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  • China overtakes US to become world's biggest goods trader - business live

    A 'landmark milestone' in China's economic history as it overhauls America to become the biggest goods trading nation, as investors awaits the latest US employment data

  • Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade to leave US under immunity

    Indian deputy consul general is charged in New York with fraud regarding her maid but is free to leave without facing court

  • Parking fines may be cut in government rethink

    Department for Transport considers abolishing minimum rates for penalty charges after 'cash cow' criticism

    Parking fines could be reduced and grace periods introduced, the government has said, following criticism that local councils use parking enforcement as a "cash cow".

    The Department for Transport is considering legal options to abolish the minimum rates for parking penalty charges to allow local authorities to lower fines for minor parking violations.

    It also wants local authorities to publish their parking accounts in a bid to create more transparency around fines.

    The DfT has formally responded to a Commons transport select committee report published last year that found "a deep-rooted perception that local authorities view parking enforcement as a cash cow".

    It also said it was "hard to justify parking fines that are substantially more than the fines for more serious offences like speeding".

    The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, froze parking penalty charges in December for the remainder of the current parliament. He also published a public consultation on parking issues, including whether five-minute grace periods, which some councils already operate voluntarily, should be made a statuary requirement.

    The DfT is also seeking views on whether to end the use of cameras for on-street parking enforcement.

    Last year, the Local Government Association calculated that councils made a 411m surplus from both on- and off-street parking in 2011-12, while the RAC Foundation said the figure was 565m.

    Louise Ellman, the chairwoman of the transport select committee, welcomed the government's consultation on the report's findings.

    She told ITV's Daybreak: "There is a feeling that people aren't being treated very fairly, and that's what the report was about. Councils do have a lot of discretion and that's right as it is a local service. But it is about being reasonable.

    "Councils must be much clearer about what they are doing with their money and what money they are making."

    She added that councils were not legally allowed to put up parking fines in order to raise revenue but that government needs to make the law clearer to local authorities.

    Professor Stephen Glaister, the director of the RAC Foundation, said parking fines needed to be proportionate and urged councils to be more transparent.

    "Parking can be big business for councils with English local authorities making a profit of almost 600m between them last year," he said.

    "We should see most parking offences for what they are. Not crimes but misdemeanours and we need enforcement that reflects this. We need some proportionality and transparency. At the very least all councils should publish an annual report outlining what their parking policy is, how charges are set and where any surplus goes.

    "It was almost four years ago that the coalition promised to end the war on the motorist. It isn't over yet but perhaps these latest proposals will take us a step closer to victory."

    The consultation will end on 14 February.

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  • Winter Olympics: one day the worm will turn against these gods of sport | Simon Jenkins

    After Vladimir Putin, how many more leaders will risk their nation's security and economy for an IOC mega-event?

    An army of 30,000 is deployed. A further 40,000 police and internal security troops lie in reserve. Missile launchers and tracking devices are commissioned. Air and naval units stand ready. On Tuesday this entire force was put on "combat alert" for a month. In addition road blocks are set up for 60 miles round a "forbidden zone". Within it, movement is to be monitored and controlled. Local civil liberties are suspended and hundreds of "suspects" rounded up. The cost is 30bn and rising.

    You guessed it. This must be the winter Olympics. They happen to be in Sochi in southern Russia, but they could be in London or Rio or Beijing, or wherever a regime feels the urge to blow huge sums of money showing off to its critics and the world.

    Sport as a proxy for war is as old as George Orwell. But modern mega-events are not a proxy for anything. They are just bombastic, statist, commercial, nationalistic conventions, ones that nowadays are so inviting to terrorism as to be choked with military impedimenta. When in 1971 the shah of Iran built his $100m tent city at Persepolis, the world ridiculed his ostentatious waste. Today, if he added taekwondo and ice-dancing, the world would call him a cheapskate.

    Winter sports are the excuse for Vladimir Putin's Sochi extravaganza. They are mostly a pastime for the rich, but the sport is as immaterial as the cost. Putin's laughable bid price to the International Olympics Committee was 9bn. His pitch was to offer "a stable political and economic environment in order to improve and enhance [the people's] quality of life". His was a government "based on free and open elections, freedom of expression and a constitutionally guaranteed balance of power". I doubt if the IOC even bothered to smile. It just felt the money.

    Everything about the games is politics. Putin deliberately staged them next to the tinderbox of the north Caucasus ? miles from any ice or snow ? to showcase his regime's strength in a region explosive with dissident Chechens, Circassians, Dagestanis and Ingushetians. The event is as provocative as if the Chinese had held the 2008 Olympics in Tibet. The death toll has already begun with two Volgograd bombs claiming 34 dead and 700 suspects arrested.

