31 January 2012

Gathering Winter Fuel Allowance

An open letter to Ms Emma Boon, Campaign Director of the  Taxpayers' Alliance, who want to abolish payment of the Winter Fuel Allowance to British pensioners living in the EU.  

Nearly 73,000 people living on mainland Europe claimed £15.6 million-worth of payments last winter .... a 52% increase since 2006-7 ... 33,495 recipients live in Spain.  

"This is a shocking increase and is yet more evidence that we need to reform the welfare system, so that money goes to those who really need it, not to well off ex pats living on the Costa Del Sol", says Ms Boon.  "The Government should scrap schemes like this because it doesn't make sense to take people's money in tax, then give it back in benefits that they might not want or need.  It was always intended to help the elderly through the winter but many of those claiming it are living abroad where it's warmer anyway."

Dear Ms Boon,

Emma Boon
As a British taxpayer for nearly 40 years (I still would be, but my pension is below the threshold), I appreciate your organisation's attempts to save me money.   But I have to take issue with your claim that giving it to elderly British citizens living in Spain is an example of "wasteful and unnecessary spending".

Personally I would favour abolishing the WFA altogether and increasing the basic state pension so that people didn't need such handouts.  But until that happens, and for as long as it remains a universal, tax-free benefit, the over-60s should be able to claim it wherever they live.

It has already been cut by up to a third.  Last year that nice Mr Osborne reduced the payment from £250 to £200 a year (per household, not per person).  For the over-80s it was cut from £450 to £300.  This is despite the massive increases in fuel costs seen in the past few years, both in the UK and in Spain.

Anyone over 60 can claim the allowance provided they live mainly in Britain during the year they make the claim, and once you are deemed eligible, you can live anywhere in the EU and continue receiving it.  But you can't claim it retrospectively once you've moved abroad.  So I won't be getting it, and according to your own figures, neither do 97% of  the estimated one million British citizens who live in Spain.

On the other hand the Queen, Richard Branson and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all eligible.  Why don't you focus your campaign on making the payment taxable?  That would claw it back from the better-off - assuming they bother claiming it in the first place.

But my biggest grumble is that you are perpetuating the myth that winters are warm in Spain.  Sure, some parts do get plenty of sunshine and sometimes we can go out in shirtsleeves on a warm sunny January afternoon.  But even though the temperatures look good on paper, they don't convey quite how chilly it gets when the sun goes down, especially in houses that were built to cope with summer heat, not winter cold.  Every Northern European who moves to Spain spends their first winter shivering, in denial, before giving into electric blankets, thermal underwear and fleecy blankets over their knees.

The average winter temperature in our house when we get up in the morning is about 14°C (57°F). To warm it up to a bearable 20°C (68°F) we have to use a combination of oil-filled radiators, a propane gas heater and ceramic wall panels.  The price of electricity has gone up by 45% since we moved here and our average monthly fuel bill in winter is more than the £200 WFA we (don't) get.  Check the temperature in your centrally-heated, carpeted, insulated, double-glazed house in the UK when you get up tomorrow morning, and think yourself lucky.

And we live in the sunny south!  In Northern Spain, and in the mountainous regions of Andalucia where many ex-pats live, the temperatures regularly fall below freezing and there is snow on the ground for months at a time.

Snowy Spain
On behalf of those 33,495 lucky people in Spain who get the Winter Fuel Allowance, may I point out that they have contributed millions into the British economy over the years, yet by living abroad after retirement they forego the pension credits or council tax relief that pensioners in the UK are entitled to.  They are not using up NHS resources by suffering from hypothermia or slipping up on icy pavements.  They are not having their roads gritted or the snow cleared off their pavements at the taxpayers' expense.

And they are not all "well off ex pats living on the Costa Del Sol" by any means.  A lot of them are struggling to make ends meet because of rising prices, paltry interest on their savings, and the falling value of sterling.

So, Ms Boon, I entreat you to think of Good King Wenceslas, and be charitable; they aren't asking for flesh, wine or pine logs to be brought hither.  Just the right to gather their winter fuel allowance ...

29 January 2012

TV in Spain

Being able to watch their favourite British television programmes is a high priority for many expats living in Spain.  To watch them on a TV set this means having giant satellite dishes on the roof, various other bits of kit, and a certain amount of fiddling with Sky subscription cards if you want the whole range of channels.   Even then, reception often cracks up in poor weather conditions or during the hours of darkness.

Watching programmes on a computer isn't that straightforward either.  The BBC iPlayer and ITV equivalents won't work outside the UK, for copyright reasons, so you have to install special software to shield your IP address and use a proxy server.

