Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Gordon Brown's career

Since it's the season of goodwill, a tribute to Gordon Brown, PM:

In the beginning was the unreconstructed socialist:

He climbed the greasy pole, became an MP, clawed his way into the Shadow Cabinet and placed himself for future glory:

He helped form New Labour, got into Government and had an important girlfriend:

He fell out with Prudence, though, and set out on a new mission:

And what a result:

Mind how you go, have a cool Yule and a Happy Easter when it comes.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Getting a new perspective

A morning stroll through the interwebby thing is always refreshing (providing you stay away from all those nasty areas), and helps to give you a new perspective on things. This morning I took a stroll through a few economic attitudes. Here's a banana's-eye view of some interesting penny dainties:

Luxembourg is an interesting country economically, with a large banking sector and interesting taxation policies. Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker gave evidence to a European Parliament committee on the fourth of November, here's a snippet or three:
Some of those now leading calls for international regulatory reform had refused to consider the proposals put forward by the German presidency of the G8 as recently as 2007, he noted.

Who could he possibly be meaning?
He called for governments with budgetary room for manoeuvre to use fiscal measures to help the most vulnerable sections of society, and to give support to SMEs.

Remarkable! That's exactly what the SNP Scottish Government did ahead of the economic meltdown (cutting business rates for small businesses, freezing Council Tax, cutting prescription charges, and so on), and exactly counter to what the UK Labour Government has done (abolition of 10p rate, increasing corporation tax for small businesses, etc).
Mr Juncker, who argued that the cause of the crisis could be found in the "deregulatory frenzy" of recent years

He's right, you know. You can tell he's right because I've been saying the same thing.

In other news, back in April when the French Government first suggested bailing out the banks (you know, that idea that Brown claimed to be his - it's also noteworthy that Christine Lagarde, French Finance Minister, tried to persuade her friend, Mr Paulson, to bail out Lehman Brothers and avoid the crisis in confidence), there was this point made:
But a senior Sarkozy aide sought to dampen expectations, saying the French leader, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi are not "going to save the world."


With the German Government and the IMF also criticising the Labour Government, perhaps it's not just the French who think that Brown didn't save the world?

I'm rattling about in any case, so let's have a pop at Iain McMillan of CBI Scotland (and, of course, a fine, upstanding member of the Commission to Repaint Devolution). He's reported as saying
"The Scottish Government holds the key levers of power to deliver Scotland's long-term economic success and, thus far, has put in place some welcome measures for business and the economy.
"Business is looking favourably on those policies that will improve the performance of the Scottish economy over time - transport, planning, education, skills, business rates and regulation.
"We are also supportive of the measures taken to assist businesses in the short-term
during the economic downturn.
"But, the Scottish Government's support for business often appears to be only skin deep and ministers need to do much more in 2009 than they have to date to develop our economy for the long term and improve Scotland's reputation in the rest of the UK and internationally as an attractive place in which to do business."
To translate - The SNP Scottish Government has done more in a year and a half to support Scottish business than could have been expected by anyone but Mr McMillan wants to have a dig and so calls that support "skin deep" and says that the excellent performance so far has to be improved upon - but he doesn't give any indication of how he thinks it should be improved upon.

A true visionary. Let's have a look at what he said when the 2007 budget increased Corporation Tax to 22% for small businesses:
"The headline cut in corporation tax announced in the Budget should only be the first step to reducing that burden."
He was, of course, referring to the 2% cut in Corporation Tax for the largest and most profitable firms rather than the 3% increase in Corporation Tax for the smaller firms which have to keep close tabs on all costs to survive and which together constitute a significant part of the Scottish economy. Interestingly, he was at odds with CBI UK:
"Some big companies that for one reason or another don't pay much tax will lose out. So will small companies that don't invest much, and so will not be able to benefit from the new capital allowances."
The Federation of Small Businesses:
"On the face of it, the rise in the small companies rate is very disappointing for our members because it is addressing a problem that I don't think exists, which is the notion that people incorporate for tax reasons,"

Chambers of Commerce:
"This budget could be damaging for small and medium-sized business in the long term,"
"Whilst the chancellor has offered incentives for investment he has also increased the amount of tax that those covered by the small companies' rate have to pay by over £800m."

I suppose, looking at Labour's record, that we shouldn't be too surprised that the Labour Government will provide billions of pounds to bail out the banks but nothing for the victims of the Farepak collapse.

Social justice would appear to be an alien concept for the Labour Government.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Fascinating Fact

Monkeys have a favourite Christmas carol - Jungle Bells.

As told to me by a wee lass with a daft sense of humour.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Labour policies immoral

I see some Anglican bishops have called the policies of the Labour Government immoral and it's become a story.  Given that these church leaders are supposed to deal in morality every week, surely the bigger surprise is that it has taken them this long to realise, especially since Labour's own members have been calling the Labour Government "economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft" since 1998.

Meanwhile, back at the disaster zone, world saviour Gordon Brown is saying that the recession is a test of character (wonder if he created this enormous mess just to let us all prove our worth and feel better about ourselves?) and that he wants us all to display the same spirit as our predecessors did in World War Two.  "Jings, Crivvens, Help Ma Boab, Peter, it's all going down the pan, what's the emergency procedure?"

"Calm down, Gordon, if you just relax it will all go fine.  When it's this far out of control there's only one thing to do."

