Thursday, 30 October 2008

Hedge funds punished

Guy Kewney has an interesting take on the recent surge and fall-back in the Volkswagen share price. One wonders how much the ban on short-selling by various governments was purely a response to a populist outcry (typical was Alex Salmond) or down to pressure from banks who realised it might embarrass hedge funds.

Goldman Sachs has frequently acted as an adviser to HM Treasury.

Soaring numbers of data security breaches

You would have thought that the very public excoriation of HM Revenue and Customs would have made both government and commerce extra careful about the personal data they hold. But no! The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has revealed that the number of data breaches reported to him had soared to 277 since HMRC lost those 25 million child benefit records in November 2007.

And these are just the cases which executives have admitted to.

Ferrari and Network Rail

The connection is the AGV (automotrice à grande vitesse), the train which is a development of the TGV which has cut journey times across Europe. During 2009 it will be introduced on the Italian rail network as part of the approval process for delivering trainsets ordered by NTV. The November edition of Railwatch, the magazine of Railfuture, announces that they will run on the Turin-Milan-Naples-Salerno, Rome-Bologna-Venice and Rome-Naples-Bari routes. The new Italian Transport Company has placed a firm order for 25 trainsets (with ten on option), together with a thirty-year maintenance contract. Delivery of the first production trains will commence in 2010.

One of the businessmen behind NTV is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who is chairman of Ferrari. He may have one operation the less to worry about next year, if the company carries out its threat to quit Formula One.

France's SNCF has taken a 20% share in NTV, no doubt looking forward to the liberalisation of international rail routes within the EU in 2010.

A committee of Scotland's parliament is looking into the possibility of high speed rail (HSR). Several pressure groups have already presented evidence of the benefits to Scotland's economy of a HSR line from London.

And in England and Wales? A government grant of £26.7bn to Network Rail, (8% less than requested), is largely going towards capacity improvements on existing routes. To my eyes, this is going to benefit short- to medium-distance commuters, rather than the long-distance freight and business passenger services which we should be developing for this century. Yes, it would be good to increase throughput at Cardiff Central* and take hundreds more cars off the road, but a fast link to Paris, Brussels and beyond would do more for Wales' national income.

*or an integrated transport (bus/train/taxi) and shopping hub in Port Talbot - but that's too much to hope for!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Women in public life

Tom Bodden in the Daily Post draws attention to the report by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, Janet Gaymer, that over three-quarters of the chairs of public bodies were male, although almost half the board members were women. (Could this be because many were placed with male ex-MPs making way for Blair Babes?)

One could also point to male domination of senior officer posts in Welsh local government.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Fifty years of the 7n7

There was a big leap forward in jet travel 50 years ago yesterday, when the first Boeing 707 entered service with Pan American. The airliner's development and its offspring are discussed here.

Friday, 24 October 2008

In the winter of a Kondratieff cycle

Prompted by a reference by Gordon Pankhurst in his address to the Neath & District CAB AGM this afternoon, I looked up Kondratieff. The long wave cycle theory seems very plausible, but history is full of apparently prophetic texts, from the Book of Revelations through Nostradamus, to which notable events can be fitted.

Myself, I blame the current recession on a sun-spot minimum.

Social services: far right groups must not be given cause

A link from Liberal England to a Jersey senator's blog and the news that two of those accused of child abuse in Jersey are to appear in court today, prompted me to check John Hemming's blog.

Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, having learned that Birmingham City Council had illegally sent children to Jersey for fostering or for holidays in the now-notorious Haut de la Garenne home, sought to find out how widespread the practice was. He swiftly found that four other English authorities had sent children to the island. Accordingly, he initiated Freedom of Information Act enquiries of all English authorities. The news earlier in the month was that legal wrangling continued, with people trying to avoid answering the question.

(It could, of course, be down to the nature of record-keeping. I sought reassurance from our social services department that children in care here had not been sent to Jersey, and encouraged party colleagues in neighbouring authorities to do the same. Head of Children & Young People Services Julie Rzezniczek was able to give me that reassurance, but only from her personal experience of twelve years in the department. She could say nothing about the practice of predecessor authorities; the only way to pick up the paper trail was from the Jersey end.)

