Regulators who fail to regulate !

We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry this morning. The local forecast had warned us to expect the coldest morning since the ice-age, and most of us arrived in our best imitation of Eskimo Nell, only to find that mud-wrestling kits would have been more appropriate. Tonight the doom-laden men from the Met Office will undoubtedly tell us that we have had rather less frost than appeared likely. It seems that their accuracy is akin to the pundits who persist in telling us that Leicester City are about to resume their rightful place at the bottom of the Premiership table.

But we drew some comfort from vindication of our complaints of yesterday about the distortion of facts on the part of the daily comics. With new claims of “endemic hacking” at The Sun emerging, that eminent organ leads today’s edition with praise for those Junior Doctors who had the “conscience to cross yesterday’s shameful picket lines”. In fact they were those involved in emergency care, which was excluded from the strike. It goes on to urge Doctors to “grow up”. No mention of the dangers of excessively long hours, or even the definition of “unsocial hours”. No recognition of the fact that our hospital Doctors carry responsibilities even greater than those of the average Sun reader. It seems that the standards of accuracy displayed at the time of the Hillsborough disaster are alive and well in the land of Murdoch.

As we gathered in the cosy comfort of the hut for our undeserved break we did notice that our dear leader has decided to grant his ministers the right to campaign for an EU exit. It seems that he was only just in time – this morning Chris Grayling has announced to a roll of drums that membership of Aunty Merkel’s club is a “disaster for Britain”. By a cat’s whisker our Houdini has escaped the fate of the bearded one whose rebellious shadow ministers feature more regularly at breakfast time than Donald Trump. Then again he may be worrying too much, the likelihood being that his press disciples would have described such behaviour as democracy in action.

But our attention spans tend to be as limited as those of asthmatic ants, and thoughts of forecasters who can’t and voices of the people who aren’t drifted away like the smoke from Albert’s foul pipe. We began to consider one of life’s great mysteries – why are our various Regulators, with their lush London office blocks and tiered ranks of highly paid officers, so inept in the art of, er, regulation?

We call as evidence for the prosecution Ofwat, the body set up to oversee Britain’s privatised water industry. It is effectively a monopoly and nobody has a choice over which company provides their water and sewage services. By way of a sop to those unenlightened souls who questionned the wisdom of handing control over a no-choice public service, the government set up Ofwat to approve all price rises. At the time it seemed eminently sensible given the risk that the interests of shareholders – many of whom are foreign governments – might be considered a greater priority than the Hobson’s Choice consumers. Since only the Regulator could approve prices the interests of the conscripted public were thus protected. Wrong!

A report from the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee has revealed that over the past five years shares in the water companies have surged by 50 per cent when the stock market as a whole has barely risen. At the same time consumer bills have risen each year on average by 0.5 per cent above inflation with customers paying £396 a year for services. The companies have made windfall profits of more than £1 billion as a result of bills being “significantly higher than necessary”. Among those worst hit have been the poorest customers with average water bills now representing 5.3 per cent of their annual income compared with 2.3 per cent before the recession.

The Public Accounts Committee found that Ofwat had been unduly generous to the companies in its assessments, and now had no way of clawing the money back. It has contacted the companies to suggest they voluntarily consider foregoing a proportion of bill increases in the light of the over-generous price review settlements and resulting pressure on household bills. Unsurprisingly few of the ten largest water companies have done so.

Of all the UK’s regulatory failures this is arguably the greatest. We have to ‘buy’ water and we have no option to switch supplier. We are entirely at the mercy of the privatised suppliers and the only hope of protection from exploitation lies with the Regulator. Of course lax regulation is a feature of British society, but in most cases consumers do have the theoretical option of not buying or of changing supplier. On water there is no competition, no redress, no appeal.

Why water should be privatised at all is a mystery. But the chance of the squabbling opposition ever questioning that is akin to our joining Major Tim. So there is just one question.

When the hell is this government going to sort out the overpaid, useless so-called Regulators?
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” Ofwat has been too generous to water companies in past price settlements, to the extreme detriment of water customers. We support the view that much more needs to be done to address this issue”… Tony Smith, Consumer Council for Water.

The daily comics go from bad to worse!

