Sunday, 31 January 2010

Smooth Operator

'Teflon Tony' was at it again, as we suspected. The polished and well rehearsed performance of our former PM showed he has lost none of those skills that kept him at the top of his game in politics.

Even his admissions on Fern Britton's show that if he had known that WMD were not in Iraq, he would have still gone to war and just spun the evidence to give a different excuse, was laughed away as if he had been tricked by some skilled advocate rather than a weekday second rate presenter.

We learnt nothing more than what he was prepared to let us know and it was presented as if there was a compelling moral cause to his actions.

Faith is a great gift - it allows you to break circular arguments by providing a neat end point. The fact that Blair had faith meant he knew, no matter what the reason he invented or knew, that he was right to invade Iraq. He would do it again in a heartbeat for another reason - faith told him he would be always right. You cannot challenge faith; there is no logic, no evidenciary reasoning, no rational thought process, there is just a blind and utter belief in what you want to do or something to be.

Blair has buckets of faith - so much so that he has made it a past time to tell us all about his pious beliefs. The warning signs are there for us all to see - faith is not a reason to start killing people. Wars down the generations have relied on such stuff but we are developed, mature and intelligent humans - we need more of a reason to start killing one another.

If we don't, then this world is forever cursed with the burden of religion.

No other species on earth from the single cell structures to the most advanced primates have a concept of a God or worship - they may have pack leaders or alpha males but they do not have Gods. That sort of tells you something about the limitation of intelligence - it gives the ability for us to question, reason, invent, discover but then 'draw a line' under the whole thing when the answer does not coincide with evidence. From planetary motions, to disease control to evolution - faith has challenged humans every step of the way.

Tony Blair never cared whether Saddam Hussein had any WMDs or chemical weapons, nor if he could launch any within 45 minutes. He was more concerned in following his fellow believer in faith, George W. Bush. This week Blair declared, in his clinical knowledge and expertise, that Saddam Hussein was a psychopath. It was a clutch at a straw that at least most would believe.

But that is not what the UN 1441 stated - the grounds for armed intervention were not there. Blair knew that a second resolution would never be passed as both Russia and France at minimum opposed them. So he threw in his lot with the US and would do the justifications later when he was called to account.

The Chilcot Inquiry was advertised as the definitive inquiry into the war, we got nothing. All the evidence in the inquiry to date points that war was unnecessary and that the intelligence around it was deeply flawed at best and, at worst, lies.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

What Happened To Labour?

I am not sure what has been the most obvious in the last 24 hours, a) the fact our economy is about as healthy as a 40 a day smoker or b) that the gap between rich and poor has not been as high for 40 years.

Either way, it begs the question - what happened to Labour? In my youth, I may not have agreed with the rantings of Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, Dennis Skinner, Arthur Scargill or Tony Benn but you could not fault them for their deep conviction that there was a fundamental inequality in our society. Now, after 12 years of a Labour Government, we find we have the usual defunct economy but also the largest gap between richest and poorest, the least opportunities for our children, and an apparent breaking, if not broken, society that still makes distinctions between sex and gender despite there even being an Equalities Minister and employment laws as tight as a duck's backside.

The reality is that we sit passively reading that bankers at Goldman Sachs will have to make do with only £1m per person this year, we look on with indifference that bosses' average pay is now over five times that of the wages of their average worker and despite the presence of a myriad of laws employers still discriminate on the grounds of race, religion and sex. We may think things are different - but they aren't. You only have to see the rise in the BNP to understand that Britain is not moving forward in its thinking or the clamour to congratulate France on banning the wearing of Burkas by Muslim women.

Then again, we are at war with Muslims and their way of life. We are currently occupying two Muslim countries and we are having another eternal inquiry into why we invaded one of them as it posed no threat to our nation. It's little wonder why people in Britain remain largely anti-foreign, let alone racist.

We convince ourselves that the Taliban are the epitome of pure evil because of the way they treat women and hold them back, yet the recently released figures show clearly that as a society we fundamentally undervalue the contribution of a woman doing the same job and that the opportunities to progress for women are far less than those for men. We have even made the white male worker a class that is oppressed in the media.

I can't say that I know answers to such a complex situation because on the one hand I want a safe place to live, more opportunities for local people to work rather than have more migrant workers in this country, employ the people I think can do the job rather than be told that I must favour certain sections of society, earn as much as I am able and pay less for the failings of others. On the other hand, I know that I am part of the problem. I sit hear and listen to the spoutings of a Government that has failed us through window dressing policies and talk but did little to rectify the underlying problems and I think to myself, 'Well at least I'm ok, despite how much I disagree with their so-called achievements.'

And that about sums it up - as long as we have our Sky TV, a place to live, iPods, 42" TVs, places to eat and pubs to drink in plus the money to support it, we are fat and happy. Who cares about the kids in poverty in this country or the starving in Africa when partners at banks average £1m a year and are furious they are being victimised? It seems Labour doesn't - that party of social equality of old has wooed and knighted bankers as good as anyone and footed the bill when they got so greedy that they broke the country.

We are a society that will gladly fight for the right to watch violent films, make sure our kids have the latest PC games extolling the virtues of stealing cars and defending the right of anyone to do what they want on the internet yet criticise people for having beards, wearing Burkas and being tough on criminals. We are a society that will happily go to war based on false information, then cook the story to justify it when the lie is discovered yet allow countries we 'free and democratise' to have corrupt Governments because it suits our agenda.

The fact is, as a society we haven't really moved very far forward at all. The Labour Party, which once had a passion to tackle such issues, has got as fat and as happy as the society it governs.

I would hate us to get back to the old days of rampant strikes and high powered, politicised Unions that dominated Labour's rise which contributed to the death of the British manufacturing base but I can't help thinking we needed some of those old principles about a better society, because what we have is more polar, discriminatory and broken than it has ever been.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Well Worth The Wait?

A few hundred £billion later on bail outs and £200bn of Quantitative Easing (QE), a fiscal stimulus package worth a few bob, and all the 'right decisions' have 'apparently' been made?!
What do we get for all that money? 0.1% growth in the final quarter of 2009, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Granted, they may 'sex up' that figure later but the reality is that the much-anticipated recovery that Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown got us all salivating over is hardly worth a thing. Given that we spent all that QE money, we had the effect of Christmas buying and pre-VAT surges, the fact of the matter is that we hardly showed a jot of growth.

The majority of the fiscal stimulus has been spent, now we are on the artificial lifeline of delayed spending cuts in order to tackle our ever increasing borrowing - we are in the red zone on the economic barometer. We are in dodgy credit territory and the Government's strategy of 'Hope' in terms of growth has been like a like a firework's touchpaper fizzling out with no bang.

One economic commentator from the FT previously described the economy as like being lit by firelighters and causing a momentary flash of burning but once the firelighter burnt out discovering that the economy is merely glowing not burning.

