An Expensive Business: The High Cost Of UK Vets:

On 2nd September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, adopted a dog – a small Jack Russell which they have named “Dilyn” (meaning “follow” in Welsh). They acquired it from the Friends of Animals Wales charity specialising in rescuing farm puppies discarded and unwanted because they have physical defects. Dilyn and his brother Jed were both born with misaligned jaws. As the Daily Mail journalist, Barbara Davies, noted on 6th September, Dilyn has now become a firm favourite with the staff at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official residence.

Johnson, Symonds and Jed’s new owner (a civil servant in Wales) have thus become part of the 50% of the UK adult population that own a pet. Statistics issued by the People’s Dispensary For Sick Animals (PDSA) show that 24% of households in Britain have a cat (total estimated number, 10.9 million), 26% a dog (9.9 million) and 2% have a rabbit (900,000).

Melissa Hogenboom, a contributor to BBC Earth, has queried exactly why people have pets. Making an animal part of the family, she points out, seems to be something only humans do: “You won’t see a chimpanzee taking a dog for a walk or an elephant keeping a tortoise for company”. Pets, she notes, get meals, healthcare and a home for life, looking after them takes up time and you “can’t expect them to offer anything material in return”, though she does acknowledge that they clearly provide companionship. It’s all very strange, in her opinion, considering the expense involved.

The Pet Keepers Guide, by contrast, focuses more on the health benefits derived from, for example, walking the dog, as well as the opportunities this provides for enlarging one’s circle of friends. In some cities in China, it observes, many retired old folk carry their bird cages to a nearby park and socialize with other bird keepers while the avians themselves are singing to each other. Furthermore, the Guide suggests pets help boost their owners’ self-esteem:”Whether we are rich or poor, good-looking or “ugly”, overweight or underweight, our pets just don’t care. Their loyalty is unconditional”.

Hogenbooom’s comments about the cost of having a pet do, nevertheless, resonate with a large number of owners. The PDSA has calculated that caring for a dog will require an outlay of between £6000 – £17,000 during its life-time, depending on its breed, size and longevity. The minimum monthly expenditure for a small dog such as Dilyn will be at least £70, for a medium breed £80 pm and for a large one, £105 pm.

This is unlikely to present any difficulty for Boris Johnson, with his Prime Ministerial and MP’s salaries, but could be a concern for anyone with a much lower income or no job at all. For cats, the PDSA figure is £12,000, rising to a potential £24,000 “if you decide to spend a little more on your cat’s care or they live longer than the average of around 15 – 16 years”.

None of this, of course, includes the veterinary fees which will be incurred if your pet develops health problems or has an accident. Indeed, the high charges involved have become increasingly controversial, to the extent that – according to the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter, Patrick Sawer – vets are being threatened on a regular basis by pet owners angry at the cost of treatment.

A survey by the British Veterinary Association (BVA), cited by Sawer, has revealed that many practices are accused of being “money-grabbing” by clients upset at the amount they are required to pay for standard appointments such as follow-up checks for their pets.

The MoneySupermarket commentator, Kevin Pratt, confirms that vet bills in the UK have continued to rise, which is why pet insurers paid out a record £775 million (the equivalent of £2 million every day) for sick or injured animals in 2017. Blood tests can cost £100 – £130, X-Rays £300, a consultation with a vet £60, emergency surgery at least £1,500, an overnight stay in a pet hospital £500 or more and ongoing treatment such as chemotherapy £5,000.

The former vet, Matthew Watkinson, in an article for the Daily Mail, expressed his shame at having been a member of a profession “that puts pets through painful, risky and unnecessary treatments to fleece their trusting owners”. A whole industry (he wrote) has arisen out of squeezing the most money out of treating family pets, especially in affluent areas with middle-classes residents, hence cash, not the welfare of the animal, is too often at the forefront of the vet’s mind. Pet insurance is “simply a licence to print money” that helps only vets. He’s opposed to animals having to endure lots of operations in the hope that their health problems can be cured and their lives prolonged.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) has responded to this criticism by acknowledging that there might be some “bad apples” in the sector but emphasizing it operates “a robust regulatory system to ensure high standards of education and professional conduct are set, met and maintained”

