Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Retaining No Credibility

I see that the Scottish Lib Dems have set up another of those one-off websites. This time, it's to 'campaign' to retain the UK opt-out of the European Working Time Directive in respect of retained firefighters.

Personally, I’m full of admiration for the work the retained do on our behalf. Without their willingness to put themselves on call at all hours, large parts of Scotland simply couldn’t have the levels of professional fire cover which they enjoy at present. If this opt-out were to end, it would mean the closure of smaller stations, which would mean that vital response times to incidents would increase, placing lives at risk.


However, I can't help but wonder why, if the Lib Dems are as concerned as they claim to be about the impact of this change, did their MEPs manage to split and vote both for and against removing the opt out when the vote was held on 17 December 2008? And why, given the particular impact on Scotland, did the solitary Scottish Lib Dem MEP, Elspeth Attwool, vote to remove the opt-out herself?

People are used to the Lib Dems facing both ways depending on who their audience is. On an issue as serious as this, shouldn't they be offering us a united front? Perhaps more to the point, isn't it the height of hypocrisy to be stating that you stand for one thing in Scotland, while voting for precisely the opposite in Europe?

Pole-Axed

This is genius:

Details of how police in the Irish Republic finally caught up with the country's most reckless driver have emerged.

He had been wanted from counties Cork to Cavan after racking up scores of speeding tickets and parking fines.

However, each time the serial offender was stopped he managed to evade justice by giving a different address.

But then his cover was blown.


Read the rest for yourself on the BBC Website here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

It's Scotland's Electromagnetic Spectrum!

OK, I'll admit it freely here and now. 'It's our Electromagnetic Spectrum!' perhaps isn't the catchiest slogan in Scottish political history. However, the sentiments behind it could turn out to be an important part in ensuring that rural Scotland can take its place at the forefront of the digital revolution.

Before your eyes glaze over, please, hear me out. This is, I'll admit once more, a bit of an anoraky issue. Or at least it is until you get to the implications. So, if you're still with me, get yourself a strong cup of coffee and strap yourself in tight as we head (only temporarily, I assure you) for the 'dork' side.

As some might remember hazily from dim and distant science lessons, the electromagnetic spectrum covers everything from nuclear radiation and the UV rays that give you sunburn, to visible light, right down to the frequencies that bring you mobile phone signals and television through your aerial. It's the mobile phone and TV signals which should interest us here, though.

Since there's a limited amount of data which can be sent on the space available, these portions of the radio spectrum are much coveted, with telecommunications companies prepared to pay handsomely for the rights to use them. And HM Government in London, which regulates these usages for us, is only too happy to collect the cash on our behalf.

It's big business too. When he was but a humble Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown managed to extract a whopping £22.5bn at year 2000 prices for the 5 new mobile phone network licenses. This is what became known as '3G', which you can use to get high-speed data on your mobile phone or a laptop, albeit at something of a premium cost.


It would have been a disaster for companies like Vodafone or Orange to have missed out on the chance to offer these enhanced mobile services, so they paid through the nose for the privilege. Having seen how successful the UK Government had been at milking the cash-rich telecoms companies for these lucrative licenses, the rest of Europe followed suit.

Results? The phone companies ended up having to overpay for the franchises; they then couldn't afford to expand 3G coverage as quickly as they might have liked; and in a bid to rebuild their finances, they then spent several years wringing this cash back from the poor consumer, through overcharging us for data usage, for using our phones overseas and by selling overpriced pictures and ringtones to kids.

Consequently, it's taken nearly a decade for 3G technology to really catch on in the UK. In Scotland, despite the fact that there's now an even faster fourth generation of the technology just around the corner, 3G coverage is still dismal. Venture too far away from the Central Belt, Inverness, the M74 or the main east coast ports, and you'll be back to using 20 year old technology – pitting a stagecoach against a bullet train.

And it's with the '4G' future that it looks like Labour is about to make exactly the same mistakes. Desperate for money, Brown will, as he announced in his 2007 budget, attempt to raise £30bn from the companies, this time from the spectrum which will become available after they've switched off analogue TV signals.

The trouble is, when this 'digital switchover' happens on our TV screens, for many people who are served by smaller relays rather than by the main TV transmitters, instead of getting 50-odd channels, you'll be stuck with about 18. Unless, that is, the government decides to keep some of this bandwidth for digital TV coverage in rural areas.