I said it before - I believed the Government used the strategy of throwing enough manure at a wall in the vain hope that some would stick in terms of the amount of money they spent. There was no focus, no target, no knowledge of the return on the money - just spend as much as possible and hope things would right themselves, all because a bunch of failed Investment Bankers advised them to do so.

It leaves the Government's fiscal policies both before the financial crisis and after in tatters - they were as bad dealing with the problem as the hubris shown in pre-empting it. No lessons have been learnt, banks have not been reformed or restrained, bonuses are being paid as high as ever in the City and bankers still being revered despite the pathetic windfall tax which makes little or no effect.

0.1% represents an economy in crisis still and we have little left to throw at it and a massive budget deficit to deal with. If this is 'prudent' economics as Gordon always told us he was expert in, then we are surely on a slippery slope to ruin.

If I were the Chancellor, I would be almost embarrassed to mention this figure. This is not good news for businesses continuing to hold in a survival pattern, hoping for an upturn.

Recession? What Recession?

Pah, it's only been since the April-June quarter of 2008, but the longest recession since records began is expected to have officially ended in the final quarter of 2009. Or, at least, that's the script as the same was expected last quarter.

According to Lord Mandelson on Radio 5 Live this morning, we have had less house repossessions, less unemployment (about 850,000 jobs lost), had less company liquidations, had only 6% contraction of the economy and faired better than other G20 nations during the recession - heck, we have hardly sustained a scratch to our way of life. In fact, under the Conservatives of 20 years ago, the recession then lost 2 million jobs.

The difference, of course, is that we have a record budget deficit of £178bn and rising. That and the fact that we have made no cuts to public expenditure - in fact, we have spent like crazy and not lost any public sector jobs at all. We have spent a few hundred billion rescuing banks and we have printed £200bn of new money to buy our own National Debt. What we have done is created a FALSE economic situation and mitigated the effect of the recession on real things like public expenditure by spending and creating money that we didn't have - and we will all pay dearly for that over the coming years.

Gordon Brown believes he has made all the 'right decisions' in this crisis but the real reckoning has been staved off to a later date. He has created a dreamworld, a fantasy of where we actually stand so that he can try and win the election.

It's an artist's impression rather than a financial one as the creativity of Lord Mandelson is evident wherever we turn. The figures today are pretty meaningless in the context of how much this crisis has cost Britain and the taxpayers. The pain has been delayed and that will costs us all even more.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Second Coming of Swiss Banking?

President Obama has launched one of the biggest reforms of the bank system for many years as he bids to try and grab the money back that bankers have lost.

The plan is to claw back over $100bn which seems a great deal of money but in the great scheme of things it represents but a fraction of what the US has had to spend to save the banks and actually is not a massive amount compared to the profits banks are earning again. Just over the weekend, the bank that claims it does 'God's work', Goldman Sachs, has capped its partners' pay at £1m a head - a move seen as akin to wearing sackcloth for a year in the City. In the UK, we have the bank roll tax which may raise around £500m if we are lucky. Yet despite the fact that bankers seem to be getting off lightly, they are actually squealing like stuck pigs at such perceived 'unfairness'. The mantra seems to be, 'You can't live with us, but you can't live without us.'

It's the classic gun to the head situation in the UK - allow us to earn or we will move elsewhere.

The elsewhere is increasingly looking like Switzerland. The traditional old stuffy, discrete and positively criminal image of Swiss bankers of the past as they provided an anonymous and impenetrable home to illicit money, far from the hands of taxmen, the Swiss banking industry is not what it used to be. But for a land-locked country with no real other source of income other than banking, pharmaceuticals and chocolate, it always punches above its weight and has even won the Americas Cup.

City rumours are that the Swiss are in town murmuring in the ears of disgruntled bankers telling them that there is a welcome in the green valleys of Switzerland, where the individual tax regime is very accommodating. The cost of living may be high, but why worry when you are earning the kinds of money people of your calibre deserve?

A collective sigh of relief may be exhaling around the City - it's a bit of a trek for the Americans but they will find somewhere closer and maybe join the real casino boys in Cayman Islands or Bermuda, but the message is that there are willing homes for these poor wretches to rise again - and be richer than they are now.

'Be careful what you wish for,' say the bankers. Good riddance, I say.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Industrial Disease

The Gabby Logan Show on BBC Five Live this week shows how the insurance industry ducks its responsibilities and allows many people to die long before they pay out.

There are two direct repercussions to this - 1) the person dies a particularly uncomfortable and painful death without any financial support and 2) the pay out is automatically reduced after death even though relatives will have shouldered the cost of care. Both are terrible but the latter is a belter - once the unfortunate person dies then only if there are dependents alive will the pay out be the nearly the same as the award to the suffering person. If not, then it is reduced as non-dependents are supposedly in less need of the money - a nice way to save cash. Dependents are defined as spouses or children under 18.

This is not rocket science. The expense associated with making a claim is huge and it is a lengthy process. As a family, we experienced this when my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma after working all his life for the same company, BP. His only interruption in service for the company came from a stint in the Navy (seconded to the Merchant Navy) during WWII. Despite this, and his being able to pinpoint the most likely period of his employment with the company when he got most exposed, the company denied and denied it. Fortunately, we found the insurers quickly, engaged a good lawyer and claimed. My father, after so long a service with BP for whom he sacrificed a great deal working all over the world and away from the family in places like Alaska and Aden, was heartbroken that his employer turned their back on him, when all he needed was some contribution to things like a downstairs shower or wheelchair.

Even after we had found the insurer, the process outlived him. As he fell to the worst part of the illness, he asked us to pursue the case as he was so upset that his company would deny him. Eventually, an award was made. We had a meal in his honour and opened a bottle of his favourite wine, Barolo, after his service in Italy for BP where he suffered a life threatening car crash after too many hours on the job commissioning a troublesome refinery and where our mother suffered a stroke at an early age. We bought a piece of machinery for the hospital in Swansea where he was treated which would make life a little easier for fellow sufferers - and it says something that a small unit at that hospital needed such kit for such a rare disease - and a bench at the Nursing Home for the terminally ill that he spent his final hours in.

I will not go into the disease other than to say it is the most virulent of cancers which is caused by asbestos and affects the lining of the lung - it is inoperable and terminal in all cases, yielding a terrible death.

Insurance executives should read such articles and view programs on it and think about how they would like to die. If they should contract such a disease from the negligence of their employer, then the one thing they would want is some comfort and help during their suffering.

That is the one thing insurance companies in these cases do not give. I have no sympathy or respect for that industry in total. Faceless executives betting and profiting on misfortune and making it onerously hard to get access to what is rightfully claimed. You need a cold heart to be successful in it - and most are.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Public Sector Bonanza

If we needed more evidence that costs are spiralling out of control in the Public Sector and that it has not, in any way, shared in the need to cut costs to reduce the budget deficit, the article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph said it all.

A small, but prominent paragraph on the front page indicated there is now a record gap between Public and Private Sector pay which is over £2,000 on the average salaries in each sector.