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on October 8th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

London Fashion Week SS20: Climate Change Overshadows The Catwalks:

They were all there as usual at the latest London Fashion Week (13th – 17th September: Famous designers such as Mark Fast, Roberta Einer, Molly Goddard, Erdem, Victoria Beckham. However, this time they were not the only focus of the national media’s attention. The spotlight was as much on the demonstrations outside the main LFW venue in the Strand as on prestigious occasions such as the Burberry Show. The UK protest group, Extinction Rebellion, had asked the British Fashion Council to cancel the event altogether “in recognition of the existential threat that faces us” – but when that didn’t happen, as the Guardian’s fashion editor, Jess Cartner-Morley, reported on 14th September, they threw buckets of fake blood onto the pavement to symbolize their view that the fashion sector, like other industries, is leading towards the extinction of life on the planet.

During the five days of LFW, they also handed out leaflets declaring that fashion is one of the biggest scourges of the earth: The water, the chemicals, the waste. “Don’t make any more clothes. Don’t buy any more clothes” they urged, “Instead: Be mad and inventive with the clothes that already exist in the world. We have enough forever now”.

The campaigning designer, Stella McCartney clearly agrees. In an “Open Letter To The Fashion Industry” published in the Sunday Times Style magazine on 15th September, she noted that it’s become one of the most damaging industries in the world and is responsible for more than a third of ocean microplastics: “Every single second, the equivalent of one rubbish truck of textiles is sent to landfills or burnt, while textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally”.

The British Council (BFC), in its pre-LFW press release regarding the possible impact of a “no-deal Brexit”, emphasized the importance of the UK retaining its role as a global leader in creativity, innovation and business – not least because the fashion industry is worth more than £32 billion to the country’s GDP and employs over 890,000 people. However, as the Observer columnist, Ed Helmore, pointed out on 1st September, although people in Britain buy more garments than any other European country, they also seem to throw a lot of it away – in fact, that 11 million items of clothing end up in UK landfills each week.

In response to this, the model Stella Tennant and the charity Oxfam, have launched a “Second Hand September” campaign aimed at persuading consumers not to buy any new clothes for at least 30 days. According to the Guardian journalist,Sarah Butler,on 22nd August, there is already a trend among many young people to buy from resale sites such as Depop in the UK and the market analysts GlobalData anticipate the second-hand market will become 50% bigger than its fast fashion counterpart by 2028.

Helmore highlights the suggestion by Nicole Phelps, the Director of Vogue Runway, that celebrities should set an example by re-wearing gowns they’ve worn in the past. He also cites the results of a United Nation’s study indicating that the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of waste water and consumes more energy than the airline and shipping industries combined.

The BFC Chief Executive, Caroline Rush, acknowledges that the issues of sustainability and climate change represent formidable challenges for the fashion industry – but insists that the BFC hears the message of Extinction Rebellion. “Our role”, she told Cartner-Morley, “is to make the information digestible for fashion businesses so they can take practical action”. One example of this was the launch at LFW by the designer Roland Mouret and the Arch & Hook company of clothes hangers developed from 80% marine plastic which is harvested from oceans and waterways and so removes plastic waste from the environment.

Another designer, Julien Macdonald, is similarly trying to ensure his brand becomes more ecologically aware: His clothes, he told the Evening Standard fashion journalist, Lizzie Edmonds, are made from as many organic fabrics as possible. He’s also apparently “bored of young girls on the runway” as although they may look fabulous when modelling his clothes, they’re not the ones who buy them. His declared aim is to produce a collection for “real women”. His LFW SS20 Show took place in Southwark Cathedral the evening of 16th September.

Meanwhile, the BFC is imploring the Government to seek a deal with the European Union that will guarantee that international designers and students will continue to feel they are welcome to study and work in the UK. The introduction of World Trade Organization (WTO) tariffs, they argue, will have serious implications, as fashion is comprised of “component goods which traverse borders multiple times before becoming a finished product”. Designers, driven by the need to achieve high artistry and creative pieces, thus have to adopt a global approach in all elements of their business, from sourcing the perfect fabric, through to finding the best pattern cutters in the world to work with that fabric.

