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Thursday, 31 March 2011

TPA And HS2 – The Seat Numbers Game

Anyone who has been following the arguments put forward by the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) in their efforts to stop the Government’s proposed high speed rail link (aka HS2) going ahead will know that the TPA sets great store by the number of seats their own proposals will offer to rail travellers, and especially commuters bound for Northampton.

Indeed, in their latest “research note” on the subject, the claim is made that their approach would “allow commuter capacity to Milton Keynes and Northampton to be doubled”. They also talk of overcrowding on “fast” services, which gives a hint of how their argument is constructed.

The TPA is urging the adoption of Rail Package 2 (RP2) from the Atkins report for the DfT, which I’ve looked at previously. RP2 includes four trains an hour from Euston to Northampton – but no extra services at peak times – with each train offering a maximum of 589 seats, which means an hourly total of 2,356.

Now, between 1700 and 1800 hours on weekdays – the main peak period – the present timetable has just two trains routed via the Fast line to Leighton Buzzard, Milton Keynes and Northampton, offering 1,512 seats in total. This appears to show a significant improvement with RP2, until the whole operation is considered.

Because the reason for only two services using the Fast lines is that this is the limit of current capacity with the 100mph trains used: there are other Northampton services, which use the Slow lines, the difference in journey time adding another 10 to 15 minutes. To compare like with like, the capacity of these trains must be added.

Thus there are two further trains to consider: their seating capacity is 1,330. That gives a total over the four trains of 2,842, so RP2 will actually give 486 less seats to Northampton between 1700 and 1800 on weekdays. On top of that, there are at present two further trains running as far as Milton Keynes, with 1,064 seats, yet there is no sign of these in the RP2 timetable.

And there is worse news for Northampton commuters: the tilting trains needed for RP2 will have far less ability to take standing passengers than the trains currently working the commuter service. Moreover, any overloading will cause the tilt equipment to stop working, thus slowing the service and damaging the integrity of the timetable.

That’s a timetable that I’ve already shown to be unworkable. Now it can be seen that commuters will face a severe cut in the number of peak hour seats to Milton Keynes and Northampton. And on top of all that, the new train fleet needed for RP2 will cost significantly more to maintain than that at present in use.

This is something else the TPA is not telling you. It’s all starting to add up, isn’t it?

The Libertarian Ambiguity

You may not have heard of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and if so, you’d be in good company: not even in the USA, where it is based, is it well known. But thanks to Talking Points Memo, a little light is now being shone on this libertarian body, thanks mainly to a recent spate of Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The Mackinac Center has previously gone after emails from schoolteachers that mentioned the possibility of a strike, which should give an idea of where they’re coming from. Its donors include the Koch brothers, who are all for anything libertarian, and against anything called Government.

This time, their FOIA request was for the following: “’Scott Walker’ [Governor of Wisconsin], ‘Wisconsin’, ‘Madison’, ‘Maddow’ [you read that right] and ‘Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin’”. The request was directed to three state Universities in Michigan, and covered the whole of 2011 up to March 25.

One might be forgiven for viewing this as an authoritarian, rather than a libertarian, move, and the inclusion of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in the search term list appears strange. Maddow commented on the disclosure that “some days, my job is weirder than others”.

There is also the possibility that Maddow has been targeted as she has been highlighting a controversial piece of Michigan state legislation on her show. But the attempted trawl of emails looks plain intrusive. As Maddow put it, in a comment aimed directly at the Mackinac Center and the rest of the libertarian firmament, “how’s that leave me alone personal liberty thing working out for you?”.

Calm Down, It’s Only A Survey

Another day, another Express EU frightener, and another froth of hyperbole blown up from very little substance: “MPs Gagged Over Brussels Power Grab” thunders the headline this time. So has there been a “power grab”, and have MPs been “gagged”? The answer, as with so much from this paper, is no, and no.

Moreover, the assertion that “sweeping powers for Eurocrats to meddle in Britain’s economy were nodded through Parliament without a vote” is not just scaremongering, but plain wrong. No powers were “nodded through”, and so there will be no “meddling”.

Phil Space meets the Eurocrats

But there must be some kernel of fact to this piece, mustn’t there? Well, there is a kernel, but it’s a very small one: what Express political editor Macer Hall is trying to convert into a proper story is the EU Annual Growth Survey (you can see the relevant document HERE [.pdf]). And be warned – it’s not the most stimulating read.

So all the ranting is over a mere survey. But Hall is determined to wring every last ounce (not gramme, please, not at the Express) out of the discovery, and so there has to be an “unelected” person speaking foreign who can be demonised along the way. Hall is clearly untroubled by the thought that the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, relied on by the Express for its rent-a-quotery, is equally “unelected”.

Wait a moment, though, what about the “anger” that “erupted at Westminster”, along with the “furious” Tory MPs? Sadly, the Express could find only one such MP, Douglas “Kamikaze” Carswell, not someone normally associated with the Tory mainstream: its other talking head was Nigel “Thirsty” Farage from UKIP. Yes, no Philip Davies, and no Mark “Reckless” Reckless either.

And what does this survey entail? To quote the Express, it means that the UK is “obliged to give statistics to Brussels – including details of the Budget”. Er, hello Express people? That would be the kind of thing that has been plastered all over the rest of the papers for the past week. We’re not exactly talking national secrets here.

Getting gullible readers to pay money for this drivel? That’ll be another Benchmark Of Excellence.

[Note also that at the Express, the “News” and “Showbiz” categories appear to be interchangeable]

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Telegraph – Inflating Their Own Balloon

We all know that the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre and his band of dubiously talented hacks at the Daily Mail despise the BBC. But, if only to reinforce their favoured nickname, those over at the Maily Telegraph want everyone to know that they can do Beeb bashing just as well.

The only problem with this approach is that a story is needed for the Telegraph to use as a stick to beat the BBC – unless, of course, they can make up their own. So when author Zadie Smith appeared on this morning’s Radio 4 Today programme with an impassioned defence of libraries, the opportunity was gratefully accepted.

Writing the knocking copy was Harry Wallop (crazy name – crazy guy!), who styles himself “Consumer Affairs Editor”. He would do well to edit his own copy to remove the obvious howler: Ms Smith grew up near the library at Willesden Green, not Kensal Rise as he states.

And Wallop makes light of the later appearance by Shaun Bailey, a man more than capable of getting his point of view across, which countered the appearance of Ms Smith. He then gets the quote – seemingly obligatory for the Telegraph – from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, as if it has anything to do with them.

