Friday, April 30, 2010

Green jobs?

German police and tax officials have raided offices of Deutsche Bank and RWE in an investigation of an €180million fraud involving carbon credits. Both firms, we are told, insist they are not the target of the probe which has so far led to 230 offices and homes being raided, with up to 150 suspects at 50 companies being targeted.

The investigation is the largest carbon market probe to date and follows a series of raids across Europe designed to tackle our old friend carousel fraud. In this particular version, carbon traders collect VAT on traded carbon credits before disappearing without handing the tax revenue to the exchequer.

To that extent, the fact that carbon credits are involved is an irrelevance. In recent times, mobile phones and computer chips have been the vehicles for the fraud. With special rules now applying to these products, it was inevitable that fraudsters would find another target – and carbon credits are it.

Current estimates of losses to this fraud for last year stand at €5bn (£4.3bn) and, as I keep pointing out, this is real money, and on a scale far greater than your common-or-garden bank raid.

Henry Derwent, chief executive of the International Emissions Trading Association, has welcomed the investigation and urged the authorities to come down hard on anyone found guilty of carbon fraud. He is worried that this fraud has "quite unfairly damaged the perception of the European emissions trading scheme and potentially carbon trading as a whole."

There is no reason why this should be the case, though – any more than the fraud has damaged mobile phones or computer chips or, for that matter, the reputation of VAT which is so inherently prone to fraud that it should have been ditched long ago.

However, perhaps the real reason for the sloth of the authorities is that the fraud is providing plenty of "green jobs". That the "workers" are the German police, who coincidentally wear green uniforms, is neither here nor there.


Prediction is futile

For all the hype, and it would have been difficult for the media to have invested much more energy into promoting the event, it would appear that audience figures were down, compared with the first debate – an average of 7.4 million viewers as against 9.4 million.

These figures, as indicated, are averages. What we never get to know is how many people watched the whole debates, start to finish. I have to admit that I was one of those wathcing last night's, although halfway through I also had a card game up on the laptop, to relieve the boredom.

If declining viewing figures equate to lack of general interest in the Cleggerown show, The Independent reports on what may be a conflicting signal.

The paper has "discovered" that there has been an "unprecedented" surge in the number of people registering to vote in next Thursday's election. From the south coast of England to central Scotland, local authorities are reporting increases of up to 17 percent, with a consistent trend across major cities, suburban constituencies and rural seats. The surge is apparently at its most pronounced in areas with crucial marginal seats.

The London Borough of Islington said 135,769 people had registered to vote on 6 May, compared with 116,176 at the time of the last election in 2005, a rise of 17 percent. In neighbouring Hackney, registrations have gone up 15 percent.

The number of voters on the electoral roll has increased by 8 percent in Leeds, equivalent to an extra 18,000 voters. It also went up by 6 percent in Newcastle and by 4 per cent in both Sheffield and Manchester. A call centre set up by Manchester City Council received more than 1,000 calls a day after the first leaders' debate on 15 April. The authority reported an "unprecedented" 7,000 people registering to vote during this month.

Returning officers, we are told, attribute the "remarkable" increase to the interest generated by the three televised leaders' debate and the three-horse nature of the contest. That may or may not be the case, but does not fit with the declining viewing figures. But it is an intriguing nugget of information, which is possibly at odds with indications of increasing voter apathy.

This further adds to the ambiguous signals that make this election impossible to call, even if the media luvvies think that Cameron "winning" the debate last night gives him the keys to Number 10. If that is the case, it is not reflected in the latest YouGov poll which has the Tories on 34 percent (no change), the Lib-Dims on 28 (down three) and Labour on 27 (no change). The "Others", incidentally, are up three on 11 percent.

There remains the possibility of a last-minute surge for the Tories, even right up to polling day, but then, to borrow from Star Trek, one could say: "prediction is futile".


Put your left foot in ...

The "great" debate droned on, but did any of the three leaders actually tell us how they intended to reduce the deficit? Of three highly political friends of mine, two watched the football – the other went out to a pub quiz. They got the better deal.

Autonomous Mind ruminates on Cameron's Marxist friends.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

From his own mouth ...

"You don't deserve to govern if you treat people like fools," says David Cameron.

"I want us to be in Europe, but not run by Europe," says David Cameron.


Dunn Conservatism

Anita Dunn, former Obama aide who told a group of high school students that Mao Tse Tung was one of her two favourite political philosophers, has been hired by Tory hopeful David Cameron to help him prep for today's televised debate. Pajamas Media has the story.


Not the only one

It appears that Gordon Brown is not the only one to have been caught out forgetting to switch off his microphone. A recording has now emerged of a secret conversation between Daniel Hannan and "call me Dave" Cameron. It is unclear who was wearing the microphone, but the voices are easily recognisable. And thus goes the narrative:

DH: We should allow the public to vote on our continued membership of the EU.
Dave: There's a chance they might vote no, and so we simply can't do that.
DH: You're the boss, Sir.
Dave: Now get out there and ensure the public vote "conservative" – throw in a few lines about UKIP whilst you're at it.
DH: You're the boss, Sir.
Dave: Remember to tell the public I give them a cast-iron guarantee that I want to be in Europe but not run by Europe. Remember to phrase it as Europe and not the federal EU government.
DH: You're the boss, Sir.
Dave: If anyone points out that the other 26 countries need to agree to my repatriation of powers manifesto pledge, tell them I can persuade them.
DH: You're the boss, Sir.
Dave: Now get to work my little muppet.

The rest of the tape is indistinct, but it terminates abruptly with what sounds suspiciously like shoes being polished.


She ain't wrong

You can agree with the sentiment, even if some of the detail is questionable. There is no disputing the importance of energy as an election issue.

The silence of the politicians, though, is adequate testimony to an election where they have let the children out to play, and locked the adults indoors. Put another way, there are so many "elephants in the room" now that one wonders how there can be any room left for people.


A degree of overstatement

I woke late this morning and staggered to the shop to collect the newspaper. Scanning the headline, through bleary eyes and half-engaged brain, my heart skipped a beat. "What have I missed?" I thought. "Has the euro finally crashed ... has war been declared ... has the Royal Flight crashed and burned, with the Queen on board?"

One had to turn the paper over to see the substance of the "disaster". This is almost unbelievable ... today marks the day when the media marked its progression to the bottom, demonstrating with absolutely clarity that it has totally lost the plot.

Whatever your views on the issue, compare and contrast the headline in the Evening Standard for 1 September 1939, the day that Hitler's forces invaded Poland. And alongside is the news of the foundering of the Titanic on the front page of The New York Times.

There is something terribly, terribly wrong when the media can take such a minor event in the grander scheme of things and inflate it out of all proportion. When confronted with a real disaster, what does it do then?

