Tuesday, 30 April 2013

BATTERED AND BLUE?

No one at work should run the risk of being assaulted - yet judging by the amount of working days lost due to assault related injury our Police officers run that risk pretty regularly. Research by BBC Wales has revealed that 1,735 working days were lost over three years at three of the four Welsh Police forces as a result of assaults on officers, suggest that our police officers are well and truly in the firing line. 

The BBC figures show that as result of assaults on Police some  494 days were lost in Dyfed-Powys over three years, 568 days in Gwent and 673 days in the South Wales force. Along with the temporary loss of officers who were unavailable for duty there was a knock-on financial cost, which the BBC has estimated to be around £189,800.

This is not good news, as our Welsh Police forces are also under continuing pressure to reduce costs, as part of Con Dem Westminster government's public spending review (which began in 2010) which include an intention to reduce or cut central police funding by 20% by 2015. What this means more locally is that collectively the Welsh Police forces will have to make total savings of £ 96 million – which will mean a loss of jobs (amongst both Police officers and support staff) and a reduction in the service offered to the public.  

At least as far as the law is concerned attacking or assaulting a police officer is still seen as an aggravated offence in the eyes of the law, and could carry a custodial sentence of up to six months. Speaking as an ex journalist, who in a previous life spent more than enough time covering Pontypool and Cwmbran magistrates court in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, that was not the case then, and I suspect that it is mostly certainly not the case now.

Now I am not and have never been one of the hang them and flog them brigade (I leave that sort of posturing to lightweight Tories), I and no doubt many people consider it unacceptable when public servants (whether Police Officers, Ambulance service staff and Doctors and Nurses in casualty) are attacked or assaulted while doing their job. What’s needed is a balance be achieved between deterrence and the consequences of an assault and restorative justice?

That said the news that some 10,160 incidents of serious violence were informally dealt with last year (that is almost 12 times the figure from five years ago) has raised more than a few eyebrows. This is apparently contrary to existing Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidelines, which recommend that such resolutions should only be used for low-level crime.

The Police it reveals regularly use "community resolutions", which may include an apology or compensation to the victim, instead of prosecutions and cautions, despite ACPO guidelines. Now there are times when for lower level offences the use of "community resolutions" is entirely justified and entirely good sense. What this may suggest is that the criminal justice system is creaking and that any crime statistics produced should be looked at with more than a serious degree of caution if not a serious dose of incredulity.

Now I have had my suspicions about crime statistics (whether UK wide or more local) for a while, I am aware that there is a level of anecdotal dissatisfaction particularly with the police response to what they may perceive as lower level anti social behaviour related crime. The perception rightly or wrongly is that while this type of crime may be less important to our hard pressed police officers it remains important to the residents of various parts of Gwent (and no doubt elsewhere). More than a few times it has been related to me personally that when called they (the Police) just don’t come.

I think that taken as whole our creaking criminal justice system may be reaching the point where it is failing to function, it is nether providing restorative justice or dealing with cranial behaviour, let along providing an adequate degree of protection to public servants going about their work. I think that the sooner criminal justice and policing are devolved to Wales the better, that way we can at least try to ensure that our communities are properly protected and the interests of justice are served.

Monday, 29 April 2013

LABOUR MISSING IN-ACTION

Cllr Debbie Wilcomx  (Gaer Ward)
Cllr Herbie Thomas (Gaer Ward)
Cllr Mark Whitcutt (Gaer Ward)
Before the last City Council elections in May 2012, Labour in Newport made much fuss of its public commitment to work hard and report back to the electorate of Newport. Apparently this agreement does not apply to Gaer Ward, where its elected representatives failed to attend a protest meeting in the Gaer last Thursday evening. 

The South Wales Argus has reported that Gaer Ward councillor and cabinet member for leisure and culture, Debbie Wilcox; cabinet member for human resources Cllr Mark Whitcutt; and Cllr Herbie Thomas were all conspicuous by their absence from the well attended public meeting which saw almost 100 residents, parents and governors meet to oppose the (Labour administered) City Council’s plans to close Gaer Infants School and turn the site into an autism unit. The infant pupils would then move to the Gaer Junior School and that would become a 420-pupil primary school. 

While apologies were duly received from the elected Labour in Newport representative, they were obviously more concerned with following the Labour whip rather than meeting with concerned members of their own electorate. Newport City Council went so far as to publish a statutory notice in the South Wales Argus last week to announce its intention to follow through with the plans by September 1st 2013, yet Labour Ward councillors would not meet with concerned parents and their own electors. 


This is yet another example of the Contempt with which the Labour Party in Newport treats the electors of the Gaer (and Newport) and puts Party interests before the interests of the people. People can comment on the plans before May 22nd by writing to the Chief Education Officer, Newport City Council, Civic Centre, NP20 4UR or by emailing gaerschools.consultation@newport.gov.uk 

Saturday, 27 April 2013

THE RAMSEY SOUND TIDAL ENERGY PROJECT



The Ramsey Sound Tiday Energy Project is being developed by Tidal Energy Ltd who are installing a single DeltaStream unit off the coast of Pembrokeshire at Ramsey Sound for 12 months. The project will demonstrate the capability of DeltaStream as a tidal stream generator and provide evidence on how the device and environment interact. While the project runs the device will be connected to the Local Distribution Network thus allowing the electricity generated by the device to contribute to the renewable energy targets of the Welsh Government. After 12 months, at the completion of the test, the device and all of its associated infrastructure will be removed from the site. Just imagine what we could do if we have a Government in Cardiff Bay that was actually concerned about developing our countries renewable energy resources for our benefit - Just a thought!

Friday, 26 April 2013

THE BIG BUG OUT?

