Friday, 31 December 2010

Unusually High Volumes of Bullshit

This will be my last post of 2010. I have mulled over a couple of options for today's topic. Should I end the year on a positive note, a forwards looking constructive piece for the good of all humanity? Should I perhaps try to sum up 2010 as it meanders towards its sunset with some form of literary montage post of all this last year's events? No, I don't have the former in me, nor the skill for the latter, plus I wasn't paying attention for much of 2010. Instead, I shall have a quick word or two about the lies we hear on the phone.

The last few years have seen a proliferation in 08 numbers. Almost every company of any size whatsoever has one it seems. Whilst some providers (mobile and landline) are starting to include 0845 and 0870 numbers in free minute packages there are thousands of pricey 0844 and 0871 numbers in operation. As the revenue from 0845 and 0870 dries up, many companies are migrating to the money-spinning alternatives.

The first lie here is the unspoken one - that they don't tell you they make money out of your calls. It is ironic that most complaints numbers benefit the company against whom you are complaining. They share the profits with the provider from your expensive session of frantic button pressing in a desperate attempt to just, please, speak to a human.

The second is when they say that they don't earn any money from your call. If you are calling on one of these numbers, money is being made over and above your normal tariff. If it isn't going to the company directly, they aren't doing the provider a favour out of altruistic feeling. They will receive benefit in kind from the provider, so they are getting paid whatever they say.

Then the third and worst lie is the one you have definitely all heard : "We are experiencing higher than usual call volumes so apologise for the delay". The 08 number rules are vague, so they can leave you on hold as long as they want, and boy do they want. They want you to listen to Greensleeves over and over again. They want you to tap in 17 different buttons from the cascading menus "so that you can be put through to the appropriate department" and then end up speaking to the same person anyway.

Now we all know many of the people behind these companies are a bunch of thieving scoundrels who would sell their own grandmothers for sixpence, so this should come as no surprise that they charge you to call them. I want all the businesses with these numbers to make a New Year's Resolution. If they won't revert to free numbers, I just wish they would have the decency to say from now on:

"Hello, and thank you for calling (insert name of morally bankrupt organisation), we value your call. We value it at 3p per minute. Thousands of you call to complain about our shoddy services daily, so factor in your inevitable wait time and do the maths. We have. Thanks. We really value your call. Today we are experiencing the exact same volume of calls as usual. We even fired a couple of call centre workers to bump up our profits from your wait time. Please listen to all of the following options because it might make the wait feel shorter. Rest assured, whatever your selections you will then be placed in a queue if not arbitrarily cut off and your query will be inexpertly misunderstood by our resident semi-trained baboons. We value your call. Give us your money. If you want to complain about this complaints procedure, please feel free to call back, again and again."

What are the chances? Happy New Year...

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Whopping Prices

Well, I have taken a couple of days to recover from Christmas excesses and am just in time for my New Year cold. Therefore all Christmas cheer and feelings of goodwill to all men have been replaced by a feeling of general misanthropy. In my sights today are the fast food chain conceited enough to crown themselves - Burger King.

I am a much healthier eater than I was at university in my halcyon days of youth. I manage to avoid fast food in general these days, but when I used to cave into my baser desires, it would always be McDonalds rather than Burger King who would get my custom. Famished on the motorway from a day of car shopping today, we pulled into a service stop and I remembered why...

McDonalds know what they are and what they do. They provide pretty rubbish burgers, pretty rubbish surroundings and normally pretty rubbish service, but that is the essence of fast food, so they charge accordingly. It's about £4 or so for a burger, chips and drink meal. Burger King also provide pretty rubbish burgers, pretty rubbish, well you get the idea, it's all basically the same. However, a similar meal there will set the Rick Waller in you back about £7.

Now if you pop to your local pub or even a restaurant you can probably find a burger for £8 or £9. They vary massively in quality, but generally you can do ok for under a tenner. Now, my point is obvious, Burger King seem to have ideas above their station - or Little Chef (Thief) Syndrome. They serve up fast food for near restaurant prices. You may be wondering why I care. More likely you have stopped reading, but I shall continue on the off chance. I am not a share holder. To my knowledge none of my friends or family are either. I care not that a cursory glance at the ledgers of 'the big 2' show The King falling further behind Maccy D's as profits tumble. Perhaps they would do well to be less delusional in their pricing policy, but their share price matters not a jot to me. Why then does it exercise me?

Twofold, I think. Firstly, I don't like people dressing crap up as something it isn't. You might say, that's advertising. You might say one doesn't have to shop there, nobody does, so market forces should separate the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, but it does not stop their arrogance annoying me, nor has it yet hastened their bankruptcy despite the welcome downwards trajectory of their profits. The second reason is that they seem to be ubiquitous on travel routes. They appear to have almost a monopoly on motorway services and airport fast fooderies. So if ever on the hop I feel the need for something hot, unhealthy and absent of nutrition I am forced to pay a bunch of crooks a Prince's ransom for it. I may as well lick soot from my exhaust pipe and give ten quid to FIFA.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Liberal Talk

After an intense period of stuffing turkeys - them into my mouth rather than bread and herbs into them, for I am no chef - I have returned to the blogosphere. Christmas has filled me with festive cheer and so, no ranting yesterday, and no raving today, merely an observation.