But, more importantly, it betrays a mindset. This is "bubblespeak", where the political claque, of which the media has become part, has become so wrapped up in its soap opera that it has lost the ability to discriminate, to see and understand what really is important.

By that measure, today's front page will become a collector's item – treasured by historians to come, marking a passage into puerility from which it scarce seems possible that we can escape.


The floor is yours

Raedwald has the floor. I'm dog tired and going to bed – three weeks today without a cigarette takes it out of a chap.

I'll do this in the morning, if I can stop laughing long enough.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another reason for ABC

"There'll be no delay in pushing through a green energy revolution if the Conservatives win power, senior shadow cabinet figures tell me," writes Geoffrey Lean.

Greg Clark, the Tories shadow energy and climate change minister, has won an undertaking from David Cameron and the party leadership that an energy bill will be included in the first Queen's Speech, delivered within a month of the new Government taking office.

The bill will meet manifesto pledges to entitle each household to £6,400 for energy saving measures, set up a Green Investment Bank, reform the Climate Change Levy to provide a floor price for carbon, and reform the energy regulator, Ofgem.


What is the problem?

US generals have been given a baffling PowerPoint presentation (pictured above – click to enlarge) to try to explain the Afghanistan mess, reports The Daily Mail.

They are, we are told, struggling to understand it – and that is really worrying. From the look of it, this is the over-simplified version, for military use. The reality is much more complicated. Mind you, if the authors believe this is an accurate - much less complete - representation of the problem, then we are really in trouble.


Let not man put asunder

The Eurozone is on its deathbed, writes Gerald Warner, articulating that which many have predicted, even if the collapse has been a long time coming.

Ambrose is equally pessimistic, but then he always is - although the OECD secretary general is now comparing the crisis to the Ebola virus. Clearly, virology is not his strong suit.

Moi, I'm a little more cautious. Having myself predicted the demise of the single currency, only to see it rise again from the dead, one really does wonder what it will take to kill off this zombie.

However, it is marginally entertaining to see that the country which is squawking loudest about the Germans needing to do something is France ... which happens to have the largest national exposure to Greek debt.

If it is the Franco-German motor which has kept the "project" together, it will be hugely ironic if stresses over Greek debt tear the partners asunder.


Closing down Britain

Aluminium, then steel and now ... cigarette filters. Not in quite the same league, but it is still 460 jobs as the American owners of the Derbyshire plant of Celanese Acetate have decided to close it down, blaming – according to a local media report "soaring UK energy prices".

A spokesman for the company – which prides itself in delivering "sustainable value" - said: "A lot of work was carried out to reduce costs but there was no way to make any inroads into reducing our fundamental energy costs, which are much higher in the UK than overseas," then adding: "The biggest differential in costs between ourselves and other sites in the group is the price of energy."

UK energy prices had "skyrocketed" by 16.7 percent in the last year against an average increase of just 3.8 percent in the European Union. A large amount of heat and steam is used in the chemical process that turns wood pulp into acetate flake. More steam is required in the production of cigarette filters, Celanese Acetate's core product.

The company does, however, manufacture a variety of other products, including acetate film and, when the business was acquired in 2007 by Dallas-based Celanese Acetate, it was thought to be of "sufficient mass to generate high investment to sustain future growth and compete effectively against other films in a highly competitive and fast moving market." Sadly, that was not to be.

The move brings to an end almost 100 years of acetate production at the factory (pictured) and is the final death knell for an iconic city business which once employed 20,000 people. Celanese Corporation is aiming to concentrate production in Belgium, the US and Mexico, where power costs are cheaper.

There may be little sympathy for the producers of this particular product, although one doubts that even the most crazed anti-smoking zealot would have us going back to smoking Capstan Full-strength, without tabs. But this closure is typical of what we have seen elsewhere.

George Cowcher, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce chief executive, notes that, "Our energy prices are substantially higher than in France, Germany and Belgium." He worries that global companies operating here are comparing costs and if the UK operation is the most expensive it will be the one that goes. "The concern is that other multinationals will do the same," he says.

Conway Standing, the managing director of Derby-based commercial energy broker Utility Exchange Online, has another "take" on the situation. "Most of Britain's energy companies are owned by German, Spanish and French companies," he says. They "have kept any increases lower in their home countries but allowed the prices in the UK to remain high."

But, as always, the situation is slightly more complex than is painted. Jens Kurth, head of European communications and public affairs for Celanese, said demand for its products is expected to continue to shift to Asia, especially China, where new factories are being developed.

Thus, he says, "Celanese expects to meet customer commitments under this proposal by optimising its global acetate production network, which includes facilities in Belgium, Virginia and Mexico, as well as the company's acetate joint venture facilities in China." In other words, the work is going to where the business opportunities are most promising.

But, if there are no tears shed (apart from in Derbyshire) for the loss of cigarette filter manufacture, spare a thought for what is happening in our premier construction plant manufacturer, JCB.

Last week, Digby Jones, who is on the advisory board of the company, was complaining that only 36 percent of today's JCB digger components are manufactured in Britain. In 1979 that figure stood at 96 per cent.

Key components like hydraulic pumps are made in Spain, Sweden and Germany. Axle components are sourced from nine countries including China, India and Slovakia. The proportion of UK components in some sub-assemblies has fallen even more sharply. Digger axles, for example, contain less than ten per cent British-made parts, as measured by cost, compared with 75 percent in 1989.

This haemorrhage of jobs – and skills – cannot continue. After all, if all those civil servants and climate change co-ordinators are going to be fired, there must be some jobs for them to go to. They can't all be employed building windmills or as domestic insulation installers. Somebody actually has to be making something useful.


They can't leave well enough alone

As if the Large Combustion Plant Directive isn't doing enough damage, the "colleagues" are now working on a revision
to the infamous directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC), which they are now calling the Industrial Emissions Directive.

The directive applies to virtually all production processes, including electricity generation plants, the revision taking the "opportunity" to ramp up the emission requirements.

Originally set to apply to existing plants from 2023, it now appears that the luvvies in the EU parliament are pushing to have them included by 2016, which means that up to 14 power plants could close, putting energy security at risk.

The CBI has woken up to the danger and has put out a warning, prior to the parliament vote on 4 May ... two days before our general election, when no one will be taking a blind bit of notice.

The CBI is calling for power plants to be given until 2021 to prepare for the proposed changes which, it says, "will allow other low-carbon forms of energy to be built to replace the lost capacity and ensure a smooth transition."

I have no means of knowing which way the EU parliament will vote, but even if the original text is approved, it is still bad news for us all, as it will significantly add to costs – not that you would glean this from the fawning CBI press release.

