Saturday, 20 September 2014

Need For Speed Reduction

I am not against cars. I have owned one for many years and there are many benefits to using them but they do have their problems. They kill people and cause road rage (with a little help from the drivers). They harm the environment. They raise stress levels even without road rage. They are particularly a problem in urban areas. Everyone in Morecambe and Lancaster will tell you about our traffic jams as we must have some of the best in the country.

In rural areas cars are often a necessity so if we want to get people out of cars then we have to think about urban areas. I often cycle to Lancaster and a very pleasant ride it is too. On the other hand a link road is being built as I write and what a bonus this will be all drivers from the Morecambe and Heysham peninsula who want to get to the M6. It won't help people get out of their cars and travel less or use public transport but I can certainly see the benefits.

However today's blog was inspired by comments on Facebook about speed cameras. The comments were mostly from people who had been fined and saw the cameras as a money maker for the government and I have some sympathy for this view. There is a danger from drivers who are not aware of the limit and break it unknowingly or deliberately. Excuses are many and will include ideas like it was safe to drive on the road at this speed, or I was running late because it was an emergency and risk was minimal. Other excuses may be that they got up late because they had been out the night before, or they wanted to catch the end of a television programme - make your own excuse up. One genuine excuse that I heard was that the driver thought it was a 40mph road because there was a similar road nearby!

We need to comply with the law (unless of course you happen to be an anarchist) and it's not just for safety reasons even though it is definitely better to be hit by a car at 20mph than it is at 30mh. The environment benefits from less pollution by driving at more fuel efficient speeds. Sensible acceleration will do the same thing. So will sensible deceleration, and for that matter not being stuck in jams will benefit the environment too.

Cars are tremendously liberating, and in its way so too is a link road but we have to look after the environment. This doesn't mean stopping in the house and leaving the car parked outside the door, but it does mean getting up at the right time if we have been out on the previous evening. It does mean that we need to plan journeys so we don't feel the need to break the law. It does mean that we can't be ignorant of the law, but mostly it means that we shouldn't deliberately be looking for the fastest acceleration or deliberately breaking the speed limit. Everyone who complained about the fine (£100) should ask themselves what the level of fine should be that would change their lifestyle.

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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Deeper into the rigmarole

I phoned the centralised tax office today as my P2 hasn’t arrived, six days after my last call (see the previous blog entry). Bearing in mind that second class post is advertised as a two to three day service including Saturdays then I had hoped that I may have received it already, especially with the rigmarole that had preceded my second request.

It only took 35 minutes to get through to a real person but it did give me chance to take note of the useless information on the recorded messages. Did you know their telephone number was going to change soon? No? Well I don’t want to know. I am interested if this number is relevant to me. I hope that I never have to phone again and if I do then I hope I can find the number that I need. Again I am asked for the reason for my call and my personal details, all these questions are repeated by the real person.

The recorded message tells me that if my call is about my tax code then I only need to speak to an adviser if it is wrong. How I wish this were relevant but the recorded message hadn’t asked me.  Did I know that I can go online to get more information? Well yes. Does anyone not know that there is plenty of information about everything on the internet?

When the real person speaks to me she starts “hello my name is (too quick for me to hear), how can I help?” That’s nice. I explain that my daughter went back to university and I need a P2 because it is delaying her bursary. She tells me at once that a P2 has been sent out last Friday (I didn’t check the address – let’s hope it is right this time) and it may take 7 to 10 days. I ask why it takes so long and the answer is that it may take 7 to 10 days. I didn’t mention that this makes the first statement irrelevant as delivery now takes as long as it does. I already have recent experience of a letter addressed to me not arriving at all, and as I now understand it, delivery may take less than 7 days

I said that I’d like to complain and I am asked why. I begin to explain that the centralised system did not have my correct address even after I had corrected it – I got no apology last week. Then I am asked  “who did you speak to?” I repeat the words “who did you speak to?” as I write it down and apologise for saying this and explain that I am making notes.  “Why are you making notes?” My answer is simple; because I want to complain and I am writing a blog.

“If you are going to make notes then I’m not going to speak with you”. My reply is “I’m sorry I won’t delay you – I’ll just make brief notes”. “Clearly you are as you are repeating what I say”. Then the phone goes down.

I didn’t get the information as to how to complain about the tax office, I don't know if this P2 is going to the correct address, but if there are any comedy script writers out there then you are welcome to this information.

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Friday, 5 September 2014

Tax Form Rigmarole is Taxing

My youngest daughter has returned to university for her final year. She is a lucky one who receives a bursary but information about my income is needed. To be precise a P2 tax form is needed. I don't have one this year and I now know why. However I didn't know when I phoned last week. It took a while to get through to the tax office and I was repeatedly told they were sorry to keep me waiting.

