BBC BLOGS - Douglas Fraser's Ledger

Archives for April 2011

Reality check: Green jobs greenwash?

Douglas Fraser | 09:54 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Who doesn't love a green job? It puts the sustainability into growth. It makes you think you're earning money while saving the planet.

And it gives our politicians a warm glow too. LibDems are offering at least 40,000 by the end of the decade. Labour's offering 60,000.

While Tories and Greens are not putting a number to their hopes and plans, the SNP trumps them all by saying it wants to create 130,000 jobs by 2020, though it sometimes says it only hopes to reach that figure in total.

That may because the reckoning these parties are using starts with the assumption, dated 2009, that Scotland already had 73,000 green and low carbon jobs.

So how realistic is the target?

It depends on a report commissioned by Whitehall's energy department and provided by environmental economic consultants Innovas.

That shows that Scotland is under-performing, despite its obvious strengths in renewable power, with London and the south-east of England, doing far better.

Job replacement

Why? Well, perhaps because the report chooses to define green jobs very broadly.

If you're in the business of waste-water treatment or drive the truck that collects bottles for recycling, then you're already in a green job.

Likewise if you're making an energy-efficient design of window or door. But bear in mind that someone else's inefficient design of window or door is not going to be made, and that could mean jobs lost elsewhere.

There's quite a lot of replacement going on as well as job creation.

More than quarter of these low-carbon and green jobs are in alternative fuels, and that includes nuclear energy - not always seen as green but counted in because it requires relatively low carbon emissions, mostly in construction.

Hustings claims

Only around a tenth of the UK total of 880,000, according to Innovas, were in wind energy. And although there's growth potential there, with Scotland one of the parts of the UK that's best placed to get them, jobs growth in that report is not looking quite as spectacular as you might think from the claims made on the hustings.

The growth rates being projected suggest growth of 33,000 green jobs by 2015. Keep that rate up to 2020, and you get more than 40,000.

What that then requires are the skills to fill these roles, and lots of finance - of the private, rather than the Holyrood variety.

It's in raising that capital investment that the biggest obstacle lies to all these campaign green job targets.

Scotland's oil tax reckoning

Douglas Fraser | 17:36 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

So Labour's decided it wants to talk about independence for the final stages of the Holyrood election campaign. And that brings back the old chestnut of how Scotland's finances would fare if it had full control of all taxation.

The unionist argument used to be that Scotland couldn't possibly survive on its own without running up enormous deficits.

Given the UK's fiscal incontinence over the past three years, the force of that attack has been somewhat blunted.

The next bit of the argument was that Scotland with oil revenue might have some good years, but the black stuff is too volatile a commodity price on which to base your economy, and output is inevitably going to decline.

The state of the oil and gas markets has certainly backed up the volatility argument. But the trends of international demand, allied to the prospect of peak oil as global supply goes into long-term decline, tend to look like volatility is to the upside. In short, the terms of this debate have changed a lot since the first Scottish Parliament election, and most of all since 2007.

We've got some updated figures, from those hard-working number-crunching folks at the Centre for Public Policy for Regions.
They've worked through the implications of the sharply raised oil price in recent months, and added in George Osborne's surprise £2bn Budget tax raid on oil production companies.

Taking assumptions used by the UK Treasury, and throwing in that extra £2bn per year, they allocate Scotland its geographic share of the £64bn in tax expected to flow from under UK waters over the next five years.

Politically explosive

Unsurprisingly, it doesn't look so bad when Scotland's projected deficit is set alongside the UK's fiscal overspend. This year, the two would be at their widest margin - the UK facing a deficit of 7.9% of GDP, while Scotland would face a 5% deficit.

That gap in Scotland's favour then closes in each of the next four years, to reach a UK deficit of 1.5% in 2015-16, while Scotland would have a 1.3% gap.

In cash terms, the help of £12bn in oil revenues this year would leave a Scottish Treasury with £7.7bn to find, compared with the UK's £135bn. By the end of the Osborne Squeeze in 2015-16, that would be down to a £2.5bn Scottish borrowing requirement, while the UK Treasury is on track for a £29bn spending gap that year.

Between 2005 and 2009, Scotland's estimated deficit as a percentage of GDP, when oil revenues are included, was smaller than the UK's in each of the four years. It was also within the 3% limit set (though now blown apart) as part of the eurozone's rules for prudent fiscal management.

That assumes that a fiscally autonomous Scotland would take a similar approach to cutting the deficit that George Osborne is taking. That's a bold assumption. The consensus seems to be that the major Holyrood parties, apart from Conservatives, would take any opportunity to slow up the cuts.

That also assumes that Scotland would implement the same tax raid that the Chancellor is mounting, as his way of avoiding the planned and politically-explosive 5p per litre increase in petrol duty. But as the hypotheticals grow, that also seems unlikely, as there is growing evidence that it will discourage vital investment in offshore production.

