31 January 2009

The dog that didn't bark

Curious. He's not usually considered as bashful.

Here we have an industrial dispute, with wildcat strikes spreading throughout the country. The Prime Minister has responded, if rather inadequately:
"I understand people's worries about their jobs."

But where is the Secretary of State for Business, the Prince of Darkness, the otherwise ubiquitous headline hogger? What thoughts does he offer on the decision by an Italian oil company to contract with its compatriots to the exclusion of British workers? Perfectly legal, we are told, in line with EU rules. While, justifiably, the Prime Minister is excoriated for his stupidity in promising British jobs for British workers.

And, all the while, Peter keeps his head down. After all, now is not really the time to be preaching the virtues of the European Single Market.

Oh, and we haven't heard much from Employment Minister Purnell* either.

* Who he? Ed

30 January 2009

On and on and on

The Times has obviously been doing its homework on the House of Lords. This morning's paper reports upon yet another Labour peer (and a member of our own wee parliament to boot) who is doing absolutely nothing that is against the rules:
A peer and former Labour minister is being paid to “effect introductions” for one of the largest law firms in the world, The Times has learnt.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is paid £36,000 a year as a parliamentary consultant to Eversheds LLP for services that include introducing clients to select committee chairmen in the Lords and Commons. Although the arrangement is disclosed in the register of members’ interests, the disclosure that he is being paid specifically for his Westminster connections will deepen the row over the “cash for amendments” allegations.
The politician, who is also a member of the Scottish Parliament, is one of a handful of peers who has lodged written details of such work with the House of Lords, as their Code of Conduct requires.

There is apparently no end to the list of noble Lords making a bit on the side. And it would presumably be unreasonable to expect Lord George to struggle by on his parliamentary salary and Lords expenses.

28 January 2009

Was that all?

Is that it then? The Scottish budget is voted down. I watched it on Holyrood TV.

But nobody seemed terribly fussed. Mr Swinney promised that there would be another budget along in a moment.

It would seem to be fairly serious that the government has failed to secure its budget. But the sky has not fallen in. No sign of a confidence vote. So do things just go on as per usual?

Thus what was meant to be a climactic firework display has become a rather damp squib. No doubt the pundits will explain it all later.

Our noble Friends again

The Baroness Royall, Leader of the House of Lords, is perhaps carried away by her eloquence in a Guardian article:
The House of Lords is an honourable and hard-working place. Peers are honourable and hard-working men and women.
Hard-working? Of the 735 members, the average attendance is 408.

Honourable? (Presumably not intended in the sense that Mark Anthony described Brutus.) No doubt some are, but the accusations made last weekend suggest that there may be others who are letting the side down. Oh look, there is another one outed in The Times today. And then we have the ex-cons, Lords Archer and Watson, who still get to perch upon the red benches from time to time.

But I must not be snarky ...

27 January 2009

Quote of the week

By our esteemed and ever truthful First Minister at a Burns Supper last week (from here):
“I'm able ... to announce tonight what I think is something quite special, because I have a letter from Kofi Annan in which he requests, if it would be appropriate, that he could come and deliver a lecture during the Year of Homecoming in tribute to Robert Burns.
“It's an offer which we have been delighted to accept but it's a sign, a symbol, of the power of Robert Burns that the former Secretary-General of the United Nations actually writes to offer a lecture as a contribution to our Year of Homecoming.
“We should accept, and will accept, Kofi Annan's offer with alacrity but it's a tribute not just to Kofi Annan's grace but also to Robert Burns.”

How unfortunate (which is one way of putting it) that The Times reports today:
Alex Salmond was embroiled in an extraordinary diplomatic row yesterday with Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General, over claims by the First Minister that Mr Annan will visit Scotland as part of the year of Homecoming to give a lecture on Robert Burns.
The Times was told by Mr Annan's representatives in Britain that he has not made such a promise and that, while he will travel to Scotland this year, it will be to deliver a lecture on the economist Adam Smith at the invitation of Gordon Brown.

Oh dear. Perhaps honest Alex will need to spend some time on the naughty step?

26 January 2009

It makes a change from the usual burglaries

Ms Grahame obviously has more faith in Lothian & Borders' finest than I do. The BBC reports:
Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame has asked Lothian and Borders Police to investigate RBS.
The bank, now under nearly 70% ownership by the UK Government, recently revealed it was expected to report a deficit before write-downs of between £7bn and £8bn for 2008.
Ms Grahame, a South of Scotland MSP, argued the state of the bank's finances should have known at the time it made a £12bn rights issue last April.

