Wednesday, December 19, 2012

They are all honourable men

As I said in October: Why does everyone assume Andrew Mitchell is guilty of calling the police f***ing plebs? Have we reached the point where Cabinet Ministers are automatically assumed to be liars?
Mr Mitchell should not resign as Chief Whip unless he is not telling the truth. But he has declared to the Prime Minister and the public that he did not say the words attributed to him.
Should we not believe him? He is an honourable man.
Petty bureaucrats dog us at every turn. It can be hard to keep your composure when some pathetic jobsworth is bossing you about – often just because he can.
Still, I have always assumed that if you swear at a policeman, you’ll be arrested no matter if you are a king or a clown, and serve you right.
If the police account of Andrew Mitchell’s rant is true, he should lose his job.
But what if it is untrue? What, then, are the police up to? Are they lying? And, if so, why? To undermine the Government?
One side is not telling the truth. It may be Mr Mitchell but equally it could be the police.
And if it is the police, we should be much more worried than we might be if it’s just a grumpy Minister after a long lunch.
Not sure I have anything to add to that at the moment...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Virgin berth

Having said how appalling Chiltern Trains have become, I tried Virgin instead just days after Richard Branson's outfit won a two-year extension to its franchise.
How anyone could travel on this line is beyond me. Quite apart from the fact that all Virgin trains stink because their loos are basically insanitary, the price is beyond comprehension.
Second class return from Birmingham International to Euston (including car parking, admittedly) is a staggering £166.
It's not worth £20.
The outward journey was OK but when we reached Coventry on the way back the five carriages filled up so much it was standing room only for dozens of people.
So crammed was the train that I feared I might not actually get to the exit door in time before the train moved on.
As for everyone trying to get on the train at Birmingham International having been to the Clothes Show at the NEC, they were treated like refugees or Japanese commuters. I'm surprised there wasn't some Virgin operative employed to shove and push them all on board so the doors would close.
Why does anyone love Richard Branson? His rip-off railway is a bad joke.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Chiltern failways

It's standing room only - yet again - on the Chiltern Trains service to London. What happened to this railway? A few years ago it was the best way from Birmingham to London. Now it's overcrowded, expensive and unreliable. 

Today I tried to park at Warwick Parkway's new car park and almost crashed the car because they had not bothered to treat the top floor, which is open to the elements, despite the icy conditions.
I slipped across the top floor to the stairs lucky and thankful I didn't come a cropper and then had to pay £101.50 for a return ticket to Marylebone. That's because the train left before 9am. About five minutes before. But it stopped at Leamington Spa, we were all kicked off and told to wait for the next (cheaper, overcrowded) train. 

So here we all are, crammed in like sardines and ripped off to boot. Strangely there is no ticket collector. No doubt they will blame staff shortages but the truth is they don't have the courage to face carriages- full of unhappy passengers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Leveson's hypocrite's charter

Press freedom is under threat. Politicians, business leaders and a whole host of celebrities are desperate for more laws to bring the beast to heel.
This powerful coalition claims newspapers have run wild for too long.
But, with a few notable exceptions, show me a critic of the press and I will show you a hypocrite with something to hide.
It’s true that what is in the public interest is not necessarily what interests the public. We all like a bit of gossip but that’s not a good defence of press freedom.
Yet there is a fine line between tittle-tattle and holding our governing elite to account.
They may class some of their activities as private – but at what point is it reasonable for a public figure to close the door on “press intrusion”?
Many public figures spend years courting the press, opening up to journalists about the most intimate aspects of their lives, in the hope of selling more CDs, books and films, winning votes or gaining power.
The rich and powerful are always in danger of being carried away by their own publicity and assuming the public interest and their own interests are identical.
When their failings are exposed, they turn on the people they courted for so long.
They blame the press when their marriages break down, they get arrested for breaking the law, they lose an election or they bankrupt one of the biggest banks in the world.
True, newspapers occasionally cross the line between what we have a right to know and what we might like to know.
But sometimes it’s only then that newspapers reveal the deeper truths about those who would command our support, our respect, our attention and our money.
The long list of phone-hacking “victims” who queued up to condemn the press at the Leveson inquiry is a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and famous.
The truth is, though, that phone hacking, like bribing police officers, is illegal. It does not require new legislation to stop it.
All that’s needed is for law enforcers to do their job. Sadly, rather like the watchdogs which failed to regulate the British banking system, they have been caught napping.
There is no reason to destroy the press simply because some people – and it remains to be seen who they might be – have broken the law.
As a nation, we are lucky to enjoy a free press – and by “press” I do mean newspapers.
TV and radio are different. Don’t look to them to expose the next MPs’ expenses fiasco, for instance. And don’t expect them to break news about scandals at your local council or your local hospital.
The press is not free, of course. It is hedged in with laws governing what can and cannot be said, and when.
That’s one reason why you can believe what you read in the papers. We have to tread carefully to make sure we get our facts right.
We have to ensure we are not libelling someone, we’re not in contempt of court or maybe breaking a secret superinjunction.
And there is more to freedom of the press than the ability to delve into the lives of people who would lord it over us.
A free press is the cornerstone of a free society. Once Governments or their placemen decide what you may or may not read, democracy itself is on the slide.
We in Britain take our freedom for granted. We don’t worry about it. We don’t fight for it. Often, we don’t even use it – most of us didn’t vote in the elections for police commissioners, for instance.
Yet it’s no coincidence that this is one of only two countries in Europe which enjoyed uninterrupted democracy for the whole of the 20th century (the other was Sweden).
Press freedom ensured demagogues and dictators never flourished in Britain. Press freedom exposes crimes and scams. Press freedom keeps bureaucracies honest.
Newspapers hold our rulers to account, dissect their statements and their actions, expose their failings and encourage us to consider the alternatives.
Of course newspapers sometimes go too far. Sometimes they make mistakes. That is not a good enough reason for muzzling them.
Critics complain “they’re only trying to sell papers” as if that’s some sort of crime. Actually it is vital to ensuring a free press survives and prospers.
The press is not beholden to the State. Unlike the BBC or Channel 4, newspapers don’t depend on the taxpayer for their survival. The press is a commercial and highly-competitive animal.
This commercial freedom allows the press to stand up to bullying Governments, out-of-control multi-national corporations and self-serving bureaucracies.
The day Government stooges get the power to censor the press, is the day we all become creatures of the State not free men and women.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Leveson and the machine gun of lies

How can anyone seriously think of imposing new regulations on the press when the broadcasting media are out of control and the internet is anarchy?