As the CPPR authors point out, the prospect of any kind of deficit, even the most manageable one, requires politicians to decide how it's handled; spending cuts, more borrowing or higher taxes?

Without that tax take, and if spending were at a higher level than currently planned, it's not possible to say that Scotland would be running a smaller deficit than the UK. But nor is it possible to say that it would be any more in the red than the UK.

You can hear a Newsnight Scotland special on the constitutional aspects of this year's campaign, tonight at 2300 BST on BBC 2 Scotland.

Update: On the subject of that Treasury tax raid, it's worth noting another strong attack from the industry, this time from Conoco-Phillips, third biggest oil major in the US. It points out it operates in 30 countries, and now counts the UK as "one of the more unstable investment climates for our business, and like others we are re-assessing future investments".

Chairman and chief executive Jim Mulva cites three major tax increases in the past ten years, raising tax on UK production from a minimum 30% to at least 62%, and this is now "a difficult place to invest".

That's a lot of warnings coming from North Sea operators. We should start to find out soon if the investment really is going to slow up.

Divorce for Scottish Widows?

Douglas Fraser | 16:10 UK time, Monday, 25 April 2011

With a company as sprawling as Lloyds Banking Group, there are any number of options for the full review being carried out by the new chief executive.

Antonio Horta-Osorio has already got 600 branches on the market, as required by the European Commission in exchange for approval for the massive wad of state aid that was the bailout.

Nearly a third of them are Lloyds TSB Scotland, and one of his first announcements after moving across from Santander was to acclerate that sale process.

The Independent Commission on Banking has vaguely warned in its interim report that that 600-branch sell-off should be "substantially enhanced", as a means of boosting the amount of competition in Britain's retail banking market, nearly a third of which is in Lloyds' hands.

No-one can say quite what that means, and when it might be required.

The bank is facing requirements for higher capital buffers.

And add to that the UK Government wondering when and how it might sell its 43% stake, to which end it would rather like Lloyds' stock price to rise comfortably above its paper profit threshold.

That's a long way off, at 123 pence, while the bank closed last week below 60 pence.

Market conditions

That's just the political and regulatory environment, before the new team at the top of Lloyds get to grips with the market conditions it's facing, and its strategic direction.

This, after all, is a company still working through voluminous amounts of integration of Lloyds TSB with Halifax Bank of Scotland.

And there are those who reckon it's still got some way to go before the full value from the integration of Lloyds Bank with TSB and Halifax with Bank of Scotland are realised.

It doesn't have much chance of being allowed to grow its share of Britain's retail market.

It doesn't seem well placed to get any more international, while it remains chastened and under the eye of the government, which owns 41%.

So what does it do? According to one report today, it sells Edinburgh-based Scottish Widows for more than £5bn.

Why would it do this? That's not quite so clear from the press report, and Lloyds Banking Group isn't commenting.

It's not apparent that Scottish Widows is under-performing. Indeed, it's contributing rather handsomely to Lloyds' profits.

A big mouthful

It would be a significant retreat from the model Lloyds and others have developed of offering (and sometimes hard-selling) a full range of retail services - including, in the case of Scottish Widows, life assurance, pensions and investments.

The merger of Lloyds TSB and HBOS has already seen off the former HBOS asset management division, Insight Investments, with a part of it sold and the rest integrated into the rest into Scottish Widows Investment Partnership.

That's the operation that handles Scottish Widows assets, but which is run separately from insurance as part of the wealth division.

It's in that division you'll find another HBOS legacy, St James's Place wealth management, which is also being named as a possible billion-pound sell by Horta-Osorio.

The other part of the equation, of course, is figuring out where the buyer is and what money is available.

Clive Cowdery's Resolution is being named as the insurance industry aggregator most likely to bite, as it's been swallowing up bits of the industry that become available.

Scottish Widows would be a big mouthful.

But it's worth remembering that Royal Bank of Scotland is also out there in the market-place, selling off its insurance division.

With a lack of buyers evident, that looks most likely to be floated.

And any attempt by Lloyds to put its own insurance business into the market is likely to depress prices for both big banks.

A bit boring

So how will Antonio Horta-Osorio make his mark, with the strategic review we're told he'll deliver in June?

With a splash? Selling off businesses, and shedding market share - some of that in response to political pressure/requirements - while focussing the bank much more narrowly?

Or getting his head down with the continued business of integration, focussing on customer service, and getting the share price up to keep his dominant shareholder happy?

Only once that government stake has been sold will he be truly free to review and to set out a strategy of his own making.

Anyway, wasn't this supposed to be the time for banking to become a bit boring again?

Update: I stand corrected, which is the only time I've ever had reason to be grateful to a fruitmachine.