Anyway, I did not find anything new about Jersey, but this story caught my eye.

Many people are concerned about the powers of the authorities in the UK to take children away from a parent. Now there is evidence that groups on the reactionary end of British politics are fishing in these troubled waters. They are using emotive cases involving actions on the part of social services departments, which cannot be democratically questioned, to stir up trouble. It seems to me that the law and procedures need to be changed along lines proposed by John Hemming.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Karl Francis: official jobs for Welsh-speakers is "neo-fascist"

You don't expect Welsh-language controversy on Radio 3, but film-maker Karl Francis, in a typically dyspeptic sound essay just now, likened the requirement to speak Welsh in many public service posts as akin to forcing Australian public servants to learn an Aboriginal language.

He has no objection to the Welsh language, he says, but he opines that the first requirement for Welsh Assembly functionaries is that they should be capable of doing the job, which most of them are not.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Moscow Gold

When I first started work, there was an old sweat in the corner of the office, a Labour man through-and-through, who would bitterly complain about the dirty tricks played against Labour in the 1920s and 1930s. The Beaverbrook and Northcliffe newspapers would frequently run stories of dubious provenance in order to discredit Labour. One of these was the report of "Moscow gold", the alleged secret financing of the British Labour parties by Stalin.

Old Watkins would appreciate the irony of yesterday's accusation that the richest man in Russia was negotiating an illegal donation to David Cameron's Conservatives, and enjoy their discomfiture in having to deny it.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Immigration: government inconsistency

I have occasionally pointed out (and been accused of racism because of it) that state-sponsored immigration to fill short-term needs more often than not leads to ethnic friction eventually. Political hypocrisy does not help. One recalls Enoch Powell inveighing against the adulteration of the British race by the introduction of workers from the Commonwealth - such as the nurses from the West Indies recruited a decade earlier by the Ministry of Health under one Enoch Powell.

When Phil Woolas announced that he was encouraging immigration from outside the EU then changed his mind, I started to work up a blog article. Then I found that Stumbling & Mumbling had nailed the government's inconsistencies much more neatly.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

EU-wide consumer rights

There is a tendency for the English media to publish only the EU stories which alarm or confuse. Scanning through a backlog of LibDem press releases, I came across an EU good news story which does not seem to have made a splash (except perhaps for the South West and Gibraltar, whose MEP, Graham Watson, issued it).

A fortnight ago, the European Commission moved to empower European shoppers with a single,
simple EU-wide set of consumer rights. Consumers will be able to seek the best value for money anywhere across the EU without falling victim to differing complicated national rules.

The proposal guarantees a right to information before purchase, EU-wide protection against late delivery and non-delivery and a new 14-day cooling off period for distance and pressure sales. Consumers could also rely on EU-wide rules for returns, repairs, refunds and guarantees.

Graham Watson commented: "This is the start of a consumer protection revolution which will transform Europe's fragmented retail market into the level playing field it ought to be.

"The internet means cheaper products are often only a few clicks away, but at the moment real life barriers exist to the virtual marketplace. It is time we give consumers better protection wherever they choose to take their custom.

"These plans mean the current patchwork of measures will be simplified, offering greater peace of mind to consumers. It's also great for businesses who wish to widen sales across the European Union as it cuts out masses of unnecessary and expensive red tape."

The prices of goods in the shops differ widely across Europe. For example, in the UK, electronic goods are often 10.4% more expensive than in the Republic of Ireland.

The Commission proposals mean a distance trader will be able to serve the entire EU market using the same set of contract terms, reducing legal compliance costs.

Introduction of the plans mean UK consumers will benefit from an extension in a "cooling off period" to withdraw from distance- and off-premises-contracts from 7 days to 14 days.

The right for consumers to change their mind will be simplified to a standard web based withdrawal form or via a durable medium. This makes it simple and easy for the consumer and provides them with legal certainty towards the trader.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Remains of the Ratepayers

If the Neath Port Talbot Ratepayers Alliance thought that they could quietly draw a line under the 2008 elections by relaunching themselves openly as a political party, registered by the Electoral Commission as the Neath Port Talbot Independent Party, they reckoned without Cllr. Lella James. In the council chamber last Thursday, the (truly) independent councillor for Sandfields East savaged what little remained of the reputation of the group. It didn't help that leader Cllr. Tutton was absent - at a funeral, one understands - and that deputy Cllr Tallamy had to defend the new party on his own.

