Thursday 20 June 2013
As a working definition of the term "eurosceptic", I prefer it to mean someone who wants to leave the European Union – and is not prepared to compromise. Perhaps we have to move on: use the word "outer" and leave it at that.
However, according to the Telegraph Media Group's finest, 54 percent of Tory grassroot members do not meet the most rigorous definition of "eurosceptic".
This comes from a recent YouGov poll carried Queen Mary, University of London, and the University of Sussex, which starts well enough. It tells us that 71 percent of Tories would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held now, with only 20 percent wanting to stay in.
But, if Mr Cameron achieves "a deal with the EU that protects Britain's interests" – whatever that might be – a multitude of rats desert the eurosceptic ship and 54 percent of Tories end up wanting to stay in the EU. Just 38 percent say they want to leave.
Tim Bale for the Telegraph thinks that these Tories are eurosceptics, but "they trust David Cameron's strategy on the European Union".
Actually, it isn't a strategy, as such, unless you take fooling the gullible as one. And before you draw any particular conclusions, you have to look at earlier results. As we saw earlier, the survey in July 2012 had 48 percent wanting to pull out and 31 percent wanting to stay in the EU, across the political divide.
However, if a new deal was renegotiated, the poll suggested that people would vote in a completely different way. Most – 42 percent - would vote to stay in the EU and only 34 percent wanted to leave. And, with Tories, the percentages are very similar to what they are now, with 55 percent wanting to stay in, versus 34 percent wanting to stay in.
Where there is a difference is in the number of Tories wanting to leave without there being negotiations. In July last year, 58 percent would have left, so the current 71 percent represents a significant hardening of sentiment.
Nevertheless, the crunch figure is almost unchanged: 55 percent of Tories would buy renegotiation last year, and 54 percent buy it now. What we are seeing, therefore, is very much what we have seen before – an ossifying of sentiment with very little change over time, despite the more intense narrative and the rise of UKIP.
For me, that is the important thing. People's views have hardened and they are not being influenced by the debate. Thus, how they will behave if we get a referendum, much less a negotiation, is hard to judge. But there is no great cause for optimism.
Thursday 20 June 2013
Readers may recall us taking a stand on the behaviour of bailiffs employed by local councils to recover Council Tax arrears and other debt, with us charging that some of the activity was criminal.
Back then, in September 2011, we had obtained from West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police confirmation that a particular form of behaviour, the "phantom visit" which then led to massive overcharging, was in fact fraud.
Yet, despite this admission, and formal complaints to my own local authority, nothing changed, and neither did the Police take action, even though they acknowledged that there was de facto evidence of offences having been committed. They had other priorities to occupy them, not least disposing of a disgraced Chief Constable.
A month later, I also had other priorities – a trip to the menders to acquire a porcine spare part, which gives one a somewhat different perspective on life. With that, we allowed the ball to roll gently to the edge of the field, although the momentum never completely dissipated. We still have things on the go.
However, no less than Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary has picked up the ball. An old Bradford hand, his stock is quite definitely on the rise.
Scarcely reported by the media – which says a great deal about how detached they are from real people and real concerns – Mr Pickles did at least make the pages of one of the Telegraph Media Group's sales brochures. This told us that "Ministers have ordered local authorities to rein in over-zealous bailiffs hired to collect council tax and parking charges".
The detail, though, is in recently issued guidelines which, as things go, are extremely interesting. Called "guidance to local councils on good practice in the collection of Council Tax arrears", these tell local authorities that they cannot dump the responsibility for collection of debt on the bailiffs and walk away. They remain responsible for the action of their contractors.
Councillors, the guidelines say, "should regularly scrutinise the operation of outsourced contracts; and the broader use of such recovery action must command and continue to command public support and confidence".
As to our particular issue on concern, the local authorities are told that, "Public concern has been raised about the practice of some bailiffs undertaking 'phantom visits' – charging fees for action when no action was actually taken". And then we have the money quote:
The Government consider that any fraudulent practices should be reported to the police as a criminal offence under the Fraud Act and that Local Authorities should terminate any contract with companies whose activities are proved fraudulent.
