EU judges to decide on pension rights of trans woman in the UK

August 11, 2016

Earlier this week, the UK Supreme Court referred the case of a trans woman who is fighting for her right to the female state pension to the European Union’s top court, BBC News reports.

Despite having voted to leave the EU on the 24th June of this year, the UK exit will take several years to negotiate. Consequently, for the time being decisions made by the EU’s highest courts still take precedence over those made by courts within the UK. 

In the UK, women are entitled to a state pension when they reach the age of 60. For men, the age is 65.

What complicates the case of ‘MB’ – as the plaintiff in this case is known – is that she married her wife before transitioning from male to female, at a time considerably before same-sex marriage was legal, and before trans people had the legal right to change their gender.

According to the BBC News article, the couple were married in 1974 and MB began living as a woman in 1991. She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1995.

Yet it only became possible for trans people to change their gender officially with the passing of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, when they were allowed to acquire a so-called “gender recognition certificate.” 

Even so – and this is the crucial point in MB’s case –  this law was passed ten years before same-sex marriage was legalised, and at the time it was not possible for people who were married to obtain a certificate if they did not have their marriage annulled as a result of their transition.

MB, who had two children with her spouse, wished to remain married “in the sight of God,” and did not apply for a gender recognition certificate, the BBC News article reports.

Consequently, when she turned 60 in May 2008, she is said to have applied for a state pension, but to have been refused by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)  on the grounds that legally she was still a man, and would therefore have to wait until she turned 65.

This DWP decision was upheld by judges at the Court of Appeal in 2014, although some sympathy was expressed for MB’s situation. Lord Justice Maurice Kay described her as the victim of “a real misfortune” and noted that legal developments had come “too late for her to benefit from them.”

MB has subsequently requested the Supreme Court Justice overturn the lower court’s decision. Her legal representative, Christopher Stothers from the law firm Arnold & Porter, has argued that by relying on domestic UK law, the DWP’s decision contravened EU laws.

According to an article by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), MB’s representatives argued that the decision by the DWP “breached an EU directive on the equal treatment of men and women in matters of social security.”

The Supreme Court then issued a ruling, in which it stated that, “”The Supreme Court is divided on the question, and in the absence of Court of Justice authority directly in point, considers that it cannot finally resolve the appeal without a reference to the Court of Justice.”

Meanwhile BBC News quotes Stothers as saying, “This issue is a matter of principle as well as having financial consequences for pensioners.”

“Where an individual is physically, socially and psychologically a woman, as recognised by the state in their passport and driving licence, and indeed surgically, why should they be required – before the state will recognise their gender for pension purposes – to get divorced or have their marriage annulled, particularly where they and their spouse do not wish to do so and indeed have religious objections to doing so?” 

Stothers added that, “although we are pleased with the result, the slowness in getting the issue resolved is highly frustrating for the pensioners involved.”

 

Sources include: BBC NewsThomson Reuters Foundation

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South Korea accuses North of hacking official emails

August 3, 2016
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According to prosecutors in Seoul, a significant number of South Korean government officials had their email accounts hacked by North Korea last year.

An article in Asahi Shimbun reports that investigations into the cyber-attack found that between January and June 2015, a “North Korean operated group” stole the email passwords of 56 people. This included officials in South Korea’s Defence, Foreign and Unification ministries. 

The story was first reported by Yonhap news agency.

In order to obtain email passwords, Yonhap informs us that in January North Korean hackers used a free web-hosting server to create 27 phishing sites, which pretended to be portal sites run by the South Korean Foreign Ministry, universities or companies related to defence, for example.

As yet it is unknown whether any confidential information was leaked, but an investigation is underway.

This is by no means the first time that Pyongyang has been accused of involvement in cyber-attacks. 

Just a few days previously South Korean police accused the regime of stealing personal data of over 10 million customers of South Korea’s online shopping mall Interpark, Asahi Shimbun reported.

Interpark only became aware that their customer data bank had been hacked on the 11th July, when the company was blackmailed to the sum of 3 billion won ($2.6 million or €2.3 million) in return for not publicising this private information. 

