It is good to see the BBC taking a leading role in the TNI. (It is a pity that the previous DG did not apply the same rebuttals of fake news to such as Nigel Farage.) In an article in the latest Radio Times, Tim Davie claims that TNI has already combatted harmful posts on political elections and on the roll-out of vaccines.
Wednesday, 30 December 2020
So the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill has received Royal Assent without the Liberal Democrat amendments which would have ensured something like the democratic conideration which the European Parliament has been granted. However, it surely sent out the wrong signal to vote against it. The trade deal which Johnson and company have negotiated is deficient in ways that have been noted prevously (more detail here), but it is surely illogical to accept not only those deficiencies but also the uncertainty of "WTO term" as well, which rejecting the only deal on the table would mean.
Do not get me wrong. I would welcome the chance to rejoin the EU but rejecting this Bill does nothing to achieve that. Surely a reasoned abstention, which Labou's Clive Lewis sought to achieve for Labour, would have been the right way to go.
Tuesday, 29 December 2020
It seems (cross fingers) that the first ever democratic hand-over of power since her independence is taking pace in Niger.
Elections in the Central African Republic have not been so peaceful. The authorities claim that the majority of voters have been able to cast their ballots without interference, but it seems not much can be done about the armed groups aiming to subvert the state.
Monday, 28 December 2020
Last year, and occasionally thereafter, I have pleaded for TV programmes about post-war reconstruction to balance all the war footage out there. There has been no let-up, even over Christmas, in dramas about both World Wars and documentaries about fighting men and machines from those conflicts.
Lo and behold, Talking Pictures TV came up with the goods yesterday. However, it was not about the rebuilding of Germany physically and politically, but closer to home. The Way We Live Now (1946) was about the proposed rebuilding of Plymouth after the Blitz, written and directed by a clearly committed Jill Craigie. Three years later she was to do the same on Blue Scar, a film partly shot on location in and around Port Talbot. Locals today do not have a high opinion of this, so it was with some trepidation that I settled down to watch the Plymouth film.
It turned out to be a gently British-style agitprop affair, no worse than many movies produced in that optimistic period following the Labour landslide in 1945. Craigie was not the only writer or director fully committed to the brave new world of the welfare state and modern town planning. One wonders whether she would have developed to widen her film-making horizons as her contemporaries did if she had not met (and included in her film) a passionate Labour candidate in Plymouth by the name of Michael Foot and later married him. She was clearly technically well-equipped enough to pursue a film career standing alongside pioneers Wendy Toye and Betty Box.
A summary of the reconstruction (the Abercrombie-Watson plan) and an account of how much of it was realised is here.
Sunday, 27 December 2020
Although I left the Church of England many years ago, the words of her most popular hymns and carols still come back to me. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was the work of Phillips Brooks, an American churchman but as an Episcopalian, part of the Anglicah family. Written after a visit to the Holy Land, the hymn links Christ with the ancient Jewish belief in a Messiah who will come to rule benignly over the whole world. The lines:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
The hopeful sign is the renaissance of Iraqi literature, helped along by a new generation of young female booksellers. This was noted by euronews last year and confirmed by an al-Jazeera film report yesterday. If the arts are reviving, and young people are participating, then Iraq is clearly emerging from the anarchy that followed dictatorship.
Saturday, 26 December 2020
The Private Eye transport correspondent notes (in issue 1537) that the Department for Transport has taken no rail franchises in-house since the SARS/CoV2 epidemic made nonsense of every franchise deal. "Meanwhile, the Welsh government's response to the same problems is to take its kaput franchise in-house, minimising outsourcing 'management fees' and diverting effort from obsessing over contract terms and payments to running and upgrading trains."
The naughty step
In the same article, Hedgehog notes:
It's back to the future in Wales, where a new road-widening contract shows how Labour ministers are using complex private-finance deals to hide borrowing liabilities from their books, at enormous cost to taxpayers.
Most people have long since accepted that public private partnership (PPP) infrastructure schemes, many using the private finance initiative (PFI), saddled public bodies with ludicrous annual charges for decades. But the Labour-led Welsh government ha concocted a new called the "mutual investment model" (MIM). Ministers reckon PFI's pitfalls will be avoided because this time the public sector will have a small stake in each multinational consortium.
First up is the contract to widen a road near Merthyr Tydfil, adding one extra lane and a central reservation for 11 miles. Taxpayers will pay nothing until 2025 - but then cough up £38m a year for 30 years. That's a whopping £1.14bn in today's prices, before adding VAT and inflation, to cover the consortium's financing, road maintenance and profit.