I have beaten on about this but the Private Sector has borne the brunt of cost cutting and job losses in the last year while the Public Sector has remained fat and happy, negotiating unrealistic pay deals and sitting on overly generous pension schemes. The Government has postponed any cost reviews until after the election and our borrowing as nation rises daily - it's as if people who control these things either don't get it or, worse, don't care .

The Public Sector cost is a massive ticking bomb and the longer we leave tackling it, the worse it will get. Meanwhile, as National Debt goes onto the open market, credit agencies around the world will be questioning the British ability and appetite to deal with its growing public costs and repayments.

As we, the taxpayer, contemplate the price of all this, it is encouraging to know that right in front of our faces, our 80%+ publicly owned bank, RBS, is a principal lender to Kraft to acquire Cadbury - which no one seemed to know until after the deal was struck, while Mandelson now wants to see the detail as he wafts it through to conclusion. Further, those banks, who we bailed out are enjoying a wonderful resurgence as the wider economy still struggles - prompting new, higher pay deals and wonderful profits.

You couldn't make this up - the taxpayer gets the entire bill for economic failure to see banks whooping it up thanks to our generosity, while the Public Sector gets fatter because costs are not cut which could save the taxpayer some money.

Having just got my Corporation tax demand within minutes of posting my accounts and still waiting for my personal rebate since October, it seems that taxpayers have become the new 'Bank of England'.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Lack of Intelligence

Sir David Omand testified at the Chilcot Inquiry yesterday and what should have been a good day for our Intelligence Services descended into farce.

Like something out of a John Le Carre plot, Omand described the construction of the infamous Iraq dossier that was 'sold' to the public as the reason why invading Iraq was legitimate and fitted with UN Resolution 1441, was just a series of colourful assertions.

The grim hope that all of us will now be convinced that Tony Blair and his Ministers were absolutely convinced that WMDs existed with deadly and immediate capability along with vast chemical warfare factories, seems to be evaporating. The picture that is emerging is that each person called before the enquiry is carefully covering their tracks and trying to detract us from the real chain of events. There is a systematic plan to park the Iraq dossier as just a bit of Joint Intelligence doodling and that no one really believed that a) it would be taken so seriously, b) it would presented as the reason why war was required and c) that the Prime Minister's preface would be taken as gospel. There is also the aura being created that the Weapons Inspector Team was some kind of clown act being teased by Iraq like a pantomime scene, 'He's behind you' and when they look there is no one there.

It's all very quaint and relaxed - Alistair Campbell was polished and as credible as ever. The chilling undertone is that these people created a myth and caused a war that has destroyed lives and cost fortunes. Yet they make it sound as though it was all a bit of fun and that really Saddam Hussein was bad so we should not get hung up about the dossier or the war. Right won in the end.

Well, there is a serious outcome of trivialising all this. The question now must be asked, if the dossier, Al Qaeda connections, The Axis of Evil and the WMDs were all a myth, just how much should we all believe about Iraq at all?

I can feel another enquiry coming on that will prove nothing and condemn no one. So how many lives have to be lost before anyone cares why we started a war that has stirred up Islamic extremism that will last for generations?

The answer is plain to be seen. It doesn't matter when us Christians and Westerners cause it - because we are the 'good guys'.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Shape of Things To Come

Two things I read over the weekend caught my eye about the future. The first was the Ernst & Young Item Club report about the economic outlook.

The second was about spending reviews for the Armed Forces which will now take place after the election - of course, low priority matters like soldiers being blown to pieces can wait for preening politicians to have their jamboree.

The Item Club, stuffed full of clever economists who could not predict the Credit Crunch and the depth of the recession, are now calling how it will be on the 'upside'. Their predictions are not encouraging as they forecast a mere 1% growth for the economy this year. For once their predictions are based on some sound observations as they focus on Britain decreasing its dependency on consumer and debt to fuel growth, and to focus more on exports. As we don't have much of a manufacturing base left, this will be a long hard slog but I cannot agree more about the assertions on debt.

However, I think the Government have other ideas. The vast growth we enjoyed in the last 12 years came directly from leveraged consumers who took plentiful and cheap credit and spent like no other generation. Unsecured debt is at perilously high levels and is only slowly creeping down. In the next few years, it should be the aim of the Government and consumers alike to manage this debt down as it will be crucial in the ability of the Government to force new taxes upon the nation and get them collected - the real threat of increasing bankruptcies and hardship could hamper the ability of HMRC to collect taxes.

It will be a year when the eyes of the financial world will be watching us very carefully for signs of weakness and inability to service or repay our debts and as each day passes with no action on cuts or tax then the uncertainty grows.

The second thing was about the Armed Forces. General Sir David Richards believes that the 'Rules of war have been re-written' and so advocates greater emphasis and money on sophisticated equipment such as spy planes and cyber-defences as the name of the game is fighting insurgency who work by different rules. To be honest, such insurgent armies work on infinitely weaker budgets than the might of the US and UK and still work very effectively. It has been a feature of modern warfare that in the absence of massive engagements on mapped out battlefields that war is becoming a game of cat and mouse and the mouse is superbly equipped to inflict severe damage on a waringly small but regular scale. While the numbers in each incident are low, the toll of kills or injured mount over the course of a year and now we have lost more British forces in the Afghan conflict than we did in the Falklands.

This is not rocket science. We have seen it in Northern Ireland - a relatively small, hidden and resourceful army with deep convictions and little fear can inflict terrible wounds which are difficult to stem over time that saps morale and instills fear. The wiser way to handle such conflicts would be simply to not engage and make no theatre of war for them to play in. Such armies are not mobile, they cannot travel far and they have limited ways of communicating, but concentrate them in small areas where they can focus their attention and they become lethal.

The pressure on us as a country as we attempt to pay the price of awesome economic failure is to fight a war we cannot win and we cannot afford. Our aspirations of being some kind of world superpower are dwindling as fast as our bank balance and the two things are incongruous.

Britain faces an austere year and a year where our ambitions should be reviewed on all fronts.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Tax Is Easy - Here's The Proof

If you have a complex service or useless product, one of the quickest ways to find out just how wrong you have got it is by the number of phone calls or queries you get.

Here is the staggering verdict on the wonderful 'Tax is easy' TV campaigns we have seen. Last year, HMRC received a staggering 103 million calls from taxpayers - the peak at the tax credit renewal time in July. But here is the best part, 44 million of the calls were missed. So not only is tax not easy but the service surrounding querying and paying it is awful.

So that we are clear on the magnitude of how complex tax is, the 31 call centres around the country have the equivalent of 10,500 full time staff to take these calls - yet still this was nowhere near enough.

The National Audit Office called the service 'unacceptable' but this is like blaming the doorman for having only one entrance to Wembley stadium. If the design is rubbish then you will take millions of calls because people do not understand.

