30 March 2009

Everything, including the kitchen sink

From The Daily Mail (here):
Documents handed to national newspapers show the extent to which Miss Smith, who is paid £141,866 a year, has kitted out her family home using her additional costs allowance.
She has claimed for virtually every household item over the past five years - including a £550 kitchen sink and even an 88p bath plug.

Scotland's shame?

Has Iain Macwhirter gone over the top in The Herald? This seems a bit harsh:
Forget Sandi Thom's expenses, the real scandal is how Scotland is now forever branded as home of the world's worst bankers - Scottish Government approved.
These motley fools have largely destroyed Scotland's economy and now our biggest building society. The Dunfermline executives do not deserve to be bailed out and rewarded for this failure.
Every one of them should have had the decency to have resigned by now. They deluded themselves into thinking that if they played the FSA long enough, and enlisted the political support of the Scottish Government, that they would be bailed out like the big retail banks.

I do not know enough to say whether the loans package under earlier consideration would have enabled the Dunfermline to have survived as an independent entity. I checked its accounts and noted that the after-tax profits in recent years were as follows:

2007 £2.0m
2006 £5.1m
2005 £4.4m
2004 £4.7m

How does a building society earning these kind of profits face a loss of £26m for 2008 (and who knows what other horrors hidden in the balance sheets), without taking on massive loan commitments that it would inevitably have serious trouble in servicing?

Even if Mr Macwhirter is perhaps intemperate in his language, I fear that the Nationwide takeover may be the least worst solution.

29 March 2009

Drp, drip, drip - why are we being screwed?

When I was a bureaucrat - a minor bureaucrat, but a bureaucrat nonetheless - from time to time I would have to claim expenses from my public sector employer. The process invariably involved my signature to certify that the claim was legitimate, that the expenses claimed for were properly incurred within the rules. I have no reason to believe that the House of Commons operates differently in demanding an element of self-certification.

In this context, what is one to make of the latest expenses scandal to hit the Home Secretary, allegedly one of the most senior officers of state? The Telegraph reports:
Ms Smith apologised and promised to pay back money after admitting she "mistakenly" claimed for the television package while submitting a bill for her internet connection.
The £67 bill was submitted last June as part of Ms Smith's expenses, it was claimed.
In a statement, Ms Smith said: "I am sorry that in claiming for my internet connection, I mistakenly claimed for a television package alongside it. "As soon as the matter was brought to my attention, I took immediate steps to contact the relevant parliamentary authorities and rectify the situation. "All money claimed for the television package will be paid back in full."
The amounts are trivial. And leave aside the tawdry nature of the movies' subject matter. But it is really not good enough. Did she not check her claim before it was submitted? To say sorry after she's been found out is frankly pathetic. The scandal of MPs' expenses has surely gone on long enough. Heads must roll.

28 March 2009

Pressing issues

Yes, I've had one for years:
"Whatever the day holds, travelling, working or simply relaxing, trousers always crumple. The original crease fades and wrinkles appear, particularly behind the knees. The Corby press gently smoothes wrinkled trousers back into shape and refreshes a smart crease. It is appreciated by people who value both their time and appearance."

I like a crease in my pyjamas. Doesn't everyone?

27 March 2009

Cri de coeur - obsolescence sucks

It began with vinyl, Well, actually, it began with 78s - for younger readers, in the good old days, records (of different sizes) were played on a turntable at 33 (LPs), 45 (singles) or 78 revolutions per minute. I understand that at a price you can still acquire the requisite players, while vinyl LPs are treasured in certain quarters. But for ordinary punters records are been and gone. And all those LPs cluttering up my bookcase are just that - so much clutter.

Much the same applies to cassette tapes. Have you tried to find a tape player in the shops recently? All those tapes, so lovingly recorded in the 1970s and 1980s, that marked out my life if not in coffee spoons then in memories.

In addition, I have a fine (well, I think so) collection of videotapes. But that fancy flatscreen telly I bought recently does not seem to have a suitable slot for video cassettes. So they sit there on the shelf, loved but unplayed.

How long before my DVDs become redundant? Life moves too fast; I suppose that I am getting old ...

25 March 2009

Today New York, tomorrow Brazil

The Prime Minister is investing an awful lot of time and effort into next week's G20 Summit. Let us hope that it brings him (and us) commensurate reward.