Somewhere in the depths of its Fettes HQ, some poor Mr Plod is studying all the paperwork associated with the rights issue. Never mind that this paperwork is routinely crawled over by batteries of expensive lawyers in order to ensure that it complies with stock exchange rules - we are talking £12 billion here. And, OK, this rights issue stuff can be complicated - we are talking massive volumes of paper. Admittedly, the experts in the form of the FSA have a rather doubtful record in terms of brining anyone to book for financial misdemeanours. And, even though the local rozzers are less than experienced in matters of high finance, Ms Grahame must think that they can get a result.

Still, there should some overtime in it.

Our noble Friends

It is not against the rules for members of the House of Lords to accept remuneration for the provision of consultancy/advice to domestic or foreign businessmen - although perhaps it should be.

Nor do I see an allegation that any of the four alleged miscreants offered to table a legislative amendment (as opposed to arranging for an amendment to be tabled). A fine distinction, perhaps, but nevertheless.

Thirdly, none of the discussions appears to have progressed beyond preliminary assessments of what might be possible. No agreements were finalised, no money appears to have changed hands and there is presumably nothing in writing.

That being so, and disappointing as it may be to those of us who care about the morality (or lack of it) in the Mother of Parliaments, I fail to detect a smoking gun. And I can't see that the various promised investigations will lead anywhere.

22 January 2009


Big Andy is about to start his second round match. If you can't access BBC2, this is a second best.

Quote of the day

From a serious commentator in, of all things, The Daily Telegraph (here):
On the first, as a free-marketeer what I am about to say pains me. But there had best be a full nationalisation of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds/TSB/HBOS. The former is regarded by the market as broken and we own 70 per cent of it, anyway. The latter is in nearly as much trouble. Let us stop pretending they operate as independent institutions.

Who'd a thunk? And where next?

21 January 2009

You youngsters will find this hard to believe but banking was once a respectable profession

I do wish that The Guardian would desist from posing questions to which it clearly does not know the answer:
What happens if bank share prices keep falling?
The authorities will be concerned that confidence in the banking system has been eroded and that savers will be spooked enough to start withdrawing their deposits. This was one of the anxieties in relation to HBOS in September when a rescue takeover by Lloyds TSB was orchestrated by Gordon Brown, and Bradford & Bingley which was rescued at the end of September. This time, savers should have less to worry about as the government has moved to guarantee deposits of less than £50,000 and the banks are insisting they are not seeing outflows of funds.

And your point is?

Never mind, we may be about to find out exactly what happens if bank share prices continue to fall ...

20 January 2009

Depressing fact of the day

From The Times (here):
RBS, worth £75 billion only two years ago, is now valued at £4.5 billion, even though it received £32 billion from taxpayers and shareholders less than three months ago.

Casino capitalism rules ...

16 January 2009

Will we get a BOGOF?

I see that RBS has appointed a grocer as its new chairman. I suppose he can't be any worse than a banker ...

The green shoots didn't last very long

Do you think they know what they're doing? The Times reports:
A package of radical measures to get British banks lending more is due to be hammered out at the weekend in an attempt to prevent the recession souring into an even more serious downturn.
Amid a growing sense of urgency, ministers are working on proposals paving the way for fresh capital injections into banks, for relaxation of rules on balance-sheet strength and for government guarantees of toxic assets on bank balance sheets.
Treasury and Bank of England officials are bracing themselves for a hectic weekend as Alistair Darling tries to finalise measures in time for an announcement early next week.
The latest push came as bank shares slumped to lows not seen since the 1980s and as a warning was given by Capital Economics that UK banks would be forced to cut lending to householders and businesses by £400 billion in the next few years unless action was taken.

No, nor do I. Just flailing about - because being seen to do something, anything, is better than not.

Yes I remember Suzi Kettles ...

... and, if Emma Thompson is opposed to another runway at Heathrow, that's good enough for me.

Get some culture down you

You have 15 days left to pop in to the RSA Turner Exhibition. The RSA is the building at the foot of the Mound.

And, yes, it's free.

15 January 2009

Seems a bit sneaky ...

... even actually downright immoral. What have they got to hide? The Guardian website reports:
You could not make this up. On the day the nation was convulsed by the row over the building of the third runway at Heathrow, the government slipped into parliament one of the most self-serving pieces of legislation in modern times.
Harriet Harman, the leader of the house, got Jack Straw, the justice secretary, to table a parliamentary order that will exempt all MPs and peers from having to release detailed expenses under the Freedom of Information Act.
The order, which will come into force 24 hours after being debated next week in parliament, will stop in its tracks all the victories won by campaigners and journalists to bring full transparency to individual MPs' expenditure on travel, equipping their second or constituency homes, staffing, office details and individual travel receipts by air, rail and car.