Making plans to leave...
Some minds are understandably focused on the Afghan exit strategy and how to get out while keeping NATO casualties to a minimum. Now I don’t for a moment question the courage and endurance of our service personnel who have been sent by the politicians in Westminster to complete a near impossible task.

I remain however critical of what followed, when collective eyes were taken off the ball and Afghanistan was effectively placed on the back burner out of sight and out of mind for a dubiously motivated and justified invasion of Iraq. I also deeply question the wobbly logic that ran riot and the mission creep that developed in relation to Afghanistan during the latter years of the Blair and Brown governments, after attention shifted back from Iraq. 

The Con Dem government is largely blameless inheriting the ongoing car accident of Afghanistan from its predecessor formerly New Labour government, who should take the full measure of blame for the unfolding mess. However things are spun, the reality is that things are not going well, it has been revealed (in a UN report) that three times as much opium was produced in Helmand last year than was being produced when British troops first moved in 2006.

A report by the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) forecasts an increase in opium production this year and says this has been partly caused by the lack of agricultural assistance. The report blames the situation on insecurity. As the pullout progresses and international troops wind down their combat role, the increase in poppy cultivation is a significant failure for the international project, and particularly the UK's role in it.

Most of the worldwide production of illegal heroin, the drug refined from opium, comes from Afghanistan, and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair cited this as a reason for the war in 2001, calling the drugs trade a part of the Taliban regime that "we should seek to destroy". Back in 2001, the Brits (and the USA) made a deal with the surviving Taliban to reduce opium production by 94%.

Just before the invasion Taliban actually brought in a ban on poppy growing, declaring it to be anti-Islam, which lowered the overall production. After the invasion, rightly or wrongly as result of Blair’s decision the UK took a lead role in counter-narcotics from the beginning, and sent troops to Helmand in 2006 partly because this was the largest area of poppy cultivation.  The UK (back in 2002) became the lead nation for counter narcotic activities in Afghanistan. British cash for a voluntary eradication programme which was run in 2002 produced what has been described independently as “a total failure.”

Ironically Opium production has actually become more important to Afghanistan’s economy since US and NATO forces invaded back in October 2001. After an initial drop in opium production caused by NATO’s invasion, opium production resumed and now the country produces some 90 per cent of the world’s opium, the great bulk of which now ends up on the streets of Europe and Russia.

Now the UN report predicts that this year more than 75,000 hectares of land in Helmand is under cultivation for opium poppies, three times as much as in 2006 - and this is expected to increase. In Afghanistan any counter narcotics activities are merely an unavoidable occupational hazard because there is no viable alternative industry which can create the 50% of licit GDP that opium trading represents.

Opium, which is the basic raw material for heroin, and most of the illegal drugs that are on sale on the UK's streets come from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Government and business leaders operate in a wildly unregulated free market economy, where opium offers the safest and most profitable investment available to both peasant farmers and Narco-entrepreneurs.

The World Bank recognises that the narcotics trade accounts for 1/3 of all economic activity and acts as a major source of demand for services, goods and construction. The trade also provides income and livelihoods for a large number of people generates almost half a billion dollars a year for farmers.  Perversely the drugs trade goes on giving by providing several hundred million dollars in income for labourers and supports the country’s ramshackle rural economy.

The bank also acknowledges that the trade actually supports the Afghan balance of payments to the point that it produce a net surplus, not to mention supports the Afghan currency. Additionally as a result of imports from drug proceeds actually generates significant amounts of customs revenue (Source: The Fulcrum Strategy (Version 3) By David James, July 2006).

The problem is that the drug trade destabilises Afghanistan, and the chronic corruption and the effects of the ongoing insurgency combine to actively undermine the country’s tax base.  Security aside a stable tax base is one of the key requirements if the Afghan Government, post pull-out, is going to be able to sustain a potentially prolonged campaign against the Taliban.

Any Government that is pretty much dependent on foreign aid in lieu of a revenue stream is in trouble that might work out over the short-term but will not last over the longer term. What may in the end lead to the plug being pulled and foreign aid drying up is that much of the international aid to Afghanistan ends up being stolen before it ever gets to its intended recipients. 

The problem for the rest of us is that the opium based drug trade’s impact spreads far beyond the porous boundaries of Afghanistan. Back in March, Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, made a presentation to UN’s 56th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, stating that, opium growth has increased by 18 per cent from 131,000 hectares to 154,000 and that “Afghan heroin has killed more than 1 million people worldwide since the ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ began and over a trillion dollars has been invested into transnational organized crime from drug sales”.

Transparency International in its 2012 Corruption Index (CPI) ranked Afghanistan as one of the (joint) most corrupt country with North Korea and Somalia. President Hamid Karzai in the United State for the NATO Summit in Chicago (in 2012) was asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about this rampant corruption issue in Afghanistan. As usual, President Karzai’s answer was “it is the contractual mechanism that the US applies in Afghanistan” that encourages bribery, fraud, and corruption.

The Afghan President
 has consistently blamed the west for the loss of billions of aid dollars and the rise of corruption in Afghanistan. The harsh reality is less simple as on a daily basis, ordinary Afghans are less concerned about the kinds of bribery that occurs when the US and Western  development agencies hand out big development contracts. Ordinary Afghans are more infuriated by the kinds of bribes that they often have to give to get what they are legally entitled to via “harassment bribes.”

