Cateau much of the fighting of 1914 (on the Western Front) largely involved mostly French and Belgian troops attempting to hold off the German Armies.

Britain's involvement (aside from at sea) was initially limited to its small regular army and the Territorial Army. The larger British army’s never emerged until 1915 and 1916 (after conscription came in). One result of the brutal and sustained fighting of the autumn and early winter of 1914 was that by the end of the year the precision instrument that was the regular army had almost ceased to exist. The grim battles of Flanders halted the German advance short of the Channel Ports and Picardy and established the trench line that would become the Western Front of 1915 – 1918.

I for one don’t believe that, History, repeats itself, but accept that the geography is pretty consistent and that there are periodic similarities of political circumstances. Cameron and the Unionists face a 2014 crisis (at least from their limited perspective) as the referendum on Scottish independence approaches. Much of Cameron’s enthusiasm for wrapping the First World War anniversaries in the Union Flag and bunting may be driven more by a desire to influence (via a ‘jubilee effect’) the Scottish referendum (planned for the autumn of 2014, although the date actually has yet to be fixed).

Mind you never know there may be a war with Iran (and its largely unpredictable consequences) by then to distract Cameron (and the rest of us) from the intricacies of the Scottish referendum and the dangers of Home Rule. Unlike in 1914, this time with the hard lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq fresh in our minds, the clueless idiots in charge cannot retrospectively say that they did not know what the consequences of joining in would be. Having had enough relatives serve (and some perish) in Britain’s wars over the last hundred years, I for one hope that our soldiers won’t end up paying the price for someone else’s ‘short’ unnecessary war again.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

SECOND TERM, SECOND CHANCE?

 US President Barak Obama

Having secured a second term, and fought his last campaign, US President Barak Obama  is as free as a US President can get when it comes with what to do with his new mandate.  He may do more with his second term than he did with his first, having no special interest groups to soothe or cultivate for future electoral support – Bill Clinton was said to have accomplished more in his last 80 days in office than in the first term and most of the second term. President Obama won re-election at a time when US unemployment stands at 7.9%, no US President since Franklin D Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment at that level.

A poor economic situation can be pretty terminal to an incumbent chance of getting back into the White House: George Bush Sr, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Herbert Hoover being good examples. Fortunately for the 44th President of the United States, the US economy appears to be slowly recovering from the worst economic depression since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. US unemployment has dropped but it remains relatively high, standing at 7.9%, and job recruitment remains a problem, with millions of unemployed Americans seeking work this remains a key issue.  US economic growth also still remains sluggish; it was 2% in the third quarter of 2012.

Managing the Tax base is also an important issue, as on January 1st, unless Congress steps up to the plate, a raft of tax rises and government spending cuts which will affect nearly every American (one way of another) and impact on the relatively weak economy will kick in. This is no accident waiting to happen, it is a result of the 2011 compromise between President Mr Obama and the Republican dominated Congress which happened because of the need to focus on cutting the vast US budget deficit over the next few years.

A potential Iranian crisis may loom on the horizon even as other US global commitments begin to wind down i.e. Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. The Israel/Palestine situation, the war on terror in general (and more specifically in the Yemen), efforts to retain US access to energy supplies and keeping the lid on nuclear proliferation all remain major issues. The USA remains committed to stopping Iran gaining nuclear weapons while Iran continues to state that its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes, and it continues to resist economic sanctions. Fending off Hilary Clinton (a hawk when it comes to Iran) may also prove a challenge for the new President.

On the domestic front the ongoing problem with the enormous government healthcare programme for over-65s and disabled Americans - known as Medicare or the third (lethal) rail of US politics - has been projected to run out of money in 2024 and may become 3.4% of GDP by 2035.  The programme (almost 50 years old) and one the Democrats' significant achievements, is under two pressure from the increasing cost of an inefficient healthcare system and the rapidly approaching retirement dates of the baby-boom generation, growing numbers of whom are increasingly eligible for benefits.

The President if he is unlucky may also find himself facing domestic legislative gridlock having to deal with a bitterly divided congress. Admittedly this is no new situation as President Obama has had to deal with it for last four years. As has been noted elsewhere a bipartisan approach would be nice and sounds good but the reality is that the political parties within the gridlocked legislature have barely looked beyond their deeply entrenched partisan positions.

There is no sign soon that Congress will cease to be divided, as the Republicans remain in control of the House of Representatives and the Democrats have maintained their exceptionally narrow (and occasionally a single-vote) majority in the US Senate. So in the short term, the Republicans (some of whom have serious personal issues with the President)  control the House and can secure enough vote in the Senate to stall any legislation, will be no more willing to compromise with the President and the Democrats in his second term that they were in his first term.