The growth in complexity in tax has been proportional to how much we pay over the last few years. Many people do not claim credits or get rebates because it is simply too difficult to understand who gets what and how to claim it. Also, it is very clear that even if you do work it all out, you have barely a 50% chance of getting through on the phone lines to check if you can or how to get it.

It's symptomatic of an ever more complex tax system that has spawned an industry in itself where even the lowest paid people are having to get their claims done or checked by fee-based accountants - it's a farce. And while you are hounded immediately for tax owed, don't hold your breath for payments of rebates as they come several months down the line and don't try to call as you will probably not get through.

The lunacy is that this level of service has actually 'improved' from last year with the number of missed calls down. The HMRC has responded by saying it is committed to providing a better and cheaper service - this is techno-speak for your calls will be answered by offshore people who will have access to your private details and drive you nuts because their job is to simply answer calls quicker but to fob you off not solve your problems - credit card companies like Marks & Spencer have that down to a tee.

So next year when you query your tax, you will likely have your call answered in the Philippines by someone who will confirm all your details and the amount owed and then say, 'The computer says no.'

The penny may drop, that if you decrease the complexity of the tax system, you would not need to have so many people to answer the phones as less people would call. But pigs will fly before that happens.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

True Grit

I called off my attempt to get to Basingstoke this morning having travelled no further than 2 miles from home, abandoning my car on a steep hill down from Abbots Langley to Kings Langley where multiple small accidents had occurred on roads that were no better than skating rinks.

Overnight I had monitored the weather forecasts and Basingstoke and the South East were due 'Heavy snow' and my specific area was due 'Light snow' - but both areas were due to have sub zero temperatures overnight. Abbots Langley and the area has had relentless light snow overnight but the freezing temperatures has meant that it has stuck and made roads totally treacherous. Not a grain of grit has been put on any of the main roads leading from Abbots Langley anywhere and speaking to several colleagues this morning it appears the same picture is painted across the county.

I rang Three Rivers Council who I pay my rates to. They said that they had gritted some roads but had not expected the volume of snow. I asked had they known the temperatures would be below zero as it was forecasted - even the Highways Agency, the AA and the BBC had warned driving conditions would be poor - so the excuses of not knowing were pretty slim.

I watched a news item a few days ago where a lady Councillor from Haringey, I think, was saying that her council had ordered grit in December and it had not arrived so it was, 'Not our fault'. It was a wonderful piece of politicking yet a swift analysis would be asking why had she left it as late as December to order for the winter months when we had already had snow by then? Further, common sense tells you that if a cold snap does come, then demand for grit will increase so being prepared meant anticipating and getting stocks in early to avoid having to wait when demand was highest. It's pretty simple really.

Gritting has been at the worst level that I can remember this year - there just does not seem to be any attempt to get lorries out and volume of grit down. Granted this is an extended cold snap but the grit wasn't there at the beginning so it is not as if they have run out half way through which would have been understandable - they just didn't seem to have any to start with.

Now here's the rub. As private individuals, supplies at places like garden centres or B&Q are pretty good so these stores have anticipated demand well. There is also a rumour that if I were to grit the area outside my house and did not do it properly and then the postman fell over, allegedly, I could be sued for not gritting properly. In the case of the councils, you have to ask whether they can be sued for gross negligence or causing unnecessary accidents for not gritting at all but I am sure there are many clauses protecting them.

This year has been the poorest on record for gritting and today is shameful. It's not that much snow but we are at a standstill again.

The Hidden Cost of Rail Travel

I don't go into London much these days - I used to do so far more regularly. We expect the annual rise in train tickets - it seems a given that prices go up yet on each route there is no competition so it is actually a licence to print money.

But we do have a friend for train tickets - Office of Rail Regulation whose job it is to ensure that there is (farcically) some competition and that price rises are not just in the realms of fantasy. However, what is not really governed at all is the cost of parking at stations.

In an ideal world, it would be great to cycle to and from our local stations. Kings Langley is nearest but this has only slow trains going through it and twice our car has been broken into in the car parks. So we tend to use St Albans or Watford Junction as they have more regular fast trains, with St Albans being very handy for my wife as the trains stop at Farringdon which is great for her office in Spitalfields. But it is a long cycle indeed to St Albans and there is no bus link from near us to go there either. So car is the best way.

I tend to use Watford as I am not fussy about where I alight in London as I go to several places for business. I was struck by this year's increase in the ticket prices - in a couple of years the prices have ratcheted up significantly and there is no doubt that salaries are not keeping up with ticket price rises. But the real hit was the price of parking my car. It is now £8 per day - just a couple of years ago it was less than £6.

In that time, the car park has automated so the human labour force to patrol the entry is no longer required and finally it takes credit cards. On a piece of cheap, ex-railway land, there is space for 270 cars which is probably on average two thirds full on each day of the year. The price rises for parking are not regulated by the rail regulator and so they have risen at above 10% per annum each year for some time despite lower running costs. I was truly astounded that this is allowed and not monitored by the regulator.

There is one thing in business that I have noticed, you rarely ever see firms who run carparks go out of business, and few go public as the requirement for capital is minimal in such a regular, cash business. In 1998, the owners of NCP, sold their business for £555m. Just imagine what that business would be worth today if only for its property value.

Commuters in this country get an awful deal and we only really ever hear part of it. The cost of parking is a racket in its own right.

Defending The Indefensible

Well we got what we wanted. Alistair Campbell gave his version of events leading to the Iraq Invasion at the Chilcot Inquiry yesterday and it just made us more angry at the arrogance of the whole affair.

It could have been any of the recollections to set me off but what really astounded me was Campbell's unfathomable defence of the 2002 dossier on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) - the crux of the argument to go to war. Campbell said he, 'Defends every word of it.'

I find this incredible given that we knew not long after that parts of it relating to the infamous '45 minute' assertion that WMDs could be deployed in the field to threaten British Sovereign territory within 45 minutes were plagiarised from an internet version of an old student thesis. Further, how can you defend a document's credibility when at the very time Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors were indicating that no WMD or manufacturing capability had been found. In fact, Blix was pleading with the US and UK to hold off and give his team more time to find the weapons or chemical factories - and as this was central to the UN Resolution which the UK and US used to go with the invasion it was morally right that evidence should be found. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein was issuing statements that there were no WMD which was the truth while the UK and the US just said he was lying.

At best this was Intelligence communities gone so far wrong as to make their credibility defunct or, at worst, Government arrogance in the face of clear evidence against a war under UN law. Campbell now, and then, behaves as if this is irrelevant but it isn't. It is the foundation for a model of peace that came out of the World Wars - the statute that stops a country or countries from invading just because they don't like what the others do. Violate this principle and we have anarchy on the planet once more.

For me, the faith-based zeal of leaders like Bush and Blair was no better than the zeal of faith-based terrorists who attempt regime change through atrocities. Blair and Bush just used armies and economies instead - manipulating international law to their favour through misuse of power.

