Thursday, 29 November 2007

Racial Ravings

I don't like racists. For one person to hate another, to injure or discriminate against them purely because of their race is utterly abhorrent to me. And, what is more, it's irrational. There are many, many reasons to dislike someone to a very great degree, all of which can be valid when viewed from one perspective or another, but race alone can never be one of them.

Much as I dislike racists, however, I dislike folks who play the race card for their own advantage even more. Unfortunately, I can't help wondering whether something of the sort might have happened in the case of an Irish grandfather who has been convicted of racially aggravated disorderly behaviour for calling a Welsh woman "an English bitch".

According to the Daily Mail, the incident occurred during a heated dispute over a scratched car. Well, that seems fair enough - any traffic cop will tell you how annoyed people get over these things, and, on the basis that normality is determined by the majority, it seems like a fairly normal reason for one party to dislike another. And it may even be that a charge of disorderly conduct was in order - again, folks can get pretty het up about these things, and matters may have gotten a little out of hand.

But racially aggravated? If matters really were exactly as the Daily Mail reports them, and the "English bitch" line was the full extent of the "racial aggravation" it seems a bit unlikely to me. For one thing, it seems a bit petty of the Welsh lady - whose husband is English - to take such offence at being called English (or any other nationality), though I can see that the "bitch" aspect of things would be more than a little galling.

For another, it's surely just a matter of geography; Welshpool, the scene of this little drama, is pretty much bang on the border of England and Wales. There is far less distance between the two than between, say, London and Sheffield, yet you cannot imagine a Yorkshireman facing similar charges for calling someone from London a "southern bitch", despite the significant cultural differences between the regions and a very strong temptation to do so.

I can, however, imagine someone being very, very annoyed with the chap who's dinged her car, and who's then gone on to insult her. I can also imagine someone wanting to get even with that annoying, perhaps even unpleasant person, and using the "English bitch" line to do so. Yes, it's not the nicest thing to say, and yes it's probably a technical breach of the law, but invoking that law in a matter that, if the Daily Mail reports correctly, was little more than a row over a minor incident, serves only to diminish its impact in cases where it is genuinely needed.

As the lady's husband quite rightly says, "There's no way this should have ended up in court, it's the sort of thing you should be able to sort out without that." Unfortunately, he then goes on to say, "But he said what he said and I think he deserved to be found guilty." No doubt. But I think that adults should be grown up enough to be able to turn the other cheek to an insult without screaming for an apology and running to the courts when the don't get it.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case any more. The world is ruled by an "eye for an eye" philosophy that, before long, will lead to mass unemployment for opticians. Folks should grow up, calm down, get a grip (not on someone's throat!) and relax. Life's too short to let a trivial (or even not so trivial) dispute eat up months of your time. Even if you're in the right, morally justified and fighting to save the world you don't get your time refunded when you reach the Pearly Gates, so make the most of it while you can.

Billy Seggars

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Mr Bean's Brown Trousers

Is there no end to the revelations about our seedy, shady government? In the past few days, during which I've been too busy to do more than glance at the headlines let alone blog about the lunacy therein, it seems that things have gone from bad to worse for the Gordon Brown Trousers government.

Just as the scandal of CDs containing the personal details of 25 million British citizens being lost in the post superseded the humiliating revelations about illegal immigrants with security clearance, so the missing CDs have been supplanted by another batch of horrendous revelations about dodgy donations to the Labour party.

It's a long, complicated story, reeking of incompetence and corruption as one would expect from this bungling, self-serving administration, but, broadly, it revolves around donations of well over £500,000 to the Labour Party. Nothing much wrong with that you might think, apart from obvious questions about the state of mind of anyone who would contemplate donations to such a dubious organisation. But, in this case, the donations were made anonymously, which, apparently, is a no-no where such enormous sums are concerned.

When the story first broke, the government's line was that only one person in the Labour party - general secretary Peter Watt - had known anything dodgy was afoot, and he'd already resigned, so that should be an end to the matter. Yesterday, it emerged that top Labour fundraiser and senior Brownite Jon Mendelsohn had known about the affair for weeks - since the end of September, in fact.

Of course, that was just before Gordon Brown Trousers revealed his yellow streak by bottling out of an election than he feared he may win - NOT a good time to let on about dodgy fundraising, eh? Not that Mr Mendelsohn has admitted that this was his reason for keeping quiet. No, apparently, he wanted to discuss the matter with Mr Abrahams (the wannabe anonymous donor) in person. A likely story.

But it gets better. It turns out that Mr Abrahams has been quite free with his donations, albeit - illegally - by proxy, and that deputy leader Harriet Harrman had accepted a donation of £5000 from him towards her campaign to attain that illustrious post. Yet the party treasurer - and, coincidentally, Harrman's husband - Jack Dromey, claims to have known nothing about the anonymous donations until the shit hit the fan last weekend. What kind of treasurer doesn't know where that kind of cash is coming from?

Even better yet are the deafening calls for a police investigation - and quite rightly, too. A crime has been committed, and even acknowledged, and no amount of investigations by the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Labour party can take the place of a proper police inquiry. Of course, entertaining as all of these deeply damaging revelations are, nothing that has come out so far - and I'm sure there's a lot more puss yet to seep out of this festering wound to the heart of the British government - can match the comments made by stand-in Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable at Prime Minister's Questions.