But some kind of co-ordinated stimulus seems further away than ever, now that President Obama has jumped the gun while Frau Merkel and M Sarkozy seem firmly opposed. Even the Governor of the Bank of England has deserted the sinking ship.

So what does that leave? Putting the boot into tax havens is long overdue (and, as many of them seem to be British possessions, whose fault is that?); but it is unlikely to be of short-term assistance in the current crisis. Similarly, a new system of global banking regulation would be desirable but it will not be the product of a one day summit of government leaders.

And a few platitudes on avoiding a descent into protectionism would be more convincing if the Doha Round did not languish on the sidelines while the US, the UK, France and Germany are pumping subsidies into their domestic industries as if there were no tomorrow.

But G20 will no doubt be hailed as a great success, as that is the way of these things. Lots of food will be eaten and wine drunk (as international diplomats seem to march upon their stomachs); lots of police overtime will be incurred; and vast quantities of ink will be spilled in reporting all the goings-on. While we petty men walk under the huge legs and peep about.

Quote of the day

Tom Harris MP, writing yesterday on his blog:
SINCE being elected in 2001, I have never, until today, voted against my party on a three-line whip. That is something I’m extremely proud of.

Is that really something of which he should be proud? I appreciate that MPs are elected under a party banner and that they should therefore be expected to follow the party line.

But there is a difference between allegiance to the Labour Party and allegiance to the Labour Government. And I rather doubt if voters expect slavish obedience to either. Perhaps the general lack of respect for MPs is partly attributable to an attitude of 'my government/party right or wrong'.

Is it a virtue for an MP, constantly and unthinkingly, to do what he is told? Is the Government always in the right? Should we not expect our politicians, at least occasionally, to weigh the issues on their merits and exercise an element of independent judgement?

But, now that Mr Harris has popped his cherry, we can welcome him to that small group of widely respected, rebellious backbenchers.

24 March 2009

Quote of the day

The Times again:
Yet sitting in the attic is a valuable antique - a family heirloom, inherited from another age - that is worth tens of billions of pounds. It's never used and costs a fortune to maintain. How long before Gordon Brown or Mr Cameron proposes that the Trident nuclear missile replacement should be scrapped?

Not bloody soon enough!

C'est pas grave ...

The Times reports:
"Molière must be turning in his grave,” said le Parisien newspaper, reporting on the latest Sarkozysmes, as his syntactical abuses are called.
Fanny Capel, the head of a campaign group called Sauvez les Lettres (Save Letters), told The Times: “We have un beauf at the head of the state.” Un beauf, or brother-in-law, is shorthand for uneducated and ignorant.
Mr Sarkozy jangles nerves with colloquial tics such as dropping the “ne” between pronoun and verb in negative sentences. “J'écoute mais je tiens pas compte,” he said the other day. (I listen but I don't take notice). He often uses the slangy “ch'ais pas” for “je ne sais pas” and “ch'uis” instead of “je suis”.

Moi, je m'en fiche.

23 March 2009

The blind leading the blind

From The Times (here):
Some of the world’s most powerful banking executives will meet Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling tomorrow to discuss how the global financial system can be repaired.
Among those at the meeting at No 10 will be Bill Winters, the co-head of investment banking at JP Morgan Chase, and either Josef Ackermann, the chairman of Deutsche Bank,or his chief operating officer, Hermann-Josef Lamberti.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will show the bankers detailed drafts of proposals that the Government will present at the G20 meeting in London on April 2.

22 March 2009

Banking misdemeanours

I wouldn't get over-excited - it's only Lord Foulkes after all. The Observer reports:
The scandal engulfing the Royal Bank of Scotland reaches new heights today with serious allegations from a senior Labour politician that at least three of its former non-executive directors may have been intimidated and threatened with the sack for asking searching questions about its financial affairs.
The Observer can reveal that a former government minister, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who has been extensively briefed by former bank insiders, has written to the Financial Services Authority, the City watchdog, asking it to pursue the claims which, if true, could trigger a criminal investigation.
The intervention by Foulkes, who is also a member of the Scottish parliament and sits on the Commons security and intelligence committee, comes amid fears that the bank will be exposed as the UK's equivalent of Enron - the US trader that collapsed amid systemic fraud.

I rather doubt that the sophisticates of the RBS would openly seek to intimidate or threaten its non-exec directors - or even that they would need to. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind man; and this is not The Sopranos.

Rather worrying, however, that Foulkes remains on the Commons (?) Security and Intelligence Committee.