The break even point for the UK Government is lower than I stated. It originally stood at 122.6 pence, after the first tranche of bail-out capital. But under the terms of the Asset Protection Scheme and after the rights issue announced in November 2009, in which the UK Government took its 43% share, the average price at which the taxpayer had invested in Lloyds Banking Group fell to 63 pence.

The investment's still underwater, but in need of a snorkel rather than scuba gear.

Reality Check: In several black holes, and digging

Douglas Fraser | 21:57 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Election campaigning has reached a sad stage when it's a battle over which party has the biggest black hole.

With astronomical figures and unexplained gaps, drawing in mysterious political energy forces, the claim and counter-claim are intended to obscure the fact that none of the four main parties has come out of the analysis of their spending plans with much to feel proud about.

This comes from the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University.

And just as the Institute of Fiscal Studies in London has come to play a vital role in passing judgement on Westminster politicians' financial planning, so the CPPR is the best we've got in Scotland, and at a very small fraction of the IFS price.

What it can't do is say whether the estimated costs of policies are correct.

That's a massive undertaking, much of it subjective, and well beyond a unit of this size.

What it can do is say whether parties' sums add up.

One pound in eight

There's the headline conclusion that far too much wishful thinking is going on.

To listen to the campaign, you wouldn't guess that one pound in every eight of Holyrood's budget is going to disappear over the next five years.

That's £3.5bn.

The CPPR nails efficiency savings as being subject of the most wishful thinking.

Labour and the SNP have near identical claims on this, and the CPPR questions whether they can deliver, or whether we can ever know whether they have delivered.

By applying them across the board, it seems a lot to ask of the police forces to offer up £150m of efficiency gain from re-organisation and then another 2% per year on top of that.

Likewise, specific efficiencies that are being targeted in the NHS drugs bill, in addition to general efficiency targets. Can both really be achieved?

Have they thought through that?

The CPPR argues that a 2% annual efficiency gain would require not only a pay freeze, but a 2% pay cut.

The alternative is through productivity gains - for which there is little evidence that the public sector has a track record of delivering. Or job cuts.

Yes, those efficiency measures have a nasty habit of being people's jobs. Not necessarily the inefficient ones.

They're easily characterised as faceless penpushers, beancounters and bureaucrats, but many are far from that, and these are real people's jobs.

If independent estimates are any guide, the cuts in Scottish public spending will involve between 45,000 and 60,000 such "headcount reductions".

Radical re-design

That's just one of the CPPR's pleas about efficiency measures: be honest about what they mean in costs as well as in benefits.

Another is to look again at Crawford Beveridge's public spending commission from last summer.

It said the scale of efficiency that is now being targeted would require "radical re-design" of public services.

Not much sign of much radical re-design in the manifestos, though, or indeed, much attention being paid to that commission report, except where it confirms a policy that a party had already adopted.

Other problems arise with the numbers when they depend on powers that don't exist yet, or on reforms that may not be agreed.

Borrowing powers for Holyrood are required to make Tory sums add up, providing £438m from 2013.

But it's not clear how they'll work, or what costs they will pass on to future taxpayers.

Scottish Water is a source of much of Lib Dem and Conservative planning, but both larger parties are committed to keeping it the way it is, and one of those larger parties is near-certain to be leading the next administration.

So what then for the Scottish Water savings?

For Labour and SNP, what's far from clear is where £560m of promised capital funding for Scottish Water is going to come from after this year, when that allocation has been cut to zero.

Conservatives do their sums on the assumption they can cut that from future capital budgets, while leaving Scottish Water to raise funds in the private markets, when the money hasn't been put in those capital budgets in the first place.

Lib Dems go on to assume they can sell Scottish Water debt for nearly £3bn, and somehow persuade the Treasury to part with more than half the proceeds.

There are some big, bold assumptions there, and without that money, there's nothing to pay for a lot of the Lib Dems' plans.

Woeful capital plans

The CPPR finds comparison across manifestos creates some anomalies.

The SNP claims nearly £250m is freed up by the Forth Bridge coming in under budget.

But it hasn't even been commissioned yet, let alone had its budget allocated.

And if the SNP can lay claim to that money, so can the others.

The data available on other such capital projects is described by CPPR as "woeful".

Likewise, if Lib Dems can get their hands on £1.5bn of funds from selling Scottish Water debt, the same could release as much for Tory planning.

Then there's the higher education calculation.

The scale of the fees that English universities have recently declared they want to charge has the consequential effect of blowing apart the Scottish party calculations on the scale of the gap they will have to fill if fees are to be avoided.

With English fees averaging above £8,000, CPPR cites an estimate of more than £300m being required from the Holyrood budget by 2014-15.

So far, the SNP is committing £93m that year, and Labour £38m, in the hope that raised fees from English students coming to Scotland can bring its funding above £100m.