'OK, so everyone will get a good digital TV service that way, but it'll mean less money for the Government to repay its debts!', I hear you cry. Well, yes, indeed it would, and much, much less money too, if I had my way.
3G coverage isn't great in England, but it's hopeless in Scotland. If we want 4G to be better, then we need to do something radical, and here it is. Instead of having another auction for this spectrum, then why not give control of it to Scotland, and let the Scottish Government give it away for nothing?

That's right – after we've given everyone a decent free digital TV service from Gatehouse of Fleet to Gartly, let's give the rest of the spectrum away to the mobile companies free, gratis and for nothing. The catch, if you can call it that, is that in exchange for not paying the Scottish Government for this privilege, the companies successful in their bids will be the ones which promise to expand their Scottish geographical coverage the fastest.

So, Scotland takes control of one of her resources, rural Scotland gets the decent digital TV and mobile coverage which it lacks presently, and we take our place as one of the most digitally connected countries in the world. And since we'd be giving away something which we didn't have to begin with, the cost is negligible.

A Scottish solution to a Scottish problem; one which makes us better rather than worse off; and which won't cost a penny either. I bet Gordon Brown hates the idea already...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Congratulations!

Congratulations to Iain Macwhirter - newly elected rector of Edinburgh University. I'm sure he'll be a worthy and staunch advocate of the interests of the student body.

The Torchpaper LIT

I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised to learn this evening that the SNP Government has decided to drop, at least for the duration of this Parliament, plans to replace the Council Tax with a Local Income Tax.

My strong support for LIT is something which I've put on the record before and which I'm happy to do so again. The Council tax hits low earners disproportionately and is particularly pernicious for people who live alone. It allows people in HMOs to escape paying what ought to be their fair share. The value of one's house bears no relation to one's ability to contribute towards local services and the sooner it's replaced with something fairer, the better.

So why ditch what remains a popular and fundamentally fair policy? A number of reasons: Firstly, there's the refusal of the present Westminster Government to budge on continuing to make available the monies paid in Council Tax Benefit, currently around £400m each year, to continue relieving the burden of local taxation. Then there's the small matter of the £1bn of budget cuts coming our way over the next 2 years. While neither of these are insurmountable obstacles in themselves, put them together at a time when Government is going to need to be able to offer enhanced central funding support to Local Government, and it risks leaving other areas of importance open to the prospect of funding shortfalls.

Add in the clear reluctance of HMRC to administer the tax, and the prospect of having to find alternative collection methods risks exacerbating these pressures further. With the country firmly in the grip of a recession, it's likely to see a fall in income tax revenues at a crucial time. All things considered, despite the fillip of the small business bonus scheme, it's clear that this is not the time to be placing an additional, if small, burden on small enterprises to aid the collection and administration process.

Then there's the parliamentary arithmetic. Although I suspect that some in the Lib Dems might have been open to the prospect of setting LIT centrally, at least to begin with until it settled down, there seems to have been no guarantee that this would be the case. So even on the best case scenario of having 47 SNP plus 16 Lib Dems on side (63), with 46 Labour and 16 Tories resolutely against (62), this was going to put a lot of power in the hands of the Greens and Margo. Even if Margo was persuadable (and so far as I can see, she's been playing her cards very close to her chest, no doubt with an eye to the tight numbers), if the 2 Greens had decided to vote against rather than abstain in view of their support for a Land Value Tax, that would have made it at 64-64 a repeat of the first budget vote. Result? The bill would fall.

If Jack McConnell had taken up that High Commissionership in Malawi and the SNP had taken his seat at the resulting by-election, that might have given the breathing space necessary to make proceeding worthwhile. However, that's not where we are. As such, the sensible thing to do is to park it and campaign for a stronger mandate next time round.

You'd think that with the policy being shelved, Labour might actually be quite happy. Not a bit of it. On Scotland at Ten this evening, Andy Kerr was barely coherent with rage. Despite being, we are told, an unpopular policy, the SNP had used its popularity to win the last election. Even in his moment of 'triumph' he still couldn't get the story straight – a bit like the earlier claims from his party that while collecting less overall than the Council Tax, LIT would simultaneously increase taxes on the lowest and the highest paid, as well as all the hard working families in the middle. There's nothing like having a coherent position in politics and throughout, theirs has been nothing like a coherent position.

