Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gordon vs Barack - I'm not looking forward to April

I am once again less than impressed with our Prime Ministers' performance and ideas about solving our economic ills and I would speculate that President Obama is not going to be any keener on boring Gordon's boring pronouncements when he visits the UK in April.

What we need now is a spark of creativity and enthusiasm to inspire business leaders and bring back at least a trace of 'feel good' to a British populace with a severe attack of winter blues.

Alas, what we are getting is more of the tired old-fashioned predictable ideas we have come to expect from this Government. You couldn't call them initiatives by any means. The word initiate suggests imagination and innovation and that is the last thing we are getting.

I'm not saying there is something wrong with the banks returning to a little more cautious approach to lending and spending. I've already written at length about the difficulties people are having in actually accessing supposed assistance funding and the news this weekend suggests it is not getting any better.

What really worries me is what effect the differences in approach to economic recovery will have on our 'special relationship' with the USA. Once again the would-be cartoonist in me pictures a scene with Barack Obama falling asleep while Gordon rabbits on about not a lot. This is the best picture. The worst one is a difference of opinion and daggers drawn that could seriously hold back OUR recovery if it is not in harmony with what is going on across the Atlantic.

Gordon Brown could be perceived as mean minded and narrow which could result in a distant and polite encounter rather than a friendly and cordial one. I don't think the world can expect a relationship in the vein of Thatcher and Reagan.

Already there are rumours of Labour snipers ganging up to remove Mr Brown. Will any of them succeed in taking his place in Number 10, or better still will we be looking forward to a General Election by the time of the Presidential visit and will Mr Obama also be seeking the views of Opposition leaders.

I worry and wait.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Privacy vs Freedom of Speech

I could have switched radio stations when BBC Radio 4's Law in Action came on the air and probably should have done. Instead I sat in late afternoon traffic on the Chichester by-pass and listened to F1 supremo Max Mosley attempt to justify why journalistic freedom should be sacrificed in order to keep his bedroom antics private.

I remain unconvinced by what he said although he did try. He pleaded that what the News of the World claimed he did and he sued them for, was nothing to do with anyone but him because he had not set himself up as anyone's moral conscience.

The problem is, a certain amount of damage has already been done to media freedom and he is determined to extend it. He mentioned that France has a rather different view, and laws about, of the private life of public people and would like to gag the British media in a similar way.

Now, if so-called celebrities like models, football players and TV presenters manage to make fools of themselves and be shown in the red-tops in all their dubious glory, that is fine with me. They court publicity most of the time, and really have little right to moan when the paparazzi catch them in an off-moment.

What we do not want in the UK is for the media to be prevented from exposing public figures who set themselves up as morally superior then behave in a hypocritical fashion. Nor do we want anyone who has committed a crime to be permitted to hide behind a privacy law in order to escape justice.

Maybe the real problem is that we are all hypocrites to some degree. We say we want freedom of the press, but we don't want pictures of our little peccadilloes decorating the front pages. It's a fine line, but I feel that our civil liberties are being removed at such a rate, the UK needs every right of free speech it can retain in order that someone can speak out when Government goes one step too far in snooping into our private lives.

So, no Mr Mosley, I don't think you should have won all that money in damages and I certainly don't believe that your privacy should be even more protected in the future.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

British Government’s ‘Virtual’ funds

The UK Government recently made announcements about how they were going to help small business owners and also assist people made redundant, not just the unskilled, but executive and professional people as well.

What is in question is do those funds actually exist and are they ever going to reach the people who need them. From what I've seen in the last few days, the answer seems to be a big ‘NO’.

A few weeks ago I had a ‘mystery shop’ assignment that involved visiting my local JobCentre Plus. I hadn’t been there for a while, so wasn’t recognised while I was browsing around looking for posters and trying out the interactive terminals on which you can search for jobs. Later on the assignment required me to reveal who I was and what I was doing so it seems OK to refer to it here. The second part of my job that day involved talking to a manager and after the business I came for was done, I set aside my notebook as I wanted to ask some tough questions unrelated to my assignment.