Back when we started all this, it took some serious pressure even to get the police to accept my complaint and that has been the common experience. Invariably, we get the mantra from the police, "civil action". But now there is a Government department telling us that bailiff malpractice should be treated as a criminal offence.
Mr Pickles has taken a major step forward.
Wednesday 19 June 2013
The MoD can no longer hide behind the defence of "combat immunity", preventing aggrieved relatives from suing the Ministry in the event of deaths of their loved ones in action. That is the effect of a ruling today in the Supreme Court today, where Sue Smith and others had sought leave to sue the Ministry over the use of poorly armoured Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq.
This is an issue which we have rehearsed on this blog and more generally on Defence of the Realm, to the extent that we have very little further to say. When I spoke to Sue Smith earlier today, though, she was both thrilled and weary, having lived with the death of her only son for nearly eight years, only now to get to the stage where she can challenge the MoD in open court.
As it stands, nothing has been proven – all Sue has managed to do is earn the right to sue. Whether the MoD actually breached their duty of care in requiring Sue's son, Pte Phillip Hewett and others, to patrol in a Snatch through al Amarah in southern Iraq on 16 July 2005, has now to be established, and that is going to take some seriously hard work.
Interestingly, at the inquest on 30 January 2007, Major General (now General) Sir Peter Wall gave evidence in defence of the decision to use the Snatch, saying:
...if we … had decided that we were going to put the armour protection of specific vehicles as our highest priority and we had conducted all of our patrolling in Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles in urban areas where there is quite a lot of support and sympathy for our presence, it was our expectation that this would have generated a wholesale adverse reaction, which would have greatly increased the span of threats to our presence in southern Iraq.
Sir Peter is now Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the Army, so this case goes right to the very top of the Service, challenging the decision-making at the very centre of power.
Contrary to some rather superficial comment, therefore, this case does not "open the floodgates" for soldiers or their relatives to second-guess the decisions of field commanders, and especially decisions taken in the heat of the moment. The case goes to the heart of Army decision-making at the very highest level, where the use of Snatches was decided upon for political rather than operational reasons.
The limitations of the case have been made clear by the majority of the Justices (five), who held that the Snatch Land Rover cases should not be struck out but that the extent of any duty owed, and whether such duty was breached, will be fact specific and have to be explored at trial.
Lord Hope made clear that in deciding whether or not the state had breached its duties, the courts should not impose an "impossible" or "disproportionate" burden on the authorities. Equally "the widest measure of appreciation" must be given to commanders for decisions taken on the ground and actively involved in armed conflict.
That this case will ever see the light of day is in some measure due to the generosity of Sunday Telegraph readers, who responded to an appeal by Christopher Booker, and to readers of this blog who did likewise, enabling Sue to proceed at a critical juncture when legal aid was being withheld.
The broader background to Snatch incident is set out in my book Ministry of Defeat, which got as close to the facts as we could. Now we may find ourselves able to add more to the narrative, and get even closer to what went on, which has been Sue's objective all along.
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Confronted with criticism of the European Union, its supporters would often retort that there could not be so very much wrong with it, to judge by all the countries queuing up to join.
In that context, last month's halt to EU accession negotiations, announced by Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the newly-elected prime minister of the independent state of Iceland, was of more than just of local significance. This, alongside Norway and Switzerland, which had also turned away from membership, marked another blow for the self-confidence of the "colleagues", who had failed to convince the Icelanders of the merits of political union.
The decision was formally announced to the European Commission by the country's foreign minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, saying crisply, that, "This is how democracy works". Both main parties in the recent general election had been against EU accession.
A significant factor in the rejection had been the fate of Iceleand's fish stocks, which would have become a "common resource" under the EU's Common Fisheries Policy. And now, to confirm the vital role of fishing policy in that decision, we have Gunnlaugsson telling a Reykjavik crowd (pictured above) that the mackerel fishing dispute with the European Union as a prime example of the value of sovereignty.