The EU parliament voted this through the first reading on 10 March which means that it is up for its second reading on 4 May. If the amendment is then endorsed, the measure goes for conciliation, where the Council of Ministers – which has agreed the 2023 transition period – will have to give ground or the measure will fall (and is thus likely to give ground).

The best bet, therefore, is for this to be stopped on 4 May, but with attention elsewhere – not least on the deteriorating Greek situation - sod's law could apply and the thing might slip though without any real drama.

If that happens, there is a good chance that the lights will go out on or around 2016. That will be the parliament after next in the UK. Whoever is then prime minister of our provincial government will have the dubious pleasure of explaining to us all how lucky we are to be in Europe but not ruled by Europe. If there was any justice, it would be that idiot Cameron, forced to eat his words, but he may be political history by then.


More for our masters

While every one of the 27 EU member states is looking to cutting public expenditure – some more than others – the EU is demanding a £6.3 billion increase in its budget to bring its spending "into line with its new powers under the Lisbon Treaty."

So much for the claim that Lisbon was a mere amending treaty, but then the "colleagues" always have lived on a diet of lies, confident that when the chips are down, they can still hold out their hands and the member state governments will come rushing to throw money at them.

In the 2010/11 financial period, British taxpayers will have to hand over £7.9 billion – that is £7,900,000,000, or more than £400 for every household – to keep the "colleagues" in the luxury they most certainly do not deserve, while the EU enjoys a budget of £113 billion for its 2011 financial year (which coincides with the calendar year).

This situation is beyond irony as the commission has been urging on member state governments cutbacks in their own finances, and – according to Bruno Waterfield - is calling for a six percent cut in British public spending by 2013.

At the same time, we are continually assailed by EU laws and requirements which further add to the cost of governance and daily life, all promulgated by institutions where profligacy is their middle name. And to this, we append our now ritual question – and the reason we do not rise up and slaughter them all is?

The question becomes less rhetorical with each passing day – the pics are of the RĂ©sidence Palace in Brussels, that £280 million monstrosity to house the European Council, symbol of being "in Europe but not ruled by Europe," as that idiot Cameron would have us believe.


Whatever happened to the internet?

This was supposed to be the internet election and, for once, The Daily Telegraph has asked an intelligent question ... what happened?

Unfortunately, the paper then asked Iain Dale to answer the question, a prominent member of the political claque who has done more than most to emasculate political discourse on the blogosphere, treating it as if it were a soap opera.

Most probably the reason why the election has not set the "new media" on fire is the same reason people aren't talking about it in pubs or elsewhere – the sheer tedium and artificiality of the contest. None of the real issues are being entertained, as the politicians try to dominate and limit the debate, confining it to the "safe" issues that they are prepared to discuss.

As it stands, I could get more interested in writing a lengthy discourse on the behavioural dynamics of brush-applied coatings on timber in domestic environments than explore Mr Cleggerown's latest vapourings.

But that does not mean that people, or the blogosphere for that matter, are not interested in politics or the election. It's just that there is a limit to how many times you can write or say that they're all a bunch of low-grade drongos with not a fag-paper between them, and that you'd sooner stick your head in a vat of boiling oil than vote for any of them.

Thus it is that the "new media" is alive and kicking, as active and vibrant as it has even been. The fact that it has not followed the election is not its failure – the failure is of the political system that cannot even hold our interest.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A question of responsibility

I take a pretty dim view of politicians prattling on about "personal responsibility" and "social responsibility", as did David Cameron this morning, when one of the biggest problems we confront is the increasing inefficiency of the state, combined with the failure of dysfunctional officials to take responsibility for their own cock-ups.

That is not to say that we should not take responsibility for our own actions, individually and collectively – far from the case. But there is a strong element of mote and beam here. Rather than lecture us about our responsibilities, it would be rather more convincing if Mr Cameron devoted his energies to telling us how, as an aspirant leader of Her Majesty's Government, he intended to ensure that government officials took responsibility for their actions.

And, on top of the heap – theoretically – are government ministers. How long is it since we saw one resigning over a cock-up by their offcials? Perhaps Mr Cameron might also care to tell us how he intends to restore the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, and under what circumstances we might expect them to fall on their swords – without the cushion of a handsome payoff and state-funded pension.

In that context, it would help if the man could tear himself away from his "grid" for one moment, and address the issue of the "ash crisis", now that we have learned from the EU commission that the financial losses resulting from the prolonged closure of airspace are estimated at €1.5-2.5 billion – to say nothing of the 100,000 cancelled flights and 10 million passengers stranded.

What is particularly galling here is that there is a strong case to be made that official failures were in the main part responsible for the losses. Yet the EU commission is asking member states to provide airlines with immediate financial relief and has indicated that it will permit limited state aid. Meanwhile, national politicians are silent.

Thus, the officials cock-up and far from this being recognised, those immediately affected have to pay through the nose. Then, indirectly, the rest of us pay via our taxes to remedy the damage. And, all the while, the guilty officials continue to collect their salaries and, in the fullness of time, their generous pensions.

Of course, for Cameron to deal with this issue, he would have to admit that for many of official functions, the UK government bears no direct responsibility, having outsourced its powers to other agencies, not least the EU. This, though, would be far too embarrassing, which is presumably why he finds it so much easier to lecture us about our responsibilities, while ignoring his own.


Useless parasites

Not uncommonly, the more intelligent comment on recent events in newspapers comes in the form of readers' letters. That certainly proves to be the case today, with a letter from professor David Campbell of Durham Law School.

Under the heading, "Paying for flight ban", he observes that it is "very worrying" that the government is seeking to escape liability for the closure of British airspace by saying that this was the result of Britain's participation in the international system of air-safety regulation.

This system, prof Campbell writes, is but one of a number of international safety systems co-ordinated by UN agencies, in this case the International Civil Aviation Organisation. These agencies continually attempt to regulate beyond their competence without regard for the costs, and the normal result is fiasco.

Campbell adds: "We usually see this in the form of absurd and costly health scares, and we must at least be thankful that this episode did not involve the cruel killing of millions of animals in the way regularly contemplated by the World Health Organisation."

Then we get to the "killer punch" and the professor asks: "As these agencies are effectively unaccountable, if our national government is not accountable, who is?" And that is precisely the point about the recent debacle that should give us most cause for concern.

We saw the mechanism in a recent statement from the Department for Transport when a spokeswoman said: "The decision made by safety regulators to restrict airspace was made in line with long-standing international guidelines and information from aircraft manufacturers that any volcanic ash could pose a danger to aircraft." She added: "The whole of Europe has been in the same position, acting according to the same aviation safety rules.”

And therein lies the problem. With so many different agencies involved, responsibility is diffuse and accountability there is none.

Interestingly, similar sentiments were expressed by G K Snape of Blackburn, Lancashire, in a letter published on Thursday 22 April.