The National Police Agency of South Korea asserts that North Korea’s main spy agency, The Reconnaissance General Bureau, is behind the latest attack. They said that the same codes and internet protocol addresses had previously been used in cyber-attacks carried out by Pyongyang.

According to the Japan Times, Seoul believes that military institutions, banks, various state agencies, TV broadcasters, media websites and a nuclear power plant have also been targeted by North Korean hackers in recent years. 

The South Korean Police Agency believes that the North Korean regime is seeking means of obtaining foreign currency. 

According to the South’s spy agency, Pyongyang has an army of over 1,000 hackers intent on targeting Seoul’s top institutions and officials.

Meanwhile accusations of North Korean involvement in cyber-attacks have also come from beyond the Korean Peninsula

Last year, for example, Pyongyang was accused by the FBI of being behind a major cyber-attack on Sony Pictures. This attack happened to occur as the company was preparing to release The Interview, a comedy film featuring a plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

In November of last year, the Sony system was hacked and embarrassing emails and personal information subsequently published. Later, a group calling themselves “Guardians of Peace” threatened cinemas showing the film with attacks in the vein of 9/11. 

According to BBC News, while the North Korean leadership praised the cyber-attack calling it a “righteous deed,” they also called claims of their involvement absurd and denied any responsibility.

Even before this incident, the US government had sanctions in place over North Korea’s nuclear programme. BBC News reported that in response to the attack on Sony, Washington added further sanctions.

This is thought to be the first time the US has punished another country for a cyber-attack on a US company. 

This year, meanwhile, there has been increased tension in the region following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test carried out in January and the series of ballistic missile tests which followed. 

These events provoked an escalation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, as well as individually by countries including the United States, South Korea and Japan

Sources include: Asahi ShimbunBBC News and Japan Times

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Nissan launches electric cars in China

September 12, 2014

Nissan Motor Co. has launched an electric car known as the Venucia on to the Chinese market. In doing so, it becomes the first Japanese automobile company to sell such an eco-friendly car in China – the largest vehicle market in the world.

Nissan collaborated with Chinese automaker Dongfeng Motor Co. to develop the Venucia e30.

‘With Nissan Global’s advanced technology, sales experience and know-how of electric vehicle, the Venucia e30 has been locally developed through our careful studies about market situations and consumer needs in China‘ said Jun Seki, President of Dongfeng Motor Co.

The Venucia is closely based on the Leaf electric car launched in Japan in 2010, and functions in a similar manner, despite having undergone some styling alterations. The Venucia can be fully charged in 4 hours via a household socket and is thought to be 7 times more economical than petrol models in the country. After a full-charge, the car can travel up to 175km. 

Nissan will manufacture the vehicle at a factory in Guangzhou and hopes to sell 50,000 of the models in 2018. By this time, the company also aims to have taken a 20% share of the Chinese market for electric vehicles.

The Venucia will retail at around 267,800 yuan, or around ¥4.7 million (GBP 27,000), for the cheapest model, and will be eligible for the Chinese government’s tax exemption for electric cars –  introduced to help reduce air pollution in the country.

‘I am looking forward to seeing the Venucia e30 lead China’s electric-vehicle market into the future and also to more development of new energy vehicles and the wide adoption of electric vehicles in China.’ said Seki.

Sources: The Japan Times; EV Fleet World

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Bhutan looks to Japan for help in introducing electric vehicles

July 3, 2014

The tiny Asian nation of Bhutan has a very big goal, to convert the country’s vehicles to electric power. The Bhutanese people’s culture has a deep respect for the environment, which is reflected in the Prime Minister’s decision in favour of zero emission vehicles.

Currently Bhutan’s main export is clean electricity from hydroelectric plants, which is sold to neighboring India. But most of the revenue from those sales at present goes to importing fossil fuels for transportation.

Following an economic crisis, the kingdom banned the import of new vehicles in March 2012, and subsequently imposed a “green tax” on all vehicles: 20 percent on those with engines of 1.8 liters or more, 5 percent on those below.

