Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Panic on the streets of London

GOD ONLY knows what the citizens of London must have made of it all. After years of illiterate teenage hoodies running free to stab and shoot one another - and us - with impunity, suddenly 20,000 policemen appear on the streets of the capital and it all goes a bit quiet.

Of course, they weren’t actually working. They were there to demonstrate about their annual pay increase being pegged to 1.9 per cent, rather than the 2.5 per cent they think they are due under a previous agreement.

(Funny this, but for some reason the Met Police riot squads on duty didn’t see fit to steam into the crowd outside the Palace of Westminster, batons flailing, as they did with the Countryside March the other year. And is it only me who was willing to pay for a couple of coachloads of tenner-waving ex-miners to be bussed down to provide a bit of sideline abuse?)

Now it’s in our nature to be supportive of the police whenever possible. They are, after all, the people we turn to for protection from the feral mobs roaming our streets. But I sense a recent change in attitude. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think they can now rely on the unthinking, automatic support of the normally law-abiding middle classes any more.

There are a number of factors behind this change. Let’s start with the job itself. Bog standard bobbies begin training on £21,000 a year and can soon rise to £32,000. Sergeants are on £37,000 and Inspectors on £45,000. Add to that a gold-plated, index-linked pension, a retirement age for many of their early forties (and that’s if the notorious ’bad back’ doesn’t get them first), as much overtime as they want and, according to street legend, all the free drugs they fancy, and you can see why it’s an enviable career for many.

Then there’s the more serious point of the dislocation of the police from society, and the subsequent support of that society. This begins in an almost insignificant way with the introduction of speed cameras, but results in the widespread criminalisation of the middle classes and the resentment that engenders. At the same time, the mythical bobby on the beat and the cop car on the motorway disappear from sight. For most of us, our only exposure to the forces of law and order these days is the sight of a fat girl in a fluorescent jacket waddling down our High Street sticking parking tickets on cars. And that’s when they’re not standing by watching our children drown in lakes because they haven’t completed the ‘getting wet’ module of their Health and Safety training.

And when we do come across the real thing in operation, it isn’t always a pleasant experience. I went to a football match in Birmingham the other week and was horrified by the way ordinary, middle aged, middle class fans were bullied and harassed by the assembled massed ranks of Robocops, complete with masks, helmets, body armour and shields. Old school football fans often complain that their game has been gentrified by the prawn sandwich brigade. That demographic change clearly hasn’t made its way into the thinking of the West Midlands Police (whose chief constable, incidentally, earns £163,908 - considerably more than the Prime Minister).

And then we have the mayhem on our streets. It currently seems that hardly a night passes without an innocent father-of-three being kicked to death by a gang of feral hoodlums, most of whom seem to have been released on bail for similar offences the previous day. As with the onset of speed cameras, this isn’t entirely the fault of the police, but once again our confidence in their abilities is undermined.

Even the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (salary just over £100,000) openly states that she’d be scared to walk the streets at night, conveniently forgetting that a couple of burly, gun-wielding bodyguards accompany her wherever she goes. Maybe she’s frightened of Wee Gordy Broon’s body snatchers lurking in alleyways waiting to relieve her of her vital organs without her permission.

Perhaps she should be more frightened of the police. Company director Andrew Wilson collapsed seven miles into the Great North Run last year and began thrashing around as he was having a seizure. A policeman who came to his assistance was accidentally head-butted and promptly arrested Mr Wilson for assault and carted him off to the nick before he could receive medical treatment. After 13 court appearances - at a cost of approx £20,000 - Mr Wilson was cleared of all charges.

Even worse, a chap who went into a diabetic coma on a bus in Leeds last year was shot twice with a Tazer by armed police because he “failed to respond to their orders”. Their precipitate action was excused because the suspect, a white male bistro-owner and son of a magistrate who has been dependent on insulin for 20 years, was carrying a rucksack and may have been planning to blow up the … err ... empty bus.

So there we have it. The distance between us and them increases, as does our disenchantment and fear. (I think I’ve told you before how I tried to report a suspicious character lurking around the village at our local police station - opening hours, 2pm until 4pm, Tuesday to Thursday. The copper behind the desk wouldn’t open the door because he was “eating his sandwiches”.)