Gunnlaugsson was speaking during Iceland's National Day, marking its birth as an independent nation in 1944. He declared that the EU's demands that Iceland reduce its mackerel catch showed why the country needs to maintain its independence.
"To apply illegal sanctions against a small nation for catching fish in accordance with scientific guidelines and within its own economic zone, at the same time as larger nations are making catches from the same stocks without any criticism being voiced", said Gunnlaugsson, "would hardly promise well for a common fisheries policy".
Only from that stance could Iceland have responded to the latest round of bullying with such equanimity. Last week saw EU fisheries commission Maria Damanaki visit the island, threatening to impose sanctions unless the Icelandic government agreed to immediate negotiations.
Dead-batting this bluster, fisheries minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson calmly told her that Iceland had "expressed its sincere willingness to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible in order to find a fair solution to this dispute", but has since done absolutely nothing to resolve the Commissioner's angst.
Well might Iceland take the EU's threats calmly. As have the cod moved north into sub-Arctic waters, so have the mackerel moved north into Icelandic waters, giving the Icelanders every right to increase their quotas, which indeed they have done.
As we explained earlier, Iceland is more right than wrong and, if the EU had a good case for imposing sanctions on Iceland, and the neighbouring Faroe Islands, it would have acted already.
Were either fishing nation in the EU, of course, there would be no possibility of them arguing with the all-powerful fisheries commissioner. Quotas would have been decided in Brussels, alongside national allocations, and that would have been the end of the matter.
Farcically, though, one interested party left out of the discussions is UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon. Although he represents the strong Scottish interest in the mackerel fishery, he does not have a seat at the "top table" and has no power to negotiate directly with the Icelanders or even the Faroese.
There can be few better illustrations of the fatuity of Mr Cameron's "top table" claim than the sight of Gunnlaugsson seeing off the EU, while Mr Benyon has to go cap-in-hand to Brussels to be given his marching orders by Maria Damanaki.
Wednesday 19 June 2013
The Guardian is one of two low-circulation newspapers which today lead on the Tyrie "commission" calling for a new law to jail bankers for "reckless misconduct", as well as provisions which will require bankers to wait up to 10 years to receive their bonuses.
The call for jailing bankers undoubtedly reflects to growing public distaste for the breed, but one suspects that there are already sufficient sanctions to apply to those who fail in their duties. The problems seem more related to detection and enforcement, rather than the lack of any penalty.
However, there is always a good case for reviewing the accountability of individuals who stray from the path of acceptable behaviour and recklessly cause damage or cost. But, if there is a case for change in this sector, then surely there is equal cause to move against the public sector.
On Saturday, we saw a German call criminal sanctions against public servants for "financial infidelity", where there had been substantial and reckless waste of public money. What's good for the goose must surely be good for the gander.
Thus, while one would not at all disagree with the idea that bankers should be held responsible for their actions, the principle should not be confined to this sector. Criminal sanctions, where appropriate, should apply across the board, and should apply equally to the public sector.
A few civil servants behind bars might to wonders for the quality of public administration.
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Caroline Spelman, former environment secretary, writes in Conservative Home, praising the US-EU deal. And, to argue the utility of our membership of the EU, she chooses to focus her attention on the car trade and the advantages of mutual recognition of each other's regulations, via the deal.
A US-EU trade deal would account for over 50 per cent of global trade, and the significance of this, she says, "is that we can then call the shots on [vehicle] standards".
Frankly, I don't know what is sadder or more alarming – the fact that we don't call the shots on standards any more, or that a former environment secretary doesn't know this. But, as we pointed out in an earlier post, vehicle regulation is an exclusive competence of the European Union which, in turn, is an active player in the automotive global harmonisation process through the UNECE and the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29).