Speaking as a geologist, former pilot and meteorologist, he wrote, "I would say the Met Office is not to blame for the airspace debacle. It is the Civil Aviation Authority and the National Air Traffic Service." Snape continues:
However, the inevitability of the recent large-scale commercial disruption and human misery was secured by the system of responsibility established by successive governments. The responsibility lies directly with the Government.

Flying through volcanic ash has proved to be extremely dangerous. This did not, though, prevent someone from using knowledge, common sense and a sense of responsibility to determine what was safe and what was not.

The CAA and NATS are trusted by government to keep all air problems at sufficient distance to absolve it of blame in the event of any misfortune. Since the government has no one among its members resembling a scientist and no one capable of making meaningful decisions, circumstances forced the recent misery upon us, not the ash cloud or the Met office.
The two letters provide an admirable counterpoint, and the intelligent reader can easily see the parallels between this episode and so many other events which affect our daily lives. The bottom line is the progressive dilution of responsibility and accountability, issues which are not being addressed during this general election campaign.

Politicians need to get to grips with the fact that outsourcing their responsibilities – whether to quangos, national or international agencies, or supranational governments – renders them impotent and makes their posturing vacuous and irrelevant. They become merely useless parasites (pictured), and they should hardly be surprised when they are treated with the contempt they deserve.


Another power grab

Slowly, the details are being teased out – just at a time when the British media are losing interest and focusing ever more closely on the election charade. Thus it is left to Deutsche Welle to come up with the little nugget that adds to our understanding of the threat posed to aircraft confronted by volcanic ash last week.

It appears, according to this source, that the test flights by research aircraft revealed interesting data, not only on particle density but also composition. The ash cloud, we are told, contained basalt – which is relatively benign – rather than another common component of volcanic ash known as andesite, which we are told is far more damaging to aircraft engines.

From a zero knowledge base, therefore, just by diligent perusal of the media over the last week or so, a layman of average intelligence can deduce that the threat posed by volcanic ash is determined not only by its presence, but by a number of other factors.

Particle size is an issue. Generally, the larger particles are more dangerous, although these tend to drop out earlier. Then, particle density is very relevant, as we have seen, with extremely low concentrations being reported.

Then there is the degree and extent of stratification. All things being equal, thick layers of ash present a greater hazard than thin layers, where dwell time is short-lived. And then there is the composition, yet another factor which goes to characterising the degree of threat.

All that must have been – or should have been – known to the experts, the people charged (and paid) by us to anticipate threats and to devise contingency plans and guidelines, to ensure our safety while at the same time minimising unnecessary disruption.

But, if it was, there is no evidence that any such was taken into account in the ICAO contingency plan, which makes absolutely no attempt to assess graduations of threat, other than to characterise visible ash clouds as dangerous.

With such knowledge, though, Peter Sammonds, a volcanologist at University College, London, makes complete sense. He is cited by DW saying that this underlines the fact that it is not enough to rely solely on weather simulations.

"That sort of initial monitoring of the volcano, the modelling by the Met Office, probably needs to be backed up with more intensive atmospheric sampling to try and map the distribution of the ash in the atmosphere somewhat more accurately to provide better input into what the next decision should be," he says.

The sense of this is self-evident, the obvious inference being that aircraft must be available for physical sampling, further calling into question the adequacy of the ICAO plan, which fails to state this very obvious need.

To date, the most voluble critic of the plan's inadequacies has been Giovanni Bisignani, head of the International Air Transport Association, who earlier in the crisis complained that a great swathe of northern European airspace had been closed purely on the basis of computer modelling.

"I call it a European mess because we did not focus on figures and facts. Europe was using a theoretical, mathematical approach. That is not what we need," he said last week. "We need test flights to go into the atmosphere, assess the ashes and then take decisions."

That we need to get our act together is now even more vital as there is a distinct possibility that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption will be followed by the more powerful Katla, requiring a much more sophisticated response if unnecessary disruption is to be avoided.

But, while this is recognised, there is no sense of contrition evident in the authorities which crafted the original plan, which included the national safety agencies, the EU commission and the pan-European air traffic agency, Eurocontrol.

Needless to say, Eurocontrol is not keen to highlight its own lamentable role in the affair. Instead, we have Brian Flynn, deputy head of operation, claiming that: "The crisis was well managed, but it was managed as a crisis - not as a manageable threat".

He neglects entirely to say that a system was supposed to be in place, and is rehearsed bi-annually under the aegis of Eurocontrol, the last exercise actually taking place on 1 March 2010 only just over a month before systems were tested for real – and failed.

And while some have been quick to argue that critics are relying on hindsight, the potential problems were well known. Eurocontrol itself stated, well prior to the event: "The impact of the dangerous effects of volcanic ash for airlines and for ATC operations can be huge. For example the busy airspace over central Europe airspace could be contaminated by ash only a few hours after an eruption of an Icelandic eruption, if the winds are northwesterly."

Despite this, Flynn has the nerve to say that a comprehensive crisis management system is needed to deal with future events that may jeopardize international air traffic. "Volcanic eruptions are very rare in Europe" he says. "But we must also be able to deal with other threats to air safety, such as terrorism security alerts, health epidemics, and major social unrest."

Quick off the mark when there is an opportunity for aggrandisement, Eurocontrol has assembled a team of "experts" to analyse the lessons of the airspace closure, slated as "the worst disruption to hit international civil aviation since World War II." They met yesterday to start collecting and analysing the data and, no doubt, to prepare their alibis.

Alongside Eurocontrol, in an overt attempt to exploit the crisis, is Siim Kallas, the EU's transport commissioner, saying he will begin working this week with colleagues "to lay out a road map for similar events." While British politicians are immersed in the general election, the "colleagues" are untroubled by such vulgar processes and can focus on expanding their own powers.

With weary predictability, Kallas declares that, "We needed a fast, coordinated European response to a crisis." In classic "more Europe" mode, he goes on to say: "Instead, we had a fragmented patchwork of 27 national airspaces. We need a single European regulator for a single European sky." Thus he will propose speeding up the plan to unify control over all European airways.

This is picked up by The Washington Post but not, so far, by the British media which, as we know, doesn't "do" Europe – especially at election times.

And from hero of the hour, Giovanni Bisignani becomes the villain. "The volcanic ash crisis that paralyzed European air transport for nearly a week made it crystal clear that the Single European Sky is a critical missing link in Europe's infrastructure," he says. He has called an emergency meeting of EU transport ministers for 4 May – two days before our general election, to fast-track the wholesale reform of Europe's air traffic system.

By such means is a major power grab under way, where Britain will be represented by ministers who may not be in office days later and certainly have no mandate.