So, with the exception of the benefits arising form the continued Council Tax freeze implemented by the SNP, we're back to where we were pre-2007, with the SNP campaigning in favour of LIT and Labour and the Tories campaigning against. While the Tories at least have a vaguely plausible position of offering enhanced reliefs (which still won't make a fundamentally unfair tax fair), having so far rejected all alternatives proposed, Labour are still in favour of the Council Tax unreformed and increasing.

With their refusal to put an alternative plan in place before 2011, that's not going to be a credible position for them, far less a vote winner next time out. We can all remember the shambles they made before the last election, when they claimed that an extra band at the top of the scale would allow for the creation of an extra band at the bottom, without the need for a property revaluation – something which would rather implausibly have left 11,000 band 'E' households paying out to reduce the bills of nearly 500,000 band 'A' dwellers. In the Orkneys, this back of fag packet policymaking would have left just 2 band 'E' taxpayers paying to implement the policy - I wonder how Peter Maxwell Davies felt about that? :-)

Just as a reminder, here's a summation of Labour's position on local tax, as expounded by Cathy Jamieson on Newsnight back in April 2007:



Anyway, to move from the ridiculous to the sublime, I also recall a bet from the dim and distant past with Richard Havers over this matter which may now have lost me, or perhaps even cost me, a lunch somewhere nice. In any case, I'm sure I'll be reminded of the exact terms of the bet in due course!

Monday, February 09, 2009

An Expensive Way to Boil Water

Another Scots Independent column...

In its first annual report published at the end of last year, the Scottish Government's Council of Economic Advisers recommended that an economic and CO2 abatement assessment be made of all the energy options open to Scotland. Sensible advice, moderately expressed, you might think, although that wasn’t how our esteemed friends in the unionist parties and the press saw matters.

The hooting, hollering and tyre-swinging began in earnest, with varying degrees of erudition being displayed along the way. Whatever – for anyone who knows that 2+2 = 4, there’s only one result which any study into the economics of nuclear could possibly come back with. However, if you were determined, while there’s a welter of superb analysis out there already, from Greenpeace as well as Scotland’s own Professor Steven Salter, there’s worse places to start than the most recent annual report and accounts for the recently taken over British Energy (BE).

Normally, when a company is taken over as a going concern, the price paid to shareholders exceeds the value of the assets. Given that BE total assets were deemed to be worth £12.4bn by company accountants and an operating profit turned in of £507m, there’s surely something unusual about the fact that √Člectricit√© de France (EDF) was able to buy BE for its asset value of £12.4bn.

Unless that profit figure is not all that it seems, it looks like EDF has taken the pants off the BE shareholders. Unfortunately, following BE’s bankruptcy and takeover by the Government, those shareholders were us, the taxpayers. However, it’s worth delving a little further into the figures before drawing a conclusion.

More curious is the reference in the accounts to 'non-current' nuclear liabilities, which in plain English means future decommissioning costs. On the company balance sheet, these amount to just £5.3bn, of which £2.5bn is for ‘back-end’ fuel costs. Which leaves the princely sum of only £2.9bn for decommissioning BE’s present sites.

Now, it’s important to note here that the costs of decommissioning the earlier Magnox stations have been hived off (to Magnox Electric Ltd – a part of BNFL which operates on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency), which means that BE is effectively operating only ‘in the present’. This means that thanks to the taxpayer taking on all past liabilities, it only has to cover the decommissioning costs of its present sites.

The only reliable basis we have for estimating future decommissioning costs is based on our experience of decommissioning Magnox stations. According to its business plan, the NDA expects to have expenditure in 2008/09 alone of £2.9bn, the majority of which you’d expect to be going on site decommissioning. Planned expenditure is expected to be £2.8bn in both 2009/10 and 2010/11.

So, from this, we can see that BE has only set aside on its balance sheet as a liability the equivalent of just over one years decommissioning costs for Magnox. Looking at ongoing contributions, it paid just £22m in 2007 and £23m in 2008 into the Nuclear Liabilities Fund. Even allowing for the ‘sweeping up’ of future cashflows by the NDA, it’s clear that BE has been failing catastrophically to make adequate provision for future decommissioning costs.

The Magnox situation could be even worse for the taxpayer than it seems. That 08/09 clean up cost of £2.8bn represents £1.5bn of grant-in-aid from government and assumes that £1.3bn will be raised through commercial activity. However, even the NDA admits that this income is “uncertain”; and acknowledges that it is “expected to decline” due to “ageing facilities and fragile infrastructure”. In other words, if these increasingly creaky facilities have to shut down early for any reason, even if only temporarily, it’s ‘bye-bye’ commercial income and ‘hello’ increased taxpayer liability.

