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.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Prince Harry: The real scandal

There’s nothing to get shocked about by pictures of Prince Harry playing “naked billiards” with a young woman.

He’s a young, single man on holiday and no doubt it was all a bit of a joke. Good luck to him. It doesn’t tarnish the Royal Family’s reputation because it really doesn’t matter one way or the other.

What is far more shocking is the refusal of the British press to reproduce the pictures – even though they are just two clicks away on the internet.

This is an absurd situation which will have us heading back to the days when the only people in the world who didn’t know about King Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson were the British public.

The traditional press is in decline and has been for years. This is in part because of the rise of the internet though it’s as much because of the parasitic monopoly position of the BBC.

The traditional press is still the place where real news is to be found first. But it has to be a free press – not subject to political interference let alone subject to fatuous Government inquiries set up to create a smokescreen for David Cameron to hide behind.

Our press is either free or it isn’t. And, these days, it isn’t. The real scandal over Prince Harry’s naked pictures is that the press has been subdued, tamed and terrified into toeing the Government line.

Whatever happened to “publish and be damned”?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

When the Twit is in the wit is out

As we go into the third and final Test of the series between England and South Africa we are denied our best player, Kevin Pietersen. The curse of Twitter strikes again.

David Cameron got into trouble simply for saying he wouldn’t use Twitter. He used a word which, in the old days, seemed pretty innocent but which is now regarded as an obscenity.

Twitter is a shortened form of professional suicide and to be avoided.

If you are not in the public eye, why is anybody be interested in what you had for breakfast, what you think of the revolution in Syria or whether some C-list star was any good on the telly last night?

Pithy comments, witty asides, smart put-downs – perhaps the Twittersphere is full of them.

Somehow I doubt it. Hardly a day goes by without some poor fool falling foul of the alleged freedom it offers us.

Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou became the first person to be kicked out of the Olympics for Tweeting.

With a hop, skip and a jump she was on the plane home after her “unfortunate and tasteless” joke: “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!”

She was also accused of backing the right-wing Golden Dawn party in Greece (mind you, so do 425,969 other voters).

If she’d been sitting in some taverna with her chums on a Saturday night, she’d have got away with it. Her joke certainly wouldn’t have got her chucked out of the Olympics.

Twitter seems such an innocent way of chatting to your friends and fans. No doubt when you are Tweeting you imagine you’re dealing with a few like-minded people.

Unfortunately, once your words are “out there”, they’re fair game.

I have no sympathy for anything John Prescott says or does but he managed to make himself more of a prat than usual when he Tweeted a message attacking Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister.

Apparently the pair have kept up a Twitter feud for some time. But Prezza gaffed when he complained about advertisements for Thai brides on the Shapps website.

It turns out the ads were generated specifically for each visitor, based on what they have previously searched for on the internet. Two Jags supposedly wanted a Thai bride.

If it were not that Lord Prescott is incapable of shame, you’d think he would crawl away and hide. Instead, he wants to become the £155,000-a-year boss of Humberside police.

His brass neck may have something to do with unconfirmed allegations that His Lordship’s witterings are actually produced by his son, David.

Let’s hope so, otherwise the long-suffering Lady Pauline might have something to say about it all.

Twitter isn’t just an elephant trap for the unwary. It’s opened up a whole new world to appalling people known as Trolls.

These are individuals who delight in being as offensive as they possibly can be.

After diver Tom Daly missed out on an Olympic medal, somebody Tweeted: “You let your dad down i hope you know that.”

This was particularly unpleasant because Daly’s father died last year of brain cancer. Daley responded: “After giving it my all... you get idiots sending me this...”

It seems the alleged Tweeter was arrested on suspicion of sending a malicious communication. Which, of course, raises the whole question of freedom of speech.

For once, the High Court made a sensible decision by clearing Paul Chambers, aged 28, of sending a menacing message after he Tweeted his frustration about Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire being shut by snow.
He wrote: “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
A joke. Not funny and not nice. But a joke. Yet he was prosecuted, fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs. Now, at least, the courts recognise terrorists don’t betray their plans via Twitter.
Despite such catastrophes, Twitter is a temptation for people who really should know better.
In many ways, Aidan Burley had a point when he complained the Olympics opening ceremony was a bit left-wing (what, I wondered as I watched, is there to celebrate about the NHS?).

