Monday, April 30, 2012

Politics and the Media: isn't there something more important than Jeremy Hunt?

Let's see. We've booked David Cameron for the sofa, Andrew Marr is in makeup, so, what shall we have him talk about?

Well, what's happening? The economy is back in recession and there are important local government elections next week, the Leveson Enquiry is still exposing the complicity between government and the Murdoch 'empire', unemployment is far too high, the Eurozone is in trouble (again). So many choices...

I know, let's talk about Jeremy Hunt!

Don't get me wrong, the behaviour of a member of the Cabinet is a serious business, but we're hardly likely to learn anything from an attempted cross-examination of his boss. And whilst anyone who doesn't like this government, or David Cameron, will probably have enjoyed the experience, they won't actually have learned much. Cameron demonstrated that he believes in loyalty - usually a good thing - but perhaps demonstrated a tin ear when it comes to public perception - which he may pay for later.

And yes, late in the interview, there was a brief exchange on the economy, which allowed Cameron to say how much he cares and how hard he, and the Government, are working to turn things around. As if he was going to say anything else...

It reminds me that the political debate in this country is insular and closed. Do the public care much about the fate of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? Will his fate impact on many people? Is he irreplaceable? The answer to all of these questions is no. Does Jeremy Hunt have an impact on the economy, on inflation, on war and peace? No, not one jot.

And yet, journalists talk to politicians, politicians to journalists, all the while not actually talking to us. No wonder that people feel further and further removed from politics.

At a time when we should all be focussing on how to build a sustainable economy, or how to provide care for an increasing elderly population, the debate is dominated by the fate of one, rather insignificant, politician. So, for pity's sake, have Sir Alex Allan look at it, and let us get on with something important.

Of course, that won't happen in our increasingly personality-driven body politic. Who's up, who's down, who is in and who is out - so much easier than the complex issues of economics or international affairs. The examination of big ideas - what balance to we want to achieve in our economy, what steps should government take to achieve that, how can government fund its activities and what those activities should be, what relationship should we have with our neighbours, our friends, our enemies - is complex, requiring reflection, close examination... and listening to the answers.

But no, we've all tuned in to watch the other guy being skewered by some bloke in a suit, whose job is to make sneering comments, interrupt virtually every answer and generally preen - yes, I'm looking at you, Jon Sopel and Jeremy Paxman - a disease which has even spread as far as local radio. I don't really care what the interviewer thinks, and I don't want him/her to do anything other than ask intelligent questions and allow the interviewee to answer them. Don't let them waffle, but do allow them to develop an argument. And if you won't, don't be surprised when politicians respond in meaningless, glib soundbites. After all, that's all that you've allowed them...

But then, as the public don't appear to care either, perhaps we have the politics that we deserve...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nature conservation, the Creeting St Peter way

On my way back into the village the other day, I noticed that a couple of traffic cones had been placed a little way off the grass verge opposite Peterhouse (a row of, presumably, former council houses) in the village. Ever the alert parish councillor, as I approached, I spotted the sign.

It is perhaps an indicator of how my neighbours value the nature around them that someone should go to such trouble. "But why the sign?", I thought. And then I realised. The school bus is, for most children in the village, a full-sized coach, and on its way into the village, it passes the tree in which the bird has nested. The sign, and the cones, prevent the nearside of the coach from brushing the tree.

So, whilst I don't know who is responsible, I should applaud their enterprise. A kind deed in a sometimes thoughtless world...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saying goodbye to Unlock Democracy...

I'm on my way to London for a meeting of the Council of Unlock Democracy, almost certainly my last, given that elections take place shortly, and I am not minded to run for re-election.

Regrets? I have a few. But then again...

I've enjoyed much of my time on Council. The intellectual challenge presented by my colleagues, as well as subject matter that lies at the core of what I believe in, has allowed me a perhaps naïve sense that I am 'making a contribution'. I have been made to feel welcome by the staff and most of my fellow Council members, all of whom appear to be committed to the notion of democratic reform and renewal.

On that basis, it seems slightly odd to withdraw from active participation, I accept. But there are issues.

I've previously touched upon the issues of internal democracy within 'Unlock Democracy', and whilst I am reassured that the issues I raised then are to be addressed - indeed, I have been urged by members of the Management Board to put proposals to the Annual General Meeting in the Autumn - I have almost certainly burnt my bridges irrevocably. That, in itself, is enough to discourage me from seeking another term.

