30 June 2007

United States of Africa

And now for something completely different...Gaddafi's Amazonian GuardFlanked by female bodyguards dressed in camouflage, Libya's Muammar Libya's Gaddafi arriving at the AU summitGaddafi, wearing dark glasses and a brown shirt emblazoned with images of Pan-African leaders and a map of the continent, has called upon leaders of the African Union to "Unite or die!"

Despite facing problems such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, the AU has convened for a summit in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the issue of continental citizenship and continental government. Sounds like a certain other continent's misplaced sense of priorities...

Korea's Oskar Schindler

"There is no food here. We've had terrible floods. A kilo of rice costs 50 cents, and I only earn 70 cents a month. We are trying to change things, but it is very hard."The heavily armed area by the border of North and South Korea, where any refugees caught trying to escape into the South will be shot on sightIf you only read one thing in the papers this weekend, make it the Daily Mail's Korea's Oskar Schindler.

Each month, hundreds of North Koreans flee their homeland. More than 7,000 are captured each year by the Chinese, Mr Lee tells me, and returned to face labour camps or the public executions I have just read about. And the risks are growing higher and higher, as the Chinese, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the offing, are becoming ever tougher in an attempt to clean up their country.

For the few who manage to evade capture, the road to freedom can often simply lead to another harrowing underground existence. A grotesque industry has grown up to exploit the escapees. Mr Lee explains that more than 95 per cent of the women who come out of North Korea are sold into prostitution or as "wives" to lonely Chinese farmers. Mr Lee is one of the few brokers who is trying to help the escaping refugees.

A number of people have confirmed that Mr Lee has helped more than 1,000 North Koreans. Each refugee costs him between £1,250 and £1,500.

I had been told that he was a wealthy entrepreneur who used his very successful fishing business to finance his altruism. So I was shocked when I was invited into this tiny, sparsely furnished flat. The sitting room, with its cheap TV and cooker hidden in a cupboard, was probably only 12ft by 8ft, and half of Mr Lee's belongings were piled on the balcony. This is the price the well-dressed, soft-faced South Korean has had to pay for his goodness.

Mr Lee is a hunted man, wanted by both the Chinese and North Korean authorities. He has already spent time in a Chinese prison, been beaten on another occasion and has had to bribe his way out of capture. And now he has to live in this small safe house.

New Global Warming Danger

Would you pay someone to dump a whole load of toxic rubbish into the world's oceans? No — What about if they told you that by doing so you would be reducing your "carbon footprint"?

That is the latest scam scheme to emerge from the highly profitable carbon offsetting market, ostensibly established to combat global warming. The project is opposed by scientists, who have done insufficient research to know either how effective the experiment might be or what the unintended consequences may prove to be. It is opposed by environmentalists, who are concerned about potential negative impacts on the marine environment and human health. And it is opposed by the International Center for Technology Assessment, who believes it breaches laws against dumping material into the ocean without permits.

Ocean plankton blooms appear as bright, turquoise patches in the blue of the oceans [Credit: NASA Earth Observatory]Nevertheless, a private company, Planktos, plans to dump 100 tonnes of iron particles into the Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos in an attempt to trigger a plankton bloom, which they claim could absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a portion of which would sink to the sea floor when the plankton dies, effectively transferring the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean. In the past twenty years, ten ocean expeditions around the world have attempted to trigger phytoplankton blooms by purposefully seeding the waves with fine iron dust. However, each of these has involved dumping no more than ten tonnes of iron particles and results have been inconclusive. Other questions remain about the impact of the iron and other materials that may be released with it, the impact of any harmful algal blooms that may develop, and the impact of gases that may be produced by the expected phytoplankton blooms or by bacteria decomposing the dead phytoplankton, including reducing oxygen concentrations.

As with research published this week by Grain, the international charity promoting the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity, showing that the rush for biofuels is causing enormous environmental and social damage, do we care? Probably not — after all, we're all AGW believers now, aren't we? And, besides, there's money to be made, so who wants to put a dampener on entrepreneurial initiative?