Is it not odd that politicians (and others) complain so much when caught saying things off camera that are embarrassing to them when made public? Now there is a time and a place for secrecy, and certainly in Government and especially in coalition, there will be many views that are somewhat disparate from the party line. This is the essence of democracy. However, bugging the cabinet room, or Lib Dem HQ is very different from reporting what an MP openly says to his constituents.

The latest and most famous person to be 'caught out' is, of course, granfatherly Vince Cable. Now I think I should rather, as a member of the electorate, hear what Vince really thinks rather than what he is willing to release as a canned statement. Surely that is more likely to represent the man and his politics rather than those of the machine, or what under the last maladministration I believe we would term 'spin'. So do I believe that he really means what he says when he knows he's being recorded and assume he is lying to his constituents at surgeries to shore up his Lib Dem credentials? Or do I assume what he says privately to his constituents is true Vince, and his public utterings to be statements approved by the People's Commissariat for Policy but totally detached from the feelings of Mr Cable? Well, you can pick the one you prefer, but that isn't really the point.

My point is, if there is one, secreted latent in the centre of the piece rather than uttered proudly in the first line is as embarrassing as it is for politicians to be exposed like this, this is hardly deplorable investigative reporting. If you are a politician and you say something 'ex camera' regardless of whether it is 'on camera' expect to have to defend it. At the end of the day, these people only have themselves to blame. If they decide to take a ministerial position, they will likely have to publicly support from time to time a position they do not favour. If they don't like it, they have the option of the backbenches where they can stand by their beliefs rather than Government policies except when whipped. Differing opinions are not an issue provided the Government are mature and composed enough to not let them overtake the Governmental issues they concern. The last one was not - let us hope for all our sakes this one can nip this liberal talk in the bud. Otherwise old Vince will end up with far more time for his Werther's Originals...

Friday, 24 December 2010

RMT: Rail Morons' Twaddle

Now you may have already read (here and here) my musings on trade unions. A little more on that today though. The Rail Union, RMT, has confirmed that it has rejected Network Rail's latest pay offer. The offer was for a whopping 5.2% pay rise for operations and customer services staff next year and an RPI pay rise in 2012. Interesting.

I find myself again using the phrase 'at a time of national and international austerity', but apparently some people still are yet to open their eyes to the big picture. RMT General Secretary Bob Crow, hewn from the same block as Red Len McClusky, has decreed that "with VAT going up to 20% in January, power and utilities bills going through the roof and expectations that inflation will continue to rise we are looking to make sure that we achieve a pay deal for Network Rail ... staff that protects and improves their standards of living in this time of economic and political instability."

A nice idea. In other words Bob is saying "the economy is rebuilding slowly from a recession, and everyone is going to get a bit poorer but I think my lot are special, so we should get huge pay rises instead, because we can't have RMT members suffering like everyone else." Yup, it appears Bob knows there was some form of economic crisis, he just hasn't grasped the relationship that might have with future pay deals for him and his boys. The fact that pretty much everyone has overspent, public and private alike and a great deal of restructuring and budgeting is necessary lest various institutions, private (Network Rail) or public (HM Government), go down the drain, has passed him by.

Yes, Bob is another of those who would take a chainsaw to the golden goose for a bit of press, some classist grandstanding and his ludicrous salary and then wonder why there were no more golden eggs for him and his union afterwards. It seems there are swathes of society who do not feel the need to do their bit, whether it's actually going out to get a job, or accepting some of the pain necessary to save the country or individual companies from ruin. The latter are most obviously prevalent in these overly strong, militant trade unions.

So, when you next read about strike action from RMT, or the like, have a look at what they are demanding. And it is demanding, not asking, for they hold their companies to ransom like terrorists. The right to strike is a great privilege and should be used accordingly. Instead, it is being abused and the people perpetrating these acts are a disgrace to the workers, the public and the politicians who fought so bravely for that privilege. It was designed as the last resort against an oppressive and unfair employer, not as the first resort to getting paid over the odds when everyone else is taking pay cuts.

Again, I would ask you to remember the Armed Forces (who will also still suffer the VAT increase, rising energy bills and inflation, and many of them on their return from 6 month tours in Afghanistan) are on a 2 year pay freeze, without so much as a squeak of dissent.

This has to stop. Trade Unions are no longer built for purpose and they are led by utterly inappropriate personnel. They have the ability to be great institutions for legitimate and productive representation of workers. The workers must save their unions from themselves though, for no matter what action is taken to attempt another breaking of the unions from the outside, unless they understand why it has become necessary to break them, why they are out of line, they will regrow again the same archaic beast.