But back to BE, at the time of takeover, there was deemed to be just under £5bn shareholder equity in the company. If a more realistic account was being taken of present liabilities, that equity figure would have been wiped out many times over. Which begs the question – why would EDF want to take over such an operation? What could they possibly have been offered - apart from the prospect of being able to build new reactors on BE’s existing sites – to make this deal attractive?

The answer is simple. Unless the price of electricity is allowed to soar, profits and shareholder equity are dependent entirely on governments allowing for the real long-term clean up costs to be underestimated, hidden or hived off elsewhere. Just as Magnox failed to wash its face commercially, so too has the present generation of reactors. And if I’m still alive in 50 years time, it’ll give me no satisfaction to see the same financial trickery being deployed along with the promise that this time, with newer technology, it’ll somehow all be different.

Given England’s population and shortage of natural resources, there’s probably little alternative to new nuclear south of the border. We, on the other hand, with our surfeit of renewables and hydrocarbons, have a cheap, profitable and clean set of alternatives. Instead of fatuous scaremongering about ‘lights going out’, I wonder what it will take for the lights to go on for Scotland's nuke fanatics that it’s no more than a hideously expensive way to boil water?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Budget Passes 123-2

So... budget passed 123 votes to 2, and everyone can legitimately say they've got something - even the Greens, who still couldn't bring themselves to vote in favour.

Most pointless contribution of the day though has to be the one from Margaret Curran. About to vote the same way as the Conservatives (and the Lib Dems and the SNP), she had the brass neck and effrontery to castigate the SNP for working with the Tories on the budget!

Yeah - as if Labour don't do similar in council chambers up and down the land, or even in Holyrood when it suits them to do so. Clearly, she's learned nothing from her experience of pretending to be that which she was not in Glasgow East.

Anyway, it's done and dusted now. The budget has huge legitimacy; and a valuable lesson can be learned not just about minority government, but of the responsibilities of a majority opposition as well. And with local authorities signed up to the historic concordat and all parties bar the greens signed up to an even more historic budget bill, I presume that means there'll be no more complaining about future spending lines? :-)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Battle of Harlaw

Oh well... it was always going to be a big ask for a Highland League side to eliminate SPL opposition, but I'd been keeping my fingers crossed that Inverurie Locos might do just that in the Scottish Cup against a Motherwell side that has been, well, performing indifferently of late. The weather tonight seemed to set the scene for a cup upset but alas, it wasn't to be, with Motherwell progressing by three goals to nil.

Shops in the town have been showing their support for Locos with special window displays - a welcome display of colour which lasted longer than anyone had expected thanks to the multiple postponements of the tie. The sense of pride and anticipation in the town has been palpable over the last few weeks and a joy to share in for someone like me who works there.

Even though it wasn't the result Inverurie was hoping for, well done to everyone at the club. You did the town proud.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Budget - The Aftermath

Per the post below, there's a poll in today's Sunday Times, which gives the first indications as to how the public at large might be viewing the budgetary shenanigans of last week. However, I thought it might be interesting to take a fresh look at events given the benefit of a day or two to reflect.

There's been some severe criticism of the SNP for not having the support of the Greens in the proverbial 'bag for life' before the budget vote. I've remarked elsewhere on my surprise at this,but it's maybe worth pointing out that in any negotiation, there is, by definition, more than one party involved. If it's not possible to have a deal, then it's not possible to have a deal – simple. With further detail emerging about the pressures on Patrick Harvie from his own side in this Sunday's papers, it's suddenly clear why John Swinney went out of his way to emphasise the common ground between the SNP and the Labour party during the debate.

As things stood, it required Labour abstentions to get the bill through. It wasn't enough. Harvie had his moment in the spotlight and funked it. Labour seemed intent on finding fault with initiatives like apprenticeships and town centre regeneration funding, simply because they wanted to claim a monopoly of ideas across the parliament. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, were still in a self-imposed splendid isolation over their demands for £800m of cuts.

And so, when it came to the vote, the Greens went against, having been unable to take yes for an answer. And Labour and the Lib Dems, who were certain that they could have a painless kick at the SNP by voting against the budget, thanks to the Greens suddenly found themselves where they neither expected nor particularly wanted to be - on the winning side.

