Should we trust national charities?

Storm Albert, or whatever silly name has been assigned to it, is about to revive the allotments swamps and we cleaned out the squabbling hens with undue haste this morning. But we faint-hearts should perhaps pause from our panic to reflect on the courage and fortitude displayed by Henry Worsley, the former army officer who has died in the footsteps of Shackleton. This was no maverick who set off solo across Antarctic on a whim, he was meticulous, focused, experienced and has raised more than £100,000 for the Endeavour Fund that supports injured servicemen and women.

The elements haven’t changed noticeably in Antarctica for a century. With no dogs, kites, supply drops or team members Henry set off at a roaring pace, covering 913 miles in appalling conditions, only to falter 30 miles from the end of his quest as temperatures fell below -40C. “My summit is just out of reach,” he told supporters in a final audio message. Major Tim, currently orbiting the Earth in the space station, called Mr Worsley “a true explorer, adventurer and inspiration”. We can only say Amen to that and reflect that his death humbles us all and reminds us of our individual insignificance when faced by nature’s might.

But we were still casting apprehensive glances at the sullen skies as we headed for the welcoming protection of our hut. Once settled around the fire we were intrigued to read the leaked letter from Sir David Dalton, the Government’s chief negotiator in the Junior Doctor saga. It seems that in decrying the recent initial strike as “pointless”, Jeremy Hunt was once again demonstrating his propensity for flights of fancy. The government is adjusting which evenings and weekends would attract out-of-hours pay premiums and is conceding that no doctor will have to work consecutive weekends. Above all else it is recognising that excessive hours are dangerous and unfair. What a pity that it took uncharacteristically militant action to force respect for young men and women whose dedication shames the overpaid muppets of Whitehall.

But our attention quickly shifted to a subject close to our ancient hearts – charities. Most of us devote our spare time to working for the Rosemere Cancer Foundation, a local charity devoted to raising money to buy life-saving equipment not available through the cash-strapped NHS. The office is located within the cancer centre itself, and overhead costs are minimised. Virtually every penny that drops into rattling tins, or is raised at hundreds of fundraising initiatives, goes straight into kit identified by the clinicians as needed for patient treatment. in short we dedicate ourselves to the cause in the knowledge that we are not simply subsidising high salaried executives sitting in some remote London five-star offices.

And so it is with most local charities, most of whom probably share our suspicion of the large national organisations. We have always been suspicious of our larger brethren in the charity industry, but it was the investigation carried out last summer by the Daily Mail that reinforced our doubts. Yesterday the parliamentary public administration committee gave leading charities a final warning. In a devastating report MPs say that “well-paid bosses have been incompetent or wilfully blind”. They add that statutory regulation will be needed if the charities cannot restore public trust. They noted in particular the NSPCC, the British Red Cross, Oxfam and Macmillan – all of whom were identified by the Daily Mail as being, to put it kindly, unethical and wasteful.

All were found to be using “boiler room” tactics to raise cash. Firms paid by them were regularly contacting homes on the official “no-call” list, They were also prepared to take money from those who revealed that they had dementia. Staff were ordered to be “brutal” and “ferocious” when asking for cash and told even the poor and old were “fair game”. In other words rather than use volunteers the major charities have used call centres, and we all know just how intrusive and unethical they are.

The investigation also revealed that some charities, including Great Ormand Street Hospital and Macmillan Cancer Support, made it difficult or impossible for donors to block further communication by mail or phone. Personal information was sold on and fell into the hands of scamming companies. Vulnerable people were seen as fair targets, and great distress was caused to people too conscience stricken to use the bin or to put down the phone. Abuses by fundraisers and charities shocked public and politicians alike and cast a dark shadow over many well-run and ethical organisations.

MPs rightly paid tribute to the Daily Mail for exposing large charities and their cold call sharks. We hope that new and far more penal regulation will follow, and that trustees will be obliged to exercise their duties of governance. We all hate call-centres but we cannot afford to hate charities which have the capacity to do so much good.

Our worry is that MPs of the government are becoming increasingly distracted. A significant number of backbenchers yesterday attacked our dear leader for trying to strong-arm them into the EU referendum ‘In’ campaign, and for being too feeble in his renegotiation demands. To make things even worse the think-tank Civitas yesterday published a report claiming that the single market is a disaster for the UK.

Yes that is important, but we pray that the issue of rogue charities will not be brushed aside. For many they represent hope. But trust is an equally important feature!
QUOTE FOR TODAY ” I have made it clear that the charity sector has one last chance to prove that self-regulation can work. But I am willing to step in and impose statutory regulation if necessary”….Rob Wilson, minister for civil society.

A nice little earner !