But I have also been made aware that, in some quarters of the organisation, albeit a minority, my presence is not entirely welcome. It is suggested by some of our stakeholders that the organisation needs to respond to a sense that it is has a strong affinity with the Liberal Democrats, by perhaps taking steps to make its pluralist nature more apparent.

One should not overreact. This does not send out a signal that 'Liberal Democrats need not apply', but it does imply that the culture of the New Politics Network, one of Unlock Democracy's predecessor organisations, remains pervasive. The Old Labour fears of infiltration and entryism, which appeared to impact on the choice of election rules, also militate against genuine pluralism, where the organisation should reflect the diversity of its members and activists, not of the people who have historically led it. Pluralism, by its very nature, demands fluidity and constancy in its demonstration. In short, there are those, albeit a minority, who believe that Unlock Democracy should have remained a campaigning group, of and for the Left.

But democracy is not an issue of the Left, or of the Centre or Right for that matter. It is a question of freedom, of participation, of the right to take power over your life, your future.

Sounds rather like a manifesto for another term, doesn't it?

And I hope that someone takes up the challenge. I have tried, over four years, to respect the underlying culture of Unlock Democracy, to support organic changes whilst acknowledging the work of those who came before me. Thankfully, the organisation has, for the most part, equally respected my idiocyncracies and occasional contrarian tendencies.

But two years of fighting against an obvious conflict of interest over Lords Reform, a subject over which I have decidedly mixed feelings, is not for me. I have other, likely more enjoyable, things to do. Time to get on, don't you think?...

Friday, April 27, 2012

As Election 2012 reaches its climax...

It is hard to believe now that, a year ago, I was deep in the heart of my District Council campaign. The sun had beat down relentlessly, making canvassing and delivery easy, the bank holidays were timed so as to minimise the need to take annual leave - a campaigner's dream scenario, really.

Of course, the Party wasn't wildly popular, and the AV referendum caused Conservatives voters who don't generally come out for local elections to turn out, but I'd given it my best shot. Heavens, my Conservative opponent came out to canvass my village, which was nice given that she'd never come other to attend Parish Council meetings for the previous four years.

And, of course, I didn't win. Yes, I did achieve a 12% swing from the Conservatives to me, I even squeezed the Labour vote a bit, but I still lost, saving future generations from a series of posts agonising about how difficult it is to balance the books on a District Council and how so few of them are really viable.

We don't have elections in Mid Suffolk this year, and that sense of freneticism is a distant one. But, reading the news, and the blogs, I am reassured by the reports of Liberal Democrat campaigns. It will be another tough year, I don't doubt, but whilst there are people willing to fly the flag, and to work for their communities, Liberal Democrats and liberal ideas have a future.

So, as we enter the last week of the campaign, let me wish each and every Liberal Democrat candidate, agent, activist and supporter the very best...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

David Ruffley MP - rude, arrogant and rather ill-advised?

I've never had a lot of time for the Member of Parliament for Bury St Edmunds. Whenever I have met him, I am reminded why I find being in a coalition with the Comservatives so very difficult sometimes.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOf course, I haven't seen that much of him, as I live in a part of his constituency that both he, and his local Conservative Association, appear to have forgotten - they very kindly sent us leaflets for the neighbouring constituency in 2010 (and their MP is much nicer... can we have him instead?).

That said, I see him on television occasionally, as you do, catching part of a debate on BBC Parliament. And when I do, I watch his antics, and his somewhat 'over the top' style and mannerisms, and think to myself, "Who is he trying to impress?". It seems to be all about making an impression, rather than making a point effectively.

But some of his worst traits appear reserved for Select Committee work, where his rather sneering approach towards witnesses demonstrates an almost callous disregard for courtesy and for his colleagues.

Yesterday, at a session of the Treasury Select Committee, he attacked David Riley, one of the witnesses, during questions on rating agencies. Accusing the witness of 'smirking', he described him as "incompetent", "complacent" and useless - absolutely useless", after Riley was unable to answer questions relating to a document that Ruffley was waving.

It's a pity that the witness had nothing to do with the document, and perhaps one shouldn't be surprised that he was unaware of the contents of a document produced by a different, rival company.

So, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect David Ruffley to apologise, would it? I won't hold my breath though, as I suspect he'll be telling anyone who'll listen how great he was, and how he made that witness look stupid. But, if he does, perhaps he might reflect that, had he not been so appallingly rude in the first place, the apology might not have been necessary.

I don't have huge expectations of Conservative MPs, but one think I expect of all Parliamentarians is the ability to carry out a forensic examination of the issue at hand. I would suggest that David Ruffley bear that in mind, and give up the cheap theatricals...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The European Court of Human Rights versus the United Kingdom?

Occasionally, Ros gets e-mails that she reads and thinks, "Mark will find this interesting..." before forwarding them on. And one from the Equality and Human Rights Commission fell into that category.

On Thursday, it published a research report on the European Court of Human Rights and the UK to coincide with the meeting of the forty-seven member nations of the Council of Europe in Brighton to discuss the UK government proposals for reform of the court.
It seems that just a tiny minority of rulings by the Strasbourg Court are against the UK government.  In fact, of the nearly 12,000 applications brought against the UK between 1999 and 2010, the vast majority fell at the first hurdle. Only three per cent (390 applications) were declared admissible. An even smaller proportion of applications - 1.8 per cent (215) - eventually resulted in a judgement finding a violation. The latest figures for 2011 show a rate of defeat of just 0.5 per cent, or one in 200.
Even more interestingly, it is the case that, in a similar situation to the Human Rights Act where the UK parliament has sovereignty over its implementation, UK courts have the flexibility to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights in a manner different to that of the Strasbourg court. A 'margin of appreciation' recognises that national authorities are in the main best placed to decide how human rights should be applied.
While judgements against the UK have been relatively few in number, they have frequently been serious in nature, with a significant proportion involving basic civil liberties such as the right to a fair trial; around eight per cent of judgements related to the right to life and the prohibition of torture and inhuman degrading treatment.
Other important rulings have led to better protection against unnecessary intrusion into privacy through the use of secret surveillance; legislation outlawing forced labour and servitude; equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people and protecting the freedom of the UK media, including the protection of journalists' sources and the importance of investigative journalism, as in the exposure by the Sunday Times  of the thalidomide case.
The Commission, which is Britain's National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), welcomes the Declaration issued by government representatives gathered in Brighton. In particular, the Commission welcomes their acknowledgement of the Court's extraordinary contribution to the protection of human rights in Europe; the right of individuals to take their cases to the Court as the cornerstone of the system; the UK government's acknowledgement that it can prevent breaches of the Convention and reduce the workload of the Court by ensuring respect for human rights at home; and the reaffirmation of the important role of NHRI's like the Equality and Human Rights Commission in protecting human rights.
The Commission also welcomes the news that the backlog of cases which has built up will be dealt with over the next few years and that there will be moves to improve selection processes so that only the best individuals become judges.
You do begin to wonder if Conservatives are so knee-jerk on European issues these days that they automatically oppose anything with 'Europe' or 'European' in its name. Thank heavens that UEFA changed the European Cup to the Champions League! 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Will incompetence, rather than policy differences, scupper the Coalition?

That might seem like an odd question to ask, given the level of tension between elements of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats at the moment, but it is becoming apparent that many of the travails experienced by the Government come down to questions of competence and judgement.

Theresa May and Abu Qatada, George Osborne and charities, David Cameron and Europe, Eric Pickles and... well, just about everything, really, all of these are signs of an administration without a coherent plan. And, whilst it might seem discourteous to point it out, most of the competence issues seem to arise from Conservative ministers.

And most of those errors stem from a desire to win debates and achieve fleeting popularity, rather than actually achieving long term improvements in the way the country is run.

So, whilst Theresa May sought a positive headline in her announcements about Abu Qatada, and was then made to look rather ridiculous, had she waited until he was safely on a Royal Jordanian flight to Amman, she could have safely claimed an achievement. But politics overtook good government, and the results were deservedly disastrous.

And what harm would have been done by showing some restraint? He was still in prison, and no risk to the public.

George Osborne's budget was, from the perspective of Liberal Democrats, a pretty good one. The increase in the personal allowance, the positive steps to attack aggressive tax avoidance (and yes, I'm only too aware that it isn't actually illegal), both stemmed from established, and well-tested Party policy.

And yet, it is now increasingly overshadowed by talk of charities, pasties and grannies. Using the rather evasive cover of 'tax simplification', he successfully gave the impression of having something to hide, and has been fairly convincingly battered ever since. Again, he allowed the politics to overcome good governance, and is paying the price.