If a phone call is free then it doesn't matter too much about waiting on the phone, although time is important to everyone, and even more important when it costs money. I was asked by automated voice to say briefly what my call was about. P2 wasn't clear enough. Then I was asked if I have authority from my employer. This is nothing to do with my employer so yes and no are not appropriate answers. I said no. Eventually I got through to a real person.

Why do we have to deal with recordings telling us they are sorry? Why can't we just have the appropriate phone number when we get an answer we find that we are speaking to an appropriate person? When I did speak to the person I found that they had my old address. He took down my new details and told me he would send out an alternative form to the P2, a P11D. Good. My daughter may not have her bursary delayed.

That was eight days ago. I haven't received it so I phoned again and went through the same rigmarole but this time it was worse. I was waiting in two queues to get to speak with a person because the first person couldn't possibly help me. Now I only have one phone number but managed to get the wrong person. When I eventually got the right person I went through the same checks again including my address. It hadn't been changed. Then, when I asked about the P11D I was met with an incredulous exclamation. The person I was speaking with could not possibly do this. Anyway he checked the records and said a P2 had been sent out - to my old address. He would re-issue another.

I asked if I was being charged for this phone call and the answer was that it depends on my provider (let me presume that I was). I also asked if there was a telephone number that I could use to speak with someone directly just in case I didn't receive the P2. No. The system is centralised and I could be speaking with anyone in the UK. I don't mind speaking with anyone in the UK. I do object to being told repeatedly that they are sorry to keep me waiting. No they aren't. It is in their interests to make money out of me by keeping me waiting. I do object to speaking to someone in a centralised system that doesn't happen to be the system I want. I do object to giving my change of address only to find that it hadn't been changed and I am forced to phone again. I do object to incredulous exclamations from tax employees because of information from other employees. However mostly I object to centralised systems taking my money and causing me to lose around an hour of my time that I'll never get back.

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Let's Stop Talking Bread And Circuses

I have just watched yesterday's Daily Politics on iPlayer and I found the contribution by Nick Ross very interesting, especially when compared to that of Conservative MP Philip Davies. The article was about law and order and how the police are asking the public to investigate their own crimes. Philip Davies was asked how the Tories, the party of law and order, could allow this to happen. He blames his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats because they are not the party of law and order. How does he get away with pure insult? Nick Ross was a guest and he explained the insult later in the interview. I can assure him that all Liberal Democrats are in favour of law and order.

Philip gets away with insult because he uses rhetoric to hide what is really happening. Philip always votes against a reduction in the police budget. He sees how stretched the police forces are. He believes in strong law and order measures. He tells us it is ludicrous to send out a message that the police want the public to investigate their own crimes. He thinks it is sensible to gather information like CCTV evidence in order to help the police. The police should reflect the public's priorities. The police do a "damn good job given how stretched they are and the issues they've got to deal with". All these points will get applause from an audience but as Nick Ross said, whether the police or the public investigate is "all a bit of a distraction...bread and circuses". Is Nick saying all that applause has been wasted? Not entirely but there should not be an emphasis on the criminal justice system.

Nick made some great comments and it would be useful to summarise them. Only 3% or 4% of crimes end up in court. We are never going to "arrest ourselves out of trouble". The reason why some crime rates are falling is nothing to do with arrest rates e.g. car crime and burglary. It isn't even CCTV or the number of police officers on the beat. However a politician on the right tends to think that if we are nastier to the criminal then we get less crime. Those on the left tend to think that if you are nice to people then you get less crime, but the effects from the criminal justice system has only marginal effects on crime rates. Temptation and opportunity are much more important factors in affecting the crime statistics. Nick gives the example of fiddling expenses by MPs. Even the Prime Minister had to pay back money. If the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade had their way maybe they would have to include the PM.

So when Philip Davies says the police should attend every burglary he hasn't listened to what Nick has said. Nick replies that we have to tailor our expectations because there are not sufficient resources. Philip comes back and says this is "absolutely my point". Sorry Philip, this is absolutely not your point. You want the police to attend every burglary regardless of its effectiveness.

Official figures tell us that crime has been falling over the last twenty years. Is this related to more bobbies on the beat? Well Teresa May tells us the drivers of crime are alcohol, drugs, opportunity, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, character and profit. She goes on to say that if we can understand these drivers better than we should be able to devise better policy to prevent crime occurring. This sounds very liberal for a Tory Home Secretary and liberal views were also reflected by the Labour Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper. She told us how the last Labour Government placed a big focus on crime prevention but she sees 'neighbourhood policing being undermined' but she does want to 'bring criminals to justice'. We are back to the rhetoric that gets applause and it is just a shame about the 96% or 97% of crimes that don't end up in court.