I believe it was a time of great shame for Britain. The outcome in Iraq is as questionable as the outcome in Afghanistan - when the plan is merely to kick out the old and install a new friend, beware of getting what you ask for .

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Perpetuating The Lie

Quite what the Chilcot Inquiry will achieve is very unclear. The one thing we can be certain of is that we will never get the truth.

Today, and live now, Alistair Campbell gives his version of events for the inquiry. Campbell was the spin-doctor at the heart of creating the myth that Iraq represented a threat to British Sovereign Territory and was the butt of Andrew Gilligan's assumptions on the 'Sexing Up' affair of the evidence document released to justify our decision to invade Iraq along with the US. Amid innuendo and spin, Dr. David Kelly, who allegedly whistle blew to Gilligan, committed suicide rather than apparently face the music.

Even as we speak, Campbell has already told the enquiry that Blair did not back regime change beforehand when Blair already told Fern Britton on BBC TV he did back regime change. The Guardian has previously reported that George W Bush and Blair had decided on going to war with Iraq at Camp David a year before the final button was pushed. Now Campbell is trying to say that WMD were never the main reason of why we invaded - even though this was the only legitimacy via the UN. But these are the things you will not hear truthfully - history has changed; history we lived ourselves and saw with own eyes.

The web of deceit surrounding that whole period of history will be spun yet further today by Campbell. Incredibly, at the height of the storm over the Kelly suicide, he stormed into Channel Four Newsroom and demanded to be put on prime time TV and explain his side of the story. Arguably then, and now, this showed that Campbell had become bigger than anyone in the country and that propaganda sinisterly ruled.

Nothing much has changed. Tony Blair has already tweaked his version of events to suit the facts over a period of time, culminating in his recent interview with Fern Britton in which he said that he would have removed Saddam anyway even if WMD did not exist saying, "I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat."

The Chilcot Inquiry was dead before it got under way as it was politicised from the start - Gordon Brown will not give evidence until after the election even though there is no earthly reason why that makes sense. So you can assure yourself of some facts - there will be no blame apportioned, no real truth will emerge, no new evidence will gain credence, no former ministers or spin doctors will lose the earnings on their biographies and Britain will still be vilified in the eyes of the wider world community for openly lying about the reasons it went to war.

I am sure, as it did not change the last one, that it will not affect the outcome of this election either. Too much skill, spin, changing of the facts and equivocation will ensure that nobody is blamed. That makes you think that if no one really was to blame then everyone from the Intelligence Community to Government Ministers to the PM himself must have so rubbish at their jobs as to be incompetent.

Hey ho, it only cost us many £billions and the lives of some young heroes. As long as Tony and Alistair's income stream is not interrupted then no one has REALLY lost out, have they?

Google Samples Reality

A friend and former colleague had a good adage about free products - 'They are free and worth every penny'.

It used to be my mantra when selling web and videoconferencing against the likes of Microsoft who allegedly (despite making over 40% net profits at the time) gave NetMeeting away free. Sure enough they stopped developing the product but it scuppered many a sale for me.

And so Google, the masters of 'selling' free products and services, finally stepped up and brought us a touch of reality - their version of a SmartPhone, the Nexus One. Sold either as a separate item or as an airtime bundle with T-Mobile in the US it is not cheap but it is meant to be an alternative to the immensely popular Apple iPhone. In the UK, it will be sold via Vodafone or Google direct.

The trouble is that Google has always offered support of its product via anonymous email - why expect more as their products are free, after all? Not so with the Nexus One - you pay serious money to get in on the act and Google were set to make handsome profits. But the real world intervened. Phones can go wrong and customers in the US are furious - filling bulletin boards and forums with complaints about lack of service and finger pointing by Google as neither they or their airtime provider can agree who should be taking the calls to service complaining customers - and Google do not have a line you can call.

Google must have watched Microsoft, who over the years have made lack of customer service an art form. Microsoft products are not cheap - a full MS Office suite for a home user, small business or even a Corporate User sets you back a pretty big sum. But try getting some support on the product and you have the delight of being referred to your PC supplier if it was bought pre-loaded or just sit and wait for hours if you bought it direct from Microsoft. And it's not as if Microsoft products are bug-free - some of the bugs actually were put in the very first versions and reside there today like antique quirks.

Google are vying to topple the likes of Microsoft and become standard applications in the world of Cloud Computing. To do so it has to learn a lesson that customers are fed up with the arrogance of the likes of Microsoft when it comes to ropey products and poor support. To make us all change, the alternative not only has to be 'fresh and cool' but reliable and well supported.

I hope Google get it right for the UK launch.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Congestion Charge Racket

To start, hands up, my wife and I are not great at remembering to pay, which is one of my beefs about the Congestion Charge for London.

But it's way more than that - it's getting like a racket - a licence to print money and the abuse of people's rights is getting silly.

First up - it's an unfair system. My wife only ever goes into the zone for minutes on any day she goes to London and always with another passenger in the car. Yet she is charged the full £8 just the same as a driver-only vehicle who may drive around for the full congestion charge period for the same charge - polluting and contributing to jams the whole day. That's just plain stupid and we should all make a stand to Boris Johnson on this - there is nothing 'green' about the system and it's wholly unfair in terms of usage.

It's not as if the technology does not exist to collect charges at source and dramatically reduce the amount of Penalty Charge Notices (PCN) which are sent out. My wife has an account with a debit mandate attached to it and if she remembers to text in then it debits her account. But we have two cars and so she repeatedly texts for the wrong car which has happened again. She has paid £8 but for the wrong vehicle. Transport for London (TfL) happily takes the wrongly paid £8 and will not refund the money in any circumstance - it's the only authority or company I know which has the right totally abuse the consumer rights law yet it is operated by a private company. It is an absolute licence to print money.

The technology for number plate recognition has been there since the day it was launched and the debit mandates are there for individual accounts - yet the payment system is 'rigged' to make sure you have to trigger something to pay even though TfL can actually do it for you. It's absolutely ludicrous that it should not be done this way.

Here's the new thing. Congestion Charge is neither a traffic offence or is it a consumer purchase so it operates in a middle ground but is protected by the laws of traffic transgression. Yet if you speed, the fine notification has to be sent out within 14 days of the offence occurring - any time after actually transgresses your right to defend yourself and so as 'Mr. Loophole', the famous lawyer who gets rich people off, exploits you do not have to pay and you cannot be convicted. Congestion Charge does not have the same rule, they can send out a PCN at ANY time after the offence has occurred - but technically it's not an offence and so despite the fact you have a right to defend yourself as each week passes it becomes progressively more difficult to get facts. TfL has now sent out the last two PCNs my wife has received, despite her paying £8 in both instances, fully seven weeks after the alleged offences took place. As the first was when she used my car, I called to complain and I was threatened that if I did not pay then the charge would be doubled and I would be prosecuted for non-payment.

