Friday 22 April 2016

Letter from Port Talbot

The incorrigible, muckraking Jac 'o the North has once again seen fit to serve up a lurid and sensationalist tale of sex, violence and byzantine, lowlife skulduggery in the Labour Party in Swansea, described by a Labour spokesperson as a nest of vipers in a little place in South Wales.

This presents a rather unfair and lopsided view of the party, as here in London SW1 Port Talbot we attract an altogether more refined and better class of person. So in the interests of balance, help yourselves to a macchiato and a buttered, warm spelt roll, and we will begin.

You will have seen quite a lot of our MP, Stephen Kinnock, on your TV screens recently as he jets around the world. A couple of weeks ago he was interviewed by the BBC in a particularly nicely tailored blue suit standing in the tasteful surroundings of a five star hotel in Mumbai, complete with birdsong and flute music in the background. How reminiscent of our own Premier Inn, conveniently located just off the M4.

Steve and Helle on a night out in the Port Talbot Working Men's Club

In last year's general election Stephen was triumphantly elected to Parliament, where Ma and Pa already have seats in the House of Lords, but his road to Westminster was not without its trials and tribulations, as this blog recorded back in March of 2014.

We've heard a lot in recent weeks about offshore accounts and the tax affairs of Tory ministers, but Stephen was for several years embroiled in an unseemly row about his tax status in Denmark, with guttersnipe journalists wondering why, if his wife and children and family home were in a swish part of Copenhagen, he had managed not to pay an øre in income tax in his adopted homeland, preferring to pay his dues in Switzerland instead.

In Switzerland Stephen worked for the World Economic Forum before becoming managing director of a consultancy working with various global corporate giants, including Tata Steel, advising them on "resource-efficient growth". So successful was Stephen's advice that Tata subsequently decided that its steel business in Port Talbot was not resource efficient, and that it would be better off pursuing growth opportunities elsewhere.

Investigations and inquiries in to his tax affairs rumbled on for several years. It emerged that at one point Kinnock's tax adviser had suggested to the Danish taxman that his client was either gay or bisexual by way of explanation as to why Stephen's family home was not really his home. At another point, Stephen told the Danish press that he would be prepared to start paying tax in Denmark, only to change his mind. His wife told the tax office that her husband lived at home from Friday to Monday every weekend, and claimed tax deductions in respect of her husband for nine years. When this was queried, she said she had made a mistake, and was obliged to repay three years of allowances, the other six years falling outside legal time limits, which she elected not to pay.

Eventually senior Danish tax officials concluded that Stephen did not qualify as a resident, and so was not liable to tax there after all. More rows and resignations followed amid claims that political rivals had tried to exploit the case, and that pressure had somehow been applied to secure a favourable verdict. Stephen's wife, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, just happened to be prime minister for much of the time while this was going on.

The recriminations and bickering would no doubt have continued, but this tedious saga fortunately came to an end when Stephen was elected to the House of Commons, rendering the disputeof purely historic interest.

Port Talbot, or at least a small select part of it, was awash with champagne as the results came in, and not long afterwards Stephen gave one of his first press interviews to a local newspaper the London Evening Standard.

The disastrous performance of Labour under Ed Milliband meant it was time for a rethink, Stephen said. We should reform inheritance tax and cut the top rate of tax to reduce the burden on the rich. Perhaps reflecting on his own unfortunate experiences, he wanted Labour to ban the phrase, “the people with the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden”.

Back in Denmark, the leading quality daily Berlingske Tidende (article in Danish) noted that Stephen was hoping to move Labour to the right. Labour's rank and file responded by electing Jeremy Corbyn.

Fortunately for Stephen, David Cameron and George Osborne agreed with his ideas, and acted to reduce the burden on higher rate taxpayers, which was doubly fortunate for Mrs and Mrs Kinnock, as we shall see.

A month after the UK general election in May 2015, Denmark went to the polls and Helle Thorning-Schmidt found herself on the losing side and back on the opposition benches. She was not to hang around for long.

In September 2015 the new prime minister announced that he had put Helle's name down for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Sadly, she was passed over, and what sunk her chances was her record of introducing draconian new restrictions on refugees, including provisions which prevented refugee children from being reunited with their parents - policies which had been criticised in strong terms by the agency she was hoping to lead.

Helle took the snub in her stride and told the Danish press that she was happy to be able to continue her work in the Danish Parliament. So happy that, with the dust barely having settled on the UNHCR job, she struck gold at Save the Children International, where she became chief executive in January of this year.

Save the Children is no stranger to controversy, paying some of the highest salaries to its top managers of any UK charity. Defending its policies, the charity last year produced a break-down of its staff costs, showing that its wages bill had risen from just under £52 million in 2013 to £54.5 million in 2014, even though staff numbers had remained almost flat at just over 2,000.

There were 30 staff earning between £60,000 and £140,000, and a further 8 executive directors earning between £100,000 and £140,000.

But transparency went only so far because it seems that those figures included only staff working for Save the Children UK (headed up by one of Tony Blair's former advisers on £145,500), and not the top brass at Save the Children International where Helle's predecessor, Jasmine Whitbread, was reported to have been on a cool £234,000 a year. There is also a footnote suggesting that the figures might not include staff not liable to UK income tax.

Back in Denmark eyebrows were raised once again, with Ekstra-Bladet (article in Danish) questioning the great lady herself. Salaries had to be pitched at those levels to attract the right people, she said, pointing out that £234,000 was comparable with the sort of pay you could expect at the UN or the World Bank.

And although Helle Thorning-Schmidt had previously been criticised by Save the Children for her hard line on refugees, including keeping refugee children away from their parents, she got the job.

The Thorning-Schmidt-Kinnocks have finally been reunited as a family and settled into a new home in London, according to Helle, or Port Talbot if you ask Stephen. To add to their joy, this ordinary hard working family bringing more than £300,000 a year have had their tax bills cut by that nice Mr Osborne.

For once, dear readers, a happy ending. Unless you are a refugee or a steel worker.

Help yourselves to another cappuccino.

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