Thursday, 5 March 2015

Mobile telephony roaming charges persist

Around this time last year, we were celebrating a big new deal for mobile phone users in the European Union area. The European Commission had proposed and the European Parliament had agreed to an end to the telecoms companies' little earner whereby you are charged extra fees for using your phone in another EU country. (Note that, while Conservatives largely abstained, this was one occasion when UKIP MEPs actually turned up - in order to vote against.)

The charges should have ended in December this year. However, in a reminder that ultimate power in the EU is not in the hands of the Commission or the Parliament but of the Council of Ministers, David Cameron - or his proxy - and his fellow EU ministers yesterday decided to postpone the cuts virtually indefinitely. Instead, there will be another consultation in mid-2018.

One is reminded of the Cameron/Merkel deal to weaken EU vehicle emissions regulations. Again, the beneficiaries are large commercial corporations. Again, the Downing Street spin machine, normally so noisy on EU developments, has been strangely quiet. What most disappoints me is that no MP raised the matter at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday or Business Questions today, given that I calculate that the next Prime Ministerial Statement on the European Council is not due until after the general election.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Real living standards continue to rise

A few immediate thoughts on the reports on IFS's research results released today:

  • comparisons with 2007/8 earnings are misleading, since we now know that this was an artificial peak, boosted by Labour's irresponsible fiscal policy
  • conversely, the comparative figures for over-60s demonstrate how unfairly pensioners were treated under the Thatcher-Major-Blair-Brown administrations
  • the slower recovery of younger workers' wages is a cause for concern, but it seems to me that for various reasons the pay of mature and experienced workers is bound to rise faster when recovery kicks in, and I would expect a similar rise in lower pay the further we get into recovery

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Defence priorities

It seems to me that, in his speech to the Commons yesterday, Rory Stewart, chair of the Defence Committee, had the right priorities. In calling for this and coming governments to honour David Cameron's pledge to the NATO conference in Newport of 2% of GDP to be spent on defence, he only touched on "boy's toys" such as Trident. His analysis is practical - as one would expect from his background - and worrying. It is worth reading the speech in full, but a few things stand out:

The House of Commons Defence Committee’s report focuses on two things: the conventional threat posed by Russia, and the threat that we describe as next generation warfare, ambiguous warfare or the asymmetric threat posed by Russia. Although those two things are related, it is worth analysing them separately.
On the conventional threat posed by Russia, the report argues that, through its Zapad exercise in 2013, Russia showed its ability to deploy almost 70,000 troops at 72 hours’ notice. The current estimate is that it would take NATO almost six months to deploy that number of troops.
we have not been focused on Russia, and the United States certainly has more capacity, but it is striking that even the US significantly reduced its capacity to deal with an adversary such as Russia. [...] Britain has got rid of a lot of our Russian analysis capacity. One thing my Committee’s report pointed out is that we got rid of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group, which did the basic Russian analysis, we sacked our Ukraine desk officer and the defence intelligence service reduced its Russian analysis.
It is true that, ultimately, the theoretical NATO capacity dwarfs that of Russia, but a lot of this stuff is extremely difficult to deploy; many nations are very reluctant to pay the money required to exercise; a lot of this money is absorbed in pension schemes; and our problem is that we are defending an enormous, multi-thousand-mile border, where Russia could, should it wish, cause trouble all the way from the Baltic to the Caucasus. We have to deal with that entire area, which may be very difficult to do, even with the 3.3 million troops we currently have in NATO.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman referred to Estonia. Clearly, under article 5 of the NATO treaty all the other 27 member states would have an obligation to respond to an armed attack on Estonia, but there is a level of ambiguity, given the hybrid warfare that the Russians are engaged in and have been engaged in—cyber-attacks and others. Given that Putin does not necessarily wish to invoke a major military conflict, how does NATO deal with those hybrid attacks?
Rory Stewart: The hybrid attacks are exactly what I was getting on to: the asymmetric and next-generation warfare attacks. As the Labour former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has just pointed out, the conventional attack is a low-probability, high-impact event. Much more probable is this asymmetric, hybrid warfare. In other words, we are more likely to find cyber-attacks of the kind we saw in Estonia in 2007, and separatists popping up claiming that they are being abused or that minority rights are being abused in places such as Narva, in eastern Estonia. As we saw, 45% of the Russian population of Latvia supported the Russian occupation of Crimea in a survey at that time. So what are we supposed to do? The answer is: it is really difficult and we absolutely need to raise our game in three areas. As has been indicated, those are cyber, information warfare and special forces operations.
Crucially, very few of us in this House—I certainly include myself in this—understand cyber in detail. We are taking it on faith that we are developing a significant cyber-capacity. It is extremely difficult for us to be confident about what we are doing in this regard. I have two questions on cyber that I would like to put to the Minister. One is to do with NATO’s cyber-capacity. The members of the Committee visited the cyber-centre in Estonia and discovered that there were only two UK personnel posted to that site. It was very difficult to be confident about what deterrent effect that kind of cyber would involve.
My second question is to do with doctrine. Are we prepared to threaten a cyber response as a way of deterring a Russian cyber-attack? In other words, if Russia were to mount a cyber-attack against a NATO member state, would we respond with a cyber-attack in kind?
The second issue is around information operations. It is very clear that the basic problem for Russian minorities in the Baltic states is the fact that they watch Moscow television. We need to ensure that we have the ability to project television into the Baltic states in the Russian language that is entertaining and engaging, that the minorities in those areas are prepared to watch, and that counters propaganda not with propaganda but with the truth. Such broadcasts must provide an objective, truthful and honest conversation about what is going on in the world and, above all, that is able to draw attention to the things that Putin is doing. That means that centrally we must invest in the BBC World Service. We spend a lot of time talking about this, about Russian-language television, but the reality is that we have yet to see the evidence from this Government, or from the United States, that the real investment is being made to create a genuinely watchable, attractive Russian language service that could be watched by Russian minorities around the edge of NATO.
NATO with its explicit backbone of nuclear weaponry is supported by both Labour and Conservatives as a deterrent of global warfare. They dispute the contention that the latter threat is now illusory, but must surely recognise that it has not served to deter Russia's push for Lebensraum. NATO may in theory be committed to defend its members, but it seems ill-equipped to repel any attack from the East, the nature of which is bound to come as a surprise as things stand.