"Excellent, Peter, I knew I could lean on you.  What do we do?"

"Bring out the blitz?"

"Genius!  Wheel out the old Joanna, get on the pearly suit, up the apples and pears, bring out yer dead!  It'll be just like the olden days, eh?  Do you think they'll say I'm like Churchill?"

"Er, no."

Mind how you go!

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Lloyds HBOS -Let the Shareholders decide!

Well, it would have been good if they'd actually had the chance rather than being bounced into the merger by politicians on the make.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Humble action the imperative

A comment on my previous post gave me pause for thought. The SNP Scottish Government has a long list of achievements from its 18 months in power - a list which would be noteworthy even for a Government with a majority of seats in Parliament, and is even more noteworthy for a Government with only 36% of the seats in Parliament. It's a record that any political party should be proud of and that in any other situation we should be celebrating, but it pales at the moment because the clunking fist of recession is beating at the doors of Scottish households and that's what's focusing the minds of all of us.

People who have been or are being made redundant are thinking about employment prospects, pensioners are concerned about the future of their pensions, graduates about where they go from here. I know that the Scottish Government members - Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers - have similar concerns and are frustrated at the lack of economic tools at the disposal of the Government. While doing what they can with the powers at their disposal, they are pressuring the Westminster Government and conducting research to lay out a routemap out of this mess. Jim Mather laid out some of the efforts to help the construction industry on Thursday:
We are accelerating our investment plans in affordable housing and bringing forward capital investment plans. We are also increasing investment in school building programmes, allocating additional funding for college and university capital projects and increasing funding for capital programmes in the health sector. We will continue an active dialogue with the construction and house-building industries through the Scottish construction forum and the housing supply task force.
He also mentioned the Scottish Government's support for a VAT cut to 5% for home improvements and repairs (something that other countries are doing) which was rejected by Darling.

The Scottish Government's Council of Economic Advisors advised that the country would have been better served by investment in the construction industry than by Darling's blanket VAT cut, and you have to assume that the UK Government got the same advice. Admittedly, that would be a longer-term solution rather than a fillip to get a shaken Government through an election, but it would be acting in the long-term interests of the country.

The economic news is not encouraging, and it appears to continue to get bleaker, suggesting that it may be quite some time before we see some relief from this. The instant figures from the ONS have various timelags, but few of them seem to have any encouraging news. It looks increasingly like it will be the average-sized nations of the arc of prosperity that will lead the way out of recession - including Iceland where the business community is gearing up for rebuilding that nation's economy in the wake of the IMF refloating - economic manoeuvrability will be essential in the next year or two.

The Scottish Government is doing what it can to make the situation easier for people the length and breadth of Scotland but frontloading capital spend, easing restrictions on local government and reducing business rates will take time to filter through the system while things like the Council Tax freeze, reducing and then removing prescription charges, and increasing support for benefits checks will have some effect, but are not, on their own, enough. Having control of all of the levers of economic power would have allowed Scotland to proof its economy against the coming storm to some degree, but that is not the case at the moment and we will have to continue arguing for proper economic power to come home and persuade Scotland of the merits of that case.

In the meantime, though, political leaders should show some humility in the face of these difficulties - a characteristic that has been evident among Scottish Ministers. The manner in which Ministers bear the responsibility they carry is almost as important as the actions they take - far better to have honest humility than overblown hubris, far better to do what you can than to have claimed to have saved the world.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Who's saving your world?

Gordon Brown, superhero of this parish, has marched expectations of an imminent general election up the hill before and then just marched them back down again. Not content with his Grand Old Duke of York impersonation, he's marching those expectations back up the hill again. Personally, I think he'll bottle it, even if he does have Peter Mandelson back by his side.
Why would he duck again? Simple - the economy has been filleted; the pain is just getting started but it will be very evident by the end of February and any Government going into an election with soaring unemployment, a 'living essentials' marketplace which is rolling back from comfort to austerity, and with a whole load of people realising that they can't afford a holiday this summer is going to get beat. Brown will judge that hanging on might take him and his Government through the worst of the economic hard times and give him a fighting chance of staying in Downing Street - even when all the evidence is pointing to that being tosh.
Mandelson's evaluation, I imagine, will be that the election is lost for Labour and that the duty of the incumbents is to minimise the damage. Mandelson will press for an early election, before the true horror of the recession can impinge on the collective consciousness. Labour will lose, but by less than they would at a later date. Who'll win? Brown will win, he's got his finger on the button, and there will be another tiff, Labour's Government will start to unravel and it will be terribly unsightly (he said sniffily).
How can we be so sure that the economy is toast? Well, the pound is almost at parity with the euro and is now under $1.50, the German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück has pointed to massive flaws in the Brown/Darling economic salvage plan and his voice of concern has now been joined by Olivier Blanchard, chief economist to the International Monetary Fund. The unemployment rate was already at 6% in October while the inactivity rate (same source) was 20.9% - one in five of the working age population not working and not training or in education. Non-specialised stores (like department stores) saw a fairly substantial 3.8% fall in sales. Food sales and sales from specialised stores increased slightly, but it was the smallest increase that they've seen in four years, while sales of household goods went down 2.1%. There were 111 profit warnings over the summer, and plenty since. Mortgage lending is half of what it was last year, and the number of business start-ups has shrunk markedly.