Now may also be the time for the President to revisit the banks and the problem of tax evasion.  Back in January (2009) President Obama announced two more than reasonable measures to curb the banks, the first aimed to stop banks from engaging in proprietary trading, private equity, or any other activity for their own profit unrelated to serving customers. The second measure aimed to take further steps to limit the balance sheet size of banks so that they cannot in future acquire “too big to fail” status.

The President was absolutely right to characterise his proposals as a victory for common sense and while we still have some way to go before the banks are forced to act responsibly, the first steps were undertaken. David Cameron and the Tories (despite everything that has happened in an almost unregulated, greed driven finance sector over the last few years) are still far to enamoured with their friends, the dodgy money men in the City of London.

We also need to a degree of similar rules for financial institutions across the globe, off shore must become a matter of historical record – there must be no where the financial institutions can hide and no more endless threats of taking their “ball” (businesses operations) elsewhere and relocating because they have lost their so called special status. It is important to remember, that no one, not even bankers (or MPs) are above the law and no one is above financial regulation and scrutiny.

President Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan had a valid point - if you believe in the ‘free market’ (and the City money men claim to) then no organisation can be too big to be allowed not to fail. Basically if you claim to live by the free market then you can die by it too. The massive public subsidies effectively made some of the banks 'publicly owned’, yet they are still largely run by bankers who are so thick skinned or self interested that they carried on regardless when it came to the awarding of bonuses - would that they had been more generous when it come to advancing loans to small to medium sized and large businesses in their hour of need.

It’s also time to tackle tax evasion on a global scale because it is a global industry. The OCED estimated that some $10 trillion dollars worth of private wealth (in 2010) is hidden away in Paradis Fiscaux (tax havens). These financial dead letter drops are used by banks, multi-national companies, corporations, the super (and not so super) rich, drug dealers, dictators, terrorists, fraudsters and other criminals who use them to hide and launder their wealth. One side effect of Paradis Fiscaux is that they enable people and organisations to avoid paying their fair dues to the society in which they live, unlike the rest of us.

To put things in perspective - the $10 trillion dollar figure produced by the OCED means that the lost taxation normally accused would be more than double the entire planet's global aid budget. Gordon Brown (remember him?) waffled when it came to tax evasion, as have the Con Dems as they are in the pockets of the money men in the City or under the influence of Lord Ashcroft - who's heart may be in Belize with his wallet? President Obama, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel are all on record when it comes to saying that off-shore capital needs to be properly regulated – so now may be the time for action.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

WORKING FOR SCOTLAND

There are clear signs that the Scottish Government is delivering for Scotland, one example of this took place yesterday when the responsibility for delivering a rail route from the Borders to Edinburgh was been officially passed to Network Rail. Scottish Government Transport Secretary Keith Brown signed the agreement at a ceremony at Newtongrange in Midlothian. The agreement passed responsibility for completing the Borders line, with 30 miles of new track and seven new stations, from Transport Scotland to Network Rail.

Visible progress on the Borders Rail Project
Scottish Government Ministers hope that the £294 million pound project will be completed by the end of 2014, although the contract sets a final deadline of summer 2015. One visible measure of progress is the preparatory work to clear clearing vegetation and removal of buildings and bridges, has already been carried out along the line. Once the project is completed trains return to the Borders for the first time in more than 40 years.

When it comes to the Welsh Government visibly delivering for Wales I struggle to find significant concrete evidence beyond some the transport infrastructure projects brought in by the One Wales Government. Unfortunately for us here in Wales, the Con Dem Westminster Government and the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff are nominally running the shop. They are not really interested in developing an integrated public transport across the valleys, across the south east and the rest of our country.

Plaid in Monmouth has regularly called for improvements to existing rail services and facilities and a series of feasibility studies to investigate re-opening previously closed railways as has happened in Scotland. In the south east, we need Abergavenny and Chepstow railway stations to be real gateways, with fully integrated local bus services. We need better facilities at Severn Tunnel Junction and Caldicot railway stations and the provision of adequate safe secure parking facilities. We need feasibility studies into the development of a Parkway Station at Little Mill and the possibilities of re-opening the railway line from Little Mill to Usk and the development of a new railway station at Usk.