Coming in with unrealistic wage demands when all around are tightening their belts is not the action of a union that is there to "fight for its members' interests." Remember this when the picket lines form again, when your lives are disrupted for the sake of trade union greed. Then, if you can't get to work because the trains aren't running, maybe grab a placard and picket the picketers. They must be shown the nation is not with them on this one.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Local Government Prize Turkeys

After a few days stranded in deepest, darkest Devon I have returned, full of confidence that the world will now be a better place for all the snow. The community spirit you will have no doubt seen as strangers help push cars out of snowdrifts or help the elderly across a particularly icy street will have soaked into even the most mean-spirited. No more will the petty men and women of this world feel it necessary to compensate for their own personal failings by inflicting utter garbage rules and regulations upon us, the unwashed masses.

Predictably, not a bit of it. I read over the weekend about one of the most ridiculous, illogical, and sadly typical decisions to be passed down from a local authority. In this case, the culprits are East Sussex county council. They have decreed that one of their lollipop men, who helps children cross the road by Forest Row Primary School near East Grinstead, must stop wearing his festive-themed hats because they are a risk to ... anyones guess ... yup .. . health and safety. Brilliant. He is not even the first. Another lollipop man was banned 2 years ago in Hampshire from tying tinsel to his stop sign again for "health and safety reasons". On this most recent occasion, the hats in question were the pictured turkey hat, and a jingle bell jester hat.

So what is the reasoning behind this decision, assuming indeed they even bothered with making any up? The argument is that the hats might distract motorists. The man is wearing a 5 foot long luminous yellow coat with reflective stripes. His very job is to attract the attention of motorists. They see him, they see his sign, they stop, the children cross. It's pretty simple. We have already gone to extensive lengths to make him visible; he would be a pretty rubbish lollipop man if no-one saw him and so mowed through the grey and non-reflective mass of drearily dressed school children.

On a wider scale, where are East Sussex planning on stopping? Are billboards to be banned? They distract drivers; it's their job. How about road signs? Or Police Incident signs - they have loads of writing on them that could distract a driver. Are there to be pavement wardens, patrolling night and day to ensure nobody is wearing anything distracting? I have a good mind to go and stand outside Forest Row Primary School in my own turkey hat. What about particularly attractive or particularly ugly lollipop people? What if you can't take your eyes off their distinctive looks and run over half of Mrs Smith's Reception class? Surely we should discard all but the average looking applicants lest someone get distracted. Oh, but that would be discrimination, wouldn't it? Oh, we are in a pickle...

The point is, this is clearly a totally ridiculous ruling. It must have passed through at least one and probably many more people who are in receipt of public pay. If someone came up with such a logic-defying, futile, irritating, stupid decision in any normal job in the private sector, you'd think they might lose their job. Instead, the council defend their decision: "we don't want to spoil anybody's fun, but the safety of the children, particularly on the roads, is a top priority."

In case I haven't made my position clear enough, every single person who was involved in this decision should be fired on the spot with no severance pay, no pension, no nothing (I understand that grammatically the last part would mean 'some something' but I liked the flow; go with it). This decision obviously won't make anyone safer (there goes the ludicrous justification) and it cost a lot of public money. We should be able to fire these people on the grounds of not having the ability to do their job, as displayed by their brainless actions. They shouldn't be moved to another department, they shouldn't be shielded by the council, they should just be out. I even feel sorry for Messrs Health and Safety, bane of my life as they are, because I can guarantee you East Sussex county council couldn't point to the legislation which actually backs their crap decision up.

The problem is, they are all bullet-proof. They are the faceless masses employed by local authorities the country over. They make people drag their rubbish 1/2 a mile because the road might be too slippery for their garbage men, they make the elderly lift their gas bottles out of the house because the delivery men might injure their backs lifting it down one 3" step. You know these people, you've seen these stories. They are all around you. And you paid for every single one of them, a hundred times over.

So, next time you hear a local council whining about having its budget cut and complaining that this would mean they would have to reduce services and how this is an attack on the weak and poor, remember where they are choosing to waste their money in the first instance. There is fat in system everywhere; as with your Christmas turkey, just because you're cutting, it doesn't meant you're cutting out anything useful.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful

I spent some quality time with my car today - just me, a billion tons of snow ... oh, and half the motoring population of the UK in perma-gridlock. The quality in question was the quality that only quantity can bring. 6 hours to drive 60 miles. So, we light upon the focus of today's post. Is it the inability of any Government of the day to deal with snow in this country? Is it the fact that our 'torrential dump' of snow is utterly mundane in other countries who seem not to grind to a halt when the big Pete Doherty in the sky sneezes? Is it the various truckers attempting to recreate their favourite scenes from Strictly Come Dancing on Ice Factor, sliding sideways down the arterial routes of the country?