But the EU has its own agenda. Unified airspace, we are told, would put the skies under one regulatory body instead of leaving decisions to dozens of individual countries - "one of the key sources of confusion in the volcanic ash crisis," which the commission says "made it tough to deal with the crisis."

As we know, though, the real problem was the inadequate contingency plan – produced with the support and approval of the very agency which is now laying claim to taking unified control – compounded by the lack of aircraft capable of collecting physical data to characterise the threat, making up for the inadequacies of the Met Office's model.

When push comes to shove, it really does not matter who is in charge. If the aircraft are not available the next time an ash cloud threatens Europe, we will be just as ill-equipped as we were last week. Solving that problem is down to member states, who must put up the money and the resources, which is of course, why the EU is not concerned to highlight the fundamental defect in the system.

Such then is another example of the cynicism and ambition of the EU. There is no problem, of any nature, which cannot be perverted and shaped to provide yet another opportunity to increase European integration. And, by the time our own politicians have even begun to focus, the game may well be over.

All that will be left for us to do, as The Daily Telegraph points out, is pay the price.


Monday, April 26, 2010

No option

Jonathan Isaby, he of Tory Boy blog, has been warning against voting for UKIP. It (UKIP) "remains a hindrance which the Tories could do without".

By way of justification, Isaby tells us that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats broke their 2005 manifesto pledges for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and have happily voted to cede more powers to Brussels – on which basis we are told that, "anyone wanting to move away from European integration has no option but to vote Conservative."

And Mr Cameron did what with his pledge for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty?


What a horrible thought

"Cameron in naked bid to woo Lib Dem voters", headlines The Times. But I cannot imagine a more disgusting sight. The man looks repulsive enough fully clothed.


"Close to undetectable"

Although on forums and in comments sections, the "better safe than sorry" brigade still has a voice, the full extent of the over-reaction on the volcano ash debacle is now becoming apparent.

From The Daily Telegraph (as a separate story in the print edition), today's Daily Mail and the Mirror, we learn that Jim McKenna, the CAA's head of airworthiness has admitted that the plume of ash during the recent shutdown had often been "close to undetectable".

Prof Stephen Mobbs, director of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, who was responsible for carrying out test flights, says that the highest levels detected above Britain were around 300 micrograms in "patches". But, said McKenna, "It's obvious that at the start of this crisis there was a lack of definitive data".

All the reports mention the absence of the BAe-146 in the early stages, as did The Sunday Times yesterday, and it is by now evident that the lack of aviation assets to carry out physical sampling contributed significantly to the length and extent of the shut-down.

That said, with the help of readers, I have pretty much sorted the confusion over the Dornier 228 flights. It now seems pretty clear that it did fly on the evening of the 15 April, and again on the 16th, when it may have been in Scotland.

On the Friday evening, it was in Cranfield in Bedfordshire, through Saturday, being fitted with advanced Laser measuring equipment (LIDAR), but it is not clear (in my mind at least) whether if flew operationally on the Saturday.

The aircraft certainly flew on the Sunday, and it appears that the test flight in the BA 747 with Willie Wash on board was preceded by the Dornier – at least as far as Cardiff. The 747 went on over the Irish Sea to Ireland, while the Dornier turned right and flew to Prestwick. It then flew again on the Monday.

What is more than interesting is the early statement from FAAM issued on Friday 16 April, which stated categorically that the BAe-146 would not be flying to investigate the ash cloud - "primarily because the aircraft is currently on the ground with all instruments removed immediately prior to a repaint." There is also reference to the Dornier being "highly capable".

Clearly though, it was not capable enough and, even with the best will in the world, the aircraft cannot be in two places at once. For a slow-flying turbo-prop with a limited ceiling, characterising the whole extent of the ash cloud, which at times was claimed to be covering the whole of the UK, was an impossible job.

Thus, at some time, the decision must have been made to reactivate the BAe-146. It cannot be stressed enough what an extraordinary decision that was. With the aircraft already stripped down, it must have required a massive – and expensive – effort to get it back flying so soon. This suggests an element of panic, and in high places. Authorisation for that spend and the allocation of the resources needed could not have come from line managers.

Alongside this was the argument about ash tolerances, but this seems more and more to be a red herring, an alibi to justify the prolonged closure and to cover up the lack of data. If the cloud was "undetectable" in some areas, then it was manifestly safe to fly. This, we will have to explore in another post.

Whatever else, though, this debacle must not be allowed to fade away without a commitment to the fullest possible (and public) inquiry. There are huge issues involved here, not least the competence of quango queen Deirdre Hutton and the senior staff of the CAA. If the Tories had any political sense (joke), they would already be demanding such an inquiry. But then, as we have learned to our cost, the Tories rarely indulge in real politics.


Damned if we do ...

A fascinating piece in The Washington Post is headed, "Indo-Pakistan proxy war heats up in Afghanistan."

"Across Afghanistan," we are told, "behind the obvious battles fought for this country's soul, a shadow war is being quietly waged. It's being fought with spies and proxies, with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money and ominous diplomatic threats."

The piece continues: "The fight pits nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan against one another in a battle for influence that will almost certainly gain traction as the clock ticks down toward America's military withdrawal, which President Barack Obama has announced will begin next year."

Sadly, I was writing this in October last year and, more recently here, here and here. And, as the WaPo is beginning to recognise, this is the dominant dynamic in the war in Afghanistan.

But, as it stands, resolving the Indo-Pakistani conflict is not politically possible – not least because none of the Western nations are prepared to invest the political capital and, specifically, because no one is prepared to confront India. Thus, it is head-in-the-sand time, leaving a gaping wound to fester.

Resolving this issue will not, in itself, resolve the Afghan conflict but, without a resolution, the conflict cannot be ended. All the rest is detail, underpinning yet again the simple, unvarnished truth – we cannot prevail. Yet, politically, it is hard to see how we can engineer a rapid departure.

Furthermore, should the coalition forces depart, the proxy war might just become overt confrontation, putting those two nuclear powers at odds with each other. And the other side of Afghanistan is Iran - also supported by India – a country with nuclear ambitions. If that situation is mishandled (more than it is at the moment), we could be seeing a lot of mushrooms in the region, and I don't mean fungi.

From our stance, it appears that we have started something we don't know how to end and, even if we did, we do not have the wherewithal to achieve it. We are thus damned if we withdraw, and damned if we do not. The only consolation, I suppose, is that if the whole thing does go belly up, global warming will seem a very minor problem.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

One of our Dorniers is missing

In her own words she condemned herself. Writing in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday (online), Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) sought to defend her authority's decisions and claims that, "it led the way in getting airlines flying again."