And so you get distinctly unhelpful columns like this appearing in local newspapers while every sensible householder hides a golf club behind their front door and a machete under their bed. It’s not great, is it?

Mind how you go.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Daddy was a bank robber

IT'S a great pub quiz question. Which member of Wee Gordie Broon's Cabinet once stood trial for bank robbery?

The answer, not surprisingly in light of recent events, is the Right Honourable Peter Hain MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Secretary of State for Wales. (And by the time you read this, the question might have to change to "Which former member of ") Mr Hain's previous difficulties came about in 1974, when he was allegedly framed by South African security services because they were getting a bit cheesed off with his highly-effective leadership of the anti-apartheid campaign. He was, of course, totally innocent and was cleared of any involvement.

But now it seems that he may face criminal charges over large sums of money once more, in this instance around £103,000 donated to his campaign to become leader of what used to be the Labour Party that he failed to declare to the Electoral Commission.

The money was paid to a so-called think tank with no staff and no offices which seems to exist only as a means of funnelling funds from assorted trades unions and anonymous donors into Mr Hain's campaign.

Mr Hain, who I've always considered to be a pretty good egg for a politician, says that the failure to declare all this money was "an administrative error". Well yes, of course it was. Just like all those people fiddling their benefits are guilty of "administrative errors".

Even so, isn't this a little careless? It's not as if dodgy donations haven't been on the political agenda of late. And anyway, what on earth did he spend a total of £185,000 on? It can't have cost that much to do the odd mail-shot, so where did the dosh go?

There must be a limit to the number of Gregg's pasties and pints of Tetley you can force down the throats of party members, even if one of them is John Prescott.

I SUPPOSE that will soon pale into insignificance compared with the millions that will surely flow into assorted animal charities in the wake of those 111 maltreated horses that were found, 32 of them dead, in a field near Amersham, Bucks.

The British are like that with their animals, which is why our biggest donkey charity is already richer than many small African nations and has to resort to feeding the poor beasts hand-picked hay laced with Armagnac and truffles and fitting them with head collars studded with diamonds and gold-plated hooves in an attempt to diminish some of its embarrassing wealth.

Further evidence of this twisted sense of priorities comes from the RSPCA hotline, where a combination of misguided fools, mad old ladies and vegan bunny-huggers pester hard-working charity workers with reports of hedgehogs trapped in cellars that turn out to be shoe-scrapers, a radioactive' squirrel that turned out to be an albino, and "the sound of animals in my roof" that was a smoke detector with a low battery.

One man phoned up because he thought his goldfish was depressed, another wanted an officer to come and rescue a fly from a spider's web, someone reported "a bee on my wall and it's too cold for it", while another nutter reported: "I have something in my garden and it's either a dog or a horse". Give you a clue - if it barks, it's a dog; if it comes last in the 3.40 at Haydock, it's a horse.

YOU MAY have recently noticed the case of the Muslim teenager who went to an industrial tribunal claiming discrimination. She failed to win a job as a stylist at a funky' London hair salon because she insisted on wearing a headscarf at all times.

The owner of the salon, now facing financial ruin because of the costs of the case, argued that her stylists were walking advertisements for the urban, punky' salon's work and that the Hilda Ogden look wasn't likely to be very popular among her clientele.

This episode now joins the cases, both reported this week, of the 40-year-old Oxford professor who is heading for a massively costly 14-day tribunal because she was rarely picked as first choice striker for the college women's football team, and Isaac Blake, who is claiming unfair dismissal from his role as a Tombliboo character in a CBBC children's TV programme because his suit, of which the trousers fall down at inappropriate times, was unfit for purpose, in making an utter farce of our ridiculously victim-led judicial system.

Monday, January 14, 2008

It might be 70 degrees outside, but you're still getting your cold weather payment

MRS BEELZEBUB continues to hog the TV remote control, flicking to daytime property programmes like Place In The Sun, wherein former pub landlords from Derby buy 15-room mansions with a swimming pool in Bulgaria for £3,500 and live happily ever after.

I’ve tried pointing out to her that most of the prices date back to 2001 and that by the time they’ve appeared on a television programme, the houses have already been snapped up by property speculators with big city bonuses, but to no avail. Her intended destination is France … with the dog, but with or without me, apparently.