But before one gets too smug, a word that I've learned a bit about this week, it isn't the case that all is running smoothly at the Liberal Democrat end of the Coalition either. Whilst one cannot claim that some of our people have gone out of their way to court popularity, fleeting or otherwise, we're still struggling in terms of governance strategy.

In terms of converting policy into statute and practice, I think that we've done quite well, and it's hard to think of a big issue that a responsible Liberal Democrat minister has got wrong, as opposed to issues covered by collective responsibility - and I do think that we've got some of those quite badly wrong. But competence appears, for the most part, to be safe to assume.

But a lack of competence steadily undermines a government, and encourages the sort of infighting we're now seeing in Conservative ranks. The right-wing clearly don't believe that "we're all in it together", and, given that after competence, unity is a highly valued attribute by voters, it's going to take some real leadership by David Cameron to steady the listing vessel.

And this offers Liberal Democrats in government an opportunity. If solid delivery comes back into fashion, and I would argue that it should, anyone with a well-argued, solid policy, should seize the chance to get it implemented. Luckily, we have already demonstrated that we've got a few of those... 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Abu Qatada: when a deadline isn't dead... or a line, for that matter

Call me old-fashioned, but I've always been a bit of a stickler for deadlines. The 'dead' bit implies a degree of finality, the 'line' bit a sense of clarity. And, as someone whose role involves administering a system filled with statutory deadlines, I'm a dab hand at arguing for their imposition and enforcement.

So, watching the fallout from the Home Office's botch of the deportation of Abu Qatada, I am somewhat shocked by the utter futility of the arguments being deployed.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLet's start with the appeal deadline. If Sky News are to be believed, the Home Office have misinterpreted the clear, published guidance of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). And there is that nasty little seed of doubt about any midnight deadline, in that what do you mean when you say 'midnight' on any given date. Is it at the beginning, or at the end, of a particular date? It's one of the reasons why train timetables don't tend to include 00:00 departures.

And, whilst I haven't read the guidance myself - life's too short, frankly - if a Sky News reporter can flick through it and conclude that the ECHR is correct in its interpretation of the deadline, my confidence that the Home Office is right is, to put it mildly, low.

If the deadline is 'three months after the date of judgement', and a judgement is delivered on 17 January, then why would the deadline be 16 April anyway? That isn't three months later, and I deeply suspect that, if you asked any random person wandering past the Home Office what the date would be in three months, they'd give you the correct answer.

The other argument is that Mr Qatada's legal team are being somehow underhand in lodging their appeal one hour before the deadline.

Gosh, isn't it dishonourable to adhere strictly to the rules?

But seriously, if you're trying to prevent something from happening to you, wouldn't you use the rules to best advantage, wouldn't you try and string it out as much as you could? And, regardless of what we think of this particular individual, he is entitled to exactly the same rights as we are, including the right of appeal. And that's because we believe that the Government isn't always right.

I expect the ECHR will reach a conclusion in this case fairly quickly, especially given the implications, as it would be potentially applicable across the forty-seven nations within the jurisdiction of the Court.

And if the hoops to be jumped through are too onerous, then the Home Office is at liberty to seek changes, which would be rather more constructive than attempting to pass the buck for its own mistake.

In short, this isn't a point of principle, it's a point of process, as is so much of governance. And if this Government spent more time improving the processes, and less time trying to change things for the sake of looking busy, perhaps we'd all be better off.

Monday, April 09, 2012

No, not a filigree Siberian hamster... an unexpected visitor to our garden

As a long term city dweller, I was always aware of the theory that you're always within so many feet of a rat (don't ask me how many, my memory isn't that good). However, you didn't see them very often, and you assumed that they weren't a problem as long as they stayed outside.

In the countryside, where there's plenty of wholesome grain to eat, I did rather expect to see a few more. But, until now, I hadn't, so when our neighbour reported having seen a rat, I was rather more alert. Rat droppings on our woodpile were concrete evidence that we did have a rat problem, but apart from a dead baby rat, I hadn't actually seen one until today.

It was Ros who brought it to my attention. There is a small tree in our back garden, from which a bird feeder has been hung, filled with peanuts. And there, holding it, was a rat, which had climbed the tree, more a bush really, and was evidently attempting to get some free food. After it had gone, we decided to move the bird feeder to a less accessible spot, as you really don't want to attract rats if you can help it.