29 June 2007

Shocking Zimbabwe Update

Remember Robert MacDonald, the Zimbabwean farmer who was lucky to escape with his life after three days torture and having to witness the murder of his 28 farm workers? Cross Rhythms has an update on his family's situation: his sister-in-law and nephew were travelling in a mini-bus and they were stopped at a roadblock. Everybody in the mini-bus was shot dead.

The reason? Claiming that more people are dying in Zimbabwe than Iraq and Darfur put together, Robert says, "The soldiers haven't been paid for two years, and they pillage, they rape; they murder, they raid the farms wherever they can get a bit of food. They kill and take for themselves. You know there's no law and order left in the country anymore."

If David Miliband wishes to prove his worth as our new foreign secretary, he should act on the recommendations of the International Crisis Group. If you have not already signed our online petition calling for tougher sanctions on Zimbabwe, please take a moment to do so now.Meanwhile, Mugabe continues 'cleaning up' Zimbabwe... [Credit: Cox and Forkum]

Cabinet Reform

Harriet Harman (queen of hearts) [Credit: www.alexhughescartoons.co.uk]Finally fulfilling the ambitions that Blair had for so long thwarted, Gordon Brown indicated that he wanted to Ruth Kelly (seven of hearts) [Credit: www.alexhughescartoons.co.uk]"create a government of all the talents" and to "reach out beyond narrow party interests." However, despite his reshuffle, fourteen members of Tony Blair's final Cabinet remain and two of the nine newly promoted have previously served in the Cabinet. As Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has noted, "He may have moved people around the Cabinet table but there are remarkably few new faces."

I wonder what you think of an idea I first suggested a couple of years ago:

It is required of newly democratic countries such as Iraq that their governments are representative of the population at large. Our present first-past-the-post system is generally accepted as having more merits and fewer demerits than any alternative, and yet traditional British Cabinet government is distorted by the landslide victories of recent years.

Without changing the voting system, one way of protecting ourselves from the presidential temptations that large majorities grant to winning parties would be to require the Cabinet to be a cross-party body, with each party allocated posts in proportion to its national share of the vote.

As in Iraq, this may result in some days or weeks of post-electoral negotiation while all parties come to agreement on the constitution of the new Cabinet, but such a body would ensure genuine debate between the parties at all levels of governance.
With thanks to Alex Hughes for the Harriet Harman (queen of hearts) and Ruth Kelly (seven of hearts) playing cards (which look even better full size — he has a whole host of characters worth checking out at his site!)

Royal Mail's Third Class Service

Royal Mail - with us it's personalRoyal Mail may no longer enjoy the statutory monopoly it held for 350 years, but its grip on residential customers still amounts to a quasi-monopoly.

I've been looking for a new job in recent months and although most applications these days can be submitted via email, a few require the post be used. I learnt long ago to get a certificate of posting for every item entrusted to Royal Mail. I also know to use recorded delivery for any item that is of any importance. Yet even I have been astounded by how appalling their service has become of late.

First there was the job application sent by recorded "first class" (sic) delivery. It took five whole days for it to be transported a mere 35 miles up the main delivery route to London. Five days for first class recorded was, of course, a day or two too late for my application to be considered.

Then there was the "first class" letter sent to me a week before I needed the contents for a meeting that I was to attend. The letter has never arrived. Fortunately, in that case, since I was expecting the letter, I was able to have a duplicate sent via another means.