Those with a taste for Scottish Labour politicians getting into raunchier hot water may wish to direct their attentions here.

21 March 2009

Don't they check these things?

From a profile of Hazel Blears by The Independent:
Another popular work inspired by post-war Salford was the song "Dirty Old Town", made famous in the 1980s by the Pogues, though it was written in the 1940s. I thought I'd test her knowledge of Salford cultural references by asking if she knew "that song by Ewan MacColl". Like a true Salford girl, she comes straight out with the opening line: "I met my love by the gas works wall". I dare say she would have sung all three verses, if asked.

Actually, the opening line of the original (MacColl) version was "I met my love by the gasworks croft". So the "true Salford girl" seems more taken with the version by the Irish Pogues.

Petty of me, I know. But it's one of the great anthems of modern folk music which deserves respect.

20 March 2009

Quote of the day

Ms Treneman, on excellent form (as ever):
The most surreal moment of Alistair Darling’s session in front of the Commons Treasury Select Committee came when the soft-spoken Labour MP Jim Cousins said: “Chancellor, if you are going to lead us into this Temple of Doom I think the British people will be looking to you to behave a little bit more like Indiana Jones.”
Mr Darling’s mouth opened and then closed. His eyebrows, which have been trimmed but still look like giant black caterpillars, just ones with recent haircuts, shot up. The room tittered.
I tried to imagine Mr Darling, hat askew, shirt open, racing across a rope bridge. Simply not possible. I could only see him as Edinburgh Jones, wearing a suit (trouser legs rolled up), creeping along, each eyebrow fastened to the bridge by bungee jump cables. Behind him crawled an army of aides, with binders.

Do caterpillars have haircuts?

19 March 2009

Slopping out

I have no particular wish to see prisoners and ex-prisoners receiving public funds in compensation for slopping out, at least no more than strictly necessary. But I do see some problems with the actions proposed by Westminster and Holyrood in this case. The BBC reports:
A deal has been struck between the UK and Scottish governments which will stop criminals receiving compensation for slopping out.
Thousands of prisoners have made backdated claims that their human rights were breached by being denied proper toilet facilities in jail.
Emergency laws are to be rushed through Westminster and Holyrood to introduce a one-year time bar for such claims.
If human rights legislation means anything at all, then it must apply in relation to those who are - arguably - the least deserving. In this case, the governments concerned appear to be proposing a restriction on the human rights of a certain class of individuals by denying them legal redress. In particular, prisoners and ex-prisoners who might be in a position to seek compensation as a result of having endured slopping out more than a year ago and who have not yet submitted a claim should be banned from doing so. The alleged justification for taking such action is to save public money.

There are three aspects to what is proposed that give rise to concern. The first is the question of retrospection. In effect, the governments appear to be saying to the prisoners concerned that at least one element of the human rights they thought they had under the Scotland Act (and confirmed by the House of Lords) has (magically) disappeared. Is it fair and reasonable to deprive - after the event - individuals of a right they quite legitimately possessed?

Secondly, does rushing bills through Holyrood and Westminster, presumably without allowing adequate time for consultation with the legal and prison authorities as well as with those representing the interests of prisoners and ex-prisoners, constitute a sensible way to proceed? I appreciate that, from the point of view of the governments, there is a certain amount of urgency involved but previous precedents of rushed legislation are not encouraging. And individuals who will be disadvantaged by legislation are surely entitled to be fully consulted in advance about it.

Thirdly, I understand that the proposed legislation will not apply to those prisoners and ex-prisoners who have already made claims (or will have made claims by a certain date). This is essentially unfair - it cannot be right that those who have made claims are allowed to proceed while those that have yet to do so - for whatever reason - may not.

I appreciate that many of my readers will ask "who cares about a bunch of criminals?" And I have some sympathy with such views. But criminals do not relinquish their human status when they commit a crime or enter prison (however much some parts of society may wish it were so). And if the proposed legislation is in due course struck down by British or ECHR courts, then we will all be crying in our beer. Furthermore the fact that equivalent English prisoners are already time-barred is irrelevant, as they never had the open-ended right to seek compensation in the first place.

It's all very difficult. You can go back into the history of the issue but, like it or not, we are where we are. Like Ministers, I do not like the situation into which they have been thrust - but I am far from sure that the magic wand they propose to wave at the problem will make it go away.