Prime Minister Tobgay announced his plan to reduce the country’s oil imports by 70 percent last December. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn followed this in February with an announcement of an agreement between the nation and the carmaker to provide electric vehicles for the country.

The opportunity to sell zero-emission electric cars was underscored by the Japanese carmaker Nissan’s simultaneous announcement that it had appointed a national sales company for the kingdom, named Thunder Motors. Nissan and Thunder will work together to develop localized versions of the company’s electric vehicles designed for conditions in the Himalayan nation, whose average elevation is 8,000 feet above sea level.

The first stage of the program is for Nissan Leaf electric cars to become both Bhutanese government vehicles and taxi cabs in the capital city of Thimphu.The Nissan Leaf is the most successful electric car in history, with over 100,000 sold.

Based on World Bank data for 2009, Bhutan has just 46 passenger vehicles per 1,000 people, meaning that its 742,000 citizens operate roughly 34,000 cars. Ghosn announced that Nissan hopes to sell “hundreds of cars” in the short term and “thousands” soon thereafter.

Though Nissan is be the world’s largest producer of battery-electric vehicles,  it will not have an exclusive on electric-car imports to Bhutan.

The Nissan CEO told Green Car Reports: “We welcome others, Nissan is most able to compete when buyers compare the performance, price, and customer satisfaction of the Leaf against any other electric vehicle.”

The big picture, Ghosn suggested, is that Bhutan can provide an inspiration, perhaps even a model, for emerging nations as they look toward expanding vehicle sales.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged this week that the “government and private sector of Japan will examine what we can do” to support Bhutan’s plan to introduce electric vehicles.

Tobgay is the first prime minister of Bhutan to make an official visit to Japan since the two nations established diplomatic relations in 1986. On his recent visit Tobgay said he told Abe that Bhutan wants to introduce the vehicles to help conserve the environment and to reduce spending on oil imports.

Tobgay also took the time to convey his country’s appreciation for a recently signed grants agreement with Japan for underprivileged farmers.

“This assistance has been instrumental in improving the livelihood of farmers through increased productivity, and contributing to the nation’s effort to achieve food self-sufficiency and security,” he said.

During the talks, Abe also briefed Tobgay on Japan’s intention to become a “proactive contributor to peace” through international cooperation, in the light of China’s apparent willingness to pursue claims for territory and other resources in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We reaffirmed our commitment to the U.N. Charter and its purposes, including the peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principle of international law,” Tobgay said.

 

Sources: Japan Times, Green Car Reports

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Fukushima Ice Wall Construction Taxes Workers

June 26, 2014

Construction on the underground ice wall around Fukushima is now underway.  its aim is to prevent water that’s been contaminated with radioactive materials from escaping and entering the broader water supply. The ambitious government funded project project intends to freeze the ground around four reactors, as well as other related buildings,  to a depth of 30 meters. In total, the frozen wall of earth will stretch for 1.5km and will reach temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. A series of pipes carrying coolant will be used to freeze the land. Beyond preventing water from escaping the area, the AFP reports that the hope is that it will also prevent contamination of the huge volume of groundwater that flows into the plant from nearby hillsides daily. Construction is expected to finish in March of 2015 with an expected cost of about 32 billion yen ($314 million).

In Japan ground freezing projects have already been used in the construction of tunnels and subways for short periods of time. An underground ice wall has also been used to isolate radioactive waste at the U.S. Department of Energy’s former site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that produced plutonium, but only for six years, according to the MIT Technology Review magazine.

Some experts are still skeptical about the technology and say the running costs will be a huge burden. Atsunao Marui, an underground water expert at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said a frozen wall could be water-tight but is normally intended for use for a few years and is not proven for long-term use as planned in the outline. The decommissioning process is expected to take about 40 years.

A group of reporters were permitted into the Fukushima plant last Friday to visit key working areas to tackle the radioactive water. They were accompanied by Masato Kino the Natural Resources and Energy Agency’s director for management of the contaminated water at the plant and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials.