I can’t say I blame her. Faced with another year in a mean-spirited, miserable Britain, bedevilled by red tape and political correctness and on the brink of an economic meltdown, that small chateau just outside Carcassonne or the olive farm in Liguria look ever more attractive. (What’s that you say? The French can be beastly to incomers? They haven’t met Mrs B ... think Agincourt.)

Just in case the flight to a life more sensible doesn’t appeal already, it now turns out that the government is forking out £10 million a year of your money to 50,000 elderly Brits who have already buggered off overseas. That’s right. Ex-pat pensioners shivering in the chill winds of Tenerife, Greece or even the Caribbean can look forward to a cheque dropping through their letterboxes containing their … wait for it … winter heating allowance. No, really.

Now I have no problem with Mrs Dodderer of Doncaster, already living on a diet of cat food and tinsel, collecting the £300 a year which allows her to turn on the second bar on her electric fire. But I do have a problem with a used car millionaire from Walsall, currently Speedo-clad by the side of his Marbella pool, getting the same public handout.

Ironically, it’s Europe that is to blame. It seems that under EU law, benefits acquired in one member state must be paid to those who move to another of the 29 countries or their overseas territories. Thinking about it, this might even mean that we poor Brits can now take mistresses with the same impunity that the gentlemen of France enjoy. I must ask Mrs B what she thinks about that …

ACCORDING TO my newspaper, a company boss has been branded a “neanderthal” for getting a bit upset when a key female employee he had just appointed went off and got pregnant. He also faces paying compensation that could well approach £200,000.

Let’s look at the facts. When interviewing Louise Manning for the £55,000 a year post of marketing and national accounts manager, managing director Nick Medlam, who runs a small company making security screens for banks, probably broke the petty employment rules by asking her if she was considering starting a family.

Mrs Manning replied that she had no such plans and duly got the job, starting work in August 2004. She was obviously a key employee and within months had been promoted. Within months, she was also pregnant – within eight months, in fact; April 2005 to be precise.

Mrs Manning duly disappeared on maternity leave in October 2005 and gave birth to a daughter in November 2005. She was due to return to work in October 2006, but by that point was six weeks pregnant again, eventually producing a son. When it was suggested that she might now work part-time in a lesser job, Mrs Manning went sick with “stress”, eventually resigning in October 2007.

Sitting in judgement on the inevitable sexual discrimination claim, an industrial tribunal ruled against Mr Medlam, bleating that “it is not often that the tribunal is faced with such a blatant response to notification of pregnancy”.

Now hang on just a darned minute. Pass that calculator. Mrs Manning was on the books of Mr Medlam’s company for 38 months at a cost of over £174,000. In that time, she actually worked for just 14 months – and one might suspect that she was probably less than effective for the last four months of that short tenure.

So here you are, Mr Small Businessman, interviewing two applicants for a key role in your company. One is a woman, clearly superior, but of child-bearing age. The other is a nondescript man, unlikely to get pregnant in the near future. Which one do you employ? Yes, it’s the right answer – and the wrong one at the same time.

It’s very sad, but unfortunately ‘wimmin’ only have themselves to blame for this stupid situation.

AN INMATE at an Oxfordshire prison is suing the Prison Service after he fell out of his top bunk and cut his head. According to the BBC, the prisoner at Bullingdon near Bicester, told prisoners’ magazine, Inside Time, that bunk beds were “an accident waiting to happen”.

Never mind the nonsense about prisoners suing (compensation paid out in 2005-06 topped £4 million), I’m fascinated by this ‘prisoners’ magazine’.

Who pays for it and what’s in it? Cell of the Week? Mass Murderers I Have Known? Cooking with Dennis Nielson? Patio-laying with Fred West? The mind boggles.

I SOMETIMES worry that the flights of fancy in this column might occasionally prove too ridiculous. And then I read that a new musical is launching next month based on The Diaries of Anne Frank. Presumably featuring Up The Ladder To The Roof by The Supremes and Silence Is Golden by The Tremeloes.

Well it’s no dafter an idea than the Maddy McCann film, is it?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Happy New Year

I CAN’T quite remember when I fell out of love with New Year’s Eve.

It could have been the year I passed out, comatose, before ten o’clock after being mugged by a bowl of Jamaican punch (Guinness, rum and more Guinness). It could have been the year I ended up in a police cell after a slight disagreement with an unreasonable constable. (I should have known that there were five more of them hiding in the back of the van. And a dog.)

