Category Archives: Europe

The Morality of Tax Avoidance

Tax

There’s an interesting scuffle about tax going on in the British media at the moment – and it seems that the Government is in danger of being responsible for companies contravening the Companies Act which was rewritten in 2006.

This scuffle started a few months ago with the ‘outing’ of various individuals who were apparently using legal tax avoidance schemes to reduce their tax burden. The newspapers – always looking for some dirt to dig up – leapt on this with joy and the resulting public furore caused a number of wealthy people to apologise publicly for avoiding tax, even though the schemes were legal, and in many cases volunteer to pay more tax.

Secure in the knowledge that a significant part of the British public supported this crackdown on the dastardly villains that were exercising their rights to legally reduce their tax bill, the next step was to take on corporations – and the multinationals were an obvious target: nasty foreign companies taking advantage of making huge profits through the sweat of the (implied: underpaid) British worker, but not paying tax on the proceeds. It’s easy for the press to whip up public support for calls that they pay more tax and for the politicians, ever ready to back a cause that would seem to be a vote-catcher, joined in. In essence, these multinationals were being blamed for cuts in welfare and other government services, completely ignoring the fact of profligate government over-spending for years, if not decades.

What has been completely overlooked in all of this self-righteous posturing (and let’s ignore the ongoing issues with MPs and their expenses) are a few important points:

  • First and foremost, every company’s directors have a fiduciary duty – as laid down in the Companies Act – to “promote the success of the company.” By volunteering to pay more tax than is legally required these boards would act in contravention of the Companies Act and, in fact, directors could therefore be disbarred from serving on boards. Even by the admission of the government, these companies are not engaged in tax evasion (that’s illegal) but are structuring their affairs to minimise tax paid, an activity that is not only legal but necessary in terms of the Companies Act. So the government is encouraging directors to act in contravention of its own laws.
  • E.U. legislation requires there be a single legal head-office for companies operating throughout the region, and companies will obviously look to put this in the country/city that makes the most financial sense overall – tax, employment, etc. So, countries that are competitive in these areas will derive most benefit, while those with higher operating/tax costs will not. That’s called free-market enterprise.
  • The UK tax system is now arguably the most complex of any, having more than doubled in size under Labour from under 5000 pages in 1997, to over 11500 pages in 2009. Such complexity will always result in loopholes being found – a simpler code means more tax, more fairly applied. What about simply imposing a flat tax system – this generally means more tax collected at a fraction of the cost?
  • Figures published early this year showed that some 52% of the working populace in the UK are employed by the State. This means that less than half the workforce is not only supporting those not working, but this massive and grossly inefficient (it must be at this ratio!) government machine, too. The issue, therefore, should not be more tax income, but less expenditure.

But, of course, common sense flies out of the window when it comes to politics.

Our revered “public servants” in the current government recognise that the wealthy, and the captains of industry are unlikely to switch their vote to Labour and by appealing to an increasingly vociferous “mob” they might garner enough votes to remain in power after the 2015 elections. Even if this means abandoning previously-held principles and, in fact, common sense, as by taking this tack they risk chasing even more companies and wealthy individuals to more favourable business climes.

Bear in mind that the top 1% of British earners pay almost 30% of all income tax (more than twice their proportion of earnings), and the top 10% pay almost 60% of all income tax. As these are typically the business owners / leaders – and therefore the employers – encouraging them to move will not only reduce the tax receipts from these critical contributors, but put overall employment at risk, too, threatening the health of the country as a whole.

It’s time for that most uncommon of things – common sense – to start playing a part in the UK; for people to realise that the government doesn’t have money and everyone needs to play their part in the economy and life of the country; for politicians to  stop trying to buy votes with short-term moves that will cost the country dearly in the longer term; and for the media to present a more balanced approach to matters and to actively seek to lift the country out of its current mess by encouraging everyone to work together for the good of all.

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Should the Euro Survive?

Spanish Euros

Image by Gadget Virtuoso via Flickr

There’s been an enormous amount of ink used on the ‘veto’ that David Cameron used in Europe last week, with warnings of dire consequences if the UK doesn’t help to support the Euro.

Frankly, I don’t understand this as the Euro has been doomed since introduction in January 1999. In fact, the 10th anniversary of the release of Euro banknotes and coins on 1st January, 2002, would be a great time to announce its departure as a central currency.