Basically harassment bribes are like when a retired Afghan has to pay some cash to the pension officer to receive his retirement check. Or, when a young man or woman freshly graduated from college has to get his or her paperwork done in order to become a teacher. To accomplish this any prospective teacher will be asked to fork out a hefty bribe. Or your Tazkira or national ID card is held up until you pay some cash to the officer in charge. These are all simple illustration of harassment bribes.
Saigon  (in 1975) or Kabul (in 2015)
Harassment bribery is widespread in Afghanistan, and it plays a large role in breeding inefficiency and has a profoundly destructive effect on civil society. While President Karzai consistently wags the finger at the West for widespread corruption in Afghanistan, yet his administration has failed to take responsibility for banishing bribery on the lower level. The West has for a quiet life has looked the other way as local low level corruption tends to be written off as a fact of life something that indirectly may feed support for the Taliban. 

Overwhelmed by both large and small scale corruption what can an effectively endemically corrupt Afghan government seriously do to discourage bribe givers and takers (at all levels of government) even if it wanted to? Endemic corruption aside the security situation is the key, with NATO leaving and the Taliban waiting in the wings even a diehard optimist would struggle not to think that things don’t look good.

Behind the NATO pullout lurks the unspoken question of how can a successful NATO withdrawal ensure that the corrupt Karzai Government retains its hold on power. And at least in the short term can they (the Afghan Government) keep the Taliban at arm’s length and can the whole sorry process be made to look good for domestic political consumption at home.  

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

STILL WAITING FOR CARWYN AND GEORGE

The Labour in Wales run Welsh Government has now promised an update on its stance on the M4 Relief Road by mid-July – so much for the previous promise f a decision by the end of last year or early this year. None of this brings the slightest crumb of comfort, peace of mind or clarity to the residents of Brynglas (in Shaftesbury ward in Newport) whose homes may yet still be threatened by a new tunnel.

They have been left in the lurch as they are now going to have to wait until mid July before they hear about the fate of their homes. Until the Welsh Government announces its conclusions from what was a significantly flawed consultation exercise on the M4 which looked at a number of options, including improving the existing M4, a variety of upgrades to the Southern Distributor Road (SDR), the construction of a new tunnel and a new M4 relief road across the Gwent levels south of Newport – people continue to live in limbo.

We are still well short of the white smoke from either Westminster or Cardiff Bay as no agreement between the Con Dem Government and Welsh Government on how any relief road (George Osborne’s’ favoured option) would be funded has been reached. What has been quietly overlooked in relation to the on-going problems with the M4 and some of the larger options for dealing with the traffic congestion on the existing M4 is the problem of the funding model.

Amongst the reasons why the option of the M4 relief road (South of Newport) was dropped a few years ago; aside for the financial cost (around £1 billion pounds) and environmental impact was the key issue of the funding model. Ministers were advised that not only would the new relief road to be subjected to tolls, but the existing M4 would also be tolled.  Interestingly enough the only other toll road in the UK is the M6 in the Midlands which has seen toll prices increase by 175% since it was opened.

Another one of the reasons why this option was dropped was because of evidence gained from the operation of the M6 toll road - which had never made any money because motorists can avoid it by using nearby non tolled motorways.  That tolled Motorway has seen the number of users drop and it has done nothing to reduce congestion.

It is simply unacceptable for motorists to end up paying tolls on the Severn bridges, on the existing M4 any potential new relief road.  There are already significant complaints about the cost of the tolls on the Severn bridges and an additional burden on motorists and businesses can no way be justified. This is why Plaid Ministers in the then One Wales Government took  officials’ advice not to proceed go ahead with the relief road but opted to work to ease congestion around Newport by using the southern distribution road (SDR) as an alternative route.

What, in the seriously flawed consultation process, was Option C which would involve the grade separation of some junctions and partial or full closure of other junctions on the Newport A48 Southern Distributor Road was the most sensible option if combined with improvements to the existing M4.  This option would not only provide an alternative route to the M4 in the event of periodic accident related closures and congestion but would provide much better value for money coming in at around £300m. Incidentally the option D which included a new tunnel and widening of the M4 was priced at around £500 million.

At the moment the Labour in Wales Government and the Con Dem Westminster Government appear to be in favour of the most expensive (financially and environmentally) option – their only quarrel appears to be how it will be funded and whether or not it will be tolled. My own personal theory is that one of the reasons why Government at various levels favour the more expensive options may have something to do with the ongoing (and pretty profitable) if questionable relationship between Government and the Construction industry. 

Monday, 22 April 2013

MAKING LOCAL GOVERNMENT WORK FOR WALES

Let's be brutally honest many of our smaller communities, our small and large towns and our cities have suffered in the past from ill-thought out developments and questionable short term economic thinking. Our local small to medium retailers, local businesses and local consumers have suffered accordingly and we the consumers have paid the price with a loss of local services and choice.

Many people have real and serious concerns about the economic future and the character of their communities. We need to ask ourselves some serious questions about who these decisions in relation to redevelopment are being made for? And do our communities really benefit, locally or otherwise, certainly at times it is not us the customers? In the not so recent past local government has hindered economic growth and has damaged the economic vitality of our communities, but, it does not have to be this way.

One way that local government can help, rather than hinder, our small to medium sized enterprises and our communities is by improving procurement practice something that helps create and sustain local jobs. Plaid has called for legislation to be used to ensure that Welsh public sector contracts are allocated wisely to maximize job creation and investment opportunities here in Wales. The Welsh Government has previously announced a National Procurement Service, Plaid Cymru has rightly warned that unless further concrete action is taken then we in Wales will see savings but we will not see the full benefits.
The Party of Wales leader Leanne Wood said:
“Procurement is one of the successes of the National Assembly. By ensuring that Welsh public money is spend in the Welsh economy then we can create and support employment. A Plaid Cymru government would work towards achieving a target of 75% local procurement in Wales because we know that this could create 46,000 jobs here. That would make a huge dent in the unemployment figures.