But I’m afraid the whole thing has turned into a terrible drudge. I find it no fun at all.

The timing is crap for a start. You’re already knackered after Christmas and then suddenly you’re forced into this festival of false bonhomie when it’s apparently compulsory to have fun. Well I don’t know about you but when I’m stuck at home for 10 days, faced with yet another 18 hours of dates, nuts and sell-by-date Quality Street (“Three tins for a fiver off a bloke in a pub … isn’t that great?”), I tend to reach for the corkscrew by about half past ten. Consequently, my liver has taken a fearsome battering by December 31st and the last thing my failing body needs is a six-hour stretch of enforced intoxication.

(I looked in the mirror this morning and for the first time in my life I looked a bit like George Best – unfortunately not the 21-year-old version.)

And then there’s the effort of trying to lift your spirits from the sheer ennui of life on leftovers. I bow to no man in my admiration for the traditional Boxing Day brunch of a sliced white sandwich consisting of cold turkey, sausage, stuffing, sprouts, parsnips, bread sauce and cranberry. But one a year is enough, thank you very much. This time around even the joint of ham lingered long after it should have been stripped to the bone. The Christmas Stilton is hardly dented and is already planning to be around at Easter, which means a miserable few months for the other occupants of the fridge.

And then comes this fiesta of fake Scottishness, this celebration of inebriation, where you’re meant to kiss complete strangers, chant some Pictish dirge that no-one knows the words to and generally welcome in another 12 months that you already suspect are going to be a damn sight worse that the previous year. (Yes, Wee Gordie Broon. It’s you I’m pointing the finger at.)

Middle class parties are the worst. You pitch up just before eight clutching your bottle of Zimbabwean Chablis and then have to endure the longest evening of your life. I tend to run out of well-meaning small talk after about 30 minutes. That then leaves five hours of utter boredom, being pinned in the corner by accountants with bad breath or being lectured on our flawed military strategy in Iraq by a model railway enthusiast whose judgment is so flawed that he’s just signed up to a magazine partwork that will allow him to build a scale model of the Flying Scotsman for just £619 over the course of two and a half years.

And there’s no escape. In a misguided spirit of seasonal goodwill you allowed your wife to book the return taxi for 1.30am, and there’s no chance of phoning up to get it brought forward. So you’re stuck, with only Martini or Advocaat left to drink, a downstairs toilet bunged up with sick (a Boxing Day sandwich by the look of it) and a woman with laddered tights in tears on the stairs. Deep joy. And a Happy New Year to you all.

AND ANOTHER thing – this Jools Holland’s Hootenanny nonsense, with a curiously-haired, thumbs up-waving Sir Paul McCartney and a decidedly rough looking Kylie Minogue. Does anyone really think that all these celebs willingly gave up the misery of waiting for a 1.30am taxi at some dreary party to spend their New Year’s Eve in a television studio? Of course not.

It was actually recorded on December 20th, complete with midnight countdown. First the Blue Peter cat, now this. What depths of deception will the BBC sink to next?

YOU MAY have noticed that our entire motorway network has been disrupted in recent years while large information screens were erected at the side of the road. At least, I thought while sitting in yet another contraflow, they’ll make life a bit easier when they’re up and running and telling us how to avoid the traffic jams ahead. Fat chance.

Despite the tens of million of pounds that must have been spent on them, I have yet to see a single one offering any kind sensible advice. Driving through heavy rain the other week, the signs helpfully flashed up: “Spray. Slow Down”. Yes, thank you, I’d actually noticed.

Other messages include things like “Junction 13 - 30 miles, 30 minutes”. Don’t be silly. I’m doing 85mph. I’ll be there in 21 minutes, tops. And then there’s the classic “Danger – Fog”, displayed in fog so thick that you couldn’t actually see the sign until you were crawling beneath it.

If we’re going to spend all this money erecting all these fancy screens, surely we’ve put in place a network that gets the latest information to the right screens at the right time? Haven’t we?

I SAW a man walking through our village last week wearing hiking boots, a fluorescent kagoul and carrying a pair of short ski poles, which he thrust vigorously into the ground at every step as if he was climbing the north face of the Eiger.

One problem. The road through the village is completely flat. The surface is tarmac, not glacial ice. And there isn’t a hill for miles. What’s that all about then?