Archive for March, 2013

Stoke Benefits: The Exodus Continues


I hear that Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s benefits department continues to hemorrhage assessment staff. Counting all those who have left since Christmas, that must easily be over a hundred years experience, gone. The management don’t care of course, people are just a resource to be picked up and discarded at will. They seem to think that they can recruit and train new assessors in no time: a week or two and they will be ready to go. This shows the complete ignorance of those in charge. Not one of them has any assessing experience (or if they have, it certainly isn’t recent). It takes at least six months to train an assessor, and even then, that only covers the basics. The rest comes only with experience.

My sincerest best wishes for those who get appointed to an assessor job in the current round of recruitment. I hope management have made it clear just what you will be expected to do. Have they, for example, said that you will have to deal with Social Fund Crisis Loans as well as HB, after April? With that, the bedroom tax and the abolition of Council Tax benefit, you will be dealing more angry and stressed people than ever. And don’t expect much support from management when things kick off. Which they will.


Now I’m Hacked Off


Congratulations to the campaigners of Hacked Off. In your laudable attempts to obtain justice for the victims of gutter press intrusion, freedom of speech is now seriously weakened. While this may indeed make it harder for the media to intrude on a celebrity’s privacy, it is also likely to encumber legitimate investigations into wrongdoing by the powerful.

The whole Leveson business is a nonsense. Like many, I deplore the activities of the gutter press. Let’s not forget how all this started: the uncovering of widespread illegality, namely the hacking of phones and emails and the bribing of police officers. Illegality is the key word here. Laws already existed to deal with this. What should have happened is a vigorous and thorough investigation followed by prosecutions. But no, we had to have this public enquiry at vast expense.

What is more disturbing is that while the hacking was confined to politicians and so-called celebrities, no-one cared. It took the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone to generate any outrage. This was certainly a disgusting act, but it’s no more disgusting than anyone else’s phone being hacked, celebrity or otherwise. This demonstrates just how powerful a grip the so-called celebrity culture has on the British consciousness. As long as people get their daily fill of celebrity tittle-tattle, no questions will be asked as how the press came by the story. What breathtaking hypocrisy.

I would agree that something should be done to curb media excesses and to give proper redress to those victimised. How to create such protection is a difficult question and requires a very fine balance to be struck. What we have instead is the worst sort of compromise, dreamed up by politicians in the wee small hours. Let us not forget that it was politicians who were exposed by the press for fiddling their expenses. Law-making should surely proceed from nobler motives than revenge.

This is a dangerous precedent. The cat is now out if its bag, and will be very difficult to re-confine. And to deploy another cliche, we are now on a very slippery slope indeed, one that will only steepen over time. I hope I’m wrong.

Is the Labour Party fit to call itself Labour anymore?


I hear that the Labour Party leadership ordered their MPs to abstain in the vote on the government’s hasty reform of the workfare scheme today. Well done those who defied this dictat and voted against, but sadly you were in the minority. The majority clearly think that it’s OK for the unemployed to be forced to work without being paid. Sadly I’m not surprised. Ed Miliband, after all, failed to support public sector workers when they decided to strike over pensions. He and his ilk seem more concerned to avoid bad publicity from the Daily Mail and other right-wing rags than in speaking up for working people and the poor. The people most likely to vote for his party. Shame he seems to have forgotten that. I joined the party because I thought it was the best chance to oppose this foul government and to have a fair alternative. It seems I was mistaken.

To Jam or Not to Jam


There are, would you believe, European inspired rules about what is, and isn’t, jam (the Jam and Similar Products (England) Regulations 2003). Mad, but true. It reminds me of the Yes Minister episode about the Euro sausage. It amazes me that time and money is really expended on such nonsense.

Let me be clear, I’m no Daily Mail reading EU hating UKIP voting Little Englander. I believe we are better off as a country being in the EU than not. However, I also believe its institutions are in major need of reform: a budget that consistently fails audit; an organisation that is forcing savage austerity on some of its members yet wants to spend more on itself; the bloated extravagance of the Common Agricultural Policy; the obese bureaucracy; and expenses that would British MPs salivate, to give a few examples.