“Spending that money with local companies in our local communities can also have a significant knock-on investment effect. By creating the demand we will also be improving the skills of our workforce, will be increasing the number of jobs, and will be supporting our local and national economies.

“Many businesses have told us that the process of bidding for work needs to be simplified, and for that reason, at a local government level in particular, we have argued for contracts to be unbundled. We have also worked to remove barriers to make it easier for small, local firms to apply for contracts. It’s about supporting our companies and sustaining our economy.

“Procurement is one way in which Plaid Cymru has made a real difference to employment levels and economic performance, and we will continue to make the case for ensuring that the money of Welsh taxpayers is used as wisely as possible, for the sake of our communities.”

Saturday, 20 April 2013

INSIDE A PRIVILEGED PLATO’S CAVE...

On Tuesday (16th April), Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to the Today programme that he did not remember much of the 1979 election which brought Thatcher to power. I remember the run up to the 1979 election quite clearly and Election Day with it. Initially I thought this rather odd that Cameron had no recollection of 1979, but, of course he was cocooned from the grim realities of Mrs T and the consequences for what she (and the motley crew of supporters who stood shielded behind her) did as he was no doubt living at the time in a privileged version of Plato's cave.

He went on to say that his earliest memories of Mr’s T were defending the Falkland Islands - a "brave and resolute thing". Fair enough, but, this conveniently overlooks the fact that it was cuts to the Royal Navy pushed through by her government that effectively gave the green light or at least sent the wrong messages to the brutal shambolic military dictatorship then ruling the roost in Argentina.  Cameron went on to say that Mrs T was on the right side of the big arguments, a great moderniser and an extraordinary leader - all pretty subjective concepts to start with. 

The consequences of the clash between dead from the neck up dinosaur like and mostly undemocratic Trade Union leaders and Mr’s T hit home hard and fast in my home as the steel strike and its consequences were played out with redundancy. What followed later after the miners’ strike was years of rundown and neglect which ravaged our valley communities – something which explains why patches of the Valleys and West Wales are still blighted with poverty and unemployment.  

For DC and significant numbers of people on the other side of the Severn Bridge the 1980’s were very different experience, they were certainly pretty grim here. Manufacturing locally was weakened, but, the real damage was done in the early 1990’s as John Major tried to cash in on the peace dividend following the end of the Cold War, I know because | was trying to get a job (with no success) at the time with firm after firm in South Gwent and across the bridge in Bristol. In the end, I ended up going to London for work.

Some twenty years down the line I still struggle to find any degree of impartiality when it comes not towards Mrs T but towards the things that were done in her name. I suspect that across large sections of the UK certainly outside or much of London and the south east many people who saw the scale (and cost) of the funeral will have thought that it was way over the top, especially in times of austerity.

If nothing else this whole episode should reveal how utterly cut off and remote from the lives and experiences of many people in Wales, Scotland and the North and West of England, that David Cameron actually is. Certainly the decision to go full on and formal on a state funeral for Mrs T which was not doubt made long ago will have blown away the tattered remnants of Cameron’s green and caring Conservatism. 

Friday, 19 April 2013

NEWPORT CUTS DEMONSTRATION



A demonstration is planned for Saturday April 20th at 11am outside the Museum in John Frost Square to protest against this decision to shut Newport Art Gallery's TEP and against the destruction of heritage and culture by Newport City Council. While Newport Council voted to close Temporary Exhibitions on February 26th, the ultimate aim is to close and then "relocate" the entire Museum, Library and Art Gallery to make a saving of £700,000 but putting 60 jobs at risk.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

NATIONAL STALKING AWARENESS DAY


Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd MP has used National Stalking Awareness Day (18th April) to highlight the importance of acting on commitments made in light of the new stalking law in order to ensure its effective enforcement. The theme for the day this year is ‘Know the Law, Use the Law’. Mr Llwyd, chaired the Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Stalking Law Reform which resulted in a new law on stalking being introduced in November 2012, he stressed the need for scrutiny to make sure that the inquiry's recommendation that training be made mandatory for all criminal justice professionals on how to recognise and treat stalking cases is properly implemented. National Stalking Awareness Day is not only a time to remember those whose lives have been ruined or taken away from them because of this terrible crime, but also to raise awareness of practical steps which can be taken to secure justice for the victims.

Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd MP said:

"This is the first National Stalking Awareness Day since the new stalking law became operational last November, and it presents an excellent opportunity to remind people of what the new legislation means.

"The Independent Parliamentary Inquiry put support for the victims of stalking at the heart of future legislation.  We wanted to give victims a voice in the justice system.

"This entailed mapping out detailed recommendations such as training for criminal justice professionals on how to recognise and treat stalking behaviour - we cannot allow any more victims to be secondarily victimised by shoddy treatment from the justice system.

"We must also introduce treatment programmes for perpetrators, much as is common for sex offenders, in order to tackle the psychological problems which underpin their behaviour.  Stalking, like rape, is characteristic of obsessive behaviour, and will not go away untreated.
“I have written to the Home Secretary requesting an update on the implementation of the new law, including the training of professionals and improving victims’ advocacy, and I look forward to reading her response.
"If we want to see this improvement in victims' advocacy and more perpetrators being held to account, police forces across England and Wales must introduce training - this can mean murder prevention; it is not an optional extra."

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

THE PRICE OF LABOUR IN NEWPORT'S CUTS...

Stow Hill Library - the closure notice (Photo credit: JD Briggs)
The harsh reality of Labour in Newport's savings cuts programme (driven through by Debbie Wilcox, the Labour Cabinet member for Leisure and Culture) the much loved but now closed Stow Hill Library. While desperate to save money it is worth noting that Labour in Newport, once in control increased member’s allowances. One wonders what’s next?