Nope. It's tough. I sympathise with the Government. I sympathise with the truckers. Yes, we could indeed have a fleet of 100,000 snow ploughs waiting for the 4.6 days a year that it snows and we could buy all the salt and grit on earth. But then you couldn't have A&E, or primary schools. Perhaps the maths doesn't quite marry up, but you get the point - you can't do everything with limited means, and boy are our means currently limited.

No, the focus of today's splurge of literal anger are thoughtless motorists. Now I am not suggesting we ban anyone not in a snowmobile from the roads or all have to take special snow driving tests or have winter tyres from November to February. Snow is a bit tricky - I had a couple of moments myself today, wonderful motorist that I am (in my totally unsuitable 2 wheel drive child's go-kart of a car) - and people can easily get caught out. No, it is what some people do when they have been caught out.

Much of the delay I had today, and many others with me, was from sheer weight of traffic driving at a sensibly cautious speed. Much of it came from queues behind the unfortunate pirouetting cars, trucks, vans and assorted others who came a cropper. Hey-ho, I can't complain at those. I should have settled into a never-ending pint of cider in the local pub in front of the log fire. Unfortunately it was trying to get back to said pub that plunged me into the fray.

There were though some totally avoidable delays. It is at the architects of these that I now target my irrepressible ire; those caused by cars abandoned with an attitude so whimsical you had to double take to check that the Rubenesque Emmerdale woman wasn't about to hop out and tell you that you had been framed. At several points I queued to crawl past a car abandoned so far from the kerb an average orienteer would still require an ordnance survey map to locate said verge.

If you decide to call it a day and trek to the local hostelry / lie down naked in the snow for the Good Lord to take you, why not try a little bit to get your car out of the way first? Look around - everyone else has parked out of the way, but you seem set on creating your own version of the Senna S at Interlagos. Surely you don't want to add another half hour delay to all the poor buggers with better tyres / more moral fibre / a reckless abandon / a hire car? So, my message of festive cheer today is enjoy the snow at home if you can, go easy on the Government, and if you return to your car after the thaw and realise you are 'one of them', be a little more considerate next time. Remember, we're all in this together...

Friday, 17 December 2010

Student Loons Company

One quango that most students will have had contact with, aware or not of its status as a quango not a private company, is the Student Loans Company. The majority of students in this country take out a loan from the Student Loans Company (essentially from the Government). The SLC has been going 20 years now, yet still it is having issues with its basic remit.

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham wrote in the SLC Annual Performance and Resource Agreement Financial Year 2010/11 that "we cannot afford another delivery failure". Yet, this is exactly what has happened. About 100,000 undergraduates started university this year without their funding in place, this on top of the similar debacle the year before.

The SLC does four main things: assess an application...wire the money...(pause)...start collecting repayments...stop collecting repayments. I can go onto any number of apparently legal websites to "get cash, quick" if I "have too many bills this month" - moneygrabbingbastard.com, i'mgoingtotakeyourhome.com, or howisthisevenlegal.com if I remember their names correctly. In 15 minutes I can have money in my bank account and my balance with the 'company' will start gently accruing interest somewhere north of 2500% per annum, or 5000 times the Bank of England's current interest rate. Once you've paid back your loan (assuming you can), they stop taking your money (or take your first born).

Now, it's certainly in their interest to be good at this - it is their job. Yet the SLC, who do the same thing for students can't get money their 'customers' over a course of months, and seem to have no particular system in place for stopping taking graduates' money. I was one of many graduates, a few years back for me, who tried in vain to only pay off what they owed. I still get letters from SLC letting me know my account still has an outstanding balance (because they haven't managed to get it back from HMRC), despite paying off the full amount through PAYE years ago. Months of phone calls to HMRC and SLC managed to get blame shifted left, right and Chelsea but I still ended up paying several months more than I owed and many more months before they reimbursed me. I was not alone.

My point in comparing the poisonous loan shark websites to the SLC is that the SLC is a non-elected Government body and the other a profit-making machine but both with near identical processes. It is indicative of the malaise and inefficiency within the non-market threatened public sector that an organisation with such a simple remit can continue to fail so spectacularly at a process which is handled with inestimable ease by sharp operators of the internet back streets. Maybe before we ban these awful sites that play on those poor of pocket and of judgement, we should ask them to teach our public sector a few things.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

We Don't Need No Education Education Education

Just another quick one on student demonstrations. Demonstrations of their own idiocy that is. Some of supposedly the smartest students in the country have been up to some of the stupidest things these last couple of weeks. Students from Oxford University and others from the city took over the Radcliffe Camera. For those of you not familiar with the city of dreaming spires, this does not mean they have nicked Harry Potter's Nikon. No, in an almost unheard of act, students have gone to a library. And stayed for longer than 10 minutes.

Yes, it seems a group of students thought the best way to show they wanted to study was to pitch up without their books, disrupt those there to study and hold a meeting (after they'd had a party, of course). There were a couple of enlightening statements from some of the 6th formers among the demonstrators. One put forth, "we care about the library ... we have a reasoned argument which we are getting across in a mature manner." Yes, I've always felt wearing animal masks and breaking into libraries where university students are studying just reeks of maturity.