The best part is that they are not even Londoners on the end of the line - they are Capita people based in Coventry - fat lot they know or care about London.

So, Boris Johnson, if you bother to listen to your public, listen to this. The Congestion Charge system needs to be properly positioned - and do what it says. If cars only enter the zone for minutes in a day then surely they should pay less for the little they pollute and congest within the charging hours. Surely, if not only as a matter of courtesy, PCNs should be sent out promptly and within a few days, maximum 14 days, of a penalty being incurred so that people can exercise their rights to defend themselves properly. People should have individual accounts and pay for any car on the same mandate just list the cars they may use. It is a simple process which is called customer service. And put the call centre in London - manned by courteous Londoners rather than people who have no knowledge of the City or zero care about Londoners.

Ken Livinsgtone famously had a referendum to see if West Londoners wanted the charging zone extended and in democratic process at its best he ignored the huge majority of 'No's' and went ahead anyway. It makes you think more was at stake than just trying to de-congest or de-pollute London.

So, define whether this is a service we buy or whether it is a transgression system. Like clamping and parking, the Congestion Charge is degenerating into a way for private companies to print money by effectively running it as a racket.

And finally, put the money made back into London rather than giving handsome profits to the private companies who run this - why should they profit so much from it?

The whole system was set up wrong in the first place and makes you wonder how many people associated with TfL had shares in Capita? I wonder if anyone checked as they are the only people benefiting from a service gone wrong.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Unlikely Plotter

Let's face it - Geoff Hoon was an unlikely plotter. He was a useless Defence Secretary that lacked guts, leadership and vision. He went onto to be a central figure in the MP Expense scandal and so there are also deep questions over his integrity too.

So if anyone was to plot against a useless PM then Hoon would not have been the ideal choice. That about sums up Labour's alleged 'deep divide' - on the one hand you have a clueless and bumbling PM and on the other side you have no credible alternative. David Milliband has apparently settled his score with Brown and has now publicly backed him with some kind of positive statement after dithering and equivocating - like many Cabinet Ministers - but it is clear that in the background Peter Mandelson and his cohorts have cracked the whips and the party has stepped back in line.

Then comes this morning's Times. Hoon has come out fighting(!?) - something he clearly found impossible to do when he was in Government. Besmirched, belittled and beleaguered after Wednesday's pathetic attempt at a coup, he has decided to kiss-and-tell and harry Brown with small knife attacks to his back.

This morning's revelations probably will not surprise anyone. Allegedly (supported by leaked letters to prove it) as Chancellor Brown vetoed several attempts by the MoD to buy new troop-carrying helicopters for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It all makes the recent scramble by Bob Ainsworth, another useless Defence Secretary, to cobble together some new orders look very 'previous' and far too late as the death toll in 2009 rose dramatically with commanders, troops and bereaved families singing the same tune about lack of transport and armour. It appears that 2009's problems stem back to under-investment at the time when Brown himself controlled the purse strings and denied the MoD and commanders what they needed.

But this cannot possibly damage the PM. It has already been capably proven that the British public does not have the intellect to link past events to present as no one has really twigged that it was under the lengthy Chancellorship of Brown that the current financial problems brewed and amid his hubris and arrogance that he allowed the situation to blow up in our faces and cost no less than £1.3 trillion of mop up which we will all pay for until 2032. Quite the contrary. Thanks to his theatrics once the cork was out, his desperate attempts to deal with the problem, which have had little real effect, have given him a near 'superman' status.

So I doubt very much that one angry man 'possibly' telling the truth about Afghanistan will make a difference. Careful handling of the spin and repositioning of the history will deal with the problem. You have only to look back on the whole Iraq invasion affair to understand how history, that we all experienced and lived through, has been manipulated and changed. In the build up to Blair's testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, already we have the master at work to groom us ready to believe whatever pious rubbish he spouts. The fact remains, the public still eat out the Government's hand - we still believe everything they say and we still believe that Brown would never have vetoed new helicopters to Afghanistan even if he came out and said he did, because he would deliver some made up fact to make us all believe this was a great idea at the time and serves us well now too. Just as Blair is doing over Iraq.

The other interesting pattern is this. Brown is interviewed in the 'News of The World' (NOTW) today to say that this week's plot was a 'Bit of silliness' while Hoon chooses the Times to 'Savage the PM'. Guess what? The vast majority will read the NOTW and will believe it - the people who read the Times are not only in the minority but have already pieced together the truth. The different newspaper has been well chosen by the Party to deliver their message. Of course, you will have to look really hard to find the Brown interview amid the shock-horror story of an Eastenders' split up and the lurid affairs of Tiger Woods but somewhere it is there. Because that's the level of importance this country really puts on it all because that's how the Government wants us to perceive it - the positioning is masterful.

Until we get a modicum of intelligence, the people of this country will continue to believe only what they are told by the Government. Hoon has blown his miserable political career on an ill-conceived coup plot. Even his own constituency are looking for a 'No confidence' vote to get rid of him. And good riddance - he couldn't even get a coup right.

If he had any guts or courage he would have stood up to Gordon Brown when it really mattered - when Brown vetoed the purchase of new helicopters for Afghanistan when he was Chancellor. Rather than using this information to try and save his political and vindictive skin now, Hoon might have saved a lot of lives of killed and wounded servicemen in 2009 if he had revealed this information at the right time - we might even have thought him a better man for it than the miserable wretch we perceive of him today.

But as usual in politics, it's self-interest that takes precedence. At the critical time Hoon was more concerned with preserving his job, his nice pension and all those wonderful expenses. His conscience was clear because servicemen then, like now, did not matter.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Social Economics

I am absolutely sure I am using the term 'Social Economics' wrongly. Then again, I am not an economist or a real socialist for that matter. However, I probably know as much about economics as those who profess to by the state in which we find ourselves.

Recently, I blogged on National Debt being the new sub-prime but in the heart of that piece was the idea that external markets are watching our economy closely with a keen view to see how we can tackle our budget deficit and therefore be able to pay our debts. Given much of our National Debt is being subsidised by Quantitative Easing (QE) money to the tune of £200bn, soon it will go back on the open market and we will see what the real world, with real money, thinks of our ability to service our debt. There are many who now believe that as we leave a cogent strategy to tackle our debt until after the election and have built our strategy to date on using new money which we don't have to support ourselves, that Britain is in a precarious state.

It was described by an editor for the FT the other night as a period where a boy scout is trying to light a fire - the QE money is the firelighter which is burning brightly but there is little evidence that it has lit the fire that will be our economic recovery. But I would argue there is far more at stake here.