The consequence, say the Glasgow University economists, is that money will have to come from other priorities, or that higher education will suffer a slow, gradual decline in standards, and they fear it will probably be both.

The CPPR has done an important and useful piece of work.

It helps give some shape to what's not being said or admitted on the campaign trail.

But perhaps it's also guilty of wishful thinking, in that the major parties are all expected to cost their promises and balance their plans, yet none will be expected to implement them.

What we've learned from 12 years at Holyrood is that coalition partners can blame each other for a failure to deliver on pledges, and minority administrations can blame the opposition for thwarting it.

Royal banks on women

Douglas Fraser | 16:05 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

If you're looking for signs that Royal Bank of Scotland has changed since it hit crisis, its chairman wants to highlight its right-on attitude to women.

It might seem one of the lower priorities for a bank having an annual general meeting half way through its recovery plan, when it is reporting a £1.1bn loss.

And it's true that Sir Philip Hampton's speech to shareholders has other notes to hit.

He's highlighting the cost of bank reforms, as outlined in the interim report of Sir John Vickers' Independent Commission on Banking.

Taking out cross-insurance and requiring separate capital buffers will cost customers and shareholders, he points out.

And the British public are, of course, the majority shareholders, which is one very good reason why the bank's bosses are, unlike others, not threatening to take their headquarters to other countries in pursuit of lower tax and less regulation.

The chairman highlights the payback to the public of getting the share price up, at a rate of £900m of value for each penny.

Hester trousers

While announcing that RBS is wrapping the former bits of ABN Amro into the plc's core, removing the legal legacy of a separate Dutch entity, Sir Philip Hampton is taking on the critics on executive pay.

And with his chief executive, Stephen Hester, trousering £7.7m for last year's loss-making work (OK, to be fair, some is sewn into a trouser pocket he's not allowed to unpick for a while), there's quite a lot of criticism kicking around.

UK Financial Investments, or UKFI, which represents the UK government's interests as shareholder, has already approved the remuneration report, so there's not much prospect of the criticism derailing executive pay.

But Sir Philip wishes to emphasise the role of pay in continuing to retain and recruit staff.

On that, he offers an astonishing figure: since the crisis hit in October 2008, while you might think RBS has seen a one-way traffic of exiting staff, it's actually recruited 46,000 people.

That's slightly less than a third of the staff total, and represents a colossal churn.

Distaff staff

Anyway, to women. Shareholders have been told today that RBS is looking for more of a female presence on its board.

The chairman didn't actually address the argument that the bank might have taken fewer risks if the board, in Sir Fred Goodwin's day, were a bit less testosterone-driven.

But it's implicit in his embrace of the drive for female recruits.

The message is also aimed well below board level.

"Female engagement" became a priority last year, we're told, focussing on recruitment, progression, development and networks.

"We worked hard" to ensure that at least one woman featured on the shortlist for executive vacancies, he said, and rolled out "a global diversity training module focusing on the subject of 'unconscious bias' to all employees internationally".

It's hard to imagine Sir Fred Goodwin taking this line in the RBS of yore.

Some may see it as that old chestnut of "political correctness gone mad", but it's also a bank trying to show it's in tune with the political and social environment within which it operates, rather than a purely and exclusively financial one.

That, and the financial calculation that a happy female workforce is good for the bottom line too.

In case you missed it, there was a telling observation close to this subject from Jayne-Anne Gadhia, chief executive of Virgin Money and a former RBS lieutenant of Sir Fred Goodwin, in the interview for Radio Scotland's Business Scotland last weekend.

She said Sir Fred Goodwin ran a company where it was clear what you were expected to deliver, whereas Sir Richard Branson runs Virgin as a company where people ask what they can do to help you deliver.

Perhaps a useful contrast and lesson for any business.

Reality check: who benefits from frozen council tax?

Douglas Fraser | 21:20 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

It's a vote winner, for sure. Do you want to have your tax frozen at 2007 levels? Of course you do.

But at what price? It's a simple enough mechanism that has persuaded councils to freeze tax, as my colleague Jamie McIvor has explained.

They get offered a total of £70m each year, shared between them, on condition they don't increase council tax. If they refuse it, they lose out twice - first, their share of that money, and second, they have to charge more from local taxpayers.

But what is this costing central government? It's not simply £70m each year, because the costs of delivering services keep going up.

The second year of a freeze requires £140m, the third year £210m, and we're now in the fourth year of the freeze, so St Andrew's House has to hand over £280m to sustain services at 2007 levels.

All four main parties are committed to continuing the freeze for 2012-13, so that will require £350m that year, with Labour adding £10m extra to acknowledge extra cost pressures.

LibDems say they'll take the poorest pensioners out of council tax - those under £10,000 income per year, while Conservatives offer a £200 discount to all pensioner households.