Then, most recently, another job application. This time sent not only by recorded "first class" delivery but also sent a full week early so that if it remained undelivered after five days, I would still have time to arrange an alternative delivery. Twenty-fours hours later, the Royal Mail's online tracking showed that it had been successfully delivered. However, TWO WEEKS later, I had a phone call from the prospective employer. Had I hand-delivered a job application to them earlier that afternoon? No, Why? Because a hand-delivered envelope had appeared on their front desk after lunch containing my job application, for a job that had already been decided even though I was clearly a very strong candidate. Not only that, but the envelope had no stamps, no recorded delivery sticker, and on further inspection turned out to be a different envelope than the one I used and with someone else's hand-writing! But, hold on, two weeks earlier, Royal Mail had confirmed the delivery of my item. Did they have a signature showing who had received my letter? Ah, no, for some strange reason they did not, though they should have... So, it would appear someone mistakenly registered my letter as having been delivered, two weeks later discovered it, switched the envelope (to destroy the evidence, presumably), and hoped nobody would notice.

By this point, I've just about had it with Royal Mail, so I decide to file a complaint. Easier said than done. You used to be able to submit your complaint online through their website. Not any more. Now you have to pick up an old-fashioned form from the post office. Not as convenient (which, presumably, reduces the number of complaints they receive) but when I eventually have cause to visit my local post office (to send another recorded item ... you'd have thought I might have learnt better by now, but what alternative have I got?) and ask for a complaint form, I am told that the post office does not have any of the forms and that in order to obtain one I will need to go to the main post office on the other side of town!

Increasingly unimpressed at how difficult Royal Mail is making this, my wife happens to be going across town a couple of days later, so I have her stop by the post office and bring me home a couple of complaint forms. These may be sent in by post or handed in to your local post office. I no longer trust the postal service, so decide to make a special trip to my local post office. Sorry, sir, we are unable to accept complaint forms - you will need to hand it in to the main post office (on the other side of town) or else send it in by post.

I give in and send it by post. A couple of days later, my complaint form is returned to me. They need the original proof of posting, not a photocopy. I had deliberately kept the original because I didn't trust them not to lose it but ... as they wish. Which brings us to yesterday's letter:

Dear Dr Hayward

Thank you for your complaint. I am sorry to hear about our delay in delivering an item of mail addressed to ...

Our priority is to provide a good quality service and we aim to handle all mail very carefully to make sure it is delivered safely and on time. Every item of mail is important to us, but problems do arise.

Unfortunately, our system does not show any reason for the delay.

Please accept the enclosed book of 12 stamps as compensation for the delay, along with my apologies. If you are happy to accept the stamps, there is no need for you to take any further action.

The envelope or packaging can sometimes tell us why there was a delay. If you can supply the envelope or packaging, showing the address, postage paid and date of posting, you may be entitled to compensation of £5 or £10. If you want to take up this potion, please sign and return the form below, along with the book of 12 stamps and the delayed envelope or packaging.

I see from your claim that you have experienced problems when trying to set this complaint through your local post office. I can only apologise for that as you should have been able to hand this form over the counter. Should you wish to make a formal complaint about this matter,please refer to Post Office Counters at 08457 223344.

I apologise for any inconvenience you may have been caused and I hope that you are satisfied with the action I have taken. If you still have concerns, please get back in touch quoting our reference number from the top of this letter.
"Enclosed: Book of 12 stamps" — Might have been nice, but said book of 12 stamps was nowhere to be seen. "Our system does not show any reason for the delay" — Sheer incompetence, then? "If you can supply the envelope or packaging, showing the address, postage paid and date of posting" — Well, I can't, can I, because the envelope, as I explained in my complaint, was switched and I have already sent the proof of posting!

As for the item sent to me that never arrived, about which I also submitted a complaint, the letter of response has suggested that since Royal Mail is no longer the only postal carrier, can I be certain that Royal Mail were really responsible and could I contact the sender of the item and, if appropriate, submit a fresh complaint? Do they think I did not contact the sender in the first place before taking the effort to submit a complaint?!

Needless to say, I shall be contacting Postwatch today. As for Royal Mail's strike today, I can only imagine that the brand will be further damaged, though warnings that "Most big post offices are going to provide a very, very tiny service if at all" would seem no different than any usual day when they do work. It should come as no surprise that business customers would want to switch to an alternative carrier and Royal Mail's recent loss of an £8m contract with the online retailer Amazon surely won't be the last. If only we domestic customers could do the same.