Driver Training on Gaer Spur in 2009 (Photo: Ian Brewer)
The Welsh Government needs to commit to reopening the final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport along with new railway stations at Caerleon and Magor which would help to reduce road congestion. Such developments would provide a regular rail service to local residents and reduce the ever increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads. The re-opening of Pontrilas Railway station (in south Herefordshire) for passenger traffic (and timber shipments) would also help, as would a feasibility study into developing regional rail freight services, removing heavy Lorries from local roads.

Buying our heads in the sand is not an option, as we face a future where cheap fuel is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We need to ensure that all our communities have reasonable access to a reliable cheap system of integrated public transport, at the heart of which should be our long neglected rail network. The old excuses about a lack of funding are not acceptable, as even when times were good, there was little evidence of any real commitment or action to improve things here in Wales from Westminster.

A devolutionary half-way house won't work anymore; it will not deliver or even give us the chance to deliver, even with legislative powers. We make up 5% of the population of the UK, and have made (and continue to make) significant contributions to the exchequer.  If Unionists want to the Union to work then we need 5% of the UK transport spend, and full control of our transport planning and our transport budget.

The changes and reforms that are necessary to fix the problems in our country means that we need the tools to do the job. The botched and complicated LCO system for creating legislation barely worked and was consigned to the dustbin of history. The old system did not work with a nominally Labour Government and was never going to work with a Conservative dominated Government which is indifferent to any concept of devolution in particular and the needs of Wales in particular.

Even with legislative powers, we are still in some sort of half devolved limbo state of governance, lacking a fair financial settlement. With all the good wishes in the world this is not going to work well, even with an inert visionless former New Labour government in Cardiff. The governance of Wales if it is to be cost effective can no more be half devolved anymore than someone can be half free.

Wales needs a fair financial settlement so we can finance the construction of a decent system of integrated public transport after years of indifference. In Scotland, significant strides have been made to reopen, redevelop and build a coherent and integrated public transport system. In Wales over the last thirteen years there have been two successful railway re-openings carried out by Network Rail at the request of the National Assembly; the Vale of Glamorgan Railway Line (re-opened on Friday 10th June 2005) and the Ebbw Valley Railway Line (which was partially re-opened on Wednesday 6th February 2008).

Unlike in Scotland there was not real political dynamism at work here, these were administrative rather than legislative projects. In Scotland things were different, bills to reopen old railways were vigorously discussed, debated, scrutinised, amended and duly passed by the Scottish Parliament. If we are serious about integrated public transport then we are going to have to get serious about how we are going to develop and redevelop our public transport infrastructure.

The Transport (Wales) Act (effective from February 2006) gave the National Assembly the power to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system, how much longer do we have to wait to see some vision let alone any action? Meanwhile the rail companies are busy ramping up rail fares, and trying to reduce services, all with the tacit co-operation of Westminster Government (of various political hues) and the Department for transport.

Such blatant duplicity is not acceptable - it’s time for our government in Cardiff to take the long view and actually put its money where its mouth. The Welsh Government in Cardiff needs to work to redevelop our rail services, boost the development of rail freight and to co-ordinate rail and bus services – because Westminster even with a Labour Government will not deliver for Wales.

Wales needs to have full control of its transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the franchise when it is renewed in 2017 should be run on a not for profit basis.  The time for excuses has passed, ending years of neglect and indifference to our needs won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy as there is no quick fix.

We need to plan for our future but it can be done if the political will is there, as has happened in Scotland. Much can be accomplished by a combination of the will, the funding and interested private and community partners. If the Governments in London and Cardiff are really serious about cutting carbon emissions, reducing road congestion and building sustainable communities then they need to work to get people and heavy goods back onto our railways and revitalise our communities.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

THANKS FOR NOTHING...

A report (produced by Arup - engineering consultants) on behalf of the Welsh Government has suggested that ditching the bridge tolls on the Severn Crossings could boost the economy of south Wales by £107 million. The report suggests that the removal of the tools could boost traffic flow by around an extra 11,000 vehicles driving over the two bridges every day. The Arup report says that businesses and consumers pay out around £ 80 million pounds a year to cross the Severn bridges.

The report looked at what would happen if the tolls were halved, increased by 50% or scrapped entirely. The total revenue brought in 2009 was £77.4 million pounds. A reduction in revenue if the toll was cut by around half (46%) could be around £36 million pounds a year (based on 2009 prices). An increase in the toll by around half (41%) would bring in an extra revenue of around another £36 million pounds per year. Either way any projected change in revenue (on paper) comes in is less than proportional to the change in toll because of either higher or lower traffic flows.

The tolls have been used to pay for their construction of the new bridge, and the maintenance and operation of both the old and the new bridge(s) via a concession agreement with Severn Crossings Plc.