Mr Cable, who makes a far more credible leader than either of the two official candidates for the post, and almost manages to make the LibDims seem remotely relevant, said the PM had managed a "remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos."

Needless to say, Gordon Brown-Trousers Bean did not look happy as he took yet another pounding at PMQs. Head bowed and looking slightly to his left as though he dared not face Crazy Cammeron's gleeful expression, he grumbled and mumbled and tooth-sucked his way through his collection of excuses, all the time clawing at his papers with his left hand. Unfortunately, he has neither the vicious wit of of Mr Cable, nor the verbal dexterity of Mr Cammeron, and he was left looking like a very poor substitute for a British Prime Minister.

Still, at this rate that isn't going to be a problem for much longer. I gather Blairite survivors are already starting to brief against the leadership, for a fair few of them must have axes to grind against the man whose only legacy as Prime Minister will be to chicken out of an election, throw away a massive Labour lead in a matter of weeks and, incredibly, to have made both the Tories and the LibDims look appealing in comparison to his own party. Well done, Mr Brown-Trousers!

Billy Seggars.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

HM Revenue and Customs Cock Up

In a bizarre situation that is beyond any attempt at parody, it has emerged today that "two computer discs holding the personal details of all families in the UK with a child under 16 have gone missing," according to the BBC.

Yes, that's right, all of them. That amounts to the name, address, date of birth, national insurance number and, in many cases, bank account details of 25 million people, vanished into the ether because of a blunder by junior officials at HM Revenue and Customs.

The story apparently broke when Chancellor Alastair Darling made an emergency statement to MPs, in which he admitted that the juniors in question had ignored security procedures when they sent the missing CDs to the National Audit Office for auditing. They were sent using the HMRC's internal postal system, operated by TNT, but they were not sent registered or recorded, and failed to reach the addressee at the NAO. HMRC Chairman Paul Gray has resigned over the matter, but there is, as yet, no word of the hapless juniors falling on their swords in sympathy.

Oh boy, what a monumental cock-up! Even if the missing CDs turned up tomorrow, which seems unlikely as they have already been missing since the 10th of November (did anyone look behind the filing cabinets, I wonder?), it would be difficult to overstate the extent of this fiasco.

A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Gordon Brown-Trousers was being lambasted for his cowardice in bottling out of an early election. Last week it was the Home Secretary in the spotlight for failing to 'fess up about 1000s of illegal immigrants being cleared to work in the security industry - including minding the PM's car. Today it is the Chancellor's turn with, perhaps, the most damaging disaster to date - and you can bet we haven't been told the half of it yet!

If the idea of your personal data simply vanishing in the government's internal mail scares you shitless, imagine what it must be doing to the image-obsessed Prime Minister - I don't call him Gordon Brown-Trousers for nothing, y'know! Remember, this is the government committed to introducing - and, indeed, enforcing - a national ID card scheme that will be used to collect and centralise a VAST amount of information about each and every British citizen, whether we want it to or not (and most of us DON'T want it!).

Why on Earth should we trust them with all that sensitive personal data, when they can't even keep tabs on two CDs in their internal post? This government has consistently demonstrated its inability to keep track of fairly tangible things, like illegal immigrants, for eg, even when it's supposed to already have the individuals in question under lock and key. If it can lose something as big as person (actually, several thousand persons), what chance does it have of finding a couple of CDs loaded with highly valuable information? Bugger all, as far as I can make out.

Of this latest shining example of why Gordon Brown-Trousers should vacate Number 10 with indecent haste, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, said, "This is an extremely serious and disturbing security breach."

Interestingly, only last week, the very same Richard Thomas announced that his office was seeking a new criminal offence for knowingly or recklessly flouting data protection principles in order to deter such incidents from happening. The punishment would be £5,000 in a magistrates' court, or an unlimited fine in Crown courts, the Times reported.

His comments were aimed largely at doctors who have the misfortune to have their laptops stolen. Mr Thomas said: “If a doctor, or hospital [employee] leaves a laptop containing patients’ records in his car and it is stolen, it is hard to see that is anything but gross negligence.”

Yes, I can see how it would be terribly unfortunate if some villain were to learn the awful secret of Aunt Maud's hip replacement. That being the case, I wonder what the punishment should be for losing the personal details of 25 million citizens? Substantially more than £5,000, one would hope.

Yet, in relation to this national disaster of almost unprecedented scale, Mr Thomas is reported to have said, "Searching questions need to be answered about systems, procedures and human error inside both HMRC and NAO." No mention of criminal charges there, then. Mr Thomas obviously knows which side his bread's buttered on!

As for the Chancellor, he hasn't (yet) offered to resign, and he's said to retain the Prime Minister's full confidence. So that will be two pairs of Brown Trousers in Downing St tonight, then.

Billy Seggars.

Smoked Fishy

There's something fishy going on in Blackpool, and I'm not talking about seafood. Mr Hamish Howitt, the first landlord to be prosecuted under England's draconian new anti-smoking laws for allowing customers to light up in his pub, has lost his licence according to the Blackpool Gazette.

Naturally, the powers-that-be in Blackpool are doing their damnedest to distinguish this incident from Mr Howitt's conviction, with Councillor Norman Hardy, who chaired the licensing panel at Blackpool Town Hall yesterday, saying that health and safety was the council's top priority. But smokers - and, indeed, non-smokers - everywhere will recognise the signs easily enough; a small businessman stands up for his beliefs and his customers' rights to self determination, and before you know it his business is threatened.