This, we also learn through this Commission Working Document, and in particular page 5, which tells us:
Active participation by the European Commission in activities related to the 1958 and 1998 [UNECE] Agreements is crucial to ensure that EU interests are taken into account. Therefore, European Commission services continuously increase their involvement in the Geneva technical legislative process, in particular by working within WP.29 and its subsidiary bodies in order to ensure harmonisation between UNECE Regulations and EU legislation. This is particularly important since Regulation (EC) No 661/2009 on the general safety of motor vehicles (the GSR) repealed numerous EU Directives and replaced them with UNECE Regulations.
As it stands, the United States, although a founding member of UNECE, does not apply the vehicle harmonisation agreements. Thus, UNECE Regulations are not recognised in the US and vehicles exported to the United States have to undergo type approval mandated by the Federal Government.
Generally, the European Commission and the EU Member States take part in the preparatory work of the UNECE working parties. If it becomes obvious at this stage that further discussions between experts are necessary, an informal working group may be set up within a working party with a view to making progress in the development of the Regulations. This may occur where there is a rapid development of complex new technologies. The European Commission is attentive to ensure its active participation in those informal groups where sensitive and important issues may be dealt with. Following on from the work done at this stage, a vote by the European Commission at WP.29 in favour of adopting any UNECE Regulation, or an amendment thereof, is preceded by the adoption of a Decision according to which the authority to vote in favour is granted to the European Commission. This is done in accordance with the procedures set out in the Council Decisions on the accession of the EU to the 1958 and 1998 Agreements. As a result of this, the European Commission exercises the right to vote in WP.29 on behalf of the EU and its 27 Member States.
In the unlikely event that there is an US-EU deal agreed, what will then happen is that the US will work through the UNECE/WP.29 process, on the basis of existing agreements. Then, the regulations will be agreed between the big players - the Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea (with India an equally important player), the United States and the EU, all of which will have seats at the top table.
The UK. of course, will not have a vote, much less a seat. It is represented by the EU and, as we see, the EU votes on standards, on behalf of 27 (soon to be 28) Member States. Thus, we do not now "call the shots on [vehicle] standards" and we will not ever "call the shots", as long as we are members of the European Union. To "call the shots", we have to leave.
COMMENT: TRADE DEAL THREAD
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Noted by Autonomous Mind and Facebook is an article with links in perfectly with my earlier piece on the US-EU trade deal.
The article is in the Canadian Globe and Mail which tells us that the latest "Canada-EU trade deal" is threatened by infighting. This is the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which was launched in June 2009, almost exactly four years ago. It is still nowhere near completion, and they think the US-EU deal is going to take a mere two years?
And there I was last night, writing of the US-EU deal, "As time goes on and the talks begin to stall, optimistic stories will be replaced by tales of delays, bad feeling, and political infighting – all focused on the failure of the EU to close the deal". Now we see reported that, "Canadian trade negotiators are running up against bureaucratic infighting among European Union officials".
The Globe and Mail is retailing that that Canadian prime minister might have to return home empty-handed after week-long negotiations, after EU officials backed away from earlier commitments.
In more than one instance, the Canadians feel they had locked down agreement with the Europeans on a topic, only to see that consensus unravel because directorates in the EU bureaucracy hadn't signed off on the terms. They say this has happened in negotiations over trade in services, slowing the momentum of the talks.
"The EU side seems increasingly incapable of getting its act together to close a deal", one Canadian source says. "The various competing directorates within the EU are fighting each other, which is leading to erratic moves such as backing away from earlier commitments – actions that are on the verge of bad faith. The EU has to demonstrate it's serious about cutting a deal".
And now, bang up to date, we see a picture from the G8 summit and, from behind their wheelie bins, we see the real power behind the group (above), with Van Rompuy and Barroso delivering their end-of-summit joint statement.
"Together with US President Barack Obama", they said, "we launched the historic negotiations for an unprecedented Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States". There was not a mention of Mr Cameron.
Despite the attempts by the likes of Caroline Spelman to talk up the Conservative leader, that statement reflects the reality. It is this pair, not Mr Cameron, who will be running the European end of the negotiations, and we'll soon be seeing exactly the same dynamics about which the Canadians are complaining.