The concession agreement currently in place ends at the point that the operator has raked in around £996 million pounds at 1989 prices (so we are talking about probably well over a cool £100 million pounds by 2018). The tolls are due to end in 2018 when the bridges will revert back to the UK Government.

Back in October (29012) the UK transport minister Stephen Hammond revealed that the government has substantial debts on the bridges which would to be repaid so the tolls would not cease to be collected.  Currently both the Severn Bridges are run by a private company, the concession agreement is due to run its 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.

This, however, now 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 pounds.

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee was told that the government has a deficit of at least £112 million left on the bridges covering items such as maintenance costs and the costs of "professional advice". The Department for Transport has stated that once the concessions ends the government will need to repay its own debts resulting from the building and maintenance of the bridges, and so tolls will continue after 2018.

Meanwhile the Labour in Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones has stated that control of the bridges should be transferred from the UK government to the Welsh government in 2018, he has so far refused to state say what a Welsh Government would do to the tolls. The Severn Crossings which are the main way in and out of South Wales carry an average daily traffic of about 80,000 vehicles. Bridge Tolls have been in place ever since the first Severn Bridge was constructed.

So there appears to be little chance that hard pressed commuters will see and end in sight to the tolls, whether they remain under the control of the Department of Transport (in London) or the Welsh Government (in Cardiff) – no doubt both potential inheritors of the tolls don’t want this cash cow to be put out to pasture.  So whether it looks like it will be one of our governments continuing to fleece us  and continue to the ramp up fat profits at our expense for the foreseeable future (after 2018). Thanks for nothing...

Monday, 5 November 2012

BRYN ESTYN

The leader of the Party of Wales, Leanne Wood AM, has said that the Waterhouse Inquiry should be reopened and expanded in order to investigate allegations of a cover up of abuse of children in care in the north of Wales in the seventies and eighties. Ms Wood, a former probation officer, was backing the call from the Children’s Commissioner for Wales for an inquiry following criticism from Steve Messham, one of hundreds who were sexually abused.

Leanne Wood said that her party would be raising the issue as a matter of urgency with the Welsh Government. The Waterhouse Inquiry report, looked into the allegations and came out in 2000, but Mr Messham has said that it uncovered just a fraction of the abuse centred around the Bryn Estyn care home in the north of Wales.

Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood AM, said:

“It is crucial for the victims of this horrific abuse that these allegations are properly investigated, they deserve a full and open hearing. It appears that there is further institutionalised abuse that needs to be exposed, in addition to the scandal that was uncovered and investigated more than a decade ago. These men in a position of power have so far been protected and that cannot be allowed to continue. They have to be brought to justice for their actions. The victims deserve justice, and the wider public has to be able to have confidence in the system.

“I fully support the calls of Wales’s Children’s Commissioner for an inquiry. The office of the Children’s Commissioner was established as a result of the Waterhouse Inquiry and it is important that he is empowered to do his job properly. I would like to see the Waterhouse Inquiry reopened with its terms of reference expanded. The Party of Wales will be raising this with the Welsh Government in the Assembly as a matter of urgency this week to see exactly what can be done. I have also asked people affected to get in touch on a confidential basis via twitter and facebook.”

Friday, 2 November 2012

TAX EVASION: LEARNING FROM GREECE

Costas Vaxevanis, a Greek journalist has been acquitted of breaching privacy for publishing the names of 2,000 suspected tax evaders. He published a list of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, including a government minister and other prominent figures in public life, in Hot Doc, the weekly magazine that he edits. In court, his lawyers argued that the charges were outrageous and said no-one on the list had actually complained of a breach of privacy. After a trial lasting one day, an Athens court found Mr Vaxevanis innocent.

Costas Vaxevanis
The court ruling comes at a time when Greece is being urged by international lenders to crack down on tax evasion as part of far-reaching reforms demanded in exchange for billions of euros of bailout money. The list of suspected evaders was reportedly leaked by an HSBC employee and passed to IMF chief Christine Lagarde when she was French finance minister in 2010. She apparently handed the list to the Greek authorities, but they sat on it, taking no action.

At least two of Greece's former finance ministers have admitted seeing copies of the list. The current Greek finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, (in office from in June), has told parliament he has not seen the list. The heavy handed prosecution has left lots of egg on the faces of current Greek Government. The Athens court took little time to acquit the journalist, and observers (according to the AFP news agency) in the courtroom broke out in applause. Greece may have given us democracy, but, perhaps there are some other things we can learn from them when it comes to exposing tax evaders.