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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Blair and his millions

For those of us who like to keep a close eye on our former Prime Minister, today's Telegraph has a useful article looking at Tony Blair's business affairs. It may cause Ed Miliband to think twice before enlisting the help of this thrice times winner of General Elections.

The paper says that Mr. Blair has signed a controversial contract overseeing mining deals in Latin America. He is being paid to advise the Colombian government on how it spends £2 billion earned from mining deals:

The contract, obtained by The Telegraph, reveals that the Colombian government does not pay any fees for his services. Instead, the fees owed to Tony Blair Associates (TBA), Mr Blair’s consultancy firm, are paid for by an oil-rich Gulf state where Mr Blair has developed close links.

The deal raises questions over Mr Blair’s role as a Middle East peace envoy and whether he has used that position to befriend wealthy rulers in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are now funding his private consultancy work in Colombia, among other countries.

The disclosure will add to pressure on Mr Blair to quit as envoy. According to one well-placed source, he is expected to announce his resignation from the role in the coming weeks.

They add that the contract has also prompted concern in Colombia over why UAE was funding Mr Blair’s advisory role in the country, with one senior prosecutor writing to the president demanding an inquiry.

The man has to earn a living I suppose!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A country haunted by its past

Bosnia Herzegovina is struggling to come to terms with its past. When the war ended almost 20 years ago now, there were 40,000 missing persons in the former Yugoslavia. The scars of a long and bloody conflict run deep. Men await trial for genocide even now, whilst many families do not know the final fate of their loved ones.

The political settlement that ended the conflict left unresolved divisions. There are now three Presidents, a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat, children are educated in separate schools and taught three separate versions of history, the country itself is effectively divided through a second tier of government into two entities roughly equal in size: the Bosnian Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republican Srpska, and the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission means that many issues cannot be properly addressed.

The Assembly Commission delegation that visited last week spent a lot of time meeting survivors of that conflict and those working to piece together what happened and to help the families of victims reach some form of closure. We visited the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum and the International Commission on Missing Persons as well as the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre.

The first of the photos was taken at the Podrinje Identification Project, which is a forensic anthropology unit. We were told that there are 8,000 body bags in that room containing remains and personal belongings. Of the 8,372 men and boys massacred by Serb forces at Srebrenica, 6,500 have been identified, over 1,000 are still missing.

The other pictures show the Assembly delegation meeting the Mothers of Srebrenica and laying a wreath at the Potocari memorial cemetery. 

We were told that bodies were buried and reburied at different sites, some spread across as many as five mass graves. Some relatives have only been able to bury parts of their loved ones, In one case a mother buried her son wiithout his head, and only a few bones of her husband.

The use of DNA to help with the process of identification has been ground-breaking and is being used elsewhere in the world to identify victims of other tragedies. The process though cannot eradicate the pain or the trauma.

This is a country traumatised by its past. Its economy is struggling, youth unemployment is amongst the highest in the world and its application to join the European Union seems doomed to failure.

We must remember those who were murdered in cold blood as part of some misconceived policy of ethnic cleansing, the children and their parents who were mowed down in cold blood in the centre of Sarajevo, the deprivation and hardship experienced by the inhabitants of that City in a siege that lasted nearly four years, and the men and boys who were killed on the road trying to escape the Serb offensive.

The international community must also bear some responsibility for failing to intervene earlier, and for the UN troops who allowed the slaughter to be carried out.

The process of reconstruction has begun but it is hampered by the ghosts of the past and the settlement that ended the war..

Friday, April 17, 2015

Manifestos galore

I have not been on here for a few days due to other commitments, which I will blog about over the weekend. It was an interesting and informative trip abroad, but also very disconcerting.

In the meantime, what have I missed? Well it seems this is the week the parties launch their manifesto and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are no different. Here are the highlights of our weighty tome.

The manifesto includes:

Opportunity for children: investing further in Wales’ schools;
Opportunity for young people: with more apprenticeships, discounted bus travel, and support to rent or own their own home through the innovative Help to Rent and Rent to Own schemes;
Opportunity for parents: giving parents £2000 tax free childcare and more paternity leave for fathers; Opportunity for better healthcare: providing investment for more nurses on hospital wards and better mental health services;
Opportunity for workers: with a further £400 tax cut for millions of working people;
Opportunity for older people: with the pensions triple lock written into law; and
Opportunity for the next generation: with the budget balanced and our environment protected so that our children and grandchildren are not left to pay for the mistakes of this one.