But they’re not done yet: to try and inflate the balloon a little, there is an accompanying comment piece by Ed West (specialist subjects include “low culture”), who asks the rhetorical question “Has the BBC given up all pretence of impartiality?”, which is of course a statement in the style of our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

All in all, the exercise comes across as a rather lame attempt by the Telegraph to start its own story running and keep it in the public eye by using the Fox News technique of passing it across the news-comment divide to try and keep it warm.

Sadly, this particular turkey has now gone cold, as even the arch-BBC haters at the Daily Mail have not touched the story, and by the time the Express gets hold of it tomorrow, the news cycle will have moved on.

Still, keeps the hacks and the TPA occupied - and off the streets. Mustn’t grumble.

[UPDATE: The so-called Taxpayers' Alliance has now run its own "story" on the Zadie Smith comment piece. The tedious and hyperbole filled copy, by up and coming non-job holder Charlotte Linacre, can be seen HERE. Note that one of the commenters has produced an extended riposte which, I suspect, the TPA will not allow to pass unchallenged, especially as it tries to stick to things called facts]

TPA And HS2 – Throwing Out The Rattle (2)

Today’s “Research Note” from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) attacking the proposed high speed rail project (aka HS2) contains the usual TPA list, this time of places that, it alleges, will be worse off if HS2 goes ahead. So let’s look at the list put forward and see how it stacks up.

West Midlands

Once again, the TPA takes the purely illustrative service level shown in the HS2 documentation for non-HS2 services, and assumes it to be cast in stone. So their talk of journey time penalties is speculation. Also, they assume no connection between Birmingham’s New Street station and the HS2 one – so that’s more speculation.

Midland Main Line

Here we encounter the biggest and most blatant whopper in the TPA exercise: the assumption that this route, from London’s St Pancras terminus to the East Midlands and Sheffield, will be electrified in the near future and enjoy the benefits of journey time reductions and more line capacity, but only if HS2 does not go ahead.

Maybe the TPA could tell Network Rail (NR) about their miraculous discovery: NR’s press release on the current electrification programme, released yesterday, does not mention any new electrification for that route. Once again, the TPA is engaging in speculation, and doubly so by suggesting that electrification versus HS2 is some kind of zero sum game.

East Coast Main Line

Here the TPA has difficulty making its mind up. For Doncaster and Wakefield we are told “service frequency and journey times likely to deteriorate” on completion of HS2. But for York – reached by passing through Doncaster – we get “no capacity increase” because two services an hour are now routed via HS2. The idea that there may still be a fast service from York via Doncaster is not considered. Once again, this is speculation.

And, of course, no evidence is cited to back up the claim on journey time. It’s tired stuff, which resorts once more to using the illustrative character of the HS2 documentation as fact, as it states that this “shows no high speed trains north of Newcastle”. So is the TPA seriously suggesting that the lack of a line on a diagram prevents trains working north of Newcastle?

This is truly desperate stuff. And no proposals to increase capacity are outlined or costed for the latter two routes. Time for the TPA to put up or shut up.

TPA And HS2 – Throwing Out The Rattle (1)

The Government has not been thus far deflected from its decision to go ahead with a high speed rail link from London to the West Midlands, the North West, and the North East, now known as HS2, despite the barrage of propaganda from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA). So today, the TPA has issued yet another so-called “Research Note” attacking the scheme.

This is a misnomer: little, if any, new research features, most of the content having already been used in previous TPA propaganda. Moreover, the section purporting to show towns and cities that would supposedly lose out if HS2 goes ahead contains unproven and uncosted assumptions, and even contradicts itself.

Seats Per Hour

Chris Stokes, the TPA’s “rail expert”, relies heavily on train seating capacity figures for his comparison of HS2 and alternative services. But he fails to compare like with like: on the one hand, he uses the actual capacity of trains in service on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and specified for the East Coast Main Line (ECML), then compares with a nominal figure for HS2.

As Stokes admits, the train service assumptions shown in the HS2 documentation he is attacking are purely illustrative. It does not seem to occur to him that the seating capacity of those trains is also purely illustrative, but by happy coincidence, it suits his argument and fits his conclusion to achieve a leap of logic from the illustrative to actual reality.


London’s Euston station was rebuilt in the early 1960s, and has since managed to cope well with passenger numbers – an excellent achievement over a 45 year period. But, whether HS2 goes ahead or not, another rebuild will be required. Stokes’ pinning of disruption due to rebuilding solely onto HS2 is disingenuous: the Atkins Rail Package 2 (RP2) which he and the TPA have advocated will also involve significant disruption.

Northampton and Milton Keynes

Stokes asserts that commuter capacity to these locations would be doubled under proposals that he and the TPA have backed. But, as I’ve already shown, this is also disingenuous: RP2 does not allow for any extra peak time services. Moreover, the train type RP2 specifies would (assuming it is similar to the existing Pendolino fleet) offer significantly less capacity than what is on offer right now.

I’ll assess the TPA assertions on “service loss” later.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Telegraph – Quality Deception

Europe is in the news again – at least, in the papers that want to demonise the EU, and that means the Express, with the quality critique coming from the Maily Telegraph. The story in both titles is a white paper considering a “Single European Transport Area”.

The Express, predictably, is characteristically unsubtle and loads its headline with routine abuse: “Round The Bend, Now The EU Wants To Ban Cars From Every City”. The piece then continues “Petrol and diesel cars could be banned from European cities”, which is not the same thing.

In any case, the white paper doesn’t say that anyone wants to ban anything. And the idea of a top-down diktat is hard to stand up when wording like “it is for individual cities to decide on the appropriate transport mix for their area” is used. This, though, is unlikely to pacify the Express, where the spectre of road pricing is also used to frighten readers.

But here, too, a look at the white paper shows that it is up to individual member states to decide: “Member States will be free to apply these charges” it tells anyone who is listening.

So the Express frightener is easily debunked, but not so the Maily Telegraph: here the real quality Euro-scare enters. Under the by-line of “Bruno Waterfield, Brussels”, who I’m sure is not on the gravy train, the one-two combination is deftly executed. First he hits readers with “a ‘single European transport area’ aimed at enforcing ‘a profound shift in transport patterns for passengers’ by 2050”.

No abuse in the title is necessary: all that Waterfield needs is to slip in the key word “enforcing”. Thus there is diktat, compulsion, as well as the usual Euro-frighteners like people talking foreign. Then comes the second punch, as we are informed “The plan also envisages an end to cheap holiday flights from Britain to southern Europe with a target that over 50 per cent of all journeys over 186 miles should be by rail”.