At the moment, the talks are in the honeymoon phase. But, by 2015, when they are supposed to conclude, Mr Cameron will be facing the general election and his mind will be elsewhere. The talks will have entered a trench warfare stage, and we will hear little from the Conservatives, as the supposed deal will be nowhere in sight.
The following year will be the US general election and, as the implications for different states become apparent, presidential and Congress candidates will be briefing against the aspects of the deal in the "loser" states, in favour of "American jobs" and local pork. This will add layers of complexity and make settlement an impossibility.
By the end of that year, as have the Canadians now, the Americans will have fallen out of love with the EU. President Obama will be out of office and Mr Cameron will be long gone. Even Van Rompuy and Barroso may be gone, but whoever is left will be talking to themselves.
COMMENT: TRADE DEAL THREAD
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Councils in Britain are responsible for £114 billion of taxpayers' money – more than double the defence budget – says the Daily Express, then going on to complain about "waste" and "perks" amounting perhaps to several hundred million, as recorded by a Channel 4 Dispatches programme.
This is all very well and good but, if local authority spending was as low as a mere £114 billion, I wouldn't begrudge them a few hundred million bunce. As it happens, the latest figures (2011-12) give us an annual expenditure of nearly £162 billion, close to four times the defence budget and nearly £50 billion higher than the Express figure.
To our surprise, though, that figure of near £162 billion actually represents a cut from £172 billion in 2010-11 and £168 billion in 2009-10. Pathetic though the cut is, representing about six percent on a historic peak, we have local authorities whinging
about the scale, claiming they have taken a 33 percent cut in central government funding since 2010.
The low-circulation Observer
then translates this into a generic cut, giving the casual reader the impression that there have been swingeing double-figure cuts across the board, instead of a paltry six percent reduction in overall spending.
What we are not told either is that the cut represent only a relatively modest clawback from a situation where the total government grant of nearly £24 billion in 1997-98 more than doubled to reach just short of £58 billion in 2010, the last year of the Labour administration.
What has not been properly explored is the way that, as central government has reined back its grants and imposed limits on Council Tax, local authorities have upped their charges
for a wide range of local services, and developed new revenue generation schemes of dubious legality. Thus, by 2009-10 we saw that "sales, fees and charges" plus "other income" almost matched Council Tax, a situation that has continued ever since.
Yet, while even the Guardian
is beginning to realise that there is something amiss, with local authorities using traffic fines as a means of revenue-raising, the media have not joined up the dots. Councils are making up for the drop in government grants and a freeze on Council Tax by upping their revenue-generation activities.
Entertaining though it might be to have the likes of Littlejohn
huffing and puffing about "waste and perks" – and rightly so – no one seems to be looking at this development, and pointing out that revenue-generation has become a vast new industry, gouging billions from the pockets of the public.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the lack of coverage is the delay in producing statistics, with the latest volume
only published a few days ago, covering only the period until April 2012 – more than a year ago.
But even this tells you that local government accounts for 23 percent of "total managed expenditure", making councils responsible for nearly a quarter of all public spending. This is serious billions and, after deducting the "non-grant income" - i,e. local revenue generation -it amounts to a £135 billion cost to local and central government taxpayers, or £2,544 per head in 2011-12.
Not anywhere though, will you get serious reporting or any evidence that the national media begins to understand what is going on in local government. All it can manage is the occasional cheap shot
round the fringes, in this case picking up on £262 millions-worth of expenditure over six years - less than £50 million a year for an operation which spends nearly £500 million a day.
Scrutiny at all levels is needed but here we have the media chasing the trivia and missing the big picture. It needs to follow both.
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Mr Cameron is playing the EU-US deal extremely big, and the media are giving him his head. Yet, for the prime minister, this is something of a risk. As we pointed out earlier, there are so many imponderables that the end cannot be predicted.
However, we are also seeing Kenneth Clarke leap into the breach, exploiting the pro-EU potential to his own advantage – or so he thinks - and given front-page lead story treatment in the Telegraph.