Cllr. James praised the original founders of the Ratepayers Alliance, but chronicled its decline as they had passed on, until it had become, in her words, the "pathetic" party, or, with its reactionary views, the "Neath version of the UK Independence Party". She was extremely angry at the choice of new name, when there were genuine independents of long-standing on the council. She had even sought to challenge the Electoral Commission's decision to register the party, but had been told that there was no appeal.

In an interchange between Cllrs Hopkins, Tallamy and Vaughan it transpired that a then-member of the Ratepayers, who afterwards showed his true colours by joining the Conservative Party, had acted as a conduit between Central Office and the Ratepayers during the 2008 local government election campaign.

Updated 2008-10-22

Canadian liberals prevent a majority conservative government

In the first general election to be held in a G7 nation since the credit crunch struck, Stéphane Dion's Liberal party lost 18 seats, but is still the second party. Although Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader, hoped to gain a majority by holding a snap election, he has been disappointed. Though he is clearly in a stronger position, he will still have to seek coalition partners in order to form a government.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

It's surely not 1929 over again

As I write, stock exchanges throughout Europe are registering falls again. On a local level, small businesses are finding their credit tightening and losing their overdraft facilities. Some proprietors are reported to be using their personal credit cards to keep their operations going.

It seems to me, however, that there is a major difference between the 1930s and now. Then, virtually the sole source of world finance was the United States. Europe was still suffering from the effects of the Great War and indebted to the US. No new major economy had arisen.

Since the 1950s, petroleum has enabled several states, mainly in the Middle East, to build up substantial treasuries. Some of this money has been channelled into "sovereign wealth funds". These are investment organisations which operate commercially, but are ultimately controlled by the state. The first one of these I was aware of was the Kuwait Investment Office but others have since followed its aggressive path of building up stakes in businesses world-wide and even acquiring companies in the West.

So there is now this potential counter-balance to Wall St and Zürich which should help the world avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. (These included the rise of the great dictators, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao, let us not forget.) Judicious injections of capital and public support of key Western institutions should get the wheels turning again and restore confidence.

However, the SWF managers seem to be sitting on their hands at present. Whether this is out of excessive caution or a calculation that, if they wait longer, there are even bigger bargains to be had, they run the risk of letting the whole system collapse.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Kirsty Williams for leader

It's a tough choice. Jenny is a strong candidate and would not let us down. But it's Kirsty Williams for me, for all sorts of reasons. I feel she would be just that much better for the party in the second decade of the 21st century.

I also feel it is healthier to have a leader from outside the Cardiff ambit.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Rôle played by Capita in Icelandic money pit

The Daily Mail reports that Sector Treasury Services, a subsidiary of New Labour's favourite outsourcing company, was an adviser to 250 local authority treasury departments and some 50 other public sector bodies.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

President closes conference

In her closing speech to the autumn conference of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Christine Humphreys stressed how successful our party's non-MCP, open door, approach had been in allowing women to lead in all areas.

In addition to herself as president, and Jo Foster as chief executive, we will, by Christmas have a woman as leader. The only declared candidates are Jenny Randerson and Kirsty Williams.

Nor did one have to be a pit bull with lipstick, she went on. I was waiting for the contrast between an American hockey mom and a Welsh county hockey player (Eleanor Burnham) but it didn't come. :-) (Eleanor has pledged her support to Jenny in the leadership race.)

But it was time to turn to disenfranchised minorities. Christine singled out Welsh speakers, who had been swept up by Plaid but who were now being let down by the Plaid-Labour government in Cardiff. Worst of all, children travelling to Welsh-medium schools by bus were discriminated against by having to pay; English-speakers had free bus travel.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Public investment: do professionals know best?

There is evidence to the contrary here.

I was particularly struck by the closing quote, from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Some took advice, though.