The SNP is committed to going further into the next parliament, and continuing the freeze until 2015-16.

If that still means a £70m extra grant each year, that will come to £560m.

Passing the half billion pound mark is a reminder that this is becoming a sizeable chunk of Holyrood's budget - money that obviously won't be available for other priorities.

Unhealthy erosion

What we've heard today from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) is an additional £70m each year isn't enough. Consumer inflation is now running at 4%, whereas the implied inflation rate within the £70m grant is about 2.75%.

That helps explain why Cosla say they would require more than £100m each year to keep up with their costs.

Behind it is an anguished cry about the relationship between councils and central government.

Financial autonomy is being eroded with each year of the freeze.

Only 25 years ago, councils looked to central government for roughly half their funding.

They now rely on central government for closer to 85%, and that share keeps growing the longer the freeze is retained.

None of the parties seems to be discussing whether this is healthy for local democracy, and at what point the share of local tax raised has become too small.

Moreover, none of them is willing to go near a revaluation of property.

We're still being taxed on the basis of what a house would be worth 20 years ago.

The top band starts at £212,000 in 1991 prices, for properties now worth somewhere north of three times that amount.

That wouldn't be a problem if all homes increased in value at the same rate, relative to each other.

But they don't, and they haven't.

Some people would lose out from a revaluation.

Welsh experience of it showed significant numbers moving up not one, but two bands, with bills to match.

And Scottish political memories look back with a shudder to 1985, when revaluation caused howls of protest in better-off areas, leading directly to the introduction of the notoriously unpopular community charge, or poll tax, as a means of getting Scottish Tories off the revaluation hook.

However, for all those who would lose out, roughly the same number of householders are being overcharged because the valuation of their home is now too high when compared with others.

It looks like they're being let down by political caution about alienating the losers from such a process.

Scarce cash

But let's return to the money, and ask who benefits from the council tax freeze.

There are two ways of looking at it. Scottish government figures, commissioned from officials by SNP ministers, found that a two-year freeze, this financial year and next, will save 1% of household income for the lowest-paid decile (10%) of Scottish households.

You may ask how many of those households pay anything, as poorer households often get council tax benefit.

I haven't been able to find out how council tax benefit is distributed across those deciles.

But put it this way: there are 2.4m households in Scotland liable for council tax, and 560,000 of them get council tax benefit.

It's a fair guess that they are loaded towards the cheaper end of the property range, and Band A for tax.

So for those who get council tax benefit, they don't see any benefit.

For those in the top-earning decile in Scotland, the benefit of the tax freeze will save 0.4% of household income.

So on that basis, it looks progressively fair.

But given this is a cash distribution, who saves most from the freeze? It's not the poorest, but those in the biggest houses who stood to have the largest increases without a freeze.

And as council tax is levied according to a fixed formula across the bands, the savings are substantially skewed towards those in the biggest houses.

If you're in Band A (and don't get benefit), let's assume you are avoiding 2.75% inflationary increases for each year of a five-year freeze.

That means you're still paying £733 on average, and you're saving £106.

If the same inflation rate is applied to a Band H home, you're still paying £2200 per year in council tax, and you're saving £319.

That seems an odd priority for scarce cash in a country biased towards progressive politics.

Reality Check: Prison Pressures

Douglas Fraser | 21:50 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

There's popular support for locking up those found guilty of knife crime. That's particularly in west central Scotland, where chib culture has an unusually strong grip on young men.

Both Labour and Tories back versions of that policy, with at least six month mandatory sentences.

There's also popular support for ending the automatic, unconditional early release - at the half-way point in their sentence - of prisoners serving less than four years.

The four main parties in the Scottish election are agreed on that much, despite the fact that all four of them have, at different times, operated the policy while in government and in charge of the justice system over the past 18 years.

Then there's a move to bring back the handing down of short prison sentences. Labour and Conservatives favour that, while SNP and LibDems want more non-custodial sentencing for less serious crimes.

Three policies. All quite popular in their own way. Not much evidence that they have a deterrent effect. And rather expensive.


As part of BBC Scotland's reality check on election issues, I've been looking at the figures on this.

Let's start with the state of prisons now. With a bit of rounding off, the prison population has risen from just over 6,000 ten years ago to 8,000 now. The crime rate has been falling, for a number of reasons, but some more serious crimes are on the rise, and average sentences have been getting longer. The expectation is that the prison population will continue to rise, without any policy changes being made.

That puts pressure on prisons. There's currently design capacity for around 7,300 inmates. The new Low Moss prison in East Dunbartonshire is due to open next year, taking that up to 8,000 - by which time the prison population will probably be north of that figure. So there's over-crowding already.

Meanwhile, resources are tight, to say the least. In the new financial year, the Scottish Prison Service is taking a 24% budget cut, much of that in its capital budget, which is down 66%.