Kino emphasized the importance of improving working conditions for the roughly 6,000 workers at the crippled nuclear plant during the tour.

“I sincerely felt the hardships workers have experienced, as what’s going on here is different from ordinary construction work in terms of the severe heat due to protective suits and high radiation level,” he said.

The water buildup is a major headache for TEPCO  and the government as they work toward decommissioning all six reactors at the complex. The contaminated water is increasing at a rate of around 400 tons per day as groundwater flows into the damaged buildings for reactors 1 through 4.

Tepco began constructing the huge underground ice wall early this month. It will surround reactor buildings 1 through 4 in an attempt to prevent more groundwater from seeping into their basements and mixing with heavily contaminated water. Under the unprecedented government-funded project, 1,550 pipes will be inserted deep into the ground to circulate coolant and freeze the nearby soil. However, the work is taking place in conditions of high radiation. “A worker is permitted to continue to do his job for about three hours a day due to legal limits on radiation exposure,” said Kino.

The scale of the project is immense. “Look at that crane! Three out of only six or seven of that supergiant kind existing in Japan are operating here,” Kino said. “The current work is dominated by construction.” In addition to the huge cranes, various kinds of heavy machinery and trucks are operating in the area, which is now a large-scale construction site. Everyone on site has to wear white protective suits and full face masks. A signboard reads “Highly contaminated water here.”

Since May, Tepco has employed a “groundwater bypass system” in which it has dumped thousands of tons of groundwater into the Pacific Ocean collected from wells dug near the reactor buildings. The utility claims the water’s radiation level meets safety guidelines.The system is designed to pump out the groundwater before it reaches the heavily contaminated area near the reactors. “We will not be sure whether this measure is working effectively until one or two months have passed,” said Kino.

An Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, has been developed to reduce the radiation level of the highly contaminated water accumulating at the plant.ALPS is reportedly capable of removing 62 different types of radioactive substances from the contaminated water, but not tritium. The system has been plagued by glitches and is still in the trial stage, with all three of its lines resuming Sunday for the first time in about three months.

TEPCO is also constructing an offshore wall of steel panels to keep contaminants from spreading further into the sea. The utility says radioactive elements have mostly remained near the embankment inside the bay, but experts have reported offshore “hot spots” of sediments contaminated with high levels of cesium.

Sources:The Japan Times,The Huffington Post, The Verge.com

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Child Poverty and Pension Worries For The Japanese

May 19, 2014

At 16 percent, Japan’s relative poverty rate — the share of the population living on less than half of the national median income — is already the sixth-worst among the 34 OECD countries, just ahead of the United States. Child poverty in working, single-parent households  is by far the worst at over 50 percent, making Japan the only country where having a job does not reduce the poverty rate for that group.

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe charges ahead with his “Abenomics” policies to revive economic growth, things look set to get harder, not better, for Japan’s working poor. This deepening divide between the haves and have-nots could threaten Abe’s vision of Japan’s economic revival

Having ramped up spending on public works projects and business incentives, the government has also moved to shore up its finances, cutting welfare benefits last summer and last month raising the national sales tax to 8 percent from 5 percent. The regressive tax puts the biggest burden on the poor, and another hike to 10 percent is planned in a mere 18 months.

For those like Ririko Saito, who lives hand-to-mouth with her daughter on an hourly wage of ¥1,080 ($10.6), last month’s tax hike has made life considerably harder. An extra ¥1,300 a month she will be receiving from the government to offset the higher costs of essentials is just not enough to avoid the repeated utility cuts.

“As it is, we can only afford discounted groceries.” Saito said. “I’m not sure how we’ll manage, but I’ll just have to find a way.”

Team Abe’s success in reversing 15 years of price declines that have hurt business confidence and investment also squeezes the poor, who cannot count on bonuses or financial profits to offset rising living costs as he artificially stokes inflation.