Quote of the day

The Prime Minister, at PMQs yesterday:
"Any person who loses their job or is in fear of losing their job is a matter of personal regret for me and the whole Government. I do not regard unemployment as a statistic; I regard it as one person, a second person and a third person who needs our help."

Despite bearing the hallmarks of a pre-prepared statement, does this clumsy ungrammatical locution actually mean anything? Could the Prime Minister not have found a better way to express his sympathy with the unemployed?

18 March 2009

Deeper and deeper into the hole

What happened to all that money the government threw at the banks? I don't know and, if the government knows, it's not telling us.

For the moment, set aside Sir Fred's pension arrangements and those AIG bonuses. This has all the makings of an even bigger scandal. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian reports:
It is clear that nobody has any idea what happened to some £100bn of public money pumped into the banking system since last October. It was meant to stop banks going bankrupt and "in the hope" that credit would flow again, without the drastic step of nationalisation. This hope has proved forlorn.
Brown pleaded in January for his rescued bankers to "come clean" with what they had done with the money. They declined to say. It is inconceivable that public money could be spent so casually to any other purpose or entrusted so recklessly to any other profession.
In January the Guardian reported that City experts had concluded that as much as 80% of the £50bn in the October package could have gone offshore. Last week a former Bank of England official, Danny Gabay, queried as "just not sensible" the £10bn of "quantitative easing" initiated by the Bank of England to reflate the economy (out of some £150bn promised). Probably two-thirds of the bonds had been bought by overseas institutions.
The suspicion that money intended to boost the domestic economy had gone abroad was supported by yesterday's startling news from the US Federal Reserve. Its biggest bailout, of the insurance giant AIG, for a staggering $85bn, had also gone to overseas beneficiaries. This behemoth has enraged Barack Obama by allocating $165m of the rescue funds to staff bonuses, including staff in London. This was apart from $11.9bn to France's Société Générale, $11.8bn to Germany's Deutsche Bank, $5bn to the Swiss bank UBS and $8.5bn to Barclays and thus presumably to the Gulf.
In other words, America's hard-earned tax dollars - like Britain's tax pounds - were not going to rescue car-makers, drugstores or mortgage-holders. They were covering exposed positions in a global debt market reckoned to be in excess of $100tn. There is no way such sums can be fully covered. The world debt mountain is not just toxic, it is bankrupt.

In an earlier post on this blog, I wondered if our supposed masters knew what they were doing. The answer is becoming clear.

15 March 2009

Don't be a meanie!

£12.29. That's the taxpayer subsidy for every meal that an MSP (or a journo) takes in the parliament's restaurant, at least according to The Sunday Mail (here).

Do I grudge this? Well, some of our MSPs (and all of the journos) are a bit on the porky side. And, what with their expenses and salaries, they could probably afford to pay for a fish supper from their own pockets.

But I'm more or less sure that they work hard, I think ... and it would be churlish to deny them their little perks.

14 March 2009

The wood and the trees

What is the point of the SNP Government? If there was ever a programme for government, it seems to be disintegrating.

The abandonment of the forestry leasing plan is probably sensible (particularly as there are other means of securing private sector investment in the forestry industry), but it does raise the question: what is the Salmond administration for? Local income tax is postponed sine die; smaller school classes look undeliverable; ditto those 1000 extra rozzers. There are problems with the already watered-down booze restrictions. Direct elections to health boards have survived for now, but their inherent contradictions are bound to emerge sooner or later. There is of course the credit crunch - which unfortunately exposes the administration's inability to make much of a difference. (Sure, they have powers over infrastructure but, until they get the capital programme in order, it's not going to have an immediate effect.) Which leaves the independence referendum, again unlikely to go anywhere, judging from last week's vote in parliament.

If I were Mr Salmond I might be worried - but then, with the possible exception of the Greens, no other Scottish political party has much of a programme either.

12 March 2009

My head hurts

I tried - honest, I tried to get through Alf Young's article in The Herald about Sir Fred's pension. I followed this bit:
It appears the ex-group chief executive of RBS will gain instant access to a very large slice of his pension pot (overall transfer value £16.63m, as of the end of December 2008) without paying one brass penny in tax.
Not only will he receive his pension largely tax-free, it has also become clear that the additional millions pumped into his pension pot last October in return for him retiring early, have been handed over by the bank in ways that simply would not have been available to most pension scheme members without them incurring significant tax charges. Given that RBS is currently loss-making, taxpayers have had to stump up for a deal that was always out of the question for them.