That pay-back start date of 2025 raises suspicions. It just happens to be (emergencies aside) that of the next Welsh general election but one. Mark Drakeford and comrades may presumably look to be returned to power in 2021, taking advantage of the anti-Conservative feeling which is bound to persist as the consequences of Brexit and the SARS/CoV2 epidemic emerge. Are they then plannng to scuttle and run leaving a new lot to explain away the additional charge on the transport budget?
Friday, 25 December 2020
More substantial criticism of the EU trade deal will have to wait until the quality prints have unearthed the fine print in the 1,246 pages. However, ones first response to the extensive trailing and then the extensive delays in reporting the agreement was that the major stock and bond exchnnges had conveniently closed for the Christmas break by the time our prime minister came to the podium. The sticking points over fisheries, certificates of origin and adjudication of disputes had vanished remarkably quickly after the time when elected parliaments in Westminster and Brussels could debate the issues. One trusts that Johnson has not underestimated the readiness of rogue heads of government in the EU to veto the agreement, which requires unanimity on the part of the 27 governments for endorsement.
One disturbing detail which was revealed - at the EU's presentation, not the UK's - concerns crimianl intelligence, which is no longer to be shared by the UK's police forces and those of the EU.
Our young people will no longer be able to benefit from the Erasmus programme. Non-tariff hurdles will be erected, though to what extent we will not know until the detailed analysis is carried out, in spite of Johnson's protestations to the contrary. Nor does any agreement seem to have been reached on service industries, including financial services. What will be the future of the "London Laundromat" on which so much of our apparent prosperity depends? Then there is our reduced effectiveness against multi-national companies, whose anti-competitive and exploitative behaviour the EU has proved notably able to curb.
However, we should be grateful for zero tariffs across (presumably) all traded goods. One of the potential drivers of inflation in 2021 has been removed. The extra bureaucracy will be substantial, but not as much as if we had left the single market without a deal.
The EU stands for peace and prosperity. It is just a pity that England and Wales in the general election last year took their eye off the first of those pillars. But it could have been much worse.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
The people who suffered most from the poor management of the SARS/CoV2 emergency, health and social service workers - some of whom paid with their lives - and the over-60s should not have to pay for the financial mismangement of it. So nurses and others in the front line of combating the virus should receive pay rises at least corresponding to the rise in the cost of living, and faith with pensioners should not be broken.
Tuesday, 22 December 2020
E.on is making a big thing of its renewable electricity tariff in a well-crafted TV commercial which is difficult to get away from. However, e.on's electricity is not quite as green as it appears. Although it has increased its own renewable capacity and also buys directly from renewable generators, the company stll relies on certificates, known as REGOs, to make up the 100% green energy which it claims.
As Which? magazine explains, "Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origins (REGO) A REGO certificate is issued to a generator for every megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable power they put into the grid. A generator can sell them alongside renewable power, or separately. Energy firms buy them to show the proportion of renewable electricity they sell. Some buy them alongside renewable power directly from a generator, while others buy them separately – and after they have bought the electricity for their customers. Energy firms must use them to prove the source of their electricity each year, to energy regulator Ofgem."
That same article, highlights only two suppliers to subscribe to if you want to be confident you’re helping increase the amount of new renewable electricity generated.
"Ecotricity uses customers’ bills to finance building new sources of renewable energy. Good Energy sets up contracts with small generators (eg farmers with fields of solar panels) who might otherwise struggle to get a good price for their power. Plus its high-tech forecasting ensures it knows exactly how much power its generators are feeding into the grid so it can buy enough to meet customers’ use.
"But tariffs from these suppliers can be among the most expensive. Energy regulator Ofgem recognised this when it gave both firms, plus Green Energy UK, an exemption from the price cap on standard tariffs. It found that their higher prices are directly due to the support they give to generating renewable electricity.
"But ‘pale green’ firms selling 100% renewable power backed only by REGOs ‘give the illusion of greenness to customers which can be misleading’, says Dale Vince, Ecotricity’s founder. Good Energy’s regulation and compliance manager Tom Seward explained that their tariffs ‘look like something we spend a huge amount of time on [to try to] create a more renewable energy system’.
"These firms aren’t doing anything wrong according to Ofgem rules, but the rules aren’t clear enough to help customers make an informed decision."
Monday, 21 December 2020
Last week, the US Congress took the important step of passing legislation to require the true owners of companies to declare themselves.The Corporate Transparency Act requires U.S. companies to report their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN — largely ending anonymous shell companies in the country. The aim is to strike a blow at money-laundering particularly through the use of anonymous shell companies.
