Blood diamonds and do-gooders

Tim Worstall on conflict minerals – good economics, bad politics.

Earlier this week, Global Witness, the organisation behind restrictions on blood diamonds, called for an EU law to restrict the use of conflict minerals. This would match a US law, called the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires companies to trace the origin of certain metals through their supply chain to ensure they don’t come from known conflict zones.

To be clear, conflict minerals are both horrible and, unfortunately, in most of our electronics. Few would defend them, but the call for a new law was immediately met by criticism. "There are times when the actions of do-gooders makes [sic] me want to kneel down and weep bitter tears of pain," exclaimed Tim Worstall in Forbes, who wrote a riposte to the call for the new law. This isn’t because Worstall supports conflict minerals – he doesn’t – but because he thinks that we can prevent conflict minerals from being used for 300-400 times less money. Fundamentally, this is a debate about how best to create supply chain transparency, an essential component of resource resilience.

In essence, Worstall’s solution is to regulate smelters rather than manufacturers. Because the mineral ores used to create metals have a unique "fingerprint", they can be tested prior to smelting to ensure the fingerprint doesn’t match that of mines from known conflict areas. As there are only around 500 smelters capable of processing the majority of conflict metals, it would only cost around $10m to set up a certification scheme. In contrast, supply chain transparency is expensive: the Dodd-Frank Act is expected to cost $3-4bn.

It’s a neat idea, and the economics certainly stack up. But the politics and policy don’t. Here’s why:

First, public concern matters. As "do-gooders" know, regulation creates the risk of buck-passing. At worst, it invites unethical consumer companies to accept tick box certification and look the other way when this proves meaningless. This disadvantages ethical companies and doesn’t chime with public opinion about the responsibility companies should bear for their supply chains: when the issue of suicides at Foxconn or sweatshop labour arose, the response wasn’t to call for regulation of manufacturing facilities in China or elsewhere, but to put pressure on Apple and western clothing brands. A regulator’s job is infinitely easier when they know that a company breaching regulations will face consumer backlash. The activities of smelters are effectively invisible to the public.

Second, the location of the smelters matters. As Worstall admits, the vast majority are outside the EU and, therefore, outside the jurisdiction of European regulators. Because it’s economically advantageous to smelt conflict minerals, there’s a strong incentive for fraud. We have a readymade example of what this might look like: in Shetland, a fish processor fraudulently avoided EU fishing quotas by using a "secret specially-built underground pipeline which allowed illegally-landed fish to be pumped into the factory from fishing boats, undetected by regulators." If we have difficulty policing illegal fish processing in the UK, it’s hard to believe that EU protestations will affect non-EU smelters. In contrast, business relationships span regulatory boundaries. It makes sense to regulate at the consumption end.

Tim Worstall suggests that we should adopt "the vastly cheaper way that the industry is already addressing the problem." What he doesn’t say is that this programme doesn’t "require members or their supply chains to purchase from the compliant smelter list." This isn’t a conspiracy to promote conflict minerals. Instead, it stems from the fact that smelters are invisible and without public pressure, it’s easier and cheaper to not have to reconfigure sourcing and supply chain relationships. The inability of voluntary regimes to deliver sustainable outcomes across a whole host of globalised supply chains is feeding a wider change in consumer preferences. As one of the company members of the Circular Economy Task Force said, "Five years ago, our customers where asking for recycled content in packaging. Today, they’re asking about the origin of the materials in our products."

Supply chain traceability may not be cheap, but it’s increasingly a condition for good business. Global Witness could bolster its campaign by pointing to the upside of traceability: businesses that understand their supply chains can foresee resource constraints. There’s already evidence that mining companies which report their water use across their supply chains outperform those which don’t. Indeed, much of the economic opportunity in the circular economy lies in better connections across supply chains. Rather than trying just to minimise costs, we should be designing regulation with an eye to the opportunities of more visible supply chains.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dustin Benton is a senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, leading the Resource Stewardship theme.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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