Friday, 31 July 2009

My Point Exactly

It really gives me no comfort to be right for just once in my life but it seems MPs in the Treasury Select Committee have confirmed my thoughts.

Namely, that the FSA and Government's new proposals on 'Macroprudential Regulation' are in fact just a rehash of the same regulatory policies in place prior to the Credit Crunch. It also confirms that that the FSA 'failed spectacularly' in monitoring banks in the lead up to the financial meltdown. It must come as a sick joke then that a) the same body and executives at the FSA remain in force, b) that they are responsible for re-writing the policy for the future and c) that a total of £17m was paid to the staff of the FSA in bonuses.

Oh yes, it wasn't just banks at the old bonus game - £17m amounts to nearly £8,000 for every one of the 2,500 FSA staff, of which Hector Sants, CEO of the FSA, alone gets over £100,000 bonus on top of an annual salary of over £900,000 while Lord Adair Turner gets over £200,000 for his part time work as Chairman.

It's a complete joke and a sham.

Central to the new policy, if it can be called new, is that the tripartite system involving the Bank of England, the FSA and the Treasury should remain intact. This may surprise most and even the MPs reckon it should stay but they have criticised the proposed reforms as merely being 'cosmetic'.

In fact, more alarming was the notion that in his evidence to the committee, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, had 'no idea' what the Government's plans on reform were. This really smacks of another disaster in the making and having all just spent vast sums of money on bailing out the financial system to allow greedy banks to just do it all again, everyone seems to forget that there is a limit to the seemingly bottomless pit of money which is the taxpayers' pockets.

At no point does the system recognise that it is taxpayers who are at risk here. It seems that the safety net will always be the same and that we should just grin and bear it. Why there is not wholesale reform of the entire banking industry so that there are clear lines of differentiation between what forms of banks do that ring-fences risk so that the public does not have to pay for stupid mistakes is beyond me. Yes, it will slow the pace of growth and it will reduce the risks that are taken meaning economies will have to slow down but that IS THE CENTRAL ISSUE.

You cannot grow economies when the growth is not real.

The whole point of the last 10 years is that banks were making profits out just pushing debt around, all links to the values underpinning the debts were lost because no one cared. The profit was in trading the debt not in the debt being serviced. Traditional banking values have been lost after deregulation which has spawned a high risk gambling system which relies on no one asking questions just taking a profit on every, more convoluted trade.

The system requires fundamental overhaul and it will be painful because it is the responsibility of every official to make sure that the same weasels don't come kicking us for money again. What happened in the banking industry was our problem this time around because we were given so much credit based on poor asset assessments that we spent it all and craved more spawning a massive boom. Well, it is better we are told that credit will be tighter, more stringently managed and that the boom is over - and lump it.

Instead, the whole system is rigged to do exactly the same again and that is what the MPs have spotted. As Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out, by saving the system as it is we have just started the countdown to the next crunch, the next in a long term cycle of booms and spectacular busts and at each cycle the economies will get ever weaker so survival will be less likely.

I'm no economist but even I can see that.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Should We Tolerate Any Drug Dealing?

If you want a depressing laugh, then read this article.

I know it's not good English by me, but I had a grim smile on my face when I read it. Hot on the heels of my article on 'Think Tanks' and their stupid outputs which we all pay handsomely for, we have another pile of codswallop to wade through this morning.

This time its from the UK Drug Policy Commission who advocate that by being hard on drug dealers we are actually making the problem worse. Part of their argument is that if you focus on being nasty to drug dealers in certain parts of a city, then they move to other parts to terrorise that area. Indeed, if you take one off the streets, you risk more violent ones taking their place or even 'turf wars' and gangs fighting for the selling patch.

Studies show that in fact, if you are nice to drug dealers then violence drops - or at least it did in Boston, USA where murders dropped as a result of being more tolerant to dealers.

The report advocates being 'smart' like trying to persuade drug dealers not to sell in car parks or school playgrounds but in their homes.

I stopped reading as my smile turned to utter despair. Here we are fighting a war on the Taliban that we think by using strong tactics and violence we can bring down a whole regime and doctrine but in our home land we should be tolerating the scum of the earth. I must be living in a dreamworld.

A quick look at this magnificent Think Tank's website reveals the obvious. There are 4 full time staff, one of which is the 'office manager' because you need someone in charge of photocopying and paperclips, while the Board of freeloading 'commissioners' (a commissioner is a person who may turn up on a Russian Oligarch's £80m boat in European speak - here I have no idea what it means) who get paid at minimum expenses and at most some kind of fee for their time, is as long as your arm. No change there then as there are 12 of the blighters. As usual, they are the list of the great and the good on the gravy train that is Non Executive Directors and perennial sitters on Boards of Quangos and Trusts and is headed by Dame Ruth Runciman DBE who sits on a few other sundry boards, although she has a good deal of experience in talking about drug matters - all helpful experience in formulating daft policies.
The reassuring thing is that we are paying good tax money for all this superb advice.

No Flying Sandwiches

It is a dark day when BA announces that it is banishing the free meal from its short haul flights.

I use the term 'meal' loosely as I am referring to the dreaded BA sandwich. I mean, it wasn't as if it was gourmet fare anyway but to take away perhaps the last bastion of differentiation between the national carrier and low-cost, no frills airlines is close to rock bottom. It seems also to be the limit of the creative thinking of an increasingly beleaguered CEO, Willie Walsh.

True, by banishing the rather poor sandwich and chocolate tit bit from flights after 10.00am (fear not, breakfast on flights before 10.00am remain reassuringly unaffected by this callous measure) that last less than two and a half hours saves the struggling airline £22m which cannot be overlooked. However, when passengers start making comparisons with other or low-cost airlines you have to start thinking, what is the difference?

I have to say I am no fan of Ryan Air. Until recently, you had to queue endlessly at Stansted in order to get checked in but they have now introduced online and electronic check in at the airport. Somewhat strangely, but typical of Ryan Air, you pay for the privilege of checking yourself in. In fact, you pay for everything. By the time you have added the whole thing up, if the bare fare was not as low as £3.99 then you may as well book a flat fare with BA.

You think I'm kidding? No way.

If you travel with a bag to check in and particularly if the bag carries more than a toiletry bag and a few items to wear, then you are looking at excess baggage charges which themselves are excessive. You can easily start paying Ryan Air some distance over a BA airfare. When you start adding in the fact in most cases you get rained on when walking to the aircraft because they are too stingy to afford renting jetways and that you cannot get the seat you want unless you pay more for the most idiotic and useless 'priority boarding' system which is policed by nobody, then you start to realise why O'Leary and his shareholders are making such excellent profits.

The trick for low-cost airlines is simple volume. There is no point in buying and flying expensive aircraft if you cannot utilise them to the full. So each plane is flown as many times a day as it can fit in, so the shorter the distance of the flight, the better. And it is turned around as fast as it can at each destination while the number of seats occupied each flight should be as high as possible, which is where the price gimmickry comes from. It is a recipe for over crowded planes and low service levels but 67m will fly Ryan Air alone this year which is 15% up from last year. And they are not alone with Easyjet in hot pursuit.