MPs are queuing up to back a legal body to oversee the press – a form of censorship more common in France or some totalitarian state like China or Nazi Germany.

This they see as their chance for revenge against newspapers which exposed the all-party Parliamentary expenses scandal.

They are rubbing their hands in anticipation that Lord Justice Leveson will call for legal restraints on the alleged freedom of the press.

David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry to investigate a non-crime – the supposed hacking of murdered 13-year-old Millie Dowler’s phone by a “News of the World” reporter.

It’s now accepted the offence probably never took place. Yet the inquiry pressed on regardless. Talk about "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story".

In 12 months it cost taxpayers almost £4 million, mostly in lawyers’ fees.

The final bill will much more and will include fees for “participant victims” including Sienna Miller, Max Clifford, Ulrika Jonsson, Abi Titmuss, JK Rowling and Charlotte Church.

Self-righteous “martyrs and victims” like the hilarious Steve Coogan and the clean-living Max Mosley were joined by the versatile Hugh Grant and the peace-loving John Prescott.

They were all given red carpet treatment not just by Lord Justice Leveson but also by the BBC, which revelled in its coverage of how awful the newspapers – especially Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – really were.

Things took an embarrassing turn when Mr Cameron became personally embroiled through his close friendship with ex-News International boss Rebecca Brooks.

However, recent events have made it abundantly clear how irrelevant Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry really is.
The BBC has not been the same since Alastair Campbell and Lord Hutton crushed it over the Blair Government’s sexed-up dossier used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Corporation’s editorial independence was bullied and beaten into submission, replaced by a pointless desire to win the ratings war.

Hence the supine abandonment of “Newsnight’s” investigation into Jimmy Savile and the perverse attempt to make up for it by wrongly identifying Lord McAlpine as a paedophile.

You can’t get much more messed-up than the BBC these days – unless, of course, you are ITV’s Phillip Schofield confronting the Prime Minister with a list of alleged paedophiles gleaned from three minutes on the internet.

This desperate stunt on “This Morning” meant some of the names could be read by viewers – talk about “trial by television”.

The point is, though, that both “Newsnight” and Schofield relied on the rumour, gossip, innuendo and nonsense of the internet to do their dirty work for them.

That’s because, on the world wide web, anything goes. Many people who witter and twitter have no idea they are subject to the same laws and limits as newspapers.

They don’t realise they can be sued for libel or fined for naming rape victims – as nine twits discovered the hard way when they were each fined £624.

If a newspaper editor named a rape victim, he would be fined far more and might well get sacked.

Yet we seem to think Twittering about it is less unacceptable.

It shouldn’t be. On the internet, as Phillip Schofield’s little list showed, anything goes.

If you suggest there should be some limits placed on what you can say via the internet, you get accused of supporting censorship.

There is no doubt the web has given us all more opportunity to express opinions, discuss issues and learn from others.

And there’s no need for new regulations affecting the web any more than there is for newspapers.
Existing laws are available to deal with all the abuses found on the internet. They just aren’t enforced.

Passing off rumour and gossip as fact, or drawing other people’s attention to innuendos and suggestions, are not tolerated in print; why are they acceptable on the internet?

Contrary to popular myth, you can believe what you read in the papers. This is because they have gone to great lengths to get their facts right.

If newspapers get it wrong, they’ll be tens of thousands out of pocket, journalists will be out on the streets and their reputation will be trashed.

You cannot possibly trust much of what you find on the internet. Even sites like Wikipedia are distorted, biased, censored or otherwise “cleaned up”, often by celebrities or their PR teams.

Can you trust broadcasters? The BBC used to be the great bastion of truth; it will take years to recover that reputation.

Newspapers are not paragons of virtue. They do get it wrong sometimes. They have been known to over-step the mark, target innocent people, harass politicians and so on.

But their worst excesses pale into insignificance beside the everyday law-breaking on the internet.

Trying to close a few stable doors after the phone-hacking horse has bolted is irrelevant compared with the urgent need to tackle the abuse spreading like a virus across the internet.

Lord Justice Leveson and his band of bitter backers are busily trying to blunt the newspapers’ sword of truth while ignoring the lethal spray from the internet’s machine-gun of lies.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bellowing for Bellowhead

Went to see The Killers last week at the NEC and they were good. Went to see Bellowhead at the Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms last night and they were great. 

They’re just fantastic fun – an 11-piece folk band with all manner of instruments and invention not to mention energy and enthusiasm. 

The venue is good – standing room only, everyone near enough the stage to see what’s going on (and there’s always lots going on), sound good but not deafening. 

All in all, I would go again tonight if they were on and tomorrow. It’s like listening to a riotous circus in full swing. I don’t care what kind of music you like or how old you are, I defy you not to enjoy an evening of Bellowhead. 