Stow Hill Library - boxed up books (Photo credit: JD Briggs)

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

THE ISLE OF THE BLESSED TAX EVADERS

Luxembourg has agreed to reduce the secrecy surrounding its banks, saying that it will implement rules on the automatic exchange of bank account information with its European Union partners from 2015. The country with a population of only 500,000 people, has banks and other financial institutions with assets worth more than 20 times the country's economic output. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, plans to introduce the reforms in two years, in line with the EU Savings Directive. The rules of the Directive aim  to create greater transparency and minimise tax evasion. 


Since the financial crash Calls for a crackdown on bank secrecy have been increasing, as governments are increasingly desperate to raise more taxes to support their finances. Luxembourg will now move to strengthen co-operation with foreign tax authorities. Germany signed a tax evasion treaty with Switzerland - another European banking centre known for its secrecy – earlier in the month. The treaty aims to give the German tax authorities the ability to claw back taxes from their citizens who may be hiding money in Swiss banks. Austria, the only EU hold out against banking transparency, has attacked the UK as an “island of the blessed for tax evasion and money laundering". 

Austria’s finance minister, Maria Fekter, has been under intense pressure to put an end to Austria's long-held tradition of allowing foreigners to bank secretly. She has attempted to deflect attention towards the UK. Fekter, a member of Austria's governing coalition, says the European Union cannot force Austria to reform its controversial banking secrecy laws without also forcing the UK to crack down on tax havens in its jurisdiction. Across the pond, the US Government is trying to crack down on its citizens hiding money offshore and is due to start talks with Austria soon. These recent developments leave David Cameron and George Osborne, staunch defenders of the City of London and Crown Dependency Tax Havens, which coincidently happen to be centres of worldwide money laundering operations. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL...

Profits before people
One of the real long lasting legacies from the blighted wasted years of Conservative and New Labour rule in the 1980's, 1990's and 2000's is the fact that the members of the 'Big 6' energy (cartel) companies can continue unchecked to fleece their customers with little or non existent regulation. Ofgem (which nominally regulates the energy industry) has produced statistics that show that members of the 'Big 6' have more than doubled their retail profit margins over the last 18 months and are earning an average of £95 pound profit per household on those who hold dual fuel bills (a 7% profit on previous figures). Ofgem estimates that profits per household will reach or pass the £100 pound mark within the next 12 months. Recently acquired statistics from EDF, British Gas and the rest of the cartel members show that their profit margins from power generation, which is run as a separate operation form the business of energy sale to customers, came in at around 24% in 2011 and has risen since. Ofgem revealed that the average profit margins for energy generation within the cartel rose from 18.4% in 2010 to 24.4% in 2011. All of the 'Big 6' cartel members ramped up their energy charges between October 2012 and January 2013 to squeeze as much as they can from their customers. Even the members of the 'Big 6 ' energy cartel are perhaps getting a little embarrassed by their own blatant profiteering and their own management bonus culture as save for via Ofgem and the press it is becoming increasingly difficult to find just how much they are squeezing from us.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

NOW THAT IS A GOOD IDEA...

A community beneficial project!
As I have said before, and no doubt will say again, what may work in Scotland may not necessarily work in Wales. That said every now and then something interesting emerges from Scotland which could work exceptionally well here in Wales. There is a scheme to build a hydro power generator in the Pentland Hills. So what you might say? Well this is different as the project has a significant community beneficial element which could benefit local people within an urban area. A  group of investors in Edinburgh  met to discuss building a hydro power generator in the Pentland Hills. They want to install hydro power at the first outlet from the Harlaw Reservoir. The scheme, known as Harlaw Hydro would be the first urban micro hydro project to be community owned in the Edinburgh area. The hope is to create a community benefit co-op and to encourage people to buy shares in it. Basically investors would get a capital return through the feed-in tariff and any surplus cash would be fed back in to the community through the Balerno Village Trust. Now that is a concept would work exceptionally well here in Wales, in the valleys and elsewhere bringing real benefits to some of our communities. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

‘THEM’ AND ‘US’

A few days ago David Cameron managed to sum up the Thatcher era in a few words; he said that something along the lines of Mrs T being ‘an inspiration to some of us’. ‘US’ is the key word, to have an ‘US’ you have to have a ‘THEM’ and that was the harsh reality of Thatcherism and its consequences. Speaking as one of the ‘THEM’ while offering condolences to her family and friends, I won’t as a fellow human being wish her any ill will at all.

I have no doubt that yard upon yard of column inches will be expended on flawless eulogies. Other bloggers have eloquently covered the main issues that impacted directly on those of us living west of the Severn Bridge including the wilful destruction of much of our manufacturing base and the shameful destruction of the mining industry.  I would focus on other issues where Mrs T had a significant and lasting impact.

No doubt much will be said about the Falklands War and how Mrs T put the ‘Great’ back in Britain. Like most things this is subjective. Yes, Mrs T was PM when a floundering brutal military Dictatorship invaded the Falklands and yes she was PM when a task force was sent to liberate the islands from military occupation. Ironically that defeat was to put the skids under the Argentine dictatorship which soon collapsed resulting in the restoration of democracy in Argentina.

I wonder how many column inches will be expended amongst the background to the Falklands war and how the Argentinean invasion came about. In 1979 the Conservatives were elected with an electoral pledge to maintain the Royal Navy with a surface strength of 90 vessels, by the time the Falklands had come around the RN was down to 46 surface vessels and the two large carrier units had just been sold to Australia and India (before any of the smaller replacement ski jump carriers were in-service).

