Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas is a bit like marriage

In the final weeks of the old year, one of the issues which hit the Welsh headlines was the question of gay marriage.  The Government got itself into a right old mess by proposing a blanket exclusion of churches from conducting gay weddings.  That upset some, then they suggested a right to opt in which upset others, and finally (or probably not) they settled on a proposal which treats the Church in Wales as though it were some sort of appendage of the established Church of England.  It had commenters scrambling to find words to describe the proposal – ‘bizarre’ simply didn’t do it justice.

Underlying the debate, of course, (leaving aside the extent to which some of the opinions are simply based on seeking a religious justification for discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation) is the question of whether what is or is not a ‘marriage’ is something to be defined by civil society or by organised religion.  Whilst Christianity can certainly lay claim to ownership of ‘holy matrimony’ (the clue is in the adjective), the concept of ‘marriage’, in some form or other, certainly pre-dates all of the religions which are today fighting for ownership of the word.
It is, in essence, a civil construct, and it is for civil society to determine what it means, and to change the definition if and when we so wish.  Whether religious bodies subsequently choose to sanctify it in the name of their own particular god is, quite rightly, entirely a matter for them to decide in line with their own rules about qualification.  And civil society has the right, if it wishes, to allow those religious ceremonies to have the same status as civil ceremonies.  The underlying principle is about ‘rendering unto Caesar’, to use a biblical phrase.
This is the time of year when we are regularly implored to remember the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas as first and foremost a Christian festival.  Well, there’s certainly a clue in the name, although that can be lost somewhat when shortened to Xmas.  But for the peoples of northern Europe at least, the idea of a festival – often involving some of the activities which are most at odds with what we are told is the ‘true meaning’ – at, or around, the time of the winter solstice pre-dates Christ by thousands of years.
It is easy to understand how, for early man, much more dependent on the vagaries of the weather and the seasons than are we today, the point at which the days stopped growing shorter and started lengthening would have had a profound significance, and be just cause for celebration.  With no knowledge or understanding of the mechanism underlying that change, it must have looked like an act of the gods.
In trying to gain acceptance for their new religion the early wise men of the Christian church knew what they were doing when Pope Julius I decided, without a shred of solid evidence, that Christ’s birthday would be celebrated on December 25th each year.  It had nothing to do with historical accuracy, and everything to do with an attempt to Christianise an existing pagan festival.  It worked too – Saturnalia, Yule, and all the other names by which the winter solstice celebration had previously been known were rebranded, and the new brand name stuck.
But old habits die hard; and underlying that acceptance of the new name and the new meaning, many of the old traditions survived, and were simply incorporated into the new.  This year’s census showed the extent to which Wales, like the rest of the UK, is becoming increasingly secular in belief.  Coupled with increasing globalisation, a purely religious festival would surely end up being slowly relegated to the background as just another holiday.  It retains its appeal, I suspect, largely because it isn’t just a religious occasion; it’s a holiday which can be, and is, celebrated by people of all religions and none.  The power of the sun’s cycle is still there as a primal force in all of us.  Its meaning is whatever we want it to be.
So, whatever meaning you ascribe to it and however you wish to celebrate it, enjoy the next week or so.  Borthlas will return, refreshed, in the New Year.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

To frack or not to frack

For those who remain unconvinced, despite the scientific consensus to the contrary, that the man-made contribution to climate change is significant enough to warrant action, the deposits of shale gas which apparently underlie these islands can only be a bonanza.  For those who are convinced about the climate change argument, but think that the solution is to use lower carbon fuels rather than renewables, having large reserves of gas on (or rather under) home territory makes it easier to argue the case for gas.  

I disagree with them, but those are honest arguments; it’s just the premise on which they are based which is in question.  Equally honest are the arguments of those who think that what is required is a wholesale shift from carbon fuels to renewables, and that extending the large scale use of gas is deferring, rather than solving the problem.  From that viewpoint, opposition to fracking is a natural consequence.
Rather less honest, though, are those who seem to be arguing that we should continue to use gas ‘but not that gas’.  Any politicians who have supported – or merely failed to oppose – the construction of new gas-fired power stations are being more than a little disingenuous in trying to ride a wave of public opinion concerned about fracking.  Effectively they’re saying that using gas is fine as long as it comes from somewhere else.
Now it might be argued that fracking has an environmental cost associated with it; but then so does all extraction of fossil fuel from the earth.  It’s just that, when we see the gas being delivered to the Haven in large tankers, we’re not seeing that environmental cost.  It doesn’t mean that nobody else is.  A determination to protect the environment at home whilst depending on products produced by environmental damage done elsewhere isn’t being green; it’s just nimbyism writ large.
We can make choices about policy on energy as on anything else; but when we’ve made a choice, we have to be willing to accept the consequences, not just load them on someone else.  For me, the choice is a simple one; either plan to phase out the use of gas, or else accept that, sooner or later, it has to come from fracking.  It’s not honest to support the continued use of gas whilst opposing the exploitation of reserves. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Who's writing the script?

I'm sure that there was an episode of Yes Minister in which Sir Humphrey explained to the hapless Minister how he could gain a lot of public credit for stopping a certain policy from being implemented.  The Minister's response was to say that the Government wasn't intending to do that anyway, so how could he stop it?  Ah, said Sir Humphrey, but if you leak the fact that the Government might be thinking about it, you can then launch a campign to stop it, and it's a campaign which you're certain to win.

