30 July 2010

Oh woe!

We may not have reached the end of July but that's Hibs' European campaign over for the season.

It's not fair. Every summer, we approach the new season full of joyous ambition and by autumn (or earlier) we experience the bitter taste of ashes. It's not even as though Slovenia, delightful country as it is, is one of the giants of European football.



When a politician says that he intends to simplify matters, don't believe him. What you and I mean by simplification is an alien concept to the political classes. The Independent reports:

Mr Duncan Smith will suggest replacing the 51 benefits currently available to the unemployed, as well as income-related benefits for the low-paid, with a single benefit covering all people of working age. It would also incorporate the cash currently paid out under Gordon Brown's flagship tax credits scheme, which would effectively be abolished.

Payments would take into account claimants' circumstances, such as numbers of children and housing needs, and could be adjusted monthly using new computer software being developed by the Government.
In order to take account of the differing needs of those who qualify, that simple single benefit will be so complicated as to be unworkable, so that at least half of the beneficiaries will be badly let down by the system, being given less of a benefit than that to which they are entitled.

And doncha just love that phrase "using new computer software being developed by the Government"? This means that the software will not only be late in arriving but also that it will also cost five times more than the initial estimate and, crucially, that it will not work properly. Result: chaos all round.

Will they ever learn?

29 July 2010

Good news and bad news

The good

Our political masters have indicated that it will no longer be compulsory to retire at the age of 65.

The Bad

You may be obliged to work beyond the age of 65 by virtue of the the Government's plans to postpone the old age pension beyond 65.

28 July 2010

What's he up to ...

... or perhaps what is he on? Has going abroad gone to his head? First, he upsets France and Germany by accusing them of blocking Turkey's accession to the EU. He then goes on to upset Israel (admittedly a far from difficult task). And now he has put the boot in to Pakistan.

Is this Cameron's idea of diplomacy? He may well be correct in his criticisms (or at least in some of them) but is pandering to the Turks and the Indians the most effective means of getting the message across?

27 July 2010

In praise of subtitles

One of the reasons why I no longer frequent my local cinemas is that I find it difficult to follow the dialogue. Young people speak so quickly these days, particularly (but not exclusively) in the movies. Nevertheless, I do love a good flick - and it is therefore a welcome aid to comprehension that the vast majority of DVDs provide subtitles. You may suggest that in my dotage I am increasingly corned beef and I would not dissent unduly.

I have just finished watching The Road which, at least for me, would have been mystifying had it not been for the subtitles. Beautifully filmed, well acted and properly respectful of the novel. But, jeez, what a depressing film.

The DVD highlight of the summer has been Up in the Air, the best movie I have seen in years. Clooney should give up the coffee ads and concentrate on proper films.

Honorable mention for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, provided you can tolerate the fact that it is in Swedish (with English subtitles)*. I enjoyed it enormously.

*You can watch it dubbed into English but this seems to me the worst of all possible options.

Envious? Well maybe just a little ...

Can't be bad, eh? You mess up, big-time, but end up at 53 years old with a million quid pay-off and a pension of £10,000 per week from your 55th birthday.

How do you spend £10,000 a week? Sure, you might manage it in week 1: as Clapton put it, take all your friends out for a mighty good time, drink bootleg liquor, champagne and wine. Or I suppose you spend an odd million or two on a fancy house - you can afford the mortgage after all. And then there's the Ferrari Testarossa and the holiday home in the West Indies.

But will you be happy?

To be honest, who cares ...

25 July 2010

How not to win friends and influence people

You might have thought that BP would, as far as possible, be seeking to keep its head down, particularly in the light of the suspicion (apparently well-founded) that the UK Government was prepared to release Mr al-Megrahi (or at least transfer him to Libya) in return for BP being given access to the Libyan oilfields. Not a chance: The Independent reports:

The tortuous saga of BP, the Gulf of Mexico, the Lockerbie bombing and an America which feels itself badly wronged took another turn yesterday when it emerged that the oil company is about to start drilling at an even greater depth in, of all places, Libyan waters.