Japan says it plans more aid for welfare recipients, largely through job training. That, however, is little consolation because even those with jobs often live under the poverty line. The government does not officially define the “working poor,” but the number of part-time, temporary and other non-regular workers who typically make less than half the average pay has jumped 70 percent from 1997 to 19.7 million today — 38 percent of the labor force.

“The Abe administration’s stance is more about fixing things, including poverty, with a trickle-down effect from overall economic growth,” said Takashi Oshio, a professor at Hitotsubashi University specializing in social security. “There’s little political capital spent on issues like alleviating child poverty. It doesn’t garner votes.”

Some economists say a broad recovery in consumption, a key ingredient of Abenomics, may not last if more and more households struggle to hold above the poverty line. In the longer run, problems associated with poverty such as worse access to quality education, poor health and crime could increase fiscal burdens and dent Japan’s growth potential by shrinking the pool of skilled workers.

“Rising poverty leads to a wider gap in education,” said Makoto Saito, an economist at NLI Research Institute. “Japanese companies are supposed to be creating value-added jobs, but at this pace there won’t be enough people to fill those positions.”To be sure, higher sales taxes are widely seen as inevitable given Japan’s public debt is more than twice the size of its economy, and growing.

But economists say the government could limit the pain with policies that redistribute wealth better. With current social spending skewed toward pension and health care schemes that mostly benefit the elderly, Japan is the only OECD country where the poverty rate among working households and households with children rose after benefits and taxes, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Politically, it’s easier to get the understanding of the electorate since multiple tax rates would benefit everyone, not just the poor,” said NLI’s Saito.”But if effective countermeasures aren’t adopted to help low-income earners, the poverty rate is just going to keep rising.”

The majority of Japanese people are also worried about their financial future according to a recent survey by the Japanese Government which revealed that around two-thirds of Japanese aged 35 to 64 are concerned they will not have enough money to last through retirement. The Cabinet Office survey of around 6,000 people late last year revealed growing anxiety among people that savings, retirement payouts and public pensions will prove insufficient in old age.

About 67 percent said they feel they will have inadequate economic resources to fall back on after they retire, with three-quarters of that group stating their provisions are “quite inadequate.” Only 1.6 percent said they feel they will have enough money and 21.7 percent said they will have the bare minimum. Around half of those surveyed also said they want to be able to keep working after they turn 65.

The survey’s results will go into a white paper on Japan’s aging society to be adopted by the Cabinet in June.

Source: The Japan Times, the OECD

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Japanese banknotes to be adapted for the visually impaired

May 9, 2014

Japan is to begin issuing modified versions of banknotes which are suitable for the visually impaired as it attempts to adapt to the its ageing society. From May 12th, new 5000 yen ($49, £29) notes carrying holograms of a different texture will be issued by the Ministry of Finance, in order to make it easier for the growing number of visually impaired people in Japan to accurately distinguish between the different denominations of banknotes.

As well as bearing a modified hologram, the new 5000 yen notes will also be both larger and squarer than their predecessors, so that they can be clearly distinguished from the 10,000 yen notes. Takayuki Suzuki, Vice Chairman of the Japan Federation of the Blind, said, “Holograms on the old notes were small, and so the new design will make it easier for blind people to feel the difference.”

The modifications come as part of an initiative by the government to address the issue of Japan’s ageing population, which is impacting upon its workforce and economic output . As of last year, an estimated 25 per cent of Japan’s 127.3 million citizens were aged 65 and over, a global record, and a number that is continuing in an upwards trend. Japan may have the third largest economy in the world, but the Japanese government are keenly aware of the potential harm the ageing population – and consequent decrease in workforce – could bring to Japan’s productivity and output. As such, the government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are introducing a number of different programs, including the new banknotes, designed to be more inclusive of elderly people in daily society.

Suzuki’s vision for the notes is one of great expectations, but he is aware that progress may be slow: ‘We’d like to see different notes having different widths and lengths like euros, but this would be difficult as all the vending machines in the nation would have to be adjusted.’

Sources include: Japan Daily Press, Bloomberg Business

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