The initiative to provide additional training for workers at all skill levels had just been announced. More than a year ago, when I WAS visiting the Job Centre regularly, I asked them for funding for some specific training that I felt would help me get back in the job market. I was refused, because they said there was no mechanism for funding in that way. The Government announcement seemed to indicate that this had all changed and I asked the JobCentre manager directly if this was the case.

“Oh yes” he said “We could almost certainly do that now”, “Things have changed since you were here last” I was assured. He went on “The way re-training can be funded is going to be much more flexible”. I also asked about age discrimination and he said that there were ‘initiatives to ensure it didn’t happen’ and this included local and central Government funded posts and education. I applied to Portsmouth City Council, Portsmouth University and Havant Borough Council, in some cases for more than one post, and was turned down each time.

Since then, Channel 4’s Dispatches program 'Too Old to Work' has exposed just how deeply age discrimination is embedded in employment practices and even enshrined in law. I recognised many of the weasel words used in interviews and in rejection letters I had received and encountered before I decided to try to earn a living outside of the wage slave economy.

Words such as ‘over-qualified’, ‘we feel you would not fit into our culture’, ‘you would be bored’, ‘this is a very young company’, and ‘would you have a problem working for a manager younger than you’. I had been told that I was being paranoid, that these words could not positively be proved as being ageist, but perhaps now it has been on national TV, if they are used against YOU, I suggest that you think very hard about whether it is actually your age that they have a problem with.

In the program, a young woman, not even fully qualified in accountancy and her father, a qualified and very experienced accountant applied through the same agencies. The young woman was offered a range of opportunities, interviews with agency consultants and with companies. Her 50+ father was told in several cases that the agency had ‘lost his CV’ and all the phrases above came out in relation to jobs he had seen advertised and felt he was well suited to.

On Friday I gave a friend a lift to his JobCentre benefits signon appointment. He has a similar number of years experience in IT as I do and is of similar age. Being male, he has a couple more years to work than I would before state retirement age. He asked the same questions I did, only a couple of weeks ago.

He was told that there was NO money for that purpose, it had been re-allocated to ‘new initiatives’ . So, instead of spending a couple of hundred pounds to spend on us teaching ourselves new software skills that would help fill IT vacancies that are still out there, the British Government would rather spend THOUSANDS on social security benefits until we reach retirement age, then additional retirement benefits to top up our income because we will have spent every penny of savings that we might still have. Very clever.

With reference to the business loans, I heard, on the radio, the sad story of a couple from Scotland who were looking for funding to expand their cafĂ© and catering business. They visited several banks to ask about the much publicised Government guaranteed small business loans. No-one at any of the banks knew how these funds could be accessed and some of them had never even heard of the announcement. The people had been persistent and asked the banks to ask their head offices – still no information and no deals. The radio item featured an Opposition spokesperson asking how this could happen. Hadn’t the entire scheme been discussed with the banks at all?

In both cases it seems that there is an imaginary pie in the sky full of money floating over Westminster with a number of labels attached to it for what it might be spent on. No one can actually get to the cash, and as the priorities are seen to change for the reasons of keeping the press and their own back-benchers quiet, the PM, the Chancellor, Business Secretary and so on just re-earmark the funds for a new purpose.

Presumably that pot of money is now going to be used to prop up the marriage of Lloyds TSB and HBOS who the Treasury encouraged to get together only a month or two ago.

It just doesn’t add up does it.

I really wish I could draw cartoons. Along with Gordon Brown’s assurance that he knew nothing about the FSA hush-up that banks were over–exposed to toxic debts, the humbug flying around the Houses of Parliament this past couple of weeks would have given me endless subjects for my pen.

Maybe I could go into partnership with someone who CAN do the artwork.
Picture this. Gordon Brown is painting himself into the corner of a room. Written across the floor are the words "FSA incompetence" and "banks over exposed". I predict that he is going to regret saying he knew nothing about it.