In my idea of 'Social Economics' which has nothing to do with its real definition, our future relies on two aspects which are not classical economics. 1) Politics - we are in a period of hiatus, marked by our lack of enthusiasm to actually do anything about the budget deficit, not even a spending review in preparation which is due to the imminent General Election. This may be understandable as cost cutting is not popular and it seems that inaction is as voters have actually polled in favour of the Government in recent months. Perhaps it is 'Denial', my age old theme - put your head in the sand and the problem will somehow right itself. Gordon Brown may be foolish to start believing in free market economics at the wrong time, especially as he believes it's what got us into this mess. The issue here is that the longer we delay and not tackle the problem, the worse the problem gets and the cure will need to be more drastic - in both spending cuts and tax rises.

2) Hand in hand with this comes the mood of the people. We have just had a dramatic illustration of how voters can change Government policy as Iceland has refused to back its Government in paying our Government compensation for those who lost savings in Icelandic banks. I have a great deal of sympathy with the Icelandic people - while they had many good years, by the end of this year they will have lost almost a third of their take home pay due to the banking disasters, and they are not a rich people. Besides, it was our Government's decision to repay the losses to individuals, not theirs. What it means is that there is a breaking point and people will have a finite limit as to how much they believe they can pay in taxes which is fair, while the same may not apply for spending cuts as they can be far more localised or general. The clear learning point is that if there had been a referendum on the bank bailout beforehand, it is suggested we would have all voted against it.

The outside world will watch closely as to what our breaking point will be. Astutely, Lord Mandelson has understood that there is a limit that people will pay in taxes but I don't think he was referring to us but to bankers who are royally miffed about the windfall tax, on top of the announced 'super tax' on those who earn £150,000 or more plus the new curbs on City bonuses. In a microcosm what bankers do about it will illustrate a wider reaction. Let's face it, if bankers get cheesed off their employers will relocate them and they will rise again elsewhere to earn their money. For real people like you and I, we will have to pick up their share of the tax burden and the rest.

So the question arises, how much will we all tolerate in Britain? How much are we prepared to sacrifice in order to keep bankers here and London as one of the biggest and most influential of financial centres? Are we prepared, as Iceland is, to say, 'Up yours, take your Casino banking elsewhere and the fools that play it' or are we realistic enough to know that we cannot have a Britain without the support of the City, its earnings and influence?

I am sure there is a line that we all cannot cross. I am also certain that the later we leave that 'stress test' the worse it will be. I do believe that part of the attempted and almost farcical leadership coup at Labour was fuelled by the PM's inaction on the whole matter. While it is nice to talk about halving the budget deficit and talk generally about the numbers, the reality is that every voter in the country would like to know what it means before they vote. Yes, it's true we are stupid lot - we think we are still relatively prosperous and that if house prices rise again, boomtime will be back - Christmas and new year sales spending shows we are that daft. It seems we have no idea what really may happen after the election or we are just in denial that it will not deteriorate.

The reality is that after the election, when the economic mire hits the fan, there will be pressure on two sides - 1) to impress the markets that Britain is doing more than enough to reduce its budget deficit and pay its debts and 2) the people will not like the bitter medicine we will have to follow to cure us of the years of excess.

It's at that point that my 'Social Economics' will kick in. Hubris and hiatus are two funny words but we have both to contend with right now and both are all about manipulating our minds and votes. Personally, I would rather know how much all this £1.3 trillion of bailout will cost me in real terms before, not after the election, and how parties are going to give us cast iron guarantees it will not happen again.

I see nothing of it from any party right now - which means we will cast our vote once again, as at the last election over Iraq, without any of the real facts at our fingertips. Some things never change.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Night of The Long Knives?

It was a very bad day at the office for Gordon Brown. Having only the day before been seen smiling like a Cheshire Cat with Peter Mandelson (he's Lord Mandelson to the rest of us) while unveiling a new container port development in Essex, he rose to find that a new, more sinister campaign had sparked to scupper his leadership.

No lesser persons than Geoff Hoon, whose own credibility was low after his appalling tenure as Defence Secretary and then the MP Expense scandal, and former party darling, Patricia Hewitt, had been texting Labour MPs to have a secret ballot to change the leadership. MPs were slow enough, ministers even slower, to rebuff such calls and when they did the wonderful world of equivocation was invoked with responses from the likes of Alistair Darling saying, 'We will concentrate on winning the election.'

Central to all this was the statement by the plotters that six serving ministers were prepared to back this if MPs supported the secret ballot. Among them were Harriet Harman, David Milliband and Bob Ainsworth, as unearthed by the BBC's Nick Robinson last night.

Peter Mandelson chose his moment carefully. He had only just been found guilty of openly pleading to his party to stop just focusing its election efforts on core Labour voters but to widen the message to include people who had voted for the New Labour dream at the last three elections. According to yesterday's Telegraph this had been induced as there was a growing rift between Brown and Mandelson which had been fuelled by the Pre-Budget Report which had been so focused on bankers. Clearly Mandelson feels we should not pick on bankers so much as he would like to be one when he is finished with politics, perhaps. Then last night, Mandelson came out to try and stop the revolt in its tracks by stating that Brown was 'secure in his position'.

It was, perhaps, the most dangerous outcome for Brown. There was not overwhelming support from either his cabinet or MPs - Mandelson had to step in and that has to be bad news.

Mandelson's original reconciliation with Brown at his lowest ebb in terms of popularity has led to a remarkable turnaround in fortunes and recently polls suggested that we could have a hung parliament or even a Labour win, such has been the magical effect. But Brown has been foolish enough to distance himself from Mandelson of late and rumours of a rift have been fanned. Mandelson only recently made a statement that he supported his own Government's stand on cutting the budget deficit as if he had to endorse it to give it credibility but why he waited so long is also a mystery.

The revolt may well have been scuppered but for Gordon Brown it has been at another heavy price. After having to ennoble his old nemesis and allow him to have a 3-year pay deal with Brussels on leaving his Commissioner post, Mandelson has had to step in again to save his skin. You will bet that Mandelson has dictated his terms and central to that will be how the election is campaigned for and a free hand in policy making.

As for the six named ministers, well we will see an unsightly scramble by each and all to distance themselves from the plot now that Mandelson has decreed there is not one. They really should have checked with him first, but you live and learn. Certainly for those six, their days in office under Brown will be numbered, but you never know how politics works and you would suspect that they will have a future under Lord Mandelson.

After all, they did exactly what he wanted - they reminded the Prime Minister just who is running the show.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

National Debt - The New Sub-Prime?

If sub-prime mortgages in the US really did cause the Credit Crunch then perhaps National Debt will be the cause of the next Crunch.

Newsnight featured a piece on it last night and the subsequent discussion saw Will Hudson of Workgroup defending Government policy saying there was a clear pathway to cutting £100bn off the budget deficit. He seems to know a lot more than others, possibly the Government itself as today Peter Mandelson, fresh from giving us an extra Bank Holiday to celebrate the Queen's reign (how appropriate but which Queen?) is moving to allay market fears that Britain really knows what they are doing about cutting the deficit.