Filed under: Society | Posted on September 23rd, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

A Second Brexit Referendum On The Horizon?

Be careful what you wish for. You might receive it”. That’s how the English author W.W. Jacobs began his classic horror story, “The Monkey’s Paw”, which was first published in 1902. As the wiseGeek website has pointed out, this expression – which has become almost a cliché – constitutes a warning to those people hoping for something without considering all the negative consequences that could accompany obtaining it. Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and British Prime Minister since July 23rd, could well be reflecting that this applies very much to the situation in which he currently finds himself.

In September 2018, the Guardian columnist, Steve Richards, noted that Johnson “obviously aches to be prime minister” but that he would never get the top job in British politics because his vaulting ambition is too transparent” As we now know, Richards was wrong. On 30th August, Johnson told a group of young prospective journalists aged 9 –14 who’d been invited to 10 Downing Street that in fact his early aspiration had been to be a rock star or a supermarket tycoon rather than Prime Minister and that he regrets he isn’t allowed by his bodyguards to ride his bicycle any more because someone might try to attack him.

Although Boris appears so far to have retained his popularity with much of the public, he has been depicted by his opponents as a dictator for proroguing Parliament from 10th September until 14th October and as a bully for suspending from his party the 21 Conservative MPs who voted in Parliament against his Government. Furthermore, the Guardian correspondents Jessica Elgot and Peter Walker, in a front-page article on 6th September, described Johnson’s speech in West Yorkshire the previous day as “rambling and occasionally incoherent” and Emily Thornberry, the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, on the BBC’s Question Time programme that same evening, denounced him as a “reckless liar”.

Irrespective of whether such harsh remarks are justified, most recent British Prime Ministers and opposition party leaders have had to accept that being ridiculed has become an integral part of their job. Theresa May was constantly mocked for her “robotic” speaking style, her stiff way of walking, her embarrassing attempts to dance in public, her social awkwardness and even her leopard-skin shoes. In the House of Commons on Tuesday 3rd September, during Johnson’s fierce verbal exchanges with the Opposition benches and some of his own MPs, May looked alternatively happy that she was no longer Prime Minister and gloomy that she was no longer the centre of attention.

The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has often been taunted for having an allotment and growing his own tomatoes, potatoes and marrows. At the end of an appearance on the BBC TV’s “The One Show” in May 2017, he gave the presenters a jar of his home-made jam. His predecessor, Ed Milliband, is remembered mainly for the inelegant way he ate a bacon sandwich, a photo of which featured on the front page of the Sun newspaper.

In the opinion of the contributor, Jonathan Bacon, on March 13th, the image then in circulation of a “beaming and ruddy-faced” David Cameron (Prime Minister 2010 -2016), perched on the steps of his £25,000 garden shed, encapsulated the out-of-touch complacency of a man who had plunged his country into the worst crisis in decades by calling the Referendum, then had promptly left when he lost “to spend time with the baubles of his wealth and privilege”.

Boris Johnson has responded belligerently to his critics. On the 4th September, he characterised Corbyn as a “chlorinated chicken” and accused him of being prepared to “surrender” to Brussels. The Labour Leader retorted that the Prime Minister had “no mandate, no morals and no parliamentary majority”. The Washington Post commentator, Adam Taylor, has queried why British politicians insult each other so much. He considers it could be partly due to the adversarial design of the House of Commons itself, where government & opposition MPs sit, “at a distance said to be slightly more than two sword lengths”, glaring fiercely face to face at each other.

In the era of social media and 24-hour news, Taylor observes, British politicians are increasingly rude to their opponents and “have become aware that a quick insult might be a better way to gain popularity than a serious debate”. He cites the examples of Cameron advising Corbyn to put on a proper suit, do up his tie and sing the national anthem, MPs pleading with Boris Johnson to tuck in his shirt and the former transport minister Simon Burns being reprimanded for apparently portraying the “diminutive” House of Commons speaker, John Bercow, as a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”.