What I think Bellowhead must concentrate on now is a Christmas album. All those traditional festive tunes are perfect for that Bellowhead magic.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


The trouble is that the disappearance of old-fashioned sub-editors from newspapers and websites - yes I do mean you, Daily Mail - means you get a serious of extremely basic journalistic errors more or less every day. This is getting series.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Parking mad

If you pick the right day for your Christmas shopping, you might be lucky enough to get to park your car for free.

Across the Black Country and further afield, councils are scurrying around trying to come up with special free parking deals to boost their town centres for the festive spending spree.

So if you plan to go late-night shopping in Stourbridge or Walsall, shop around and you might save yourself £2.50 in parking costs.

The same applies for most of the Saturdays in December.

Councils seem to think that cutting the cost of parking on the busiest shopping days of the whole year will somehow keep their ailing town centres in business for another 12 months.

Their attitude is that they are doing us a tremendous favour by suspending charges for a few days.

Councillor Judy Foster, who is responsible for transport in Dudley, pretty much said as much.

"The suspension of car park charges is seen as a goodwill gesture on behalf of the council and an added incentive for shoppers to visit the borough on the run up to Christmas," she declared magnanimously.

A goodwill gesture? "Goodwill towards whom?" you may well ask.

Is this free parking supposed to be a Christmas present to hard-pressed shoppers from their generous local authorities?

Can it really be the case that local authorities still don't realise they are systematically killing off their town centres?

If they had any good sense, never mind goodwill, they would realise their policy of trying to stop us from using our cars was a major factor in the long, slow, painful decline of Britain's High Streets.

Maybe not as short-sighted as giving permission for out-of-town retail parks and superstores but every little helps.

It is no exaggeration to say many town centres are caught in an agonising death spiral. And parking charges are one of the reasons why.

Out-of-town centres with plentiful free parking are obviously a big factor.

So is the internet. Why bother to go to one of the last remaining CD or book shops when you can download the same thing from the comfort of your own home?

Why traipse round clothes shops when you can order what you want on line and send it back if it doesn't fit?

To make matters worse, many shop landlords bought their properties at the height of the boom.

Now they are stuck with half-empty rows of buildings which are declining in value. So they increase the rents.

That, in turn, prices some retailers out of the market altogether. Small shopkeepers and national chains are both caught by declining sales and rising rents.

This madness leads to more and more charity shops, which don’t pay business rates, and boarded-up buildings.

Things have got so bad Britain's shopkeepers have now set up the Distressed Retail Property Taskforce.

The British Council of Shopping Centres, the British Retail Consortium and the Property Bankers’ Forum plan to spend six months trying to find a way out of this crisis.

Councils should be involved as well. For decades they have seen their biggest shopping centres as lucrative, pain-free sources of revenue.

Business rates and car-parking charges have helped fund many a spendthrift local authority.

Yet with so many shopping centres are in terminal decline, the best they can manage is an occasional "goodwill gesture" for a day or two before Christmas.

The true attitude of local councils is summed up in a recent report for Wolverhampton Council.

It says: "The Council also has a responsibility to promote economic development and regeneration in the City Centre and it recognises that the provision of accessible, high quality car parking is an important factor in the economic success of the City."

So far, so good. But then it says: "At the same time, the Council needs to promote the effectiveness and use of public transport to reduce the reliance on cars and to limit the creation of more car parking spaces."

This attitude would be fine if shopping centres were booming. But they are not. Half the time, they're virtually deserted.

Don't be fooled by the pre-Christmas crush. It's not usually like this. Councils should be haunted by the fear that some of their centres are becoming ghost towns.

The "goodwill gesture" of suspending parking charges in the run-up to Christmas clearly shows councils believe these taxes play a part in deciding where people do their shopping.

It proves they think free parking is a key to boosting their town centres and, therefore, that they are aware their charges deter shoppers. Actually, their policies set out deliberately to alienate motorists.

The conclusion is obvious. If they want to save their town centres, councils should invest in plentiful, accessible, free car parking.

On its own this won't reverse the decline but it would help. And it would give councils a chance to cling on to the taxes and jobs lost every time another shop closes. The cost of lost parking revenue is nothing compared with the high price of longer-term decline.

Councils should realise free parking is for life, not just for Christmas.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Vielen Dank

It’s taken a long time but Gisela Stuart has at last come round to the view that we’d be better off out of the EU. For a German-born Labour MP who was a member of the committee which drew up Europe’s constitution, that’s quite a turnaround. Let’s hope some of her colleagues listen to her words of wisdom and experience.

Roads for the rich

Road tolls rear their ugly heads again under a new plan to force motorists to pay more for using motorways. Amazing how one Government’s least popular plans come to be the next Government’s bright idea. Petrol tax – though it’s too high – is already the best way of raising money from motorists because the bigger your car and the further you travel, the more you pay.

What election and why?

Usually I’d support anything which enlarged democracy – but not in the case of the elections for police chiefs. I’ve had two emails from the Home Secretary urging me to vote but not one word through the letterbox about who the candidates actually are. Why is anybody going to bother to vote? Who are the candidates? What are the differences between them? What real power will they have? What good will they do? Who knows? Yes they have manifestos, some represent parties and they all have lots to say. But this is an election nobody wants and nobody cares about. And I don’t blame them. 


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

They know where you live

After Dudley and Birmingham councils are banned from using the DVLA database because of widespread abuse, when are we going to wake up to this fact that Big Brother is watching us at every turn? What chance patient confidentiality once they compete a national NHS database, for instance?

Puffed up

Every year or so, a group of self-appointed experts calls for drug use to be made legal. These self-same do-gooders would outlaw cigarette smoking, ban drink-drivers for life and impose a massive "fat tax" on fast food. I fear they are probably right to say we lost the "war on drugs" years ago. But if you legalise the use of drugs, surely you have to make their supply legal too. And where do you draw the line between "soft" and "hard" drugs? 