So now Waterfield has his readers firmly on-side, hostile to the white paper, and all by invention. There is no element of “enforcing” in the document, and nothing about ending “cheap holiday flights” – he just made that up. The EU was behind deregulation of internal air travel in the first place: the idea that it would perform a volte face is absurd.

There is, of course, an element of fact – the 50 per cent was of “passenger and freight journeys from road to rail and waterborne transport”. But the Maily Telegraph, with a subtle yet fraudulent approach, has already conned its readers, and is way more effective then the Express in getting its anti-EU propaganda across.

Meltdown Shock Horror – The Story So Far

Although the news cycle has, in part, moved on from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station have continued. I’ve not checked this out for some days now, mainly because the news coming out of the area has not been conducive to getting a handle on what is really going on.

As there has been little more said about the previous problems with the spent fuel “ponds” at Reactors 3 and 4 of the six-reactor complex, it has to be assumed that sufficient cooling water has been pumped into the ponds to stabilise the fuel, and the level maintained. So, hopefully, that means no further leak of radioactivity there.

The focus has therefore returned to getting water into the pressure vessels of the three reactors that were working at the time of the earthquake, and where the shutdown process was hampered when the tsunami took out the emergency pumps, leading to overheating of the fuel assemblies.

According to this report, the “injecting” of water into the reactors is continuing, although the residual heat within the pressure vessels means some of it is boiling off – and there is a risk that there will be further generation of hydrogen, which when vented to the air could mean another explosion.

Will the change to using fresh water rather than seawater make a difference? Possibly, although I reckon none of the three reactors will ever see service again – they will be written off, as was that involved in the incident at Three Mile Island (TMI). Their only remaining duty will be to soak up a lot of resources as the cleanup continues.

And the discovery of radioactive water in the various turbine halls? This should not be a surprise, as the turbine hall and reactor building are adjacent. Moreover, the steam circuit for a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) comes directly from the reactor pressure vessel to the turbine, so it only needs a fracture in that circuit to produce the contaminated water that is now being found.

None of this should induce panic. Nor should the possibility that one of the reactor containments has been breached, until we know for sure the extent of any damage. So far, this incident has followed TMI in being substantially an economic setback, rather than an environmental one.

Hopefully, it will remain in the economic category, and not cross over too far into the environmental one.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Desperate Express, Desperate Website

The economy measures at the Desmond press, together with the increasingly intrusive adverts pervading the papers’ web presence, can mean one of two things: that Des and his dwindling band of hacks are coining it, or that they’re desperate to stem losses and squeeze as much as possible out of their audience.

Thus far, this blog has noted several pieces run by the Express that appeared on other websites the previous day, there have been repeated instances of the paper running advertorials, and of course there has been a steady stream of Euro-frighteners, based on real events but otherwise invented.

More Maddie - with compulsory addy

So far, so irritating, but now a visit to the Express site means adverts, whether the visitor wants them or not. Today’s revisiting of the Madeleine McCann story is typical: clicking on the headline not only opens the post, but starts an advert running. The ad can be stopped, but this action then starts another advert, for the paper itself.

In addition, many stories on the Express site contain what look like relevant links, although these set off yet more adverts. Then, just in case you hadn’t reached advertising saturation point, the “From Around The Web” list at the foot of the story page also contains a high proportion of advertorial links.

Irritating adverts – clearly a new Benchmark of Excellence.

Threading The Needle

Those artics that you see rumbling up and down the country’s motorways might look big and heavy. But they pale into insignificance when the real heavy hauliers come along: some firms serve the distribution chain, while others deal with the niche stuff, meaning having to shift 120 tonnes at a time.

Yes, 120 tonnes, and this is meat and drink to the folks at outfits like Allelys, whose skills can be seen on display in the Crewe area regularly. The reason that we see so much of them is that it is sometimes easier to move railway locomotives and rolling stock by road, especially if the item concerned is not fit to use the rail network.

Slowly up the depot approach ...

Operator DB Schenker sold off many surplus locomotives recently, and with some not having seen regular use for some time, the simplest solution was to have them hauled away. After all, their journey will end at a specialist scrapper – the last roundup – who isn’t interested in making them fit for network use.

... squeeze around the right turn ...

But it isn’t such a straightforward exercise: getting loaded up outside the former depot at the south end of Crewe station isn’t difficult, but the long and heavy load has to be rolled up the depot approach, then around a tight right angle turn at the top, before heading off to the M6.

... and away into the traffic

These photos show the experts at work, as they remove another 120 tonnes of unwanted locomotive. Forget mere artics – this is real heavy haulage.

Call My Bluff In Stratford

Last week brought a less than totally successful outcome for our old friends at Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care) as they talked the talk, but then opened their wallets rather than being forced to walk the walk.

Michael O’Leary’s finest are renowned for their intense dislike of trades unions, and especially pilots’ union BALPA. So when a Ryanair pilot who was also a member of BALPA was found to have given a cabin crew member a recruitment leaflet for the Unite union, he was sacked pour encourager les autres.

The pilot concerned, James Anderson, who had more than eight years’ service with Ryanair, was clearly unimpressed and took the airline to an Employment Tribunal, with the case due to be heard on Tuesday last week. And on the day before the hearing, Ryanair posted a characteristically bullish item on the matter.

Ryanair Rejects BALPA’s False Claims” it thundered, asserting that the action would be defended. There was also the usual abuse directed towards BALPA, with the claim “This is just another PR stunt by BALPA, the British Airways pilots [sic] union”, and calling BALPA’s general secretary “foolish”.

And it might be thought that Ryanair were confident of seeing off the Anderson case, especially as they followed up with “Ryanair looks forward to meeting and defeating these latest baseless claims by BALPA”. So how did the Employment Tribunal go?

Well, it didn’t. Ryanair, despite all the bluster, settled with Anderson and BALPA, rather than face the Tribunal. The payout, at just over half a year’s pay, may not look that great, but getting anything out of Ryanair is an achievement. The fact that the carrier has not trumpeted the event on its website tells you who won this one.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

To Our Children’s Children’s Children

To some, history is a sterile but necessary part of the school curriculum, to be swiftly forgotten after moving on in life, while for others it is an endless source of fascination, telling us how the world was, and how events conspired to bring us all to where we are now.

I tend to the latter view: to know where we are, and from where we begin our journey into the future, we need to know how we arrived here. And that knowledge is not merely about events, but people: all the generations that came before, their lives, their work, their journey.