And, as that information was being absorbed, there came an announcement that Jack Straw, the former justice secretary, had declined an invitation to attend the upcoming US Senate hearing into possible links between BP and the release last August of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the murder of 259 passengers on Pan Am Flight 103, and 11 Lockerbie residents. Megrahi, who was diagnosed with cancer, was put on a plane back to Tripoli after doctors said he had only three months to live.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is investigating allegations that the release, officially on compassionate grounds, was ordered in return for economic co-operation, including access to oil and gas fields. Tony Blair, former prime minister and "friend of Gaddafi", has also become embroiled in the affair.

No, BP announces its expansion into Libyan waters, thus waving a red rag to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Does BP not have PR advisers? Did nobody in the upper echelons think that it might be better to keep this under wraps for at least a couple of weeks, so that the proposals emerged in the dog-days of August when everyone that matters is on holiday?

At any rate, the episode lends succour to the proposition that the size of a company is in direct proportion to the stupidity of its management.

24 July 2010

Stress Tests

No need, honestly, I'm feeling fine. Not under any pressure at all.
The stress tests have been applied to the banks, idiot.
What stress can they be under? They just sit there, screw their customers and collect their bonuses as usual.
It's all to do with the EU Commission which wanted to demonstrate the splendid shape that the European banks are in.
So how do you detect stress in a bank? They don't have any blood pressure and you never see them snacking on valium.
Well it's partly a secret and it's probably too technical to explain but capital ratios are at the centre of it. Essentially, have the individual banks enough pennies tucked away to deal with any shortfall in the repayment of the loans they made earlier?
Enough, enough! You know this kind of thing makes my head hurt. So what was the result, anyway?
Of the 91 banks tested, seven failed. But the failures were Spanish, Greek and German tiddlers, so that's all right. The British big four passed with flying colours.
So everybody was happy, yes? Apart from the failures obviously.
Well, not really. Were the stress tests demanding enough? Or were they designed to ensure that the big boys passed, while sweeping out a few tiddlers in order to maintain a patina of credibility?
I'll ask the questions if you don't mind. So what happens now?
Not a lot really. The failures will have to improve their capital ratios. But the whole exercise will be forgotten when the next financial crisis occurs.
A bit of a waste of time, then?
You might say that - I could not possibly comment.

Do say: Well done, banking chaps and chapesses. You may now resume normal service, even if that includes not lending to businesses while paying yourselves handsome bonuses.

Don't say: Keep taking the tablets and try to relax more: take some time off, play a bit more golf and don't worry about the office.

22 July 2010

Not so funny?


Remember how The Sun suddenly came out in support of the Tories during the Labour Party conference last year? Today, and doubtless entirely coincidentally, The Independent reports:

Plans to reserve more of the so-called sporting "crown jewels" for free-to-air broadcasting was [sic] shelved yesterday until at least 2013 by Hugh Robertson, the sports minister.

The decision means that the rights to show the next home Ashes cricket matches between England and Australia in 2013 will continue to be held by Sky, despite the recommendation of a review by David Davies, the former FA chief executive.

It also means that Scotland's qualifying matches for the European (football) championship will be absent from the terrestrial channels.

And so, in return for a headline or two, Her Majesty's Government has sold out the British sporting public to the dirty digger.

21 July 2010

Music of the week

It's been a good day ...

Mr 50%

Don't you admire a Minister who will happily sacrifice half of his department? The Guardian reports:

Up to one in two of the staff at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are to be made redundant as part of the cuts programme submitted to the Treasury by the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

Hunt has also proposed moving out of the well-appointed departmental headquarters in Cockspur Street, just off Trafalgar Square, with the remaining staff finding room in a different, existing departmental building.