As with the party’s 2010 manifesto, the Liberal Democrats’ top priorities are spelt out on the front page. They are:

1. Prosperity for all Balance the budget fairly and invest to build a high skill, low carbon economy
2. Fair taxes Cut your taxes by an additional £400 by raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500
3. Quality health care for all Increase resources for our NHS and ensure safe staffing levels
4. Opportunity for every child Invest in our schools through our Pupil Premium
5. A stronger Wales Deliver Home Rule for Wales with further powers and fair funding

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The crippling cost of the Tory and Labour obsession with the private finance initiative

The idea of taking capital spending off the Treasury books and handing public sector projects to the private sector was first conceived by the Tories and then embraced enthusiastically by Labour.The vast majority of PFI projects were commissioned by Labour.

In theory the cost of funding a project by both PFI and the more traditional method of Government borrowing is compared and assessed and the cheapest option chosen. In reality though the odds were deliberately stacke din favour of PFI.  The result is a debt burden that only now the country is coming to terms with.

How big that burden is can be seen from this article in the Independent. They say that every man, woman and child in Britain is more than £3,400 in debt thanks to the proliferation of these controversial deals, which were used to pay for infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. In total the UK owes more than £222bn to banks and businesses thanks to these “buy now, pay later”deals. This data has been verified by the National Audit Office:

The headline debt is based on “unitary charges” which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies.

Basically, a PFI is like a mortgage that the government takes out on behalf of the public. The average annual cost of meeting the terms of the UK’s PFI contracts will be more than £10bn over the next decade.

And the cost of servicing PFIs is growing. Last year, it rose by £5bn. It could rise further, with inflation. The upward creep is the price taxpayers’ pay for a financing system which allows private firms to profit from investing in infrastructure.

An NAO briefing, released last month, says: “In the short term using private finance will reduce reported public spending and government debt figures.” But, longer term, “additional public spending will be required to repay the debt and interest of the original investment”.

Another legacy from Gordon Brown's tenure in government we are going to be paying for over the years to come.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tony Blair to form an ex-Leaders' support group?

Just when we thought we were rid of him, Tony Blair pops up again and threatens to haunt us for the next thirty years.

The Times reveals that the ex-Prime Minister wants to create a “cadre” of former leaders and has plans to remain in public life for the next three decades, claiming that it is odd that accomplished statesmen are expected to retire and play golf:

In an article in Newsweek, Mr Blair also expounded on his idea of creating a leaders’ club, saying one was needed because only other leading statesmen could fully appreciate the experiences a former national leader has undergone.

“The moment I’m talking to a new leader and I’m describing what I felt and what the challenges were, there’s a total and instant empathy,” he told the magazine. “Whether they come from the left or the right, what they want is to get things done. And I know what it’s like because I’ve sat in the decision-making seat.”

Mr Blair, 61, said that since many leaders of even small nations were “fantastic executors”, then “why not use their talents and their experience?”

He said: “I want to build a cadre of people. Why not come and help the president of this country or the prime minister of that country?” 

Stop me if you have seen that film. Who needs Marvel when Tony Blair is assembling his own gang of super-heroes to solve all the World's problems?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Why Plaid Cymru cannot take the moral high ground on tuition fees and coalition government

An anonymous, off-topic comment prompts me to do a search of the archives to illustrate that on tuition fees no party has a good story to tell.

We all know what happened with the Liberal Democrats of course. The fact that the new system is actually an improvement on what was there before, that it means most students will not have to repay their tuition fee loan and that it is attracting more students from the poorest backgrounds to go to university than before, does not excuse the poor way that this was handled by my party.

I did not agree with the decision at the time, though in mitigation, it was early on in the coalition when we were still finding our feet, we did not have a majority and both the Tories and Labour were in favour of fees. In Wales all the Liberal Democrats MPs voted against the increase in fees and the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly group supported the Assembly Government in subsidising them for Welsh students in this Assembly term.

Labour themselves do not have the excuse of being in a minority on this issue. In fact they set up the review that led to the increase in fees. They also broke two successive manifesto promises to introduce fees and top up fees. And they had a huge majority.