Inevitably, the tracing of recent history is facilitated by one tool, and that is the ten yearly census that has been taken throughout the UK since 1801, the only exception being that the 1941 census did not take place due to the Second World War. There was even an additional census in 1966.

And the information from the census is not just useful for compiling family trees: it shows how the population has grown over time, the movement of people from land to city and then to suburb, the growth and decline of industries, and the immigration and emigration which ease of personal mobility has made a permanent feature of modern life.

We have that information because previous generations have done what most UK citizens will be doing today: completing their census form, or otherwise providing equivalent information. The resource they have left us provides an invaluable view of recent history: that which we provide today enables planning for the future.

So I have no problem with participating in the 2011 Census. And I commend it to anyone and everyone, from Christian to Jedi.

The Futility Of Auntie’s Appeasement

For the BBC, there appears little that it can do to deflect the incessant generation of knocking copy from parts of the generally right leaning print media, yet there was another clear attempt this morning to use The Andrew Marr Show as a vehicle for appeasement. The paper being appeased was the Mail, and the attempt didn’t work.

Marr opens his Sunday morning show with a review of the papers, and there are some reviewers who appear more regularly than others. This morning brought two of the more regular attendees, and both are in the service of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre: failed Tory leader’s spin doctor Amanda “Glenda” Platell, and self-styled liberator of Port Stanley Max “Hitler” Hastings.

View of the Dacre Anschluss

True, the sofa was also host to actor Patrick Stewart, who, it was stressed more than once, is a Labour Party supporter, but he is not a professional politician or hack. It was as if the Daily Mail had been invited into the BBC to pass judgment on the whole of the Fourth Estate, and with very little featuring of dissent.

And little good it did them: one look at the Mail’s coverage of yesterday’s anti-cuts rally reveals that the Beeb-bashing is being dutifully churned out to order. At the head of the cab-rank, and thus devaluing his credibility and compromising his independence, was Peter Hitchens, whose name appears under the headlineThe biased BBC ... marching alongside their anti-cut [sic] allies”.

Hitchens then links the TUC and BBC, showing that his inventiveness, at least, is intact: “the BBC took sides on the TUC protest, even before it had begun. The Corporation and the TUC instinctively recognise each other as allies. Both depend on public money” he thundered. A photo of a policeman spattered with paint is then shown, to suggest some connection with the fringe violence without actually having to make a statement to that effect.

Not that they're trying to link Beeb and violence ...

Then, alongside a photo of a smoke flare being thrown (not that the Mail wants to link the BBC to that, of course), Hitchens continues his tirade: “The atmosphere of much of [the] coverage was what might have been found in a Left-wing London household as Granny got out her old Aldermaston marching shoes, the head of the household dusted off his anti-Thatcher placards and the children dressed excitedly for their first demo”.

BBC management would do well to reflect on such coverage, and note that, whatever the size and frequency of the bone offerings they make to this particular dog, its hostility towards them is not going to diminish. The rest of us might, meanwhile, count ourselves lucky that the mingling of news and comment pieces has not yet escaped from the print media into the broadcast one, so we are thus far spared the likes of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Spinning The Protests

As the tail of today’s march wound its way past Parliament Square and away north along Whitehall, and direct action group UKUncut caused many stores along Oxford Street to close, there was a small group of fringe demonstrators engaging in running clashes with police and occasionally throwing missiles.

The main march was supported by around half a million people, with the fringe group numbering around a couple of hundred, but in the retelling, those 200 have inevitably secured a disproportionate amount of publicity. Moreover, the part of the Fourth Estate wanting to frighten its readers and demonise legitimate protest is making sure of it.

Smartly out of the traps in the mission to show its own kind of proportionality has been the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail. There is an admission of the half a million peaceful marchers, but the photos are overwhelmingly of the fringe, with broken windows and paint spattered police.

A single small photo of Ed Miliband is mixed in with the throwing of fireworks and smoke flares (10 photos), with shots of the main march relegated to the end of the piece (just 4 photos). And the Mail is not alone: Rupe’s downmarket troops at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, who headlined “Trouble erupts during cuts demo”, then showed six photos of the fringe and just one of the main march.

And the reportage has hardly been any more accurate: a BBC producer who had apparently been tipped off that UKUncut were going to sit in at Fortnum and Mason told that there was indeed a sit-in, but that the place had, emphatically, not been trashed. The Maily Telegraph had no truck with this, and reported “scenes of chaos outside and displays of confectionery and cakes wrecked inside”.

Which shows, as I noted earlier, that so many in the print media do not get it: those half a million on the main rally did not just turn up for a day out. All the more important, then, that there is some half decent reporting.

Wish I Was Here

This week I have been feeling mainly below par. It’s the kind of stuff that happens once in a while, and hopefully will pass soon. So the idea of doing several miles’ walking around London today was right out, and that’s my loss: the march against the Coalition’s cuts is huge, a statement that needs to be made.

And my loss at still being 158 miles out of Euston is heightened by reading some of the weapons grade drivel that has been pumped out by the right leaning part of the punditerati, even before the event had begun. Pride of place in this category has to go to the loathsome Toby Young, self appointed bringer of change to the education system who has been given house room by the Maily Telegraph.

Young begins his rant against the march “The TUC is about to unleash a tsunami of violence and destruction in London”, his evidence being that a statue outside Nottingham University was knocked over and broken on Thursday evening. From this unpromising beginning, his logic goes downhill using tenuous links via the Boots company to UKUncut, a movement which is “intent on causing trouble”.

What form that “trouble” will take is not specified, but the tenor of the piece leaves no doubt that it will be serious, with mentions of “inflammatory rhetoric” [not his, mind], “violent clashes”, and “destruction of property”. And, although Young does not dissent from freedom of speech, he knows that the march is A Very Bad Thing as it “will cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds”.

For Young, the thought that hundreds of thousands of taxpayers are part of that march does not enter. Perhaps he will switch on the TV and see the evidence for himself, but the propaganda will continue as before. He is in the same camp as the Mail’s Stephen Glover, who tells that the cuts arecomparatively mild”, and any perception otherwise is all the fault of the BBC and “leftish” newspapers.

But Glover, like Young, sprays his credibility up the wall, not by talking of a “tsunami of violence”, but by blaming the Beeb for having the temerity to run news reports, and describing the Guardian as the corporation’s “in-house newspaper”.

Neither of them get it: there may be a few nutters throwing paint and fireworks, but the story today is that an awful lot of people – yes, including their own readers – are so concerned that they have given up their time, and paid their money, to turn up, march, and make their point.