Saved the world? I think not!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

That'll larn em!

Fantastic story on the BBC website - caviar smugglers got caught with 40kg of Beluga caviar in November. Italian customs is disposing of it in a most appropriate way - the poor of Milan will be having caviar this Christmas.

Out of Control Tram

I've finally received a reply to my Freedom of Information request to tie - and I have a couple of concerns about it, strangely enough.

Firstly, Howard Elwyn-Jones, the Information Manager for tie says he didn't miss the deadline because

under Section 10(1)b of the Act, the twenty day period commences from the day
following receipt of the information request


10 Time for compliance

(1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3), a Scottish public authority receiving a request which requires it to comply with section 1(1) must comply promptly; and in any event by not later than the twentieth working day after— (a) in a case other than that mentioned in paragraph (b), the receipt by the authority of the request; or

(b) in a case where section 1(3) applies, the receipt by it of the further information.

So 10(1)(b) is actually about the procedure when the public body asks for further information. Why did the Information Manager of tie tell me it gave him an extra day? Was he lying, does he truly not know, or is there some other reason? Whatever the reason, the mistruth is unacceptable - it's not difficult to check the Act - but it is indicative of the slapdash attitude that tie has towards the whole project.

I asked for some simple information:

the latest overall cost projections for tramline 1a and tramline 1b. Iwould like one global figure for each line and the date on which the projection was made.

Here's the response to that request:
The information which you request is already in the public domain and has been reported extensively in the media as well as in documentation available online from our website. For convenience and the avoidance of doubt, I re-iterate the ‘global’ cost figures requested below:
· The cost projection for line 1b remain unchanged from the Final Business Case of 7th December 2007 and stand at £87.3 million.
· The cost projection for line 1A was amended on the 14th of May 2008 to reflect alterations at contract closure for INFRACO, giving a figure of £512 million. This is a full release of the information you requested.
So I'm to believe that the contract cost for 1b hasn't been examined for a whole year and 1a - for which construction has already started - hasn't been looked at since May. It's the equivalent of shoving your fingers in your ears and saying "lalalalalalalalalala" very loudly. Surely no-one managing a major construction project would just leave the capital spend to take care of itself, would they?

Here's a wee problem, though, the Business Case makes it clear that costs will keep changing until the design is finalised. A previous FOI request I made came back with the information "All detailed Design Submittals to tie are due for completion by 20/02/09" - so the costs cannot be finalised before the end of February - another two months.

There's another difficulty. Have a wee look at the answers David McLetchie got to his Parliamentary Questions:

David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive how payment of the remainder of its £500 million contribution to the Edinburgh trams project will be phased, specifying anticipated (a) timescale, (b) size and (c) purpose of each payment. (S3W-17962)

Stewart Stevenson: The detailed phasing of expenditure is for City of Edinburgh Council to manage. The Scottish Government will continue to meet its agreed obligation of 91.7% of expenditure, subject to annual limits of £120 million in this financial year and £149 million in next financial year.

David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive whether its contribution to the Edinburgh trams project will remain at £500 million if Phase 1b does not go ahead.(S3W-17963)

Stewart Stevenson: The Scottish Government will pay the agreed 91.7% of costs expended by CEC on lines 1a and 1b up to a limit of £500 million. This arrangement is not altered by the status of Line 1b.

That 8.3% funding gap is what Edinburgh Council needs to find. Given that the Scottish Government has ponied up almost £207 million so far, Edinburgh Council has spent more than £18 million - more than half of the predicted cost has been spent and the utility diversions aren't even finished. Coming in on budget? My eye.

You'll remember that 1b was cancelled and 1a was in doubt a month ago. Attempts were made to save 1b - and reports were brought to Edinburgh Council on Thursday, including one on line 1b. The business case for 1b was based on a quarter of a million square feet of development at Granton, the report indicated that this was now six years behind expectation - they spent money on consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers to find out that there was a recession on.

I loved this comment; "Since this work was undertaken in the summer the wider economic climate has taken a further downturn", so the report is using out-of-date information - excellent!

Contained in that report, however, are hints that the 1a construction costs are out of control. Things like:
For various reasons, slower than anticipated mobilisation of the lnfraco contractor has been an issue in relation to Phase la. As a result, and until more information is to hand, a prudent view should be taken with regard to committing headroom from Phase la to the construction of Phase 1b.
The 'headroom' being referred to were the savings that they thought were coming on 1a, and that 'prudent view' can be translated as "och no, not the dreaded overspend!"

In the summer when the costs of construction were running out of control there was a suggestion that the tram vehicles could be rented rather than bought (they cost about £2m each) - I'd be surprised if that isn't brought back to save £54 million in capital costs but increase fares. Bus fares are already being increased to help pay for the tram.

Costs will continue to spiral out of control. On the 24th of April 2008 tie announced a "final contract price" of £508 million (up 2% since the Business Case passed in December) and three weeks later it had increased by another £4 million.

There's this bit from the report:

Currently tie are engaged with the lnfraco contractor on re-programming Phase la to address the slow start up of construction and this may impact on costs and risk allowances. This work will continue in the lead up to Christmas and the potential impact on financial headroom will not be known until the New Year.

That question about whether anybody running a major construction project would just trust to luck on the spending - it looks like someone is doing exactly that. And their hyphenation is out of control.