Amongst the very public cuts was an announcement to withdraw HMS Endurance the patrol vessel that protected the Falkland Islands and the British Antarctic territories.  The Argentinean military dictatorship rightly or wrongly aware of the defence cuts saw the opportunity for a short and victorious war of conquest which would distract the long suffering Argentinean people from the economic woes of a collapsing economy. The rest as they say is history.

Much will also no doubt be made of MRs T’s role in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  This again is subjective, the West (MRs T) included got, to coin a phrase ‘Got Russia wrong”. In the run up to the failed Soviet coup the Western powers were backing Gorbachev to keep the Soviet Union intact – so much for democracy and self determination.

In the run up to the collapse of the Soviet Union it is worth remembering that a virtual parade of Western Leaders (including Mitterrand and George Bush Senior (as VP)) roundly condemned any secessionist tendencies on the part of the suppressed nations inside the USSR. Only after the fact did Western leaders (with the honourable exception of Canada) reposition themselves to recognise the defacto independence of Russia and the republics.

The West (MRs T included) failed to adequately support the young Russian democracy (let alone provide anything like reasonable amounts of support to the emerging states of Central Asia) merely lumbering them with a bloody series of privatisations. This disorganised asset stripping event did Russia and Russian democracy long lasting if not permanent damage and gave birth to the oligarchs and led us to Putin’s Russia.

While when it comes to Europe, Mrs T walked the walk and talked the talk about standing up for Britain in Europe, famously hand bagging various European leaders. All good PR no doubt but it is worth remembering that it was under her premiership the UK signed up to Maastricht, and unlike most of the rest of Europe UK voters were denied a say in the matter. This lack of trust or faith in the UK’s ordinary citizens indirectly gave birth to UKIP, something that is ironically currently causing David Cameron some sleepless nights.

The right, understandably, like to crow about the fact that Mrs T curbed the excesses of the old Trade Unions and brought in strike ballots, interestingly enough New Labour quietly retained all of the Conservative Trade Union related legislation.  There are some things that the old style left old style left still fails to accept. Firstly that the old style Trade Unions were pretty undemocratic and secondly they appear to have regularly seem to have traded in better working conditions for their male members and opportunities to bring in equal pay for female members with the employers to preserve their own differentials.

In Place of Strife: A missed opportunity
The old style Trade Unions from the 1960’s onwards failed or choose not to grasp technological change, something that could have actually retained their members jobs. The Labour Party bottled it when it came to reforming strike procedures and the way terms and conditions could be negotiated when Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle failed to push through ‘In Place of Strife’ White Paper (in 1968).

In the end what was then ‘Old’ Labour put Party interest before national interest (something that Labour ‘Old’, ‘New’ or ‘Post New’ continues to do so well in Westminster and the Senedd) and dropped this modest measure. This effectively setting the scene for what followed in 1970, 1973-4 and 1979 – 86 as fired up with their power and influence the Trade Unions locked horns with successive Conservative Governments and pretty much wrecked the economy and delivered Mr’s T to 10 Downing Street.

What followed amongst other things was a well organised looting of state assets and as the Americans would say a giant fire sale took place and badly run state industries were sold for a cheap price the only medium to long term beneficiaries being the City money men. While the Conservative governments made much of reducing regulation on the City the real ‘light (non-existent) touch’ was brought in by Gordon Brown,  who pretty much laid the groundwork for the financial crash that was to follow.

The 1980’s and the 1990’s in the UK were an incredibly destructive and divisive period, which saw the reckless pursuit of some seriously socially divisive policies. From where I was sat (mostly in Newport, Llanbedr PS and South London) save for the right to buy legislation (the profits of which should have been ring fenced and used to build and rebuild modern social housing) very little of lasting good was accomplished.

The old nationalised industries needed modernisation not an organised session of asset stripping, the wilful destruction of profitable pits (with significant coal reserves) was criminal as was the waste of the North Sea oil revenues on tax cuts for the rich. The privatisation of the energy utilities has result in hundreds of thousands of people living in an energy rich country living in fuel poverty.  Our Building Societies became banks and were rapidly absorbed by predatory financial intuitions laying the groundwork for what was to follow under New Labour.

The Conservative’s fantasy of rolling back the state was actually just that, pure fantasy. There was a growth of a largely unelectable and unaccountable tier of quango’s something that particularly affected us her in Wales. Getting rid of the quangocracy was yet another election promise that New Labour failed to deliver, as it proved too useful and too convenient and worked just as well stuffed with Labour cronies as it did with Conservative ones.

One price we have all paid for the 1980’s and the 1990’s in Wales is that we live in a fractured and partially broken society. We have to face that reality and to try and do something different, by creatively using the limited powers of the Senedd to do something different rather than following the old flawed development models. That said we can no longer live in the past and throwing heaps of blame at any one particular individual (who had many willing helpers) is wrong; we need to create a better future for all our communities rather than the one that many of our communities are currently still enduring.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE...

Loughor viaduct nearing completion
I have always been surprised when it comes to what can be achieved if you have the will and the funding to achieve it. Network Rail has just completed a £48 million pound project to replace the Loughor railway viaduct near Swansea and double five miles of track through Gowerton to Llanelli (in just over two weeks). As a result of this a further fourteen services will run able to call at the new platform at Gowerton station and all single carriage train services will be doubled on the route between Swansea, Carmarthen and Pembroke Dock. Additionally the Cardiff to Swansea service will be extended to Llanelli in the afternoons with a new morning service between Swansea and Cardiff. This project was funded by the Welsh government and Network Rail in partnership with the South West Wales Integrated Transport Consortium (Swwitch). The new service improvements will start from the 19th May. I can think of a few other parts of the Network in Wales that would benefit from other improvements. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

OVER TO YOU DAVE

Tax evasion and tax avoidance, one way or another, is rarely out of the headlines especially as many heavily indebted governments are increasingly keen to hunt down every tax dollar / euro / pound that is owed by tax evaders avoiding (unlike the rest of us) paying their dues to society.  This week, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists [ICIJ] who are based in Washington DC, have in collaboration with international media, began publishing  results into their research into tax evasion and off-shore tax havens.