There are some companies that offer access to a range of channels via a paid subscription, but they tend to come and go (along with your subscription fee) as they are not strictly legal.    You can download torrents, but getting the programmes you want is a bit hit-and-miss and that's not strictly legal either.

So, not wanting to clutter up our roof terrace with a 2-metre dish, we opted for Spanish TV.  We reasoned that it would help our Spanish (which it has) and stop us sitting glued to the box every night (which it hasn't).

Spain completed the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting in 2010.  There are over twenty free-to-air channels available through TDT (Digital Terrestrial Television), including five state-owned ones: TVE1 (general public service broadcasting), TVE2 (cultural stuff), 24H (24-hour news), Clan (for children) and Teledeporte (sports).  Each autonomous community has its own channel; in Andalucia this is Canal Sur.    TVE1 and 2 have no adverts, and the other channels tend to have fewer but longer commercial breaks than in the UK.

Complete list of TDT channels

Traditionally, foreign series and films broadcast in Spain have always been dubbed into Spanish.  This dates back to Franco and the perceived need to censor out dangerous foreign influences.   With TDT it is usually possible to remove the doblado and watch programmes in the original language by adjusting the Audio settings.  This enables us to watch programmes like House MD, Law & Order, Bones, even Desperate Housewives in English, as well as a wide variety of movies.  However the days of the doblado may be numbered, as it is believed that one of the reasons the Spanish are so bad at foreign languages is because they never hear them, and some channels are planning to broadcast subtitled films in 2012.

Since the introduction of TDT, and doubtless because of the economic crisis, the Spanish are spending more hours in front of the box - around four hours a day, on a par with the UK.

The pay-to-view satellite service, Canal + (formerly Digital +), offers packages of additional channels on subscription.  All the packages include BBC World, CNN International and Al Jazeera.

Spanish television has a dreadful reputation in the expat community.  A quick google reveals statements like this:
"The TV channels available in Spain are pretty dismal (even if you speak the lingo!). To make life tolerable the only sensible thing to do (if only to keep up with home and world news), is to install a SKY or FREESAT digital satellite system."
This is nonsense.  There is a fair amount of dismal telly, but it is certainly no worse than in Britain, and there are some real gems.  Some of my favourites are listed below, with links to their online archives.  

Un País Para Comérselo - a pair of serious foodies tour the country seeking out Spain's gastronomic secrets. 
Destino: España - a look at different places in Spain as seen by foreigners who have made their homes there.
Get to the top with Desafio Extremo
Página 2 - all about books, with a different author interviewed each week.
Redes - science and technology as seen by the irrepressible Eduard Punset.
Desafío Extremo - ever fancied abseiling down Angel Falls or climbing Everest?  The intrepid Jesús Calleja will take you!
Callejeros - topical documentaries.
El Líder de la Manada - dog-whisperer César Millán shows the Spanish how to look after their dogs.
¡Cómetelo! chef Enrique Sánchez cooks Andalucian food (worth watching as much for the screw-ups, which aren't edited out, as the actual recipes!)
Saca la Lengua - fascinating programme about the Spanish language, how new words are introduced etc.  
Buscamundos - goes to the places the average travel programme doesn't reach.

If you are learning Spanish, turning on the subtitles for the deaf can help you keep up, though they can be somewhat offputting.

14 January 2012

¡Viva la Pepa!

2012 marks the bicentenary of the first Spanish Constitution, which Spain treasures in much the same way as England does its Magna Carta.  It was drawn up, signed and published in the city of Cádiz, which is marking the occasion with a year of festivities and cultural events, a new road bridge from the mainland, and hopefully lots and lots of tourists, as it is also the 2012 Capital Iberoamericana de Cultura.  

So what is la Constitución, or "La Pepa" as commonly referred to, all about?

It is known as "La Pepa" because it was published on St Joseph's Day, 19 March 1812. Pepa is the feminine form (la constitución is a feminine noun) of Pepe, a nickname for José.

Early in the 19th century the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, was keen to spread his Napoleonic Code across the rest of Europe. The code, based on the Enlightenment principles of the French Revolution, replaced old feudal laws with a clearly written legal system, forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs go to the most qualified.

Spain had been ruled for centuries by monarchs with absolute power, and Napoleon's proposals were welcomed by liberals and republicans.  When French troops first invaded Spain they were greeted warmly by the population. But when Napoleon forced the abdication of the Spanish kings in 1808 and installed his brother José on the throne, there was a backlash from supporters of the monarchy, starting what the British call the Peninsular Wars and the Spanish call the Guerra de Independencia.    Britain, which was keen to quash any Napoleonic leanings in its own territories, joined forces with them to fight against the French.