The Treasury asks for 40% reduction illustrations; Hunt opts for 50%, on the spurious grounds that the pain he intends to inflict on the arts and culture establishment needs to be shared by his staff. There is a word for a man like that and it's not Jeremy.

20 July 2010

Quotes of the day

Sarah Palin makes it up:

"[Barack and Michelle Obama] have power in their words. They could refudiate what it is that this group is saying."

—On the NAACP charge of racism in the Tea Party movement, The Sean Hannity Show, Fox News, July 14, 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate."

—On plans to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, via Twitter, July 18, 2010

Why the fuss? On the (admittedly heroic) assumption that she meant "repudiate" or perhaps "refute", she got reasonably close ...

19 July 2010

At least Mrs Thatcher did not dissemble ...

So Mr C is to announce the implementation of his Big Society idea, involving the establishment of four pilot projects. The Independent reports:

Each will get an expert organiser and dedicated civil servants to ensure "people power" initiatives get off the ground and inspire a wider change, the Prime Minister will say.

"We have to turn Government completely on its head," he will suggest - so that it helped foster "communities with oomph", public sector workers with freedom to innovate and "a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action.

All of the projects have "one thing in common", Mr Cameron will say: "A firm commitment from this Government to help them realise their dreams."

Do you suppose that Mr C realises the irony in what he proposes? How do you square local initiative and "a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action" with a firm Government commitment, Government-appointed organisers and dedicated civil servants? And all those dreams - who, do you suppose, will decide which of them is realistic and attainable? I rather doubt that it will be the communities (with or without oomph).

I have no doubt that the pilots will be successful - that is why central government is taking a central role. So, good for those communities. But there are simply not the resources to roll out the programme to the rest of the country.

It's a con.

18 July 2010

Quote of the day

The Prime Minister (here) on foreign policy:
"[Britain] needs a realism about who we are, what we can achieve and what we need to do. Less grand diplomatic talk, a sort of gritty, commercial, business-like realism to British foreign policy."
Absolutely true. The problem is that the last thing the Foreign Office wants to do is become engaged in gritty, commercial, business-like realism. They believe in grand diplomacy. They didn't join the FCO to dirty their hands with such vulgar matters as trade.

16 July 2010

Transfer of the summer

Following his success at the World Cup, Paul is tempted in the direction of Madrid. The Guardian reports:

In what may prove to be the biggest transfer story this summer, negotiations have begun to bring Paul the psychic octopus to Madrid after he correctly predicted Spain's World Cup final victory.

Madrid's Zoo Aquarium says it is prepared to trump any other offer Germany's Oberhausen Sea Life Centre receives for Paul, certain that the world's most famous cephalopod will attract thousands of visitors.

Paul's agent said that, ever since he had been a little octopus, he had always wanted to be in a Spanish zoo. It wasn't the money, but the honour and the glory. Paul's WAG wondered about the quality of shopping in Madrid.

Quote of the day

Simon Hoggart, back to top form in The Guardian (here):
The chancellor, George Osborne, came to give evidence about his traditionalist, slash-and-burn budget to the Commons Treasury committee. This was like a traditionalist doctor appearing in front of the BMA in order to explain why leeches are the best way to heal most illnesses, and how skin rashes can be cured by a poultice made of toad skin and hazel blossom, gathered by virgins at midnight.
Elegant, witty, and making his critique rather more pointed than a thousand articles by learned economists.

15 July 2010

Music of the week

In praise of Eurosport

I am far from being a cycling fan but I have enjoyed Eurosport's coverage of the Tour de France. The principal commentators are Sean Kelly and David Harmon. As one might expect, Kelly is clearly immensely knowledgeable about the sport and, once one gets used to the "y'know"s and the "erms", contributes vastly by explaining what the riders are up to. Harmon, cheerfully ignorant of French pronunciation, and equally cheerful about some of his widely errant suppositions, jollies the show along with an indefatigable pleasure in the race. It can't be easy commentating for four or five hours per day for three weeks on the trot, but if you have the time to spare and have even a vague interest in bikes, these are the guys to keep you company.