One thing is clear, it is no longer simply a matter of economics. There is plenty of techno-speak on what it's all about but it boils down to politics and the stomach of the British people to fund the deficit. The politics is all about the approach to tackling the deficit - current Government thinking is no better than to continue spending and hope for growth, making a few cuts and raising taxes after the election so as not to spook people. Conservatives seem to be lost in a parallel universe where they seem to have the same recipe but different ingredients. The Lib Dems - yes, well they always seem to be a bit lost on such matters.

What it boils down to is this - there are going to have to be drastic spending cuts and these will need to be deeper and more harsh the longer we leave it and we will be paying considerably more tax in the future. The people of Iceland just voted with great drama about how they feel on paying for the mistakes of their banks in allowing deposits from foreigners to burn elsewhere, there could be a time when the British voter wakes up and smells the whiff of bull enough to know that we are being fleeced for huge economic hubris.

The point being, should we slither down this pathway then Britain will almost certainly look like, if not become, a bad debt risk in the eyes of the markets. There is a view, expressed last night, that the Government may even flirt with being a bad risk before galvanising to do something about it all - like being put on a watchlist as many other nations are now. The reality is that many nations, some richer than others, are now showing warning signs that their ability to service their national debt is worsening. Britain is not yet one of those nations but as the Quantitative Easing is due to exhaust soon, our National Debt will become the focus of the open markets and at that point we will get the first clear indication of how others see our true economic condition.

I think we are in for a rude surprise.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

New Year, New Job

According to research from US 'Retention Firm', Finnegan McKenzie, this is the traditional time of year when firms ramp up their recruitment.

It's a bit of a 'No sh*t, Sherlock' moment as lots of firms have year ends in December and so new budgets are agreed for the new year starting in January - on both sides of the Atlantic. However, 2010 is not just any year. For the UK this will be the first quarter, hopefully, of growth since we lurched into recession and so firms are still very tentative about investment plans and unemployment tends to lag the recessionary quarters. So it may not be the bonanza of new opportunities for career change that traditionally happens this time of year.

From the candidate's viewpoint, it is also a time when many people will be looking for a new job. According to Finnegan McKenzie's research this is very prevalent in senior management. They claim up to 51% of senior executives in the US will have actively put out their CV with the intent of changing job or perhaps to test the water by 1 January. This may be as a result of new year resolutions, a desire to increase year on year money, or just a stark evaluation of the previous year and a realisation that the job was not fulfilling or they did not like their boss. Whatever, I think many people in the UK would identify with this 'New Year, New Job' enthusiasm.

In a good year, this would be 'fish in a barrel' for recruiters. Fresh new CVs from highly paid and experienced senior executives to match to a plethora of new opportunities would be the time for a feeding frenzy of fees. I think that will not be the case this year - recruiters are still down on their luck and many are still suffering as the volume of openings are not rising very fast. Still, it has to be a period of hope.

I would argue though, that this is the point where many companies investing in growth make big mistakes. Because the recruiters match the fresh CVs to openings, corners are cut. Only that 51% of senior executives are moving and they are actively after a job - easy prey for recruiters and, I would argue, not the cream of the crop. In fact, I would wager that if Finnegan McKenzie drilled down on their research, then of the 51% of senior executives that put out their CVs at the beginning of a new year, there would be many of the same names as last year. I even wonder how many are people who actually moved jobs last year and want change again?

I always strongly argue, it is those who are not looking for jobs, who are delivering year after year in roles, who are the ones worth chasing. There is a band of senior executives and senior salespeople who are perennial job-hoppers who have great looking CVs but have delivered little sustainable difference to the companies they have been employed by. You can bet that their names will be known in the industry as that is their real skill, networking. I have been involved in the computer industry for many years and time and again the same names crop up. The daft thing is that many companies will mobilise themselves at the mere mention that one of those names are 'available' and they will be snapped up via clever recruiters masked as 'headhunters' who claim they have 'enticed' that name to move. Easy money.

It's a time to be wary. The growth that will be gained this year will come at a heavy price and will not be for the fainthearted. For many of us who have lived through recessions, there will be a period when firms may 'shoot their bolt' and try to get growth too early. This is a period of cagey moves and it also a time for reassessment of old markets and discovery of new as many firms will have learnt in the last two years that much of their business was tied up in too few companies at too low a price and exposed how little differentiation they have. Recruiters themselves have found that particularly revealing over the last 12 months in particular.

The good news is that many computer distributors are bragging of a very strong close to the year and this is a good barometer as technology will almost certainly lead the way in private sector growth. The consumer end was reasonably strong, accounting for good growth and part of that will be spurred by the VAT change, it is thought. But there was also brisk business in the banking sector.

This month sees the end of the first quarter for computer giant HP, December marked the year end of many large firms, notably Cisco. The first signs are there that technology sales are on the road to recovery and that will mean a general return to growth will follow. However, watch out for the 'Usual Suspect' CVs. There will be a mass exodus from firms at senior level - though be very wary that this year it will be for different reasons and the usual bragging rights associated with senior executives will not be there after a recession. Most will be leaving because they have been found out rather than before they have been found out. Recessions tend to do that.

Again, good luck in 2010 - growth may just be round the corner. I hope you find your fair share.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Vote Winning Taxes

I heard a radio interview with Junior Minister for the HMRC, Stephen Timms, this morning who was carping on about the Government stopping the 'amnesty' for offshore accounts.

This is where wealthy people store their money offshore and avoid tax. In a similar previous amnesty about £450m was raised. Now, if these people admit they have offshore funds then the penalty for declaring will only be 10% of the tax bill - whereas if they do not admit it, the penalty could be as high as 100%. This is expected to raise a further few hundred million.

Along with the windfall tax on bankers which is expected to raise £550m this year, this offshore clampdown is seen as a real vote winner by the Government as it targets the rich. Fine - they should definitely all pay their way.

However, when Stephen Timms was pressured by Mickey Clarke of Five Live on how to tackle the Budget Deficit there was a drawn out defence on tackling 'inefficiencies' in the public sector but no mention of real cuts or job losses. Naturally, such talk is seen as non-vote winning yet the reality is that if we actually raise £1bn or more by taxing the rich, it does not even help much on just paying the interest on our National Debt. Interest payments alone will be £30bn+ this year, rising to £44bn next year. And that is not even helping bring the deficit down.

The longer the Government deny the problem on public sector spending and focus solely on vote-winning activities like taxing the bankers and the rich, then we are deferring a problem that is only ever going to get bigger. In the next year, unemployment is set to peak at 2.8m, but having created 1m extra jobs in the public sector in the last 12 years, this may be way off the mark when cuts are made. And I think the cuts will have to be far deeper and more disrupting the longer it is left and the Government view is to leave it all until after the election.

The only logic that can support this is that cutting would disrupt the potential for getting growth as we exit recession and so pull us back into the mire. That is flawed thinking - all businesses know that while investing in growth you look for efficiencies in parallel - not doing so only buys worse problems later and i reality you are not really 'investing' but supporting the status quo.

I think delaying cuts is a grave, grave error.