The key to success is the explosion of routes. Between Easyjet and Ryan Air, the number of interesting new places to visit has grown enormously over the last 10 years. We may laugh that we often get our imaginations stretched as to what constitutes a flight to Stockholm or Brussels but by and large the routes are superb. Take flying to Valencia as an example. It is one of the largest cities in Spain, just 100km from the northern edges of 'Britville' holidays, it hosts some of the biggest conferences in Europe, the Americas Cup in 2007 and in a few weeks time it will host the F1 Grand Prix of Europe on a superb street circuit - it is also home to one of the best football teams in Europe. Try flying there by either BA or its partner, Iberia, and you are looking at a two flight hop costing a minimum of £700. Or you can choose a direct flight with either Easyjet or Ryan Air. Even when you get to the low-cost airlines, choice is crucial. Easyjet was almost twice the cost of Ryan Air, and it only flies once a day to the destination. Ryan Air won hands down.

This year, as a supporter of London Wasps rugby club, I hope to take in at least one of their away European games. I have been to Paris, Biarritz and Treviso to support them in the past but they have also played at several southern French and northern Italian towns only accessible by low cost airlines. Then there are the people who either buy or rent holiday homes - imagine the ability to simply hop for a long weekend to a home near Perpignan?

And there is the business element. With premium cabins like Club Europe faltering, I cannot think why I would choose BA to fly short haul these days. Luton Airport is just 25 minutes up the road from me, the parking is cheaper and the terminal is fine. Easyjet and Ryan Air fly regularly to Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Manchester and Amsterdam as well as a variety of other major cities combining convenience and low-cost for the business traveller, particularly if you are away only a short time. Stansted is not bad either - apart from places like Valencia, it was my only access point to fly to Montpelier when working for a company with an HQ down there previously. Heathrow, for anyone north of London is almost inaccessible with the M25 widening roadworks set to be with us for the next 3 years (yes, I am serious) and then short term parking is so costly and far away from the terminals to render the whole process a nightmare.

The formula for budget airlines may indeed be spartan but you have to admit they have seriously taken BA to task. The stuffy, backward airline pinned so much of its hopes on Terminal 5 only to see all the access it has built to the terminal bottlenecked by a seriously congested motorway network. And then, what the hell happened to the airconditioning at Terminal 5? It is is built with so much glass that it's like a greenhouse whenever there is more than a few rays of sun, making the whole travel experience a rather unpleasantly sticky affair. Also, knowing what we now know about airport security and the time, hassle and inconvenience it adds to a journey, why on earth did they plan the entrance into the airside area of the new terminal so badly? I am even leaving out the most disastrous piece of project management I have witnessed in a while when they actually commissioned the new terminal.

Yet on soldiers Willie Walsh. I don't know what photos he has of Board members and big shareholders, but they must be pretty compromising for him to still be in a job. He has happily presided over the most incredible swing of profitability to major loss in a single year that has been seen in the UK. In that time, all the major and minor flaws of the airline have been exposed and rather than making a huge shift in strategy and tactics at the airline, we are seeing it respond by imploring its staff to take salary holidays and axing the meagre meals on short haul flights. In small business terms, this is the equivalent of not buying fresh flowers once a week for reception or axing the monthly staff pizzas - both of which I have personally done in response to poor performance and in both cases I saw a disproportionate drop in staff morale and a decrease in my managerial credibility as a result.

Willie Walsh has a further problem. Getting rid of the monthly pizzas for me got me bad press within my company - for Walsh, this is national news. Many years ago as a trainee salesperson at Hewlett-Packard, the free biscuits for staff were rescinded as part of a global cost cutting measure. You may as well have asked staff to take a pay cut or axe the annual staff bonus - it was taken that seriously internally. But Walsh's actions are public and customer facing. Taking away the motley sandwich was part of the service and cost of a ticket. By saving £22m publicly he is not taking the same amount of the price of tickets. He is also announcing that the cost of the sandwich was trivial compared to the price of the ticket as £22m spread across each ticket sold is pennies.

We were paying a premium for this particular sandwich, and now Willie Walsh has told us just how much of premium.

And that had been BA's flawed business model for some time. Without the profit at the front of spaces on the aircrafts, as premium passengers watch the pennies in these troubled times, the whole business of flying anybody from A to B becomes loss making to an airline like BA with such a massive cost base.

Cutting a measly sandwich is one of the few responses to the crisis of an idealess CEO. It also sends the worst possible message to its customers - "We were ripping you off for the cost of a sandwich".
BA needs far more than this to be a credible force of the future. Once, it dominated the landing slots in the UK and so stifled competition by being big. Virgin chipped away at that and brought innovation and service as well as price competition to BA at its two main hubs. Then the budget airlines came from left field. Instead of competing for slots at the national hubs, they picked off the subsidiary airports who were hungry to compete with Heathrow and Gatwick and there was no shortage of investment to support this - and certainly no shortage of customers to justify it.

In fairness to Walsh, the rot set in on BA a long time ago - and was compounded when they capitulated their own low-cost airline, Go, to Easyjet. But his woeful performance under pressure has contributed badly to the past mistakes and could possibly see BA lose its national carrier status in the not too distant future.

It will take a great deal more than losing a sandwich to make a difference at BA and far more focus will go on how they properly spend the extra £600m of cash they have recently raised. I would wager it will be the making or breaking of Willie Walsh in short order and, frankly, on his performance so far, I don't give him a chance.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Yeehah or Boohoo?

"Through this agreement with Yahoo, we will create more innovation in search, better value for advertisers, and real consumer choice in a market currently dominated by one company."

You have to pinch yourself that these were the words of Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, as he finally welcomed a deal with struggling search and advertising company, Yahoo! It's a very different deal to the proposed acquisition last year which Yahoo rebuffed only to see their revenue, profits and share price plummet as their dependence on advertising margins got found out in a tougher market. Microsoft too have not found it easy, with sales slipping for the first time ever and redundancies announced earlier in the year as profits stalled.

It doesn't sound like the ideal marriage.

The words were also a little hypocritical as Microsoft still dominate the PC market for operating systems and office software, with similar market shares to Google's on search and advertising. The fact is that Google has innovated and sold superbly, leaving Microsoft and other rivals in its wake.

The new deal, sees Yahoo losing control of its search engine in return for 88% of all sales from search and advertising on its site for the first 5 years of the deal and it has have the right to sell adverts on some Microsoft sites. In the complex world of advert syndicating, impressions, click throughs and footfalls etc, this is seen as a mixed deal. Yahoo staff will almost certainly feel the knife over the next 2 years, having already been at the receiving end after falling profits, although some staff may transfer to Microsoft as part of the deal.

For Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, this is seen as landmark deal which could not have been done by someone like the founder, Jerry Yang, as there would have been too much emotional attachment to the search engine. The history of the on-off deals with Microsoft stems back to a rebuffed $47bn offer of cash and shares by the software giant. Later Yahoo struck a technology deal with rival Google which must have incensed Ballmer at Microsoft and sure enough anti-trust law stepped in to scotch the deal soon after. November last year saw Yang step down as boss and Bartz assume control and the ex-software executive, who masterminded Autodesk's extraordinary transition from high-end, cumbersome software behemoth to a fast-moving, almost consumer-orientated company, started to resurrect the deal. A lot of eyes were on Bartz as she is not known as a web-savvy operator but this deal marks something of a major coup for her as it is reckoned to be worth around $500m in incremental revenue and release about $200m in much needed savings.