This is a measure which the UK should have adopted years ago. It would among other benefits have enabled many renters to obtain redress for poor maintenance of their properties and might even have reduced the flow of "hot" money into UK property developments. However, the chances of its happening under the current government, which clearly sees the furutre of the UK as the globe's foremost money launderer, are remote.
Saturday, 19 December 2020
Surely it is time for our cousins to look at the date when a president of the United States is sworn in? The third week in January is often the worst period of the northern winter. Global warming at the same time has given extreme events, so one might expect heavier snowfalls in the north-eastern States, but also milder Decembers. Although the death of a president as a result of catching cold on inauguration day seems now to be an exaggeration, it cannot be pleasant for the new man or woman to be expected to stand in the open air to take the oath and then give a speech on one of the coldest days of the year.
Besides, the establishment of internet tcchnology has made the month's gap between the "meeting" of the electoral college and the swearing-in an unnecessary delay. (The gap between the national casting of votes and the election confirmation should surely remain, though, as being necessary to eliminate any challenges, as we have seen this year.) The January date itself was the result of a constitutional amendment in 1933, Congress having caught up with transcontinental rail travel and the telephone. No doubt Congress was still unsure of the significance of the Federal Highways system introduced in 1927 or of air travel which was still expensive and uncomfortable in the 1930s but even a decade later all that was to change.
It would probably be necessary to bring forward the date of the new Congress (currently January 3rd) also.
One other benefit of bringing forward the inauguration has revealed itself in the controversial way president Trump has used his powers in the dying days of his presidency, speeding up federal executions being just one example. Reducing the "lame duck" (or "cornered rat"?) period must surely be a good thing.
Friday, 18 December 2020
Professor Stephen Holgate has likened Ella's death to that of the canaries taken down coal-mines to give early warning of toxic air. It seems a doubly appropriate comparison. Firstly, because before her lung capacity was destroyed, Ella was a lively, musical child; secondly, because what has now been legally recorded as a contribution to her death is an invisible killer - or rather a combination of killers contained in the air along our busiest roads.
It has taken the persistence of a professional, a former head teacher, in the shape of her mother to achieve this landmark ruling. Who knows how many other children have perished or been marked for life through being brought up alongside such roads as London's South Circular? It is to be hoped that government will look again at its road transport policy in view of the finding. Certainly local government, which is first in the line of fire over permitting pollution levels over legal limits, will have to act.
There must have been some complacency when the atmosphere cleared after the post-war Clean Air Acts became law. However, the visible components of coal-burning, the soot and sulphur, were replaced as motor traffic increased by invisible nitrogen oxides and microscopic particles. It was depressing to hear the Leader of the Commons yesterday trying to shift the blame for road pollution to a previous government's positive discrimination in favour of diesel engines over petrol. Admittedly, that was a silly policy in an area where the market could safely be left to decide, but the fact is that all IC and CI engines emit the gases and particles in question and diesel has cleaned up its act in recent years. Petrol and diesel are both guilty and while they may not create a huge hazard on the open road, the cumulative effect in builit-up aress, or where temperature inversion is a feature, is now shown to be toxic. Even electric vehicles are not entirely blameless as some of the dangerous particles are abraded from tyres and braking. One trusts that research will eliminate even this minor contribution to pollution.
While on the subject of asthma, my mind turns to the sad loss earlier this year of much-loved party colleague, Jacqui Gasson. The last communication of hers on Facebook was a desperate plea for information about the availability of the drug she needed to control her condition. Most of us sufferers find that the standard combination of beclamethasone to damp down the inflammation of the airways and salbutamol to relieve the symptoms when they occur are sufficient. However, there are those for whom those do not work and who need more specialised treatment. The import of drugs has become more constrained in the last year or so for a variety of reasons, but Brexit has been an aggravating factor in recent months and is likely to loom large as the EU withdrawal date passes. The treatment of a large number of chronic conditions depends on a regular supply of drugs virtually all of which are manufactured outside the UK. It is worrying that the UK Health minister seems not to be concerned. Questioned in the House yesterday, he seemed to be satisfied that Covid-19 vaccine supplies were guaranteed and no more.
Thursday, 17 December 2020
EU nations generally recognise the contribution modern railways make to a greener future, even if our current government does not. The European Parliamentary Research Service blogs:
European Commission proposal
European Parliament position
So the UK unilaterally withdrew from EU's struggle against the US over support for Boeing? All our government has had in return is the possibility of restoring tariffs on Scotch to their normal level in a possible future mini-deal. There is no guarantee that the "lame duck" Trump presidency will do this without significant further concessions by the UK, or that the Biden presidency will be in any hurry to pick up the baton should those negotiations stall. The focus of the incoming presidency is predicted to shift from London to Strasbourg and Brussels.