It wouldn't be so bad if the scheme was worth having.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Scenes you never thought you'd see

Labour MPs and MSPs have been calling for pensions to be cut

Lib Dems have been asking the Scottish Ministers to take less of a salary safe in the knowledge that the Scottish Ministers have no control over their salaries (wonder why they never called for that while they were Ministers?)

Yup, scenes you never thought you'd see.


Edinburgh Council was discussing trams today.

One of the reports was about line 1b (dodgy business case for it in the first place, now completely done in).

The interesting thing to note, methinks, is the increase in the cost of cancelling 1b from the £3.2m we were told would be the limit to the £6.2m they're saying it costs now. Some people used to say that the cost of 1b was fixed ...

tie, huh, what is it good for?

Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (tie) is the body supposedly managing the Edinburgh Tram project.

Being an inquisitive type chappie, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to this shiny body back in November, asking for:
the latest overall cost projections for tramline 1a and tramline 1b. I
would like one global figure for each line and the date on which the projection
was made.

A simple request you might think. Apparently not, the deadline has come and gone without reply.

If you're managing a major project you have (or should have) a constantly updated headline figure with all of its babies, a constantly updated risk register, and a constantly updated timeline (past and future). In other words, it should have been the work of a few seconds to look up the two amounts and the date they were last updated and fire the information back to the fine chap who asked for it.

There's more than one possible explanation:
tie is old school and doesn't think the information should be released, or
tie doesn't have the figures because they haven't kept up to date, or
tie doesn't want to let the figures out because they look bad, or
tie is hoping that people will go away and stop bothering it, or
tie is just realising what a mess this all is and is sobbing gently under the desk, or
tie just doesn't like me and it's me that should be sobbing gently under the desk, or
tie forgot about me, it never calls, it never writes ...

Personally, I think it's because the cost is now approaching £800 million for line 1a and 1b wasn't a guaranteed cost at all. The only promise made so far, of course, is that it won't come in at ten times the budget. Less than £5 billion then - oh, goody.

Mind how you go.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

John Smith House closed

Wee fact - Labour has moved out of John Smith House.
Unfortunate lack of information - I don't know why.
Solution - I'm going to invent a scurrilous rumour to explain it.
Here it is:
Labour's Scottish branch has moved out of its Headquarters at John Smith House as a result of a massive shortfall in revenue. The party started its slide into difficulty during the Blair era when long-term members walked away in disgust at the direction the party they had belonged to for many years was taking. Many even said that the Labour Government was "economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft".

That slide continued with a range of dodgy donations, cash-for-peerages, undeclared donations and dubious loans and contracts. Labour members continued to drift away, leaving just the rump of slightly less than 8,000 members in Scotland - less than twice the size of the Lib Dems - and career-minded individuals, spotting the writing on the wall (in the electorate's hand-writing), started making for the lifeboats; looking for jobs in lobbyist firms and suchlike to ride out the hard times and look to return when the going got better (with the honourable exceptions of the few who stayed to look after the peers of the realm).

On top of losing power in Scotland and slipping towards opposition south of the border, Labour is running into trouble with those who it used to rely on. Labour's funders have found other uses for their money, unions finding that their members are better served when they spend the money elsewhere, and private funders getting well and truly scunnered by the ongoing suspicion that surrounds anyone who donates to Labour and money from fundraising dinners appearing to go to Labour rather than town centre regeneration (for example).

The upshot of all of this is that Labour can no longer afford to occupy its Scottish HQ. Labour is not pining, it's passed on! That party is no more, it has ceased to be, it's expired and gone to meet its maker, it's a stiff, bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolic processes are now history, it's off the twig, it's kicked the bucket, it's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. It's an ex-party. (with apologies).
No doubt they'll be able to scrape together a groat or two for infighting the next election, but it's a dead brown bounce.

Now, then, I wonder if anyone else is needing scurriled ...

Monday, 15 December 2008


Once there was a spider got trapped inside a computer and built himself a website ...

Now there's a campaign to get Scots culture its own internet presence.


Friday, 12 December 2008

One Census this may not be all it seems

And they're off!

Murdo Fraser, Deputy Leader of her Majesty's (AG, of course) Conservatives, led the attack, accusing your friendly neighbourhood SNP Scottish Government of forcing people to choose between being Scottish and being British. He was closely followed (careful there, Murdo) by Michael McMahon (The Scotsman got the spelling of his name wrong - nae respect), the sage of Bellshill and Labour's Business Manager. There was the faintest whiff of xenophobia (which I am sure that neither of these tribunes intended) and the highest tinge of dudgeon to their comments which are, unfortunately, entirely without foundation.

Ah, woe is them...

If only they had taken a few seconds to read the Government statement published by GRO they could have left their collective blood pressure at a resting torrent for therein they could have clicked the link to the recommended questions compared to the 2001 questions. Have a look at page 34 - the ethnicity question will, indeed, allow people to choose between (each having its own check-box):
Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish, British, Irish, Gypsy/Traveller, Polish, or Other white ethnic group (a write-in).