Lions and donkeys 

They couldn't run the armed forces. They wasted billions on defence systems we don't need or don't work. Now they are hiring out their services as lobbyists for foreign arms manufacturers. Are there no depths or top brass won't sink to? We lost in Afghanistan years ago. Talk about lions led by donkeys. 

Welcome to the real world 

MPs should be encouraged to have jobs outside Parliament not forced to give them up. A cap or even a ban on outside earnings would mean simply more full-time professional politicians with less and less connection with the real world. So much the worse for the rest of us. 

Yes or no to in or out? 

The Tories can fiddle about all they like with with bits of the EU but the only referendum worth its name would be a simple one: In or out? 

Abandon ship 

If they make that tedious twit Lord Turner, the euro-loving ex-CBI boss, governor of the Bank of England we may as well all abandon ship and move to Greece. 

Do you still need them? 

As we celebrate 50 years of the Beatles and the Stones prepare for more concerts, we should rejoice that John, Paul, George and Ringo gave up while the going was good. Anyone paying a grand to see the Stones must have more money than sense.



You can't trust Wikipedia, it’s a PR spinner's playground.

Go no further than the entry about Ofgem, the fatuous politically-correct, utterly toothless watchdog for the gas and electricity industries.

Not a single word of criticism is chronicled - not even Labour's pledge to scrap it, never mind criticism of its abject failure to bark, let alone bite, as our bills go up and up.
Check out its entry and you will see it's a bland corporate statement disguised as a reasonable analysis of the quiescent quango.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What if Mitchell is not lying?

Why does everyone assume Andrew Mitchell is guilty of calling the police f***ing plebs? Have we reached the point where Cabinet Ministers are automatically assumed to be liars?
Mr Mitchell should not resign as Chief Whip unless he is not telling the truth. But he has declared to the Prime Minister and the public that he did not say the words attributed to him.
Should we not believe him? He is an honourable man.
Petty bureaucrats dog us at every turn. It can be hard to keep your composure when some pathetic jobsworth is bossing you about – often just because he can.
Still, I have always assumed that if you swear at a policeman, you’ll be arrested no matter if you are a king or a clown, and serve you right.
If the police account of Andrew Mitchell’s rant is true, he should lose his job.
But what if it is untrue? What, then, are the police up to? Are they lying? And, if so, why? To undermine the Government?
One side is not telling the truth. It may be Mr Mitchell but equally it could be the police.
And if it is the police, we should be much more worried than we might be if it’s just a grumpy Minister after a long lunch.

Conservatives and conservation

When 700 people take to the streets in protest at a planning application, you'd think someone in authority might pay attention.
Alas for the residents of Hagley, their campaign is unlikely to make a blind bit of difference.
Hagley is just one of the early victims of the Government's planning free-for-all which will concrete over large swathes of countryside.
What baffles and enrages many people is that while the bulldozers prepare to dig up the Green Belt, nothing is done about the blighted, derelict wastelands we see all over the Black Country.
How can it possibly make sense for green fields to be turned into housing estates when there are hundreds of acres of brownfield land just begging to be reclaimed?
The people of Hagley are right to complain about the 175 houses to built on land sold to Cala homes by Lord Cobham.
Of course the development will put more pressure on schools and doctors and clog up the roads even more. That's what happens whenever and wherever new homes are built.
You can't really blame Lord Cobham for cashing in. It costs a fortune to run Hagley Hall and the family have been flogging off bits of the estate for decades.
The problem is that now, more than at any time since the post-war building boom, the planning system is entirely in favour of new development.
Nobody seems to care any longer where it should be allowed or who it should be for.
In its desperation to get the economy moving again, the Government is bending over backwards to accommodate the demands of property developers.
If they say they stand more chance of turning a profit by developing a green field than reclaiming some bomb site in Bilston then local councils are expected to roll over and play dead.
Indeed, the Government has created an incentive - some might call it a blatant bribe - to make sure local councils do as they are told.
It's called the New Homes Bonus and it was invented to prevent the policy of "localism" undermining Whitehall's plans to concrete over the countryside.
Localism is supposed to mean that decisions are no longer taken by anonymous civil servants and here-today-gone-tomorrow Ministers.
It's supposed to mean decisions are taken by local people for local people, in other words, by councillors.
But Ministers know that, left to their own devices, councillors can't be trusted to turn ploughshares into bulldozers.
Some councillors may get it into their heads that their job is to represent the views of the voters and that would never do.
So, while in theory regional planning policies have been scrapped, the truth is that the Government is pursuing the same old war by other means.
And one of those means is the New Homes Bonus.
Last year, councils trousered £432 million in New Homes Bonuses, which works out at £2,710 per new house built. And there's plenty more where that came from.
Thanks to this scam, Bromsgrove Council, which is responsible for deciding whether to back the Hagley homes plan, will make about £470,000 just for doing what the Government tells it to do.
Do not under-estimate the power of this sort of chicanery. Who knows? Maybe just before the next local elections, they'll announce plans to spend £200,000 on a new children's playground in Hagley and everybody will be suitably grateful.
Ironically, this policy was introduced by Grant Shapps when he was Minister for Housing. He has now been promoted to Chairman of the Conservative Party.
He definitely deserves that job because now he will have to try explaining his ludicrous housing development policies to the very Tories who will be most badly affected by them.
For, as we know, Conservatives tend to live in leafy parts like Hagley and I shouldn't be surprised to find a majority of those who took to the streets last Saturday had voted Tory at the last election.
And, of course, they are hardly unique. All over the West Midlands, Tory-voting settlements face unwanted expansion.
Yet the inner city areas which truly need reviving will continue to be neglected.
It's hardly surprising. If a developer can start with a clean sheet - a green field - it's much easier, quicker and cheaper to build a housing estate than it would be to reclaim the unwanted site of some former factory.
Yet in an era when everyone is supposedly committed to the environment, it's obvious which kind of development is "green".
The Government's job should be to make sure our millions are spent where they can do most good.
Places like Bromsgrove should actually lose money if they approve green-field developments while any bonuses should be devoted to helping developers clean up wasteland to make it suitable for new housing.
And then there are the half a million homes standing empty up and down the country - thousands of them owned by the very councils now succumbing to the Government's bribery.
Why not refurbish them and put them to good use before a single tree gets chopped down?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Self-serving surveys

If you believe the hype, shoppers are delighted that supermarkets and big stores are installing more and more self-service checkouts.

