Monday, 26 March 2012

Mr Barroso, you can stick your £6.4 billion where the sun don't shine (probably in a Swiss bank vault)

Today's press has largely revolved around the #CamDineWithMe thread.

Just who has the Prime Minister had to dinner?

One wonders whether Mr Cameron has had Jose Manuel Barroso over for fish and chips and a pot of tea, judging by the astonishing offer the President of the European Commission put on the table last week.

In a bid to push through the controversial Financial Transactions Tax, or Tobin Tax, which would see a levy placed on all international transactions that would go straight to EU coffers, Mr Barroso waved a tantalizing metaphorical wad of cash under our Prime Minister's nose.

He proposed cutting the UK's contributions to the EU by €7.7 billion, or £6.4 billion.

So far the UK has stood steadfast against the proposals which would see the City of London shoulder the bulk of the charges (around 80%) when similar levies are not applied in other countries. Fears that this would drive the Financial Services industry out of the UK have far from been assuaged by the Commission President's offer.

The tax would in effect allow national contributions by the EU to be cut in half, essentially moving towards the EU becoming a self-funded, and thus federal, set up. One imagines that the long term goal would be to steer all taxation towards Brussels, essentially subsuming the last bastion of sovereignty into the realm of the EU.

However the FTT would, in effect, be the City of London funding their federal dreams.

It is estimated membership fees could be cut by €54 billion, while countries could keep a third of the proceeds they levy themselves.

The idea, originally the brain child of French President and 'Anglo-Saxon'- hating Nicholas Sarkozy, couldn't work unless the choice was made unanimously and universally ensuring that such a system would operate around the world and that banks in London wouldn't simply up sticks and leave. It's hardly surprising that Sarkozy would want to make the City of London the EU's cash cow and has even gone as far as leading a pact of nine EU countries that want to see the proposed levy pushed through. Without the City, Britain's might would be significantly lessened, silencing the often most stubborn and uncooperative member state of Europe and making her more subservient to the EU dream, enabling France and Germany to step up and take greater control. For decades our Financial Services have been the envy of our European neighbours, putting us on an equal footing with other great cities like New York. Imagine being able to not only take that away, but use it to fund what was primarily a French conception of European supranationalism, and you can see why Sarkozy is going around with his clip board trying to extract the signatures of the other European leaders.

It's estimated the Financial Transactions tax would be worth some €54 billion, which suddenly makes the €7.7 billion sweetener look a little sour.

It's not hard to see why the City of London is so valuable to the UK.

Financial Services in the City of London employ 349,200 in London alone, and a staggering 1,111,500 across the UK.

The City of London contributes 2.4% to the national income, while financial services represent 19.5% of total national income in the whole of London.

The financial services sector accounts for 10% of the total national income of Great Britain. Staggering figures when you think that this is just one industry we are talking about.

The financial services sector as a whole made a total tax contribution of £63bn in the tax year to March 2011, representing 12% of total government tax receipts.

As the largest international banking centre in the world, with banks in the UK accounting for over 20% of global cross-border banking business, the City is an important attribute to the UK as a global player.

Total banking assets in the UK, at around £8 billion, are equivalent to more than five times the country’s total GDP.

Most of the world’s largest banks have their international business activities in London, including many foreign banks. In fact foreign banks in the UK currently employ around 124,000 people. By whacking an almighty tax on these banks, what is to stop them simply moving elsewhere?

Stamp duty is already paid on almost all financial transactions made already in Britain and is rightly under the onus of the UK Government.

Essentially the FTT is more than just a big earner. Politically it is a pivotal and schismatic blow that if pushed through could change the course of the EU forever.

It's hard to understand why we don't just follow the Swiss model and stay well away from the European Union. Last year Switzerland was ranked the wealthiest country in the world per capita. Its ranked 8th in the world in terms of GDP per capita, according to the World Bank and IMF and last year the Swiss Franc is one of the world's strongest currencies with the lowest inflation rate of 0.7%

It has one of the lowest rates of taxation in the developing world and an extremely felxible job market with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. Switzerland has free trade agreements worldwide and is home to some of the world's biggest companies. She continues to trade with the EU freely yet has resolutely blocked EU membership every time Brussels comes crawling.

Whether or not the UK would be like Switzerland if we were to leave the EU is unclear. But one thing is for certain. We would be a lot better off out.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

If Britain Were Greece

Just watched an excellent comparitive piece on the BBC Website
If Britain were Greece.

The journalist has assimilated the facts and statistics of Greece's swinging austerity measures imposed by the Troika of the EU, IMF and ECB into a British context.

Here's a summary below:

Unemployment would have hit 7 million

Half of all young would be out of work

Minimum wage would be cut from £6.08 per hour to £4.74 per hour, or for under 18s, be reduced from £4.98 to £3.39 per hour.