If that wasn't an episode, then it certainly deserved to be.

There's more than a passing resemblance between that scenario and the Lib Dems' 'campaign' against regional pay.  Perhaps they're using the same script writer?

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

It doesn't have to be this way

The decision by Starbucks to pay some Corporation Tax over the next two years highlights a feature of the tax system which is widely used but not so widely known.  For large multi-national companies, Corporation Tax is essentially a voluntary tax.  They can decide how much to pay and where.

It isn’t new.  It’s something which large oil companies in particular have long been able to do.  If you own the whole supply chain from exploration through to retail, vesting different parts of it in different companies based in different countries but within the same group allows you to set transfer prices in a way which generates the ‘profits’ in the most favourable jurisdiction. 
What Starbucks and the others have been doing is simply a variation on that.  And the main thing that they’ve done differently is to be greedy – wiser companies have taken advantage of the rule in a more moderate fashion which leaves them paying something to everyone.
The recent stories have also highlighted another factor – the use of nameplate companies.  These are companies, set up in low tax jurisdictions, which don’t do anything very much other than act as a repository for profit, and a means of avoiding tax.  Ireland has been doing a bit of that of late; setting a low rate of company taxation has encouraged companies to set up nameplate companies in Ireland.  Ireland has gained, the companies have gained – it’s just the rest of us who’ve lost.
It underlines the danger of seeing company taxation as a competitive tool, and potentially gives ammunition to those keen to avoid devolution of Corporation Tax in the UK.  A race to the bottom might generate local benefits, but those benefits are not always based on real economic activity.  A race to the bottom helps no-one in the end.
What’s noticeably absent from the Starbucks statement is any commitment to change their accounting practices in the long term.  The PR that they’re getting from this gesture is good; but there’s no sign that they are really going to change.  They also haven’t given, a far as I’m aware, any commitment that they won’t simply use the tax paid ‘voluntarily’ over the next two years to offset any taxes which might become due in future years; something which they’re perfectly entitled to do.
Since none of the companies concerned have actually done anything illegal – indeed, they are under a legal obligation to maximise shareholder value – it’s unrealistic to expect any great change in behaviour unless the legal framework in which they operate is changed.  The government is showing little sign of any willingness to tackle that issue.  Again, that’s not really surprising – looked at as purely a tax collection issue, it’s hard to see what they could do effectively.
But what if we looked at the issue more widely?  Why does the law say that companies are obliged to maximise shareholder value (within the law, naturally) regardless of the interests of other stakeholders?  Setting the interests of capital above other interests might be a reflection of where we are; but there’s nothing inevitable about that.  We can order things differently if we wish.  It’s not a proposal I’d expect from the current government – but I’m not hearing it from any of the opposition parties either.  Why are they all so wedded to the rule of capital?

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

"Spain won't allow it"

I doubt that there’s much to argue with in Barroso’s claim that an independent Scotland (or Wales, or Catalonia...) would need to apply for membership of the EU.  It’s probably a fair reflection of the legal position. 

(Whether it’s only Scotland which would need to apply is another interesting legal question, which probably revolves around whether independence is a case of secession from the UK, or dissolution of the UK.  In the second case it seems likely that, in strict legal terms, both successor states would need to apply, since if one of them cannot be assumed to be inheriting the rights and obligations of the predecessor state, then neither can the other.  One for the legal anoraks.)
It doesn’t exactly follow, though, that Scotland’s application, and the negotiations surrounding it, would take place from 'outside the EU', as the unionists have suggested.  They seem to be making the wholly invalid suggestion that the referendum on independence takes place one day, and Scotland becomes independent the minute the result is announced.  That’s just plain silly.
A ‘yes’ vote in a referendum (which I still fear is unlikely in the First Scottish Independence Referendum) would inevitably be followed by a period of negotiation on the detail.  That negotiation would cover the allocation of assets and liabilities between Scotland and RUK, as well as any international obligations and rights – including Scotland’s status in the EU.  Only after conclusion of all those discussions would independence take effect – and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there would be another, confirmatory, referendum on the detail.  It is in no-one’s interest for there not to be an orderly and planned transfer of power and responsibility.
The legal question regarding the EU is what made the news; but the more pertinent question is not whether Scotland would need to apply or not, but whether that application would be accepted.  Short of ridiculous demands being placed by Scotland’s new government, it is hard to see how any application would not be successful.  In purely pragmatic terms, why on earth would the other member states not welcome a new state?  Rejecting an application would run counter to the whole European project.
And nothing in what Barroso said touched at all on how the application would be treated – he merely reiterated what has been said before, which is that application would be necessary.  It is others who have jumped on his statement to raise doubts about the success of any application, and they’ve done so not from any legal considerations, but as a form of argument against Scottish independence.
It’s certainly true that the Spanish state is unlikely to express any enthusiasm in advance of the situation arising, and would prefer that the situation never arose at all, because it might encourage the Catalonians and others.  But does that really mean that they would seek to block an application when it came before them?  I doubt it.  When push comes to shove, I really can’t see any EU member states arguing that they should try to block the democratic will of the people of Scotland – I just don’t expect them to admit it in advance.
Then we come to the way that the unionists in the UK are using the statement.  Do they really and truly believe that they can win the referendum by telling people in Scotland that they can’t be independent because Spain won’t allow it?  Not only is that not a particularly honest argument, it has the potential for being a massive own goal, and encouraging people to vote yes.  They’ll have to find better arguments than that one.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Quote, unquote

There’s been something of a hoo-ha in Carmarthenshire in recent months about the vexed question as to whether people should, or should not, be allowed to record or film meetings of the county council.  Some councils allow it, others do not; Carmarthenshire is in the latter category.