Much better than ITV4 who seldom show more than a couple of hours per day.

They're grinding us down ...

Day by day, the impact of the cuts becomes clearer. This development, however, is something of a shocker. The Independent reports:
After decades during which governments of both parties spent billions on attracting foreign investment, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has declared that Britain can no longer afford to "splay out" grants and subsidies to attract companies to locate in the UK.

Mr Cable said: "Having very substantial amounts of money which we are splaying out in grants and subsidies to companies, we cannot do that. There is a budgetary problem which we inherited. The second reason is that it is actually very bad policy."

Instead, said Mr Cable, the coalition would concentrate on setting competitive business tax rates, cutting regulation, training workers and looking after the broader economy.

It is not entirely clear what Mr Cable means, and the website of the Department for Business offers little assistance in interpretation. But the whole point of those grants and subsidies to attract companies to locate in the UK was to steer the companies to locate in areas of economic disadvantage. The subsidies were available for Nissan to locate and expand in Sunderland - they were not available to companies seeking to locate in South-East England. Scotland in particular paid out many millions (not conspicuously successfully) to attract foreign direct investment, notably in the field of electronics.

But whether Mr Cable means to abandon entirely the system of regional development assistance remains open to question. If that is indeed his intention, then the regions may have something to say about it.

The mask slips for a moment

A hit, a palpable hit. So well done to Ms Harman for poking a gaping hole in that facade of pleasant omniscicnce which Cameron so often exhibits at PMQs.

She asked the question, plain and simple:
This week the Government published their White Paper on the national health service. They say that they will get rid of targets. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether patients will keep their guaranteed right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks of seeing their GP?
Source: here

Cameron, clearly unprepared, had to flannel:
As for the NHS, what we have decided is that we will keep targets only when they actually contribute to clinical outcomes. We all want to see a higher cancer survival rate. I am afraid that, after 13 years of Labour government, we have not the best cancer outcomes in Europe, and we want the best cancer outcomes. That means rapid treatment, yes, but it also means rapid follow-up, and it means people getting the radiotherapy, chemotherapy and drugs that they need. Those are all essential.
Our Harriet asked the question again. Cameron still flannelling:
For some people, two weeks is too long. That is the whole point. If a target contributes to good clinical outcomes, it stays; if it does not, it goes.
So Cameron has been trapped. Either he does not know the answer or he is not prepared to admit that the target will be dropped. Either way, a victory for Hattie.

The Guardian notes that, subsequently, an obsequious junior minister tries to clarify the position:
An hour after Cameron's comments in the Commons, the health minister Simon Burns said the cancer target would remain. "The decision on targets was taken on which ones were not clinically justified," he told Radio 4. "The cancer one was clinically justified and is being kept."
Not quite accurate, it appeared:
But a few hours later the prime minister's spokesman declined to say whether the cancer guarantee would be maintained. "These decisions are no longer for politicians, they are now for the NHS commissioning board. So whether or not there is a target on two weeks is a matter for the commissioning board of the NHS. At the moment it remains in place, but whether it remains in place in future is a decision for them."
So the Tories have chosen to devolve the decision on the cancer guarantee to a quango. Welcome to the new improved NHS?

Background Note

None of the above applies to Scotland where, thank goodness, the health service remains under the watchful control of Nicola and the apparatchiks of the Scottish Government.

14 July 2010

Hey, it's only money ...

Psst! Wanna be scared? The Independent does its best to give you the heebie-jeebies:

The true scale of Britain's national indebtedness was laid bare by the Office for National Statistics yesterday: almost £4 trillion, or £4,000bn*, about four times higher than previously acknowledged.

It quantifies the burden that will be placed on future generations, and it is the ONS's first attempt to draw together the "off-balance-sheet" liabilities that have been accumulated by the state. The figures imply a huge "intergenerational transfer" – broadly in favour of today's "baby boomer" generation at the expense of younger people and future generations.