And I wish I was one of them.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Oily Man Gets Greased Up

One hates to say “I told you so” to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but on Wednesday this week, I considered the plan of the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, to increase the “supplementary charge” on domestic oil and gas production from 20% to 32%, and concluded that he might be on less than solid ground.

Less than two days later, the trade body Oil and Gas UK has made its displeasure known through the pages of the Maily Telegraph, warning of job losses in an already shrinking industry, as I suggested earlier. The oil producers have confirmed that Osborne’s move is likely to mean less oil produced from the UK’s reserves, and more dependence on imports.

How many job losses is the industry considering? Well, the phrase “tens of thousands” has been pitched. And the Treasury response that “profits will remain high” will cut no ice if those profits are even higher when resources are shifted to other parts of the world.

The Chancellor is playing a risky game on this one.

Express Inflation – Both Story And Figures

As I noted yesterday, Portuguese PM José Sócrates has resigned, having failed to get his latest austerity package through Parliament. Thus the shock horror part of the Fourth Estate has already decided that, whoever prevails in the upcoming elections in Portugal, there will be a bail-out, which will somehow involve the UK.

The usual anti-European suspects in the press have turned to their favourite source of frighteners, Open Europe (which is in reality an anti-EU lobby group), for suitably scary figures. And the Open Europe scary number is that the UK might have to pay £300 per family towards bailing out Portugal.

That, however, is a very big “might”: it would depend on there being a bail-out in the first place (one has not yet been requested), and all the remaining contents of the fund to which the UK has agreed to contribute would have to be used up. Then, there would have to be an additional intervention by the IMF to bring the total up to match the scary number.

But none of these caveats cut any ice with the Daily Express, for whom the unequivocal demonising of the EU is the highest priority, if only to keep folks buying the paper. Thus their headline thunderedYou Pay £400 For New EU Bailout”, having not only removed all doubt, but jacked up the cost in the retelling.

The pejorative language underscores the Express view: “Families were facing the prospect of a crippling extra £400 tax bill”, “Taxpayers could be forced to stump up £6 billion”, “The threat of another huge handout comes on the back of the £7 billion doled out to Ireland”, “we could be forced to help” (a lot of forcing goes on in Express land – must be a lot of rhubarb about), and so “There was anger”.

Elsewhere, the reportage showed a lack of accuracy which might have made some journalists wonder, with “Prime Minister José Sócrates ... tried to quit on Wednesday”. Hello Express people – he did quit on Wednesday. And loans are not “handouts”. Plus helping our oldest ally – we and the Portuguese go back to the marriage of Philippa of Lancaster and King John I of Portugal in 1387 – might not be Such A Bad Thing.

This, though, does not deter the Express, which, in a final flourish of inaccuracy, brings in Matthew Sinclair, head non-job holder at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, to open his mouth and gracefully insert boot: “British taxpayers rejected the Euro” sniffs Sinclair, seemingly unaware that British taxpayers have not yet been asked their opinion on the subject.

Thus the final nail in the coffin of yet more substandard hackery. That’ll be another Benchmark of Excellence, then.

Over And Out Goes Dover

Expenses. MPs and their occasionally over-zealous claiming of them has resulted in an overhaul of the system, with a few individuals even being handed prison sentences. But the amounts, getting into five figures on occasion, have been dwarfed by the case of former MEP Den Dover.

Dover has been ordered to repay a whopping £345k to the European Parliament (EP), although they were initially after him for more than half a million. Small wonder that the Tory Party expelled him in 2008 – but the news has not been trumpeted half as loudly as the UK miscreants.

Although both the Maily Telegraph and Daily Mail have the story, it’s not exactly top of the agenda for either paper – or, to be fair, for the BBC. Which is strange, given the amount of coverage given over to the UK Parliamentary expense story, especially in the Telegraph.

After all, this is a story about the EP, and therefore the EU, and kicking the EU is de rigueur for the Telegraph and Mail. Even the blogosphere’s self-appointed scourge of expense fiddlers Paul Staines, who blogs under the alias of Guido Fawkes, has given the event less prominence than cases in the UK.

But to make up for the lack of coverage, Staines has produced a piece that doesn’t give all the figures – and therefore doesn’t make complete sense – and followed it with a howler in its “update”, when he describes the EU agency Olaf as “the EU’s anti-fraud agency with the possibility of criminal charges”.

Beats “the mint with the hole” any time.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Stock Photos – The Credibility Gap

Adverts need photos. Well, adverts could be put together without them, but then, the ability to catch the eye would be diminished. But having a photo professionally shot for every occasion means serious extra expense – so here the library of stock photos enters.

It’s easy: you choose a photo that suits the kind of advert you’re going to run, put it together with the text, and you’re away. But – and there is inevitably a but – you may not be the first to use the photo. In fact, given the demand for suitable photos, that several others have used it beforehand is a racing certainty.

An upmarket image ...

This may or may not have occurred to whoever composed the advert for eToro, which at present is appearing on TwitPic. On first glance this looks OK: online trading site uses photo of smartly dressed and assertive looking young woman to project a positive image.

Problem is, the credibility of the image is only as sound as the first time the viewer saw it. And the bad news for eToro is that one previous user of that photo is Cheshire East Council. But what would a Council do to make the image less credible?

... or maybe not

Well, how about using it on the back cover of the October 2009 Crewe area bus guide (D&G Bus are a local contract operator)?

José – Down But Not Yet Out

With the Japanese earthquake, Libya, and the Budget hogging the headlines, many will have missed the news yesterday from Portugal, where Prime Minister José Sócrates has been unable to get the latest instalment in his intended austerity plan through the country’s Parliament, and has therefore tendered his resignation to President Silva.

The reason for Sócrates’ failure to push through the latest in a series of measures intended to stave off the need for a “bail-out” – which would see Portugal follow Greece and Ireland – is that his party, the centre left PS, is a minority Government, with only 97 seats out of 230. Up until yesterday, the PS had received enough support from other parties to pass budgets and other legislation. Not any more.

So what has caused the fracture? Well, the minority PS Government had included a freeze on pensions in their latest austerity package. This has proved too much for some, and an alternative way of making up the shortfall has already been put forward: another rise in VAT. But, as top rate VAT in Portugal is already 23%, a rise of any significance would be to 25%, the highest in the EU.