We didn’t need last night’s TV pictures of ice-caps vanishing faster than Albert’s pints to convince us that the climate is changing more frequently than he changes his socks. Last week we were wrapped up in the fashion of Eskimo Nell, this morning coats were discarded as we cleaned out the hens and dug trenches. By way of a cheering note our local radio warned us to stand by for very heavy rain, our version of the American snowstorm which is now heading our way. It is said that variety is the spice of life – we yearn only for a little constancy.

As we flopped on to the hut chairs we noted another version of inconsistency. Britain, and all the other EU member states, has been asked to send 500 troops to enforce borders across the Union. A startling U-turn in itself, but the Czech president has called the size of the new EU ‘army’ comical. He claims that by the time it is formed another half a million refugees will have arrived. The reality is that the situation is rocketing out of control, and is even more ominous than it appears. We say that having yesterday received from a reader a copy of an email from a lady doctor working in Germany.

She reports that the German government is trying to suppress reports of the rapidly escalating problems in many hospitals. It seems that the mass of migrants besieging them contain a large number of violent people, and a number of nurses have been seriously assaulted. Children have been abandoned whenever the question of payment for prescriptions has been raised, and police officers are now present on every ward, pharmacy and emergency department. The picture the Doctor paints is a frightening one and contrasts completely from those we see on our TV screens of exhausted, grateful processions arriving at German railway stations.

Suddenly the dream of a United States of Europe lies shattered – united it is not. Suddenly our dear leader’s quest for closed borders looks a less daunting one. Suddenly the significant number of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs feels emboldened, and even those enamoured with the prospect of permanent membership of Aunty Merkel’s club are beginning to waiver. Ironically it was David Cameron who provided the vice of sanity last week when he demanded that emphasis must be switched to improving refugee camps in Syria. But even that may not be enough for the 20,000 or more now arriving every day includes many from countries not directly affected by war. Even the most sympathetic souls must surely recognise that if this situation is allowed to continue such stability as exists across Europe is in grave danger.

Not a happy thought on which to begin a new week, and we were grateful for the diversion provided by last night’s BBC programme about the discovery of the bones of a giant dinosaur that once dominated Planet Earth. Even the ageless David Attenborough seemed in shock at the sight of the re-created monster. Like others we codgers have often described a dear departed as a “giant of our time”. Suddenly every human we have ever known seems puny and fragile. It was not hard to imagine that colossus swallowing Albert as a pre-lunch appetiser.

But as we enjoyed our second mugs of Yorkshire tea – given our fear of the health promotion brigade we no longer mention our doughnuts – we decided to change the subject. We humans like to think of ourselves as giants and the realisation that our predecessors were capable of swallowing us whole was not helpful. So instead we took a look at the latest example of non tax-paying ‘giants’ being encouraged to rob the British taxpayer.

One of the biggest suppliers of equipment and testing services to the NHS pays barely any corporate tax in the UK, despite receiving hundreds of millions of pounds a year from medical sales to NHS hospitals and clinics. A study of GE Healthcare’s accounts reveal it has received more money back in tax benefits over the past 12 years than it has paid, with the taxpayer missing out on millions of pounds a year in lost revenues.

The company has been based in Buckinghamshire since 2003 when its vast American owner, General Electrics, bought the British multinational firm from Nycomed Amersham. It makes scanners and other equipment used in areas like oncology and heart disease. Nycomed used to pay up to £8m of corporation tax to the Exchequer every year. But in the years since its takeover by GE it made a total net gain of £1.6m in benefits from the taxman.

It is yet another example of successive governments allowing international companies to avoid tax. The NHS is under massive financial strain, yet the private companies which profit handsomely from it pay minuscule amounts of tax. Contracts won from the NHS last year alone included a £30m deal to supply X-ray archives to medics in the East Midlands via a network of remote servers. Given that the company pays no tax that is a very profitable deal indeed.

Now the American company plans to move its headquarters from Amersham to the US. The willingness of our politicians to allow British manufacturers to be sold off is matched in folly only by its willingness to allow them to avoid tax.

Perhaps a couple of man-eating Dinosaurs in Whitehall would be no bad thing! As our care centres, libraries and hospitals close we are becoming ever angrier about the nice little earners which go unchallenged.
QUOTE FOR TODAY: “Politics is derived from two words – poly, meaning many, and tics, meaning small blood-sucking insects”….Chris Clayton.

Fooling most of the people most of the time !

For people who work outdoors and try to dress accordingly, this has been a confusing week. Over the past seven days we have had mornings of torrential rain, teeth-chattering cold, and now warm air reminiscent of Spring. It is said that wildlife and plants are bewildered – they are not alone. Heaven knows how climate change deniers are rationalising it all. As we cleaned out the squabbling hens this morning we wondered out loud if the next trick will be the arrival of the two-foot deep snow now assaulting parts of America. It would of course have the advantage of making Albert disappear, but it is all very unsettling.