Whilst the availability of better and cheaper technology has made the question more pertinent, it isn’t a new question.  It was one which was debated in the old Vale of Glamorgan Borough Council back in the 1980s, when I was a member of that council.
The ruling group at the time (Tories, as it happens, but it could equally have been the other lot) wanted to bar the recording of meetings and proposed a resolution to achieve that – banning the use of ‘recording instruments’.  It was aimed at the press, rather than the public – the idea that the public might want to record their goings on would have seemed more than a little strange to them.
When it was debated, I rose to my hind legs, brandished my biro non-aggressively, and announced that I was holding a ‘recording instrument’ in my hand.  Were they, I asked, going to ban the use of biros in the Chamber as well?  The motion was hastily amended to refer to, as I recall, ‘mechanical recording instruments’, and despite my own continued objections was duly passed.
The arguments for banning the practice then were much the same as they are now – and they have grown no more valid with the passing of time.  Despite what some councillors claim, it is no easier to quote someone out of context using a voice recorder than it is using a biro – but at least in the one case there’s a record to demonstrate whether it was, or was not, out of context.
There is an expressed fear about being misquoted, but I rather suspect that the fear is about not being misquoted.
I don’t think that I was the most articulate and coherent speaker in the council chamber (although I’m immodest enough to claim that I wasn’t the most inarticulate either), and anyone who does a lot of public speaking will be only too aware that sometimes things can come out not quite as intended.  I was often misquoted by the local press for things I’d said in the Council Chamber – but here’s the thing: what appeared in print was invariably an improvement on what I’d actually said.  All hesitations and slips ups were miraculously removed by the local journos in the interests of creating a readable story.
Could it just be the case that some councillors in Carmarthenshire (unnamed to protect the potentially guilty) are actually more worried about not being misquoted?

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Entrepreneurs, con-men, and thieves

Three different categories of activity, one good and two bad; and most of us think that we know the difference between them.  But the lines can sometimes be a little “fuzzy” to say the least.

It was a point which came to mind when I saw the television footage last week of the raid by the Information Commissioner’s office on a house from which individuals had been sending those annoying text messages telling us that we may be owed a certain amount of money for having been mis-sold PPI.  It was an interesting counterpoint to a story, carried I think by the Sunday Times, a couple of weeks ago about the firms which actually claim the PPI on behalf of people.
That story talked about the 'entrepreneurs' who have established companies to process claims.  They’ve seen a gap in the market, moved in, and made substantial fortunes as a result.
But by doing what, precisely?  Filling in forms which people could just as easily fill in themselves – and taking 10% of the proceeds for so doing?  I’m sure that they’d describe it as providing a service for people who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to do the job themselves. 

There’s nothing wrong with that per se.  Making a profit by providing a service is a perfectly normal business activity.  It might, though, sit more comfortably with a lot of us if they actually told their customers how easy the job really is.  Whatever, it seems that in total these companies have managed to clean up around £1 billion from the victims of the sold PPI insurance. It may sound a little dodgy to take that much money for doing so little, but if it starts and ends there, it is perfectly legal and it’s up to individuals to say no rather than fall for the marketing ploy.  But it’s the marketing of these services which starts to raise some questions about boundaries.
Apparently the companies who send us those annoying text messages are only middlemen.  However, it does appear that the legitimate companies gain access to potential ‘customers’ by purchasing names and addresses from those middlemen, so the ‘entrepreneurs’ are only contacting those who’ve already been hooked.  Whether that still leaves them as entirely legitimate entrepreneurs is a matter of opinion – do they really have no responsibility for any illegality committed before they become involved, such as the way in which their contact lists are obtained?
According to the news reports these text messages say that you ‘may’ be owed a certain amount of money – I’m sure I’m not the only one to have received a message which was far more definitive than that.  Only a week ago I had one telling me that I am owed £3350 from a mis-sold PPI policy.  Since I’ve never been sold, let alone mis-sold, PPI, the precision with which they can tell me how much I’m owed is remarkable.  From press reports I know that the figure quoted is actually based on an average of the sums recovered for a vast number of people – but that isn’t what the message said.  It very explicitly told me that I am owed £3350.  It's a con. 
About a month ago I also had a message telling me that the sender had been trying to contact me about ‘my accident’ to help me claim compensation – and it’s not the first one of those I’ve had either.  (Let me hasten to reassure both my readers that I have had no accident and remain in apparently good health.) A little bit of research on the telephone numbers used for these two messages suggests – although it does not conclusively prove – that it’s the same people behind both.
Then we have those nice Asian people from the “Windows support department” telephoning me to offer me assistance to resolve the ‘problems’ which my computer has, they claim, reported to them (although their lack of ability to explain how my computer has reported these ‘problems’ rapidly becomes apparent when they are challenged).
Perhaps in India these people work in what looks like a respectable and successful call centre, established by local entrepreneurs.  To me they just look like crooks.
I don’t wish to denigrate successful entrepreneurialism; it’s key to our economic success.  We should be careful though about according the accolade to any and every company which makes large profits.  Successful and acceptable entrepreneurialism depends on more than that.  Companies based on activities which are dubious or in some cases downright illegal, even if not performed directly by the companies themselves, have no place in a successful entrepreneurial market.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Lies and statistics