Health and Safety is the weapon of choice for the terminal control freak, used to bludgeon everyone from schoolkids playing conkers to the Metropolitan Police, and it's hardly surprising that it has been deployed in an effort to bring Mr Howitt to heal. Fortunately, Mr Howitt has an Ace or two up his sleeve in the form of a letter from Anjum Khan, health and safety executive at Workplace Health Connect, a government-funded service providing advice to small businesses. The letter, dated April 2006 described his firm's "strong approach towards health and safety". Bet the local Health and Safety Heavies weren't expecting that!

But then, they're not very subtle, are they? No amount of denial is going to shake the suspicion that this is just one more attempt to scupper Mr Howitt's opposition to pointless and unpopular legislation. District Judge Peter Ward described Mr Howitt's determination to resist the imposition of anti-smoking laws as "silly", and, from the point of view of self-preservation, perhaps it was - after all, I very much doubt he'd have lost his licence if he'd allowed himself to be bullied.

But, silly or not, Mr Howitt deserves a great deal of respect for his stance. The Judge, perhaps having a little more oil in his can than local politicians, refused to "make him a martyr". Now the local Council has done just that by demonstrating how far they will go to sink his campaign. I can't help thinking that, come local election time, Councillor Norman Hardy might have some ground to make up in the eyes of Mr Howitt's customers.

Billy Seggars.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Game For A Laugh

As an entertainment medium, computer games don't do a lot for me. I've always been far more interested in the technology behind the game, and the techniques that go into implementing it, than in playing the actual games.

Until now, however, I've never I've never really needed to wonder about the motivations of the folks who make or commission the games - the technical challenges, the opportunity to make something that millions of people will enjoy and, when you get right down to it, pots of cash have always seemed like good, honest reasons to me.

And then I read this bizarre story in the Daily Mail. Apparently, the bods at PlayGen have dreamed up a game called SeriousPolicy, based around British Politics and featuring such awe inspiring characters as Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Des Brown, Alastair Darling and David Cammeron.

Gosh, and to think I'd never seen them as all-action heros - more like no-action zeros, in fact. Sadly, there's no sign of the pneumatic Jacqui Smith running around in hotpants and spay-on T-shirt, but then it's not that kind of game. No, the gist of this little romp is for the player to win Treasury for a new policy - a new multi-million pound fighter plane for the RAF.

Already I can hardly contain my excitement, but it gets better. According to PlayGen's website, players "can get advice from Tony Blair, get on Alistair Darling's nerves, or get congratulated by the PM. Along the way you wander through a virtual Members’ Lobby, pop into a simulated Treasury and are summoned to a stunningly realistic digital Number 10. A Paris Hilton look-alike provides some light relief and the MC has more than a passing resemblance to Keira Knightly."

Apparently, the game aims to "demonstrate how political processes and decision making can be brought to life in a fun and interesting way through a virtual world, and highlight to players, whether they be citizens or policy makers, the importance of public engagement in the decision-making process."

Fun?? Interesting?? If they think that's fun and interesting, I can't wait to see their next blockbuster - "watch paint dry on a stunningly realistic digital wall, complete with authentic brush marks," perhaps.

No doubt the ideas behind this software - having read the above I hesitate to call it a game - are sound. A lethargic, cynical detachment from the political process really is rife, particularly amongst younger people, and if something isn't done about it we're going to be in real trouble. But this tosh is not the answer, not least because it's not realistic.

You see, the reason that folks are lethargic and cynical about the political process is because they see it on TV all the time, and those few who have learned to read despite the best efforts of the education system read about it in the papers, too. And what they see is a bunch of scheming, devious, dishonest egomaniacs whose interest in the political process comes a very poor second to their interest in furthering their personal or party political ends.

They have seen the highest office in the land descend into an orgy of spin and misinformation under Tony Blair's leadership, only for Gordon Brown-Trousers to plunge it even further into ignominy and contempt within weeks of taking over the top job. We can all see through the lies and deceptions, and they leave us with no reason to take an interest in the political process for, under Labour rule, we know there is very little in it for us except ever-increasing taxation and regulation. Our function is to do as we're told, while out leaders do as they like.

Nor do I expect things would improve greatly if Crazy Cammeron were to magically become PM in the near future. Certainly, under his leadership, the Conservatives are doing better than they have for years, but that's not really his doing. Just a few weeks ago, his position as Tory leader looked increasingly precarious, and, although his performance has improved slightly of late, it hasn't improved enough to explain his party's higher profile.

No, the credit for that miraculous resurrection must lie firmly with Gordon Brown-Trousers. Having first bottled out of an early general election and then lied about the EU Reform Treaty in the space of a few days, he has clearly demonstrated that, no matter how crap the opposition may be, it's better than him.

Transforming the Tories from a dead horse to the clear favourite was an incredible accomplishment, and I'm sure Crazy Cammeron appreciates the Prime Minister's efforts, but it's not the stuff of computer games, not even the long-drawn-out strategy games that take weeks to play for folks who really do follow championship paint-drying.

Now, if you really want to engage younger people in a political game (and there's a school of thought that says all politics is just a game) it needs to resonate with the players' views on politicians. Something simple yet viciously satisfying should do the trick - like whacking a party leader with a custard pie every time they tell a lie, or flushing Gordon Brown-Trousers down the lav every time he lays his hands on your pension.