The next section allows people to indicate that they believe themselves to be a combination of these. Is this forcing people to choose between being Scots and being British? Well, here's the groups that were available in the last census (2001):
Scottish, Other British, Irish, Any other White background

Followed by the 'mixed' question. Surely it was this one that truly forced people to choose between being British and being Scots? I know that Murdo and Michael will be embarrassed to have made such an error and will be rushing corrections out to every journalist they know. Especially since the GRO is liaising with its counterparts elsewhere to create a harmony of questions. If my good friends had taken the time to read the Wales and England equivalent publication as I have done, they might have spotted this paragraph:
In 2003 ONS published a Guide to the Collection and Classification of Ethnic Group Data recommending that wherever possible a national identity question should be asked as a companion to the ethnic group question.

Which may have led them to ask why the ONS has framed the question similarly to the Scottish one but without any reference to our Polish friends and lumping Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish, English and British all in the same check-box, giving 'Irish' its own check-box and changing the traveller category to "Gypsy or Irish Traveller", and not giving people the chance to say that they feel that they have a combination.

If I were having to fill in that form, whatever my nationality, I would feel my gorge rising ...

“I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.”

Mind how thou goest!

A rare wee treat

It's a lovely thing when an old friend (very old, ancient in fact, almost historic) appears as if from nowhere (like the shopkeeper from Mr Benn) and sends you a link to his blog.

Whatever you do, don't say it's about cycling - it's about bicycles. I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it ...

Mind how you go.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Trams on track ... to break the bank

The new heid honcho at the Tram project, David MacKay has admitted that the budget for line 1a is a ba on the slates, as I have been saying.

I was much exercised by the quote:
"I take the view that one should be looking at a range of numbers. I have no fixation in my mind about one certain number. There will be further amendments, inevitably, as we get closer to the end of the project. I would love to think the cost could go down, but one has to be realistic. We never started with a fixed budget, because the design changes as you go along."

I've been saying that for ages! £750 million is about where it would come in - except there's no more Government cash (no, not even for the £50 million they want to run a business case for line 3), and there's no way this can go down as prudential borrowing. Who thinks that the tram lines will finish half-way up Leith Walk?

You won't hear it yet, even if you submit an FOI request they'll tell you that the figures aren't final yet, but I'd give you odds that the utilities diversions have eaten into the contingency quite severely. Fixed cost contract - except for where they found unexpected things (pipes in strange places, cables where they shouldn't be, etc) and the utilities companies were called in. They managed to cut through utilities and disturb the foundations of buildings, and they found lots of stuff underground in Leith Walk that they weren't expecting.

They'd spent a third of the budget before any construction started, as well. Trams? Broke.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Right then, see this tribunal

Having had a wee swatch at the reporting of the HBoS tribunal, I find myself noting a point or two. Being incredibly generous, I thought I might share my musings:

Musing 1.
Nicholas Green, the QC representing HBoS, is reported to have said that Peter Mandelson acted alone in making the decision. How does the QC for one of the parties to the deal which was being examined know how the Minister making the decision acted?

Musing 2:
Paul Lasok, QC for the Government, is reported in the same piece to be saying that Mandelson was not swayed by the positions of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Government being his client he is in a position to have been told - unlike Mr Green - and his contention that "We are not in the field of collective Cabinet responsibility" carries merit; Brown and Darling should be excluded from this decision, except that the news release that announced Mandelson's decision said he took note of the Chancellor's opinion:
In making this decision, Lord Mandelson has considered the report provided by the OFT, as well as the representations on the public interest issues made by the Tripartite Authorities - the Bank of England, Financial Services Authority and HM Treasury - as well as submissions from third parties.

HM Treasury is Darling's department. Interestingly, the same release points to a
non-confidential version of the Office of Fair Trading's report on the merger

Does this mean that there is a fuller report available somewhere and should MAG ask for it to come before the tribunal?

Musing 3:
Other people have posited, and I agree with them, that the legislation does not allow Mandelson to disregard the OFT's concerns on a 'benefits outweigh the risks basis' but should have considered it on whether it was absolutely necessary.

Mind how you go!

Monday, 8 December 2008

Trams and environmental damage

Why do people who claim to care about the environment support the Edinburgh Tram Project? One of the worst things this project will do is slap what amounts to a concrete road right across the flood plain of the Gogar Burn. That'll create flooding problems for people who live further downstream. Is Councillor Phil Wheeler concerned about that as he chases his dream of an oversized train set? This particular headache doesn't seem to worry him - wonder if he has a good supply of painkillers?

The Edinburgh Tram Project is in chaos. Line 1b was scrapped months ago, the intention being to move money from that project to pay for planning line 3 so they could take a complete case to the Scottish Government to ask for more money - that's why there's been so much chatter about that never-to-be-built line recently.

Events overtook them, line 1b cannot now be paid for and there are serious doubts over 1a. Even if the capital to build 1a is available, the absence of 1b means that 1a is not viable - going by the dodgy dossier that was the business case for the trams.

That business case relied on continued economic growth in Edinburgh - just to get enough passengers to break even. The contribution from Edinburgh Council was to be funded through developer contributions and the sale of property. £26 million was the projected income from developer contributions - they've had £3 million, and some of that was out of the city's education budget (school building project).

£23 million short and development has all but ceased along the route - no more developer contributions are expected for quite some time.

The £20 million to come from land sales took a hit as land values dropped and that money isn't there either.