Her comrade in arms, undoubtedly accidentally, hit the nail squarely about its head; "nowadays everybody gets a degree, you need one." Therein lies the problem - everybody gets a degree. To quote one of my favourite films, The Incredibles...

Mother: "Everyone's special"
Child: "Which is just another way of saying no-one is"

By encouraging such a large proportion of school leavers enter higher education, we turn a higher achievement into a par one. Not necessarily a bad thing, if all those with a degree really have a higher education - that is one which is worth the time, effort and money to the student in question and John Q Taxpayer picking up most of the bill. The problem is by flooding the job market with applicants with degrees, many of questionable worth, we make not only the applicants with useful ones seem less special and harder to find, but we unrealistically raise the entrance criteria for the rest. Many many jobs in this country now either advertise they require a university education, or will almost certainly favour a university educated applicant where 20 years ago they would not have done.

We see the same in A levels. We apparently have to create A* grades, or top students have to take 6 or 7 A levels. Is this, like the mass influx to university, because everyone is just getting cleverer and cleverer? Of course not, ask the employers of this country and you will generally hear the same story of average numeracy, literacy, and competency waning. Universities are having to do foundation courses in the first year to catch people up who simply didn't know what was previously assumed A level knowledge. Nobody is getting cleverer, we are just dumbing down all of our national educational benchmarks to make it seem that way, and primarily we have Labour to thank. "Education Education Education" - clearly the point we missed was that they clearly meant quantity not quality.

If there is little change in the quality of the output (and certainly not a distinct upward trend), surely the massively expensive (individually and nationally) increase in higher education has proved pointless. Many graduates are doing the same job school leavers were doing 20 years ago. Not only does this mean many of those graduates have probably wasted a lot of time and money (theirs and ours), but it also puts at a disadvantage those who choose to enter the job market at 16 or 18 who are competing for the same places.

University should be accessible to all, but it doesn't mean everyone should take it up. I believe one of the benefits of recent university admissions policies has been a move towards a more meritocratic entrance system. There is still a lot of work to be done on both sides (schools and universities), encouraging non-traditional applicants, and finding the funding to support those from poorer backgrounds (which extends well into the middle classes). However, if Britain wants to remain in the top leagues for further education, the wheat must be separated from the chaff. Britain should be proud that higher education is an elite system - that is one which selects the academically best in the country, the ones with the most potential, and makes them the best in the world. It should never return to the much-disparaged elite system - one which selects on the basis of class, connections or money. We have moved a long way, but the only way to keep university education meaningful in this country is to pare it down, and remember that elitism is something to strive for as long as you are talking about the right one.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Trade Union Tantrums

As promised, but no doubt not eagerly awaited, I shall herein say a little more about trade unions. Before we get into the nitty gritty of modern day trade unions, we should glance back to their origins. Here you find the reasons behind their creation (naturally) which are crucial in assessing their place and behaviour in today's society.

The prevalence of low-skilled jobs in the industrial revolution meant that employers were able to hire pretty much anyone to do a job. So, a worker had little bargaining power as it was easier to fire them and hire someone else than accede to the employee's demands. Employment law was virtually non-existent, and certainly not biased in favour of the poor. There was normally no course of legal appeal. There was no access to widespread media (the court of public opinion) in which to shame the employer. Indeed, the general mores of the time would have meant any such complaint would likely fall on deaf ears. Losing one's job was worse than than it is today. There was no welfare state, coupled with lower living standards, meaning losing your income could well set you and your family on a rapid spiral to destitution. You get the idea - you've all read Oliver Twist I am sure. The point was that employers could do what they wanted and there was little the employee could do about it. Speak out and you lose your job, and with it in many cases your life.

Out of this imbalance grew the concept of trade unions; a collective voice to speak where lone employees were before drowned out. Sounds sensible enough, noble even. However, times have changed; There are better living standards and a safety net in shape of the welfare state. Losing a job does not generally cost a worker their life. Employment law has improved out of all recognition from the point of view of the employee. Most workers are unlikely to be illegally sacked and are able to appeal through the law courts if they feel they have been. There is certainly an argument that these changes in employment law have gone too far. Fair employment law should be fair equally to employer and employee alike and many more employers than employees probably now feel they get the rough end of these laws.

I witnessed a case in point a few years ago. An utterly underqualified and useless individual was in charge of a department where I worked. Her rather important department functioned terribly due to her maladministration. People pointed it out to her and tried to suggest ways to improve said department. She then signed off sick with stress. For 3 years. On full pay. How can you still be stressed by a job you no longer attend? She then tried to take the company to an employment tribunal for bullying - stating among other things that people telling her that she was bad at her job and that she should improve in areas x, y and z was bullying. Indeed, her boss ringing her up every few months to see if she was well enough to come back to work was also apparently bullying. What happened? Was she eventually sacked? Of course not, she was moved to another department and they settled out of court with her. Brilliant. Now we don't want a return to Mr Bumble's Dickensian-style employment but the scales have perhaps tipped the other way. That may be a topic for further discussion (with myself).