The potential is endless, and I bet any game along those lines would do far better than a political simulation. Any coders feel up to the challenge?

Billy Seggars.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Home Office Spin

Gordon Brown-Trousers, the most cowardly Prime Minister in British history, is in the mire again. His most recent humiliation (how many PM's can claim to have been so deeply humiliated so many times in just a few weeks?) stems from the notoriously incompetent Home Office, which was branded "unfit for purpose" by the last Home Secretary.

Unfortunately, Jacqui Smith, the current Home Secretary, doesn't seem to have been doing much to improve matters in her department. A couple of days ago, it transpired that up to 5000 illegal immigrants had gained clearance to work in the security industry and that one of them had even been tasked with guarding the Prime Minister's care. I bet his trousers went particularly brown when he found out about that!

As if this fiasco wasn't bad enough, internal Home Office correspondence revealed that the problem came to light months ago, and that the Home Secretary knew of it as early as July. But, instead of coming clean and admitting to the public and Parliament that, once again, the Home Office was at the centre of an almighty cock-up, steps were taken to keep the problem secret - not for reasons of national security, but because it would attract negative headlines and have been seen as the latest in a long line of Home Office blunders.

Hmmm, didn't Gordon Brown-Trousers promise to cut out the spin and double-dealing that ultimately made Tony Blair so untrustworthy? Yes, he did, but we didn't really believe him, did we?

But the story gets better. Yesterday, it emerged that, rather than 5000, there may have been up to 10,000 illegal immigrants working in the security industry. In the Commons, Crazy Cammeron had Gordon Brown-Trousers in a headlock, demanding to know when the PM first learned of the shambles at the Home Office. No reasonable answer was forthcoming, although, with characteristic bravery, Brown-Trousers made it clear that responsibility - and therefore, by implication, blame - lay with the Home Office rather than Downing St. Just the sort of chap you want at your side in a tight spot, isn't he?

Today, according to the Daily Mail, more documents from the Home Office suggest that, of the more than 200,000 security licences issued, an unknown number could have been granted to applicants who falsely claimed to be from the European Union. Did nobody check?? Apparently not. Left to these clowns, national security would go something like this:

"Excuse me, Sir. Are you a terrorist, by any chance?"
"Er, no."
"Right you are, Sir. Mind how you go with that bomb, then. Next!"

Of course, catastrophic intelligence failures (the IQ kind of intelligence, not the spying sort) are nothing new for either the Home Office of the Government as a whole and, disturbing though they are, it's pretty much what I expect from them. Nor does it come as any great surprise to find a Government department conspiring to cover up its mind boggling inadequacy.

I'm quite sure such cover-ups happen all the time, in every department. Even so, it is quite shocking to have your suspicions confirmed by incontrovertible evidence that someone as highly placed as the Home Secretary was prepared to keep something like this quiet for as long as she could get away with it. And if she knew, you can be sure that Gordon Brown-Trousers knew too - his reputation for being a micro-managing control freak is well known, so it's difficult to believe that something this important could slip under his radar.

But, as the Home Office documents show, it would have looked bad for the Government to admit to being incompetent fools yet again - and, despite his unbelievable protests to the contrary, Gordon Brown-Trousers was contemplating an early general election. When you remember that fact, it's easy to see why such a damaging revelation would have been kept quiet.

Once again, we see that the Prime Minister and his senior Cabinet members are not above misleading the British people for political gain. How many examples of deliberate, dishonest manipulation do we need to see before Gordon Brown-Trousers' position becomes untenable?

In my view, we passed that point when he lied about his plans for an election an his reasons for backing down at the last minute. His fate was sealed when he lied again about the EU Treaty being different from the Eu Constitution, and this further example of his Government's dishonesty is the final straw.

He's just not up to the job and he needs to quit. Now, please, Prime Minister.

Billy Seggars.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Happy, On Average

Pointless surveys seem to be in the news a lot today. According to the Telegraph, documentary maker Tim Wardle has been conducting them like crazy in his search for the UK's most average man.

He's been yomping around the country looking for a guy who fits all the criteria - including earning £23,556 a year, being 5ft 9 1/2 tall, driving a Ford Fiesta and having sex 8 times a month. Sounds like the ultimate in Tedium TV to me, but I'm happy to say that Tim Wardle has found his man after a surprisingly difficult search.

It seems that Peter Williamson, of Swindon, fits the bill, and is quite happy about it. He says, "If you spend all your time trying to achieve instead of looking at what you've got and being happy with it, it can destroy you. Whereas if you've got a loving family and are content with your life - even if you haven't achieved greatness - then you'll be happy."

I can honestly say that I don't even come close to meeting the Mr Average criteria - I'm not old enough, too tall, too fat, work too many hours, don't drive a Fiesta, don't believe in any God, don't have enough kids or take enough holidays, spend far too long "on hold" on the phone and make a point of not having between 8 and 14 close friends. I do have a wife, but she's not a size 16 and I sure as hell don't have the average of six sexual partners - the article doesn't say whether they form part of the "close friends" group, but either way I don't have 'em and wouldn't want 'em - and I don't get my leg over, on average, 8 times a month.