The contracts for construction were negotiated in euro rather than sterling (honestly), so the £512 million estimate for 1a, made when the pound was stronger is now around £698 million. Work it out yourself - it was around 1.5 euro to each pound when the estimate was made, so about 768 million euro; 768 million euro at today's exchange rate of around 1.1 euro to the pound comes in around £698 million. That's £186 million over budget. We know that the funds weren't hedged - tie announced a cost rise some time ago when the first adverse movement in the currency exchange rate bit.

On top of that, the design won't be finalised until February (so neither will the costs) - remember the cost estimates were withheld from the councillors who were taking the decisions when they voted on this last year.

You'll remember that there is £13.77 million tram cost which has been shaved off the project in an earlier attempt to keep costs down - that the project intended to ask the Scottish Government for, there's £1.2 million in parking charges foregone for tram construction to be added, but still Councillor Wheeler thinks he can go back to the Scottish Government for more money.

So, unless the project team have managed the costs down properly (and there's no evidence of that), the real overall cost is around £712.97 million - and there's £503 million available (and still the design isn't final).

Line 1a won't be built.

Don't take my word for it - the Conservatives are preparing the exit -
S3W-17961 David McLetchie: To ask the Scottish Executive how much of its £500 million contribution to the Edinburgh trams project has already been spent, broken down by (a) date of release and (b) size and purpose of each payment.

S3W-17962 David McLetchie: To ask the Scottish Executive how payment of the remainder of its £500 million contribution to the Edinburgh trams project will be phased, specifying anticipated (a) timescale, (b) size and (c) purpose of each payment.

S3W-17963 David McLetchie: To ask the Scottish Executive whether its contribution to the Edinburgh trams project will remain at £500 million if Phase 1b does not go ahead.

Mind how you go!

It's the way he tells them!

I recommend reading the FOI release from the Scotland Office relating to Dungavel - 25th November.

Almost entirely redacted - spectacular effort!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Banks and cash-for-peerages

Dennis Stevenson, the chair of HBoS intent on selling the bank cheaply for what appears to be the dodgy political ends of senior members of the Labour Party was the Chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission at the time of the Cash for Peerages scandal - he never noticed anything wrong, of course - his judgement must be mince.

He's a lifelong friend of Peter Mandelson and organised the dinners that Blair used early in his premiership to get himself into the pockets of some wealthy people.

Strangely, he doesn't have an entry on the House of Lords Register of Interests in spite of remunerated directorships being a Financial Interest which is always relevant and should be registered (George Foulkes' entry has gone missing too).

He has an interest in ManoCap which is a fund manager set up to exploit "Opportunities for profitable investment ... in post conflict and emerging African economies" - as if they haven't suffered enough.

This isn't the first financial scandal Stevenson has been involved with, either, he was caught up in the Blue Arrow scandal - which brings an interesting link to Gordon Brown through Derek Wanless.

Anyone expecting Mandelson to back down over HBoS might be waiting a while. Hopefully the tribunal will do the job, though.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Och no, not our universities!

Much worried I was by the reporting in the journals of record of our modern age about the penury in which our universities find themselves these days (especially since it is my misfortune to know an academic or two and the anecdotal evidence doesn't match the reportage).

The Herald reported Gap in funding means Scottish universities 'lag behind'
The Scotsman had it that Universities in England beat Scots for funds
The BBC was asserting that Universities in Scotland ... are losing ground to those in England

All of this was based on a report produced by Universities UK on the impact of devolution on university funding, the news release for which stated:
Although higher education is growing in all four parts of the UK, England has started to move markedly ahead in key areas, including research funding, student numbers and international student income

Holy Jiggling Batman!

Except it’s not true. How can I be so sure? Well, I read the report (cunning devil). If you were just to read the text of the report you’d find yourself alarmed, worried, concerned, and three quarters whiffled by the devastation about to be wreaked upon Scotland’s Higher Education sector. You might even find yourself demanding immediate action and a wee jaunt in a helicopter. If you look at the figures in the report, however, you might see it differently. The latest figures in the report are from 2006 and I’m only going to use the figures in the report, not introduce anything new:

Page 39,
Population of England – 50,763,000
Population of Scotland – 5,117,000
So Scotland’s population in 2006 was 10% of England’s, give or take a few fractions.

Student Numbers
Page 42
HE students in England – 1,936,420 (3.8% of England’s population)
HE students in Scotland – 215,830 (4.2% of Scotland’s population)
HE in FE students in England – 122,150 (0.24% of England’s population)
HE in FE students in Scotland – 49,885 (0.97% of Scotland’s population)

Postgrad students at university:
England 0.9% of population
Scotland 1% of population

Academic Staff
Pages 45 and 46:
England has seen a drop in the percentage of academic staff in clinical medicine (12% down to 10%) and in biosciences (7% down to 6%) since 1996, Scotland has maintained medicine (11%) and biosciences (10%).

Research Funding
Pages 46 and 47:
Scotland wins 12.5% (monetary value) of research grants and contracts from the research councils – above the 10.2% we would expect if resources were just shared equally, indicating that Scottish universities’ research is better than average (nowhere else punches above weight).

Scottish universities are also ahead in research grants from charities; bang on average in research money from business; and ahead in research money from EU sources.