28 June 2007

Value For Money

First class postage stamp commemorating the 80th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth IIThe Royal Family cost the taxpayer just 62p per person last year — less than the price of two first class stamps ... If only the government delivered such impressive value for money from all our taxes!

With yet another report confirming today the extent of social divisions in our country, revealing that the top 20% of our secondary schools are effectively closed to those from non-privileged backgrounds, I can but note as I did yesterday that our tax burden must be decreased if our public services are to see the fundamental changes they require and the national decline in social mobility is to be reversed.

27 June 2007

New Government Priorities

Changed priorities aheadStanding on the steps of Number Ten, the new Prime Minister promised "a new government with new priorities." He would do well to heed the latest report from Reform, Key policy lessons of the "Blair years" for future governments. Damningly, it concludes:

"Left untouched, the Blairite policy legacy would not lead to economic collapse. But it would lead to slower growth and deeper social division. Better-off people would take a stronger grip on private schools and good state schools. Social mobility would fall. The tax burden on young people would rise. The regional divide would worsen. The Government’s basic objective – economic efficiency and social justice – would recede."
Among the reforms necessary, it recommends:
  • Aiming to reduce public-spending-to-GDP from the current level of 43 per cent of GDP to the levels of Ireland and Australia (around 35 per cent) in two Parliaments;
  • Introducing a phased programme of tax reductions to increase incentives, to give individuals room to invest in themselves and to foster the economic contribution of young people.
One of the report's authors, Reform's Director Andrew Haldenby, observed, "Perhaps the key lesson of the 'Blair years' is that the personal force of a Prime Minister with landslide majorities and unrivalled communication skills is no substitute for structural reform. It now falls to his successors to make the necessary, fundamental changes to public services; their task is unfortunately harder because of the huge cost and spending increases of the last decade. They must also reverse the rising tax burden because, above all else, it is private initiative that has driven the country's advance in the last ten years."

Given that Gordon Brown has been the principal man responsible for raising our tax burden so high, I fear that we will have to wait until yet another party leader has been invited to form a new government before we really see the fundamental changes that the country needs. Nevertheless, like all those in the country who hope for better days ahead, I eagerly look for the new Prime Minister to deliver on his promise of "change in our NHS, change in our schools, change with affordable housing, change to build trust in government, change to protect and extend the British way of life."

Brown's First Promise

"I will try my utmost. This is my promise to all of the people of Gordon and Sarah BrownBritain. And now let the work of change begin."

The Difference may have many questions about the former Chancellor's economic record, but wishes the new Prime Minister every success in delivering on his pledge to "reach out beyond narrow party interests," to meet "the concerns and aspirations of our whole country," and to "release the potential and realise the talents of all our people" — to achieve change.

Blair's Last Words

Mahatma Gandhi at No 10 Downing St in 1931Mahatma Gandhi once noted, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." What a shame that Cherie, on behalf of the Blairs, felt she had to have the last word as she left Downing Street. Having already given the BBC's Nick Robinson "the daggers" when earlier in Parliament he wished the family well, she sneered towards the media "I don't think we'll miss you."

Nuclear Fears Spark Petrol Protests

Petrol stations set ablaze as Iran starts fuel rations [Credit: The Guardian]Last night, after the government gave just two hours notice that private motorists would be rationed to just 100 litres of petrol a month, increasing tensions in Iran over the failure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver on promises of greater prosperity exploded in violence. Drivers attacked petrol stations across the Iranian capital, Tehran, resulting in three people being killed.

Before anyone thinks that protestors chanting "Guns, fireworks, tanks, Ahmadinejad should be killed" means that the hard-line Iranian government is about to be toppled in a "velvet" or "orange revolution," it should be recalled that even threats of "Death to America! Death to Britain!" need to be understood in their cultural context. Moreover, even angry fuel protests in this country in September 2000 (when the price of petrol was a mere 81p per litre) had no apparent effect on the result of the subsequent election and later fuel protests in 2005 had even less of an impact.