So what happens now? Boris might resign rather than ask the EU for another extension or win the next election and then try to get a revised deal. If Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, he’ll probably also attempt to renegotiate with Brussels, then hold a 2nd Referendum, with many (but not all) of the Labour Party advocating Remain. The Liberal Democrat Party Leader, Jo Swinson, has declared that if the country votes “Leave” again, she won’t accept the result.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on September 9th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Holiday Souvenir No-One Wants To Bring Home:

Travelling abroad has become a hugely unpleasant ordeal”. That, at least, is the opinion of the Spectator magazine’s outspoken columnist, Rod Liddle, expressed in the publication’s 10th August edition. From now on, he announced, he and his family will take their vacations in Britain. He feels that going to other countries to widen your horizons and experience different kinds culture has lost some of it’s allure and he can anyway no longer endure “the endless security rigmarole at the airports and the queues everywhere for everything”. Moreover, the rejuvenation of the UK’s seaside towns with their food festivals, chic art galleries and “prettified and gentrified promenades” means that staying in the country “has become much more palatable and, thanks to the collapsing pound, much more affordable”.

Liddle could have added another reason: According to a survey conducted on behalf of the probiotic supplement company Bimuno Travelaid cited by the Daily Mail, 50% of the British population suffer health problems while they are abroad. Moreover, as the newspaper’s travel reporter observed, although many people may believe they are more likely to become ill on destinations such as Egypt or Turkey, in fact Spain appears to be the worst offender for holiday illness – to the extent that perhaps “traveller’s tummy” should be renamed “costa cramps”: 32% of Britons questioned said they’d become unwell while in the Iberian peninsula, compared to just 6% in Italy and 3% in Thailand.

The statistics place Greece in 2nd place (14.2% of Britons on holiday there fall ill), followed by France, despite it’s image as a centre for gastronomy (9.6%), Egypt (9.5%), Africa (8.1%), India (5.3%), and the Caribbean only 4%, “perhaps surprising in view of “the region’s bad reputation for causing illness”.

So what’s the solution and how can this situation be avoided? Birmuno Travelaid claim that their product “Increases the good-boosting bacteria in your gut and also provides a natural protective barrier against bad travel diarrhoea-causing bacteria including e-coli and salmonella”. Philip Calder, professor of nutritional immunology at Southampton University, has pointed out to the Daily Mirror that when you visit foreign countries, “your body encounters a whole new set of bacteria and viruses – starting with those of the passengers you sit in close proximity to and share air with on the plane”. Moreover, research shows that the behaviour associated with many tourists, such as risking sunburn, drinking too much alcohol and eating unhealthy food can further suppress the immune system, thereby providing a recipe for getting sick.

The fashion stylist Eve Brannon, in her article captioned “Don’t let Traveller’s Tummy Ruin Your Summer Holiday”, has recommended including more sources of soluble food fibres such as onions, garlic, artichokes, leeks, chicory and asparagus in your diet in the weeks preceding your journey. Then ,while you’re away, you should avoid local tap water, if you can’t be sure of its purity. This includes taking ice in drinks, brushing your teeth with tap water or eating fruit and vegetables that have been washed in it: “Even if locals drink it without any problems, it’s unlikely your stomach will have the suitable bacteria to protect you”.

As a precaution, always drink bottled water, ensuring the seal is intact when purchased. Avoid raw or undercooked foods. Choose fruit that has to be peeled – such as bananas, mangos, oranges or pomegranates – and prepare them yourself. Beware of hotel buffet food, as there’s no way of knowing how long it’s been sitting out. Street stalls, contends Brannon, can be a safer bet than buffet-syle meals because they cook the produce fresh in front of you at high temperatures. When dining out, “pay attention to the restaurant’s overall cleanliness, especially as regards the tablecloths, cutlery, glasses and toilet facilities”.