The latest survey by the retail industry claims we love the convenience of them – supposedly they’re quicker and we avoid long queues.

The industry would have you believe these dreadful machines are so popular we’ll all want to use them.

Apparently 95 per cent of us have negotiated our way round self-service machines and endured the “unexpected item in the bagging area” nonsense, suggesting the end is nigh for the checkout girls of Britain.

But look at the small print and you discover – even in a survey for The Grocer magazine – 55 per cent of shoppers still prefer dealing with people not machines.

Will our preference for people make any difference? Of course it won’t.

The industry thinks that, as more and more shops leave their tills unmanned and force customers to go self-service, we’ll grow ever-more delighted with the triumph of machine over man.

The giant retailers – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, B&Q and the rest of them – are profit-making enterprises which will do all they can to reduce costs and boost profits.

D-I-Y checkouts mean fewer staff. One employee can supervise four machines.

In theory, that means retailers could axe three-quarters of their checkout staff and still push through as many customers per day as they do now.

I pity the staff at these stores. They have no choice but to help impose checkout machines on their customers.

They have to explain why the scanner won’t work, they have to authorise the sale of alcohol, they have to help when the card machine refuses to accept payment and the computer whines about unexpected items.

They could do all this for us if they were sitting at a till. Instead, they have to brainwash us into thinking this system is somehow a desirable improvement.

And all the time they know the more successful they are in conning us into believing self-service checkouts represent the future of retailing, the more likely it is they will soon be out of work.

The stores and even Usdaw, the shop-workers’ union, claim this is not a cost-cutting exercise. We shall see.

Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, says: “I love self-service checkouts in the same way I love ATMs, ‘pay at the pump’ and airlines’ on-line check-ins. 

“To me they mean efficiency and speed and, as designers continue to make the technologies friendlier, the balance is tipping ever-more firmly in their favour.” 

In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies: “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?” 

Admittedly I am a Luddite. It’s not so much that I mistrust technology, it’s more that I mistrust the people who try to force it on me. 

You know for certain that, whatever the drivel the industry pours over its self-serving self-service checkout initiative, it’s all about cutting costs. 

For years after the banks introduced hole-in-the-wall cash machines, I made a point of walking into the branch with a plain, old-fashioned cheque book and requesting my money in the traditional way, from a girl behind the counter. 

This went on until the day when staff at my local Barclays, less than 100 yards from home, demanded two forms of identification before they would let me have any cash.

I was stunned. A simple cheque guarantee card wasn’t enough any longer. And they knew me anyway – I lived just down the road.

I pointed out that their approach was professional suicide – the more they forced customers to use machines, the fewer bank clerks Barclays would need to employ. 

But that, of course, was the point. The staff at my local Barclays were not to blame. The company had clearly adopted a policy of alienating Luddites and forcing us into line. 

Since then, I have been forced to use a cash-point machine like everyone else. And I admit they are convenient, quick and generally safe. 

But I still resent being made to participate in the banks’ conspiracy to cut costs – especially when they could employ dozens of staff for the price of one crooked speculator’s massive bonus. 

The same pattern is now being followed by big shops. The more D-I-Y checkouts they install, the more difficult and time-wasting it becomes to queue up to deal with a human being. 

That forces us to use the machines whether we want to or not. Now 95 per cent of us have used the infernal things – I’m in the remaining five per cent – it’s only a short step to getting rid of checkout staff completely. 

And if they are so wonderful, why does John Hannett, General Secretary of Usdaw, point out that “self-service checkouts have become another flashpoint that can lead to shop-workers being abused, threatened and even physically assaulted”? 

He says: “Frustrated shoppers experiencing a problem using them can often take out their anger and frustration on the nearest shop-worker and this is both unfair and unacceptable.” 

I decided some time ago to boycott shops with self-service checkouts. But if it carries on like this, I could be starved into submission.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Playing politics with child poverty

Today I received another of the many missives I get from Save the Children asking me to increase my donations. At the moment, I have not cancelled my standing order but I am now looking for a similar – but more worthwhile – recipient of my very modest monthly standing order. Suggestions gratefully received. 

Meanwhile, here’s my e-mail correspondence with the alleged charity now run by Justin Forsyth, Gordon Brown’s ex-spin doctor. It is no coincidence that the charity is now campaigning about child poverty in this country.
e-mail to Save the Children 

I hear you are embarking on a new campaign to relieve child poverty in the UK. 

I have sponsored kids through Save the Children for more than 30 years but I am so outraged that they have descended into domestic politics I will cancel my standing order.  

Compared with real poverty, there is nothing to get upset about. This is just a calculated descent into politicking and I despise it. 

Can you offer me any reasons why I should not abandon Save the Children and transfer my modest donations to a charity which knows the difference between genuine poverty and the mild deprivations some children suffer in this country?

Yours truly, 

Nigel Hastilow 

Their reply: 

Dear Nigel 

Thank you for your email. I am extremely sorry to learn that our recent UK appeal has led you to question your kind support of Save the Children. 