We were all moved by the response to yesterday’s piece about David Bowie. It is nice to learn that we are not alone in our view that this was a unique man. He clearly had a huge impact on people of all ages, he seemingly encouraged many to seek their inner self and to realise that it was okay to be different. The more we think about him the more we applaud his decision to decline honours. A label bestowed from on high would have fitted ill on a man who was truly of the people and for the people.

After we had cleaned out the squabbling hens, and enjoyed our customary Eric Pickles breakfast, we had to head for the hen-food and bedding wholesaler. The result of living in a perpetual monsoon has been not only that we now have webbed feet, but also a dramatic increase in our consumption of corn and chipped-wood bedding, and the need to restock had become urgent. Hence the late publication of these notes – unlike the daily comics we don’t have an army of hacks to meet deadlines. Given the standard of what many of them produce we should perhaps be grateful for small mercies. And of course it is not deadlines that dictate their lives, there is the small matter of dancing to the tune of their political masters.

Nowhere was that more apparent yesterday than at the Daily Torygraph, which led with a banner headline announcing that the striking Junior Doctors had been “Ordered back to work”. Read the accompanying blurb and you find nothing more than a remark from the lead NHS clinician confirming that in the event of a hospital hitting a crisis the pickets would abandon their banners – something already agreed by the BMA. Clearly the voice-piece of Jeremy Hunt believed that upon reading the dramatic headline the doctors would turn somersaults. In reality it had the opposite effect.

To us this example of press bias was up there with the worst. Would it have been too much to expect that a news story about our young doctors be treated honestly? Of course the Torygraph is not alone in its modern adulteration of facts. Once upon a time, many of our national newspapers reported honestly. Now, with the possible exception of the Independent, they all blur the distinction between facts and political cause, and the practice extends to their online versions. Local papers always reported objectively, but they are in terminal decline.

We will soon be involved in a decision that will affect the UK like no other in recent history. One would have hoped that the media would have provided a public service by providing an unbiased coverage of the EU referendum, for many people like us are genuinely unsure as to the pros and cons of membership. But that isn’t going to happen. What will happen is that every wild claim made by our dear leader will be reported as fact, always provided that Rupert Murdoch et al have decided that staying in serves their best interests. Should they decide that it doesn’t the equally wild claims by those favouring exit will be solemnly reported as if discovered on tablets of stone.

Ironically the only media organisation likely to make an honest attempt at impartial factuality – the BBC – is the one that many of them are plotting to emasculate. If they are successful we can effectively wave goodbye to democracy. People are influenced by headlines, and will become as puppets on a string. Be it the regulation of Bankers. the NHS, Trident, Benefits or Immigration the ‘facts’ will be adjusted to suit the political agenda of a handful of powerful men. And any leading opponent of their views can expect merciless character assassination.

Although it is still far from the worst offender the greatest loss has been the integrity of The Times. It was never the choice of those looking for a quick read, but for many seekers of the truth the ‘Thunderer’ could be relied upon to report objectively. No more. So long as the Chipping Norton set court Mr Murdoch, it will continue to act as a propaganda agent for the Downing Street spin-doctors.

And part of that deal is the refusal by government to activate part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry. You may recall that this was postponed until such time as all prosecutions relating to phone hacking were completed. It was then to investigate in detail alleged links between ministers and the media. Potential dynamite. But someone has removed the fuse – no prizes for guessing who and why. And we are left with the laughable concept of the press regulating itself with a body including some of the very people involved in the worst examples of misreporting and worse in the history of the published word.

It is perhaps the sins of omission that trouble us most. We understand that research by the Macmillan Cancer Support has shown that thousands of cancer patients will be made homeless by the planned cuts to employment and support allowance. Did this not merit a mention? We understand that more than twenty claims for compensation against British troops by Iraqi civilians are still being lodged each week, and the government is funding legal proceedings. Not worthy of coverage? We understand the private companies given PFI contracts account for the bulk of the constantly reported NHS debt. Why no mention? There are many examples of what appear to be stories in the public interest being censored.

Of course space determines what can be covered. Given the thousands of column inches devoted to the romance between Rupert and Jerry Hall, and the sartorial splendour of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps there is simply not enough room to cover such trivia as the fate of cancer victims and troops sent into an unwinnable war on a lie?
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” A journalist is somebody who possesses himself of a fantasy and lures the truth towards it”….Arnold Wesker.