Now we have looked at the evolution of trade unions we can return to how they fit in in today's world. There are still 'small people' and 'big corporations'. Because of this, the concept of trade unions as a collective voice still makes a lot of sense. They work as an organisational tool, a forum for discourse, able to capture the mood of the trade and to canvass opinion. However, it seems to me today's trade unions are totally out of touch with reality. To them, strike action has become their first, not last resort, and their demands are ludicrously inapt. It appears they believe if they are striking, they must be right and everyone must be on their side. They could hardly be further from the truth. Listening to trade union spokesmen complaining at the moment is like watching a young child throwing a tantrum.

The tantrum metaphor works (though I say so myself) quite well: The child wants a new and very expensive toy for Christmas - let us say a Buzz Lightyear action figure. Unfortunately, its parents are not doing quite so well in the recession. Cutbacks have been made all over the household budget. Father had to accept lower pay at work to keep his job. Family holidays have had to be kept in Britain rather than abroad. Parents don't dine out anymore, and they shop at Aldi rather than Tesco. Regardless of this, the child still wants his Buzz Lightyear toy.

The point that I am approaching in a manner as subtle as a Frankie Boyle joke, is that even with a backdrop of national and international austerity, union after union has chosen to demand higher wages, better working conditions, more perks and definitely none of the savings that are vital for the country's economic survival.

Take BA for example. On the back of £500M losses in 2008/9, and a global economic crisis, BA reduced the cabin crew numbers from 15 to 14 (or about 6-7%) on long haul flights. They also froze their pay for two years; the pay incidentally which was already about double the industry average. The Civil Aviation Authority published data in 2009 showing an average BA cabin crew salary to be £29,000 compared with £20,200 at Easyjet or £14,400 at Virgin Atlantic. The same comparison for pilots showed £107,600, £71,400 and £89.500 respectively. The cabin crew managers aboard the long haul flights (who earned in excess of £50,000) would now have to push the odd trolley too in cost saving measures.

The company was in dire straits, and would go on to post £500M losses for 2009/10 also. The threat of budget airlines, the general economic crisis and the archaic civil service-esque structure of its company were sending BA under. What happened? Did the overpaid waiters and waitresses thank their lucky stars they still had lucrative jobs or did they throw their toys out of the pram and demand their Buzz Lightyear toy. Well, you already know, but as simplistic as it sounds I can think of no better comparison than the tantrum throwing child, either unaware of its surroundings or uncaring of them, its mind set solely on its own personal gain.

Equality in employment law is a welcome thing, but there is no place in today's society for selfish, socially-oblivious, militant trade unions. Speaking of militant, the armed forces took a 2 year pay freeze with CSR and will see larger reductions in personnel than BA over the coming years. Striking? I doubt they would even if it was legal. Perhaps trade unions should take a lesson out of their book.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Classification of a Spade

I was gardening today. I turned some soil - used a fork. I trimmed the borders of the flowerbeds - used an edger. Then I dug in a new shrub - used a ... nope can't say it. It is now wrong to call a spade a spade; I just checked. The Howard League for Penal Reform have declared that calling someone who has committed a criminal offence, an "offender" is "insulting and demeaning".

Yes folks, Frances Crook, the ironically named head of said League maintains it is an "insulting" term which demeans individuals. Apparently it is "easy" for politicians to treat some sections of society as "other" and less than human. Quoi?

Yup, she goes on, "someone who commits an offence is not an offender, they are someone who has done something." Yup, that something is commit an offence, hence offender. Where is the sub-human treatment there?

Let's see what the dictionary says - "offender (noun): a person who is guilty of a crime" Cambridge Online Dictionary. Thought so.

She elaborates (as you might expect) "The action does not define the whole person. They may also do good things and they will certainly fit into other categories that can offer a different definition like parent or friend." OK, so let me get this right, if an action does not define the whole person, we can't use it. So, if the person who has committed an offence fathers a child, he is a father. But wait a second, that 16 1/2 seconds of coital joy doesn't define the whole person! What about the other things that he has done that define his life? He might want to be called a friend. Or perhaps he's rather proud of his criminal enterprises and thinks offender describes him quite nicely. He made a sandwich last week so perhaps he should be a chef. No, they are, of course, all wrong. According to Ms Crook, you may not use any descriptive noun based in the facts of a subject's life, unless you can find a word that describes everything they have ever done in all of their life. Otherwise it's insulting. Barking.

