31 January 2013

Cameron's new best friends

Well, his Algerian chums are not exactly democrats.  The Independent reports:

Known as "the dandy diplomat" during his 16-year tenure as the country's Foreign Minister in the 1960s and 1970s due to his Westernised sense of style, Bouteflika found favour with Western countries in his first term as President, having established a fragile peace and transformed Algeria's international image.
But allegations of corruption have also plagued Bouteflika. He spent six years in self-imposed exile in the 1980s following corruption allegations, and his election (plus subsequent re-election) has been marred by claims of vote rigging. In 2008, Algeria's parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of scrapping a rule limiting presidents to two terms, making way for Bouteflika's third term.
Speaking at the time, Saïd Sadi, the head of small secular opposition party the Rally for Culture and Democracy, said: "We are living through a disguised coup d'état."

I just hope that Dave has taken a long spoon with him on his travels.

Should ...?

Do you agree that ...?   Such fine distinctions should matter?

Still, nice, for once, to see everyone in agreement.  Except, maybe, this guy.


30 January 2013

Mid term breaks

It's all so difficult at home, n'est-ce pas?  The economy tanking, the coalition falling apart, the banks continuing to misbehave, and even the wife complaining.  Far better to get away to foreign shores, preferably warm ones:

The growing importance of the unrest in West Africa was highlighted last night when Downing Street announced the PM would be flying to Algeria tomorrow for urgent talks with Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal.
Mr Cameron was already scheduled to attend a development conference in Monrovia, Liberia, but added the Algerian meeting following the recent hostage crisis at the Amenas gas plant which left six Britons and 47 others dead.
Number 10 said the discussions were likely to include the military campaign in Mali, a neighbour-state to Algeria.

These African johnnies know how to roll out the red carpet and treat one with respect.  So unlike the miserable sods in Brussels.  And far from the literal and metaphorical rain clouds of old Blighty ...

29 January 2013

Mission creep

It is less than two weeks since Mr Cameron stated unambiguously that there would no British troops on the ground in Mali.  Now look at the latest position, as reported by The Guardian:

Britain is prepared to provide hundreds of troops to help the operation and is considering a few options:
• Forming part of an EU military training mission in Mali. The British contribution to this would be in the "tens", according to Downing Street.
• Training troops from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in neighbouring countries for possible operations on Mali. This is likely to be the main focus of Britain's contribution because Ecowas members include many countries with strong links to Britain. British troops could be used to train Nigerian forces.
• Providing "force protection" for the trainers. This would be armed protection but would not amount to a combat role.
Downing Street is adamant that British troops will play no part in combat. A spokesman said: "We have the capability and capacity to do that. We have the ability to contribute a sizeable amount if required."
Britain initially put two RAF C17 transporter aircraft at the disposal of France for the transport of troops and material to Mali. One of these is still dedicated to the Mali mission.
Britain has also sent one RAF Sentinel surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Senegal to help with the mission. The Guardian reported last week that a small number of British special forces soldiers were on the ground in Mali advising the French.

Aeroplanes need to be supplied and maintained; troops need to be equipped, housed and fed.  And experience has shown that training and advisory missions have a habit of expanding into other activities.

What are we getting into here?  What are the objectives?  What length of commitment?  And, crucially, how do we get out?

25 January 2013

More money than sense

From The Economist (here):

(Unaccountably, they appear to have omitted Hibs.)


All talk and no trousers

I see that, once again, our Prime Minister has been banging on about tax evasion.  (In Switzerland of all places!)  The Guardian reports:

"Companies need to wake up and smell the coffee, because the customers who buy from them have had enough," the prime minister told business leaders (video) at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Protesters targeted Starbucks branches late last year after it admitted it had paid just £8.6m in corporation tax in the UK over the past 14 years. The firm subsequently promised to pay £20m over two years, amid fears of a consumer boycott.
Cameron's speech attracted strong criticism from the body that represents Britain's accountants, but the PM insisted he was the most "pro-business leader" you could find. He said it was not just NGOs that had been lobbying him to crack down on tax-dodging firms, but the upper echelons of the City too. "It's a world where some companies navigate around legitimate tax systems – and even low tax rates – with an army of clever accountants."
Cameron said there was nothing wrong with sensible tax planning, but "some forms of avoidance have become so aggressive that I think it's time to call for more responsibility and for governments to act accordingly". He said: "In the UK we've already committed hundreds of millions into this effort – but acting alone has its limits. Clamp down in one country and the travelling caravan of lawyers, accountants and financial gurus just moves on elsewhere. We need to act together at the G8."