But this was when my eyes glazed over and my brain furred up:

This is a story of earnings caps and annual/lifetime allowances. A saga of FURBS and its post A-day equivalent, EFRBS. My apologies for dragging you into the impenetrable undergrowth of pension tax planning. But if you want to know just how costly this deal might prove for all of us and how absurdly generous it already is to him, that is where you must go to try and quantify the sheer, breathtaking scale of it.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that at least one journalist is making the effort to understand the extent to which we are being screwed.

10 March 2009

What was wrong with the previous version?

No, I will not be rushing out to acquire the new away kit for the Scottish football team. A bit too, dare I say it, English for my taste.

09 March 2009

Why am I not surprised?

Now I know why my websaver account with HBOS is now paying a measly 0.16% pa compared with over 5% a few months ago. The Times reports:
Lloyds Banking Group is set to distribute about £80 million in cash bonuses to staff today despite receiving a multibillion-pound bailout funded by British taxpayers.

07 March 2009

Music of the week

For Wire fans:

It'll drive you to drink

Have they learned any lessons from the local (!) income tax fiasco? Obviously not. The Scotsman reports:
SERIOUS concerns have been raised in Whitehall over the legality of plans by the Scottish Government to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.
The Scotsman has learned UK ministers have been briefed that the proposal announced by the SNP on Monday breaks European competition laws.

The SNP administration has had long enough to think about their proposals. You might have thought that they had time to run it by their solicitors. And why did the civil servants not stop Ministers from making idiots of themselves?

Passing strange

This evening, ITV viewers in England will be able to watch an attractive live FA cup-tie between Manchester Utd and Fulham (kick-off at 5.15 pm). Unfortunately, the equivalent viewers of STV will be fobbed off with a re-run of an old episode of Inspector Morse.

I do not know why this should be. As far as I am aware, there are no Scottish football matches due to be played at that time this evening, so the question of competition should not arise. I assume that STV wants to keep in with the Scottish football authorities, even although STV is not allowed to show live matches from either the Scottish Cup or the Scottish Leagues. And why would the Scottish footballing authorities object anyway?

There is, however, nothing to stop the football fan from watching the match - free of charge and live - on the ITV website (here). The picture will not be quite as good as if it were on the telly but, if it replicates previous ITV football netcasts, it will certainly be better than Morse.

Oh and the Coventry-Chelsea match can be seen at the same website (kick-off at 12.30 pm).

06 March 2009

Excuse for an old joke

It's a bit late for me - my time in my 50s is coming to a close. But The Guardian reports:
Men in their 50s who increase their exercise regime live more than two years longer than couch potatoes of the same age, a new study shows.
Males in their middle years who do a lot of physical activity, equivalent to three hours a week of sport or heavy gardening, can outlive their sedentary peers by 2.3 years and moderate exercisers by just over a year, researchers found.

Anyway, it's not true that exercise prolongs life - it just feels that way.

04 March 2009

Honest, officer, it was unintentional

You might want to try this excuse the next time you get stopped for speeding:

Caroline Spelman apologises for error after unintentionally breaching Commons rules.

03 March 2009

An apology

I'm sorry. But there are some political developments which utterly defy rational analysis.

Today has seen the announcement that the UK Ministers are to lend £2bn of public money to private firms building schools and other projects under the Private Finance Initiative, as the firms concerned face difficulties in raising finance due to the credit crunch.

In the words of The Kinks, "It's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world". And getting worse every day ...

02 March 2009

Sensible timidity?

I suppose that it's a bit of a weak answer to strong drink.

Sure, a minimum price per unit might have an impact but that depends upon what the minimum price will be. Meanwhile there will be no blanket ban of off-sales to those of less than 21 years, with decisons devolved to the wisdom (!) of local licensing boards and chief constables. Add in a rather ill-defined ban on cut-price offers and loss leaders, unspecified reductions in displays and marketing in off-licences and further consultations on social responsibility fees "for some retailers".

And this took them all those months? Overall, it's a bit thin, but hey I'll drink to that.

01 March 2009

A rather pointless dispute

I would have thought that the government had more important battles to fight. The Observer reports:

Peter Mandelson came out fighting last night in the growing row over the Royal Mail sell-off, slapping down protests from Labour ministers and MPs, and accusing the postal union of dishonest "scare tactics" that could cost workers their pensions and even their jobs.
But Peter does so love to be the centre of attention.