    Meanwhile, Putin is preparing for the familiar Olympic ritual in which visiting British ministers "raise civil rights issues" before going off to enjoy the hospitality. He has released thousands of "prisoners of conscience" (having arrested them first), including Greenpeace activists, a Pussy Riot member and his old foe, Mikhail Khordokovsky. He has been less lenient to gays, and has threatened terrible reprisals against anyone who now spoils his party.

    To all this we know what British ministers will say: "We should not mix politics with sport." This is rubbish. They know they are playing Putin's game but do not want to miss out on a great freebie. These are the same ministers who blew more than 30m (and then another 30m on demand) to stage Danny Boyle's blatantly, indeed brilliantly, political ceremony in London two years ago. The Tories' Thatcherite predecessors at least had the courage of their convictions in boycotting the Moscow games in 1980 over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I wonder what they would have said if nations had boycotted the London games for the same reason.

    In the midst of PJ Harvey's hilarious BBC Today programme last week lay a gem, a splenetic outburst by the American writer Dave Zirin against the capitalist megalomania of international sport. He inveighed against a cult that claimed a licence to militarise whole cities, extort public money and shut down civil liberties to protect its monopolies and its prestige. He justly cited the 2006 London Olympics act, which legally handed over the government of London to the IOC for the duration of the games.

    I really doubt if Zirin would have been able to broadcast his diatribe during the London Olympics in 2012, when official state hysteria was at its height. Nor would he have enjoyed such freedom in Beijing in 2008, or in Sochi today ? though to be fair to Russia, Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister, did recently attack Sochi as "an unprecedented thieves' caper". He said Putin's government was spending a fortune doling out contracts to favoured oligarchs.

    My only quarrel with Zirin is that these mega-events are hardly any more about capitalism than they are about sport. They are about the crudest form of politics, that of national prestige. The athletico-military-industrial complex seems to have a mesmeric appeal to world leaders, an appeal expertly exploited by bodies like the IOC and Fifa.

    These organisations' staff travel the world like heads of state. They require more lavish facilities and kowtowing. They must stay free at hotels, be greeted by presidents and prime ministers, have armies and navies on hand to guard their ceremonies, and have domestic markets rigged for their sponsors' products. Roads must be closed for their limos and traffic lights phased to green. The politics of host nations are of no concern to them. No one calls these bodies to account, because they claim a higher licence from the great god sport.

    This week Fifa finally mooted changing its bizarre 2011 decision to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a decision mired in allegations of corruption. Little thought had been given to the comfort or convenience of players or spectators, who were expected to swelter in 50C in the shade. All that mattered was Qatar's readiness to spend an obscene estimated 138bn on staging Fifa's event.

    The bankrupting of Athens and the impending bankrupting (if nothing worse) of Rio de Janeiro shows the horrific cost of these events to less than wealthy cities. The money is generated not by sport but unaccountable bodies making demands on national exchequers in return for prestige. This is what obviates the simple remedy to all this cost, which is to hold these events each year in the same place. They would swiftly revert to sport.

    One day the worm will turn. In Rio, the poor (and not so poor) are already rioting against the extravagance. In Sochi, Putin's gamble with international terrorism is already proving lethal. As so far planned, Qatar will have footballers dying of heat and stadiums left decaying in the desert like Ozymandias's ruins. It will one day go horribly wrong. Perhaps then a brave ruler will have the guts to walk away from this nonsense.

    theguardian.com © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

  • US condemns 'provocative' Chinese edict over South China Sea fisheries

    Latest territorial assertion by Beijing requires foreign crews operating in disputed waters to notify Chinese authorities

  • Lightning strike in Argentina kills three

    More than 20 others injured as sudden electrical storm hits coastal township of Villa Gesell, authorities say

  • Top EU official slams British ministers on immigration

    Viviane Reding, vice-president of European commission, says 'invasion of foreigners' is a populist myth spread by politicians

  • Lim Hock Chee: arrests after kidnap of Singaporean tycoon's mother

    Two men could face execution in low-crime country after coaxing 79-year-old into car and demanding millions for her release

  • Air New Zealand emergency landing sparks engine failure investigation

    Passengers talk of crew ‘preparing for the worst’ after Airbus A320 loses power in one engine and returns to Melbourne

  • Metropolitan police corruption report prompts call for inquiry

    Confidential report leaked to newspaper was prepared in 2002 and claimed gangsters had infiltrated Scotland Yard


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