As we settled in the hut with none of the usual jostling for a place near to the fire we considered the possibility that like our earthbound leaders, Bert the Weather God is engaged in the art of fooling most of the people most of the time. Certainly human examples abound. Levels of violent crime, including murder, rape and gun and knife offences have rocketed over the past year and we tend to the view that slashing police officers by 17,000 may have something to do with it. Step forward policing minister Mike Penning who announces that the great British public feel safer than at any tome since the arrival of the Romans.

Meanwhile we read of Frances McCormack who was found hanging at her home where friends found an unsent letter to the Prime Minister explaining her living nightmare at the hands of the ‘Bedroom tax’, which following the death of her son was triggering cuts in housing benefits as a result of her having a spare room. Lying alongside the letter was an eviction notice from her Yorkshire council. Cruel beyond words, but who is fooling whom?

The answers are the government and all of us. The rationale for the ‘Bedroom tax’, and all the other austerity measures now hitting so many people, is that the national purse is empty and we all have to make sacrifices. It is the word ‘all’ that points to deception on a grand scale. Last night the BBC broadcast an investigation conducted on the Cayman Islands. There its intrepid reporter found a modest office block with nameplates revealing that hundreds of large British companies and Banks locate their head offices there. Inside he found no one. The Caymans are a British protectorate and under our tax laws any company trading in the UK is legally entitled to register in a regime that pays no tax. Billions of pounds due to the British treasury are thus saved.

Some of the company executives live in luxury on the islands, alongside locals who live in absolute poverty. When questioned, both the Governor and Prime Minister could only reiterate that nothing illegal was taking place, everything happening beneath the deep blue sky conformed to British tax laws. Perhaps you understand this better than we do, but it seems to us that the emasculation of our public services, the ‘Bedroom tax’ and all, are made necessary simply because the companies and Banks that enjoy our trade make no contributions in corporate tax.

By coincidence one of them, Google, yesterday agreed to make a nominal payment in lieu of unpaid tax. Negotiations on that have taken five years, and the indications are that Google have taken a few million from their back pocket in an attempt to assuage public wrath. But even that is better than the response from Facebook, Amazon, Starbucks and the host of others who make handsome profits via our infrastructure, but pay nothing back. When it comes to fooling the people this is right up there.

But sadly it seems that the people are easily fooled. This morning we read the outcome of an ORB poll which reveals that four out of five people believe that leaving the EU would be a major risk. In what way? That isn’t specified, but it is clear that our dear leader’s “Project Fear” is succeeding.

Migration apart, we codgers are relaxed about EU membership but we fail to spot any risks involved in Exit. Should that happen we still have the option of remaining part of the European free-trade zone that stretches from non-EU Iceland to non-EU Turkey. No one in Brussels argues that Britain would leave that common market if it left the EU. Nor, in fairness, do Remainers. Instead, they talk about jobs “being dependent on our trade with the EU”, hoping that voters will hear that line as “dependent on our membership of the EU”.

Look at any of the many countries operating within the non-EU free-trade zone and you see a surprising situation. Whilst they must comply with EU regulations when selling to EU states they, unlike the UK, are free to set standards for other markets to match the customer requirements. Their annual contributions per capita range from 50 to 107 euros, the UK’s are 229 euros. “Iceland is much better off outside the EU,” says prime minister Gunnlaugsson. “Unemployment is minimal, purchasing power has never been higher, and we have control over our own legal framework, currency and natural resources.”

Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world, a leading member of the G7 and a permanent seat-holder on the UN Security Council. We think we might scrape by. The only risk we can identify is that of being dragged into the migration and euro crises, but surely an exit reduces that.

It seems that whether it be on finance or Aunty Merkel’s club a lot of fooling is going on. Mind you we are far from immune. Several of us are about to head off to spend the best part of £100 on watching millionaires kick a ball around!
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” No tyranny is so irksome as petty tyranny: the officious policeman, government clerks and electromechanical gadgets”….Edward Abbey.

One last job: the inside story of the Hatton Garden heist

Who are the men who carried out the robbery of the decade? Crime reporter Duncan Campbell, who has followed some of them for decades, reveals their stories

No one wants to go to Woolwich crown court. It is an unprepossessing building in south-east London, right next door to Belmarsh high security jail, opened in 1993 as a more convenient place than the Old Bailey to try suspected terrorists and high-end villains. Reporters don’t like to go there, because it’s a long, dreary walk from Plumstead station. Barristers don’t like it, because there isn’t anywhere decent nearby for lunch. And the people on trial don’t like it, because an appearance in the dock there usually heralds a long stretch behind bars.