Do you suppose that this means that the UK government will crack down of those of its dependencies, such as the Caymans, whose principal function appears to be acting as tax havens?  Or that they will reverse the cuts in HMRC staff numbers?  No, nor do I ...

23 January 2013

Quote of the day

David Cameron (here):
"It is time for the British people to have their say."
Um, well no, not now.  The British people will have their say when I say they can have their say.  Probably late 2017.


There's a bad smell

If I were Frau Merkel or Monsieur Hollande, I would tell him to get on his bike.  The Guardian reports:
David Cameron will on Wednesday set a deadline to hold an in-out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union by the end of 2017 as he hardens his position on the issue that has bedevilled Tory leaders for a quarter of a century.
To the delight of Eurosceptics, the prime minister will throw down the gauntlet to his fellow EU leaders to agree to a revision of Britain's membership terms within two and a half years of the next general election or risk triggering a British exit.
But Cameron is not Andy Murray, able to despatch Frenchmen without breaking sweat.  (Murray is 2 sets to love up at the moment.)  If our European partners disagree to a revision of the UK's membership terms, what then?  Aye well, there's the question:
Cameron will say: "Some argue that the solution is...to hold a straight in-out referendum now. I understand the impatience of wanting to make that choice immediately.
"But I don't believe that to make a decision at this moment is the right way forward, either for Britain or for Europe as a whole. A vote today between the status quo and leaving would be an entirely false choice."
All very complicated.  Meanwhile, for the next five years (at least), the shadow of Brexit hangs over the economy.  In these circumstances, why would Nissan or LandRover Jaguar invest in this country?

It appears that Le Pong does not emanate solely from Rouen ...


17 January 2013

General Cameron

Yesterday evening, I was reading a rather splendid novel (The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie) and came across this passage.  It reminded me sharply of a certain politician:
"I think you would have made an excellent lieutenant, a passable captain, a mediocre major and a dismal colonel, but as a general you are a liability.  I think you know this, and have no confidence, which makes you behave, paradoxically, as if you have far too much.  I think you make decisions with little thought, abandon some with none and stick furiously to others against all argument, thinking that to change your mind would be to show weakness.  I think you fuss with details better left to subordinates, fearing to tackle the larger issues, and that makes your subordinates smother you with decisions on every trifle, which you then bungle.  I think you are a decent, honest, courageous man.  And I think you are a fool."


Conversation of the week

From The Guardian (here):

Cameron: Can someone tell me what's going on?
Osborne: Sorry Cams, old boy. There's no one from the civil service in Downing Street at the moment, so I don't have a clue either. You could look in the diary.
Cameron: I've done that, but it wasn't much help. Just something about making a very important speech about Europe on Monday.
Civil service: Actually, we've decided it's going to be on Friday instead.
Cameron: I knew that really. Can we rehearse what it is exactly I believe in?
Civil service: This may take a while …
Cameron: I believe … No, make that I firmly believe, that the European Union is both vital and entirely irrelevant to Britain's interests. So it is absolutely right that we should use this opportunity to place ourselves at the centre of Europe by trying to distance ourselves as far from it as possible …
Osborne: Total masterpiece ...
Cameron: And, in conclusion, it is right that the people of Britain should be allowed to have a referendum on our membership sometime long after the next election, by when I will be out of a job so I'm not too bothered one way or the other …

16 January 2013

Counting the cost

The Independent is getting over-excited about the RBS:

British taxpayers are set to pay $800m (£500m) in fines as a result of Royal Bank of Scotland traders’ involvement in the Libor interest rate fixing scandal - with nearly all of the money going to the United States.
American watchdogs are set to hit RBS with as much as four-fifths of the total penalty as it becomes the third bank to settle over its traders’ role in the scandal.
RBS is 81 per cent-owned by the Government, which means the taxpayer will effectively foot the bill for its fine, although the bank is expected to attempt to head off protests by cutting its investment bankers’ bonus pool. 