Monument to La Pepa in Plaza de España, Cádiz
But Napoleon´s Grand Army marched steadily southward and Spain's legislative body, known as the Cortes, was gradually forced to retreat into the city of Cádiz, the only bit of Spain not occupied by the French.  Thus it became known as the Cádiz Cortes - effectively a government in exile.  It included delegates from Spain, her colonies in the Americas (including California, Texas and other Spanish territories now part of the USA), and the Philippines.

Cádiz - well placed to withstand a siege
They remained walled up in Cádiz, under attack by the French, during a a siege which lasted over two years. During that time they drew up a Constitution for Spain, based on the enlightened liberalism of the French and American constitutions: freedom of speech and of the press, the right to education, equality before the law and universal male suffrage, with national sovereignty residing in the people rather than the monarch.  The monarch's power was to be strictly limited by parliamentary control, and a new administration was set up based on districts and provinces.

But the Constitution was not as liberal and democratic as its iconic status suggests.  "Equality for all" excluded women, as well as blacks and indigenous populations in the colonies.  Catholicism was declared the only permitted religion of the country, and the clergy were awarded many privileges.  This was considered necessary to gain the support of the Church in the struggle against the French.

However the Constitution expressly prohibited the use of torture.  This didn't go down well with the Spanish Inquisition, which was abolished a year later.

The 1812 Constitution never really got off the ground, as most of the country remained in French hands, and the concept of  national sovereignty was hard for most Spaniards to get their heads round.  In 1814 the returning King Fernando VII promptly scrapped it, along with all the legislation passed during his absence, reconstituted the Inquisition and dissolved the Cortes, returning the country to an absolute monarchy.  This foreshadowed the long conflict between liberals and traditionalists that marked Spanish history in the 19th and early 20th centuries. ¡Viva la Pepa!’ without mentioning the Constitution by name, came to be a cry for the return to a liberal regime, and it reappeared briefly  in 1820-23 during the Trienio Liberal.  In 1837 a new Constitution was published by  the Progressive party, incorporating many of La Pepa's statutes, but this was ditched when the "Moderates" returned to power in 1845 during the reign of Isabel II and disenfranchised 99% of the population.

Other Constitutions have come and gone, notably that of the Second Republic (1931), which established universal suffrage and major socio-economic reforms, only to be swept away under the Franco dictatorship.  The current one, which came into effect in 1978 following Spain's return to democracy, was painfully stitched together by a panel of seven men chosen to represent the wide and deeply divided political spectrum which still remained in the country.   Successive governments have promised - and failed - to reform it.

Meanwhile, Cádiz is waiting for you.  Come and join the party!

Cádiz street guide to La Pepa

Galeón La Pepa
This splendid replica of a Spanish galleon will be moored at various ports around Spain during the year.  On board is a small museum and visitor centre for all things Pepa-related.

10 January 2012

Nada de nada

Apologies for the long silence.  The blogging muse (Cryptico?) appears to have gone on vacation.  Navidad, Nochevieja and Los Reyes Magos have been and gone - I didn't participate in the local festivities this year due to a bad cold and a bad back, and anyway I've described them all before.  I did hobble up to the Plaza Alta to enjoy a marvellous concert by the Orquestra Joven del Bicentenario, who played Beethoven's Fifth and the Nutcracker Suite with great aplomb.  We had our customary walk along the beach on Christmas Day and watched The Godfather on TV.. Nothing much.else.

Nothing much from our illustrious Ayuntamiento either.  The new Mayor is scarcely seen nor heard in the town and we have had no announcement about budget plans for the coming year, as we used to under the previous administration.  There was a bit of a kerfuffle when one of his councillors organised a coach trip to a shopping centre in Jerez just before Christmas; the Alcalá shopkeepers association complained bitterly about taxpayers' money being used to take people out of the town to shop rather than supporting local businesses.  Following admonishments from the Mayor she promptly organised a second trip, this time under the auspices of the local equivalent of the Women's Institute, but still funded by the Town Hall.

Even the weather has been uneventful so far this winter.  We have had no rain since October, the odd windy spell but generally just one warm sunny day following another.  This is fantastic for us of course, but bad news for the farmers and livestock breeders.

Anyway, a belated Happy New Year to you all and I will try and think of something more interesting to write about soon!