“Heresy” I hear being loudly cried… But the facts are simple – for a central currency to work, it needs central control, and Europe doesn’t have this. Sure, it has a hideously expensive, large, bureaucratic parliament that shuffles (at even more expense, thanks to French Government insistence) between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, but all this body does as far as I can – apart from ensure regal lifestyles for its members at taxpayer expense – is create complication in everyone’s life, and silly rules that have clearly not been thought through. What the Eurozone doesn’t have is central fiscal control. A United States of Europe, if you like, where the member countries have the status that individual states have in the USA.

Of course, the reason for this is simple – no member country’s politicians want to be answerable to a (central) higher authority. You can see this in the choice of the European President – a nice enough chap, apparently, but basically invisible, and certainly no “leader of Europe.”

Unlike the USA, Europe is not united in a common history/language/culture. It’s a very diverse set of countries and should remain as such – celebrating the differences, rather than trying to blend them into a murky sameness. It could never support a central government, and shouldn’t.

What it SHOULD be is a free-trade zone, as originally envisaged. The Euro should be simply a currency that exists to facilitate this free trade – similar to the ECU of pre-1999, but actually existing as a currency. Legal tender in all EU countries, it would operate alongside those countries’ own currencies, with a rate of exchange that floats against each, allowing that country to determine its own fiscal policy (as they all do to a large extent anyway – which is what caused the mess) and have the relative value of its currency determined accordingly. Like trade, loans could be made or sought in Euros or a country’s own currency, depending on the will of both parties to the transaction.

The dissolution of the current Euro would be simple – start with each country having its currency at par with the Euro, and let them float from that point. Market forces would soon determine the real value of each currency.

As a considerable side benefit, this would also facilitate the dissolution of the European Parliament saving us all a great deal of money and aggravation.

There would be no need to try to prop up a fatally flawed system and countries could celebrate their individuality while sharing in what should arguably be the biggest and wealthiest free trade zone in the world. This would also mean an acceleration of growth at country level.

Given the Euro cannot survive unless all in the Eurozone abrogate power to the centre – which I can’t ever see happening – isn’t it best to ackowledge the role the Euro should play and move to individual currencies; the sooner the better?

Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

The map shows the commercial nuclear power pla...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a good deal of talk about power today: oil prices retaining their high levels in spite of Saudi offering to make up any shortfall due to Libya, nuclear back-tracking following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and so on.

How, the media seem to be asking, is the UK going to be able to generate sufficient power for its needs in an affordable manner?

Consequently, attention is turning increasingly to sustainable power – particularly as today (27th June), when much of the South East of the country saw temperatures break the 30C mark, was a day marked by the switching-on of the UK’s largest solar power plant, one near Wallingford in Oxford that is expected to generate nearly 700 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The trouble is, it’s just not the answer. Nor is wind, tide or any of the other “new technologies” being spoken about.

At present, around 75% of the UK’s maximum power generating capacity is from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas). But, as we know, these resources are being depleted rapidly all over the world (and that’s apart from the well-documented problems of global warming being brought on through the use of fossil fuels). However, for any country – including the UK – to continue to see economic growth, its power requirements grow. In fact, it is estimated that the UK’s power generating capacity will have to increase by at least 25% in the next 10 years – and this figure may be low if oil reserve issues accelerate the necessity to move to electric vehicles.

“Green Technologies” such as wind and solar suffer from a major drawback – a lack of reliability and predictability (and that’s before looking at cost issues which are significant – huge government subsidies benefit the builders but have to be reclaimed from the tax-payer). The fact is that while they will generate power during periods when the wind blows and there is sufficient daylight, this is far from constant, and power is needed on a 24-hour basis. It’s simply impractical from a cost, space, etc., perspective to store such power (assuming you’re generating excess) to any great extent. Yes, the UK has some level of stored-power reserves (mainly using pumped storage technology), but this is limited to around 3% of maximum capacity at present and is unlikely to be able to be increased to any great extent.  So, solar and wind generators need to be backed up by other technologies that can be switched on immediately the wind or light levels drop – effectively meaning a doubling of peak capacity.

Wave power and Tidal power technologies, although more constant, have not yet proven sufficiently scalable, nor reliable, to be of significant practical use either.

Hydro-electric power is well understood, but the UK geology does not really suit it – which is why only about 1% of current electrical power is from hydro-electric schemes here.

The only practical answer is nuclear.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, particularly in the light of the recent events in Japan, but the facts are that today’s technology makes nuclear plants infinitely safer than just about any other form of power generation. Of course, care needs to be taken that they are not sited where natural disasters are likely to cause a breach of the all-important containment vessels, but the UK is fortunate in being extremely stable geologically, so this is not an issue.