Research Students
Page 48
Shocking news here that Scotland has lost 0.4% of market share in research studentships since 1996. England, though, has lost 1.5%, and Wales has lost 0.9% - it’s Northern Ireland that’s coming on strong, getting up to 2.4% from a negligible base. In fact, Scotland had dropped sharply in the middle and is coming back up, Wales and England had both increased before dropping away.

Teaching Income
Page 49
Teaching income (teaching grants, regulated fees and other fees) per full-time-equivalent student in England is £5,590 – in Scotland the figure is £6,044 – Scottish universities better funded to the tune of £454 per student. Scotland is also ahead of Wales and ahead of Northern Ireland.

International Students
Page 55
Scotland has an international student population just as healthy as England’s (15% to England’s 15.6%)

On page 7, though, the report states that

The overall increase in international students has particularly favoured
England, especially the south-east.

A wee discussion

So that, you would think kind of puts things in a wee bit of a different perspective. Let’s just ice the cake, though:

Page 10:

The impact of deferred variable fees in England will increase the resources available to institutions in England, compared with the other three countries, particularly Scotland. If Scotland and Wales maintain their policies on fees their spending on higher education will be disadvantaged.
Tell you what, I’ll lay you odds that deferred variable fees in England will result in rapidly diminishing state support for Higher Education. The Government in London, whatever colour it may be at any particular time, will turn down the tap on the money flows, forcing universities to charge higher fees. There will come a critical juncture where some universities just can’t keep going and there will be a splitting of the ways – some universities (Russell Group, perhaps) will become entirely divorced from Government and will operate as businesses while others become the poor sisters, the state universities. Whether this is desirable or not is, I suppose, just a matter of opinion.

Page 37:
The constraints on the use of these powers are practical or political: the difficulties of doing something different to England, possible implications (departing from the gold standard of British university degrees), and external factors (such as the Bologna process). How long these constraints will continue is an open question, especially if the UK/English standard either loses its lustre, or becomes unaffordable for the devolved administrations.
Who could possibly think that the English degree represents a higher quality than a Scottish degree or that there is a UK/English standard? Remarkable, really, to downplay a Scottish degree when talking about the Bologna process which will bring the European Higher Education Area ideal closer to the Scottish model than the English model.

Also from page 37:

A clear trend is already visible, with the higher education sector in England becoming larger and better funded than that in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Although higher education is growing in all four parts of the United Kingdom, England is starting to move markedly ahead in key areas, including research funding, student numbers and international student income.
Patently untrue when the actual figures given in the report are given a glance. What marks would a student get if she handed in her work with such glaring inaccuracies?

In essence, the actual figures in the report give a lie to the text in the report and cannot be said to support the contention in the news release that accompanied the report. Perhaps that’s why Universities Scotland distanced itself from the conclusions of the report, according to the Herald:

"The policy of English universities has been to move closer to an American model and away from a European model. That has been England's choice and Scotland has chosen to remain in a more European tradition.
"We do not accept that this has made Scotland's university sector weaker. England has just chosen to be different. This is what devolution means."

Just to put the cherry on it - this was before we had the great good fortune to elect an SNP Government in Scotland...

Mind how you go!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Itchy Cool!

New website launched by the purveyors of the excellent Scots language books Itchy Coo - have a look at the Burns winners.

Excellent stuff!

Fixed it

Seems I had the wrong link for the merger action group.

Fixed it now.

Click away!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Another promise kept

Good to see that another SNP election promise is well on course to being met.

"1,000 extra police officers over four years" we said.

Calman - factually incorrect

After having given lawyers a dose of gratuitous (but obviously well-deserved) abuse, I have been chided by m'learned friend.

In the midst of such tomfoolery as legal types getting on tall cuddies, m'learned friend points out that the report of the Commission to Repaint Devolution contains factual inaccuracies. I've not had a chance to check his points yet, except this one:
The Labour Party was formally committed to home rule during the 1920s but growing ambivalence in the party led to the formation of a strongly devolutionist Independent Labour Party in 1932 and Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1934.
Well, you'll find that Labour had home rule in its policy platform in the 1880s (delivered nothing in government for over a century, right enough); Keir Hardie stood as an Independent Labour Candidate in March 1888; and the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893.

None of that matters, of course, when you consider the incredible infamy of the idea that the SNP was formed from disillusion within Labour's ranks. There's only one place I've ever seen such tosh written - the Scottish Labour Party's website. Reliable and impartial research from Calman then.
Here's a more accurate view, filched (with no shame) from the website of Dingwall SNP (fine chaps and chapesses):

The Party's somewhat confusing origins can be traced back to several organisations advocating Home Rule in the 1920s and 30s. In 1928 The Scots National League (formed in 1921) and the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association (formed by John MacCormick in 1927) both combined with poet Lewis Spence's Scottish National Movement to form the National Party of Scotland.

The NPS can be seen as the most direct forerunner of the SNP as it shared the same left of centre, civic outlook as the modern party and the same commitment to independence. Many of its members were also involved in the literary and artistic renaissance that took place in Scotland in the 1920s. The first nationalist to stand for election was Lewis Spence, who contested Midlothian and Peeblesshire Northern in 1929. He won 4.5% of the vote and came fourth.

By 1934 the National Party had amalgamated with the smaller, more right wing Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party.

Of course, it's not entirely accurate, I prefer to say we took over the Scottish Party and decided to change the name to the Scottish National Party - and a fine party it is, you should all join!