The journalists have been sifting through an electronic mountain of information - literally  millions of records leaked from Britain's offshore financial industry, exposing for the first time the identities of thousands of holders of anonymous wealth from around the world. The list is interesting from presidents, ex-presidents, oligarchs,  plutocrats, a daughter of a notorious dictator and a British millionaire who is accused of concealing assets from his ex-wife.

The shock waves resulting from the leak of some 2 million emails and other documents, mostly from the British Virgin Islands (BVI), should expose the scale of the offshore tax evasion trade and the identities of tax evaders. It has been estimated that wealthy individuals involved in tax evasion and tax avoidance could potentially have as much as $ 32 trillion dollars (£ 21 trillion pounds) stashed in overseas and off-shore tax havens – which if equally divided could perhaps roughly give around $3000 dollars to every living person on earth.

Across La Manche things may be starting to get interesting, Jean-Jacques Augier, President François Hollande's campaign co-treasurer and close friend, has now identified his hitherto secret his Chinese business partner. The French President is already wallowing in a scandal as it turns out that his former budget minister consistently lied about having a Swiss bank account for 20 years. On the other side of the planet, the Mongolia's ex finance minister and deputy speaker of its parliament may have to resign from politics as a result of his off-shore financial interests.

While there is nothing wrong with a company being based in a tax haven does not necessarily mean that a company is avoiding tax or taking advantage of the hitherto pretty impenetrable secrecy that tends to surround tax havens, even if the tax jurisdictions are closely associated with tax evasion. That said, tax havens tend to be masked by secrecy and low taxes, and there have been few attempts to identify them. UK Revenue and Customs does not provide a list of tax havens.

The ICIJ has done an excellent job with its naming project, which may damage the confidence of the world's wealthiest people, who can no longer be certain that the size of their fortunes remains hidden from governments and from their tax paying neighbours. As well as Brits hiding wealth offshore, the data reveals a staggering array of government officials and rich families from Canada, the US, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, China, Thailand and former communist states. The ICIJ data reveals that their secret companies are mostly based in the BVI.

The Westminster government may have half-heartedly highlighted shown a desire to clamp down on tax avoidance and the PM might have slagged off celebrities, for using a tax avoidance scheme in Jersey. Yet he seems to be acutely reluctant to deal the tax havens that happen to be UK Crown Dependent territories.  Most reasonable people accept that there is a real need to deal on a global basis with the problem of off-shore companies and those individuals who are actively engaged in tax avoidance, tax evasion and / or money laundering. It’s all a tad embarrassing as the problem is that the UK is at the heart of the problem and has consciously chosen not to regulate its own crown dependencies.

The scale of the off-shore problem may take your breath away. The Cayman Islands; currently home to some 12,000 corporations has a population of 50,000, yet is home to 70% of the planets hedge funds (as of June 2012). The British Virgin Islands (population 22,000) is home to 823,502 registered companies. General Electric who paid no tax in 2010, made a $14.2 billion dollar profit. Barclay's has 181 subsidiaries (as of June 2012) registered in the Cayman Islands and paid little UK tax on its worldwide profits. The Dirty Digger's News Corp managed to base 152 subsidiaries in tax havens across the planet (according to the US Government) and managed to pay no UK corporation tax between 1998 and 1999.

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

The BVI has incorporated more than a million such offshore entities since it began marketing itself worldwide in the 1980s. Company owners' true identities are never revealed. Even the island's official financial regulators normally have no idea who is behind them. The British Foreign Office depends on the BVI's company licensing revenue to subsidise this residual outpost of empire, while lawyers and accountants in the City of London benefit from a lucrative trade as intermediaries, claiming that the tax-free offshore companies provide legitimate privacy.

Closer to home, in November 2012 a National Audit Office report 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. Much to the embarrassment of the Con Dems, tax evasion and tax evaders and the hunt for their concealed cash remains a big issue in the USA, in the UK you get the impression that the Conservative dominated Con Dem Westminster government hopes will quietly go away.

One result of the US government’s pursuit of tax evaders means that Switzerland's oldest bank is to close permanently after they pleaded guilty in a New York court to helping US citizens evade paying their taxes. It was the first foreign bank to plead guilty to tax evasion charges in the USA. Other Swiss banks have taken steps to prevent US citizens from opening offshore accounts to avoid paying tax. Yet here in the UK, the Con Dem Government has reduced the number of staff in Revenue and Customs from around 100,000 to 65,000 and plans to further reduce the numbers to around 50,000 by 2015.

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

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

NOT SURPRISING REALLY

Quids in!
The news that Energy supplier SSE has been fined £10.5 million pounds by the Ofgem (the energy regulator) for misselling gas and electricity should come as no real surprise. Neither should the fact that this is the largest ever imposed on an energy supplier by Ofgem. SSE, the energy company formerly known as Scottish and Southern Energy, was found guilty of "prolonged and extensive" misselling as a result of management failures. The misselling related to a combination of telephone, in-store and doorstep sales and was exposed by customers. They had been  contacted by SSE and were exposed to misleading statements, inaccurate and misleading information on SSE's charges, and misleading comparisons between SSE's charges and costs of other suppliers. Customers were told they could save money when in fact they were switched onto a more expensive contract.

