Britain: From bad to worse ...

Updated 19 January 2013
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Britain: From bad to worse ...

The decision last week by the Ministry of Justice to close seven prisons in England and Wales to save £63 million annually is only the latest in a long line of cost-cutting measures announced by Britain’s Conservative government. As a result, it is unlikely to provoke much backlash against a backdrop of seemingly endless spending cuts.
Much more controversial is the proposal to cater for any increase in the prison population by the construction of so-called “super prisons” or “titans” at a cost of over £ 2.9 billion and capable of holding over 2,500 inmates. The plan was scrapped in 2009 by the Labour government in the face of opposition from prison reform bodies and unions, who are now curious as to why it has been revived.
“Closing prisons and reducing prison numbers offers major social and economic gains,” said Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. “But it would be a gigantic mistake to revive the discredited idea of titans and pour taxpayers’ money down the prison building drain, when the coalition government could invest in crime prevention, health care and community solutions to crime.”
The overall cost of public order and safety in the UK is higher than any country in the EU and even the US, at 2.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). And as the prison population has grown — by 19,650 or 30 percent between 2001 and 2011 — so has spending, rising 4.6 percent between 2001 and 2009. As part of the drive to reduce Britain’s deficit, the Ministry of Justice is expected to make overall resource savings of 23 percent by 2015. All other departments of government — except health and international aid — face reductions of 6 percent per year.
But despite the government’s we’re-all-in-it-together “belt-tightening” rhetoric, many Britons are wondering what is ultimately being achieved by the cuts. Late yesterday, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimated that British gross domestic product (GDP) fell 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter. At the same time, manufacturing has fallen, industrial production also failed to rise as expected and the PMI services index for December had its first fall in two years.
“It’s looking like the last quarter for 2012 was a lot worse than it looked a month or six weeks ago,” said Spencer Thompson, an economic analyst at the Institute for Public Policy Research. “Looking forward, forecasts are saying that 2013 is looking to be quite similar to 2012. They expect weak growth and unemployment to rise.”
“It’s very hard to see where the positive news is going to come from,” he added.
What the government needs is for Britons to go out and spend money, but the slump in Christmas high street sales — revealed last week — suggests that this could be wishful thinking. Britain saw as many as six high-street brands go into administration in 2012, with electronics retailer Comet amongst them. This was compounded Monday by the news that retail giant HMV had finally gone under, with 4,500 jobs at risk. The prospect of unemployment rising in 2013 is hardly going to make British consumers want to go out and hit the shops.
“(The Treasury) is expecting to happen consumers to start spending more over the next year, and they see this as being driven by an increase in household indebtedness, so they see people taking on more debts to increase their spending,” said Thompson.
“Now, if that was to happen then that would be a massive reversal of the trend for the last three years, and we think it’s quite unlikely. We expect consumers to carry on paying down their debts and saving rather than spending, especially when salaries are rising slower than prices.”
Chancellor George Osborne’s plan for reducing the deficit by cutting costs relies on the NHS and defense budgets remaining static, which they have rarely done. It is estimated that the ageing population in Britain will add as much as 1.5 percent of GDP to public spending between 2018 and 2013 as well as 5 percent of GDP to the NHS. The defense budget is easy to control at present, as Britain winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but international politics is as unpredictable as ever. Another intervention such as Libya could scupper a zero budget growth target.
The risk is that either taxes will need to rise to cover the increasing costs — a difficult sell for Prime Minister David Cameron’s fiscally conservative party — or further cuts will need to be made to areas so far considered sacrosanct. These could include universal benefits for the elderly, which all pensioners in Britain receive regardless of whether they are the poorest of the poor or millionaires. “It’s increasingly looking like universal benefits for the elderly –- for very rich pensioners shouldn’t be as hallowed ground as they are now,” Thompson said.
“In six or nine months time the government may also start to make noises about even more cuts to the welfare bill. Everything you choose to spend money on means you have to make decisions about where to cut elsewhere.”
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Afghan Taliban frown at militants’ Eid cease-fire selfies

Updated 46 min 15 sec ago
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Afghan Taliban frown at militants’ Eid cease-fire selfies

  • Both the Afghan government and the militants declared temporary cease-fires for the end-of-Ramadan Eid Al-Fitr holiday
  • The Taliban cease-fire ended on Sunday. The government extended its cease-fire with the Taliban, which had been due to end on Wednesday, June 20, by 10 days

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The Afghan Taliban are angry at their members swapping selfies with soldiers and government officials during their three-day cease-fire, a senior Taliban official said on Monday, after the militants roamed at will through cities before the truce ended.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Taliban official also said Pakistan had wanted the Taliban to include US and other foreign troops in the cease-fire, but the Taliban’s leadership and supreme commander, ‎Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada, did not agree.
“Last night, an emergency meeting was called and all the commanders were informed and directed to take strict disciplinary action against all those Taliban members who visited citizens and took pictures with the Afghan authorities,” he told Reuters.
Some Taliban seen taking selfies w‎ith Afghan government forces and officials had been warned, the Taliban official said.
Both the Afghan government and the militants declared temporary cease-fires for the end-of-Ramadan Eid Al-Fitr holiday, leading to fraternization between the two sides as militants emerged from their hideouts to enter towns and cities.
The government cease-fire did not include the Islamic State militant group and the Taliban did not include US-led foreign forces in theirs.
The Taliban cease-fire ended on Sunday. The government extended its cease-fire with the Taliban, which had been due to end on Wednesday, June 20, by 10 days.
Another Taliban commander, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some attacks had been planned in the southern Afghan province of Helmand where short clashes were reported, according to the spokesman for the Helmand governor.
Anti-war activists set off on a peace march last month, spending the fasting month crossing harsh, sun-baked countryside en route to Kabul where they arrived on Monday, their numbers swelling and ebbing at different points along the route.
Abdul Rahman Mangal, spokesman for the Maidan Wardak provincial government, next to Kabul, said the Taliban attacked two security checkpoints in the Saidabad district in the early hours of Monday which “left casualties.”
Clashes were also reported in Faryab in the northwest and Laghman, to the east of Kabul, and Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan and the scene of two bomb blasts over the weekend, one of which was claimed by Islamic State.
While many war-weary Afghans welcomed the cease-fires and the fraternization between the combatants, some have criticized the government cease-fire, which allowed the Taliban to flow into cities, though the militants said they were withdrawing.
The Taliban are fighting US-led NATO forces combined under the Resolute Support mission, and Ghani’s US-backed government to restore sharia, or Islamic law, after their ouster by US-led forces in 2001.
But Afghanistan has been at war for four decades, ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979.