Friday, 30 January 2009

Post Offices: a genuine consultation

There is now a web-forum discussing the future of post offices. It is being conducted by a committee of the House of Commons, not by the government, so one can safely assume that contributors' views will genuinely be taken into account when the committee draws up its report.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Short selling

Can some economist please explain how betting on an event alters the outcome of that event?

Some peers can be all too human

(Apologies to Ros Scott for the play on her blog title.)

I've just finished reading "The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and other conflicts I have known" by Craig Murray (obtainable from the author direct or from In an epilogue, he exposes Baroness Amos as a beneficiary of New Labour's conversion of the Commonwealth Development Corporation from a means of channelling development money into projects on the ground into a vehicle for the financial services industry.

This week, the Sunday Times and Guido Fawkes revealed that Baron Truscott, the former Labour DTI minister – once a special envoy for Tony Blair – is now a director of oil and mining companies controlled by Frank Timis, a twice convicted heroin dealer.

Truscott is a director of two Timis ventures. One, African Minerals, is active in Sierra Leone, the world's biggest source of blood diamonds (African Minerals was formerly called the Sierra Leone Diamond Company). In September 2008 the Sunday Times reported that Timis was facing the prospect of a court case over disputed mineral rights. The other company, Eastern Petroleum is involved in oil prospecting in the former Soviet Union.

Craig Murray was Deputy High Commissioner in Ghana (the equivalent, in a Commonwealth country, of the deputy Ambassador). He got to know West Africa very well, and maintained his contacts after he left the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (over being too honest in Uzbekistan - but that's another story).

He writes:
West Africa is now the third largest centre in the world for money-laundering and narcotics capital formation. But in terms of the percentage of total capital formation which drugs money forms, it is far ahead. Money laundering is the raison d'etre of many West African financial institutions. In March 2008 a World Bank sponsored conference held in Accra on money-laundering heard an estimate that over 60% of the capital of the mushrooming private banking sector in Nigeria could be drugs money. Recently, Nigerian banks have started taking out huge poster adverts all over the UK's major airports. That is drugs money.

The actual bank executives and fund managers are of course not themselves necessarily involved in narcotics; they just fail to query adequately the source of their investors' cash.

Murray took care that the African companies he assisted dealt with tangible assets. Even so, as a director of a Ghanaian energy company, he was approached by the manager of Travant, a Nigerian private fund management company. This man surprised Murray by revealing that his firm had access to Department for International Development (DFID) funds because Baroness Amos was a director, something that Murray felt was, to say the least, inappropriate. Baroness Amos was the Secretary of State for DFID until 2003 and until 2007 was Leader of the House of Lords.

There's an old journalistic saw that coincidences go in threes. Nevertheless, there is doubtless much scurrying about by investigative teams in the London press, searching West African company registers for the names of British peers.

One more question for Mr Hain to answer

Guido Fawkes implies that Mrs Hain senior does no parliamentary work to justify her salary by saying that she is not seen in the constituency office. I believe I know the answer, but perhaps Mr Harper or someone else in the Neath office would care to put a reply on the record via this blog.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Corus: it could have been worse

Trostre and Margam are safe, though Llanwern is to be mothballed. There will be pain, a thousand jobs being lost across South Wales, but Tata has clearly taken a considered, calculated, line in response to the downturn in orders for steel. Nor have they been afraid to cut more jobs in England than in Wales.

The company has planned for a timely response when the upturn comes, and, as a Labour council colleague has pointed out, the company is not burdened with debt to the extent that other steel companies are.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Robert Burns at 250

Tonight is a very special Burns celebration. Sadly, I do not have the entrée to any Caledonian societies in this corner of South Wales, but I shall no doubt find the time to raise a glass to Britain's second-greatest cultural export (after Shakespeare).

As someone who railed against the strictures of kirk and government (though he did become a freemason and an exciseman), Burns ought to have produced many ringing words in praise of liberalism. The best I could find: "Freedom and whisky gang thegither!" It'll have to do.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Nuclear power policy

Peter Black and Glyn Davies comment on Plaid's conversion from an anti- to a pro-nuclear party. What concerns me about Wylfa is that an irreversible decision to go ahead with a nuclear replacement will be made when the main reason for the generator, the aluminium smelter, will already be running down.

I do not share the quasi-religious objection to nuclear power of my party and (pre-Ieuan leadership) Plaid Cymru. However, I have consistently called for it to be costed on the same basis as other sources of electricity. That includes the cost of disposal of waste. There should be no special subsidy.

Wylfa was a special case, because of its implications for employment on the island of Anglesey - but only so long as Anglesey Aluminium could be guaranteed to remain. I hope there will be a continuing commitment on the part of the company, but the delay in authorising a replacement power station, combined with the world-wide recession and consequent decline in demand for metals, must put that in doubt.

Nine computer projects in Work & Pensions behind schedule

A parliamentary answer has revealed that nine DWP IT projects are behind schedule, some by as much as three years. Collectively, the total delay is fifteen years.

Successive ministers at the department have clearly failed to get a grip on IT developments. With the frequent changes at the top (including a short tenure by Neath's Peter Hain), this is hardly surprising. Nor has this government restored the professional computer expertise destroyed by Thatcher & Heseltine.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Buddy Holly

I generally avoid mentioning the pop music which moved me at the age when pop music most moves people (I leave all that to Peter Black and Jonathan Calder), drawing attention where I can to so-called classical music, which is underrepresented in the blogosphere.

However, there is a great article on Buddy Holly in today's Independent. It is a sobering thought that it is just ten days short of half-a-century since the life of one of the true pioneers of pop music was tragically and arbitrarily ended. I can't remember where I was when the news came through, but I do remember the impact of his last hit single, released posthumously in the week after his death. "It doesn't matter any more" showed that he was prepared to move with the times. If fate had not intervened, he would surely have remained at the top of the pop tree through to this century.