Ultimately Ms Crook seems to have an issue with the English language. It is no more insulting to call someone who commits an offence and offender than it is to call me a blogger or you an internet user. I'm not suggesting that every tag must stay with you all your life; when it comes to crime, if you commit one, you're a criminal. Go to prison, you're a prisoner. Come out, rehabilitated and you deserve a fresh start. So then neither of those tags apply - but that doesn't mean it was wrong to apply them before. If all people who had committed offences were called something rude or demeaning, she would have a point, but they are not, it's just the English language, so she does not.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

Saturday morning. Slightly worse for wear. Shall leave the heavyweight political points of the day to someone else. This morning we shall talk about bus lanes. This is not the standard moan about the M4 bus lane; annoying as it is to watch the 1% of traffic that qualifies for it cruise past your near-stationary car, you have to go down to two lanes at some point to get into London. No, today I shall moan about bus lanes in general, but specifically in London.

As most of you are probably aware there is a plethora of bus lanes in London, and between them, a myriad of different timings when the general driving public can use them. Boris had suggested he was going to rationalise these varying rules before his election to the High Dukedom of London, but there has been no movement in that department. The variation in timings will certainly catch unaware or unfamiliar drivers out, but that's not really my main problem with the bus lane rules.

When bus lanes are opened to traffic they are used for two things: parking or creating an extra lane. What town planners seem to have failed to grasp, is that one bus lane cannot perform both these functions at the same time. Look at a motorway with a broken down car in the inside lane. One car parked in the extra lane pushes all the traffic out of that lane. Regardless of the ability of drivers to use the third lane to get to the blockage, they still have to queue to get through the two remaining lanes; in essence, that lane has become a car park, a pavement, irrelevant.

All over London there are bus lanes opened up for use as an extra lane for 90% of their length, with sporadic parking bays of 2-3 car lengths. Pointless - the mad dash for freedom up the inside lane right up until the next parked car. If the addition of an extra lane will be fruitless (e.g. there exist other single lane bottlenecks which will eradicate its benefit) open it all for parking - the whole length, there's little enough parking available in London as it is. If the addition of an extra lane will help (e.g. it feeds into a similarly wide road, or takes another lane of traffic to a major junction), make parking in it illegal - the whole length, because one parked car screws us all.

I'm sure the Department of Transport has some great chaos theory-based calculations or something equally ingenious to test new traffic-calming (wonderful oxymoron) measures (like a miniature scaled London with ants for cars). However, for me this one's pretty simple - let the wheels on my car go round and round for once.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Protest Protest

It is interesting to listen to "student leaders" today. I seem to remember there was much television watching during my years as a student. I hasten to add that I merely heard about this television watching by chance when being again forcibly ejected from the library after closing hours, so assiduous was I in pursuit of my studies. My point is that these students seem to think yesterday's peaceful demonstrations went a little like this:

Thousands of flower-wearing, peace-loving students descended upon London (having definitely all sought permission to miss their studies which they clearly deem rather important) to embark upon a peaceful protest at student fees legislation. They all kept to the rules agreed with the police, kept to the agreed route and generally behaved themselves with such delicate manners that people of London went into the streets to ask them if they'd like to come in for tea and perhaps marry their daughters. In an act of pure, unwarranted evil, the police then charged into their midst and gave them all a jolly good whopping. Vive la résistance.

They must have been in a different march, and since not managed to happen past a plasma-filled Currys shop window (they couldn't possibly own televisions, they can't even afford to pay for their education). Yesterday's protest was a disgrace - worse even than the previous attempts at peaceful protest (if indeed it was really attempted). That the police acted with such restraint is frankly laudable. The mindless violence and wanton vandalism that was perpetrated by a significant part of the march was criminal, plain and simple, and should be prosecuted accordingly. Being on a protest march, or being miffed at something are not excuses to commit crimes. They were not incited by police, they were inciting violence themselves, on a widespread and organised scale.

If any normal citizen were to act like that they would expect to be stopped with proportionate force. If my friends and I were to go around my village tonight burning cars and smashing windows, then I would expect a policeman to arrive. If I were to then attack him I'd probably expect to be hit, outnumbered and in danger as I have put him. Onlooking residents would not think that heavy-handed. Yet that is what happened many times over in London yesterday and some people have the temerity to suggest this was unfair violence visited upon the students by a vicious police force.

I shan't go so far as to say anyone deserved their injuries - the rule of law does not hand out physical punishment for the crimes that were committed - however they certainly did their best to put themselves in harm's way. The students have a point, but it will be drowned out by these hooligans. I am against the new legislation, but there is no place in modern democracy for this idiocy. The "student leaders" should realise whilst this type of protest will gain them more coverage than a peaceful protest would have done, they will alienate more support than they will gain.

Oh, and attacking the Prince of Wales, as unassociated with this legislation or supportive of future generations as you could find, beautifully typified the entire sad episode. If this is the level of intelligence displayed by those attending or aspiring to attend university, it may be as well to knock the whole of higher education on the head; we clearly need to do some more work at primary level.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Somewhere, Over a Rainbow

Well it's certainly nice to see that in failing to understand basic economics, Britons are not alone: The French have rioted over the raising of the pension age to a tad above 30. But then they'd riot if breakfast was late. It is their raison d'ĂȘtre - a revolutionary lot. The Greeks have also been on the warpath at the rescue budget. The most recent nationality to throw their hat into the ring / toys out of the pram is the Irish.