I heard an opponent of wind farms speaking at a meeting recently.  No surprise that I don’t agree with his conclusion; but his arguments were mostly of the sort that I can understand and sympathise with, to do with landscape issues and the view.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, but landscape issues are an entirely honest basis for opposition.  It’s just that they need to be balanced against the question of how we source our electricity.

However, in the middle of his discourse, he dropped in a statistic.  The areas of mid Wales where wind farms are being built are at such a distance from the National Grid, he claimed, that 30% of the electricity produced is lost before it even gets to the grid.  It reminded me rather of the claim that 78.6% of all statistics used by politicians (including of course that figure of 78.6%) are made up on the spot.
The 30% figure is one often quoted – there are plenty of instances of that or a similar figure to be found on the Internet, but what is the basis for it?  I got involved in a lengthy debate with one of Plaid’s Assembly candidates in another blog post on this very question about two years ago.  He quoted the same figure at me.  His response to my question about the source of the statistic met, initially, with repeated and vehement assertion that the figure was correct and an expectation that I would simply accept it.  Eventually however he admitted that he had no basis whatsoever to justify the use of that figure.
There are losses during transition of course.  The National Grid estimates them at around 2% for high-voltage transmission system and up to another 6% for the lower voltage distribution system, making a total maximum loss of around 8%.  The most usual response of opponents to this is the Mandy Rice Davies rebuttal – “they would say that wouldn’t they?”.  Well, yes, they would; but that isn’t enough to make it untrue.
The higher the voltage, the lower the losses; so at the proposed voltage for the link from the Mid Wales wind farm to the Grid, the loss would probably be in the range of 2 to 6%.  Ironically, the lower voltages preferred by anti-wind campaigners in order to have smaller pylons would actually put that figure closer to the top end of that range that it would otherwise be.  In any event, however, it is still hugely below the 30% suggested.
Apart from my natural aversion to made-up and unjustifiable statistics, does it even matter?  Clearly transporting expensive fossil fuels to the middle of nowhere and then burning them to generate electricity which loses a large proportion of energy before reaching its point of use would be a silly thing to do.  But, even if the loss from wind farms were to be 30%, rather than the more realistic figure of 3-5%, the advantage of wind power is that the fuel is essentially “free” and, for all practical purposes, is unlimited.  So losing part of it en route really isn’t a problem in the way presented.
The 30% figure is not only hopelessly inaccurate; even if it were true it does nothing for the argument in support of which it is being deployed.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Wishful thinking

The level at which the “discussion” between Cardiff and London over the European Union budget is occurring is disappointing to say the least.  To hear the politicians talk one would think that the only factor of any import is what structure gives Wales the largest sum of money.

It’s certainly true that Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding.  I’d prefer that it were not so, because the fact that it is true is based on failure not success – the failure of successive UK governments to address what are, at a UK level, “regional” economic disparities.  But whilst the consequential availability of EU funds is better than not having them, no government –either in Cardiff or in London – has exactly covered itself in glory over the application of those funds.  It often looks as though we’re just pouring water into the sands.
More importantly, it isn’t structure that determines how much regional aid we get, its policy.  The claim by opponents of the EU that the UK government could direct more funds to the poorer regions of the UK if it didn’t send the money via Brussels first is an entirely fair one.  The problem, though, lies in the word “could”.  The UK government “could” do lots of things if it wanted; but it has shown little propensity – under Labour or Conservative governments – to turn a “could” into a “would”.  No surprise at the lack of trust therefore.
But the EU’s current stance on regional development isn’t guaranteed forever either.  Like UK government policy, it can always be changed.  I can understand why people think that the EU policy is more likely to stay the same than UK policy is to change; but is that really the basis on which we should make a decision about our role in the European Union?  There’s more to the idea of the European Union than that. 
Both Labour and Plaid Cymru politicians have recently speculated on what would happen in a referendum on the European Union if England wanted out and Wales and Scotland wanted in.  I suspect that there’s a certain amount of wishful fantasising involved there; whilst the views of Welsh politicians and those of English politicians might seem to diverge on the subject, I very much doubt that the views of the electors will show anything like as much divergence.
Notwithstanding the arguments about economic interest – or perhaps because that’s the limit of the support the Welsh politicians can manage to express – I rather suspect that any referendum would, in practice, be about other matters entirely.  And whilst I’d love to be proved wrong, I see no real evidence that Welsh opinion and English opinion on the Daily Mail type of attitude to the European Union are really very different.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Men from another planet

On Wednesday, the Chancellor is due to present his autumn statement, and the speculation about its content is already rife.  One widely floated suggestion is that he will limit tax relief on pension contributions for higher earners.