Ofgem no doubt hopes that a "clear message" has been sent to energy suppliers who failed to treat customers fairly. This is the second of four misselling cases that were started by Ofgem in 2010. Back in March 2012, EDF Energy paid out £4.5 million pounds to vulnerable customers after they breached marketing rules. Scottish Power and Npower are also subject to ongoing investigations. Considering that we have what is in effect a fairly unregulated energy market, one that is dominated by a 6 member energy cartel, where profit is the only motive this should not surprise anyone. The energy company bosses rake in fat bonuses (Centrica, who own British Gas, split £16 million pounds between themselves recently).

Before the last Westminster General election, the  Conservatives talked about having 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. This, was, however, quietly kicked in to the long grass by the Com Dem Coalition Government. So there we have it successive Westminster Governments (of the formerly New Labour and the Con Dem coalition variety) have done nothing to regulate the culture of excessive profits that predominates amidst the ‘Big 6’  and we should not expect anything to be done soon to help us hard pressed customers. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A ROAD TO NOWHERE…

We have had a fantasy barrage (as proposed by Peter ‘the Pain’ Hain) and now we have a road to nowhere which press reports suggest that Chancellor George Osborne will announce plans to support a new toll motorway in June's comprehensive spending review. The one thing Wales does not need is yet another expensive toll road with yet a franchise holder milking it for every penny and pound that they can squeeze out of us.

Interestingly enough the BBC suggests that Westminster sources have confirmed that an agreement in principle had been reached but a deal on funding was not finalised. Considering that when the Welsh Government looked at this option it was binned on grounds of cost.  One of the reason why, when Plaid was in government (between 2007 and 2011) that the M4 Gwent Levels relief road was dropped was that it was unaffordable.
During the botched consultation in the spring of 2012, the one option that made the most sense was the one that would have involved the grade separation of some junctions and partial or full closure of other junctions on the Newport A48 Southern Distributor Road (SDR) which should be a real alternative route to the M4. Price wise that would have come in at around £300m, this would be more affordable that the £ 1 billion pounds plus that any Gwent Levels M4 relief road would cost.
Plaid Cymru Economy and Transport spokesperson Jonathan Edwards MP said:
"Plaid Cymru when in government looked afresh at the needs of the M4 and Wales-England transport corridor under Ieuan Wyn Jones. This included the principle of tolling, which we rejected. We embarked on a programme of improvements, including the Newport distributor road and the rail electrification, which could alleviate congestion and meet both business and environmental objectives. These need to be fully rolled out as an alternative to a highly expensive, environmentally damaging brand new motorway. The proposal that such a motorway would be tolled in Wales is the worst of all scenarios as we need to attract business investment not put it off with a penalty charge for coming to Wales.
“Wales has a real need for useful infrastructure spending, linking all parts of our nation and increasing connectivity. Rather than tolls, what's needed is a swift implementation of the Silk recommendations and a Barnett floor so we can borrow effectively and efficiently to invest.
“But does anyone seriously think that charging motorists to cross the Severn Bridge and then charging them again to use the motorway a few miles later is going to make south Wales more economically competitive?
“The only other toll road in the UK is the M6 in the Midlands which has seen toll prices rise by 175% since it was opened but the number of users plummet. It has also done nothing to reduce congestion. The lack of any other toll road proposals shows what people think.
“Wales has a greater capacity for borrowing money because we don’t have as many debts due to PFI, but we have to make sure that this is invested in schemes which will pay their way both in the short and longer term for the economy and sustainability."
The Party of Wales former Transport Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones said:
“The reason that the M4 relief road was abandoned was not simply the issue of affordability at £1 billion but also the fact that I was advised that not only was the new relief road to be subjected to tolls, so was the existing M4 to be tolled. This was due to the evidence that had been gained during the operation of the M6 toll road which had never made any money. I came to the conclusion that it was simply unacceptable for motorists to have to pay tolls on the Severn bridges and on the existing M4 and new relief road. There was already significant complaints about the tolls on the Severn bridges and this additional burden on motorists and businesses could not possibly be justified. That is why I accepted my officials’ advice not to proceed with the relief road but to ease congestion around Newport by linking into the southern distribution road as an alternative route.”

Monday, 1 April 2013

A PRIVATISATION TOO FAR

There was a time when if you had said that a Conservative dominated coalition government has quietly gone ahead and privatised the Air Sea Rescue Service then people would have thought that you were pulling an April fool gag. The sad fact is that this is no April fool!  


From 2017 the whole air sea rescue service will be run by the Bristow Group who have won a 10-year contract to run the service starting from 2015. This deal is worth £1.6 billion pounds and ends seventy years of search and rescue being provided from the RAF and Royal Navy. As part of the deal, Bristow will replace RAF and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters with modern Sikorsky S-92s and AgustaWestland 189s. 

Some twenty two helicopters will operate from ten locations around the UK. Ten S-92s will be based, two per site, at Stornoway and Sumburgh, and at new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports. Ten AW189s will operate, two per site, from Lee-on-the-Solent and a new hangar at Prestwick airport, and new bases which will be established at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports. All bases will be operational 24 hours a day and half of the new fleet will be built in Yeovil, Somerset. In Wales, the search and rescue service have operated out of RAF Valley on Ynys Mon. 

The service is much valued by the public and has saved many hundreds of lives, plucking those in need from the Mountains and the seas around Wales and elsewhere around the UK. The Westminster Government does not have good record when it comes to privatising those services which would be better left in public hands as the recent (and ongoing) shambles over the East Coast railway franchise shows. It makes one question, the Lib Dem’s talk of curbing the baser instincts of their Conservative coalition partners. This is step into the wild unknown and in my opinion a privatisation too far.