The debt primarily consists of the cost of public sector and state pensions, and of payments promised to private contractors under private finance initiatives. It far exceeds any of the figures so far published for the national debt, the largest current estimate for which is £903bn. That is projected to rise to £1.3trn by 2015.

Horrifying, ain't it? But then it's only half the picture. There is no point in listing the nation's liabilities without comparing them with its assets. And, according to (yes) the Office for National Statistics (here), the value of the nation's assets amounts to some £7 trillion.

Now, if you or I had assets of say (to reduce it to comprehensible proportions) £70,000 compared with debts of £40,000, we would not necessarily think that we were in a bad place. Indeed, some of us have mortgage debts that amount to 70 or 80% of our total gross worth and it's not something over which to cry ourselves to sleep every night. So look on the bright side, chums: the country is not yet down the swannee.

* £4 trillion = £4,000,000,000,000

13 July 2010

This interweb thingy

I would be lost without the internet. I am an internet addict. From ordering groceries and airline tickets to carrying out my banking arrangements, I could not survive without it. But is this a step too far? The Telegraph reports:

Everyone of working age should be online by 2015, and all applications for school places and free school meals will be online under a new Government plan to get more people to use the internet.

Launching a plan to get the 10 million Britons who have never used the internet online, the Government's "digital champion", Martha Lane Fox claimed “the Government needs to think ‘internet first’ – by getting more people online, everyone wins.” She suggested that everyone applying for benefits should also be subject to “informal” tests on their computer skills.

It may not have occurred to Ms Fox that some of those 10 million would prefer to live their lives without getting online. And why not? Why should individuals be forcibly encouraged to engage in a practice that requires investment in equipment and time-consuming efforts to keep up-to-date, principally because it might be more convenient for the public authorities. Furthermore, a substantial proportion of those 10 million may be functionally illiterate - little chance that they will enjoy the benefits of surfing the worldwideweb.

No, it's the nanny state again, interfering in our lives. Have they nothing better to do than meddle?

09 July 2010

Music of the week

If you have not come across this song before now, then it's about time you did. The wonderful Lady Day:

Kicking the economy when it's down

Even The New York Times disapproves of Slasher Osborne's budget:

... the coalition has asked most government departments to slash spending by 25 percent to 40 percent over the next four years. Health spending will be spared, but capital spending on badly needed new hospitals and schools will not. More than half a million public-sector jobs are expected to be axed, including tens of thousands of police officers. The less well off, who depend on functioning public services, will suffer most.

No reputable economic theory justifies this bleeding. In fact, most mainstream economists have argued for delaying the most severe cuts until a more robust economic recovery has begun.

The coalition budget reflects Conservative Party ideology, which asserts that as the government withdraws money from the economy, private businesses and consumers will step in to replace it. That won’t happen if Britons see only hard times ahead.

Is this really what the libdems want?

08 July 2010

World Cup TV

Unanswerable questions:

1. Why do Clarence Seedorf and Jurgen Klinsmann speak better English than Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer?

2. Why does Clive Tyldesley insist on labelling the Dutch left back as Gee-oh when the guy's name is Giovanni (pronounced Joe-vanni)?

3. Why was Paul, the German psychic octopus, never interviewed, despite having a much better prediction record than the usual TV pundits?

4. What is the point of Kevin Keegan?

5. Is it necessary for Jonathan Pearce to raise the pitch of his voice to screaming point whenever a player approaches the opposition goal mouth?

I dread to think of how much they are paying this sorry crew ...

Online shopping

So I can now order my groceries at Amazon? The Independent reports:
Amazon's launch into the online groceries market – a sector where Tesco's share currently beats that of all its competitors combined – will be fascinating to watch. This is a company with the resources and the imagination to give Britain's biggest grocer a run for its money.
I don't think so. Check it out for yourself. The cheapest brand of sliced bread available from Amazon is a 100g loaf of Livwell White at £2.79, while the cheapest beer is a 500ml bottle of Breconshire Brewery Cribyn at £2.55. The only brand of corn flakes is Barkat (no, I'd never heard of them either) and, as for baked beans, well there are none.