In the hiatus, Microsoft launched a new search engine, called bing, which has had very little impact on Google and the usual tactics of embedding it as the preferred search engine in each new PC has not been done. Google still rules supreme here. The new deal, gives Microsoft about a 30% market share of the online ad market - the kind of figure not easily understood in a world where Microsoft usually is 70% of the market.

It is interesting psychology, but in the conference call to announce this tie-up, in 45 minutes not once did either CEO mention Google but the unseen enemy was indeed implied. Gagging in Ballmer's throat was the apparently positive thought of becoming a strong number two in the market.

In reality, this is a steamroller by Microsoft. Yahoo has lost control of its most prized asset in an attempt to rescue the company's fortunes. For Bartz, this would have been the equivalent of Autodesk giving Microsoft the rights to the software code of AutoCad - it's that bigger loss. In return, Yahoo gets to hang on to Microsoft's coat tails in an effort to compete with Google by dint of partnership and size rather than in technology. How Jerry Yang and the staff feel about this must be horrible, but then again, they were the ones who turned down $33 a share. Now the price is less than 50% of that.

For Bartz, this was perhaps her only option. But it is the equivalent of giving away the engine of a Ferrari in return for a larger share of the market - the Ferrari would never be the same again.

Rather than Google killing Yahoo, the latter has surrendered. For Microsoft, it will be interesting to see what they can do with a Ferrari engine inside a clapped out old Chevy.

Has The iPhone Changed The World?

The Apple iPhone is a remarkable device. It certainly saved Apple from a long, slow death but it has arguably changed our view of mobile phones forever, moving away from the world dictated to us by the Scandinavian and far eastern manufacturers. But in the world of mobile, has the iPhone really reinvented the model?

To be sure, the iPhone has changed our perspective in many ways. As you would expect, Apple brought us an easy to use, sophisticated user interface, as they brought windows to the world of PCs long before Microsoft did. Apple also destroyed the mobile store model as they invented the concept of an online mobile store that allowed not only ringtones but applications, music, movies and much more to be bought and downloaded on the go. They also brought us a flat-pack price model even if you have to pay a premium for the phone. There is no doubt the world they brought us on the mobile is here to stay as others rush to follow and the growth of 'Smartphones' as they are called is causing a rise in network traffic.

This rise in traffic is enormous but smartphones are not the lone or even the biggest contributor to the rise. Netbooks, laptops and the growth in the mobile browser, peer to peer data calls, application downloads, multimedia streaming and other things are contributing to a truly phenomenal rise in data traffic on mobile networks. As subscription penetrations reach saturation point, the pace of innovation keeps the market driving forward and for the first time last quarter the market reached $10bn in revenue in the US alone. By 2010, the global codified information base will exceed 1 'yottabyte' or 1,000 billion terabytes (a terabyte being 1,000 gigabytes which is 1,000 megabytes). The future we will be fast talking about 1 zettabyte (1,000 exabytes or squillions of bytes to the rest of us). We are talking more data than bank bailouts here - at last a number bigger.

We are entering the 'yottabyte era' as some call it and the one thing you can depend upon is that the mobile network providers are not ready for it. The financial strain of keeping up with this incredible growth in data is enormous and with the laughable prices of Government tenders around the world for airwave licences, it has not been easy for companies to make enough profits to keep reinvesting at the right pace to get ahead of the traffic growth.

With the exponential growth in mobile applications, mobile media viewing and advertising expected mobile operators are going to have to accelerate deployment of new 4G technology, they are going to have to take some of the load off networks by implementing femto or Wifi technology faster, get a better grip on managing the network and optimising it, look to standards on broadcasting mobile video rather than let it grow itself without control and look to get smartphones defined properly.

It's a hard job and very cash consuming but we are only now seeing the kinds of possibilities that mobile technology really offers. It's a far cry from the bricks that we used to use as mobile devices when, from a small, flat device, I can browse my emails, make video calls, view films, listen to music and browse the internet, all for a flat monthly charge.

And it has only just begun.

Rock Unsolid

Here's a conundrum. The Government stepped in to save Northern Rock in February 2008 by nationalising it. When they did so, they assumed the bank was no longer a going concern and so severely wrote down its value.

By doing so, they offered to pay far lower compensation to shareholders than they should have done. Those shareholders have now run the matter through court and their appeal against the Government's actions and for higher compensation has been defeated.

The Government's argument is that the bank had been loaned £45bn prior to the nationalisation, without which the bank would have failed and therefore the shareholders would have seen their investment reduced to nothing. The Government, therefore argues that they were doing the shareholders a favour.

It is a difficult situation. The Government did indeed rescue Northern Rock but at the time there were other avenues that could have been explored. When nationalised, the entire liabilities of the bank were assumed by the taxpayer, some £100bn and we are by no means clear of danger although the Rock has been paying back considerable amounts of its loan. Danger was unjustifiably increased when the interim CEO, Ron Sandler, somehow allowed the Rock to continue to hand out 125% mortgages, the very product that nearly killed the bank, for a good 6 months after nationalisation. Then Sandler and is team almost unilaterally renegotiated the terms of its loan facilities from the taxpayer in order to offer around £14bn of new mortgages.

There were two alternatives at the time. One was that Northern Rock was sold as a 'going concern' albeit with its liabilities effectively underwritten by the taxpayer for a period to someone like Virgin One who argued that the Rock brand was defunct and that Virgin would revive it by offering their own branded products. The Government argued that the Virgin plan did not inject enough capital into the Rock and therefore it was not viable. The second option was to let it go bust in the same manner as the Fed did with Lehmans and let others pick over the parts of the business which were viable.

In many respects what happened gave the worst of both worlds. The taxpayer ended up covering the entire liability anyway, we gave the loans, we were exposed to the stupid extra 125% loans, we paid the bonuses to the Rock staff just for repaying some of the debt, we pay the vast bills for Sandler and his army of consultants, we allowed the Rock to renegotiate the deal to save itself and the juicy assets of really nice mortgages were tied up in a vehicle called 'Granite' which we do not own. Meanwhile, the shareholders got shafted whereas, arguably, with Virgin's management and skills they could have shared in some future profit as part of the Virgin brand and you can bet your life Sandler, the daft mortgages and bonuses for loan repayments would not have featured in the equation.

There is another aspect to this case, though. As the Credit Crunch unfolded and major bank after major bank revealed their stupidity, the Government actions veered markedly from its action on the Rock. Almost as if they realised they were stupid to have nationalised the Rock, they tried a variety of other methods to save the other banks such as HBOS, Lloyds, and RBS.

Two major cases are very prominent. First, events triggered the Government to virtually force Lloyds to buy HBOS against all anti-competition rules and all good advice. Immediately, both banks came cap in hand to the Treasury and we had to save the entire new group to the extent that we now own nearly 50% of the new Lloyds Group. What the Government did was to fund an anti-competitive takeover that now gives the new Group an unhealthy 28% of the UK mortgage market. The shareholders of both HBOS and Lloyds, in the wake of one of the most ill advised takeovers you could imagine as Lloyds discovered the extent of the HBOS situation as it was not allowed to do full due diligence and pay the right price thanks to Government intervention at the highest level, they also stepped in to save the skins of Lloyds shareholders so that they may benefit in the future from any rise in the market. The Rock shareholders were afforded no such luxury.