The “Healthy Soul” website makes some suggestions that don’t feature on Brannon’s list. It advises that you should shower with your mouth closed: “Sometimes, even a small amount of water from the shower can be enough to upset your stomach badly”. It also advocates using iodine tablets to purify tap water if you can’t easily get hold of bottled water.

If you’ve nevertheless unfortunately experienced a severe episode while on holiday and are still coping with the after-effects now you’re back home, what’s the best and fastest way to get better? Brannon emphasises that the most important thing is to make sure that you drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Avoid spicy, fried or fatty foods. Even if you’ve recovered your appetite, you should for the moment eat just bland foods like rice, soup, toast and bananas and then add in a probiotic supplement for extra support.

If – unlike Rod Liddle – you haven’t lost your enthusiasm for visiting other countries and intend return abroad as soon as possible , perhaps the advice of specialists such as Calder and Brannon will help you avoid falling victim again to the dreaded “traveller’s tummy”.

Filed under: Healthcare, Travel | Posted on August 27th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

In The Spotlight: Multiple-Job Executive Directors:

So what exactly did Theresa May achieve as Prime Minister? According to the Sunday Times on July 21st, she became desperate in her final few days in office to be remembered for more than her “failed Brexit policy”. Which is why, during the week preceding her resignation on July 24th, she announced a flurry of new proposals – among them a law committing the UK to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a £2 billion pay increase for some UK public sector employees.

As a result of what the Daily Mail columnist, Claire Ellicot, described on July 19th as May’s “farewell gift”, police officers, dentists and consultants will get 2.5% more, soldiers 2.9%, teachers and other school staff 2.75% and senior civil servants 2%. Quite how the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and his Chancellor, Sajid Javid,will fund this additional expenditure is not yet clear, though as Ellicot noted, the relevant Whitehall departments are likely to be told to find the cash from their existing budgets.

Will this extra money really relieve the financial pressures on the people it is designed to help? A survey conducted by the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), cited by Jamie Grierson, the Guardian’s Home Affairs correspondent, has shown that 9,500 police officers took on second jobs during 2018 because they were struggling to make ends meet. These include a variety of roles such as taxi driving, photography, plumbing, gardening and beauty therapy.

On 17th June, the Oxford Mail journalist, Tom Williams, reported that firefighters in Oxfordshire are being forced to seek second jobs after years without a proper pay rise in order to pay their mortgages and utility bills. Many teachers are having to do likewise, often – as Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the National Education Union told the Guardian’s Donna Ferguson – because their low net pay means they can barely even afford their rent. The Council of British International Schools (Cobis), observed Ferguson, estimates that around 15,000 teachers leave the UK each year to work in education abroad – an exodus, declares Bousted, for which the Government is largely responsible.

The Financial Times commentators, Sarah O’ Connor and Vanessa Houlder, have pointed out that, due to real-term wages having fallen 8% since the financial crisis of 2008, more people across the country are cramming extra work into evenings, weekends and even their lunch hours to supplement their main incomes. A poll of the users of “People per Hour”, a website for online freelancers, has indicated that around 25% are doing extra work to cover a payday loan or credit card bills and another fifth to finance childcare costs.

Ben Chapman, a contributor to the Independent, has cited Henley Business School research that suggests 40% of UK workers have set up a business “on the side” due to the increasing insecurity of their day job. The precise numbers are uncertain as apparently many “moonlighters” don’t declare their second incomes to the tax authorities.

Taking a second job – or even several – has long been standard practice among the UK’s “elite”, for rather different reasons. George Osborne, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, currently has seven, among them as editor of the London Evening Standard, two different roles with Stanford University in California, advisor to the US fund managers Blackrock (for which he’s reputedly paid £650,000 a year working one day a week) and chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

This isn’t unusual: Indeed, the media consultant Peter Cunliffe remarked in an article for The Times that “going plural” has become the fashionable career choice for executives of a certain age. “What could be more agreeable (he asks) than taking on three or four non-executive posts for £60,000 each and flitting from one boardroom to another to dispense wisdom?” Investors, however, he adds, are beginning to rebel against directors who take on too many non-executive roles – a phenomenon known as “overboarding”.