That's one of the biggest cuts of any Holyrood budget, and provides a tough financial context for all these sentencing policies.

Deterrent effect

The official reckoning on the impact of ending automatic early release of prisoners is that it would require between 700 and 1,100 places. That explains why the legislation was passed back in 2006 to reverse the policy, but it's never been implemented.

The cost of jailing everyone convicted of knife crime is quite a bit more. Official statistics show those convicted in the most recent annual figures stood at 3898, which was a significant fall on previous years.

Roughly a third of those convicted already go to jail. So if you're going to jail the others for an average of six months, that's around another 1,300 prison places required.

Supporters of the policy suggest there could be much more rounding down once you take account of the deterrent effect - that is, the fear of prison will keep people from carrying knives.

But senior police officers say that deterrent doesn't work, and we've heard from other experts in the field who agree. Even the experience of being in jail or young offenders institution doesn't seem much of a deterrent, given that well over half go on to re-offend within two years.


So let's put that together. There's no spare capacity in prisons, and budgets are being sharply cut.

Between an end to automatic early release and the start to automatic jail terms for those carrying knives, it looks like 2,200 extra places.

There's a new prison planned in Grampian to replace Peterhead and Aberdeen jails. Although there's no money available for it - or any other replacements of older prisons, including Inverness - HMP Grampian's budget is at least £100m for 550 places.

If that's the going rate for building prisons, the bill for these policies looks like a capital cost of around £400m. That's before running costs, when the price of incarceration runs at more than £30,000 per head per year.

That's before you calculate the cost of reinstating short sentences, as it's hard to guage how that might work and how extensively it would be applied by courts.

Even without that element, it doesn't look like the manifesto pledges being made on crime will be possible to deliver when budgets are so tight.

Cleared for sell-off take-off

Douglas Fraser | 10:32 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Boris Johnson is advising against "machine-gunning the bankers", and it seems that other instruments of splurged revenge are being eschewed by the Independent Commission on Banking.

Its interim recommendations, out today, prefer a form of slow tortured revenge, by increasing capital buffers and the banks' costs. The report has come down against the big break-up pushed by, among others, Vince Cable, when campaigning for the Lib Dems last year.

Now, the business secretary may have to make do with substantially bigger capital buffers and "subsidiarisation" - the hideous word that describes the creation of subsidiaries within a banking group in order to create firewalls between them.

In the part of the report tackling the lack of competition in British retail banking, Lloyds Banking Group is targeted for more of a sell-off than the 600 branches already being marketed as a European Commission condition for its bailout.

Sir John Vickers has not put a number on the "substantial enhancement" to that process. But one of the most immediate challenges of this interim report is whether the sale of 600 branches should be stopped, pending the requirement of a bigger sale.

And given that Royal Bank of Scotland already complied with European Commission conditions by selling more than 300 branches to Santander, there's now pressure on Lloyds Banking Group that it sells outside the Big Five high street banks, to enhance competition.

The RBS/Santander deal is now widely recognised as a missed opportunity for that, and as Lloyds has been slow to get moving on its sale, it could now find tougher conditions placed on selling to a smaller competitor.

Which bits of Lloyds Banking Group could be sold to increase competition? One relatively easy bit to split off could be Bank of Scotland, as it has retreated north of the border as the group's Scottish retail brand.

But as it's already selling off Lloyds TSB Scotland as part of the European Commission's requirements, there's not much logic in flogging both, as that would depress the price of both.

Royal sale

Sir John Vickers commission had a look at trying to undo the RBS sale to Santander, and stopping the complex process of disentangling branches, accounts and information technology, partly to see if it could also be enhanced. But it's judged that too costly and disruptive, and that RBS's market share is not as worryingly large as Lloyds Banking Group, so there's less need to act.

That is clearly good news for RBS, which had seen the Vickers commission as one of the biggest clouds on its horizon.

And if the interim recommendations turn to firmer ones with the final report in September, it means minds can turn to the next big issue for RBS and the bail-out process - the big sell-off.

Share prices still leave the UK government and taxpayer making a paper loss. But if we can assume that economic recovery should help the bank's recovery, the question is when and how its stakes in RBS and Lloyds are to be sold off.

A big break-up of the banks would have reduced the market valuation of those shares, meaning there has been, and remains, a conflict of interest for the British public between maximising shareholder value on one hand and, on the other, the appeal of reducing risk to the government while increasing competition for customers.

Capital buffers

Without a break-up of the banks, they may still lose profitability from increased capital buffers proposed by Vickers.

But it seems the biggest obstacle on the road to a big government sell-off has just been cleared.

And where the consequences of such major reform can be hard to predict, here's a thought about the split into distinct subsidiaries: if the divisions of the banks are to have their own capital bases, and to have firewalls required between them, doesn't that make them easier for future bosses to break up, rather than the regulators?