A universal sense of loss !

In common with millions across the globe, we were shocked and saddened by the announcement of the unexpected death of David Bowie. Over all the years of our lives pop stars have come and gone, livening our days in the process. But this man was far, far more than a pop star. For so many he was the first one to challenge them, the first to ask difficult questions about identity and art. “The trousers may change,” he once said, “but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to work with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety – all the high points of one’s life”.

The wry, sardonic twist disguised the essential truth of the claim: for where pop music endemically desires and encourages a cheery mass response, and seeks out the security of a collective experience, Bowie’s genius was to find that sort of resonance in the more uncomfortable, individual corners of life. He was the outsider’s outsider, the original avenging nerd, the Brixton boy who went on to speak in a unique way to people of all ages, colours, creeds and sexuality. He was as much an artist as any of the Grand Masters, he found a place in the minds of all. And he changed with the times, he never paused in his exploration of the human condition. It is clear now that the album released just days before his death was his final goodbye.

Far greater observers of the Bowie phenomenon have published tributes, and we cannot even attempt to match them. But of one thing we are sure – this talented man kept us entertained at a superficial level with his music, acting and constantly changing fashions. But at a deeper level he spoke to our souls, he prompted us to face questions about our very existence and offered answers and hope. It was, in our view, entirely appropriate that David declined various offers of honours – a genius such as his needed no elitist label, he was of the people and at one with millions who saw him as one of them. An establishment figure he was not.

When we eventually gathered in the allotments hut someone put a Bowie CD into the player and we tapped our feet as so many in London, Berlin and America did last night. It is quite a thought that of all the great personalities that have impacted on all of our lives this talented man of humble beginnings has impacted most. His legacy will live on long after we have gone.

He would undoubtedly have approved of many of the news items that greeted us when we in due course turned our attention to the morning comics. Especially the evidence that people are prepared to think for themselves as demonstrated by the outcome of a poll showing overwhelming public support for the Junior Doctors whose strike started this morning. The army of spin-doctors have poured forth their propaganda and the people have seen it for what it is.

He would probably have approved too of the scepticism that greeted yesterday’s speech from our dear leader. Mental health services are to be revolutionised and poverty-stricken housing estates are to be transformed. Laudable aims, but haven’t we heard all this before? And why are such long overdue changes dependent in some mysterious way on our remaining part of Aunty Merkel’s empire, given that she appears to have substantial priorities of her own?

We were genuinely pleased to learn that cold-callers are to be obliged to display their telephone numbers when harassing telephone owners. Most of the incessant nuisance marketing calls that aim to ensnare the vulnerable are currently made from hidden or false numbers, and from early Spring that practice will carry a penalty of up to £500,000. In one highlighted case a personal injuries company reportedly called one household 470 times. At last these reptiles are to be brought under control.

But for every bit of good news there is always something of the opposite nature. The Financial Conduct Authority has let it be known that it is considering a return to the days of financial products being pushed by commission-driven sales staff. One would have thought that the outcome of such an arrangement was evidence of just what happens when bankers are allowed to act as advisers whilst secretly lining their own capacious pockets. It becomes impossible to believe other than that the Chancellor is once again in cahoots with the very people who caused the crisis that still impinges on the lives of millions.

But enough of such shabby trivia. As we went our various ways our minds returned to an extinguished star whose light defiantly shines on.
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” Bowie created a series of parallel worlds inhabited by Ziggy and co, fantasies that told us it was good to be weird and different, to live out our secret dreams. He was a social historian, a diarist and a cabaret artist who created a stunning cast list”….Janet Street-Porter.
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That rarest of creatures !

It is said that talking to oneself is the first sign of insanity. That being the case the men in white coats will soon be heading for the allotments, for there was a great deal of almost inaudible muttering going on this morning as we cleaned out the hens. But perhaps this was the exception to the rule, for the seemingly deranged were Manchester United supporters. For as long as most of them can remember their hard-earned cash has bought them spectacles of blood, thunder and glory, and watching performances in the paint-drying category has unnerved them. So preoccupied were they that they probably didn’t even notice that the perpetual rain had been replaced with frost.