Music in Wales

Radio Wales throughout today, and Radio 3 from 2 o'clock this afternoon onwards, celebrate the opening of the new Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff. There is, as they say, in the various concerts something for everyone who enjoys music of the European orchestral tradition.

There is also a feature on Alun Hoddinott himself on Radio 3 in the concert interval this evening.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Neath MP criticised by his Commons colleagues

The Evening Post story is here.

The statement that Mr Hain was exonerated tells only part of the story. Quoting from the Times story: "The CPS said that there was no doubt that the donations were not reported within the 30 days stipulated under legislation passed in 2000, but [...] that nobody involved in Mr Hain’s campaign could be prosecuted. [...] Mr Hain’s campaign was run by Hain4Labour, made up of Labour Party members and with its own bank account into which cheques were paid."

In other words, Mr Hain's campaign broke the law, but the powers-that-be could not find the right individual(s) to prosecute.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Opening family courts to media scrutiny

There was an extensive discussion on the implications on BBC4's "Unreliable Evidence" tonight. LibDem MP John Hemming's role in exposing miscarriages of justice in this area was highlighted.

An outline (including a "listen again" link) is here. Alternatively, you can hear the repeat next Saturday at 22:15.

It had to come: UK deemed unworthy of the euro

A report in the Daily Telegraph last week stated that the European Central Bank has deemed Britain unfit for monetary union, even if it wants to join, following the dramatic slide in sterling and the explosion in the UK budget deficit. The rules were waived for political reasons to let Italy, Belgium and Greece into EMU, but terms are becoming stricter as the ECB seeks to exclude East European states before they are ready.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Civil Service sackings counter-productive

Peter Black's story about retrenchment at Land Registry demonstrates that politicians and the Treasury are not good managers.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Let's not be seduced by Obama

It has been obvious to most outsiders for some time that Barack Obama was the best thing for the United States - certainly for the nation's image abroad, and most probably for its well-being at home. It was a relief for liberal democrats (with or without capitals) the world over that the great US public came to the same conclusion last November.

However, the best thing for America is not necessarily the best thing for Europe. Democrat administrations in Washington in the past have tended to be more protectionist than Republican ones. There has been no indication yet as to where Obama stands on agricultural trade, a silence which is worrying. Under Bush, there are already unresolved trade disputes with Europe resulting in import bans and punitive import duties (for a typical example, involving Roquefort cheese and the free use of antibiotics by US livestock farmers, see here).

Then there is US foreign policy. Though Obama himself bravely and commendably committed himself, during his election campaign, to opening discussions with Iran, his appointed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has been more hawkish until now. Obama's chief of staff is the son of a militant Israeli expansionist. Obama's c.v. suggests that he is a man of firm conviction, who does not lightly go back on his word, but the pressures are there.

The UK government should not roll over for the USA just because its new head of state is more sympathique. In particular, the opportunity should be taken to rectify the one-sided extradition treaty with the US and other examples of US extra-territorial legal claims.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The price of a non-nuclear policy

Anglesey Aluminium's smelting capability will almost certainly close. This is a result of a decision on Wylfa nuclear power station being delayed beyond the time when work on a replacement could start, in order to be ready to take over seamlessly when Wylfa comes to the end of its safe working life.

It may be that proponents of a non-nuclear policy were aware that 500 jobs in a high-unemployment area depended on the continuous supply which the nuclear facility gave (though one suspects that some still believe that a few wind turbines will satisfy the need). If so, they should have been honest and upfront about it. This applies to Plaid and my own party, but more especially to Labour who have, after all, been in government in Wales and Westminster since 1997.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

"Labour still frozen in car headlights"

Coincidentally, after reading Peter Rayner's article under that headline in December's railwatch magazine, I saw the Neath Guardian report of community councillor Mike Richards' view that Neath town centre would be reinvigorated if all private car parking were made free of charge and pedestrianisation abandoned. This goes against logic and experience. Shopping in the pedestrianised areas of Neath and Port Talbot is a pleasure compared with Swansea, where not only does one have to waste much time crossing roads, but one is not often certain which direction the traffic is coming from. The major pain in getting into Neath is the traffic, in particular causing jams in Windsor Road. A reduction in the number of car journeys would ease this.

Labour has to recognise that the days of cheap car use are over. The price of fuel is depressed at present because of the world-wide recession. However, one does not have to believe with Baroness Vadera that the green shoots of revival are already here, to know that there will be a recovery, when the price of fossil fuels can be expected to rise again.

By the way, Rayner was prescient. In a piece which must have been written last November, he says: "the Government will announce the extra runway at Heathrow along with lavish rhetoric about high-speed rail connections northward." One hopes that his further prediction: "when no one notices, the rail option can eventually be dropped" will not also come to pass.

Heathrow expansion

It may be bad news for Londoners, it may put a big hole in New Labour's attempt to match its green rhetoric, but it is good news for British taxpayers as a whole. By reducing the number of private dwellings the construction of a third runway at Heathrow will increase the value of the properties held by government-owned banks, like Northern Rock. ;-)

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Is it to be Mam or Big Brother on the school bus?

I'm not sure whether's story from Birmingham represents progress or another step towards a total surveillance society.

It seems that the Green Bus company, which ferries more than 1,400 children to and from lessons each day in and around Brum, has deployed wi-fi internet access on 23 routes. Bus pass holders get free web access at download speeds of up to around 2Mbps.

Over half the children have found the facility useful. In addition, the wi-fi access point on each bus incorporates GPS to enable real-time tracking of the vehicles. Thus, parents or other interested parties can log into Green Bus's website to follow the progress of a bus during its journey, using a Google Maps display.