Secondly, as Bradford & Bingley sank, the Government allowed Santander, a Spanish bank, to increase its share in the UK market after already buying Abbey and Alliance & Leicester by letting it buy only the bits it wanted - the juicy ones of course. On top of this, the Government later proposed the Asset Protection Scheme which allowed banks to ring-fence their toxic debt and have the taxpayer 'insure it' by paying a premium.

If any or all of the above options had been allowed for Northern Rock, it is arguable that while the shareholders would have lost out in the short term they would have reaped some benefit as the markets recovered as the shareholders of all other banks will. The argument here is that the nationalisation of the Rock was a knee-jerk reaction that cost us all a great deal of money, it was mismanaged and there were alternatives, particularly after the Government sat down and thought about it.

Personally, I was in favour of the Rock going under and then bought for a song by some other bank who would have done a better job than Sandler, who for all his excessive fees has only done the obvious. I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the shareholders in the Rock, even now as it was a bank that had traded on a substantially flawed model that was cruising for a disaster. However, in the light of the actions to save other banks, the shareholders have a very good point. All other banks offered loans, guarantees and capital were effectively saved by the Government and respected the interests of shareholders. The Rock was a fiasco that benefited no one - least of all the British taxpayer.

I dare say, the 'rescue' of the Rock will feature in future Economics lectures, although hopefully long after they have rewritten their text books and fired the lecturers. They got it all so horribly wrong, after all.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

There Are Two Sides To Every Story

Now that the MP Expenses furore has faded, it was safe to think that we had seen the last of the story. Not so.

Recently, the likes of Harriet 'I'm not the problem, I'm the solution' Harman voted through a minor change to the Green Book that allows MPs to claim a flat rate every day for subsistence, without having to submit any receipts, as an additional allowance. That's £9,125 under the new rules that no MP has to justify, just submit a claim and get it - for doing nothing other than turn up for work. Mere mortals like us have to buy our daily meals out of our taxed pay but MPs get a full £9,125 per year as additional, tax free salary that they do not have to justify to us in any way, just for having the title of MP.

£9,125 is an interesting number in a year when numbers have been so big we can hardly imagine what you could buy for the sums - it's one small enough for us to understand, at last. But it's an interesting number in that £9,250 was the amount of money awarded to Cpl Duncan initially after being shot in Afghanistan while another war wounded soldier was originally awarded £8,250 for fracturing a thigh on a training exercise. After taking their cases to a tribunal, they were awarded £46,000 and £28,750 respectively after it was found that both had suffered significant complications after 'recovering'. Still numbers small enough for us to understand.
The MoD is now appealing against those higher awards and is insisting that it should only have to pay the original amounts for the original injuries only - to hell with the complications.

The original amounts - £9,250 and £8,250 - not even two MPs annual tax free subsistence allowance that they do not have to justify with a single receipt.

Campaigners like Falkland hero Simon Weston, who knows a thing or two about wounds, thinks that the MoD are out of touch. I don't think so. I think the whole body of MPs - every single one of them - is out of touch with all reality as well as the goons at the MoD. These smug cowards are more concerned about getting their daily meals paid for than making sure our loyal troops are looked after before, during and after front line service.

This new allowance was voted through by small committees manned by the likes of Harman, Alan Duncan and Nick Harvey who piously told us that the MP expenses system would never again get abused - no announcement was given, no publicity and no debate. Done deal - life goes on, just as it does in the banks.

In a year when we have spent more money on saving the careers of greedy bankers than we can comprehend, we cannot find the the heart and sense to look after our wounded heroes for the want of a few pounds in comparison to the astronomic sums we have wasted on people not worthy of walking on the same ground as our heroes.

This is not just a Government thing - this is every damn Politician who rides the gravy train. They have zero conscience, no principles, no scruples and no guts. We may laugh that the likes of Esther Rantzen is contesting Luton South but at least it will stop the likes of Moran ever getting elected again - let's hope someone with similar morals stands against Julie Kirkbride who just seems to have lost all touch with reality. She lied, cheated and fiddled us out of money for years and she thinks that on the say so of a few deluded locals she should not stand down.

It's a sad day. If the public had a vote, I am sure everyone would vote against MPs having their subsistence allowance of £9,125 and make sure every penny of that money and much more goes into a fund to properly care for the troops who are getting wounded on our behalf and looking after the families of the fallen.

Diane Dernie, mother of Bombardier Ben Parkinson who lost both legs and suffered brain damage after being injured by a bomb in Helmand Province, perhaps summed it all up, given the lifetime of care her son will have to receive after doing his duty. "It is very, very sad that on a day like today, when all the news is as bad as it is, and has been recently, that the MoD can still think to cut what are not overly generous payments," she told the BBC. "It just beggars belief really and proves that yet again they don't understand how people feel about our troops."

MPs are claiming that the appeal is seeking 'clarity about earlier judgements' so that more money can go to the more seriously injured. Given Cpl Duncan is only now serving his first tour of duty since is injury in 2005, it seems to be irrational to use this as such a test case. Further the amount of money spent on legal bills just to get this appealed and heard will be far more than the extra compensation paid out. It would look slightly better if Cpl Duncan had been some 'Sgt Bilko' figure keeping himself away from the front lines and slacking. The fact he is serving another tour of duty, to my mind, renders the argument defunct.

The simple fact is that we are arguing about giving the kid a sum of money just a fraction over what is given to MPs for daily meals each year - every year without question or justification.
How the likes of Harman can simper her rubbish at us and sleep at night is beyond me.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Again, Why Did We Bail Out The Banks?

Alistair Darling is on the war path. Watch out, as he is a mean, hard and dirty SOB. And the banks are in his sights.

I am sure the CEOs of the banks are quaking in their Italian-made suits and shoes. As they gear themselves up to start doling out massive bonuses again, the Chancellor is about to start hauling them over the coals about their lending policy to small businesses which he reckons is too low and too expensive. They really couldn't give a flying Frisbee what he thinks as they are making serious money again by playing the old games we wanted them to stop and they have their pockets ready to fill.

The banks will claim that they have lent approximately treble the amount of money they did in May last month at around £366m. Given they have received over £100bn of our money in terms of new capital, it doesn't sound a great deal.

Well, what did Darling expect? The panic button was hit and money was handed out to banks at a furious rate. The Treasury is already estimating that we will lose at minimum £25bn via the Asset Protection Scheme which is the insurance policy for toxic debts we all underwrite on behalf of the banks who lent stupidly. The Enterprise Guarantee Scheme for small businesses means that we also underwrite 75% of all new loans to companies so, theoretically, there should have been a great deal more lending to small businesses who have been very badly affected by the recession and credit crunch. And it should be based on the 0.5% interest rates we have - but perish the thought, according to banks, as they get that money from the wholesale money markets at double the price.
So what happened to the money we gave them?