But, in the very text to which she lent her name, she set out the procedures needed before aircraft could resume flying. "First," she wrote, "we had to understand the extent of ash contamination, by sending up planes bearing instruments that could measure its density (complementing the data provided by ground-based lasers)."

There is the endorsement of the very point which we have been making – that specialist aircraft were needed to investigate the ash cloud extent and bring back physical data to update and refine the Met Office's computer model. And, as we have already ascertained, there were only two such aircraft available in the whole of the UK.

The first and most suitable aircraft, the BAE-146 operated by the Facility of Airborne Atmospheric Measurement (FAAM), was in its hanger in Cranfield, stripped-down preparatory for repainting. When the balloon when up, it must have taken superhuman effort to get it reassembled and in flying condition, and every short-cut in the book must have been taken.

That left the very much smaller, German registered turbo-prop Dornier 228, operated by the Airborne Research and Survey Facility (ARSF), out of Gloucester airport. With limited range and performance, it is also unpressurised which gives it an effective ceiling of 20,000 feet, too low for it to reach the higher levels of the ash cloud, much less get above them to make vital measurements.

Nevertheless, something is better than nothing – although not much better – and evidently conscious of the need to get something into the air, we were told in a press release by the funding agency, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) that the aircraft was being readied for a flight on the evening of Thursday 15 April, the day the no-fly zone had been imposed.

Therein lies a mystery which, when the details of the events come fully to be explored – if they ever are – may give a clue to the disarray within the authorities which were charged with managing the situation. The mystery intensifies because the Met Office in its most recent briefing affirms that the Dornier flew on the Thursday evening, claiming that the flight "provided inconclusive evidence on the extent of the ash cloud."

It also claims that the aircraft flew on 16 April, when it is said to have detected three distinct layers of ash, thus claiming that its models were "also evaluated with observations, including the Met Office and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) aircraft".

Why this is a mystery is simply to explain, borne out by a second press release from NERC, which states that the first flight was from Cranfield airfield at 14:00 UK time on Sunday 18 April. After take off, the Dornier flew south via London, Southampton and Cardiff, and then north to Prestwick before returning to Cranfield.

The second flight took off from Cranfield at 11:30 UK time on Monday 19 April. During this flight, the aircraft flew to Gloucester up to an altitude of 2,000 feet. It then turned north and flew at varying altitudes up to 20,000 feet towards Prestwick along the west coast, and across the Midland Valley before turning to fly down the east coast and across the Wash back to Cranfield.

Results from both flights, we are told, revealed the presence of sulphur dioxide and a number of layers of volcanic ash of varying sizes between ground level and 20,000 feet. "These discreet layers of fine material are particularly difficult to spot with the naked eye," we were also told, indicating that the levels of ash must have been very low.

Therein lies the mystery. Why did NERC claim that the aircraft was going to fly on 15 April, when in fact it did not fly until the 18 April, and why did the Met Office not only claim the aircraft had flown on the 15th but the day after, thus claiming that its model had been validated?

This gets even more bizarre when the Met Office's own website refers to flights on the Sunday and Monday (although referring to "earlier flights"), further complicating the issue by attributing one flight to the BAE-146, which first flew only on the Tuesday.

As to the whereabouts of the Dornier, the ARSF website tells us that the aircraft was scheduled to deploy to Antigua on 1 March to a base to support a survey of Monserrat, returning on 21 March. It was then to spend its time on "early season projects", covering research projects being conducted on Salisbury Plain, in Wales, Northumbria and Cumbria.

Why then was it not available on 15 April to carry out ash plume sampling, and why did the aircraft not fly until the 18th? And why, incidentally, was it then operating out of Cranfield, when its home base is in Gloucester? Limited though the aircraft is, its input in those early days could have been critical but, during that time, one of our Dorniers (our only one) was missing.


The "ash" crisis continued

Regular readers may have surmised, from the relatively light blogging last week, that I have been otherwise engaged. And indeed I have, working flat out on the "ash crisis" for the Mail on Sunday. The piece I originally wrote was for the features desk, but was snaffled by "news" and appears in heavily truncated form here (spool halfway down).

What I have done, therefore, is publish below the original, early version of the piece as submitted and worked on by my editor, the seriously impressive Laura Collins. Even then, there are updates to this piece, but rather than mess around with it, I'm putting it up, "as is" and will then write another post, updating it and exploring some of the issues arising, and other developments. So here goes:

At 11o'clock last Tuesday morning a flight took off from a small Bedfordshire airfield and climbed into the empty skies above Britain. It flew up the country's east coast, several times - each a clear, level run. It landed at Prestwick at half past one, refuelled and repeated the exercise this time flying back down the west coast.

Aboard were Met Office and Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement (FAAM) scientists, tracking and measuring volcanic ash density through aerosol layer. They studied the engine on landing, stripping it back and testing. Shortly after the blanket flight ban that had paralysed the air industry since the eruption of Eyafjallajokull two weeks ago, was lifted.

By the time that announcement was made 22 British Airways flights were already entering the 'no-fly zone.' Thousands of miles away and many hours earlier they had set off 'confident' that their planes would be able to land at Heathrow and Gatwick.

It was a bold move but it wasn't a gamble. They had sent up their own test flight two days earlier. They had measured the density of the volcanic ash at cruising altitude. They had examined the engines and conducted borescope inspections.

They had established the facts. They had data - which, The Mail on Sunday has discovered, is more than the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had when it issued the blanket ban six days earlier.

But then BA - along with Lufthansa, Air Berlin and Finn Air, all of which sent up test flights - had at their disposal something absolutely vital that the CAA and the Met Office did not: planes.

Hard to believe, but the fate of our aviation industry last week hung on just one aircraft, a BAE 146. It is the only plane in the London Volcano Ash Advisory Unit's armoury capable of sampling air at the necessary. And until Tuesday it was grounded, stripped of its instruments, undergoing a paint job.

While technicians worked round the clock to reassemble the aircraft the government was forced to rely on a much smaller, German registered turbo-prop aircraft, a Dornier 228. With its limited range and performance it plodded through the skies unable to deliver key data. Even then, it was only to fly on Sunday 18 April, four days after the ban had been imposed. Academics thus had to base conclusions on theoretical models, insufficiently bulked out with data gleaned from flights.

Lifting the ban last week National Air Traffic Service (NATS) admitted that: 'The information about how aero engines could cope with adverse ash conditions only became available yesterday.' ie Tuesday. It was no coincidence that the BAE 146 had finally got off the ground. Nothing could illustrate more clearly that, while the disaster was natural the mishandling was entirely man-made. And the decisions that led to this costly shambles actually go back years.

We have looked into the protocol followed, the agencies involved and the resources at their disposal and it is hard not to conclude that it wasn't volcanic ash that threatened to bring the air industry to its knees but decades of neglect, underfunding, poor planning and layers of bureaucracy that underpin the government and Europe-wide response to it.