Despite all of that, I absolutely agree with Mr Williamson - folks spend far too much time trying to do something or be someone these days. The mania comes in many forms, from the classic desire for fame to an obsession with "issues", be they world peace, the environment or some more mundane personal hobby-horse.

And they're all guff. Put the hobby-horse out to pasture and start making the most of what's good in your life. For, on average, you've probably only got another 40 years or so to go before it's wooden overcoat time, and it's a bit late then to start enjoying life, isn't it?

Billy Seggars.

Think Thin

According to the Sun, "Curvy women are brighter than skinny girls". And it must be true, because scientists at Pittsburgh and California Universities say it is.

Apparently, they studied 16,000 women to reach their results. Actually, I suspect this to have been a cunning wheeze - it's probably the only way a propeller-headed researcher could get near even one woman, let alone 16,000 of them!

Like all such pointless research, it occurs to me that there's probably a grain of truth in the findings, but, as usual, the boffins have completely missed the point.

To get at it, let's perform a simple thought experiment. We will assume that the results of the intelligence tests performed by the boffins are accurate - scrawny wenches really do worse than their more realistically proportioned sisters in a brain workout.

Now, clear your mind and think of any really skinny girls that you might happen to know. How many of them are, not to put too fine a point on it, bimbos? And how many of them are constantly on a diet, in their quest for the all-important size zero figure? How many have a microscopic vocabulary, and a range of conversation that revolves entirely around fashion, gossip, boyfriends and, yes, their latest diet? If you ask them about current affairs, do they automatically talk about their most recent sexual escapades rather than world events? If you stood them next to a grapefruit, which would appear smarter?

The vast majority of toast-rack-alike women could match that description - they're thicker than the average plank, and they're on a constant succession of diets.

It doesn't stretch credibility too far to conclude that they do not become stupid as a result of being thin. Rather, it is the naturally stupid woman who diets her way to oblivion in the interests of vanity, while smarter women retain a more realistic figure - which, ironically, most men prefer.

Isn't nature wonderful? Stupid women diet to make themselves thin with a view to finding a mate, but smart women know men are pre-programmed to prefer a curvy figure. Thus, bimbos are effectively shepherded out of the gene-pool, ensuring that future generations are reasonably smart and not too physically puny. Obviously, the method isn't perfect, since the boffins who conducted the original research weren't smart enough to figure this out, but at least mother nature is working on it.

I look forward to the day when all woman-kind is acceptably curvy and capable of carrying on a conversation that doesn't include even one mention of diets or fashion.

Billy Seggars.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Supermarket GP Surgeries - About Time!

It's not often that an idea strikes me as being really, really good and long overdue. But this report in the Sun is just such a rarity. It seems that "well established and trusted brands" like Tesco and Asda could soon be running GP surgeries, if a proposed pilot scheme goes ahead.

Well, why not? The current state of GP services is, frankly, bloody awful. They run a variety of chaotic appointment schemes that conspire to make it practically impossible to see your GP in any case; you either have to ring for an appointment at the crack of dawn and hope you're lucky enough to beat some other poor bugger to the last vacant slot (who wants to do THAT after being ill all night?), or book so far in advance that you will have either recovered or died before your GP gets to see you.

Of course, if you're feeling particularly optimistic (and, if you're trying to see a doctor, you probably aren't), you could always ask for a home visit. Trying to winkle a GP out of their surgery during business hours is like learning levitation - it's a nice idea, but it just won't fly. Trying it out of business hours is even worse; your call gets transferred to a centralised location where some snotty bint takes your details, asks what's wrong with you and promises that a doctor will call you back soon.

You might as well start writing your will in the interim, because it will be some time before a doctor calls to tell you why you don't need them, that they'll be delighted to tell you in person if you can crawl several miles to a health centre you've never heard of and can't find, and, if you feel any worse, don't hesitate to call an ambulance.

How, exactly, could the likes of Asda and Tesco run a service that could possibly be worse than this? There's at least a chance that, like their pharmacies, surgeries in supermarkets (if that's what the scheme entails) would be open all day until late, you'd know where to find them and you wouldn't have to make an extra trip to a late night supermarket to get your prescription made up.

Strangely, though, doctors don't think it's a good idea at all. Dr Robert Morley, of the British Medical Association, made some lame excuse about continuity of care for patients, before getting to the real nub of their concerns - some smaller practices could be forced out of business. He said: “Small GP surgeries are not going to be able to compete with the retail giants.”

Says it all, doesn't it? Concealed not very far beneath the apparent concern for patients (how many folks actually get to see the same GP more than once anyway?) is the far more pressing drive for self preservation. Actually, Dr Morley's comment is not entirely without merit - look what the rise of the supermarket did to previously thriving small corner shops. But, looked at the other way, do we miss them all that much?

Well, yes, actually, I do. A friendly small business is often far easier to deal with than a faceless giant, and they tend to go out of their way to help their customers. But, as the friendly - and now largely extinct - small shopkeeper found to their cost, those benefits don't compare well with the convenience and economy of the supermarket. They couldn't compete on the points that were most important to consumers, and so they failed.

And that is exactly what will happen to some, if not many, GP surgeries too. Yes, I know, GPs work long, hard hours and, for the most part, they do their best for their patients. Unfortunately, to some extent, they work very hard at the wrong things. It's a well-know saying that doctors make lousy patients, and it's true.