That simply wasn't in the script, and for all Ian Grey's bravado in the aftermath about confidence motions, Labour and the Lib Dems found themselves experiencing a sudden and bowel-loosening acquaintance with realpolitik. No budget? No government. No government? 28 days to elect a new First Minister. Would Labour and the Lib Dems combine to elect Grey or Tavish? Not a chance. Which placed rather a lot of power in the hands of Annabel Goldie and the Tories...

Goldie excoriated Labour's tactics at FMQs. When she announced that one Labour government was damaging enough for Scotland and that we certainly didn't need two as a result of a bloodless coup, that really was check mate. Anyone daft enough to think that Grey could be installed as FM was suddenly faced with the prospect of the election they had accused the SNP of being 'arrogant' for pointing towards. And as the phones began to heat up with Labour Council leaders and trade unionists demanding to know what the hell Labour MSPs thought they were playing at by putting jobs and budget plans at risk, the bravery pills overdose wore off pretty quickly.

So, we are where we are, and a new spirit of co-operation appears to be abroad. Labour seem willing to deal on apprentices, while the Lib Dems appear to have put themselves back in the game by dropping their demand for a 2p tax cut. It's also become clear that no-one of any consequence would have criticised Harvie for taking the deal he was offered. Discretionary spending within the £33bn block is actually quite limited, so £33m would have been a remarkable achievement for a party with 2 MSPs. As it is, his principles remain pure, but the pot remains empty.

For my own view, having a unanimous vote in favour of the budget is not essential, but would be highly desirable. As the poll results below show, the public has taken a pretty clear view of who it considers to be the heroes and villains in this affair. The best face-saver for all is for everyone to back a budget which may not deliver all that they want, but which, in these 'difficult times', represents a good deal for Scotland as a whole. That way, everyone can emerge with something and we can all move on.

On a final note, there's been a lot of nonsense written about the supposed 'arrogance' of the SNP this week – frankly, since the party enters every Holyrood vote in the full knowledge that it could lose, it's always been a nonsensical and rather self-serving charge. You'll find no-one in the SNP disputing the responsibilities which come with minority government. However, now might also be a good time to recognise the responsibilities which come with opposition.

As I said after Glenrothes, sometimes a disparate opposition will be able to combine in ways which defeat the largest single minority. In truth, the opposition parties at Holyrood have always had the power to bring proceedings to a juddering halt any time they wanted. That's what happened this time, even if it did come about by dint of a Lib/Lab miscalculation and the idiosynchratic internal politics of the Greens.

Just because the government can be defeated, it doesn't mean that it should be, particularly on issues as important as a budget. The vitriol and venom directed in some quarters towards the SNP this week has not been particularly edifying – maybe this can be a watershed whereby the legitimacy of the government can be recognised, and a recognition also be made of the common ground which actually exists between the parties in the chamber, be that on the economy or even elsewhere.

Sunday Times Poll

LEADERSHIP APPROVAL RATING ON BUDGET PERFORMANCE:

Alex Salmond: +11%
Annabelle Goldie: -3%
Iain Gray: -17%
Tavish Scott: -19%
Patrick Harvie: -25%

WHO WOULD MAKE BEST FIRST MINISTER:

Alex Salmond: 35%
Iain Gray: 15%
Annabel Goldie: 11%
Tavish Scott: 5%

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT ELECTION

Constituency vote (change on May 2007 in brackets)

SNP: 38% (+5)
Lab: 32% (--)
Con: 13% (-4)
Lib D: 12% (-4)

Regional vote:

SNP: 34% (+3)
Lab: 28% (-1)
Con: 15% (+1)
Lib D: 11% (--)
Gre: 6% (+2)
SSP: 4% (+3)
Sol: 1%

Scottish Parliament seats:
SNP: 47 (--)
Lab: 44 (-2)
Con: 18 (+1)
Lib D: 13 (-3)
Gre: 5 (+3)
SSP: 2 (+2)

WESTMINSTER ELECTION

Lab: 37% (-3)
SNP: 27 (+9))
Con: 20 (+4)
Lib D: 12 (-11)

ECONOMY

Trust most to make the right decisions in tough economic times (change from October Sunday Times YouGov poll in brackets):

Alex Salmond: 33% (+10)
Gordon Brown: 33% (-9)

In the October 2008 Sunday Times YouGov poll, Gordon Brown led Alex Salmond by 42% to 23%.

INDEPENDENCE

Support for independence (previous Sunday Times YouGov poll in October 2008 in brackets)

For: 29% (31)
Against 55% (53)