This, despite the fact that the ink had barely dried on a contingency plan drawn up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in September 2009.

So what went wrong and why?

Starting with the events last Thursday, as the cloud of ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was creeping towards the UK the first people in the hot seat were not the air traffic controllers but a team of eight scientists working for the Met Office in an obscure office called the London Volcano Advisory Centre (LVAA).

These specialists don't spend all their time working on volcanic ash mapping and forecasting but are called in on an emergency basis. Their job was to provide the aviation industry with forecasts on the spread of the ash and to warn pilots of where it was unsafe to fly.

Their tool in this instance was a computer model called NAME and, as they ran their simulations, it became clear that first the northern part and then the whole of the UK was going to be covered by the ash cloud. Closing down airspace, or even advising it, was not in the job description. The LVAAC could only pass its forecasts onto the National Air Traffic Services (NATS).

In the early stages of a volcano eruption there is very little hard data available. Models have a good track record of predicting ash dispersion. Nevertheless it was at this very early stage that things started to go wrong. For while computer models have good short-term accuracy with time and distance, uncertainties and modelling errors build up and they get less and less reliable.

Furthermore these models cannot provide the all-important detail of particle density - how many dust particles there are in the air - which has a direct bearing on whether it is safe to fly. To an extent, satellites can fill in some of the gaps and there is ground-based measuring equipment which can also be used to measure particle density but the equipment is thinly scattered and the results unreliable. To get the detail required teams have to fly up into the path of the dust in specially equipped aircraft and collect physical evidence.

And here what happened and what the ICAO recommended start to diverge for reasons we shall address. The ICAO recommends three clear phases of response: Alerting Phase, Reactive Phase and Proactive Phase. Nowhere does the ICAO suggest closing airspace completely - rather it talks of rerouting flights and taking a pragmatic approach based on continued measurement of the ash present in the air.

And therein lies the problem. The information needed to make a true judgement was not available because the aircraft were not available. Unable to establish what was a safe threshold for ash particles in the atmosphere and unable to navigate through the variety of manufacturers' own design parameters the 'easy' option was to put it at zero.

During and after the Second World War the RAF had a large fleet of aircraft which could be used to sample volcanic dust, but this was progressively whittled down until 1964 when the last meteorological flight was disbanded by the Macmillan government.

The UK capability, however, remained high, as a number of V-Bombers had been adapted for air sampling, mainly to measure nuclear fallout in the case of war. But as these were progressively retired the capability was not replaced.

That left a small RAF-operated meteorological research flight which by 1980 comprised just two aircraft - a converted Canberra jet bomber and a highly equipped C-130 Hercules transport, nicknamed by its crew, 'Snoopy.' Under the Thatcher defence cuts two became one - the single Hercules which survived until 2001 when, to reduce costs, Blair's Labour government sold off Snoopy, ending military involvement in operating meteorological aircraft.

After a gap of four years a single BAE-146 was acquired, primarily as a research aircraft for civilian projects, to be used anywhere in the world. And so it was that the fate of so much rested on this solitary plane. It is hard to square this reality with CAA Chief Executive Andrew Haines's assertion that Britain had 'led the way,' in establishing the new safety threshhold for the volume of ash particles in the atmosphere that led to the ban being lifted. Arguably the safety threshold announced on Tuesday was not new it was merely the first one properly established.

Across the rest of Europe things were not much better. Theoretically a fleet of 24 aircraft was available, including the British pair, but not all were suitable. One in fact was a microlight. Only five fast jet of the type needed were actually on the atmospheric research agencies' inventory.

Because until two weeks ago Volcanic Ash was not nearly such a hot topic as, say, Climate Change. Money has been thrown at climate change research and monitoring - the British Met Office has received over £200million for that purpose - while other meteorological services have been starved of funds. The LVAAC depends on Eurocontrol enroute charges for its funds - a sort of toll paid by the airlines that fly through its space. That is clearly not enough.

The blanket ban was, then, governed as much by what we did not know as what we did. And while there is no European law governing just what to do in the event of a volcanic eruption affecting the skies in this way we are bound to our fellow European states by historic treaties which prevent us from being able to close our skies unilaterally and make the prospect of opening them unilaterally problematic.

But with shared responsibility comes no real responsibility - or accountability. As dissatisfaction over the past few days grows the European Commission has claimed it occupied only a 'side-line' observational role in all of this. This is misleading. The contingency plans may have started with the United Nations body of the ICAO but they were agreed upon by a galaxy of authorities including the European Union, the EU aviation control agency, Eurocontrol, the British government and all the other EU member state governments plus their safety agencies.

According to International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, the crisis management was characterised by, 'no risk assessment, no consultation, no organisation and no leadership. Governments have not taken their responsibility to make clear decisions based on facts.'

If we are to learn anything from this fiasco guilt must now be shouldered where appropriate and an honest reassessment of priorities made. The ICAO likens the volcano watch service to an airfield fire service. You hope you'll never have to use it, but it should be well equipped and its people well trained, just in case.

Instead, as we have discovered, successive governments have sold off our 'fire engines.' The plethora of agencies involved are doing their best to throw up a smokescreen that rivals Eyjafjallajokull, but the truth is that what we have witnessed over the past two weeks and what kept planes out of the sky for so long was not volcanic ash but generations of neglect.


The story's out

While the girls and boys have been playing their games, others have been doing some serious work, charting the debacle of the closure of UK and European airspace for six days, in response to the Eyafjallajokull volcano.

As far as I am aware, there will be three newspapers today covering the events which led to the debacle (there may be more) but first out of the trap is Booker. He frames the story perfectly, pointing out that the closure of our airspace "casts a highly disturbing light on the way we are governed."

Before going any further, it is necessary to emphasise this point. The bottom line here is governance. Whatever the technical issues, the fact – and I do say fact – that British airspace was needlessly closed, at great cost and causing great distress, was down to a failure of government. This is the stuff of real politics, affecting real people and costing real money.

That said, such are the complexities of the events – those during the crisis and the years preceding it – that there is scope for emphasising different aspects of them, Booker choose to focus on the "striking parallels" with the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001.

Both episodes, he writes, involved a massive system failure in a complex new structure of supranational governance which was being put to the test for the first time, Both were made much worse by over-reliance on an inadequate computer model, which ended up causing unnecessary chaos and misery for hundreds of thousands of people and costing not millions but billions of pounds.

What turned a drama into a crisis was the central flaw in the international system for responding to such incidents, whereby the authorities were locked by international rules into a rigid bureaucratic system. Based on a computer model, which gave them no alternative but to close down air traffic for days longer than was justified.