They also make absolutely clueless end-users of the health system. Even when they need medical attention themselves, they are never truly patients; they are simply consulting a colleague about something they can't, or shouldn't, deal with themselves. They are part of the system, and cannot see it from the outside any more than they can see the back of their own head.

As a result, while they may go to great lengths to deal well with their patients' medical problems, they do - and know - nothing about handling the whole "patient experience" thing. Sure, good medical care is important. But so is getting an appointment quickly, easily and with the minimum of aggravation. Sick people do not want to be put on hold, or told to press 1 for this, 2 for that etc. They want a nice, simple phone call, answered promptly, dealt with courteously. They do not want to wait two or more days for a doctor to get around to signing a damn repeat prescription.

In these and a thousand other ways, they want customer service. And, sadly, right now they don't get it. Of course, many doctors would claim that's none of their business; they earn their £100K+ per year for treating sickness, not pandering to patients' whims, customer service requires resources that they're not given, etc.

And they are wrong. Over 20 years ago I had a wonderful GP. He had his own practice, none of this partnership thing you see so much of these days, which he ran for years. Locally, he was famed for being almost unreasonably thorough in checking anything and everything, going far beyond the call of duty to ensure that as much as possible was done for his patients.

He held a surgery every morning (even some at the weekend), did his rounds every afternoon, never questioned whether a home visit was necessary - he assumed that if you called him, it was necessary - and held a second surgery in the evenings several times every week. His evening surgery did not run for a set period of time - it ran until he'd seen each and every patient, none of whom had to book in advance, and all of whom got as much attention as they needed.

And, if he was concerned about a particular patient, it was common for him to call on them on his way home after evening surgery. Many a worried relative has answered their door long after 10PM to find the good doctor "just passing", and his efforts were universally appreciated. His practice was enormous, yet it ran like clockwork long before any computers were used in surgeries. The administrative work was shared between his wife and a part-time secretary, both of whom did their level best to be helpful. Needless to say, long after he retired and passed his practice on to a partnership, this doctor is fondly remembered by an awful lot of people - unlike the partnership that succeeded him.

The big difference between this old-style doctor and his modern counterparts is attitude. Customer service was everything with him, although he probably didn't see it in such a colourful way; he just tried to do his best for everyone. Many modern doctors just don't seem to connect with the idea that they are public servants, paid for from the public purse. We, the patients, employ them, and it wouldn't be bad idea if some of the more out of touch members of the medical profession stopped looking down (even subconsciously) on patients as inferiors and started giving them the respect and service due from a servant to their masters.

For, if they do not, they are an endangered species. Big companies know a lot about customer service (even if they don't actually offer much!) and a lot more about market research and promotion. Sure, they may not know much about medical science, but specialist knowledge is just one more commodity, to be bought in as required. Before long, supermarkets' stock orders may include 10,000 loaves, 20,000 tins of cat food and 5 GPs.

When the likes of Tesco once discover that there's a huge market for GP surgeries that don't treat patients like cattle, they will have no difficulty in offering a service tailored to meet the demand, and, if they get it right, patients will vote with their feet. No wonder the BMA is worried about competition - they don't even know where to start!

Billy Seggars.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Loony Laws

There's a corking article in this morning's Telegraph about stupid laws that are still in force in the UK and around the world.

Of the top 10 British Acts of Stupidity, I found number 1, "It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament", to be a bit of a disappointment - I can think of any number of MPs who could make the world a much better place by flouting that one!

Number 2 also strikes me as little odd: "It is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside-down." How is upside-down defined in this case? What happens if you write the address upside-down, too? Then it's the envelope that's wrong, not the stamp.

Number 3, "In Liverpool, it is illegal for a woman to be topless except as a clerk in a tropical fish store ", is sadly claimed to be myth. Shame.

"Mince pies cannot be eaten on Christmas Day," according to number 4. But, if you told porkies about it, who would ever know?

At number 5, "In Scotland, if someone knocks on your door and requires the use of your toilet, you must let them enter," must surely be extracting the urine. Mind you, I could name a few canny Scots who wouldn't be above charging a bit more than a penny for the use of their facilities.

Number 6, "In the UK a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants, including in a policeman's helmet." Y'know, I've always wondered about those helmets. Do their heads go all the way to the top? Or are they designed that way just in case of unexpectedly incontinent mothers-to-be?

"The head of any dead whale found on the British coast automatically becomes the property of the King, and the tail of the Queen," says dumb law number 7. Gosh, rank really does have its privileges, eh?

Taxing the brain at number 8 is this convoluted entry: "It is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you do not want him to know, but legal not to tell him information you do not mind him knowing."

At number 9, "It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament in a suit of armour." Yes, well, that makes sense - we'd never know when MPs were lying, because we wouldn't be able to see their lips moving behind the visor.

And now, thanks to number 10, I know why Gordon Brown-Trousers NEVER, EVER carries a bow and arrow: "In the city of York it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow."

As for the international oddities, well just read 'em for yourself - they're pretty much what you'd expect. But I did like this one: "In Alabama, it is illegal to be blindfolded while driving a vehicle". Always sensible advice, and I fully expect it to make its way into the Highway Code, right beside the prohibition on smoking while driving. After all, why stop at just one loony law?

Billy Seggars.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Big Bang

I don't like fireworks. Not because I have any particular objection to celebratory bangs and flashes (in moderation), but because the bloody things seem to be on sale for ages before Bonfire Night, and the local youfs love to use them as not-so-miniature hand grenades.