The problem really is that the Government did not think all this through in their panic to save the financial world. There was the stupidity of Goodwin's pension, presided over two NXDs and a Minister, all of whom still have their jobs; there was the fact Northern Rock not only carried on lending out 125% mortgages 6 months after going into public ownership, they then handed out bonuses just for paying back part of the debt and then unilaterally re-wrote the terms of the deal; bonuses will be paid in the City this year after thousands lost their jobs in the back room and branches while the big-hitting, overpaid traders and their colleagues kept their jobs. Oh, and the banks were allowed to continue playing their games with potentially toxic assets in the forms of derivatives, exotics and whatnot plus shorting goes on unabated. In the midst of all this, the FSA is still 'drafting' its policy on Macroprudential Regulation (a euphemism for the same again) as the same donkeys man the senior positions who cost us billions.

It's a script you would have been hard to have imagined because you would have been guffawed at for being unrealistic, but the magnitude of our collective stupidity is pretty incalculable. And it goes on.

Darling will be hard pushed to get any change out of the banks. They are back on the gravy train thanks to his largesse with our money, for which we will pay the price for another 20 years in tax and much more in terms of jobs and cuts in Public Services. If he thinks the banks will pay much more than Mandelson-style lip service, then he is badly mistaken as he has been for some time about the whole situation. They will pluck out statistics and use the same joke on him that the Government use on us - big numbers. By mentioning large numbers it sounds as if something is being done. But let's face facts - small businesses collectively make up over 97% of the UK's businesses, they employ over 70% of the workforce, and they pay a disproportionate share of the Tax in terms of the revenue they create compared to large corporations like, say, banks who have the ability to offshore some profits, and pay big accountants to find plenty of loopholes.

Small businesses are the backbone of British industry and the largest pool of the workforce. £366m in June in terms of loans was nothing when a private Equity Firm can get £9bn of loans from banks to take over a single company and reap the profit. When it comes to lending to businesses, there is no profit for banks in lending to small ones as the BIG MONEY is in lending to like idiots to the likes of Private Equity firms or Philip Greene.

We had a chance to reform the banking industry and stop these top levels games which gamble with our money. But we have done nothing but saved the necks of a bunch of greedy people who could not wait to get their hands on our tax receipts and pledges to go kick start the gravy train again.

Next stop will be a further credit crunch and recession and small businesses and the likes of you and I will foot the bill once again. Darling had a chance to do this properly, but that would have kissed goodbye his anticipated knighthood and Non Executive Director jobs for the future. Everyone wants to follow Tony Blair's lead of after-Government earnings that's for sure.

One step Darling could have done was to break up banks so that no retail banks could have an investment bank business so that our money never ever gets preyed upon again and that we do not pay excessive costs on fees and loans to subsidise investment bank risk and pay. Simple thought - and it would have got retail banking focused on its core business of issuing credit to businesses and consumers. It would have also stopped banks culling staff in the retail business to subsidise jobs in their failed investment arms.

The Government could have got simple advice like that from any citizen in Britain but instead they paid some £50m in fees to investment bankers and lawyers to sort out the bank bail outs so it was obvious where the emphasis was going. The bankers even charged us for giving advice on how to sort out the mess they created - the joke was seriously on us, and not a scrap of that advice went on sorting out small businesses but how to kick start the financial world to make sure they all made obscene profits again.

It would have been like asking Hitler to help Jewish families after the War or for that matter asking Tony Blair to be a Middle East Peace Envoy.

But Darling will go with his wilting stick to the banks and they will serve him tea and buns, feign concern, show some remarkable big numbers and then clear him out making him feel he owes them something. Just like we all feel when we have left a bank even though they live on our money.

Welcome to the world he has sustained.

April Showers

April wasn't long ago. In it we had a budget which pledged a load of money for wind projects and preferential treatment to businesses which created 'green collar' jobs.
In the preceding months we had seen the Government pledge around £2.1bn to the ailing car industry and there has been an unseemly scramble to save the European arm of General Motors. The two things did not seem to go together but it was all part of a policy announced back in February by the Business Secretary to save key businesses on a priority basis and favouring those who had a green edge - thus laying a platform for a greener industry base for the future.

It was all very idealistic and a lot of talk. It took ages to get a 'Scrappage' scheme to help the car industry when the scheme in Germany had already led the way and then we had GM come begging. Of course, the car industry is a big employer and should it fail some 800,000 jobs in direct and related businesses are at risk.

But make no bones about it, we don't have a car industry of our own in Britain - it as all owned by foreign companies.

So saying all this, was it not a surprise to see people picketing the site of the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world at Newport, Isle of Wight last week? They were picketing as Vesta had announced the closing of its factory in the UK due to slow orders and in favour of cheaper manpower elsewhere. When asked about this, the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, said it was a commercial decision and nothing to do with him.

I don't get it. If so much money was pumped into wind schemes around the country AND we are favouring green collar jobs, then why are we not bailing out this business? True, the parent company may be making a commercial choice and it is still surviving but if we truly want a green based industry platform for the future then Vesta was worth 'enticing' to stay at minimum.

Are we not going to need more turbines for the future? And we will have to import them when we do, now?

It was another example of plenty of talk and no action by particularly Mandelson but the Government in general. As we bail out banks with sums that we have no idea about and then help industries which clearly help to pollute, we allow a manufacturer of green energy systems to simply up sticks and move from our islands. Vesta may be Danish but there was no attempt made to avoid this. When steel making in Sunderland is threatened, everyone starts to help the parent, Corus, which is also a foreign company.

In another move by Mandelson, he is to make a speech in which he will say that rising tuition fees should not make further education the domain of the better off. After a report was shown only a week ago that says the professions like Law are dominated by privately educated people, it seems ever more appropriate that the whole policy is reviewed. But the Labour method is to pay lip service, highlight it as something that 'needs to be looked at' and then raise the tuition fees anyway.

Time and again we get these well crafted 'soundbites' that sound as if something is being done yet produce no change and long term we will reap the effects of poorly implemented policies. Tuition fees rising does affect the levels of education of poorer people - there is no doubt. There are more foreign students who attend our universities now than ever before because they can pay the fees and our kids can't. In 12 years, our system of education has gone backwards at all levels and the standards have dropped which means Britain will be far less competitive in the future.

Couple that with the fact that valuable jobs in green based industries are leaving this country with no attempt to stop them and you have a completely incoherent policy that flies in the face of what ministers say. In this case, it is just one man - Mandelson - as in the role created for him in his rescue mission of a totally failed Government, he is responsible for high education and business.

We could not have picked a worse person.

Friday, 24 July 2009

What Price Silence?

It's okay, only 5 of the UK's top financial institutions failed so badly that they are in varying degrees of public ownership and depending on whose number you use, we are only liable to loans, capital and guarantees of £1.3 trillion. Not a bad year all in all.

That must be what the executives of the FSA decided when thinking on handing out bonuses last year. Not just any bonus, mind you, £19.7m in total to be precise. Lord Adair Turner, the Chairman of the FSA, who not only presided over the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression but has been given the remit to write a new role under 'Macroprudential Regulation', will be facing angry questions from the public about how he can possibly justify such bonuses which average £7,880 per member of the 2,500 staff.