It is simply not the case that this is a political campaign. We have a long history of challenging governments on the decisions they make that affect children and Save the Children has also campaigned and worked to tackle UK poverty for many years. Child poverty is an issue which all political parties need to act urgently on and as a leading children's charity it is right that we speak out on children's behalf - children who have told us how tough times are for them.  

Save the Children works anywhere in the world where we see injustice to inspire breakthroughs for children; we save children’s lives, fight for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. The UK is no exception. We believe no child should live in poverty or have their life chances ruined by deprivation. The countries where we are working with children dying from easily preventable diseases tend to be amongst the poorest in the world. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world and children should not be growing up missing out on basic essentials with their parents skipping meals and in the most extreme cases going hungry so their children can eat. We are working to break the vicious cycle which keeps people poor - generation after generation, because every child born in to poverty is losing their chance of a full and productive life. It is never the child’s fault.

However, we are an international charity and work in over 120 countries with some of the world's most vulnerable children. The majority of our work is overseas in developing countries. This is where the majority of the funds we receive are spent and we will continue to work with the poorest children across the world. This reflects our position as a charity for all children, everywhere. 

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the support you have given in the past, which will have made such a positive difference to children’s lives. I do hope that you may still be able to continue to support our important work in the future. If you do have any further comments to add, please do not hesitate to contact me on 020 7012 6400 or email 

Kind regards,

Heather Roberts
Supporter Care Adviser
Individual Giving and Legacies
Save the Children, 1 St John's Lane, London EC1M 4AR

My reply:

How can you possibly claim “It is simply not the case that this is a political campaign” and, in the very next sentence, say: “Child poverty is an issue which all political parties need to act urgently on”?

I really do resent the idea that you are squandering money in this country when there is real, genuine, murderous poverty in other parts of the world. I think it is a disgrace.

How many children on the point of death could have been saved by the money you have already wasted simply on publicising this campaign?

Their response:

Dear Nigel 

Thank you for your email. I am sorry that it has taken longer than I would like to reply to you.

Save the Children is an apolitical organisation and as such we are not motivated by political affiliations. We will always act based on the needs of children, working to ensure that this mandate is carried out regardless of the political or cultural circumstances. However, in order to achieve this mandate it is necessary to work with national authorities, including governments and politicians, as they have the power to make the big changes that children need. Therefore, as mentioned we are calling on all political parties to act. We carry out campaigning and advocacy work because this tackles root causes, rather than just responding to the immediate need.  

When a government takes an action towards supporting the needs of children we applaud that action and likewise we challenge decisions which have a negative impact. Last year, we undertook a massive campaign for a boost in vaccine funding from world leaders. Leaders from around the world gathered at a summit for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation in London. They had to decide whether or not to fill a $3.7 billion funding gap that would provide vaccines for 250 million of the world's poorest children. As a result of our campaigning, pressure and advocacy work and the hard work and determination of our amazing supporters, a fantastic $4.34 billion was secured. This will save 4 million children's lives, which I hope you agree is a phenomenal achievement. More information on this can be found on the following link You may also like to read about our recent successes in encouraging David Cameron to hold a Hunger Summit during the Olympics, which will also be in your latest edition of ‘Children Now.’ We made positive comments on both of these outcomes not because of any political prejudice or sympathy, but purely for the reason that this funding and attention will have a dramatically positive impact on the lives of millions of children. 

We also undertake campaigning and advocacy work overseas. For example, in Sierra Leone 1.5 million children and their mothers now have access to free healthcare after an announcement made by the government of Sierra Leone in September 2010 and implemented from April 2011 following efforts from our advocacy and campaigns team which highlighted the plight of mothers and children who were not using health services due to user fees.


Save the Children has worked in the UK for over 90 years and throughout our history we have made huge breakthroughs for children. For example, following a report by Save the Children on the importance of school meals for children’s nutrition and development, school meals and milk became free. Today, over half of children living in poverty live in households where at least one parent works. Currently the cost of childcare is high – on average £177 a week – so there is little money left over for other living costs. Save the Children is campaigning for more government childcare support to make work pay for the poorest families and we are also encouraging more employers to pay the Living Wage which would give families the ability to provide the essentials for their children,

These are just a few examples of what Save the Children have called for in order to make sure that government policies do what is best for the interest of children. By having no political affiliations we can be critical of government policies, both here and overseas in order to improve the lives of children all around the world. You have also mentioned that you are concerned about the money which is being spent on our programmes in the UK and other activities and you are very welcome to read a thorough breakdown on how we raise and spend our money by downloading our latest Annual Report from our website. If you would prefer a hard copy of this, please do provide me with your full address and postcode and I will put one in the post for you.

Thank you again for getting in touch with us and for sharing your concerns with us.

Kind regards

Heather Roberts
Supporter Care Adviser
Individual Giving and Legacies
Save the Children, 1 St John's Lane, London EC1M 4AR


Wednesday, September 05, 2012

U-turn please, Mr McLoughlin

When the first Coalition Transport Secretary got the job he declared: “We will end the war on motorists.”

That was Philip Hammond. He stayed in the job 17 months – something of a record for a transport minister – before becoming Defence Secretary and being replaced by Justine Greening.
She lasted less than a year and she was so busy worrying about Heathrow Airport, the West Coast Main Line and the high-speed train from London to Birmingham she may not even have noticed the war is about to break out again.
Perhaps the new man in the job, Patrick McLoughlin, will do something to prevent it becoming too bloody. But don’t hold your breath.
Motorists will be under the cosh once more when the Government hands over new powers to local councils outside London to impose fines for a range of petty misdemeanours.
In 2004, London councils won the right to fine motorists for offences like driving in a bus lane or encroaching on a yellow box.
And what fun they have had ever since. Drivers in London coughed up £50 million in fines last year alone as 800,000 of them fell foul of the council transport snoops. Please note, that doesn’t include the £300 million they make in parking fines.
Now greedy councils up and down the country think they can boost their tax-raising activities by whacking new £60 fines on unsuspecting drivers.
It’s a nice little earner, especially when some mistakes are induced by the confusion caused by the councils themselves when they tinker with the road system.