This is a proposal I’d support.  Whilst giving tax relief to encourage people to save for their retirement through recognised pension schemes is a sensible approach, the current system allows disproportionate benefit to higher rate tax payers.  It’s an example of a state ‘benefit’ which aids the most well-off more than the poorest.
Sadly, the rumours suggest that rather than limiting tax relief to basic rate, he will instead propose a cut off point for the maximum level of tax free contributions.  Still, it’s at least a nod in the right direction, even if it limits the impact to those earning £200,000 or more a year.
It was the CBI’s response which struck me.  It warned that setting the maximum pension contribution level any lower than £50,000 a year would “hit vast swathes of middle-income earners”.  In short, they believe that people who are able to save £40,000 a year out of their income towards their retirement are “middle earners”.  It’s hard to believe that they inhabit the same planet as the rest of us.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Cancelling debt

A week or so ago, Plaid Wrecsam highlighted the campaign by the ‘Occupy’ movement to buy up, and then cancel, debt.  As a result of the uncontrolled boom in lending which contributed so much to the financial crisis, lenders have been parcelling up debts and selling them on, often at a huge discount on ‘book’ value.

The idea of buying up debt at 10% of its nominal value and then simply cancelling it sounds revolutionary at first hearing, and there are those who would see it as threatening the very foundations of our economy.  But it isn’t actually as innovative or revolutionary as it sounds – and it might, in reality, be a way of perpetuating rather than undermining our current capitalist system.
Lenders willing to sell on debts at a mere 10% of their nominal value are, in effect, writing off 90% of the asset.  It is, from their perspective, simply recognising the reality that much of the debt is, in practice, irrecoverable.  The new organisations buying the debts don’t really expect to collect all the cash and make a 900% profit either.  They’re expecting to get back more than they paid, of course, but they probably don’t really expect to get back more than around 15-20% of the nominal value – and some of them will pursue fairly aggressive recovery strategies to hit even that level.  Both sides of this commercial transaction are simply taking a rational view about how much they can get back, when, and at what cost.
So, if a non-commercial organisation such as Occupy buys the debt and cancels it, they’re really only writing off the 10% that hasn’t already been written off.  It doesn’t feel that way to the debtors, of course.  Most of them probably never fully understood that their ability to repay (collectively, if not individually) had been seriously discounted by their creditors, who had already given up hope of ever seeing 90% of their cash again.
The first way that cancellation of debt helps rather than hinders economic activity is that it widens the choice of economic stimuli available to policy makers.  The problem with non-capital stimuli (such as reductions in VAT or income tax) is that indebted people may simply use the extra cash in hand to pay down debt.  The cash goes straight back to the banks, and does little to stimulate the economy.  But freed of debt, people are more likely to spend.
Debt cancellation isn’t a particularly new idea either – it’s only in the comparatively recent past that the idea has become so commonplace that debt is inviolable and eternal.
5000 years ago, Mesopotamian rulers regularly granted amnesties which cancelled all personal (though not commercial) debt.  The clay tablets on which debt was recorded would be broken, debt slaves would be freed, and land and property seized in pursuit of debt would be returned to their previous owners.
2012 is the year of a royal jubilee, but I haven’t seen much reference to the origins of the word.  It’s a biblical term, I believe (although it may be ancient Egyptian according to some), and refers to the time when slaves were freed, and sins (and debt) pardoned.  We haven’t seen much of that sort of jubilee this year, though.
Now those ancient societies didn’t cancel debt because the lenders suddenly developed a social conscience and started to feel bad about their exploitative ways.  They did so because the increasing concentration of wealth and the subsequent rise of the dispossessed threatened the stability and cohesion of their societies.  Their economic system, in short, needed to be rebalanced from time to time.
There’s a parallel of sorts with the situation today.  And that’s the second reason why debt cancellation on a large scale might actually be in the best long term interests of the capitalists, even if they don’t immediately understand that.  We don’t always learn a great deal from history.
The Occupy initiative is something to welcome as a starting point for a wider programme of debt cancellation both nationally and internationally.  But it is almost certainly not the sort of threat to the established order which some perceive it to be.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The company's representative

The report published earlier this week on alternative proposals for exploiting the generating capacity of the Severn estuary is a welcome one.  It claims that a cheaper and less damaging approach than a large barrage across the estuary might even produce more electricity in total – and it would certainly have the potential to spread the generating capacity over a longer period rather than concentrate it at the times that the tide is most favourable.

It doesn’t compare like with like, of course; it is including the use of wind turbines in the estuary as well as tidal and wave turbines.  And I don’t know whether the claim that it will produce more power than the barrage will actually stand up to detailed examination.  Both this proposal and the barrage proposal itself still have too many uncertainties surrounding the final designs to evaluate that thoroughly at this stage.  At the very least, however, a rational approach would be to put this alternative on the table for more detailed analysis.
It was disappointing, though hardly unsurprising, to read the response of our former Secretary of State, Peter Hain.  ‘Dismissive’ would be something of an understatement.  Yet again, it looks as though his commitment to one proposal and the company backing it is over-riding any ability to look at the issue objectively.  It continues to surprise me that there has been, apparently, so little concern within the Labour Party at the extent to which such a prominent figure is now acting first and foremost as the parliamentary representative of a commercial organisation. It's surely not what he was elected to do.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Opinion masquerading as information

It’s not unusual for communities in Wales these days to produce websites promoting themselves and community events.  Most of them are informative, and are community ventures, and many make at least an effort to reflect the bilingual nature of the communities they serve.