Or this scenario - dear Gordon is pictured as a grouse with a bevy of guns pointing at him bearing labels of all the things he has said and are very likely to come back to haunt him at some future date. The guns are being fired by his own Cabinet Ministers as well as the Opposition, and somewhere in there you might just find the wonderful Jeremy Clarkson as well who aimed a few shots of his own at the PM recently.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tesco fail to impress on environment and health

At the other end of the car park from my local giant supermarket Tesco at Langstone, there is a recycling facility. At the store end, they seem to be encouraging consumers to take home as much NON-recyclable packaging as they can.

This morning I went in for some croissants or pastries to eat with a cup of coffee, my occasional weekend treat. On the bakery counter, there were loose pain au raisin at 55p each. It is regrettable that the bags to take them away are plastic and not paper, but that’s what I’d expect from Tesco.

On the rack underneath there were plastic packs ofthe same pain au raisin pastries at 89p for two. That’s a 21p difference for exactly the same product, almost 25%. I didn’t mind the idea of buying two on this occasion, as I was thinking I would have one tomorrow. However the thought did cross my mind that single people were being somewhat disadvantaged here and why anyway was I paying less for a product with more packaging?

I paid for my purchases and afterwards took them to the customer service desk to point out the problems. The assistant there agreed it was unfair, stupid but pricing was out of her hands. She also mentioned that she normally worked on the tobacco counter where 2 x 25g packs of rolling tobacco were cheaper than a single 50g pack.

Aren’t we supposed to be discouraged from eating fattening foods and smoking? I tried hard to get it through to her that the reason I was complaining was as much to do with the packaging issue as with the price, but I was getting nowhere.

The insult to injury came when I got home. I had failed to notice that the sell-by date on the pastries was 24 hours past and they hadn’t been removed from sale. They were stale and not very pleasant and went in the bin. More waste and strain on my pocket.

The same Tesco management team were asking the local planning department a year ago to expand the store to a huge and unsightly building to include more clothing and non-food lines so they can compete with local rival stores Asda and Sainsburys. No-one in the area wanted it, but somehow councillors were persuaded to agree to it.
Fortunately, later on, Tesco pulled the plans or at least put them on the back burner saying that this store had been taken off their re-building list.

In the meantime they had gone back to the local council to make some changes to the plans such that would have to go through at least part, if not all of the planning process again and I’m wondering if they were told that those changes would not be well received because of the protests it would re-start and the cost to the council. They claimed that the re-planned store would be ‘greener’. It's a larger store, with more parking so more cars. The traffic nearby already gets seriously clogged at busy times. There was talk once of a dedicated slip road from the A27 main road, but this disappeared from the plans.

If they are so dedicated to being environmentally friendly, why are they encouraging their customers via their prices, to buy items with MORE packaging rather than less.

Do I have anything to thank Tesco for on this visit? Yes, their women's underwear is good value :-) Knickers to Tesco.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Too much PC at BBC

More rows and demands for BBC presenters heads to roll have had nearly as many column inches at the weather this week and I'm utterly fed up with it. It's just got totally out of proportion.

For me the essential difference between this, and the row about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand is that what was said was not on air.

Millins of people my generation will have had golliwogs as much-loved childhood toys and remember them from the Robertsons Jam adverts. Personally I never even thought about them as representing human beings, there was a total disconnect. Carol Thatcher and I are only 4 years apart in age, and I'm sure its the same for her too.

I don't think her remark indicates that she is a racist in any way shape or form and I think we have all got excessively over sensitive.

Why is it that on one TV or radio programme we are allowed to laugh about racial and gender stereotypes and on others we have to tiptoe round in this ridiculous way.

As for Jeremy Clarkson, it doesn't surprise me one bit. I expect him to be outrageous and he hasn't disappointed this time. I won't deny that some of his more misogynous remarks (and his periodic rudeness about Caterham Se7ens) annoy me, but most of the time he makes me laugh.

He's just running true to form and I wouldn't want him to change one bit.