And thus another glorious chapter is written in the history of the willingness of our elected representatives to play fast and loose when it comes to their expenses.

A world of his own

I never gave much credence to the proposition that the Prime Minister was subject to "psychological flaws" (at least no more than any other politician). But I have to admit that there is something weird about his first substantive answer at yesterday's PMQs:
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a great supporter of business in her constituency. This is real help for business now. It is targeted and focused, it is funded and it is additional to what has been done before. It is real help to small businesses that are looking for help with their overdrafts or looking to invest in the future. It is real help for businesses that are looking for working capital over the next year, and will increase the supply of that by £10 billion. It is real help for high-technology firms that want their debt replaced by equity. We will buy shares in those companies, and there will be real help with credit insurance. This is real help now, to deal with specific problems—real help that is funded by Government.

Source: here

At that stage, no-one had suggested that the proposed business support package did not constitute "real help". So why did the PM need to re-emphasise the real help point by mentioning it seven times? And the question - a soft one from an MP on his own side - looked to have been "planted".


14 January 2009

Oscars - who cares

So farewell, Claude Berri.

You were the director of two of the greatest ever films - Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.

The stars were great - of course. Gerard Depardieu, Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil. But I loved the bit players - the local mayor, the priest, the old lady who told Yves Montand the truth about his son. The language, the countryside, Manon and her goats, the flowers, unblocking the spring.

Adieu, maitre.

Shome mistake surely?

I see that the government has appointed Mervyn Davies as a minister in the Business Department.

I remember when he played for Wales. One of the greatest ever No 8s.

13 January 2009

How to be a pedant

You know that Tory baby who owes £17,000. I would suggest that the Tories are over-egging the pudding.

If you assume that the UK population amounts to 60 million souls, then the overall UK capital debt would amount to £1.020 trillion (£17,000 x 60 million).

But according to the National Statistics Office, the most recent figure for net overall UK debt amounts to only £563 billion (as at September 2008) or rather less than £10,000 per head. To be fair, this excludes the recent interventions in the financial services industry but these are likely to be repaid (possibly with a profit) before Tory baby gets much older.

Furthermore, as public debt is less than 50% of annual GDP, perhaps the position is not so disastrous. If your mortgage debt (plus what you're carrying on your credit card) was less than half your annual income, you wouldn't regard it as a problem, would you? Especially at today's rates of interest.

12 January 2009

I'm not getting paid for this - honest

As someone who disapproves of Rupert Murdoch, I have taken the regrettable step of signing up to the Sky Player. This means that, for the princely sum of £34 per month, I can watch live on my computer Sky Sports 1, 2, 3 and Xtra. In a time when we are all pulling in our financial horns, you may well consider this an extravagance - and I would not disagree. But hey - I can probably afford it.

I reside in a flat in central Edinburgh whose protected status disinclines me to favour the erection of a Sky dish (even although I keep reading about how planning rules are soon to be relaxed). Like other residents, however, I have no particular wish to see my urban landscape disfigured. Accordingly, securing the programmes in which I am interested via computer broadband is a welcome prospect. (Cable is a non-starter as they have yet to find a way of getting it into the building without pulling the place apart - which would definitely upset the New Town conservationists.)

The sign-up procedure is relatively straightforward. The picture on the screen is reasonably good - at least comparable with the BBC i-player - though much depends upon the quality of your local broadband.

Yesterday, I watched the Hibs-Hearts match (yeugghh) and the Man U-Chelsea match (splendid), as well as on Saturday the Northampton-Leicester rugby match. I look forward to the Ashes series and the Lions tour.

My only concern is where I will find the time for all this viewing.

Maybe Yvette has a point ...

Oh puh-lease! Would you really trust this Scottish government (or the previous one) to behave responsibly if they were given borrowing powers? Is £33 billion a year not enough for them? Can you not see the temptations which would lie in wait for Scottish Ministers? Mr Swinney seems a fairly sensible chap but, once Mr Salmon gets his pudgy hands on the Scottish Government credit card, we are bound to end up in queer street. And I don't think Messrs McConnell and Gray (or indeed Ms Alexander) would be any more trustworthy.