Oh, but do not think that everyone will be receiving such a princely sum. After all, the CEO Hector Sants, deserves most credit for costing the taxpayer such an enormous, almost incalculable amount of money. He gets a further £130,000 bonus on top of a salary of almost £1m per year - so the lowly administrators at the FSA will get a bag of peanuts.

In a year when we have been whirled around by prodigious bonus scandals at banks and outrageous misappropriation of money by MPs, this is perhaps the icing on the cake. Or, indeed, the final insult.

The Conservatives wish to disband the FSA and give the Bank of England the power to regulate markets. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown says disbanding the FSA would be a huge mistake and, if anything, the FSA should have even wider powers. And more bonus, perhaps.

I am sure many people around Britain will be as aghast as I that the FSA is awarding anyone a single penny of bonus after doing nothing while the whole financial system crashed around it. The pathetic excuse that Lord Turner gave that the Government effectively told it to turn the other way simply does not cut it and shows how stupid Brown is. If Brown asked the FSA to turn the other way, then he could do it again, so it does not matter where the regulation sits, in the Bank of England or on Mars, if the PM intervenes to tell it what to do then it will fail again.

The city is working itself up into a lather as profits are up and the bonus good times are back. Meanwhile the FSA is piddling around trying to justify its future - not reforming the system to stop the excesses again.

Once more, lots of talk and no action will mean the gravy train has left the platform and the regulator is long way behind. But at least they will be able to count the bonuses they so richly deserve.

Fighting To Win

Last night, a news program wheeled out a rather dapper looking ex SAS commander who earned an Military Cross in the Falklands Campaign. Brigadier Aldwin White, MC OBE, is a quiet man who has never spoken out before and he has surprised colleagues, both currently serving and retired, that he has.

His view is that the Government has let our Armed Forces in Afghanistan down in just about all respects. His view is that rather than be honest with themselves, Ministers and Civil Servants have tried to fight their position using spin. And this is what is causing the high death rates we are encountering.

This is no Jock Stirrup or Richard Danatt talking, who have been widely criticised by the likes of Lord Foulkes for not showing loyalty. This is a battle-hardened veteran who served in the elite forces who has broken ranks and his silence to say it as it is. If you are going to fight a war, for whatever reason, and endanger the lives of servicemen then at least give them a chance of winning.

I am sure that many people like me find the Government's backside-covering stance truly disgusting as young kids get killed who have written home to say that they are not getting enough food and water let alone helicopters, body protection and reinforcements. It's even about the basics.

Long, long after we have withdrawn from Afghanistan with nothing to show for it, history will show this was an ill-advised war, poorly executed with no real strategy and no end game. I recently watched the excellent film, 'Charlie Wilson's War' again and reminded myself that nobody has ever successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander the Great and when the Russians pulled out in the last attempt, America and Britain had fought alongside the very people we fight today.

Our own duplicitous nature, as always, comes back to haunt us. As Wilson famously put it at the time, 'We won the war and then f****d up the end game.' We may not win the war this time.

Microsoft Wobbles Again

I am sure it has nothing to do with my recent purchase of a new laptop and downgrading it to XP from Vista Premium but little by little, the world is not at ease with Microsoft.

It has just announced that profits are down by almost a third in the last quarter. It has been a tough year with sales falling short for the first time in a long, long while and they took the unprecedented step of making redundancies in the first part of the calendar year. As the world did not look quite so rosy, they have seen an increase in competition from some of their main rivals. Last year, Google threw down the gauntlet by introducing their browser, Google Chrome which is neat, quick and works well. For many of us, browsers like Mozilla or Firefox have been good stand bys as I find an increasing number of websites display problems with Internet Explorer (IE) 8.

Google's strategy on Applications make use of the Cloud and Microsoft is significantly behind the pace here. Already some significant corporations are migrating to the Cloud concept of having their applications served from the web where they also store all the documents. Detractors say the web is still too unreliable but pro-campaigners are quick to point out how often corporate networks display similar problems while security is becoming less of a threat with arguably corporate networks at greater risk than parts of the web.

But it was Google's recent announcement that shook us all. Last month, Google announced it would be launching an operating system to rival Windows and already several PC manufacturers had signed pre-deals with them. The great core of Microsoft's business relies on the fact that just about every PC other than Apple Macs are shipped with a Microsoft operating system. It is the great 'cash cow' business that needs precious little selling resource and so the cost of sale is minimal compared to the vast returns.

It has also been the source of their greatest achievements in anti-competitive activities.

Famously, Microsoft killed NetScape and all other early browser vendors by adding Internet Explorer into the Windows operating system and so effectively shipping it for free. Of course, the astute amongst us would realise that no company that made a 40% net profit was actually shipping anything for free but Microsoft 'looked' as if it was playing the nice guy while snapping the necks of its competitors. AOL bought the pathetic husk of NetScape and only recently finally killed off any connection to the old browser. But it has not stopped a new wave of browsers as Microsoft showed once again that when it gets fat and complacent, it does not innovate. Particularly in the area of virus, hacking and malware, IE has shown to be very vulnerable.

But the Windows Operating system has also been the launch pad for the success in the suite of Office products such as Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. In each case, not one of those products was the best in breed - Excel in particular was a poor man's Lotus while CCmail and WordPerfect were arguably far better products in the email and word processor categories. The fact was that when every PC came with something from Microsoft actually running it, the leap to Microsoft's suite was too easy. Slowly, Microsoft strangled the competition and today we have the joy of running possibly the most cumbersome and ill-fitting suite of desktop applications for our everyday use - and it ain't cheap either at an entry point for around £210 for small business licences.

In reality, Microsoft is slowly losing its grip on the desktop. Today, a small business may have to buy a new PC with Microsoft Windows and get MS Office on it too. But when it comes to security, AVG have an excellent solution, back up from Acronis, PDF making for free, Accounts from Sage, Skype for Business, Yugma webconferencing and CRM from or ACT and you have will not have outlaid too much for best in class products, not one of them would be Microsoft-made. In fact, recently my new Office Suite arrived with Business Contacts built in. The laugh was that there was no obvious way to load my current Outlook contacts in there en masse yet it embedded itself into my Outlook. One click could export all my Outlook contacts into a file ready for or ACT which seamlessly use Outlook as its email generator. It really was a dreadful attempt to lure me to buy Microsoft, and now I can't actually find how to remove it from the Outlook interface just to make me more cheesed off!

The next two years will be crucial for Microsoft. After the disaster that has been Vista, they need to get back on track. Windows 7 needs to be inch-perfect but if IE 8 is anything to go by, Microsoft are not releasing well thought out and tested products - but many would argue that has never been their strength. Google are fast moving up on their shoulder, totally dominating the Search market from all angles and their revenues are now rivalling Microsoft's. Google's launch into the world of operating systems extends their bright faced, cool image right into the heartland of the lumbering Seattle giant. If they have got it right, then Microsoft could well have seen its zenith and is already on the slope downward.

The problem for Microsoft executives is that all those years of ill will and arrogance over users will pay a heavy price. Locally, Microsoft feel they have never had the ear of the CEOs but always the CIOs. Now this could be a massive threat as for once, the CEO may know as much about a viable competitor as the CIO and guess who outranks the other. In all the years, Microsoft never paid commissions to its sales staff and so has never had big-hitting, skilled salespeople at its fingertips but lots of people who immersed themselves in the 'Office Stack' technology and the complex world of licencing. These people have been order-takers who pre-sell massive licence deals which see customers pay for a whole load of things they never use. The only skill of the Microsoft salesperson has been to get a customer to use those items before the next licence negotiation. Little by little, thanks very much to the Vista fiasco, major corporates have played hardball and pushed back. Now there is a viable alternative to Microsoft on the horizon.