There are exceptions, though.  Some provide very little detail about who has produced them and why.  The other day, I happened to stumble across this website for Llanegwad.  At first sight, it’s little different from many others, listing all sorts of useful information.  It even has a section about the Welsh language, and some helpful guidance to the meaning of some place names.
It goes downhill rather, however, when it comes to this little piece about the Language and People.  It reflects a viewpoint, of course (and although it’s a rarer viewpoint now than it used to be, we’d be deluding ourselves if we didn’t understand that it’s not as rare as we might like).  And it’s a viewpoint which people have a right to express. 
Quite how it fits into the idea of a community information website is rather a different question - 'information' it is not.  It is opinion masquerading as fact.  I can’t really believe that it reflects the reality of opinion in Llanegwad.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Creeping centralism

One of the disappointments of devolution for me has been the way in which politicians who appear to be decentralists at a UK level end up being centralists at a Wales level.  Perhaps it’s just that politicians usually believe that power should be wielded by themselves, and should therefore reside at whatever level they happen to be operating – and I really wish that I could dismiss that thought as just a bit of unnecessary cynicism.
The latest evidence of creeping centralism down in the Bay is the proposal floated by Leighton Andrews to centralise the provision of education services under the control of the Assembly Government.  I don’t disagree with everything he says; like him, if I were designing a way of delivering services such as education, I wouldn’t have come up with the idea of 22 authorities within Wales.  And, like him, I’m unhappy at the performance of the education system in Wales.
What I’m not so convinced about, however, is that the answer to those problems lies in the organisational structure.  I have seen no evidence to support the proposition that a centrally managed service will of necessity produce results which are any better than we are seeing now.  I certainly don’t accept the utter self-confidence with which so many AMs seem to assume that services run by them will deliver better results than those same services run by someone else.
One of my major problems with the centralising proposal is the implicit assumption that education authorities are accountable to the minister for their performance, rather than to the electorate in the areas they serve.  AMs are, quite rightly, quick enough to bridle at any suggestion that they are accountable to the UK Government for their performance; why are they so ready to defend their own electoral mandate whilst denying that of local councillors?
But the biggest problem that I have with what is being suggested is that it looks like reorganising local government in Wales by the back door, without proper discussion or consideration.  According to the glossy leaflet which Carmarthenshire issued with my council tax bill, marginally over half of all expenditure paid for by council tax goes on education and children’s services.  Education alone probably accounts for 30 – 40% of what the county council does.  Taking that away from local government is a huge – and unprecedented – reduction in the scope and powers of local authorities, and doing it in isolation without consideration of the wider impact looks to be very rash.
I’m not wedded to the idea that there should be 22 local authorities in Wales; nor am I wedded to the idea that their responsibilities and powers are immutable and set in stone.  But I am wedded to the idea that there is a value to local democracy, to devolution of power within Wales, not just to Wales, and that local exercise of power, if it is meaningful, has to include the right to do things differently rather than simply adhere to standards and processes laid down elsewhere. 
My politics starts from the notion that sovereignty resides with the people, and that we can choose how that should be pooled and where; AMs, like MPs, seem increasingly to believe that sovereignty is theirs to divvy out – or retain – as they wish.  The gulf between those viewpoints is far from being a small one, and unless we are careful, Wales could end up being more centralised than the unitary British state ever managed to be.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Following the rules

There was a story in the Western Mail a few weeks ago about the WW2 veterans who were being prevented from receiving medals from Russia by what seemed to be a rather arcane rule laid down by the UK Government.  It wasn’t until I read this follow-up story in Saturday’s paper that I realised that I had a ‘family interest’ in the matter, as it were.

The veteran who died on Remembrance Sunday was an uncle of mine.  Uncle Don was an officer in the Merchant Navy and spent much of the war on convoys running supplies through the Arctic to Russia.  With his death at the age of 92, it seems that there are now only a dozen convoy veterans left in South Wales – and it’s obviously one of those numbers which changes in only one direction.
Perhaps the Russians should simply decide to pop a few medals in the post to the remaining veterans.  I’m not sure who would be committing the offence if they did.  Would it be the Russians for sending them, or the aging veterans for receiving them?  Either way, the probability of anyone launching a prosecution seems rather slim to me – the publicity would make anyone who took such a decision look a complete idiot.  And I can’t believe that the UK Government would really want to provoke a diplomatic spat with Russia over such a trivial matter either.
What I really don’t understand is the rationale behind the rule.  Usually, I can see some sense or logic behind decisions made by those in authority, even if I disagree with them, but in this case, I just can’t.  It’s not that the UK Government is opposed to foreign governments giving awards to UK citizens; they’ve just decided that it must be within 5 years of the service of the individuals concerned.  Why 5?  Why not 4, or 6, or 10?  Why have a time limit at all, once the principle is recognised?
Trivial it may be to the governments concerned; but it matters to those involved.  I find it hard to believe that the UK Government can be so intransigent over such a wholly arbitrary time limit on a matter of such little import other than to those directly involved.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Karl Marx, Brian Rix, and Carwyn Jones