Well yes, in a way.  The taxpayer will in theory have to meet four-fifths of four-fifths of the fine.  But only if you regard a loss on every transaction made by the bank as falling to be met by the taxpayer, while ignoring every element of transactional profit which might equally be said to fall to the benefit of the taxpayer.

Furthermore, as the value of the taxpayer's shares has risen by about 75% in the last six months (from about 200 pence per share to about 350 pence per share), it might be considered that the taxpayer is not doing too badly, even if the current value of the shares remains below the original cost of their acquisition.

So although the £500 million fine involves a lot of money (as well as substantial wrong-doing on the part of the Bank's traders), it is arguably misleading to consider it in isolation as a charge to be met by taxpayers.

15 January 2013

The scorpion and the frog

I don't blame Goldman Sachs - or at least not wholly.  It's in its nature after all:
The great vampire squid’s move to even consider delaying bonus payments to some of its staff just to save them a few quid in tax indicates that it continues to live in a separate world to the rest of us.
More than that, it lives in a world beyond even most other powerful banks. Early reports on the matter said that other large finance firms had wondered whether they should wait for the tax rate to drop from 50% to 45% before paying out bonuses and quickly decided that it would look bad.

No, it's Slasher Osborne who deserves the opprobrium.  First, for reducing income tax for the very rich; and second for giving the world a year's notice before putting it into effect.

Foreign adventures

You may be interested to see this satellite photo of Mali (lifted from Wikipedia):

Mali is a huge country in West Africa, occupying 478,000 sq miles.  (By comparison, France is about half this size.)  Its population amounts to some 14.5 million, while gdp is less than $18 billion (cf French gdp of more than $2.2 trillion).  All of which has military implications.

I rather doubt if France (and the UK) will be able to get out of Mali as quickly as they got in.  Accordingly, we may hear a lot more about this poor country over the next five years or so ...

14 January 2013


I am struggling to come to grips with the government's proposed new arrangements for old age pensions.

As far as I can tell, people who have already qualified for the pension or, like me, will do so before 2017 will not benefit from the new flat rate pension of £144 per week.  Instead, we will continue to get the existing pension of £107 per week.  (Both these figures will be uprated to reflect inflation.)  It is not yet clear to me whether the additional pension credit (payable to pensioners with very low incomes) which will be abolished when the new flat rate pension becomes payable will be retained for those having to live with the existing pension.

It is nevertheless obvious that the effect of the proposed arrangements will be to create two classes of pensioner: those who were already receiving a pension before 2017 and who will be stuck on a lower rate and those who will benefit from the new flat rate.  The former will of course be older than the latter.  This seems a strange way to introduce greater fairness into the system.

I need hardly add that what is proposed is unlikely to be welcomed by those of us wrinklies stuck on the lower rate.

11 January 2013

Garment of the week

It has to be Nick Clegg's "onesie".

A bit inconvenient, I would have thought, when nature calls in the middle of the night.  But perhaps Nick is young enough not to be troubled by such matters as yet ...


The danger of being sarcastic ...

... is that people take you seriously.

What Sir Jeremy Heywood actually said was:
"We accepted there were unanswered questions including the possibility of a gigantic conspiracy or a small conspiracy. Those were unanswered questions. But we decided, on balance, to let matters rest as they were, decide to stick by Andrew Mitchell, keep him in post and move on."
Now you may consider that the reference to "a gigantic conspiracy" constituted mockery of the possibility.  But the press are more literally minded.  Thus The Guardian reports:
Britain's top civil servant believes Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip unseated by the "plebgate" row, could have been the victim of a "gigantic conspiracy" involving members of the diplomatic protection group that guards Downing Street.
while The Independent takes a similar line:
Britain’s most senior civil servant was aware that the Government’s former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell may have been the victim of a “gigantic conspiracy” when he was fighting to save his job - but did not raise his concerns with the police, it emerged today.
Perhaps this will teach Sir Jeremy that in future he should avoid being a smartarse.


09 January 2013

When will they ever learn?

I am prepared to accept that public sector bureaucracies are not always terribly efficient, although I suspect that the alleged lack of efficiency has more to do with under-resourcing than with anything else.  But on the ideological principle of private sector good, public sector bad, this government seems determined to strike down long-established public institutions.  Here is the latest:

The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, is to outline plans for the wholesale outsourcing of the probation service with private companies and voluntary sector organisations to take over the rehabilitation of the majority of offenders by 2015.
The public probation service is to be scaled back and "refocused" to specialise in dealing only with the most dangerous and high-risk offenders and public protection cases. The majority of services will be contracted out on a payment-by -result basis.