The French are, of course, the odd one out there. They, like Britain, are taking pre-emptive action lest they end up in the sovereign debt crisis Greece and Ireland find themselves in.

Just in case anyone has missed economics 101: if you (country/business/person) spend more than you have, for every year from now to eternity, you will eventually become broke. People will stop lending to you as the interest payments drown your income. You either need to earn more or spend less. For people that's fewer holidays/Jimmy Choos or taking on a second job, for countries it's reducing public spending or increasing tax revenues.

You may have already read (here and here) that I am a little irritated by the cries of anguish at the unfairness of moving towards an affordable budget. Perhaps, though, it is not surprising that there are such complaints at the measures our Government has taken here. If even in the face of the bankruptcy of their country, the Greeks and Irish (not all of them, but enough) still think it's wrong to try to balance the books, what hope have the British of realising its necessity still some distance off? Lets just hope we never get there and if we do, Britons realise (unlike the protesting Irish) there is no cuddly leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow to help us.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Local Council and its Rubbish Service

I pay my income tax. It's not an altruistic thing; a computer does it for me to avoid the moral dilemma of whether or not to lie to the taxman. I do, though, have to send off an eye-wateringly large amount to my local council once a year. As the banking genius who invented switch (remember that) discovered, people don't mind spending money if the folding greenery never touches their sweaty palms, and the reverse is true too; if you have to fork it over, it hurts. Now when I get a meal in return for my hard(ish) earned readies, or a pair of warm and colourful socks, it eases the pain. You have to look a little harder, though, for what you get in return for things like taxes, and in particular council tax.

Here in deepest darkest Oxfordshire we're big into our recycling. Cool. Groovy. Saving the planet one plastic bottle at a time. So, I get a green bin and a black bin - recycling and non-recycling. I noticed that everyone else seemed to have a brown bin too. My interest piqued, I called the council and discovered it to be the garden waste variant. This was good news - my neighbours are catching on to me throwing my hedge and lawn clippings over the fence. So I asked for one.

£40. Per year.

Yup, I have to rent a bin from them. Can I buy one - I checked online, they're about £40? Nope, gotta rent our one. Any particular reason? Does my identically shaped brown bin not fit on the collector? The rules. Of course. Silly of me to ask. While we're on silly questions I then ventured to enquire why this brown bin was not included in the £2000 or so council tax. Simple, councilman told me. It wouldn't be fair on the people without gardens. Glad we got that one sorted, easily one of the more pernicious inequalities in the world. Imagine having to pay for something you don't use. Like a £200 billion welfare state. Make those frivolous mowers of lawns pay for their own Bacchic excesses.

Anyway, despite my dismay at the money grabbing dolts doing their bit to encourage garden waste fly-tipping (though that would probably end up as rather useful compost) I bravely forked out the cash. That was 2 months ago, and still no sign of my bin. I have called up a few times asking as to its whereabouts. Apparently it is a very complex process, sticking a label on a bin, putting it on a van and driving it to my house. So the company entrusted with the job (on a non-negotiable 7 year contract) has fallen a little behind. Amazing how efficient the billing department is of these organisations. If only the rest of them would take note, we might get somewhere.

Speaking of getting somewhere, I feel this post is not. Regardless, onwards I shall speed, blinded by a red fog of ire.

Unable yesterday to see my house from the road, obscured as it was by bin bags of fallen leaves and grass trimmings and less chance of my bin turning up than Lord Lucan, I ventured tip-wards. It's a good 30 minute drive so in the interests of my time and the planet in general I though fewer visits would be the order of the day. So I borrowed the oddly-named Hi-Lux, a half and half car/truck which is anything but luxurious but is certainly roomy in the boot. At the other end of my trip I found the half ork/half human breed who run the tip. A less affable or more charmless breed I have never encountered; bulky men who goose step up and down the site accusing everyone of being contractors disposing of industrial waste without the thought ever entering their minds to help out the 70 year old granny struggling with her old sewing machine. They're down there with the coffee drinkers.

To throw all these leaves away (which the council should have taken in my exorbitantly expensive brown bin), I must get my chit signed. Yup, because my car/truck looks commercial I can only dispose of household waste in it 12 times in 2 years. Oh, but the chap in the much larger Renault Espace next to me can visit as many times as he likes because his car looks more like a car. Good Friday afternoon at Oxfordshire county council that was. Money well spent. I'm beginning to see where fly-tippers are coming from.

So we're not cracking down on commercial waste dumping, just people who put their household waste in larger vehicles to make fewer runs thereby save time, energy, fuel, the planet, money etc. What on earth is the point in this rule? Coming up with that was someone's job. Then they had to pay to print off shiny chits for everyone. Bet that could have paid for my brown bin, wherever it is.