The resulting near-constant barrage of explosions in the run-up to November 5th terrifies my animals (and, I'm sure, many other animals, too), and generally gets on my nerves. Several times in the past few weeks I have speculated on exactly where I would like to shove one or more of those bloody rockets, if only I could get my hands on the little sods who keep letting them off.

Until tonight, however, it never occurred to me that there might be some local youfs so lacking in brains as to very nearly (oh, SO nearly) act out my speculations - on THEMSELVES. Earlier, I was sitting in my car outside the local late night supermarket, chatting on the phone and keeping half an eye on a couple of shadowy figures lurking in the mouth of an unlit alley adjoining the car park.

From their furtive movements, I assumed they were probably engaged in some nefarious activity that would, fairly shortly, oblige me to cut short my phone call and summon the constabulary. In the gloom it was difficult to make out any details, but the mental image I was assembling had room for young, walnut-brained, muscular and behoodied males, bristling with the implements of whatever crime they had in mind and a touting an unpleasant vocabulary slightly smaller than their shoe size.

As I watched, a match was struck and instantly went out. Another followed, and did the same. Clearly, they were not seasoned lighters of matches, or they would have known to turn their back to the howling wind, and, possibly, cup their hands around the flame. Eventually, our incompetent proto-arsonists managed to keep a match alight long enough for me to get a look at them.

Far from the vicious-looking male hoodies I was expecting, I caught sight of a couple of young girls, probably about 15 years old, reasonably well dressed in jeans, high-heeled boots and dark coats. They were huddling around something, to which the recently ignited match was applied. It, whatever it was, started to smoke and fizz, and I realised with mounting amazement that one of these fashionable but incredibly stupid young women was actually holding - yes, holding, in her actual hand - a fairly big firework, and that the fuse was burning.

How long does a fuse on these things burn for? 5 seconds? 10? I don't know, but the holder of same stood looking at the fizzing tube for what seemed like an awfully long time. Suddenly, the extent of her folly seemed to penetrate her air of terminal bimbohood. She squealled and, arms waving at shoulder height, boot heels clattering, she galloped off accross the car park.

Unfortunately, instead of doing something uncharacteristically sensible, like throwing the bloody firework as far away as possible (something her male counterparts seem to grasp without too much difficulty), she just dropped it. Right at her colleague's feet. Bimbo 2 seemed to be made of sterner - or at least thicker - stuff, and stood her ground. She looked, mesmerised, at the pretty fizzing tube by her foot for several more seconds before the herd instinct took over, and she joined her comparatively smart associate in a shrieking, arm-waving, boot clattering retreat.

To say she cut it fine is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. High-heeled boots are, I assume, not designed for running in, and this prime example of terminal stupidity was barely 5 feet from the firework when it began to spit forth red and green globules of fire. Mere seconds later, its short but violent life ended in a thunderous bang that showered my car with sparks and hot debris, and, I suspect, occasioned an unscheduled knicker change in both of its intellectually challenged former owners.

What kind of people would do something so unutterably dumb? It's not a matter of education, I'm sure. They cannot have failed to see thousands of fireworks doing their thing in the last few weeks, and it should be obvious that they pack a fair punch. They don't need to be TOLD these things are dangerous - it's bloody obvious. Bloody would certainly have been the operative word had these dopey bints waited even a few seconds longer before tottering away.

While I cannot imagine that their demise would have been any great loss to the human race, it seems unreasonable to expect the health service to work its magic, such as it is, on people who are just so plainly incompatible with a world where any degree of thought might reasonably be required. As it is, these two specimens are alive and well, and it is surely only a matter of time until, following an altogether different kind of bang, they are ushering their own offspring into the world.

It seems unlikely that the offspring will be any brighter than their parents, and, with such sparkling role models to follow, they seem doomed to follow in their bubble-headed, high-heeled footsteps. What hope can they have of a reasonable, or reasonably long, life when their mothers seem willing and able to blow themselves to kingdom come for a giggle? These girls, and the thousands like them, both male and female, who clutch fireworks in darkened alleys all over the country, are compelling arguments in favour of enforced sterilisation if ever I saw one.

Billy Seggars.

Monday, 5 November 2007

No Smoke Without Fine

Blackpool landlord Hamish Howitt has become the first pub landlord to be prosecuted for allowing customers to smoke in his pub, according to the Daily Mail.

District Judge Peter Ward, sitting at Blackpool Magistrates' Court, declined to fine Mr Howitt £2500 for each of the 12 offences under consideration, saying that he refused to make Mr Howitt a martyr. Instead, he fined Mr Howitt £500 and made a £2000 order for costs against him. The Judge also said that Mr Howitt's campaign against anti-smoking laws was "silly, pointless and misguided".

Mr Howitt, who claims that his campaign has cost him almost £40,000, has said that he will not pay the fine, will not stop his customers from smoking in his pub and is prepared to face jail instead.

I have expressed my views on this pointless, draconian law many times; it's unfair, unreasonable and an infringement of an individual's rights to do as the please in a so-called free country. I don't believe I have ever seen Judge Peter Ward's views on the subject reported before, however, and they make most interesting reading.