The publication of the Silk report this week marks yet another step along the road to a sensible and coherent devolution settlement for Wales.  But it does seem to be more of a stumble than a step.  And, not for the first time, I think that the finger of suspicion for yet another fudge points firmly in the direction of the Labour Party, even if they’ve managed to get away with hiding the fact behind an ‘all-party’ commission.
It’s true, of course, that we would still be without an Assembly of any kind in Wales were it not for the Labour Party.  But it has always looked as though devolution for Wales was something into which they were bounced by the enthusiasm of the late John Smith and others in Scotland, and bounced reluctantly to boot.  So whilst the fact of devolution is down to the Labour Party, so is its form, and particularly the painfully slow progress, with each step marking yet another attempt to paper over that party’s internal disagreements.
That it makes sense for any elected government spending large sums of money to have at least a degree of responsibility for raising the money that it spends rather than holding out a begging bowl is obvious to most.  But the miserable little collection of minor taxes which might potentially be devolved without holding another referendum simply does not achieve that objective.  Without the devolution of at least one major tax, such as income tax, any expectation that it will make much of a difference is misplaced.
Of course, I’m in favour of devolving all taxes, so the Mandy Rice Davies response would be a natural one, but in all seriousness, the ability to modify the rate of landfill tax will neither make the Welsh Government more accountable nor give it much of a lever for economic policy.
I don’t entirely disagree with the assertion by Carwyn Jones and the Labour Party that there are dangers in not resolving the Barnett issue first.  Of course there are, but when we know that there’s no hope of any early resolution of the Barnett issue, it looks as though that question is being used as more of a fig leaf to hide opposition to tax-varying powers.  Both issues need resolving, but the link is by no means as absolute as is being claimed.
It was of course Carwyn Jones who claimed during the last referendum campaign that taxation powers would ‘require’ a referendum.  It was a ‘requirement’ based more on the timid pragmatism of himself and his government and his own party’s continued internal disagreements over devolution than one based on any great constitutional principle.  But once he’d stated it, it was always going to be difficult to do a u-turn later.
Reports suggest that the Silk Commission was unanimous in its recommendations and had no difficulty reaching that unanimity.  How much of that ‘unanimity’ was real hard agreement as opposed to a pragmatic recognition that Labour Party support was dependent on coming up with the ‘right’ answers isn’t clear – and may not be so for some time, I’d guess.  But it’s hard to see any logic other than such pragmatism in the referendum proposal.  And it’s even harder to see any logic at all in the proposed multiple locks which all need to be opened before we can even hold a vote – it all looks more like an attempt to block taxation powers than to devolve them.
It was Marx who said that history always repeats itself twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.  Farce may turn out to be an understated description of the proposal to hold yet another referendum, learning nothing from the last.  How many farces can Labour stage before the audience realises that the butt of the joke is us?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Magical mandates

The widely-expected low turnout in the Police Commissioner elections last week has led to the equally predictable claim by some politicians that those elected ‘have no mandate’.  It’s easy to see how someone can claim that being elected with 50% plus 1 of the vote on a 15% turnout doesn’t amount to a whole pile of beans, let alone a vote of confidence, but at what point does this magical thing called a ‘mandate’ suddenly disappear?

One of those leading the ‘no-mandate’ charge was the former Labour MP Charles Clarke.  He lost his own seat in 2010, but in the last election that he won, in 2005, he received 38% of the vote on a 65% turnout in his constituency.  So, rather less that 25% of those eligible to vote gave him their support.  I’m assuming that he never doubted for one moment that he had one of these mandate thingies, so the cut-off point for having one must be, in his view, somewhere between 7.5% and 25% of those eligible to vote; it clearly does not require majority support.
Or perhaps it’s the level of turnout which invalidates any mandate – 65% is obviously a much better turnout that 15%.  But local council elections often drop to around 30%, and that doesn’t seem to invalidate the mandate held by local councillors.  So on turnout, again, the cut-off must fall somewhere between 15% and 30% - no majority seems to be required here either.
Of course, I don’t really expect anyone to give an answer to the question of where the line falls, because the claim of not having a mandate isn’t a serious one; it’s just one of those political sound bites which politicians love.  Under what passes for democracy in these islands, the only requirement is to get more votes than the other fellow.  Those who don’t vote in an election can no more be assumed to be supporters of the losing side than can those who fail to vote in a referendum, however much some people might try and argue the contrary.
That’s not so say that the low level of turnout isn’t an issue which should just be ignored.  There are serious questions to be answered.  I’m far from convinced that it’s all the government’s fault for not publicising the elections more, or the candidates’ fault for being so uninspiring, or the electors’ fault for not bothering to read such information as was available, or even the media’s fault for not giving the elections much attention.
What about the rather radical possibility that most of us might just possibly have been perspicacious enough to have decided that the whole thing was a waste of time, and that little would change whoever was elected?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