The One Show has unjustifiably lost a good presenter and the suggestions that Clarkson should be removed from Top Gear is nonsense.

I'd like to bet that Gordon Brown has also had a few regrets this week about his British jobs for British workers remark which I thought at the time might come back to haunt him. I haven't noticed anyone demanding an instant General Election about that faux pas.

Did someone mention the word sledging?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Murphy says 'Lights Out'

Murphy's First Law says that if something can go wrong it will.

Murphy's Second Law says that if something can go wrong, it will, and in the most inconvenient way possible.

I was enjoying a cosy evening in, nice dinner, glass of wine and thought I would have a bath and use my Babyliss jacuzzi mat for some nice relaxation before bed.

It had snowed intermittently all day, but when I looked out mid-evening, it was dry and frosty. I set up the bathroom with a scented candle, poured a second glass of wine, ran the bath, added book and magazines, set up the jacuzzi mat, got into dressing gown, all ready to go. I turned off the bathroom lights to see if I needed a second candle for extra light. I did, so I turned the lights back on. The bathroom lights consist of one ceiling light and a rack with two spotlights on it.

Crack! As I turned the lights back on, one of the spots went. This might have been OK, and no worry, but it also flipped the fuse for the entire upstairs lighting ring.

Now, the fuse box is in the garage. I was definitely NOT going outside in freezing temperatures in just a dressing gown. Muttering furiously, I put on tracksuit bottoms, t-shirt, fleece and warm socks and back downstairs. I found the right keys went outside and unlocked garage.

If the upstairs lighting has ever fused before, it has done so in daylight and I never noticed that George the Bodger who owned the house before me had wired the garage lights into the upstairs lighting ring - huh?? I hadn't taken a torch out with me because I didn't expect to need it, so had to go back indoors and get one before re-setting the fuse and locking up again.

My fingers were going blue by the time I was back indoors and I remembered Mum's warnings about chilblains.
It was snowing again - well, naturally it was, not quite whiteout conditions, but enough to cover over my footprints in the couple of minutes between the two trips to the garage.

Next thing was to go looking for a replacement spot bulb. In the UK, we have multiple types of bulb fittings. Of course, I had every size and type of spot for the rest of the house, but not the size and fitting I needed. Well of course not!

I did eventually get my bubbly bath, but I was so cross and wound up, it just wasn't so enjoyable or relaxing.

Murphy, I hope you get to live in interesting times.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Paralysed by a bit of snow

Siberia decided that it was time that Britain should share some of its winter snow and dumped a load of it on the South East yesterday and last night.

Now please don’t suppose this was an unheralded event. The Met. Office have been telling us for days to expect snow, and giving out severe weather warnings since Friday.

Yet when it hits, motorways are blocked by jackknifed trucks and abandoned cars, the London bus system and half the underground grind to a halt, and trains into the capital are non-existent. And we are told this is what to expect that nothing more could have been done.

Lunchtime news said losses to economy because of no-one being able to get to work in London could run into over a billion. This is ridiculous! Companies in the UK have simply not got to grips with the concept of working from home where possible.

A home worker anyway, I wisely left it till lunchtime to venture out at all. There was about 2 inches of the fluffy stuff on my car, easily removed with soft broom and wipers. I carefully got as much off as possible, but some people on the roads were not so considerate. A huge lump of snow blew off the roof of the car in front of me and hit my screen – fortunately it was not icy and only blinded me for a second, but it was very dangerous all the same. Please don’t do this. I couldn’t get the car number who did it to me because he went through an amber traffic light and I stopped – says a lot about his/her road hoggishness.

What a load of wimps we are. This is a fraction of the snow that many places in the USA live with all winter. London local authorities had 3 days warning to get their arses in gear and instead sat on said arses and did nothing. Now they are saying that their preparations were good enough, but still somehow they were caught short. Where is the bull, I smell something.

Just to cheer you all up, here are some more pretty snow pictures, my road, sailing club and Langstone shoreline. I’ve linked them to my Picasa album with google map ref, so you'll know where you are looking at.