I would prefer an EU that is better governed and less wasteful; an EU that promotes less neo-liberal economics and more social liberalism; is less bureaucratic and has a looser grip on its member states. I don’t swallow Cameron’s take on it as his policy is a sop to his right-wingers, it doesn’t flow from any genuine belief. Right-wing Euro scepticism is not a British phenomenon, there is growing anti EU feeling across the continent, especially in those countries like Greece forced to take austerity medicine. The EU needs to seriously reform itself, make itself more democratic and accountable, adopt more liberal social policies and rein in the rampant neo-liberal economics that have caused the current crisis and have no answers as to solving it. I believe reform is vital, but whether the EU is capable of carrying it out, especially as it continues to expand, is doubtful. And if it can’t use this economic crisis as a spur for doing so, you have to ask what the point of it is.

On-Train Announcements Should P.I.S. Off


Transport minister Norman Baker has complained that on-train announcements are becoming too verbose. At last, someone agrees with me. I have loathed these announcements for years.

The media were quick to jump on this, highlighting the language-mangling and pointless phrases like: this train will be calling to (it’s “calling at “); there’s a gap between the train and the platform (really? I would never have guessed); the train doors will not be unlocked until the train has come to a complete stop (I didn’t know there were any other sort of stop); this is a no-smoking train/station (they all are and have been for years); etc etc. However, they largely missed Baker’s main point, which was about the automated announcements. And there lies my greatest loathing.

I can see some point in them, especially with regard to sight or hearing impaired passengers. However, they are invariably too long, too frequent and too loud. When they first appeared on London Underground, staff called the system Sonya (‘cos it get sonya nerves). It’s official title is the Passenger Information System (P.I.S.) I’ve travelled widely since it took to the rails, and its sheer intrusiveness has become yet another thing that spoils train journeys. I now always travel with my ipod, simply to drown out out the din.

London Underground has got the balance right. Their announcements are generally limited to things like This train terminates at X. The next stop is Y; or This is A. Change here for B. Contrast this with a recent journey on Merseyrail. I boarded a train at Liverpool South Parkway for the short journey into town. The train was going to Southport, a journey of an hour or so, with twenty stops. After each stop, the P.I.S. listed all the remaining ones. As these are generally only two or three minutes apart, this rapidly became very intrusive. I had the list ringing round my head for ages afterwards, like the annoying song you can’t forget, no matter how hard you try. Seriously though, just what use was this? It was a nuisance, and provided nothing of value or use. On these sort of journeys, where trains call at all (or most) stations, the London approach is surely better: concise and useful, conveying only what is needed.

I do wonder if this is part of a wider culture of dumbing down, treating people like idiots with no capacity for thinking for themselves. Think of call centre scripts, where they invariably ask something like Is there anything else I can help you with? No, if there was, I would have said so.

I would like to see the P.I.S. banned, but realistically I know this won’t happen. Train companies should, however, follow Baker’s lead and pare them down to the essentials. Oh, and improve the phrasing too.

Council Chief Executive Gets a Pay Rise


So it’s true. At least according to The Sentinel, not known for its unbiased and balanced reporting of matters pertaining to Stoke-on-Trent City Council: Chief Executive John Van de Laarschott is to get an increase of over £5000 per year.

The council were quick to defend the rise, stating it was an contractual increment, the same as many other council staff are entitled to. This is disingenuous. While it’s true many staff do get increments, how many of them would get one of £5000? This was also one of the terms and conditions the council were considering abolishing. Apparently, the Chief has to have a performance review before he gets an increment. So this means Leader Pervez thinks he is doing well. It’s nice that someone does. While I worked there, staff I knew held both the Chief Executive and the council leadership in complete contempt.

The pay freeze for all other council staff is entering its fourth year and council services are being slashed to an unprecedented degree. And yet the council think Van de Laarschott is doing such a good job they give him a massive increment. This is deeply offensive, and in the current climate, completely unjustified. And unjustifiable.

Van de Laarschott should be prevailed upon not to accept this rise. If he threatens to walk, the council leadership should grow some balls and call his bluff. This city can’t afford him. We would all be better off if he left.

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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