For those who share St David's enthusiasm for water

I have just picked up the following from Carwyn Edward's
"Wales and the World" newsletter. I pass it on without
further comment:


I am moving toward preparations for a Saint David's Day

I have contacted some of you about this already. I am
looking for crazy people willing to go wading in the
water to say a Saint David's Day prayer in the ocean
near Boston [Massaxhusetts] on Saint David's Day March
1st 2009. I have received some interest from people
connected with the Welsh Government, and from the
organizer for the National Saint David's Day Parade in
Cardiff, Wales. There are also people who may want to
do this other places such as Whitesands beach near
Saint David's Cathedral. Here is a link to a blog I
have created for this event. If you are interested
please check out the blog, and leave a comment. You
will find the information in both Welsh and English.
Scroll down if the Welsh doesn't make any sense to you.
The English is below it.

Check out

I am looking to create a list of those who want to
join me in the water on Saint David's Day. If you are
interested in being contacted as the plans develop, let
me know. I will be adding a list of those who want to
join me to the blog site. If you have a blog, or a
website send me that info, and I will add a link on the

Pastor Phil
The Gathering -
Salem, MA

C'mon, Wales!

If Wales Under-21s play without fear tonight, there is every chance they can build up a big enough lead to take to Villa Park next Tuesday and move on to the competition finals.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

What did NPT and Caerphilly know and when did they know it?

Some councils were not deceived by triple-A ratings. They were no doubt aware that the reputation of credit rating agencies had already been compromised.

Brighton council said it had withdrawn deposits from Icelandic banks.

A spokesperson for the council said it suspended transactions with Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander about a year ago over concerns about Iceland's banks expanding too rapidly.

Cllr Aled Roberts of Wrexham told "Dragon's Eye" tonight that the council had taken advice and taken their money out of Iceland in time.

Questions must be asked of any finance director who placed funds in Iceland after February of this year, when "Your Money" issued a warning and certainly after March, when Standard & Poor got round to publicising their doubts.

When the facts change, I change my mind

Thanks to Liberal International for the following quote from Radical Italiani:

“For Liberals it is not the best of times given the massive state interventions in the economy but better spend today than spend even more tomorrow...and it is a paradox to watch Gordon Brown calling for a European plan of action having fought for years against the UK joining the euro, or Bush reaching out to G8 partners after 8 years of unilateralism, and indeed our Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti who goes from euro-skepticism to euro-enthusiasm in a blink...the best position Liberals can have today is to insist on saying that this is not a market failure but a failure in setting up and implementing credible monitoring, control and sanction mechanisms...”

As Otto Lambsdorff, former treasurer of the Free Democratic Party and uncle of the FDP MEP, put it:
“The market economy is the most successful economic system which the world has seen. This historic fact has not changed [...] If your engine does not work properly you try to repair or replace it. You don’t throw away the car.”

The only AAA rated blog west of the Tennant Canal

according to the Nokov & Pornit (est. 1955) ratings agency.

All right, it's a sick joke in view of the news today that at least six Welsh local authorities had some of their balances invested in Icelandic banks which have now gone down. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Neath Port Talbot, which has yet to report, is not another.

In view of the bad press which Icelandic entrepreneurs have received in the last few years, I would not have risked my own money, never mind other people's, in Iceland. "Your Money" was issuing warnings to retail investors back in February.

However, a spokesman for the Welsh Local Government Agency made the very reasonable point that all the banks in question had, at the time of the investment, "A" ratings from the standard credit ratings agencies. He also pointed out that fixed-term contracts would have been entered into, which would have been difficult to break.

One has to wonder whether the big three credit rating agencies respond quickly enough to danger signals even after an adverse report of their performance in the wake of the Enron affair.

Update: see Peter Black's blog.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Morriston Gold: John Morgan

I'm watching "Welsh TV Gold", a HTV programme featuring the documentaries of John Morgan. It is a worrying thought that, with the reduction of Welsh commercial TV programming, we will have fewer opportunities in future to see the broadcast work of this great journalist.

Even tonight, we saw only a fraction of two of his best pieces: the celebration of Llanelli's 1972 defeat of the All Blacks; and his depiction of Murray "the Camel" Humphreys, the Welsh baptist immigrant who became the FBI's public enemy no. 1. The first will surely be preserved in Wales, because of the men and moment it captures, but the second deserves a wider audience and showing in full.