And it isn't some trumped up start-up. It's Google. You had better watch out.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

They're Coming To Get You

What started out as just interested people wanting the right to share music downloads has become Sweden's fastest growing political party. Perhaps only in Sweden can such a progressive and philanthropic movement enjoy such support.

The Pirate Party started off in life as embracing what Sweden's liberal culture call 'Allemansratten' which means 'everyman's right'. It seemed a whacky start as the founder of the Party, Rick Falkvinge, openly explained that it was his intention to put the record industry out of business. It seems like cutting your nose off to spite your face as with no record industry there is no music to pass around but the Pirates believe that will take care of itself. One great side benefit would at least see the end of such people as Simon Cowell and his various Factors so maybe this is not such a bad ideal. However, the Pirate Party took a lurch to the centre of politics at the recent European Elections when it suddenly found a cause upon which to offer more mature opinions.

At the heart of the matter was Sweden's law called FRA, named after their equivalent of the UK's GCHQ. This law was passed last year and it gives the FRA total freedom to monitor all international phone calls, emails and internet traffic. It constantly scans for over 250,000 trigger words and phrases in cross-border e-traffic. These words and phrases are ones chosen by the agency as may be needing further investigation.

Ostensibly, the law was passed in the name of homeland security against terrorism. However, it flies in the face of Sweden's culture of freedom of speech and expression, something we all associate with that country. It helps that Sweden and the surrounding Nordic countries are some of the most developed technological countries in the internet age - companies like Nokia, Ericsson and Skype originated here and they lead the way in terms of numbers of home internet connections and broadband speeds, both landlines and mobile.

The counter-argument could be that this means that the Nordics was a fertile area for terrorists to hang out and do their planning at least.

The Shape of Things To Come

We may think that monitoring all e-traffic and scanning for as many as 250,000 triggers is a bit excessive and impinges on privacy. We may also think that at least it is Sweden doing it and not us. But readers of this blog will know that a consultative document on Britain's strategy along the exact same lines lies at the Government's feet as we read this. It is only a matter of time - very short time - before exactly the same law will be implemented in the UK.

In the European Elections this year, Swedes of all ages and persuasions voted against the law by voting for the Pirate's Party stance on the FRA law. It had given itself a cause to break free of it's hippy-type image of wanting free music and films for everyone (Swedes downloaded an estimated 15 million films last year - illegally). It resulted in a representative of the Party being elected to the European Parliament and it is widely believed that the Party will gain considerable ground at next year's Swedish Elections.

We can wipe the smile off our faces. Already we have 'Little Hitlers' in agencies and councils watching us with security cameras and often tapping our phones just to try to catch mums trying to get their kids into the wrong school or if we are putting the wrong thing in designated bins. Cameras in city centres, originally put up to safeguard us against terrorism and violence, now watch for those who over stay their parking meter. When the law is passed to allow monitoring of e-traffic, you can bet your shirt that security will be the reason for the intrusion into our privacy but just around the corner will be the extraneous gains in knowledge about us all - much of which can be used to design new taxes as well as ensure we are paying all we should now. And much more.

I used to think that if you have nothing to hide, why worry. Then I think that would I like the Government to know what friends I keep, what hobbies I have, how much travel I do and much more? What has it to do with them if I am not a terrorist? The answer is that it will be golden information for them in working out how to shape taxes to maximise revenues in the future on a local and national basis. If we do not believe it, how do we think people assess how a tax can impact us and what returns the HMRC will make on it now? Information is vital.

It is a short step to using a city centre camera to watch parked cars rather than criminals or terrorists killing people. After all there is no money in preventing crime. Realistically, we had all the CCTV footage of the 7/7 bombers making their way from Luton to the Underground and that did nothing but to help us identify them after the event. Such cameras are deployed to catch fare dodgers which in London Transport's mind is a far more heinous crime. The point is that you can monitor all the e-traffic and cameras you like but if you do not have the capability to act on the information it produces then it will not help, but that the information is useful to someone who can use it for a profit.

I find the introduction of FRA law in Sweden a precursor to similar laws in many other countries including the UK. It is a sad demise for the internet but some would say it had it coming. It started on the premise of freedom of information and was created by people with no money on the basis of honour and trust to pass information along. Today we see the consequences of those lofty ideals - terrorists use it to communicate freely and manage their money flow while paedophiles use it to communicate and refresh their network, and much more. The fact is that you could argue we had this coming. Our abuse of the internet has led to monitoring and potentially much more strict rules for the future. The vast information gathering by Government agencies in the near future will be the launchpad for many more restrictions to be placed on the web. And some would argue that is no bad thing.

What you can be sure of is that the waves of restrictions and laws associated with how we surf the web and what we do and say on there will be preceded by laws crafted in the name of preventing terrorism. The FRA law in Sweden is such a precursor for the future of the web.

They are certainly coming to get you. Quite who 'They' will be remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

'Loyalty Not Helicopters Required'.

Former Labour Minister, Lord Foulkes, has suggested that what the Army chiefs need is more loyalty rather than resources and their utterances about the matter amounted to disloyalty.

Just to be clear about what the idiot said, "[Sir Jock Stirrup and General Sir Richard Danatt] threaten to undermine our effort in Afghanistan and give succour to the enemy". He suggested to peers that the two should be reminded of the "importance of loyalty particularly when we are engaged in a very difficult war where victory is essential for the future safety of this country".

Some might suggest that the two most senior Armed Forces Chiefs were showing loyalty to their troops, 18 of who have died in July so far alone. Some might suggest that the two most Senior Armed Forces Chiefs might know a little more about running armies and fighting wars than armchair heroes like Lord Foulkes. Some might suggest that Lord Foulkes' comments were reminiscent of the politicians who ran the First World War out of Downing Street rather that experiencing the appalling conditions of the front lines for themselves.

Some might suggest that Lord Foulkes could not give a damn about the 190 troops that have died in Afghanistan because the war is not about life or death or our future safety but about politics to him.

I must admit that Rt. Hon. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (a name to conjure with to be sure) has all the ht credentials to be a top level idiot. On his website, because he is hip and up to date on all matters technical, he sagely points out that peers are not elected (how else would Alan Sugar become one, let's face it), but he goes on to say, "Although we are not elected, there is no reason why we should not, and every reason why we should, be accountable."

In that vain, it was Foulkes who valiantly tried to distance the establishment from Fred Goodwin at the height of RBS crisis by writing nasty letters to the FSA on behalf of 3 of the former Non-Executive Directors of RBS who had allegedly been threatened after asking questions about the bank's financial situation. Lord Foulkes is certainly a loyal Labour MP and so deserved of his peerage granted in 2005.