100,000 public sector workers would be waiting redundancy with their salaries meanwhile cut by 40%

1 million public sector workers would be sacked by 2015

All public sector workers salaries would not just be frozen but cut sharply

VAT would go up 24%

Solidarity levy would account for 5% of income

Alcohol and tobacco prices would be increased by 1/3

Diesel and petrol would rise to around £2 per litre, meaning it would cost £120 to fill the tank of family saloon

State and public sector pensions above £800 a month would be cut by 20%

Anyone with a pension above that rate would see it cut by no less than 40%

The equivalent increase in retirement age would see many Brits working well into their 70s

All state benefits would be slashed and strictly means-tested

Defence budget would be slashed by a fifth, meaning the loss of many personel and the likely merge of the army, navy and air force

NHS spending would be cut bu a sixth, leading to tens of thousands of job losses for medical staff

There would also be the closure of numerous schools, meaning thousands of teachers unemployed.

The outlook for Greece is ghastly and is certainly not set to improve any time soon. And all to protect the common currency project that props up the European Union.

Horrifying, isn't it?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Little Town with the Big Cathedral that was

...And is now a city!

As part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, city status has been conferred on a town in all four constituent countries of the United Kingdom.

In Wales, the recipient was St Asaph.
The small town in Denbighshire, home to a modest 3,400 people and only 1,550 residential properties, can now proudly call itself a city.

But what's in a name?

It is often erroneously held that only a Cathedral maketh a city.
Yet there are numerous examples of cities in the UK without cathedrals, Birmingham the most notable, as well as Cambridge, Derby, Hull and around 10 others.

Similarly, where there is a Cathedral, there is not always city status. St Asaph was one such example.

As from 1888, the presence of a cathedral ceased to be a relevant factor in granting city status, although St Asaph's voluntary run community newspaper goes under the title The City Times.

The little Welsh city attracts some 800,000 visitors annually, with the Cathedral, which dates back 1,400 years, being the focal attraction.

However the award of a city status does not come with increased administrative powers or attract more government funding. So what does this ceremonious honour actually bring?

For those connected with the City's historic landmark, it represents acknowledgement of the ancient cathedral which they feel was devalued by St Asaph's lack of city status.

Other than that, the moniker brings no special rights other than conferring on a place the title of "City" which many believe encompasses a prestige in its own right.

It will however mean money spent on changing signage, letter headings, guide books and the like. But will it attract more visitors?

I would venture to say yes. At least for the near future.

After all, we are talking about it, and you are reading this, and perhaps if you hadn't been there before or even heard of the Cathedral you may now be thinking of calling in for a look around. And footfall means liquid cash.

However despite it's dainty size and idyllic setting, St Asaph is by no means the smallest city in the UK. That badge can proudly be worn by St Davids in Pembrokeshire, whose population of 1,797 (at the last count) means it is less than half the size of its North Walean relative.

Some might say that the campaign for city status attracts regeneration and inward investment. Just being in the race mean a significant facelift for a large number of the runners.

But rumour has it, little St Asaph, who until the 1960s actually thought it was a city, only set aside £300 for their bid compared to the thousands larger connurbations pumped into their efforts.

Either way, the status is likely something that people do not even wish to monetise.

It's a special moment and a day of pride for the community, and that, many would say, is priceless.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Spoken by an English tongue, the word has an onomatopoeic resonance that sounds rather gruesome, slightly Frankensteinian and fitting of a fictional disease in a Fin de Siecle Gothic novel whose emblematic manifestation is embryonic mummification. Sadly, however, it is not a fictional disease dreamt up by an author with a taste for the dystopian. It is the latest virus to spread among livestock in Europe and will potentially wreak havoc in Wales this year and potentially for years to come.

SBV was first identified last year in the eponymous Westphalian German where it was originally discovered. It has since spread across Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemborug and France, before eventually crossing the Channel to arrive on the South coast of England. Invasion is now creeping northwards and spreading throughout the southern counties, up to Gloucestershire, where it may well be poised to filter across the border into South East Wales and beyond. Reported cases to date, with estimations changing on an almost hourly basis, sees the largest number of confirmed cases of 772 separate farms in Germany, followed by France with 277, Belgium with 166 and The Netherlands with 123, but by the time you are reading this, the number has potentially surged.

Despite the apparent sudden geographic spread, there is however no pattern to reported cases of infection. Scientists are certain that they are looking at a vector-borne disease, meaning infection is most likely passed through midges or biting insects as in the case of Blue Tongue. This would possibly suggest large under reporting of incidence, meaning the true prevalence of Schmallenberg remains worryingly unclear. There is also no reliable antibody test, thus positive virus identification is as yet impossible in many suspected cases.

Either way, even going by present statistics alone, we are dealing with an epidemic of significant scale.

Much like human conditions with similar causes, such as malaria which is transmitted by mosquito bite, it is not believed the virus can be transmitted between animals. However the defining symptom of Schmallenberg and its greatest potential risk to livestock is through its propensity to be passed from mother to foetus, where the greatest impact of the problem is observed.