And yes, I know that local councils have power to borrow but their capital expenditure is strictly controlled (ironically by the Scottish Government). Even from Mr Salmond's point of view, there would be no advantage in having borrowing powers if they are strictly controlled on the capital expenditure side.

11 January 2009

See bankers ...

Is that it then? Nobody gets the blame. Nobody wants to find out why. The Observer reports:
Lloyds TSB has agreed to pay $350m (£230m) to the US authorities in connection with charges that it faked records so clients from Iran, Sudan and Libya could do business with the US banking system. The settlement is embarrassing for Lloyds, which is taking over HBOS as part of last year's government-inspired rescue of British banks that have been hammered by the credit crunch.
Lloyds' actions violated the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which allows the US president to block commerce with countries deemed a threat to the United States.
"Lloyds' criminal conduct was designed to assist its clients in avoiding detection by filters employed by US banks because of United States economic sanctions against Libya, Sudan and Iran," according to documents filed in the case.
The UK bank said: "[We] have undertaken significant steps to further enhance our compliance programmes. We are committed to running our business with the highest levels of integrity."

It's just 'embarrassing'? As for 'the highest levels of integrity', would Lloyds TSB know what morality was if it was slapped in the eye with a £230m fine (as it has just been)?

And don't get me started about the sheer stupidity ...

08 January 2009

Labour Ministers do not understand working class pastimes

Something of a misunderstanding here. Regular darts players don't do maths; they do memory. But The Times reports:
For years debate has raged over whether darts is really a sport. But there is no doubt in the Government’s mind that it is, at least, a branch of applied mathematics.
Darts players may be better known for their waistlines and drinking habits than their maths skills. No one, however, can reach the top echelons of the game without being able to work out — as they prepare to throw — that with 73 points on the chalkboard a treble 19 and a double eight will see them home.
“You can’t play darts without maths,” Sion Simon, the Minister for Further Education, told The Times. “We’re using the example of darts where mathematical competence is really important to success and hopefully inspire adults who don’t have the maths skills.”

Darts players do not 'work out' what they need to complete the game. They know - from long experience - exactly what is needed to end with a double for any particular score.

07 January 2009

The view of the borrower

Sean O'Grady in The Independent (here):
Whatever their past hesitations, Mervyn King and Gordon Brown are turning into proper little action men in their bustling encouragements to get us to go out and spend. The last thing on their minds should be the fate of savers, as David Cameron eccentrically suggests, or sterling, which has already seen one of the sharpest depreciations in its history. For we will never achieve an economic recovery without an extraordinary boost from exports.

Aye well. Alright for him as a borrower to say. Those of us who rely on income from savings may be less sanguine. And what is it, anyway, that we manufacture that we can sell as exports? Even if those abroad had the finance to buy?

06 January 2009

Just a gigolo

Why sex doesn't pay. Especially when Scottish Ministers act as pimps.

Quote of the day

From The Scotsman (here):
TOM Cruise says Scientology helped him beat dyslexia. The actor was "labelled" with the learning disability aged seven, he said, and wondered if he was "an idiot".

Wonder no more, Tom.

Another fine mess ...

Financing the new Forth road crossing? It's a bit of a mystery.

Why would Scottish Ministers write to the Treasury, asking the latter to do them a favour (by allowing the Scottish administration to draw on future financial allocations in order to finance the new bridge)? Did they not anticipate that UK Ministers would take a certain amount of pleasure in pointing out the unprecedented nature of such a request and giving it the old heave-ho?

Furthermore, is this not the kind of case where Scottish officials make quiet contact with their Treasury counterparts in advance of any Ministerial approach in order to see how the land lies? Or were Scottish Ministers so desperate to avoid a whacking great hole in their transport announcement that they jumped the gun regardless?

Ideally, the financing should have been sorted out before the announcement. The prospect of bouncing the Treasury into agreement was never going to be realised.

Now we have a mess. Either all sorts of other capital investment is postponed or the SNP swallows its pride over PPP.

05 January 2009

That old-time religion

Unlike smoking, drinking and eating too much - which are bad for you - our government apparently believes that gambling should be encouraged.

Where's your moral compass now, Gordon?

02 January 2009

The Roseburn Incident

Terribly convenient, don't you think? That of all the people in the world, it should be Joan Burnie of The Daily Record who comes across the secret plans of Holyrood Palace. Just lying around near a footpath, apparently. And Joan's dog picked them up, allegedly. What a clever little doggie, to pick up the important papers, while (presumably) ignoring all the unimportant papers which lie around near Edinburgh footpaths.