An hour later, Ros called me back. Another rat, slightly smaller, had climbed the tree, and was clearly perplexed to find that the bird feeder had gone. It explored the tree a bit, showing remarkable dexterity, before leaving.

Rats have a very bad image, although here in the country, you're more likely to see rather better looking ones, as pictured above, than the rather disgusting image of rats that you adopt in a city. Unfortunately, this isn't going to help them in this instance, as I really don't want to share my garden with any rodent larger than a field mouse. So, it's rat poison in their future, I'm afraid...

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Even politicians have a right to a private life, don't they?

The suggestion that politicians should make public their tax returns is a no-brainer, right? After all, the public have a right to know what public servants earn, don't they?

Well, yes and no. The earnings from politics of every politician are publicly available, at all levels of government. Every year, politicians agonise over, or are forced to defend, levels of salaries and allowances publicly. So, obviously that transparency should remain.

But there are those of us who believe that politicians should not have to deal with intrusion into their private lives. The widely held view that politicians have no right to a life beyond politics is, to my mind, unreasonable and contrary in nature. And the notion that a politician's financial arrangements should be public whilst exempting the rest of us is, to my mind, unacceptable.

The disclosures of the four leading contenders for the London Mayoralty regarding their personal finances have shed very little light on the potential future of city governance, and provided a wonderful distraction for those who would rather fight the politics of personality than focus on ideas and past performance.

I really don't care that a national newspaper has been foolish enough to pay Boris Johnson a vast sum to write a fairly vacuous diary. What I do care about is that he does his job. I don't even feel it necessary to agree with what he does, as an election gives Londoners an opportunity to demonstrate what they think about his performance. By entering into a debate about how much each candidate has declared on their tax return, we move away from ideas towards jealousy and manufactured outrage.

And why should politicians be singled out, anyway? If it is accepted that politicians are not entitled to privacy, shouldn't we then accept that we drive people out of public life by doing so? And does that help engender the best quality governance we can get?

No, I'm of the view that everyone is entitled to a degree of privacy, and that how they live their life, and what they do in their spare time, should be their business and not ours, so long as it is legal. And we have laws and enforcement officials to decide upon that already...

Friday, April 06, 2012

Your primer on charging for Freedom of Information requests

There have been a few comments about suggestions that a fee may be introduced for Freedom of Information requests. And so, I thought that I ought to check, in my capacity as Portfolio Holder for Finance on Creeting St Peter Parish Council. And, as I expected, I'm not going to be losing sleep over any potential requests... But, for your delectation and delight, here is some guidance...

Can a fee be charged for responding to a Freedom of Information request?

Sections 9 and 13 of the Freedom of Information Act allow public authorities to charge for answering requests in certain cases.

The Act provides for public authorities to either charge for or decline requests for information that would cost a public authority either more than £600 for central government or £450 for other public authorities to deal with the request.

This is referred to as the appropriate limit. Public authorities are required to estimate whether a request is likely to breach the 'appropriate limit'.

What activities can be considered when assessing whether the appropriate limit will be exceeded?

The activities are limited to those that an authority can reasonably expects to incur in determining whether it holds the information requested, locating the information or documents containing the information, retrieving such information or documents and extracting the information from the document containing it (including editing or redacting information).

How is the cost of the activities calculated?

£25 is the standard hourly rate that all authorities must use to calculate the staff costs of answering requests. If it is considered appropriate to charge a fee for dealing with a request, consideration may be given towards charging for non-staff costs or disbursements - for instance, photocopying, printing, or posting.

Is this why the Leader's Office doesn't get it?

The recent debate over rumoured proposals to snoop on private internet traffic has been something of an eye-opener for many internet savvy Liberal Democrats. The report sparked a great deal of anger amongst the online community, all of which led to a hurriedly organised conference call between a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, two Special Advisors in Nick Clegg's Private Office, and Matthew Hanney, Nick's political advisor on Tuesday evening, organised by the Liberal Democrat blogosphere's resident Auntie, Helen Duffett.

It was, it is fair to say, a rather difficult conversation, and it would be hard to describe it as a wholly successful meeting of minds.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThere was a decided sense that the Leader's Office doesn't 'get' it, that they are too close to the heart of government to see why those of us with the opportunity to apply some perspective or, in some cases, expertise, are so aerated about the issue of internet monitoring. It would appear the Leader's Office suffers from a failure to connect to the wider Party.