The rest of us did, and were grateful for the hut fire when we gathered around it. It was at this point that real conversation broke out. We had expected the odious Jeremy Hunt to resort to his spin-doctors in a last minute attempt to discredit the real ones who plan to strike this week, and he didn’t disappoint. A troll of patients wired up in intensive care departments had provided a perfect story line. Encouraged to believe that connections to life-saving equipment would be switched off the moment junior doctors exited, understandably distraught relatives pleaded for the would-be strikers to think again. Of course anyone with any detailed knowledge of hospitals knows that such care is not within the orbit of junior doctors, but as inventions go it was a good one.

It prompted a lively discussion about our yearning for that rarest of creatures – an honest politician. What followed was to an extent based on a fallacy, the belief that spin and dishonesty is the unique feature of today’s motley crew. It isn’t – virtually every government we have ever had has been tarred with the same brush, only the army of professional advising fantasy-makers represents a change. The sad, infuriating truth seems to be that the very art of succeeding in British politics requires an ability and willingness to tell lies unequalled in any other walk of life.

Yesterday our dear leader demonstrated his skill of deception. We are, he told Andrew Marr, close to an agreemnt on EU reforms and a June referendum is now probable. Perhaps even he has forgotten the truth. Which is that during an election campaign that the polls told him he was in danger of losing, he tossed in various ‘goodies’ including a vote on EU membership. At a stroke he neutralised both his party sceptics and drew the sting from the rampaging Farage. His resignation speech having been quietly disposed of as he awaited the results at Rebekah’s place, he realised that he was now committed to a public vote.

He subsequently also realised that, given his own declared preference, a ‘Leave’ vote would trigger his own untimely departure. Time for deception. Quietly drop talk of closed borders, and focus instead on benefits payments to EU migrants, few of whom actually claim them. Agree vague weasel-words with Aunty Merkel and the rest and bingo. Then warn the great British public of the perils of operating alone, and his triumphant as-planned retirement was assured. Does he really care about the EU? Probably not, but in politics personal survival transcends true beliefs.

There are of course countless examples of other deceptions by this government and its predecessor, the coalition. But it was always thus. We all know about the big Blair lie, but his election triumphs all owed much to dishonesty and distortion. I remember well travelling, together with a group of GPs, to respond to his invitation to set up a trial of the concept of Primary Care Trusts, a living example of power over healthcare being transferred to local communities. We spent two hours with him and emerged convinced that utopia had arrived. We worked our socks off, even to the extent of touring the country trumpeting our plans. On launch day we received a bouquet from Downing Street. Three years later the scheme which by then covered the whole country was dropped, and millions of pounds of public money written off. As was its successor and its successor until we ended back where we started.

Go back much further in time and the same behavioural pattern is apparent. Left-wing advocates of state-ownership never seem to grasp that it is a disaster simply because it leaves dishonest politicians in charge. As a senior manager in the state-owned British Leyland I saw at first hand the lies told over the gifting of the profitable Truck and Bus businesses to the near-bankrupt Dutch company DAF. I was present when Ministers forced through the disposal of valuable public assets such as National Bus, AEC, Scammell and others. Billions of pounds were gifted to delighted private interests, all of whom had friends in high places. British manufacturing was systematically destroyed and thousands of skilled men left without even the consolation of pensions.

I still have documentary evidence of malpractice on a grand scale. Enough to write a book, but who would read it? We now live in an age where almost no one believes that successful politicians are to be believed or trusted. No one would be remotely surprised.

But why? It cannot be the case that everyone choosing politics is dishonest. The evidence suggests that to climb to the top one has to win elections, and to do that one has to win the support of people of all persuasions, interests and none. To do this one has to be all things to all men, and that entails abandoning integrity. And because a career at the top can be short-lived it creates a desire to make personal hay whilst the sun shines.

MPs who have known Jeremy Corbyn for many years tell me that he is a conviction politician, a man committed to the truth as he sees it. The result is that he is doomed to failure. On any issue he refuses to budge one inch from his beliefs and principles, and the result is that he constantly alienates everyone who doesn’t share his viewpoint. Popularity will always elude him as the masses turn to saviours who sound as though they represent their beliefs and needs.

As someone who once graduated in political history I wish that I could quote an example of just one leading successful politician who refused to bow to popular demand, who stuck to the truth. Sadly I can’t.
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is more important than the outcome”….Arthur Ashe.