So it’s a pleasure, on the train from London Bridge one early September morning, to see the friendly and familiar face of Julia Quenzler, an artist with whose work the whole country is familiar, whether they know it or not. For the last 30 years or so, Quenzler has been illustrating the main criminal trials in Britain for the BBC and various newspapers. In the same way that squaddies used to joke that whenever the BBC’s war correspondent, Kate Adie, arrived on the scene, they knew things were hotting up, so, too, does the arrival of Quenzler and her ITN colleague, Priscilla Coleman, indicate that a big trial is kicking off.

Continue reading...

The greatest robbery of them all!

As is often the case we spoke too soon! The monsoon was back this morning and our wellies were back in action as we cleaned out the squabbling hens. But we are far from record holders in receipt of the wet stuff – the village of Eglwyswrw, near Cardigan, have just completed 85 consecutive days of rain. Fortunately the village we know well is 423ft above sea level so Dai the Wood has not been tempted to begin ark building. But like us he may well have been intrigued by the news that a new planet has been found in our solar system, one that is reportedly ten times more massive than Earth.

At present the details are somewhat thin, so even Richard Branson is holding back on bookings. But we did lighten our morning by speculating on the identity of those we would like to send in the advance party. Given his unworldliness Gorgeous George is an obvious candidate, and we quickly selected a group of the nation’s fantasists who are already living in cloud cuckoo land. They would certainly include those who rushed to TV cameras last night to demand punishment for Vladimir Putin, who was yesterday named by High Court judge Sir Robert Owen as a probable player in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Of course what happened is an outrage, but do they really imagine that Inspector Knacker can simply fly off to Moscow with a pair of handcuffs?

Room on our imaginary space flight would also have to be found for Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. He chose to appear in the Putin bulletins alongside a Trident submarine where a reporter proudly displayed the ‘red button’. “We need our nuclear weapons today more than at any other time in our history”, declared Fallon the Fearless. Really? Just who is he proposing to blow to kingdom come? And does he imagine that the weapons of mass destruction would all be travelling in one direction? The interview was a short one, which perhaps explains why he didn’t have time to mention that meantime he has reduced our conventional forces to the size of the Salvation Army.

And lest he feel alone on the flight to Planet Albert we would invite Jeremy Corbyn to sit alongside him. Whilst his plan for Trident is less lethal, his idea of unarmed Tridents does seem decidedly odd. Which leaves the seats behind them, most of which we would fill with those who protest that refusing to allow Jihadists from Walthamstow to return after their tour of beheading would infringe their human rights. Yesterday the United Nations announced that Isis has killed 18,802 people over the past two years, so the question of human rights seems to have been answered.

But by the time we escaped to the hut my pals had wearied of mental games. Over their Yorkshire tea and tributes to Eric Pickles, they turned instead to reality and the greatest robbery of them all.

During the reign of Grumpy Gordon private finance initiatives (PFI) became extremely popular. They provided government with debt-flattering, off-balance-sheet means of funding new hospitals and schools. Private companies provided the funds but it didn’t need Einstein to spot that their interest charges dwarfed those that would have been incurred had the government itself borrowed the money. Even worse the PFI providers took over control of maintenance costs, a licence to print money if ever there was one. The shadow chancellor at the time, one George Osborne, promised that an incoming Tory government would quickly reform Labour’s “discredited PFI”.

At the time I was chairman of an NHS Foundation Trust. The board decided that it wouldn’t go down the path to ruin, and declined to take up the offer of PFI funding. We knew that, as in any business model, our major costs walked through the gates each morning and these had to be carefully controlled. But we also knew that funding provided via PFI would become our major cost, and control of that would be beyond us. It was clear that the annual repayments would be crippling to us and a bonanza for private financiers at the expense of the taxpayer. And so it has proved with hundreds of Trusts heading for bankruptcy.

But Osborne didn’t reform the scheme. He relabelled it PFI 2, and the ‘new’ scheme is very bit as big a scam as the first. In place of the treasury PFI unit, Osborne created ‘Infrastructure UK’, and he recruited Geoffrey Spence to run it, the very man that ran Brown’s rip-off. It remains a central plank of spending on billions of pound’s worth of investment as Osborne rejects the notion of publicly funding investment, even at historically low interest rates.

The bankers are thus gearing up for bumper paydays from funding the new investments at interest rates far higher than those the government itself could borrow at. One such beneficiary is Lloyds, which has appointed a new “global head of infrastructure, resources and energy”. This week’s Private Eye reveals that his name is none other than Geoffrey Spence.

PFI is a disaster – a rip-off for taxpayers and a boon for financiers. Remember this when next Jeremy Hunt bangs on about the NHS controlling its budget. For any hospital that has been cajoled into using PFI this is mission impossible. Virtually every large Trust with new buildings now faces a 30 year period of repayments that they can never afford.

But as your health services deteriorate you can console yourself with the thought that the bankers will be laughing all the way to the, er, bank.
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” I have knowingly defended a number of guilty men. But the guilty never escape unscathed. My fees are sufficient punishment for anyone”….Flee Bailey.