End, stick, wrong

A report commissioned by the Welsh Government suggested that scrapping the tolls would be worth £107m a year to the Welsh economy.  The response of the First Minister has been to demand that the tolls from the Severn bridges should be redirected to Wales once the bridges revert to public ownership.  I’m struggling a little to understand the logical process which got him from the one to the other.
There is a good – albeit highly unpopular - argument for road tolls on environmental grounds, as a deterrent to the use of road transportation, whether for people or for goods.  There’s also a logical argument for tolls on the basis that people should pay for the public services they use at the point of use rather than through taxation, although it’s not a view with which I agree. 
I have never, though, understood the principle behind charging only for those bits of road which happen to go over bridges or through tunnels.  Certainly, bridges and tunnels can be more expensive to construct than nice straight bits of road on flat land, but they’re pretty much useless without those roads leading to them. Certainly, the bridges will continue to need maintenance once they are in public ownership, but then, so will the rest of the motorways of which they form a part.  Considering them other than as an integral part of the whole route seems to be an odd way of looking at them.
I’m also confused by the arguments put forward by the First Minister in justification for the tolls being diverted to Wales.  He seems to be arguing that tolls should be reduced to the level necessary to maintain the bridges, but that if it was paid to the UK Government, that money would then be perceived as being used to fund Department for Transport funding in England.  That's more an argument about whether we trust the people setting the tolls than it is for who should get the lolly. 
If the tolls are set at no more than the level required for maintenance (assuming that one can justify that logic for tolls in the first place), and if whichever government receives the tolls is also responsible for the maintenance, then does it make any difference at all which government that should be?  It makes sense only if government is actually planning to set the tolls higher than the level required for maintenance and use the cash for something else - which seems to be as much part of the planning of the Welsh Government as it does of the UK Government.  It’s a plan for a backdoor tax; but there is no more logic in that backdoor tax belonging exclusively to Wales than there is in it belonging exclusively to England.
The Western Mail’s editorial used an analogy with a castle, saying that “just as it would be ludicrous for the occupants of a castle not to have control of a drawbridge, so it makes sense that the Welsh Government should have a strong say on the future of the Severn Crossing”.  It’s not an analogy that worked terribly well for me – the point about a drawbridge is that it’s as much a barrier as it is a conduit.  In the case of a castle drawbridge the castle's occupants are hardly likely to want to share control of that drawbridge with those outside the castle walls.  (And who decides which side of the estuary is the castle?)
What Wales needs is good unhindered access to markets, on the same financial (i.e. toll) basis as the South West of England, rather than the highly uneven playing field which bridge tolls have created.  What we don’t need is politicians and parties squabbling over who should get the profit from restricting that access.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Is it all just a game?

The story about London councils preparing to move “thousands of London’s homeless families” to Wales has provoked an entirely unsurprising response of outrage in Wales – and probably also in those areas of England which the London councils have singled out for similar attention.  I found myself wondering, though, whether the story has been over-hyped somewhat.

Partly, that’s simply because I find it hard to believe that any part of the UK state could really, in the twenty first century, be planning to uproot families and move them hundreds of miles into areas where it is highly unlikely that they will stand any chance of finding the employment which is ultimately the only way of improving their situation. 
I can’t think of many parallels for such a forced movement of people in any democratic state.  Families have been forcibly moved en mass for projects such as slum clearance, but have almost always been rehoused either close by or else in the new homes constructed on the site.  Children were evacuated from London during the second world war; but it was done for their safety, and was always understood to be a temporary measure.
But thousands of families given the choice of homelessness where they are or moved hundreds of miles to the cheapest housing which can be purchased, purely on economic grounds?  I can’t think of a parallel in recent times which comes close.
Then I wondered whether this might not be more of a political game than a real prospect, and from two different aspects.  The first is that it’s far from unheard of, sadly, for local authorities to propose something outrageous, either to attract such opposition as to persuade the central government to back down on some policy or other, or else to enable it later to propose something not quite so outrageous so that people accept the lesser of two evils.  Either seems possible in this case.
The second is, of course, that offering a London family a house in somewhere like Merthyr might well lead to a refusal; and people who refuse the offer of ‘suitable’ accommodation can then be deleted from the waiting list.  And that’s just another way of making homelessness someone else’s problem, even though some of us might think that there’s rather more to the definition of ‘suitable’ than having four walls and a roof.
I’m not sure which is worst – seriously proposing such a policy, or unseriously suggesting it in order to achieve other aims.  In either case, they’re treating those families unfortunate enough to be homeless in London in an utterly shameful fashion; more as commodities or problems than as people with human needs. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Beware the siren voices

No surprise that I’m far from being as thrilled as others seem to be about the phoenix-like resurrection of the Horizon project for another nuclear power station on Ynys Môn.  There’s more to energy policy than jobs, but this is not only not the best energy policy for Wales, it’s not even the best way to generate jobs in the energy industry in Wales.

The game is far from over however; it will be some time before the fat lady can commence her aria.  There are still many hurdles for the project to overcome, not the least of them being the unanswered questions about how it will be funded.  The official line about no public subsidies for new nuclear is simply not credible; without subsidies, whether hidden or open, there will be no new build.
At a time when most of the rest of the world is turning its back on nuclear stations (well, uranium-powered ones at least), it’s hard to believe that any project run by a company whose own country has turned its back on the technology will actually come to fruition.
There is a real need for jobs on Ynys Môn, but there is a real danger in the apparently unqualified welcome given by many politicians to this scheme.  That danger is, simply, that they will count their chickens too soon and take their eyes off the ball, if that’s not mixing too many metaphors.  Assuming that these jobs are ‘in the bag’ would be the greatest disservice that anyone could do to the people of the island, since if (or when, as I tend to believe) the project collapses, there would be no plan B.
People should be vary careful about believing the siren voices of the short-termists who seem to be claiming that the island’s problems are about to be solved.