If it's any consolation, it has been ever thus. David Steel was pretty much loathed by the radical wing of the Liberal Party (the feeling was almost entirely mutual), whilst Paddy Ashdown's leadership was punctuated by interesting 'out of the blue' policy announcements which did at least have the effect of ensuring that you listened to his leader's speech. Charles Kennedy never really engaged with activists, and Ming Campbell's understanding of how the Party really worked tended to ensure that he was respected but never really loved.

But whereas in the past it wasn't important because we weren't in government, and the absence of social media made organising a co-ordinated response was difficult (how outraged can you get if you don't know how outraged everybody else is?), both of these have now changed.

And that, perhaps is the key to the sense of dislocation between 'us' and 'them'. One presumes that the Special Advisors know more than we do about the detail of government - what is being discussed, at what level, and at what stage of development it is at. That knowledge is a blessing... and a curse. It is a blessing, because they can see beyond the newspaper headlines, but a curse because they therefore don't necessarily see what the impact of those newspaper headlines is on the rest of us.

However, that doesn't mean that they're right, and that the rest of us are wrong. We have to remember that a small group of people are tasked with attempting to keep track of the entire gamut of government business, whilst we can focus on the things that interest us. They are also outnumbered by evil Tories, with their own agenda (which isn't ours, lest we forget).

But the fact that we are watching, as an online community, changes the way that politics should be done at the centre. Unfortunately, the centre is suffering from time lag. In the same way that government was slow to understand the impact that freedom of information would have on its work, and that coalition would have on decision making, so it is with the ability of opposition groups to convey their message and influence the media agenda.

As Nick kept saying, we need a new politics. Ironically, that's not just because it is right, but it's because the old one is now transparently broken. And our mission, should we wish to take it on, is to help in those efforts to change the way that policy is made in this country, to break down the walls of silence and deception that impact on our body politic, and to shine a light upon those shadowy media moguls, lobbyists and apparatchiks whose influence is so strong over those who govern us.

It isn't easy, and it won't be quick. But, in the long run, it will reduce the scope for the sort of gulf that causes disharmony amongst us...

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Another reminder that the private sector isn't always the answer

In my new capacity as Treasurer of the Suffolk County Co-ordinating Committee - the bit between the Regional Party and the Local Parties - I have been tasked with opening a bank account. It probably tells you all that you need to know that we've never had one before. In the past, expenses have been defrayed from the wallet of whoever is doing things at the time.

I had persuaded my colleagues that we should use one of the part-State owned ones, on the basis that anything that helps them improve their balance sheet is in all of our interests. And so, three weeks ago, I popped into a branch of Lloyds TSB in Ipswich to collect the appropriate paperwork. But in the new, hyperefficient technological world in which we live, you can't do that. It was explained to me that such things have been centralised and, if I left my details, somebody from the responsible team would call me within forty-eight hours.

I'm an impulse person when it comes to paperwork. When I'm in the mood, it is far better that I get a job done, because if it isn't done, I might not get back to it too soon. And so it turned out.

Today, having still not heard from them, I ventured back into the branch, where a young man with gelled hair, wearing a doubtless fashionable but shiny suit and patent leather shoes (equally shiny) and a badge which implied that he was the branch manager, heard my tale of resigned unhappiness and asked me to take a seat with a group of similarly less than entirely gruntled souls. I would have done that had there been a seat, so I stood until someone came to me and butchered my surname by way of an introduction.

I explained the problem again and was taken to the front desk with a piece of paper with a telephone number and a pen. "Ring these people on our phone and all will be well.", I was advised (I paraphrase a bit - call it artistic license). So, I rang them and was eventually put through to Rhona.

Rhona was very apologetic, explaining that yes, they were aware of my original visit to the branch, and that someone was going to get back to me. Apparently, the centralised team works on a diary basis, scheduling in calls to aspiring customers. And, all being well, someone would call me to arrange a subsequent call to sort things out.

Being a polite soul, I noted that I had initially been promised a call within forty-eight hours, to which Rhona responded by indicating that they were unable to meet such a deadline and had tried to tell local branches that. I did point out that this left customers 'hanging', rather poor customer service. But it clearly wasn't her fault.