Much as I admire Amazon in the book and DVD department (and the t-shirts are also good value), when it comes to food I'll stick to Tesco and Sainsbury's, ta much.

07 July 2010

Wee Georgie blots his copybook

A week ago, rather earlier than anticipated, the OBR was forced to produce its forecast of job losses as a result of public expenditure cuts, thus enabling the Prime Minister to put on a braver face than might otherwise have been the case. Furthermore, the OBR tended towards the heroic in the assumptions underlying the forecast.

Yesterday, Sir Alan Budd let it be known that he would not remain as OBR chief beyond the end of the month.

Coincidence? Maybe. But it still leaves boy George with a problem: where does he find a respected independent economist prepared to take on the job of leading an organisation which is totally reliant on Treasury economists to do the heavy lifting and whose credibility has already been compromised?

All a bit of a guddle. I wonder if George is regretting his panic of last week? Governing can be such a trial sometimes.

Quote of the day

From Simon Tisdall of The Guardian (here) on the decision to pull British forces out of Sangin in the Helmand valley and replace them with US troops:
Now the British are leaving Sangin, many will ask what it was all for, why they went there in the first place, and what, if anything, was achieved at the terrible cost of so many brave young men and women killed and maimed. Answers will be hard to find.
Replace the word 'Sangin' with 'Afghanistan' and the answers are equally hard to find.

05 July 2010

The smoking gun

If you read that story about Monsieur Blanc, the French minister who resigned after charging €12,000 worth of cigars to his department's budget, you will wonder how many cigars you get for that amount of money.

Not that many, is the answer. According to this website, you won't get much change from buying 20 boxes of 25 Romeo y Julieta Churchills (tubos of course). Worth every penny. But perhaps a litttle injudicious of M Blanc to charge it to his ministry.

01 July 2010

Music of the week

From 1977, Emmylou:

Praiseworthy but probably doomed

Yes, he means well. And I agree with the underlying sentiment. But - as ever - it's not that simple. The Guardian reports:

William Hague vowed today to increase Britain's influence in the European Union by boosting the numbers of UK nationals in the corridors of power at Brussels.

The foreign secretary accused the previous Labour government of allowing a "generation gap" to develop over its 13 years in power, by neglecting to ensure that enough British officials won key posts in EU institutions.

Numbers of British officials at director level in the European commission have fallen by a third since 2007, and numbers of UK posts by 205 overall, he said. Although it represents 12% of the EU population, the UK has just 1.8% of staff in entry-level positions at the commission.

In the good old days, national governments could parachute in their officials to the EU, usually but not exclusively by way of a cabinet post in the control of a Commissioner. But that procedure is increasingly frowned upon. Nowadays, commission officials are appointed by way of competitve examination. Among other requirements is a facility with at least one other EU language (which rather limits the field of UK aspirants). Thereafter, promotion is ostensibly on merit, although in practice Buggins' turn seems to be the guiding principle.

Accordingly, the scope for Mr Hague and the FCO to place influential UK officials into the Commission hierarchy is extremely limited. Sure, they can encourage bright young things to apply at entry level, but it will be twenty years before they reach positions of influence.

Some day, I will tell you of the extent of the encouragement I received from the UK civil service to go to and remain in the Commission. It was somewhat less than whole-hearted. But if the attitude is changing, great. Just don't count on it making a significant impact in the short-term.

The man who made BP what it is today

I see that Lord Browne is to bring his business experience to bear on the civil service.

What experience, I hear you ask. Plugging leaks, putting out fires, perhaps telling lies in court?

Don't be cynical. He is to bring business ethos to the work of government. Does that not fill your heart with a warm glow?