In two-miles of Birmingham road, for instance, there are three stretches of bus lane. One is out of bounds to cars all day, another until 9am, the third to 10am.
Confused? You will be when you fall foul of the council CCTV and get a nasty little letter in the post demanding money with menaces.
It is true some drivers – not you and me, obviously – are a menace to other road-users and we’d all be happier if they were priced off the roads.
But I wouldn’t trust the average local council to discriminate between really abominable, inconsiderate, selfish so-and-sos and the rest of us.
This is just a money-making exercise, another way of raising taxes. Already the terrible 20 councils are talking to companies selling number recognition cameras.
The Big Brother State has got your number and it knows where you live.
This will all be justified in the name of road safety but in reality the unblinking eye of the CCTV camera will track your every manoeuvre and minor mistake.
Mr Hammond may have declared a truce in the Government’s war on motorists but that hasn’t stopped councils from pursuing the fight with all the resources at their disposal.
One of the obvious results is that we are wary of driving in and out of town or city centres. If we need to go shopping, it’s cheaper and wiser to try somewhere out of town.
So, on the one hand, councils wring their hands about the decline in traditional shopping areas while, on the other, councils hasten their demise by making life miserable for motorists.
Why bother to drive into a town centre when you can buy what you want out of town in a shopping area where they don’t charge you for parking – let alone fine you a fortune for over-staying your welcome?
And why run the risk of falling foul of a bus lane or a yellow-box junction when you know the Big Brother is itching to land you with a £60 shopping tax?
Giving councils more power would be a disaster. It will just drive out economic activity – shoppers, workers, businesses, anyone who could steer clear of these predators would do so.
Of course, one excuse for all this is that the councils want to force us out of our cars and onto public transport.
They claim it’s greener and we’ve all got to do our bit to reverse global warming (you know, the sort of climate change which – they keep warning us – will lead to long, hot, dry summers when the only thing that will grown in the garden is the occasional cactus).
They refuse to accept that, for many people, public transport is simply impractical and, for many more, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
This time the Government will be waging a proxy war through local councils. Strangely, 12 of the 20 local authorities on the list of those demanding new powers are run by the Labour Party: Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plymouth, Reading, Salford, Sheffield, Southampton and Oxford.

Of the others, Lib-Dems run Bristol, Cambridge, Portsmouth and Bath and South East Somerset while the Greens run Brighton.
Only three Tory councils want to pursue this vendetta: Southend on Sea, Guildford and Canterbury.
Yet a Conservative-led Government is happy to encourage these money-grabbing authorities down the path of self-destruction.
It may seem reassuring that, in the West Midlands, only Birmingham seems to want these powers.
But be warned: The Department for Transport has written to all the other councils in Britain inviting them to leap on the bandwagon too.
I can’t help thinking this is a policy in urgent need of an immediate U-turn, even if it’s in violation of the Green Cross Code.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Reshuffle - say hello, wave goodbye

Bad news: Justine Greening becomes yet another Transport Secretary to last less than a year in the job. The average over several decades is 11 months in post. Now what for the appalling follies that are HS2 and Heathrow expansion?

Ken Clarke to have some sort of economic overview? A sinecure, maybe, but for this Euromaniac to have any sort of a role which could have an effect on our relations with the EU is fraught with danger.

Andrew Lansley goes from Health – both good and bad. Good because his alleged reforms are a fiasco, bad because after all that agonising Cameron plainly has no faith in them. Can we expect the whole thing to be ditched now?

Maria Miller gets to be Minister for Free Tickets. Lucky her. Also good news that she happens to be a woman. That’s how to get top jobs in this administration.

Caroline Spelman loses her job. Even being a woman couldn’t save her.

David Laws gets a Government job. Good news for anyone tempted to nick money from the taxpayer: Fraud pays.
What's the point of it all when George Osborne and Vince Cable stay put?


Friday, August 31, 2012

Cunning Fox, Sly Bailey

Whoopee-doo. The boss of a failing chain of CD shops is taking over as boss of a failing chain of newspapers. Nothing succeeds like failure.

Simon Fox ran away from HMV earlier this month straight into the arms of Trinity Mirror.

When Mr Fox joined HMV its shares traded at more than 160p. Now they are just a few pennies each.

He sold Waterstones for £53 million and the Hammersmith Apollo for £32 million but profits under his tenure have fallen from £80 million to minus £10 million. And the company has debts of £168 million.

It’s not all Mr Fox’s fault, of course. Sales of music, originally the staple diet of HMV, have all gone on-line (assuming the music is actually purchased, of course).

The company has tried to find other ways of ensuring its survival but it’s still closing shops all over the country.

So the wise people at Trinity Mirror have recruited the cunning Mr Fox to run their newspaper group, a company which has not exactly covered itself in glory during a dismal decade under the sly Mrs Bailey.

While she was raking in the money, the company was doing the opposite. Her decade wiped out 90 per cent of the value of the shares.

Again, this is partly because of the impact of the internet, though not by any means exclusively.

Trinity Mirror shareholders, employees, readers, advertisers (and pensioners like me) must be delighted to discover that the company’s solution to its woes is to bring in someone with so much experience of managing decline.

I notice the latest newspaper circulation figures show the Birmingham Mail is selling 42,252 copies a day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Soak the rich and we all drown

 What exactly does Nick Clegg think he would achieve if he were ever to be let loose on the nation's finances and impose a wealth tax?