It has to be one of the possibilities for Lloyds and RBS that their eventual exit from government ownership and return to the market will leave them vulnerable to break up by new owners, just as RBS tore apart its Dutch purchase, ABN Amro, four years ago.

Mind the university funding gap

Douglas Fraser | 21:13 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

Education is anything but free. It's very expensive. But as it's long been said, just try costing the alternative.

The Scottish government is putting around £926m into universities this year, down by more than 6%.

There's a one-year promise from the universities to keep student numbers steady for less money, but after that, principals say they need to be sure there's a secure stream of funding.

This has emerged as perhaps the most significant dispute of the election campaign so far, yet it's mainly between university principals and the political consensus, with three parties are in agreement.

Labour, Lib Dem and the SNP are all promising tuition will be kept free for students, without any graduate contribution either.

Conservatives say that's not realistic, and that a graduate contribution of some sort will be required.

Inferior university

So here's how the numbers stack up.

The gap identified in Scottish university and other higher education funding has been calculated, by an expert group of government and academics, which says it's at least £97m, and perhaps far more. It depends how much English universities charge their students.

At present, English universities can charge £3,290. They are being allowed, very controversially, to increase those charges to between £6,000 and £9,000.

In Whitehall, the government hoped to keep to the lower end of that spectrum.

But no university wants to be seen as an inferior option. So with 30 universities now declaring their intention, most want to go for the maximum, at least for some courses, and not just the most prestigious institutions.

If English fees were set at £7,000, without inflation, the knock-on impact of a 'gap' in Scottish funding would be £97m.

But set them at £7,500 on average, and allow for inflation, and the expert group see the Scottish funding gap soar to £202m.

That now looks like it could be a modest figure, if English fee ambitions are to be realised.

Yet Labour, Lib Dem and SNP are all assuming no more of a gap than £155m - the reckoning if English fees averaged £7,500, without allowing for inflation.

Antagonised neighbours

Labour and SNP set out uncannily similar figures. It assumes that students from the rest of the UK could have their fees put up by £62m.

This isn't just as a cash cow, almost designed to antagonise the southern neighbours: it's also to discourage a mass flight north of the border to save money.

It then assumes they would be allowed to charge students from the other 26 nations in the EU a "service charge" totalling £20m.

That's not a "fee", as a fee would not be allowed under European law, if local students are not charged it.

But it assumes Scotland would be allowed to do the same as Ireland, and that's far from guaranteed.

Such charges tend to be allowed only if they are already established, and are much tougher to introduce.

Then add in £26m in efficiency savings, with parties saying which universities have already signed up, and expect the vice-chancellors to make £7m out of better commercialising their assets and research, and by tapping alumni for philanthropic donations.

There's also talk across the party divide about efficiencies to be had from better 'articulation' between schools, colleges and universities.

That means pressure to cut honours degree courses from four to three years, challenging a long-defended feature of Scottish education.

Labour says those figures leave only £38m to be found if it's to fill the £155m gap.

The SNP has yet to publish its manifesto, but it's likely to be saying the same thing, in line with the statement made to the Scottish Parliament by Education Secretary Mike Russell.

Gradual exodus

The Lib Dems? There's little detail to their figures. What there is fails to identify any money that's clearly earmarked for the cost of student tuition, but I'm told their thinking is very similar to Labour and SNP.

That's along with a large share for universities of £250m in science funding, coming from the Lib Dems' manifesto proposal to sell off debt in Scottish Water, handing it a £1.5bn windfall. Access to such a funding stream is, at least, questionable.

The Conservative plans are to levy fees, payable after graduation and dependent on an income threshold. They would average £3,600 per year, and there would be a £4,000 cap.

Funnelling some of the proceeds into a £55m bursary fund as a means of limiting the damage to recruitment of students from lower income students, that is intended to fill the £202m gap.

The Tory claim is that if that gap is not fully filled, there will be 13,000 fewer places. Or it could be that class sizes increase and the student experience declines.

An alternative to that is a much slower impact if the gap isn't closed, and if there's underfunding of universities: the gradual exodus of the best quality teachers and lecturers for campuses which offer them the best facilities, the best research teams and the best pay deals.

Fair access

But there's a complication in all this.

The UK government has noted the rush by universities to charge the maximum possible.

They might have seen it coming if they'd watched the same pattern when the £3,000 fee was first introduced under the Labour government.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned that there could be unwelcome consequences for those charging the full whack; fewer places if they fail to fill their quotas, and a refusal by the new Office of Fair Access to allow high fees if there's a high drop-out rate.

He was stressing that there's a limited amount of money in government coffers.

So the cost of providing loans to students to pay an annual £9,000 up-front is more than ministers had reckoned on, and so it will have to come from other areas of government higher education funding.