Lisbon: put it on the map this year

Thus it seems the argument is not that spending cuts and tax rises have to happen, but is over who will take the hit. Indeed, the opposition PSD – the Social Democrats – are talking of a new Government to implementA truly national strategy”, which sounds like, whoever prevails in the upcoming election, the austerity will go on.

So writing off Sócrates may be premature: it will come down to a choice between him and the PSD’s Pedro Passos Coelho. Should we in the UK be bothered? Well, yes we should, as there is a possibility that the contributions to a Portuguese bail-out may include one from the UK, although the amount is disputed.

In the meantime, we can all do our bit by putting Portugal on the holiday map for this year: I can recommend a city break in Lisbon, for starters.

Express – Budget On A Budget

Budget day is always a good source of copy for the press: anything that changes in the area of taxes and duties is of interest to their readers, there’s plenty of scope for argument and politics, and – the best part – it all happens in Parliament, so it’s not an expensive one to cover.

This last factor may be behind the extensive coverage given over to yesterday’s Budget by the Daily Express, with around twenty stories on the paper’s website right now (Thursday 24 March 0940 hours). But such is the desire to maximise the bang for this particular buck that quality has clearly suffered.

That lack of quality is exemplified by a story titledBonfire Of Regulations As Tax And Pensions Systems Made Easier”, under the by-line of Deputy Political Editor Alison Little. Because there hasn’t been a “Bonfire Of Regulations”, and the tax and pensions systems have not been made easier. How can we be so sure? Because Little’s article says so.

At first, it looks like there has indeed been change, as Little declares “Yesterday’s Budget saw [past tense] one of the biggest pension and tax shake-ups for years as Chancellor George Osborne sought to simplify two systems so complicated that even experts are baffled”.

But immediately after this assertion comes “In a bonfire of regulations, he promised that the British tax code ... would be cut by 100 pages”. So there hasn’t been a bonfire, just a promise that there may be a bonfire at some time in the future.

And, as for those two systems, it was also jam tomorrow: “There will also be an enquiry to explore doing away with the complicated dual system of income tax and national insurance”. So no shake-up there, either.

Nor was the assertion “complicated credit rules were scrapped in favour of a flat-rate pension for all of about £140 per week”, as the next paragraph demonstrates: “The move towards the flat-rate pension was widely welcomed yesterday”.

So the headline “Bonfire Of Regulations As Tax And Pensions Systems Made Easier” is fraudulent: there hasn’t been a bonfire, and neither tax nor pensions have been made easier. But the tradition of Phil Space journalism has been upheld, with a cheap story spun out to fill yet more column inches.

Thus yet another Benchmark of Excellence.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

TPA – Non-Job Holder In Show Of Ignorance

To show that there is strength of non-jobbery in depth at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), non-job holder Andrew Allison has been making the running today with his continuing attack on North East Lincolnshire Council, who have had the temerity to hire someone on a year’s fixed term contract at £70k, to help them in guiding through a £9 million program of cost savings.

Yes, this Council is looking to save £9 million a year, every year, so it might be thought that the TPA would be in favour of the appointment. But because the job title is “Future Shape Programme Manager”, they have decided to demonise the move instead. After all, the TPA’s knowledge of local Government is limited to lists of salaries, and job titles.

And that’s all: actually finding out what this job entails is beyond Allison and his generously remunerated colleagues. He has made no effort whatever to do so, except to assert that the job is not required because someone else can do it. He does not justify this assertion, as such mere details are beyond the TPA.

In fact, what Allison is showing to his readers, although this is not his intention, is his ignorance of the workings of local Government. The way to find out if the role he so cheerfully derides is necessary would be to study the organisation and those working within it, assess their workloads and responsibilities, and the requirements for the change programme.

But Allison will not be doing that: he will continue to sit on the sidelines and sneer. He shows this technique elsewhere in his piece by attacking Surrey County Council for appointing a team of three people, which he then describes as a “vast array”. He asks if the Council really needs the staff, and thus shows that he is as ignorant of that organisation as the one in Lincolnshire.

If he knew his subject, Andrew Allison would not need to ask questions or offer only opinions – he would know, and would have facts to back up his judgment. This is yet another example of TPA ignorance and the resorting to shooting from the hip: the shoddiness of the exercise is underlined by the lack of even a read through, so we get the payoff “creating new departments Sir Humphrey Abbleby would be proud of”.

Put the boot in, forget the read through

Whatever the less than stellar array of non-job holders at the TPA are being paid, it’s clearly too much. But there is an answer to this problem, and Andrew Allison himself has it: “they should be replaced with people who can do their jobs better”.

Well said that man!

The Plan Of The Oily Man

There was little wriggle room available this year for the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, to give some crumbs of comfort to the lumpen proletariat prior to the upcoming local elections, so he’s focused what little there is on motorists.

There was little else of note in today’s Budget: a small increase in the personal income tax allowance, no increase in alcohol duty, and more Enterprise Zones, but no desire to address air passenger duty, and just an assurance that he will on some future occasion look at ending National Insurance as a separate tax.

So let’s look at the Osborne plan for fuel duty. The “escalator”, which dates from 1993, the period of a previous Tory Government, is to be “scrapped”, well, for now. And duty is to be cut by a penny a litre, although January’s VAT increase already put the cost up by 3p. To compensate for the shortfall in revenue, the “supplementary charge” on oil and gas production will rise from 20% to 32%.

And this is where it gets difficult for Osborne: this increase, which is expected to yield £2 billion in a year, is on companies which extract oil and gas around the UK only, and those reserves are dwindling. Moreover, the cost of getting the remaining reserves out of the ground – and developing new fields – is increasing.

So it will benefit those producers to extract less oil and gas from UK reserves, and put their efforts into those parts of the world where it’s easier to get at the stuff, or Governments are less inclined to tax it. And that would mean the amount of dosh that comes rolling into HM Treasury could fall short of expectations.

The only way that the additional tax on oil and gas production can be averted appears to be if the price of the stuff on world markets falls below $75 a barrel, or whatever level Osborne decides, at which time the “escalator” would return and revenues would focus on the motorist once more.

And that’s the problem: this “fair fuel stabiliser” is effectively betting on the price of oil coming back down – something it thus far does not appear inclined to do – and assuming that, in the meantime, producers currently exploiting reserves around the UK will still be inclined to do so, even after Osborne’s tax increase.