It should be pointed out that the EU took its case to the WTO for imposing tariffs on the US on behalf of all its members, which then included the UK. Improper aid, in the form of preferential purchasing or exemption from State or municipal taxes, helped Boeing in competition with Airbus. Airbus is a European multi-national with, it must be remembered, a large investment in north Wales and the west of England.
The UK concession to Trump must have soured negotiations with the EU over a beneficial trade deal. It may also be seen as a betrayal by Airbus, with all the implications that has for future investment.
Tuesday, 15 December 2020
The romantic story of haw Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote one of the most popular pieces of music (conceived in 1914 as the British fleet massed in the Channel, put on hold as RVW served as an ambulance driver in the Great War and retrieved and completed two years after it) is topped by that of the work's dedicatee, Marie Hall. Leading up to the premiere performance of The Lark on 15th December 1920, is a story of a wandering life as part of an indigent musical family who had to resort to playing in the streets for pennies. Rescued from this life of drudgery by discerning musicians and rich patrons, by the time she met RVW, and assisted him with the final version of the piece, she was already an internationally-renowned soloist.
BBC Four's celebratory programme of 2012 not only tells the story and recreates that first violin and piano performance (uninterrupted, thank goodness) but is also a happy reminder of Diana Rigg who presented the programme and Peter Sallis who contributed.
Monday, 14 December 2020
Not everybody sees incorporating into terms of trade a proviso that a signatory should not undercut the other party by unfair labour or environmental practices as an infringment of sovereignty. There seems to be little concern, however, in sanctioning individuals for actions carried out in their own country. There is a case for dissuading governments from attacks on human rights which are condemned by all civilised countries, but one must not let trade power be used gratuitously. Anyway, here is the EU's take:
Sanctions are a key part of the EU’s human rights toolbox. The EU adopts restrictive measures – mostly in the form of travel bans and asset freezes – against individuals and organisations responsible for some of the worst human rights violations.
Until now, the EU has mostly adopted sanctions targeted at individual countries. Responding to violations from countries not already covered by EU sanctions means adopting a completely new framework for each country. However, the EU is now shifting to a more thematic approach, under which sanctions focus on a particular type of problem rather than a country. For example, the EU already has sanctions on chemical weapons and cyber-attacks that can be flexibly applied to offenders from any country in the world, and it has now added thematic human rights sanctions.
The United States’ 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, named after Sergey Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in jail after exposing corruption by high-level officials, gives some idea of how future EU human rights sanctions will work. Under the act, the US government has adopted sanctions against over 100 human rights violators from a wide range of countries.
The proposal for the EU’s new sanctions regime was tabled by the Netherlands in 2018. The necessary legislation was adopted by the Council of the EU on 7 December 2020, in time for UN Human Rights Day on 10 December 2020.
Sunday, 13 December 2020
John Donne's poem marking the old winter solstice comes to mind every year. St Lucy's Day often coincides with a crisis, but around the time I started this post, it was announced that the one scheduled for today, over the EU/UK trade agreement talks, has been deferred. If it were not for the imminence of 1st January when the transition period definitely ends, I would have said that the talks seem likely to go on longer than a Frank Sinatra farewell tour.On a happier note, Britannica tells us that St Lucy's Day is the traditional start of Christmas in many northern countries. It is a "festival of lights celebrated in Sweden, Norway, and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on December 13 in honour of St. Lucia. One of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Lucia was killed by the Romans in AD 304 because of her religious beliefs.
Wednesday, 9 December 2020
It is worth listening to Dr Mark Carney's second Reith Lecture if you want an introduction to the 2007/8 credit credibility crash. I would suggest reading Dr Cable's "The Storm" for a fuller account, though.
Unfortunately, Dr Carney tells the story of the 2008 crash from the centre of the transatantic financial system. He does not point out that those nations whose major banks (including those of his native Canada) had not invested in the inverted pyramid of dodgy assets which brought down so many institutions emerged relatively unscathed. The further away a banking system was from Wall Street, the sounder it was. Well might a finance minister from Singapore ask: "What global financial crisis?".
He was right to point to a widespread mistrust of experts as a result of the crash. However, there are experts and experts. Vince Cable was more than a theoretical economist; he had experience of managing the treasury of a multi-national oil company and of an African republic. Gillian Tett may not have known about the movement of money, but as an anthropologist she knew about the behaviour of tribes, including the tribe of Wall Street financiers. Both, together with a few economists from outside the classical pale, warned of what was to come.