If that rule is applied strictly, it may change the shape of the Scottish university funding gap, and quite significantly.

Graduate pay

Two other figures that might help illuminate the issue.

The latest Office of National Statistics figures, issued this week, show that graduates can expect to earn, on average, £12,000 more than non-graduates for full-time work - that's a £30,000 salary compared with £18,000.

And another is how popular these policies might be.

The most recent survey of Scottish social attitudes is strongly supportive of some of the distinctive policies pursued at Holyrood, such as free personal care of the elderly.

But on tuition fees, it's far from clear that Scots take a different line from the English.

When asked, in the most recent social attitudes survey if graduates should pay something towards the cost of tuition, 63% of Scots agreed. In England, 66% did so.

Turn that on its head, and ask how many think tuition should be free - in England, 25% think so, and 30% of Scots. That makes free tuition look like a political consensus that's not shared with public opinion.

Networking to a tee

Douglas Fraser | 09:17 UK time, Sunday, 3 April 2011

It's hard to move far in Scottish business without bumping up against the influence of golf.

It's not just the size of the industry - worth about £220m to the nation's economy annually. It's also its importance as a forum for doing business.

Although a non-golfer (I'd retired by the age of 11) I've been out on the new Earl of Mar course near Erskine Bridge to learn a bit more about how golf contributes to Scotland's bottom line.

This was with David Rae and two of the first clients he's signed up for Networkingolf, a company he says is needed to turn the idea of doing business at the golf club into a lucrative reality.

Membership of his club is exclusive to owners of small or medium-size companies, in a bid to avoid domination by people at the grade of business development executive.

Rae says most corporate golf is about reinforcing existing client relationships, when it could be used to win new business.

And he says those companies already spending a bit of money and lots of time on networking by other means could do with taking their networking approach more seriously.

And quite expensively. Membership of his company this year costs £1,850 plus VAT. That buys you six rounds on three courses, plus hospitality and entertainment.

Whether that seems good value is up to you, or how you use it. If you land one contract worth more than that, then it's obviously paid off.

Sell yourself

But what interested me is the etiquette of golf networking. It doesn't do to give it your full-on business pitch while you putt.

You might casually refer to your line of work. But Rae says the skill is in selling yourself and your personality rather than your business product.

Over four hours, people get a pretty good feel for whether a playing partner is someone they could do business with, and they know they're being watched by their playing partner for the same reason. The harder business talk is at the 19th hole, or by keeping in touch after.

One important question is whether you should play to win, when you're up against someone you want to impress.

Absolutely, say these networking golfers. Your potential business partner wants to know that you're competitive, and anything less than your best would be patronising.

One other tip - it's best not to cheat with the lie of your ball. That tends to be a sign you're not much good for business either.

* Hear more about golf networking on a special golf edition of Business Scotland, on BBC Radio Scotland at 1005 BST this Sunday 3 April - available after on BBC iplayer and podcast. It also includes reports on golf clubs in trouble, traditional golf club manufacturing, and the golf tourism market.

Follow, Follow the Money

Douglas Fraser | 10:08 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

Rangers hasn't been accused of doing anything illegal in its tax treatment of player payments, the Glasgow football club wishes to emphasise.

That's an odd message for the chairman Alistair Johnston to highlight, suggesting something of a raw nerve is being hit by reporting of its dispute with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

The figures bandied around are north of £20m. That liability is being vigorously contested, and while the club says its legal advice should reassure, it meanwhile continues to leave a significant question mark over the club's accounts, with the figures for the first half of its financial year out today.

That's not to be confused with another tax bill linked to the way players were being paid between 1999 and 2003, for which £2.8m is being set aside while talks go on with HMRC.

The other unusual message from Rangers half-year accounts is written confirmation of what manager Walter Smith has previously blurted out, but which was then played down - that Lloyds Banking Group has been calling the shots.

They've reached "a template for collaboration", which most bank customers would prefer to take for granted, but "certain provisions imposed on the Club continue to compromise, in our opinion, management's ability to conduct its role with maximum efficiency".

The amount owed to creditors in the next year is up, close to £30m, and most of this is believed to be due to the bank.

One condition of an anticipated sale of Sir David Murray's majority stake to financier Craig Whyte is expected to clear that. That might explain the new-found candour.

Rollercoaster finance

Otherwise, the accounts reflect the continuing problems across Scottish football, but often magnified by the rollercoaster finances of the Old Firm.

One fewer match against Celtic in the first half of the season impacts on income, and snow reduced the number of premier league matches and income to the end of the calendar year.

But longer term, there have to be concerns at Ibrox that sponsorship is down and that season ticket income has fallen nearly 5%. Rangers is looking to league reform to revitalise the Scottish game "and its standing in European football".

Yet the Scottish game's financial challenges look more deep-seated than anything that can be solved by a different size of league.

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