But, writes Booker, the real flaw in the system was that it made no provision for testing that crude computer model against actual real-life data, which could have shown that the computer was vastly exaggerating the risk.

Responsibility for responding to the Icelandic eruption lay with a bewildering hierarchy of national and international authorities, starting at the top with a UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), working down through the European Commission and Eurocontrol (which is not part of the EU), to national agencies, such as our own Civil Aviation Authority, the National Air Traffic Service and, last but not least, the UK Met Office, owners of the relevant computer model.

Under guidelines issued by the ICAO last September, as soon as the Met Office's computer simulation of air flows around Europe indicates that a particular wind-borne dust cloud might theoretically be a danger, it automatically triggers an exclusion zone for air traffic. What the computer cannot show is the density of the dust, and whether it thus poses a genuine hazard.

A properly designed system should have allowed for immediate sampling and monitoring of the ash cloud to see whether it was at the danger level. As a spokesman for the International Advisory Committee on Flight Safety put it, "military and transport aircraft should have been sent straight up to determine the nature of the ash cloud. The density and the make-up of the cloud is what matters, and that information has just not been available."

Somehow the need for this had been completely overlooked by all the international officials involved in devising the new system (which was endorsed on our behalf by the European Commission). Because no one had been made officially responsible for carrying out the relevant sampling, it then turned out that there were very few aircraft left in Europe specially equipped to do it.

Booker thus picks up on the point made earlier on this blog, whence he notes the similarity with 2001, when our government tried to tackle the foot-and-mouth epidemic within a new straitjacket of EU directives.

Instead of listening to those world experts who were urging it to contain the disease by vaccination, it handed over direction of the crisis to a computer modelling team with no experience of animal diseases, who came up with that truly disastrous policy of a "pre-emptive cull". The result was that millions of healthy animals were killed unnecessarily, the appalling damage inflicted on Britain's countryside was infinitely worse than it should have been, and the cost rose into billions.

It is especially ironic, Booker concluded, that a Met Office computer model was at the centre of this latest fiasco, and that, thanks to successive government cuts over the years, it no longer has any aircraft capable of testing whether its model's data are reliable.

Over the past 20 years, our Met Office has received some £250 million to allow its computer models to predict future climate change. If just a tiny fraction of that money had been spent on aircraft of the type that the Met Office used to have at its disposal to sample dust clouds, airlines and their customers might have been saved several times the sum the Met Office has frittered away on its obsession with global warming.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Constitutional ignorance

Unelected prime ministers would be forced to hold a general election within six months of taking office, under proposals being announced by David Cameron today, or so says The Independent.

Given the lamentable lack of education in this country, I can quite understand that many people fall for this trap, but one would expect a putative prime minister to know better. As my colleague has said so many times, we do not elect prime ministers in this country. They are appointed by the Queen, after being selected by the majority party.

In the increasingly unlikely event that Cameron becomes prime minister, he will not have been elected to that post. He will have been elected MP for Witney, becoming prime minister because the foolish Conservatives have selected him as their leader.

And if you think about it, the utter stupidity of the premise becomes obvious. The only people given a chance to vote for Cameron are the electors of Witney. Why should they, and only they, be allowed to elect the prime minister?

Mind you, with this man and much of the nation being ignorant of our constitution, it is no wonder their poor little brains can't get to grips with the complexities of the EU. They don't even understand their own system.

Video via Witterings from Witney - who says "we're doomed".


Greece on the skids

It was not so long ago that I was writing that it had been suggested that when the spread between German and Greek bonds reached 450, we would be at crisis point.

Now, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is telling us that the spreads on 10-year Greek bonds have exploded to almost 600 basis points over German Bunds. Contagion, he writes, is spreading across Southern Europe and panic trading has pushed borrowing costs close to nine percent. Rates on two-year debt rose to 10.6 percent in "a market gone mad".

The cost of taking out insurance on Greek government bonds through credit default swaps suddenly surged by around a 10th, hitting 620 basis points. That means it now costs over $620,000 a year to insure $10 million of Greek sovereign debt for five years - some $70,000 more than it costs to insure similar debt issued by Ukraine.

The euro also plunged, extending earlier losses to hit a new low for the year against the dollar at $1.3257 and, to cap it all, as the European Union statistics office, Eurostat, raised its estimate of the already huge Greek budget deficit. ratings agency Moody's downgraded Greek debt.

If the British media hadn't gone mad, and could tear itself away from its love affair with the tawdry trio, this would be lead story in all the newspapers, especially when we have Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, saying the situation is "a very serious one." Basically, when the Frogs go in for understatement, we are in deepest doo doo. Or, as Strauss-Khan might have said, "C'est de la merde ce truc".

As a result, it comes as no surprise that Papandreou has gone rushing to the "colleagues" to pick up the dosh promised to him earlier this month.

The only slight problem he has (Brits can still do understatement as well) is that Germany has refused to put in place enabling legislation that will allow Merkel to put her euros in the pot. As with all participants behind the €30bn (£26bn) of eurozone loans, they will need to pass new laws from scratch before handing over any cash.

This, we are told, stretches the timeline into the second half of May before the "colleagues" can deliver, which is going to make it a close-run thing. The Greeks have bonds worth €11.6 billion maturing at the end of that month. They are going to have to rely on the IMF to bail them out.

But the big issue beginning to emerge is the increasing real prospect of "contagion" as Greece's €270 billion in sovereign debt looks more and more shaky. Portugal, Spain and Ireland are on the rack as well and, if there is a hung parliament, according to some pundits, the UK could be taking the heat as well.

Altogether, this is not exactly a happy picture, and we are still in uncharted territory. Not only is Greece in for a bumpy ride, but the euro is under threat, and the whole banking system could take a serious haircut. This, of course, will end up in the little people taking yet another hit. It may just be a good time to lay in a stock of baked beans.


Friday, April 23, 2010

It worked!

In Calais, where tens of thousands flocked after being urged by the Foreign Office to head for the Channel ports over the weekend, the scene was tranquil for the first time in days, says The Times. P&O Ferries said it expected to carry only a few hundred foot passengers to Dover today, compared with 7,000 on Wednesday.

Obviously, the Murdoch deterrent plan worked.


March of the morons

"To anybody with an IQ above 60 and a glimmering of moral discernment, exhibitions such as last night's are an embarrassment to watch," writes Gerald Warner.

To that extent, the debates do achieve one thing – they separate the sheep from the goats (although I am not sure that is an adequate parallel). While the politicians and their respective claques posture and twitter, with the happy collusion of an increasingly vapid media, the rest of us – as always – look upon these alien beings and wonder how it is that they have managed so effectively to hijack the political process.

I know the old aphorism – we get the governments we deserve. But for the life of me, I cannot begin to understand quite what we did to deserve what is on offer.