Needless to say, I don't agree with them, although he is undoubtedly entitled to hold such views if he wishes. Still, I can't help wondering whether this is the same "District Judge Peter Ward" who, according to the BBC, was travelling as a passenger in a chauffeur-driven car when the chauffeur was arrested and charged with drink-driving - his breath test showed him to be twice the legal limit. Apparently, the case was initially scheduled to come before Judge Ward, who, as a passenger in the vehicle, was obliged to step aside at the last minute.

That was in 2005. Also in 2005, a District Judge called Peter Ward jailed a guy for five months for driving to get a takeaway whilst both disqualified and over the limit. No problem there, but, in passing sentence, the judge said, "If you are stupid enough to do that you can't complain when you have to face the consequences."

Again, fair enough. But compare that to the ride in the drunken-chauffeur-driven car. On that occasion, the chauffeur's drink-driving was initially suspected when police officers smelled alcohol on his breath while telling him where to park. If they could smell it, why did it apparently escaped the attention of the not one, but two allegedly-astute District Judges he was ferrying?

If these articles all refer to the same District Judge, I can't help thinking that it may have been just a little bit "silly, pointless and misguided" of him to miss that fact that his chauffeur was unfit to drive. Of course, they may be different people - there may be a whole array of District Judges called Peter Ward. Even if that's the case, though, I also can't help thinking that THE District Judge in Mr Howitt's case may have been a little silly and misguided in making such comments on a subject that many people feel very, very strongly about.

Not only were his comments pointless, in that they are unlikely to have much impact, either on Mr Howitt or the millions of other law abiding citizens who strongly oppose the smoking ban, but they also go a long way towards reducing his standing as a just and fair judge - which, until now, he has largely shown himself to be. Still, in (possibly) his own words, if he is stupid enough to do that, he can't complain when he has to face the consequences - the ridicule and scorn of much-put-upon smokers.

Judges are very much public figures, and their views are of interest to a great many people. In this internet age of instant information retrieval, one misguided - or stupid - comment is likely to follow them for life, as I suspect District Judge Peter Ward will, gradually, come to realise.

Billy Seggars.

Ed's Education Balls Up

Ed Balls, the Children's Schools and Families Secretary, wants to force kids to stay in school until they are 18, and fine them if they don't, according to the Daily Mail.

Teenagers who refuse to find jobs, get training or go to school will get a warning from the local education authority, and if they still aren't persuaded they'll be hit with a fixed penalty.

Yes, fine, good. Might go some way to getting all those scruffy hoodies off the streets. Except that it won't. Kids leaving school this year have spent almost all their educational life under a Labour government. Standards have fallen dramatically in that time and their prospects for meaningful employment have gone the same way. Can you blame them for being disillusioned?

Besides, some folks just aren't cut out for academic pursuits; forcing them to undergo yet more tedious teaching, in subjects that don't interest them, is not going to further the objective of educating them; it's just going to foster resentment. The government has already made it virtually impossible for teachers to maintain discipline in the classroom - do they really think keeping unwilling kids there for another two years is going to help the kids, the education system or the country? After all, and teenager who actually wants to continue their education is already at liberty to do so, albeit in pursuit of pathetically diminished qualifications.

It's also quite possible for those seeking vocational training to sign up for one of the myriad courses available. This has led to unprecedented numbers of newly-trained hairdressers, beauticians and floor cleansing operatives flooding into the employment markets, only to seek instant retraining in a similarly challenging field when they discover that thousands of other folks have had much the same idea.

There is no need for Ed Balls to dream up new laws to force kids to do this. The opportunities are already there for those that have the noggin to take them. Instead of fining kids (who's going to pay the fine if they're not working, eh?) he should be cutting their benefits and banging up those who turn to crime as an alternative income. Let basic economics take over - grants and benefits for those who are willing to learn, nothing at all for those who aren't.

Apart from anything else, it's not fair. Those kids that get a job will be paying taxes, some of which will be used (wasted) on educating many of their fellows who won't get their finger out - the workers will end up funding the lazy. No change there, then. Plus, there will be some kids who are independently wealthy and are not claiming any benefits. Why should they be forced to continue with education, or training, or get a job if they don't want or need to?

Just because the vast majority of Ministers and Labour party officials of all descriptions know nothing beyond the dreamy spires of academia, it doesn't give them the right to impose unwelcome study on everyone else. This is just another example of the government's one-size-doesn't-quite-fit-anyone policy making, and should be treated as the foolish Ed Balls-up that it is.

Billy Seggars.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Called to Account

We all know that politicians are a law unto themselves, but Home Office minister Liam Byrne seems to take the expression literally.

Byrne, who who helped to toughen up the law banning drivers from talking on a mobile phone, was yesterday convicted of doing exactly that - gaining him a fine and a criminal record.

According to the Daily Mail, Byrne, the Home Office minister in charge of immigration, told the court that he was taking an important telephone call on "a deportation matter" when pulled over by police near his Birmingham Hodge Hill constituency.

What is it with these people? If I were to be pulled over and claim to be taking a call from an important client, it would cut no ice at all. Why should it be any different for a Minister? In fact, shouldn't the punishment be more severe for someone who imposed these ridiculous laws on the rest of us?

And how is it that the Home Secretary can get away with claiming that he still has her full confidence when he has so blatantly broken the law he helped to create? It just goes to show how much contempt our government has for the rest of us. We're here to do what we're told, while they do what they like.

Isn't this a great place to live, these days?

Billy Seggars.