Soaking the rich may seem like a simple solution to the country's financial woes and you could even argue that, if we are indeed, "all in it together", there is some merit in bringing this home to the extremely well-off.
They have, after all, remained relatively immune from the consequences of the banking crash and the Labour Government's spending splurge.
But the rich really are different. If they don't want to pay taxes, they don't have to. They can escape any noose the plodding Mr Clegg might tie for them.
A tax on the rich would simply encourage the wealthy to flee the country. They would take their millions elsewhere.
As a result, the economy would suffer even more than it is suffering already.
I must say I thought the politics of envy went out of fashion a generation ago but clearly I was wrong, it is alive and well and gnawing at the innards of the Liberal Democratic Party.
The solution to this country's woeful Government spending crisis does not lie with squeezing more money out of the well-off - even assuming, which I sincerely doubt, that they would hang around long enough to allow the selves to be squeezed.
The solution requires lower taxes, not higher ones, coupled with a real attack on public spending, not the half-hearted and pointless pretence put up by Chancellor George Osborne and his Lib-Dem sidekick Danny Alexander.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Virgin on the ridiculous

I was standing in a jam-packed Chiltern Railways train to London the day Virgin lost its franchise torun the West Coast Main Line.

I wasn't travelling on Sir Richard Branson's route because it is too expensive. Though, to be fair, they usually have enough seats to go round.

When an elderly lady joined the train at Banbury I felt obliged to give up my seat even though the carriage was full of texting teenagers.

There was also one youth hogging two seats – one for his expansive posterior, the other for his expensive guitar.

He didn't have a ticket for his musical instrument (I asked) and refused to shift it. Naturally the railway staff steered clear of our train, where at least a dozen passengers were standing in my coach alone.

Such is life on Britain's railways.

Yet rail travel is at its most popular since the golden age of steam in the 1920s, despite the high fares.

It's a strange business, though: part public service, part profitable enterprise.

Weep no tears for Sir Richard Branson as he rages over losing the West Coast Main Line franchise. The service wasn't particularly good and it was astonishingly expensive.

Our railways are there for capitalists like Sir Richard to exploit. Squeeze as much cash as they can out the passengers and gullible Governments and walk away if things go wrong.

That's what happened on the East Coast Main Line where National Express, promising to pay£1.4 billion to the Government, soon handed back the keys because it couldn't make a profit.

Sir Richard claims FirstGroup has over-bid for the West Coast line, won't be able to meet its obligations and its service will eventually hit the buffers.

FirstGroup says it will pay the Government £13.3 billion or so over the 16-year life of the franchise compared with Virgin's best offer of £11 billion.

Sir Richard's career has been sustained on a diet of sour grapes so we needn't take his moans too seriously.

But the episode does reveal once again how bizarre our railway business has become.

When British Rail was privatised, the Government offered franchises to run different routes.

But the infrastructure all owned by a separate company, Railtrack, which was scandalously nationalised in 2002 and became Network Rail.

This system doesn't make any sense. Railway companies should be responsible for the whole travelling experience from safety to sandwiches.

Instead of raffling off its most important railway line on the off-chance it will bring in a few billion quid over a decade and a half, the Government should sell the West Coast line completely.

Let Virgin or FirstGroup or some other entrepreneurial business take on the whole thing –track, stations, signals, trains, services, the lot.

At the same time, it should scrap all controls over the cost of travelling by train and encourage more competition.

At the moment, fares rise according to Government decree and taxpayers subsidise the entire system by about £4 billion a year.

Incredibly, this is – after inflation – four times as much as we used to spend in the bad old British Rail era.

To reduce its subsidy the Government has decreed fares must rise by 6.2 per cent next year. Some commuters will see their fares rise 11 per cent or more.

This has caused the usual outcry but it's actually a very good thing. There can be no sense in a two-way traffic in money between the Government and the rail companies.

More to the point, most of the price controls are imposed to keep down the cost of commuting in and out of London which, of all the places in Britain, does not need a commuter subsidy.

Nobody is forced to work in Londonyet they get paid extra for this dubious privilege.

Commuters should pay the full, hideous price of travelling to the office instead of expecting the rest of us to subsidise London's workforce.

An end to rail subsidies in the South East would benefit the rest of Britain by persuading employers, and their staff, there are better places to live and work.

Commuting into London is an unpleasant experience which involves standing in a sweaty coach with your nose pressed up against someone else's arm-pit as the train lurches, jerks and sways from station to station.

Of course with so many Tory MPs in the South East and London Mayor Boris Johnson now the most popular politician in the country, we can expect a battle to protect these subsidies.

But it can’t possibly make sense for the taxpayer to pay for London’s commuters.

This doesn’t resolve the basic problem of flogging off franchises in the hope the winners will actually deliver the revenue they’re promising the Treasury.

We need real rail reform. The alternative is a system lurching from one crisis to the next.

And there is something bizarre about the fact that, as revenge, Sir Richard is planning to introduce flights from Manchester to London for £95 – about £200 and two hours less than the second class rail fare.

Perhaps he'd like to try a service from Halfpenny Green as well.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The King's new clothes

Yesterday I argued that it was absurd the British press was the only section of the world’s media prevented from showing the naked pictures of Prince Harry – so congratulations to The Sun for breaking ranks. 

The pictures themselves are beside the point. The issue is whether our newspapers – cowed and fearful in the face of the Leveson inquiry – should be able to do their job without fear or favour.

Sadly both fear and favour play their part in the shaping of tomorrow’s papers and always will.

But when the State tries to suppress information which is available to the rest of the world – and to anyone in this country with access to the internet – it is necessary for someone to expose the absurdity of the Government’s position.

It’s as if the King has got no clothes on after all.