In his long career in politics, because that was his calling, it is notable that he has not spent a single day serving in any of the Armed Forces. Nowadays he has the jolliest of jobs as a backbench sniper for Gordon Brown and is a loyal pseudo-Scot as he was born in Oswestry before being called to that most political of lands - better still he is President of the Caribbean Council which means his regular 'holidays' on those lovely Islands are all fully paid for by mugs like us. And boy does he love the area as he is on Boards for something to do with the Dominican Republic and a Cuba Initiative. He's well looked after when it comes to getting suntans, as he is on the Virgins Island Group, Tobago, Central America and Belize. Very nice and comfy.

But, as with most MPs and peers, he has 'other interests'. In January he hit the headlines in The Times as he is paid £36,000 to introduce the law firm Eversheds to select committee Chairmen in the Lords and Commons and he shows great loyalty to Eversheds in doing so.

And when it comes to expenses, Lord Foulkes is a high quality operator. In 2008, Foulkes had been criticised for his expenses claims, which included around £45,000 over a period of two years for overnight subsistence to stay in a flat he had inherited. Between April 2007 and March 2008, Foulkes claimed £54,527 in expenses from the House of Lords. Which is interesting in itself, as on 25 June this year he asked the question to the House to forecast how much revenue was being lost to HMRC by people 'evading tax' in places like the Channel Islands.

Clearly, while Lord Foulkes has a strong sense of loyalty, he has little in the way of scruples.

Of course, some may suggest that as he has not ever been shot at by a member of the Taliban or stood beside a person killed by a roadside bomb or done nothing more than read a few books on the military that he has no idea what he is talking about by asking commanders to show 'loyalty'. Indeed, who is he asking them to be loyal to? Gordon Brown? Parliament? The Queen? Us?

Another Labour Lord sees it differently - Lord Malloch Brown said yesterday, "When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility." As he stepped down from office, like so many Labourites, he has suddenly found his conscience and spoke the truth.

The British Government is letting down our Armed Forces in Afghanistan and it is the Government who is disloyal to our troops, not their commanders. Foulkes can use his own name to get lost.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

What Are Think Tanks For?

You could call the front bar of most pubs in Britain 'Think Tanks'. There, many people blessed with the wondrous gift of 'Common Sense' have the 'calling' and slave tirelessly, over many hours, unpaid, in the illusive quest to solve the entire world of their problems. But no one ever listens.

In fact, in the 'Think Tank' I have attended on occasions, we even predicted the over-heating of the housing markets in the Western world as being the point at which economies would collapse. We even predicted that the rise of Hedge Funds and fat City bonuses would cause economic meltdown. But as the two observations were made in different 'sittings' and by largely different members, nobody linked the two things together.

But that's how 'Think Tanks' work. It is basically people with too much time on their hands sitting in the room with some kind of 'stimulus'. In our case it was alcohol and most other Think Tanks it is the money paid by the body who wants the answers and usually the initial question goes something along the lines of 'The NHS is getting overloaded, so how much money can we get out of it?'.

You think I'm kidding? Where did you think the Congestion Charge came from or Road Safety Speed Cameras or catching terrorists came from? All the answers involved ways of making more money, the latter by using the cameras installed to supposedly catch terrorists to be used to catch people putting the wrong things in bins and old ladies illegally parking, hence making more money. And they must be all done at separate meetings as none of the answers ever reference the other and always assume we have bottomless pits of money to hand back to Government or in consultant-speak their thinking is 'unjoined up'.

So today's gem is that a new Think Tank has come up with a way to solve over-crowding at GP surgeries. It must have take all of 30 seconds this one and the minutes of the meeting show that the chairman did not even finish reading out the question when some professor from the University of Pratts Bottom piped up, 'Charge the bastards £20 a visit.' Brilliant - all those in favour? 'Aye'. Passed unanimously. Next question vexed them a bit but took 45 minutes and they decided to end world poverty by charging all inhabitants of Africa £35 for the use of condoms.

Ryan Air seem to be operating much the same way by the looks of some of the ideas they have come up with but that's another story.

It strikes me that politicians clearly can only think for themselves when it comes to expenses and getting second jobs. All other times they simply toss the offending question into a Think Tank and out pops the answer which always goes along the lines of 'The answer to Britain's problem referenced XYZ (no need to fill the question in) is to charge ABC (refer to demographic chart book) £Delta (refer to charging rate booklet).'

So do we get value for our £60,000 a year plus multiple expensed MPs? Not really as when you add up all the consulting, research and Think Tank fees they pay out a year, we see that using their outsourced brain power actually costs us a great deal more. But one thing we can be sure of is that the more we pay for them, we end up paying a great deal more in our taxes.

Get with the programme, everyone. Register your pub's front bar as a 'Think Tank', invent a suitable studious name and make some money while you drink. I guarantee you'll make more sense than the ones in existence today.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Led By Sheep

The real British Lions are fighting in Afghanistan. In this month alone, 16 soldiers have died there bringing the total to 185 since the start of a conflict that we have all forgotten why we are fighting in.

Yesterday, Sir Jock Stirrup was at Downing Street refuting the PM's insistence that enough was being done to equip our fighting men while the Head of The Army, General Sir Richard Danatt said, as he stepped down, that we simply did not have enough resources deployed in Afghanistan. It is a tough time for Brown, who in his tenure as PM and Chancellor has overseen the systematic cutbacks in our Armed Forces at a time when we have endeavoured to fight more wars.

Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson was out 'shopping' for the Armed Forces and saying that they will get the equipment needed. I suspect he is quite good at shopping.

Action Not Reaction

The fact of the matter is that the situation has been allowed to get this serious and desperate that it has taken 16 lives this month alone and the two most senior Forces Chiefs to break rank and openly criticise the Government in order to get a reaction out of the Government. Had it not been for 16 men dying in July, life in Helmand for our Forces would have gone on as usual. Now the New Labour 'spin machine' worked so sweetly by Mandelson tries to make it look as if a) they give a damn and b) are doing something about it.

It's a far cry from the huddled bodies and massive fees paid to investment bankers in order to get answers on the bank bail outs. Money was no object then and ministers were ready to do all night sittings to save the necks of people who had screwed us so royally. All the regulators, executives and Non-Executives are still in their jobs bar a miserly few and £11.5m in investment bank fees and £26.8m in legal fees was paid to the very people complicit in the disaster.

It's like paying the Taliban to get advice on how to get more helicopters. Frankly, they probably have more idea than our Government does.

What appalls everyday people is that we question why the soldiers are in Helmand and what they are fighting for anyway. But that does not mean that we think any the less of our Armed Forces - they are led by sheep at the very top, who know nothing of how to equip an Army and stand by the men they so quickly send into danger.

In their crisp suits and serious faces they make it a 'priority' to do something only when the two most senior Army Chiefs break the political law by standing up and denouncing them. And the Opposition are no better, seizing on it only for political gain. There does not seem to be an honest person amongst them or any that actually gives a flying whatever for the 16 men who died this month and the 185 families that have been affected by the decisions of gutless people so far.

Politics is all about politicians feathering their own nests in the good times and saving their own necks in the bad. This year has been an 'Annus Horriblus' for modern politics and it is time we were served by honest people who backed up what they say with real commitments and action.

Our Armed Forces deserve far better than this and they deserve not to die for no reason or for the lack of the right equipment. It is utterly shameful that we have let them down so pathetically.