Even so, you’d think the Tory MP for Cannock Chase would be wary of sticking his head above the parapet and wittering on about it being “leftie multiculturalist crap”.

This is the MP who got into trouble for taking part in a Nazi-themed stag party. You’d think he might want to lie low for a while.

Embrace Twitter and common sense flies out the window. Wits become twits. We all become half-wits.

Worse than that, we end up depriving English cricket of its star player at a crucial moment (unless, of course, it’s a South African plot).

The law is the true embodiment of everything that's excellent

There’s nothing harmful about asking a Birmingham University graduate to do some unpaid work in exchange for her dole money. Somebody should tell Cait Reilly she does not have a human right to sit around waiting for a job to come to her.

If she is a victim of anything, it’s not slavery or forced labour but of an education system which cheats young people.

Ms Reilly is the 23-year-old who – mercifully – has just lost a court case over whether she should be made to work at Poundland in Kings Heath, Birmingham.

Egged on by human rights lawyers, Ms Reilly complained bitterly about the futile work she was made to do at Poundland in exchange for her taxpayer-funded £54-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance.

She’s a geology graduate and she wants to get a job in a museum. No doubt she has been encouraged by the education establishment to believe she is entitled to well-paid professional work in exchange for her student debt.

But this country’s irresponsible universities have expanded so fast they are churning out far more graduates – especially in relatively obscure subjects like geology – than there are jobs for them.

That would be true even in a growing economy but at the moment most people are grateful for any work they can get, never mind some cushy number classifying bits of ancient rock.

So rather than labour in what she clearly sees as a menial job stacking shelves, Ms Reilly did what any self-respecting student would do and demanded her human right not to work.

She claimed being made to work at Poundland in exchange for her State benefits amounted to slavery.

For once, a sensible Judge put paid to that ridiculous claim. Mr Justice Foskett said “characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking”.

He was dismissing Ms Reilly’s claim and another brought by 40-year-old unemployed HGV driver Jamieson Wilson, from Nottingham, who was asked to clean furniture for 30 hours a week in exchange for his dole money.

This country’s subjugation by the European human rights laws has led to hundreds of bizarre cases which defy common sense – from terrorists who can’t be deported to murderers demanding the vote.

Ms Reilly and her supporters clearly take the view, so fashionable among spoilt teenagers everywhere, that the world owes them a living.
They seem to believe that a bit of hard graft or even some modest experience of ordinary, day-to-day work, is beneath them.

The Government is right to use whatever incentives it has available – including the withdrawal of benefits – to encourage people to get back to work.
It’s always easier to find a new job if you’ve got one already. If you’re unemployed for a long time you lose the will to work, you become apathetic and disinclined to make any sort of an effort.

So a “workfare” system which encourages jobless people to get reacquainted with the world of work is actually doing them a favour.
Since Ms Reilly’s case first hit the headlines, many companies have backed away from offering placements to unemployed people. They are frightened of “slave labour” headlines.

And, of course, if they have genuine vacancies, they should fill them with paid employees not a succession of State-sponsored conscripts.
But that’s a different matter. We are talking about companies giving unemployed people a chance of finding work. What could be wrong with that?

People who refuse the offer of work experience are, by definition, not seeking work. So it’s only reasonable they should be denied Jobseeker’s Allowance – the clue is in the name.
Real job-seekers will take whatever opportunities are presented to them. They won’t say that because they are a geology graduate they want to pick and choose. They don’t have that luxury.

Ms Reilly is handicapped not just because her university education has led to possibly unrealistic expectations. She’s also a victim of a legal system which encourages people to whine about their human rights.
Her case was brought by a firm called Public Interest Lawyers, which is based in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

Its leading solicitor is Phil Shiner, a committed human rights lawyer who has on his books the case of 130 Iraqis making claims against our armed forces.
He’s also suing the Metropolitan Police over their use of “kettling” in crowd control.

Inevitably, Public Interest Lawyers are not accepting defeat in the cases of Ms Reilly and Mr Wilson.
The Judge made some comment about how the Department for Work and Pensions didn’t get the paperwork right when they wrote to Mr Wilson telling him to get on his bike.