Although an oil-rich country, Iran lacks the capacity to refine its crude oil, forcing it to import about 40% of its petrol. The fuel rationing is a measure to restrict its consumption, as the government sells petrol at about a fifth of its real cost but fears possible UN sanctions over its nuclear program.

26 June 2007

Historic Moments, Fading Dreams

Five years ago, a new alliance was established: the Nato-Russia Council. Speaking at the historic opening session, President Bush concluded:

We will also look ahead to other areas, where we can expand our cooperation, such as missile defense and airspace control that can strengthen the security of all of Europe.

Nothing we do will subtract from NATO's core mission. We will be practical, moving forward step by step. And as our trust and track record of success grows, so will the breadth and depth of our work together.

The NATO-Russia Council offers Russia a path toward forming an alliance with the alliance. It offers all our nations a way to strengthen our common security, and it offers the world a prospect of a more hopeful century.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer"missile defense ... airspace control ... as our trust and track record of success grows" ... As NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet today in Moscow for the fifth anniversary meeting of the Council, one can but wonder how such high hopes have been dashed so quickly.

Poll of Polls

Here, as promised, are the suggestions you made for the policies that you would most like to see David Cameron announce as part of his Blizzard of Ideas after Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister. If there are ideas that you did not submit in time to be included but still wish to contribute, you may post them in the comments. Voting has now closed. A summary of the results appeared at Your Policy Ideas Results.

Making our economy more competitive
Leave the EU  13% (21 votes)
Establish a new ‘Commission for Public Procurement’  1% (2 votes)
Increase home ownership  8% (14 votes)
Encourage personal pensions and savings  13% (21 votes)
Reduce means-testing  10% (16 votes)
Improve the quality of vocational training  10% (16 votes)
Increase the income tax personal allowance to about £10,000  18% (29 votes)
Merge Income Tax and National Insurance  10% (16 votes)
More flexible mortgage lending regulations and provision  6% (10 votes)
Grants to bring unused or under-used properties into occupation  9% (15 votes)
Drop congestion charging in favour of higher fuel taxes  3% (5 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 165

Improving our quality of life
Reduce immigration  18% (25 votes)
One-to-one midwifery care  10% (14 votes)
Allocate more money to pro-life counselling and support for unintentionally pregnant women  15% (20 votes)
Allocate funds to sexual health programmes advocating abstinence as a positive life-style choice  16% (22 votes)
Privacy laws to prevent paparazzzi hounding famous people  7% (9 votes)
Replace the Press Complaints Commission with a joint Commons & Lords Select Committee  4% (5 votes)
Reduce traffic in inner-city areas through limited bans on cars  4% (5 votes)
Make more cycle paths  12% (16 votes)
Introduce a free school transport system  15% (20 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 136

Public service improvement
Secondary schools to be state-funded, independent trust schools  18% (19 votes)
Abolition of all LEAs and most of the Department of Education  15% (16 votes)
A universal school voucher system  25% (26 votes)
Simplify rules to set up new schools and access state funding  19% (20 votes)
Provision for public petitions to trigger Parliamentary debates  22% (23 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 104

Protecting our security
Invest in our armed forces  25% (22 votes)
One year conscription for 18 year olds  10% (9 votes)
Re-install border controls  27% (24 votes)
Require parliamentary approval to commit British troops to combat and treaty ratifications  24% (21 votes)
Simplify legislation into: unenforced guidelines and laws the police should enforce  15% (13 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 89

Social justice
Reserved seats in Parliament for children and the unborn  0% (0 votes)
Reduce the legal time-frame in which abortion is allowed  53% (24 votes)
Enforce strict guidelines on allowing state-funded abortions  47% (21 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 45

Globalisation & global poverty
Create a worldwide League of Democracies  25% (7 votes)
Champion a Global Free Trade Association  75% (21 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 28