As a result there is as yet no restriction on the movement of livestock. Many in the industry argue that to bore out such punitive restrictions at a time when the industry is likely to face an enormous economic blow would be overreactive and highly damaging. Yet this reveals a far graver problem. One can regulate to an extent the movement of cattle and sheep, but how does one restrict the migration of ticks and midges? Similarly with no reliable serological test and no vaccine, disease detection and prevention are extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The industry is therefore in a position of stalemate. Other than seek to mitigate the economic fall out of Schmallenberg on affected farms, little else can seemingly be done. There are no plans to cull infected animals, so the scenes witnessed during the BSE crisis in the UK are unlikely to be blighting television screens and turning the rural ideal into a horrifying post apocalyptic ovine bloodbath. Similarly real time farm closures witnessed during outbreaks of Foot and Mouth are unlikely to serve any real purpose, with knee jerk restrictions authored in a state of panic more likely to further blight an industry on the cusp of perhaps one of the greatest economic hardships this century.

However as I write this on a glorious sunny day at the start of March when clemency has at last touched our weather systems for the first time this year, the welcome return of the sun also hails the beginning of lambing season. In Wales the sight of newborn lambs frolicking in the countryside has become the pastoral idyll of springtime. Yet combined with the reproductive boom of biting insects, this spring could well signify the advent of desolation to a number of farms across the country.

Infection could spread exponentially over the warmer summer months, and only as the lambing season begins will farmers know whether they have been struck by the virus, or whether it is working its way through flocks as the majority of us bask in the first sunny spell of the year. Within a few months we will also approach the birthing season for cattle, finally revealing the true extent of the spread of Schmallenberg in the UK.

Vaccination meanwhile is still at least two years away, according to National Sheep Association chief executive Phil Stocker. However, Dr Dan Tucker, of Cambridge University, has suggested that livestock may develop immunity after they have been infected for the first time, likening the disease to human Chicken Pox. Yet other reports suggest that the sudden escalation and range of cases could be indicative of what may in fact be the second year of infection, which would suggest that the virus may be able to survive the European winter and could lie dormant until next year when it could strike again.

So far there is no indication that SBV can affect humans. Assessments carried out in the Netherlands concluded the risk to human health is likely to be very low but cannot be ruled out. Without wanting to scaremonger, the same was once said about CJD. However as the most likely vector for infection is through insect bite, one would imagine transmission is unlikely to come in the form of contaminated meat.

So what is Schmallenberg virus? As yet, there is little we know about it. It manifests in congenital defects seen in close to term and newborn lambs, calves and goat kids. Often the foetus or newborn will have twisted limbs or be still born. Farmers across Western Europe have also reported what appears to be mummified newborns. In mild cases neurological damage leads to signs of malcoordination and paralysis. However in adult livestock, the symptoms are far more subtle. Milk yields may be reduced in cows and in some cases fever and diarrhoea are also present, yet to the majority of the herd, something akin to a mild case of flu in humans would be hard to detect.

Due to it not being a registered identifiable disease, there is still no blood test available that could be used on farms, although scientists in the Netherlands and Germany are close to developing such a test. However this also means that financial protection is not in place for farms where stock may be heavily affected. Both Lloyds TSB Agriculture and the Bank of Scotland have both announced what they describe as a sympathetic and supportive approach to their customers, urging anyone with difficulties to contact their bank manager as soon as possible. The NFU are also working around the clock to draw up provisions in insurance policies and calculate the cost to the industry and how to mitigate a severe impact on farming in this country, however the true impact that will be felt is hard to even broadly estimate.

So far Schmallenberg has shown signs of virulent spread and reports so far had are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. As the lambing season continues, the true extent of still births will be revealed, often ranging between 10 and 40 per cent and representing the loss of thousands of pounds per affected farm.

Agriculture has suffered repetitive disasters since the early nineties when BSE changed the face of farming in the UK for decades. Swine flu was then followed by avian flue, and of course foot and mouth still poses a risk alongside other hard to eliminate conditions such as TB. However one thing is for certain. Panic measures and extreme reactions can be dangerous and unnecessarily harmful to the agricultural sector, already suffering from rising fuel costs and increasing price of animal feed. What is needed is sensible, cautious and respectful regulation coordinated alongside active stakeholders in the industry. Focused delivery of protection and remuneration should be the intent of national governments, but there is also a call for sharing information, cooperating and creating a unified response across affected territories in Europe. Whilst I baulk at the sort of heavy handed treatment the EU has doled out on British farmers over the past few decades, it is mere common sense that laboratories, farmers and veterinary scientists in affected countries across the globe work together to try to reduce the spread of the disease, investigate its potential risks and ideally eliminate it altogether.

March signals the advent of vernal abundance. Lambing season turns Wales into a picture postcard of the Welsh countryside idyll. Yet Wales’ long tradition of sheep farming is likely to suffer over coming months. With over 100 farms in England, including cases in border counties, suggesting it will soon spread to Wales.

However panic measures would be unnecessarily harmful, especially a block on the movement of animals when the virus is likely carried by midges. I have written to the Commission asking whether they are supporting the development of a blood test and vaccine and what measures they are likely to enforce to mitigate the spread of the virus, advising against anything that could harm the sector. In recent months new legislation restricting pesticides has left farmers concerned. I have asked the Commission to investigate a possible link, as well as scrutinise other existing legislation that could prevent Schmallenberg being treated quickly and efficiently.

In situations like this, it is important the farming industry stands together. Any action taken should be decided in cooperation with farmers themselves.