Similarly, despite what Plaid Cymru activists now say, they also broke a manifesto promise to bring in top-up fees when they were in a coalition government with Labour in the last Assembly. The evidence is here. That has not stopped Plaid AMs and others in their party assuming the moral high ground on this issue, ground which is now crumbling beneath their feet.

In fact the only party who can put up their hands and say that they have done what they said they would on fees are the Tories. And that is because they have consistently supported the concept of fees and the increase in the cap.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Divining public opinion

It is quite clear that some members of the third estate struggle with the concept of a hung Parliament. Like many others they like certainty and for things to be clear cut. Coalition government has not suited them at all.

That is apparent from this article in today's Independent, in which they take a look at the things that the vast majority of the public can agree on. Note this does not involve majority government in any form whatsoever, at least not yet.

They say that 72% of the British public support introducing plain, standardised packaging for tobacco products, 61% approve of £10 fines for missing NHS appointments as a way of funding the service, 52% agree that gay men can become parents (for example through using surrogate mothers, adoption, 53% support sexual education in or before Year 6, 59% think the BBC were right to sack Jeremy Clarkson, and 59% support McDonalds serving breakfast all day in all of its restaurants in Britain.

Having got that off their chest I am sure the journalists concerned will now be able to sleep better at night, though I am not sure that the rest of us have gained anything at all from this exercise.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Blair dilemma

Tony Blair's intervention in Labour's election campaign must be causing some mixed feelings for Ed Miliband and his entourage. On the one hand they could do with some of Blair's gravitas and many candidates will be grateful for the money, but on the other the baggage that comes with the former Prime Minister could become too heavy to bear.

As Chris Green in the Independent suggests, for some Blair's legacy is toxic, with many voters now simply looking at him and thinking: this is the man who led us into Iraq:

Labour are well aware of the political baggage that their former leader carries through his association both with the Iraq war and the New Labour project. The party’s current leader, Ed Miliband, has repeatedly sought to distance himself from the old regime.

Asked why he did not appear alongside the former prime minister yesterday, Mr Miliband said only that his Labour colleague could “speak for himself”. He added that he was “100 per cent happy” to receive Mr Blair’s support – but was careful not to praise him too highly.

Blair of course, has good political antenae and will be aware of the impact that his public support for Miliband may have. I expect him to use his own time sparingly in support of the Labour campaign, testing the impact of each intervention before moving on.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Tory hypocrisy on tax cuts exposed

The changes to the personal tax allowance brought in by the coalition government has meant thar 175,000 low paid workers in Wales no longer pay income tax, whilst 1.1 million Welsh taxpayers are £825 better off compared to 2010.

It is a major achievement and has come about solely because of the Liberal Democrats presence in Government. It was a pledge on the front page of our manifesto and we insisted on its inclusion in the coalition agreement, despite Tory scepticism about its affordability.

That is why it rankles so much to see the Tories now trying to claim the credit for it. We should not forget David Cameron's words in the leaders' debates in 2010. He said: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it". And here is the proof:

Tory hypocrisy on this issue is astounding.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Pensioners benefit from Liberal Democrats in Government

All the news about pensions today focusses on the new freedoms ushered in by Pensions Minister, Steve Webb. As the Telegraph reports more than half a million savers will make the pension reforms a success by prudently withdrawing small amounts to spend on holidays, home improvements and their grandchildren.

They say that the first detailed study into how savers will use the new freedoms indicates that fears of pensioners blowing their savings on fast cars or frivolities are unfounded as just one in 10 will withdraw their entire fund in the first year:

In the vast majority of cases, those who access their pensions will take out less than £20,000, according to the survey by YouGov and investment company Tilney Bestinvest.

Experts said the results showed most people would use the freedoms to secure a better quality of life in retirement.

Steve Webb, the pensions minister, said: “There is genuine excitement out there about the changes. I have encountered a lot of enthusiasm, people who are saying it will be life-changing, that they can pay off a mortgage or do something for a family member.”

Claims that people would waste their money were patronising, he said, pointing out that those likely to take advantage of the reforms were “prudent savers”.

The real boost however is the Liberal Democrats triple lock which guarantees that pensions will rise by whichever is the greater of average earnings, inflation or 2.5%. That means that as of today the state pension will go up by £2.85 and will have risen by £18.30 a week since 2010, or £950 a year.

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