We also need "soft" deterrence. The border states which have inherited Russian-speaking minorities must abandon any vindictive oppression, understandable to those with memories of life under Stalin though that may be. That is acting only as a breeding-ground for Russia-leaning radicalisation and sheltering "little green men".

Also, liberal democracies need to consider how our message is getting across to monoglot Russians on our side of the redrawn Iron Curtain. BBC World Service has abandoned its radio and TV broadcasts in favour of an internet-only Russian service, but one wonders how much of the relatively unsophisticated population of former Soviet states this reaches. I suggest that it is also in the interests of al-Jazeera - who can well afford it - to launch a Russian-language service.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Chubut on fire

The centre of Welsh in Argentina has suffered from a wildfire for two weeks. Radio Wales reported this morning that the front extends over 19 miles. So far, there have been no human casualties, but hundreds of animals have died and a national wildlife reserve is under threat.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The End of February Agreement

I refuse (like Welsh Labour) to follow the media and call it the St David's Day Agreement, but there is no doubt that it moves forward Home Rule for Wales, something which Liberals have called for since the days of David Lloyd George. The official pdf is here.

There will be more knowledgeable  and considered  commentary on the whole of the Agreement elsewhere, so I will restrict myself to just a couple of reactions:

First, the devolution of responsibility for  larger (but not the largest) energy developments to Wales will reduce the conflict between planning authorities and the Department of Energy in London, which has been able practically to enforce consents.

Secondly, the UK Government is still minded "to consider the case and options for devolving further powers to the Assembly over Air Passenger Duty" in the face of opposition from English regional airports. This power has already passed to Scotland, but it seems to me that this particular devolution militates against an ecological improvement which could be made to APD, namely levying it per plane rather than per passenger as at present.

Finally, there is the fact that Whitehall is happy to give up extensive powers over elections in Wales.

This includes "deciding the electoral system; the number of constituencies, their boundaries and the ratio of regional Assembly Members to constituency Assembly Members; the timing of elections and therefore election terms; matters relating to the requirements of candidates to stand for election and the conduct of the elections themselves; and the circumstances in which a sitting Assembly Member can be removed [...] The Assembly should have control of campaign expenditure by political parties, controlled expenditure by third parties and party political broadcasts in relation to Assembly elections."

This means that unless Labour is dislodged from government in Cardiff Bay, we can forget about fair votes in local elections, which the Scots have enjoyed for  a number of years. There is also the danger of losing what proportionality there is in the National Assembly.

Fortunately, the regulation of political parties, including donations to political parties, will remain reserved.

One good thing is that we may see the lowering of the voting age to 16 in Wales.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Fairtrade fortnight

We are well in to Fairtrade Fortnight. Neath Port Talbot is a Fairtrade County. Morrisons should be praised for putting the event on the web page for their Neath store, though it is not exactly headlined. The nationwide grocer still leading the way for Fairtrade goods remains the Coop, though, in spite of all its travails in the last decade. I am disappointed that there is no Fairtrade event in the Coops in Pontardawe or Ammanford, though I see I have just missed one in Glynneath. There is at least to be a wine-tasting in Mumbles tomorrow.

For more details of Coop events, see

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Betty Driver, Violet Carson, Muriel Levy, Doris Campbell

Betty Driver's entry popped up in my feed from the ODNB this morning. It was good on her early variety and film career, and the later Coronation Street days for which she is most famous, but said nothing about her work for regional Children's Hour between those times.

Violet Carson's musical contribution to BBC North Region is also largely overlooked. A programme chosen at random is here. Carson, Muriel Levy and Doris Campbell also performed as The Three Semis. If the names of Campbell and Levy are not recognised nowadays, it is probably because they did not make it on to Coronation Street.