Nuclear “waste” – the by-products – can now be safely processed to remove the contaminants and reuse the rods in existing plants, or to utilise other up-coming technologies such as fast-breeder and fusion which can utilise the waste products.  Incidentally, Scientific America published an article showing fly-ash from coal-fired power plants pumps 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than any nuclear facility today…

France today generates something like 85% of its electricity, China is looking at 132 plants by 2030, Korea is planning to obtain 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2020, as is Japan (still).  The UK simply has no option but to embrace nuclear power – and to do so quickly – or face much higher utility bills and a “return to the dark age” as power shortages loom.

BAA Humbug – The short- and long-term effects of greed and ineptitude

BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

Image via yfrog: BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

I’m going to try not to make this too much of a rant, but I’m both extremely disappointed and annoyed – not for me personally (thankfully I wasn’t directly affected), but for the thousands of people who’ve had their holiday plans, reunions and Christmas spoilt through a combination of woeful ineptitude and greed.

And, I think, there’s a real danger of this ineptitude and greed having long-term effects that are several orders of magnitude more serious for the country as a whole.

I’m talking here, for those of you who’ve not yet guessed, about BAA and Heathrow.

How can a company entrusted with managing the world’s busiest international airport be so unprepared for winter? It’s certainly not through lack of money – BAA is on track for an operating income of nearly £1 billion this year, and yet their total expenditure on preparing for snow and winter conditions this year was just £500 000…  (an amount the board has just allowed to be increased to £10 million – still only 1% of their operating profit!). In my view this is a typical case of short-term profit focus, at the expense of long-term sustainability (see my post: The Perils of Quarteritis).

It’s not as if they didn’t have warning. The first cold snap hit at the end of November and there were already warnings that heavy snow and icy conditions could be expected for the rest of the year. Granted, by then it was probably too late to have been able to source much new equipment in time (although they should have learned a lesson from January & February), but they put no contingency plans in place at all.

What about a deal with farmers nearby to use their tractors and grading equipment in an emergency? What about stockpiling grit, salt, glycol, etc.? Then they compounded things by turning down offers of help to clear the runways and taxiways from the military.

And, on top of this, they apparently gave out poor information to airlines such as BA which could have operated more flights than they did, and so reduce the backlog somewhat.

So, this corporate greed and ineptitude directly ruined the holidays for thousands of people, apart from costing hard-pressed airlines a good deal of money (can they sue BAA?)…

But the long-term effects could be even more serious. With some 30 million people a year visiting Britain, annual tourism expenditure of some £90 billion and almost 8% of jobs supported by tourism, this is a vital sector of the economy. However, the unreliability of British airports – especially one as important as Heathrow – is bound to make travellers think twice about using Britain as a stopover point, or even as a destination.

And airports in the Middle East such as Dubai and Qatar are eager to take these passengers. For example, Dubai is already the 4th busiest international airport in the world, with huge expansion already underway, and one of the youngest fleets in the world (and a flexible one, as Emirates was apparently able to put on 3 extra flights a day to clear their backlog once Heathrow reopened).

The impact of a diversion of disgruntled passengers from Heathrow to Dubai, for example, would have an enormous impact on Britain and on the struggling BA.

BAA needs to wake up, stop being so greedy and to accept proper responsibility for its role in running strategically important airports – or it needs to be replaced by a company that will do so, and quickly.

What do you think – should the company, its leadership, or both be replaced?

Whither the Welfare State?

Sea wall and railway
Image via Wikipedia

Or should that be “wither” as it’s clearly time to change the model dramatically – a model which was developed after the last war, in a very different world?

As Dr Adrian Rogers quite famously put it, “You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the industrious out of it. You don’t multiply wealth by dividing it. Government cannot give anything to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else. Whenever somebody receives something without working for it, somebody else has to work for it without receiving. The worst thing that can happen to a nation is for half of the people to get the idea they don’t have to work because somebody else will work for them, and the other half to get the idea that it does no good to work because they don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labour.”

Having only moved to England a few weeks ago, I find it’s interesting to listen to what people here are saying about the “welfare state” issues, particularly at the moment when it’s clear that the new government has no chance but to make some dramatic changes to the way things have been done in the past 13 years of Labour Party rule.