The lawyers claim that, as a result, “over the last year, across the country, tens of thousands of people have been stripped of their benefits and must now be entitled to reimbursement by the DWP”.
And at a stroke, what started off as a human rights case involving a couple of alleged victims has grown into one involving thousands. As usual, human rights laws are only good for one group of people – lawyers.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Taxing our patience

If Treasury Minister David Gauke has really never paid a tradesman in cash – as he seems to claim – he must be one of the few people in the country who hasn’t.

He believes it is “morally wrong” for ordinary people to pay cash to cleaners, plumbers, window-cleaners or gardeners.

He says: “It is illegal for the plumber but it is pretty implicit in these circumstances that there is a reason why there is a discount for cash. That is a large part of the hidden economy.”

The phrase “hidden economy” is the politically-correct way of referring to the cash-in-hand “black economy” which the Treasury claims costs the taxman £35 billion a year.

Naturally, Mr Gauke has come under attack for having a go at the likes of you and me when massive corporations and zillionaires pay next to nothing in tax.

What I find morally wrong, though, is the idea that there is something morally right about paying taxes.

There is nothing moral about tax and nothing moral about the public spending it pays for.

When the poll tax rioters wrecked Trafalgar Square in 1990, they were complaining that Mrs Thatcher’s alternative to local council rates was morally wrong. 

They took the view that the same charge on every adult wasn’t reasonable. The rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate both had to pay the same poll tax. 

Eventually the Tories accepted the poll tax offended the country’s sense of fairness and replaced it with another failed attempt to curb council spending.

The point, though, is that in the case of the poll tax, the Government had to back down because enough people thought it was unacceptable. 

This helps to show there is nothing morally right about paying taxes and that taxes themselves can be morally wrong. 

Tax is not a question of morality though there is a requirement to pay whatever the law demands. No more and no less. 

If we have surplus funds and want to do good with it, we can always donate to charity. 

We wouldn’t waste it on the Government. We all know Governments squander billions. It would be immoral to assist them in a task they are perfectly capable of doing unaided. 

It has to be said that the Minister is not quite out of the woods as far as his own record of not paying cash to tradesmen is concerned. 

What he actually said was: "I've never said to a tradesman, 'If I pay you cash, can I get a discount?'”

Of course, Mr Gauke knows all about tax and morality. Before becoming an MP he worked for top City law firm Macfarlanes, who are very hot on “tax efficient” schemes. His wife Rachel, another lawyer, specialises in corporate tax.

It’s hard to imagine either of them, in their professional capacity, advising clients how to maximise their tax bills – especially as, through MPs’ expenses, Mr Gauke made the taxpayer foot his Stamp Duty bill of £10,248.32 when he bought a home in London.

When it comes to keeping people off the dole and the economy on the move, there is actually something to be said for the “hidden economy”. 

If a builder says a job will cost £100 cash or £120 including VAT, but the tax is optional as far as he’s concerned, how much would you choose to pay? 

The £100 keeps the builder in work. He will spend the money. That will help the economy. 

For many people, the extra £20 would be too much. We might not be able to afford to employ him at all. The builder doesn’t get the work, he doesn’t spend the money, he can’t help the economy. 

The immorality is that high taxes – and a devilishly complicated tax system – actually do more harm than good. 

Low taxes would make it much less tempting for otherwise decent, law-abiding folk to do the right thing. And they would encourage tradesmen to join the legitimate economy because they would have very little to lose. 

Low taxes would stop multi-national companies from exploiting the system and basing themselves in some offshore haven. 

Low taxes would persuade rich individuals to stop using complicated systems to avoid paying huge cheques to the taxman. 

There is every likelihood that simpler taxes at lower rates would create more prosperity and bring more, not less, money to the Treasury. 

It’s not as if British Governments spend our money wisely or well. They waste billons. 

If it’s not failed NHS computer systems, it’s helicopters that don’t fly. If it’s not new fire stations nobody wants, it’s Legal Aid for terrorists, back-to-work schemes which create no jobs for the unemployed or wars we shouldn’t be fighting. 

Politicians seem to think we taxpayers will always bail them out no matter whether they deliver value for money or not. 

It is sickening to be preached at by these people. They should get their own house in order. Where’s the morality in all the waste they are responsible for? 

When politicians bleat on about morality, the only thing they are taxing is our patience.