Morgan also produced a feature on Dylan Thomas, which re-assembled many of the people whose lives the poet had touched. Is it too much to hope that ITV will show this again?

Ironically, round about the time of John Morgan's death, a pub opened in Samlet Road, Llansamlet, and was named the "Dylan Thomas". How much more fitting it would have been to have named it the "John Morgan", after one of Morriston's most distinguished sons.

Planning gain, or planning loss

Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 allows local planning authorities (LPA) to enter into a legally binding planning obligation or agreement with a developer over a related issue for the purpose of restricting or regulating the development or use of the land. This obligation is termed a Section 106 Agreement.

In other words, the council can demand that a developer, who will gain from being given planning permission, puts something back into the community. This can be an improvement to access roads, a contribution to a school, or some other public amenity.

For instance, the developer of the Drumfields estate in Cadoxton agreed to set aside and equip a children's playground as part of the development. Unfortunately, the developer became insolvent before the playground could be set up and, as I understand it, the earmarked site was bought and developed as dwellings in turn.

Councillors John Warman and Des Sparkes have drawn attention to yet another example of a builder going bust before fulfilling their obligation. Coincidences, as the old journalist's adage has it, go in threes, so I do not have enough evidence to show a pattern here. However, there does appear to be a loophole in the law here. One trusts that council officers will ensure that Coed Darcy reaps all its intended planning gain.

Any evidence giving background to the two cases above, or any other instances, are welcome.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Don't burn your bridges, KJ

Katherine Jenkins is to try to crack America. It's good to see that she says "I'm not deserting the UK", because there is a history of British stars who failed to make it over there but couldn't pick up their careers again on their return.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Orphan blogspots

I chanced upon this blog (don't ask!). I am now intrigued by Ellie's story. Did she have second thoughts? Was there a tragedy? I'll probably never know. She got as far as setting up the front page and no further. Judging by her only posting "Let's see if this thing works", she may not have been entirely au fait with the technology.

There must be thousands of orphan blogspots out there. People fiddling around at an idle moment, browsing other blogs, clicking the button at the top right, getting bored and then forgetting all about the little bit of the blogosphere which they have reserved for themselves.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Will we lose our Chief Constable?

I have not seen or heard Barbara Wilding's name mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Police vacancy left by Sir Ian Blair. However, she has experience with the Met. and has not put a foot wrong as Chief Constable of South Wales. If Jacqui Smith and Boris are looking for a safe choice, their gain could be our loss.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Drug firms bankroll attacks on NHS

This story in yesterday's "Independent" confirms many people's suspicions: that the well-presented claims for expensive drug treatment for much-loved family members have been funded directly or indirectly by the companies producing the drugs.

It is hard to resist the heartfelt yearning of children and grandchildren for an extra year or so of life for their dear grandparent. One cannot blame them. Indeed, one beneficiary of a campaign for Sudent treatment, not then available in this region, lives round the corner from me and I wouldn't want to deny her precious extra time with her family.

However, the cynical manipulation of the nation's heartstrings by multi-billion dollar (or Swiss franc) corporations is deplorable. Each time NICE (the body responsible for ensuring fair use of a limited budget in England) makes an unpopular decision, one of the smaller charities will make a well-publicised, often vitriolic, attack against it. Drug companies typically make six-figure contributions to these charities, which are therefore heavily dependent on corporate money.

Too few questions are asked about the high prices of drugs against cancer and against physical and mental deterioration. Spokesmen for the industry will state that these merely reflect the high cost of research and development, but this is the same argument which is deployed against critics of the prolongation of patents on more basic drugs. The heavy mark-up is supposed to go towards R&D.

I reckon that the annual cost of one of these treatments would, over the same period, pay for a technician examining smears (thus leading to early diagnosis, saving life and/or more invasive treatment later) or for a physiotherapist or speech therapist (helping to restore many people to fuller lives), all professionals who are in short supply in the health service generally.

There may be a case for the Welsh NHS taking the advice of Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), the Scottish equivalent of NICE, instead of the recommendations of the English body. SIGN tends to come to swifter, less contested, decisions for a nation whose conditions are closer to our own. But a mechanism for sharing a limited budget there must be.