But it seems that it’s not just the country that Labour has brought to the edge of bankruptcy: former Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair, John Prescott, has told us that the Labour Party itself is in danger of bankruptcy, with debts of some £20M ($30M) through a combination of over-spending and poor accounting: ironically making the announcement on the day that Tony Blair’s new investment bank was being registered… At least the party was consistent with its approach to finance, even if the former Prime Minister seems to have profited most handsomely from his time in office.

However, I digress. The basic issue, as Dr Rogers so succinctly put it, is that Governments can’t just create money magically, but can only redistribute money from one part of society to another, and the more that people want to take, the more that others are forced to give.

Few people doubt that societies should help those within them that are unable to fend for themselves – this compassion, after all, is what is supposed to make us human – but the question today is how much help should be given and to whom. I find it astonishing, for example, that there are families in England who have not worked at all for three generations, and simply live off benefits. Others, who receive free housing, believe it should be their right to pass these houses onto other family members. Girls find that being a single parent is a profitable enterprise, and start to have babies at a very young age, then turn to the state for housing and benefits, and are able to live comfortably without working. The list of abuses to the system is endless…

Clearly this is wrong. We should protect those unable to work for reasons of frailty, but those who are healthy should have a defined maximum period – say 6 months – on “free” benefits and then should start “earning their keep.” If they can’t find a paying job within that period, the welfare authorities should have them working for the society that is housing and feeding them – there is so much that needs to be done, from infrastructure development and maintenance to helping the elderly and the sick (hospital porters, for example), and would provide benefits in return for such work. This would not only help motivate them to find more steady (and, perhaps, comfortable) work, but reduce the costs of running local authorities as much of the work could be done by those on benefits.

What do you think – should benefits be given without restriction, or should recipients who are able to do so be obliged to “earn” their benefits, and help the society that is providing them in return?

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Can Europe Survive? Life after Katla…

Katla
Image via Wikipedia

The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.

After all,  history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.

While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.

History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.

Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.

So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?

  • Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
  • Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
  • Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
  • Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?

Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…

European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.

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The obligations of Airlines to their Passengers

Europe
Image via Wikipedia

The current chaos following the six-day shutdown of almost all European airspace has thrown the issue of passengers’ rights firmly into the spotlight – particularly with the fact that so many airlines are refusing to take any responsibility for assisting stranded passengers.

With my son being among those stranded (he was stuck in England, trying to get home to Dubai) I have been active in understanding this in order to help him, and so post this in the hope that it will help others in a similar predicament due to the massive problems caused following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.

The governing regulation behind all this is one entitled Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council. The Regulation is available in full from various sources on the web, while this Wikipedia entry has a good summary, and this BBC post has one too.

The summary bottom line is:

  • All passengers stranded in Europe are entitled to their choice of: rerouting to another airport for onward flight to their destination (difficult for this in Europe at present); accommodation, refreshments/meals and communication services (basically 2 calls) while they are stranded (the most applicable option); or a refund of their ticket (not sure why they would want this as they generally want to get home).
    • This is regardless of the nationality of the airline on which the passenger is flying, as the European rules apply to the airlines while they are operating in Europe.
  • All passengers stranded outside Europe with tickets to a European destination on a European airline are entitled to the same choices detailed above.
    • The key points here are firstly that the carrier must be a European airline (if on a code-share flight, the ticket must have been issued by one of the European airlines on that code-share), and secondly that the destination must be a European one.
    • Unfortunately, if you are stranded outside Europe with a non-European airline, they are not obliged to provide this assistance.

Many airlines are claiming that as the volcanic eruption is an “Act of God” (or “Force Majeure”) they are absolved from any responsibility for such assistance and are turning passengers away. This is patently untrue as the regulation only makes provision in such circumstances for airlines to be excused from paying additional (cash) compensation that they are normally liable for in the event of delays. They are still required to accommodate, feed and provide communications for stranded passengers, regardless of the reason.

Other airlines, such as Qatar Airways (on which my son is booked – so much for the “5 Star Service” they like to advertise!), are saying that they are not required to provide any assistance as they are foreign-owned. Again, this is simply not true. Although they are not obliged to provide assistance for those passengers stranded outside Europe, they are absolutely obliged to do so for the passengers stranded in Europe.

Should your airline have refused you compensation at the time, you should retain all receipts for accommodation, food, etc., while you have been delayed and lodge a claim with the airline on your return home.

I hope this will help clear up the confusion surrounding this issue and enable people to claim appropriate assistance.

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