Don't trust the Commission to Repaint Devolution - their trousers are on fire. Mind how you go! (c) the train driver.

Beige, but with a hint of Brown ...

So Calman has reported - and very boring it was. The Commission to Repaint Devolution has recommended exactly what it was told to recommend by the Westminster machine - except for one line on page 120 "It has become clear throughout the first part of our investigation that devolution cannot be made to work properly. We have, therefore, changed the direction of our efforts in order to map out the best route to independence."

A bit strange that this is the only bit hand-written, but there you go.

This committee, the equivalent of a do-nothing machine but with less dynamism, strikes me as the close cousin of television as a babysitter. It doesn't matter what it says so long as the picture keeps changing.

It's like having an anarchist federation - a bureaucracy unsuited to its intent with a cacophony of unrelated but arrogant self-interests and a stunning misunderstanding of the meaning of the words in its title. Except the anarchists have better T-shirts.

I do like the fact that there's an anarchists' magazine called Organise though ...

Monday, 1 December 2008

Poverty in the midst of plenty

The BBC is carrying a story about research done by Sheffield University boffins for the BBC.

It appears to show that Scotland has suffered badly in terms of poverty over the last 40 years with now 31.5% of Scottish households classified as 'breadline poor' - the worst figure measured (27.3% in 1970; 22% in 1980; 26.8% in 1990). Except the 31.5% figure which gives the BBC its headline of Third of Scots 'breadline poor' is from 2000 - eight years ago.

It's shameful that anyone should be in poverty in a nation as wealthy as Scotland - and that shame is thrown into sharp relief by the banks bail-out - but there are more recent figures (much more recent) and we should be using them to understand the depth of the problem and begin to get some understanding of what we might be able to do about it.

I know that Brown's imagery economic miracle and the measures he took to keep the boom going were damaging to Scotland's poor, and I know that some of the steps taken by the SNP Government in Edinburgh will go a small way towards helping Scotland's poor, but before we start excoriating Brown and praising the SNP we should get the up-to-date figures.

Then we can get on with it.

A Las Barricadas!

Legal action continues apace in the battle to stop the (insert raging epithet here) takeover of HBoS. When I say apace, I mean apace, there'll be lawyers having to actually work for a living for a change.

I call for more! Alistair Darling should make it clear now what Government support HBoS would get if the vote was to plough a lone furrow. Hornby and co should also be making clear how the internal situation of the bank has changed since the Lloyds TSB ram-raid was announced.

This song wouldn't work with any other bank...
Negras tormentas agitan los aires
nubes oscuras nos impiden ver
Aunque nos espere el dolor y la muerte
contra el enemigo nos llama el deber.

El bien más preciado
es la libertad
hay que defenderla
con fe y con valor.

Mortgages and Vultures

Fascinating programme on Radio 4 last night - about how the Mortgage Protocol is mince.

The woman who was about to be evicted from her home is an HBoS employee in arrears with an HBoS mortgage - the court (in Bristol) was powerless in spite of her proposing a repayment plan. Her solicitor reasoned that the only reason she got a deal eventually was that it was simply a response to pressure on the bank in the form of an email from Radio 4. The power of journalists ...

The web story has her home being saved 'days' before eviction. I think, though, that if you use the 'listen again' function you'll hear them say it was the evening before eviction.

Vulture funds
Something else that was touched on in the programme is that hedge funds and vulture funds have started buying up mortgages which carry a higher risk of default than average.

You may recall vulture funds from the Jubilee Debt Campaign highlighting their activities or from DfID's response to the Jubilee requests or from journalists pointing out that the activities of the vultures meant that international aid money was coming straight back to the developed world as profit on debt owed (interest paid, seldom any capital paid off) or from the odd politician expressing concern.

It's a lucrative business, one not easily dissociated from the UK.

There are some who put forward arguments in favour of the vulture funds, though, and it's worth reading what they say. Even when they don't say much. There are others who don't defend the funds but do point out that it's not necessarily easy to tell the good guys from the bad. There are always different stories to be told.

Vultures descending on property mortgage markets wouldn't be an original occurrence, and some banks have already tried to offload some debts at the beginning of this year's chaos (not that it did Lehman much good), and when we save HBoS from the takeover there will be a job to do in cleaning up the bank. US funds have already been eyeing up European assets.

It's often the same people doing the dirty deed and foreclosing who did the equally dirty deed in mis-selling. Selling banks will write off the debts at a substantial loss, the funds buying the debts (which may even be owned or partly owned by the selling banks allowing them to write it off the balance sheet but still keep repackaged debt as an asset whether it came originally from them or not) will demand full repayment.

For the people struggling to make the repayments it's very bad news. The vulture fund has little, if any, interest in looking at ways to keep you in your home and have you finish paying off your mortgage. It may actually be in their interest to repossess, sell for more than they bought the debt for (whether that's on the open market or at auction), and still have you owe them the rest of your mortgage. Banks get out from under the bad debt, the funds make money, it's a win-win-lose situation - and guess who the losers are?

There may be some good news. There was a chap who was interested in making sure that action was taken - strong action - to curb the activities of vulture funds. He's been vociferous, certainly, if not very effective. He was talking about vulture funds as they were attacking the poorer nations of the world, but surely Gordon Brown will want to stop the vultures wherever they attack?