Mark Reckless MP, who serves as a Conservative on the Home Affairs Committee is of the strong opinion that crime has been falling because of political will. Thankfully Nick Ross is not on his own with his view that this is just bread and circuses. Betsy Stanko, a criminologist told us that the issue is not just about locking people up because they are going to come out again.

Nick said we have to lower expectations about what the court system can achieve. Andrew Neil asked Philip Davies if politicians would stop taking credit for a reduction in crime figure (and presumably stop getting applause) No, we still need to be "tougher on crime".  He still rates highly the criminal justice system and politicians can take the credit for that, so Philip will still take the credit. When Tory politicians use their rhetorical skills and get applause for their toughness on crime then they have conveniently forgotten the bread and circuses.

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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Partisan thinking does not lead to peace

The Arab Spring began in late 2010 when violent and non-violent protest arose in many Arabic countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  We have seen many disturbing acts on our television screens but who can forget those scenes in Libya when Colonel Gaddafi was executed or the violence in Egypt?

I am sure we all have our own particular distressing scenes that we remember but let’s take Syria where the civil war began as a protest against the government which was followed by violent crackdowns, and then protest became armed rebellion and war. Hezbollah gave support to the Syrian army. ISIS, a jihadist militant group are fighting the army. Russia supports the government, while the USA supports the rebels. Our ‘special’ relationship must mean that our government sees the Syrian establishment as bad and the rebels as good.

The trouble with this sort of partisan thinking is that it does not lead to peace. There are opposing sides in any conflict but now take Gaza. Here there is propaganda on both sides, and there are good and bad people on both sides. Anyone who takes the side wholly of the Palestinians or wholly of Israel is not a lover of peace. It may well be that you think that Israel has carried out war crimes and its response is totally disproportionate to attacks from a terrorist organisation. You may think that it is appalling, that Israel has bombed innocent children in their school but unless we all look to negotiate peace settlements and criticise all sides in violent conflict then violence will continue.

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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Lord Carey gets it wrong

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury is in the news today because he remains a member of the House of Lords and has indicated that he will support the Assisted Dying Bill "in the face of the reality of needless suffering". He has obviously decided that there are clear guidelines between needless and needful suffering. He obviously believes that there is no right and wrong in matters of life and death despite that bit in the Bible about thou shalt not kill, because that is what assisted dying does.

I have also seen a quote from the campaign for dignity in dying, "an assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering". Well the first part of the quote is simply a waste of time because we all know that everyone is going to die. As for the second part, we expect medical science to conquer suffering. Where we are let down is not in the control of terminal pain, but by the suffering that is caused by the malpractice of basic care to those who are vulnerable. If you don't believe me take a look at 'care home abuse' in a search engine.

Dr Carey should know better because if he wants to break one of the ten commandments with his exceptional circumstances then what about the other nine? Can I covet my neighbour's wife if I don't get my tea on time or if the other woman is exceptionally beautiful or talented? Pick your own exceptional circumstance.

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Monday, 7 July 2014

Theatre of the Absurd

I have just returned from a short break in London. I went to the theatre a couple of times, and feeling like a lazy tourist, I went into one of those half-price theatre ticket outlets. Unfortunately they only had the most expensive seats for the performance that I wanted to watch so I didn't book them. Strangely, I went to the theatre box office for the same production and all tickets were available including some that are only sold on the day which are £15 as opposed to the top price of £57. The view to the stage was fine and I had just saved £42 on each ticket!

This made me think about our markets in general. There are times when a third party will make life more convenient for us but they want something in return. When I see 'half-price tickets' I should know that it is the middle man's job to make money. They don't want to sell tickets cheaply as they make more money by selling the most expensive items - and they make a livelihood. It should be cheaper to cut out the middle man. It should be more efficient to deal directly with the producer of the commodity or the provider of the service and it should not make any difference whether it is the NHS or street cleaning, providing transport or anything else you can think of.

The trouble is that we, as consumers, are lazy. We want middle men to make our lives slightly easier. It doesn't make for the most efficient systems  but we need a balance between the public and private sector. Now I will always deal directly with the theatre's box office and maybe this is a good rule of thumb for anyone thinking of contracting out their service. Margaret Thatcher used a divide and rule method of thinking in her policies. What does it matter if there are no council houses as long as she wins the votes of the people who live in those houses? It certainly matters to those who want a council house. What does it matter if I am too lazy to deal with a box office as long as I use my money in a way that is convenient to me? This was Thatcher's strong answer, and the strong reply should be that it matters a lot because we are living in a society in which efficiency doesn't matter. Personal gain overrules the right thing to do - and that isn't right. We may have spare money but that doesn't mean we should spend it recklessly as individuals or as a society.

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