One might infer from this tale of ineptitude that Lloyds TSB don't consider the winning of new business to be terribly important. That's bad enough, but when we, the British public own 41% of it, it is something that we should all be worried about.

And when a friend asks me for a recommendation for a reliable current account, I might think twice before I recommend them...

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Lifestyle Claims - just another rather dodgy ambulance chaser

I received a call on my mobile this morning, from a landline number (01792 455426). You know the type, "We're ringing about your claim to a refund.", where someone you've never heard of, clearly in a call centre (you can hear the background noise), tells you that you may be entitled to money from the banks as a result of a legal judgement against them.

Now I've only ever taken out one loan in my life, as a bridging facility for a specific purpose, which was paid off in full at the first possible opportunity, so I'm unlikely to have been 'ripped off' by the (evil) banks. So, as you can imagine, I was intrigued.

So, I asked the Welshman on the other end of the line what the basis of my potential claim was. He told me that I may have been missold Payment Protection Insurance. I asked where that information had come from, and he advised that it was from a 'central database'. I was about to take my questioning one step further when, as he was in mid sentence, the line went dead.

Now, I have never purchased Payment Protection Insurance, nor have I ever even considered doing so. Not necessarily because I am that much brighter than most (which might be true, I suppose), but because the question has never arisen. Therefore, I have no claim against any bank on such grounds.

Which leads me to infer that Lifestyle are simply cold-calling lists of mobile telephone numbers that they've bought, or obtained, in the hope that they might get lucky. It also leads me to infer that they have no such 'central database' of potential claimants, as they would know if I had taken out such insurance were they to be in possession of genuine data. And that leads me to infer that they have no interest in me other than as a source of profit.

Which leads me to believe that, if I get another call from them, I'll be checking out their claim to be regulated by the Ministry of Justice. Because, whilst I may be persuaded that, once engaged by a potential client, their work may be regulated in the loosest sense, I suspect that cold calling is not an encouraged behaviour...

Monday, April 02, 2012

If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear. That's right, Nick, isn't it?

As reports emerge that there are those within the government pressing for new powers to snoop on all electronic communication, my heart sinks. Coalition does not come easy, I accept. Yes, there is compromise, yes, there are things that, as part of that Coalition, we accept in exchange for those things that we promised that we would prioritise in coalition.

However, there comes a point where you say, "Hang on a moment, we surely can't accept that, can we?". And this might well be that point.

On issues such as welfare reform and healthcare, there are legitimate arguments - cost, viability and effectiveness. And indeed, there are, beneath the overblown rhetoric, genuine concerns as to the possible outcomes. But, at the end of the day, people who have earned the right to my trust have assured me that things will be better over the medium and long term. Time will tell, I presume.

However, many of the justifications for those policies disappear when it comes to a basic tenet of our civil liberties. There are no cost savings - quite the reverse - and there is no emergent threat to our security, that justifies giving a government agency the right to monitor what I, or any law-abiding citizen, does online, nor to store that data. Innocent, until proven guilty, is a basic tenet of English law, is it not?

So, I'd rather like some reassurance, Mr Clegg. As our Party Leader, would you be so kind as to rubbish this proposal and make it abundantly clear that Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians will not support such an attack on our civil liberties? After all, if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear. Have you, Nick?...

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The joys of a country stroll

Ros and I went for a stroll today. It was a pleasant, sunny morning, and we'd left the car in Stowmarket and needed to collect it anyway, so we set off across the parish, along the public footpath that runs from the village towards Cedars Park.

Ros knows far more about the countryside than I do, so our walk was interrupted by me asking questions about the flora and fauna we encountered. And, as we walked up the slope towards the road to Creeting Lakes, I noticed, on top of a hedgerow, a yellow and brown bird. "What is this?", I asked. "A yellowhammer.", she replied.

A yellowhammer, courtesy of Wikipedia
Alright, it isn't exotic, and it isn't unusual. But for a long-time city dweller like myself, the variety of birds that I can see in the area around me is a bit of a surprise. And, at this time of year, as the trees are beginning to burst into leaf, and birds are preparing nests, Creeting St Peter is, in its low key sort of way, a rather pleasant place to be.

All in all, it was a pleasant walk, and a reminder that there is much to be said for taking a gentle stroll, keeping one's eyes open, and just enjoying the simple pleasures of birdsong, sunshine and fresh air.