In his proposed solution Dr Carney frequently uses the words "we" and "ours" without explaining who "we" are. Clearly, it would need a combination of the international regulatory bodies, national governments and federations like the EU to agree on a plan of action. One fears that the US-dominated interenational money transfer system would find it against its interests to adopt Dr Carney's solutions, good for the financial security of all of us though they may be.
Sunday, 6 December 2020
Nowadays most folk seem to access the Web through their smartphones. It does not seem so long ago that we switched to connecting via a router plugged in to the terrestrial telephone network (as I still do). This is now robust enough for me to throw out some old friends: a modem powered from the mains (who remembers the days of 75baud up and 1200 down which was BT's initial offering to the public?), and its first replacement, a modem card (on the left). Note the nominally 25-pin connection via serial cable on the right. USB saved a lot of messing about.
Friday, 4 December 2020
I trust that A. Libdem Spokesman has publicly condemned the ludicrous chauvinism of the Westminster Education Secretary in asserting that an anti-SARS/Cov2 vaccine is approved for use in this country before anyone else because we are better than anyone else. One can imagine Williamson singing Flanders & Swann's anthem of Patriotic Prejudice with a straight face, unaware that it was a satire.
It has already been pointed out elsewhere that the design of what is known as the "Pfizer" vaccine was conceived by a dedicated Turkish husband-and-wife team welcomed into the German Federal Republic, and that the US pharma giant was brought on board because BioNTech did not have the scale of operation to manufacture and market the breakthrough vaccine. As I understand it, the innovation can be applied to the production of vaccines to combat other infectious diseases, known and as-yet unknown,
As to the speed of our medicines regulator approving the use of the BioNTech vaccine, I have no doubts about its safety. If there were the slightest risk, news from the multi-thousand person, multi-national trials would have leaked out even if BioNTech and Pfizer wished to suppress it, which I do not believe they would. Witness the slight hiccup in the progress of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine trials.
Where there has to be a slight suspicion is over the effectiveness of the vaccine. As Dr Fauci said in his original response to the news of the MHRA approval, the government agency seems to have taken completely on trust the trials data submitted by the companies. Normally, the MHRA would comb through the data in fine detail. In this case, they seem to have taken the view that the companies would, in view of the significance of this particular product, have triple-checked their own findings and not dared to fudge any of the figures.
Medical devices and drugs regulation is not a devolved matter, by the way, not even to Scotland. Therefore, the MHRA decision automatically permits the vaccine to be used throughout the UK. Wales also has to abide by the rulings of NICE, for which Scotland has her own equivalent.
It did not take long for a drenching (albeit not a much-publicised one) from chancellor Rishi Sunak to wash away the transient coating on Boris Johnson's programme announced at the start of the week. Almost ten per cent is to be cut from Network Rail's current five-year budget. Although it seems that the Northern Powerhouse and planned railway re-openings are thankfully to be protected, at the PM's insistence, there must now be a doubt about electrification. Even restoring the coalition's programme, so savagely cut when the Conservatives took sole power, with its benefit of reducing road traffic and therefore also greenhouse gas emissions plus urban pollution, looks doubtful.
Meanwhile, the road programme goes ahead and the prime minister has not rowed back from his campaign to force through the M4 diversion across the Gwent Leverls.
BBC Wales is reporting that the nation's Football Association has appointed Angela van den Boigerd as "head of people". Quite apart from the nebulous job description (is it the same as a personnel director or head of HR?), there must be questions about installing a person who was at best heavily implicated in a programme at the Post Office which illegally destroyed the livings - in some cases the lives - of countless sub-postmasters and -mistresses.
The news comes a day after ITV Wales revealed a lack of diversity throughout the administration of Welsh sport. If the FAW really did want a new people person on the board, they should have been looking to the likes of Nathan Blake.
Thursday, 3 December 2020
Just as those with the means to do so escaped the great plagues which ravaged European towns until the age of science by decamping to country estates, Italian "city slickers" are moving to less populated areas. However, it seems from this report that they are as keen to circumvent urban lock-downs as to avoid infectioous contacts.
Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Tuesday, 1 December 2020
The UAE has been ranked amongst the top three Islamic economy countries in the world, according to the 2020 State of the Global Islamic Economy report. Malaysia continues to hold the lead, followed by Saudi Arabia. Put simply, the Islamic economy is a category for businesses, finances and investments that are compliant with Islamic principles and values.nbsp;The Qu'ran forbids lending at interest, so Islamic banks find ingenious ways of making money from financing business which obey the letter of the law. They are clearly successful.