The potential downside is that we could become yet more dependent on foreign supplies, with no guarantee that prices would not rise anyway. Fuel prices have a nasty habit of coming back to bite Governments, and this one is not immune.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

TPA – Waste No Opportunity, Spare No Opponent

Those wealthy yet furtive people who bankroll the less than stellar array of non-job holders at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) will be glad to know that their generous donations are being used to significant effect in demonising anything out there that looks like Government. Today has brought an excellent example of this from the smug-faced Chris Daniel, who has previously been mentioned here.

Daniel’s target is the Local Government Group (LGG). Who they? Well, this is a body, or group of bodies, that provide specialist support to local authorities. It means that those specialist skills are pooled, rather than each authority having to pay out for a resource they may not need all the time – or having to buy that resource in on spec.

So it might be thought that the TPA would be in favour of such an organisation, as it enables local Government to make savings. But that is to misunderstand the TPA and its mission: just because the article comes under the Better Government strand does not mean that the TPA is bothered about such trivialities – or even understanding what the LGG is and does.

The TPA, as I’ve previously noted, has one purpose and one alone, and that is to demonise Government – any Government – along with public service and public works. No other consideration enters, not even forming an understanding of how any part of any Government works. Far easier to sneer, snark, and then put the boot in, as Daniel does to customary effect.

This lack of understanding extends to the salary structure of the LGG: given that the body provides specialist services, it should be expected that many of its staff will not be on the most basic of pay grades. But Daniel is not interested in this, substituting waffle such as “Each individual division of the LGG employs a similar number to a large council”. But no example is cited, as he just made that up.

After all, the LGG has committed a cardinal sin that in the eyes of the TPA is unforgiveable: it has declared itself to be “a strong collective voice that argues the case for local Government at every opportunity”.

Like the garage mechanic might have said, “mmmm – that’s going to cost you”.

Mail Hack Makes Discovery 65 Years Late

Public transport is something with which the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre does not trouble himself: he is routinely chauffeured from home to City apartment to office and back. So he has no means of knowing when his hacks make a surprise discovery on the subject, or whether they are just recycling another press release.

This was underlined by a piece in today’s Daily Mail laying into train operator South West Trains (SWT) who operate services out of London’s Waterloo terminus. Under the by-line of Emily Andrews is an apparent discovery that some of SWT’s fleet has interiors that seat five across the coach.

Under Mail attack: SWT's Desiro trains

But it’s not a new practice, so no discovery has been made: all that Dacre’s hacks are doing is allowing self promoting Tory MP Penny Mordaunt to complain about the use of trains with “three by two” seating on SWT’s services between London and her constituency town of Portsmouth.

SWT did this as part of a reshuffle of their fleet, which enabled them to outbid rivals and obtain a renewal of their franchise. So Ms Mordaunt and her supporters at the Daily Mail should be grumbling at the Government, and the way that rail franchises are won and retained, rather than shooting the messenger.

Moreover, when the piece tells that “Regular carriages have only two seats either side of the aisle”, this too shows ignorance of many passengers’ travelling environment. Trains with “three by two” seating have been around for decades (like since World War 2, and maybe before), including on the London to Portsmouth line – the only difference being that they now turn up on almost all services.

A 3+2 seated electric set in Manchester

And that kind of seating density is familiar not only to SWT’s commuters, but rail travellers outside London. Diesel and electric powered trains so equipped work in and around the West Midlands, West and South Yorkshire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester, some on journeys that take far longer than the 90 minutes of Waterloo to Portsmouth.

London Midland: another Desiro, also 3+2

How much longer? Well, when operator London Midland put one of their newer electric sets – with the same interior as the SWT ones that feature in the Mail story – on a London to Crewe service, that’s a journey that takes twice as long as the one Ms Mordaunt is complaining about.

There's always the bus bodied 3+2 Pacer, too

Is that unique? Well, no: Leeds to Morecambe, Manchester to Sheffield, Manchester to Blackpool, or Newcastle to Carlisle can also be had on “three by two” seated trains. Liverpool to Birmingham, too, is on occasion so favoured. But all of these are outside London, and have not come to the notice of the Dacre hackery or a self publicising MP.

And that’s all there is to it.

Which Dog Is The Maddest?

1969 was, for two controversial figures in the world of politics, an eventful year, when both made their entrance on the world stage, where they have been ever since, loved by family and a few close friends, and roundly detested by those on the outside. Both have amassed fortunes, influenced events around the globe, and both will not long be missed once they have shuffled off this mortal coil.

And both can be seen at work in today’s edition of the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, where the obedient hackery of one of the two dutifully lay into the supposed despotism and vindictive violence of the other. Yes, those two greats of the modern era are Rupe and Muammar, Murdoch and Gaddafi, both dogs of their particular chosen wars.

Gaddafi deposed King Idris in 1969, the same year that Rupe entered the UK newspaper market with his acquisition of the Sun. The Libyan leader has imposed his supposed ideology on his subjects as documented in the “Green Book”, while Rupe has imposed his own creed – basically, hacks doing more for less – on his own unfortunate workforce.

Both have been suspected of exploiting the Dark Arts to the full: Gaddafi by supplying weaponry to the IRA, ordering assassinations, and trying to get his hands on nuclear and chemical weaponry, and Rupe by the more mundane acts of phone hacking and blagging, using his influence over supposedly democratic Governments, and inflicting on the US viewing public the appalling standards of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

And both have an eccentric side: Gaddafi with his all-female bodyguards, insistence on still living in a tent (even when attending the UN), and his legendary and unrestrained flatulence, while Rupe has given us bingo in the supposedly upmarket Times, Page Three in the Sun, and the irrational decision to publish the so-called Hitler Diaries.

So we come to 2011, and both Rupe and Muammar find their worlds under siege. Gaddafi has tried to put down a popular revolt by force with the result that Libya is now subject to aerial bombardment, his country’s economy has hardly developed despite all the oil, and the rest of the world is tiring of him, while Rupe finds the use of those Dark Arts coming back to bite him, more politicians wondering whether his approval is worth the candle, and Fox News becoming the subject of increasing ridicule.

But which of these two dogs is the maddest? Which is the more tyrannical? And which will still be standing this time next year?

Monday, 21 March 2011

TPA – Coming For Pensioners And Freelances

Just in case anyone thought they were slacking, the pretentiously titled “2020 Tax Commission”, a dubious convocation of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) and Institute Of Directors (IOD), has today issued its latest wheeze on reform of the tax system. And lots of pensioners and freelances out there would do well to read it, because the “simplification” urged would potentially cost them a large chunk of their income.