You may discount the reference to voluntary sector organsisations; experience has shown that they are seldom big enough to act other than as sub-contractors to the Sercos, Capitas, A4Es and G4S's of the business, while cash-flow problems eventually drive the voluntary organisations into the ground.  And so another allegedly inefficient but well-meaning bureaucracy will be replaced by profit-driven private sector bureaucracies whose track record in terms of efficiency is at best patchy.  And all for what?  Does anybody, even in government, really think that a private sector probation service will deliver better results in terms of probation than the existing system?

08 January 2013

Hot and bothered?

It's a tough old life, being a gas chief.  The Guardian reports:

The managing director of British Gas is set to leave the business with a pension pot, shares and basic salary worth more than £10m, amid public and political disquiet over soaring household bills.
Phil Bentley, who oversaw a 6% increase in bills this winter, is expected to confirm that he is stepping down this year. He is believed to harbour ambitions to become a company chief executive in his own right.
According to the annual report of Centrica, the parent of British Gas, Bentley has an interest in just under 2m Centrica shares, worth £6.65m at closing share price. The 53-year-old executive is also expected to depart with a year's basic salary, which came to £635,000 in 2011, along with his £3.6m pension pot.
Bentley joined Centrica as finance director in 2000 and was handed his British Gas role in 2007. Centrica declined to comment on Bentley's imminent departure.

At least, he won't have to worry about paying his fuel bills ...


06 January 2013

Cooking the books?

Well, there's a surprise.  The Independent reports:

Pension savers face a serious blow to their retirement prospects with confirmation this week on changes in how the retail price index (RPI) is calculated.
The Office for National Statistics' reform of the RPI is expected to lead to rates of the key inflation benchmark coming into line with the traditionally lower consumer price index (CPI).

Is it not passing strange that reforms of the methods of calculating inflation always seem to have the effect of reducing inflation?


04 January 2013

Talk is cheap

Do you believe that he'll actually do anything?  The Telegraph reports:

Foreign companies like Starbucks and Amazon which have avoided paying large corporation tax bills in Britain lack "moral scruples", David Cameron has said.
The Prime Minister said he was going to make “damn sure” that foreign companies like Starbucks and Amazon which have been found to avoid legally paying a large corporation tax in the UK paid their fair share.
We'll see ...  But don't get your hopes up.

Obélix among the Russians

Incroyable!  C'est pas vrai!

03 January 2013

Impending chaos?

So.  A lot of middle class families may be upset.  But Slasher Osborne likes to kick his potential supporters in the teeth.  The New Statesman explains:

...  the first test for the government will come next Monday when the withdrawal of child benefit from higher earners begins. From 7 January, payments will be tapered away from individuals earning over £50,000 and completely withdrawn at £60,000 (however, as Labour is keen to point out, a household with two earners each on £50,000 will keep the benefit in full). Those households affected will either need to stop claiming the benefit or pay a new tax (known as the High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge) to cover the cost of the payments. Families will lose £1,055.60 a year for a first child and a further £696.80 a year for each additional child, meaning that a family with three children stands to lose £2,449.20 - the equivalent of a £3,500 pay cut (since child benefit is untaxed).
With the changes announced as long ago as the 2010 Conservative conference, the government has had no shortage of time in which to inform those who will lose out. But as today's Telegraph reports, almost a third of the families affected have still not been formally warned that they will no longer be eligible for all or part of the benefit. Of the 1.1 million households due to be affected by the change, 316,000 have not yet been contacted by the tax authorities. As a result, having missed the opportunity to opt out of the new system (as 160,000 have done), they will have to fill in self-assessment forms or face fines running into hundreds of pounds.
A spokesman for HMRC insists that "extensive advertising, media and online activity" means those affected will know about the changes. However, it's not hard to imagine that some families will get a nasty surprise when they discover that they owe hundreds of pounds in additional tax.

Aye, and don't expect HMRC to cope - even half adequately - with all those additional self assessment forms.  As usual, it will end in tears ...