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?