He is saying that this country will not be able to participate in the deal - and others - without its single market membership. "Irony of ironies", he says, "it is of course the EU that is making deals with the United States and Canada possible". Thus does Clarke say, "It should come as no surprise that Obama's officials have commented that they would have 'very little appetite' for a deal with the British alone".
We've been there before, of course, and it is a reflection of how badly the media is handling this issue that it has failed to point out that our single market membership is not dependent on our continued membership of the EU. This is actually a US-EEA deal, so it will apply to EFTA members of that agreement as well.
But if the media can't deal with the facts and keep the public informed, its uncritical - and high profile - pursuit of this story has the potential to backfire dramatically. Any sanguine analysis of the chances of the US-EEA deal being successful has to conclude that current sentiment is overly optimistic.
As currently presented, we are being told that the deal is set for completion in two years, but simply to look at the complexities confronting the negotiators makes that prediction wholly unrealistic.
Then, as more information on the impact of the deal, the ramifications and the potential winners and losers emerge, political battle-lines will begin to be drawn. Positions will harden and opposition will mount.
The French strop over the film and digital sectors is only a rehearsal for things to come. Even that has had considerable repercussions, with the Financial Times telling us that the G8 summit has been overshadowed by the row over "reactionary" French protectionism.
Barroso has taken a swipe at the French, declaring that, "Some say they belong to the left, but in fact they are culturally extremely reactionary". He added that critics of liberalised trade in films and music had "no understanding of the benefits that globalisation brings also from a cultural point of view".
Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, one of Hollande's senior officials, described Barroso's remarks as "bewildering and intolerable". An EU spokesman then said that the Commission president's comments were "aimed at critics of the commission's liberal stance", not the Hollande government.
This, though, is a tiny spat, and nothing compared with what will happen when we get to agriculture. Then the fun will really start. Apart from anything else – such as the different stances on GM crops - there is a huge mismatch in animal welfare standards between the US and the EU. And neither side will be minded to change their positions, because the economic implications are huge.
Take the difference in housing standards for battery hens, for instance. This allows US eggs to be sold out for 20-30 pence a dozen cheaper than their European equivalents. Yet, the shipping cost for a dozen eggs on a Jumbo Jet freighter is around five pence. A free-for-all would savage the European egg industry, and that is just one of the sectors that would be hit. The Europeans simply are not going to tolerate this.
As time goes on and the talks begin to stall, optimistic stories will be replaced by tales of delays, bad feeling, and political infighting – all focused on the failure of the EU to close the deal. From being the current EU "good news" story, this will become a millstone round Mr Cameron's neck, and he will be exposed to constant jibes about yet another EU mess.
Furthermore, as it becomes more and more clear that the British government is a mere bystander, and the negotiations are between the European Commission and the US, the deal will come to mark British impotence, as we are forced in to positions that are dictated by others.
For the moment, though, the likes of Kenneth Clarke will have their fun. All we have to do is bide our time, as the expectations drain into the sand, and the hubris is seen for what it is. The "landmark deal" will never materialise. Instead, it will become a graveyard of false expectations.
Monday 17 June 2013
The aircraft is a Nord 2501 Noratlas, originally designed as a French military transport. It was first registered as a civilian aircraft on 12 September 1957 - the year of the Treaty of Rome - when it was operated by Air Algeria.
It seems then to have been re-registered as a military aircraft before then again acquiring civilian registration in May 1988 under the designation F-EURO. It is seen here (above) at Le Bourget Airport in August 1988, resplendent in its new livery.
At some time (possibly that year - 1988) it was flown to the aeroclub airfield at Lons le Saunier in southeast France, near the Swiss border where, as result of engine and unspecified administration problems, it remained and has not since flown. It is seen here in 2005 (above).
Now, last weekend, it was photographed again by a reader, now deteriorated to a useless, sad wreck – a shadow of its former glory, with its motors long gone (above). What a perfect metaphor it is for the single currency, which is in much the same condition.