TPA non-job holder Rory Meakin, the usual conduit for news from the “Commission”, suggests once more that National Insurance (NI) should be abolished, in the name of simplicity. So far, so interesting, but then Meakin suggests that employee’s NI is rolled back into Income Tax, making the rate of that tax between 31% and 32%. Then he suggests a further move: to include employer’s NI as well, which would take the Income Tax rate to around 39%.

This would be music to the ears of many TPA supporters, who are very much in the employers’ camp, but for two categories of taxpayer, it would spell disaster. The first of those, and the most vulnerable, are pensioners: many pay Income Tax on their occupational pensions, and to lump both employee’s and employer’s NI into that tax would remove a substantial slice of their income instantly.

Also caught by the TPA proposal would be freelance workers who are not already covered by the hated IR35, a measure that the Tories suggested they might look favourably on rescinding, then seemed to forget. Those freelances who still can, are used to taking some of their income as a dividend payment, and thus get round paying NI of any kind. They would also now have a vastly increased tax bill.

One might have thought that the TPA would have applied some thought to this before pronouncing, but it’s not the first time recently they have appeared not to appreciate that there are folks out there who are not full time or fixed term contract workers. Moreover, this emphasises who really calls the shots at the TPA and the IOD – larger corporates.

Of course, there may be a further proposal for exceptions from this brave new world of simplified personal taxation. But whatever wriggle room the TPA chooses to exert, their true colours, and the extent to which they care for ordinary taxpayers, have now been laid bare.

Making It Up – What A Star

I rarely check out the supposed “news” from Richard “Dirty” Desmond’s relentlessly downmarket Daily Star, because there is so little of it, except of course for the latest on Katie Price, coverage of reality TV, and plugs for the rest of Des’ empire.

Typifying the news content today has been a scare story ticking the kinds of boxes that will no doubt appeal to Star readers: this one has a tsunami (caused by either an earthquake or a volcanic eruption), then very big waves, and finally nuclear power stations. The problem is that, as any observer of the Desmond press will suspect at the outset, much of it is made up.

’Killer Wave’ Threat” screams the headline. But it’s very old news: this is about the possible consequences from an eruption and subsequent collapse of part of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Canary island of La Palma. The vulcanologist Bill McGuire, who is quoted in the piece, helped to produce a BBC Horizon documentary on Cumbre Vieja, but back in 2000.

In any case, the area that would be worst affected from the possible (McGuire’s view is not universally held) mega-tsunami from a collapse of the volcano would be the eastern seaboard of the USA: even the Star concedes that the south western UK would see waves no more than six or seven metres.

As to the idea that nuclear power plants might be hit, here we have a problem: the south west coast of the UK doesn’t have any.

And the scenario of an undersea earthquake off Portugal, the other idea floated by “Daily Star Reporter”, sounds very much like the event that hit Lisbon – but back in 1755.

It doesn’t seem to matter which Desmond paper it is, the “Benchmark of Excellence” is set uniformly low.

Express – More Euro-Paranoia

Before his retirement from the editor’s chair at the Daily Express, Peter Hill conceded that the paper ran a lot of stories on the EU, but noted that this was good for sales. So the appearance of yet another Euro-frightener on today’s front page should come as no surprise: it’s a cheap way of interesting readers. It’s also short on those pesky things called facts.

Warning: may activate your BS detector

The story, under the by-line of Alison Little, is almost entirely a mix of conjecture and outright fabrication. The level of veracity is set by the first statement: “Brussels will attempt to ‘rig’ any referendum asking the British people if they want to quit the EU”. This is invention, with no facts to back it up.

It continues “It would unleash a multi-million pound pro-Europe propaganda campaign – and get UK taxpayers to pick up the bill”. Action invented, sums invented, taxpayer involvement – you guessed it – invented. Next? “Details of the plot came”. There is no plot, so there are no details.

Is there a factoid in the house?

But there must be some substance to the piece, mustn’t there? Sadly, very little, as the next statement shows: “Controversial new rules mean that European political parties can use public cash to publicise their campaigns in referendums in any member country”. There aren’t any new rules, so this, too, is invention.

So what is the source for this latest Express scare story? Ah well. The European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs has just published a Draft Report (see it HERE) on “the regulations governing political parties at European level and the rules regarding their funding”.

As it is only a draft report, it gives no powers to do anything, it codifies no rules, and the likelihood of its being adopted any time soon is slim. Moreover, the funding amounts can be gauged by the limits on party donations of 25k Euro, rather than the “multi-million pound” invention of the Express.

And this is all about political parties that may at some future time exist at a European level. Given that it has been over half a century since the signing of the Treaty Of Rome, and that there are no significant Europe-wide parties (with the possible exception of the Greens), it might be obvious that this draft report is more of a “what if” document.

Thus the Express article is in the same category as the Euro-frightener on electric cars: baseless speculation and demonising. That’ll be another Benchmark of Excellence, then.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Reflections On A French Break

A break from blogging for the weekend – because this has been the time for one of my occasional trips across the Channel. It’s the kind of occasion that points up what makes the UK and France different – and what is just the same, whichever side of La Manche you happen to be.

After a longer than intended spell navigating the UK’s state specified and funded motorway network – not a peep from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, though – I fetched up at the tunnel terminal near Folkestone. For me, this is the only way to cross the Channel: the shuttles depart on schedule, and to the minute, a contrast with the haphazard timekeeping of the ferries.

The only way to France (not my Bentley!)

And the journey takes 35 minutes, with arrival also on the dot. All the Customs business is done before you board, and so there is none of that driving slowly away from the passport check on arrival off the boat at Dover, with the assembled representatives of HMG staring you down for a bit of sport before you clear the roundabout and drive off towards London.

In France, as Charlie Croker observed in The Italian Job, they drive on the wrong side of the road. But much else is familiar: the iffy road surface following last December’s cold, the British names on the shops glimpsed as you pass Cité Europe, and the wind turbines. Yes, there are wind turbines.

Delingpole's delight near Calais

France gets almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear power – the plants all use Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) technology – yet there are those ubiquitous wind turbines everywhere. It’s the kind of thing that may be borne in mind when the Delingpoles of this world beat the drum for nuclear, while ridiculing wind power.

France still uses a mixture of power generation types. One reason for this is that nuclear power is not good for demand patterns that vary significantly over time: some nuclear stations come off load at weekends and have to shut down, which isn’t good for the economics of the technology.

And renewables are an increasing part of that mixture. Oh, and for those thinking that an overnight stay in France might be something special, I can report that the facilities on offer at budget chain hotels, and the view across an industrial park, is pretty much the same as in the UK. So that’s another similarity, then.