On 14th July, the Guardian highlighted stakeholder concerns that the chairman of Scottish Power Energy (SSE), Richard Gillingwater, may not be devoting sufficient time to the company because he’s also chairman of the £274 billion asset manager Janus Henderson and a director of Whitbread PLC, the UK’s largest hospitality company.

Other prominent business figures and industrialists who have become the focus of comparable disapproval are: Sir Nigel Rudd,chairman of the aerospace and defence group Meggitt as well as of BBA Aviation and Sappi, the Johannesburg-listed paper conglomerate; Barclays Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire who was retired from the board of the department store retailer, Debenhams, in January; ex Diago CEO Paul Walsh who resigned as an HSBC Director following unease regarding his “portfolio of directorships” such as with the Compass Group and Avanti Communications.

Stephen Martin, Director General of the Institute of Directors, has emphasised that organisations need to ensure their board members don’t spread themselves too thinly and have sufficient time available to effectively fulfil their duties. The UK Corporate Governance Code (July 2018) stipulates that candidates for a Board should disclose, prior to their appointment, any other significant business commitments they may have.

Filed under: Society | Posted on July 29th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The UK’s Fragile Bridges:

This year is the 125th anniversary of London’s Tower Bridge. It was inaugurated, after 8 years of construction work, on 30th June 1894 in a “lavish ceremony” by the then Prince and Princess of Wales. Building it was considered essential for the million people living in the eastern part of the capital, who had either to take a ferry to cross the River Thames or use London Bridge, which 128,000 pedestrians did every day. By comparison – as the official Tower Bridge guide has noted – the 2.3 million residents living to the west of London Bridge had 12 bridges up to Hammersmith at their disposal.

Promotional material issued by the Kallaway PR company has hailed Tower Bridge as “London’s defining landmark, one of the capital’s most iconic attractions”. The bridge, however, has had it’s problems: In 2016, it was closed to road traffic for three months so extensive repairs could be carried out. Its owners, the City of London Corporation, pointed out at the time that “The bridge carries around 40,000 people, including 21,000 vehicles a day. This heavy use had had an effect on the timber decking. Maintenance is also required on the lifting mechanism and the waterproofing of the brick arches”.

This is not an unusual situation to arise with London’s bridges. Most of them (apart from the steel suspension pedestrian-only Millenium Bridge, linking Bankside with the City of London) date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Westminster Bridge, for example, opened in 1750; Putney (1729), Battersea (1771), Vauxhall and Waterloo (1817), Hammersmith (1827), Chelsea (1858), Albert (1871), Wandsworth (1873).

Putney Bridge was closed for essential repairs from the 14th July – 25th September 2014. More recently and controversially, since 10th April motorists and seven bus services have been banned from using Hammersmith Bridge after safety checks revealed “critical faults”, though access remains available for pedestrians and cyclists. The Evening Standard’s City Hall Editor, Ross Lydall, has quoted estimates by the New Civil Engineer magazine (NCE) that the repairs could take three years, cost around £100 million and indeed that the bridge may never be re-opened to motorists. The main issue is where the money will come from: Government budget cuts have left both Hammersmith & Fulham Council (LBHF) and Transport For London (TfL) seriously short of funds.

Greg Hands, the MP for Chelsea and Fulham has however insisted that keeping the bridge permanently shut to motorists is not really an option: “There is a massive impact on communities like Fulham and Putney from diverted traffic”, he told Lydall. The leader of Wandsworth Council. Clr Ravi Govindia, agrees vociferously with Hands and has criticised LBHF for failing to keep their bridge in good working order – as a result of which it’s calculated that Putney Bridge now experiences 4,000 extra vehicles every day, Wandsworth Bridge 2,000 more and Battersea Bridge an additional 1,000:“The Nitrogen Dioxide pollution levels on Putney High Street, which we had managed to control and reduce, have now gone up by 4% and all this extra traffic is having a devastating effect on our roads, bridges and the surrounding areas”.

On 11th July, the NCE journalist, Katherine Smale, highlighted the fact that the backlog for maintaining London’s roads now exceeds £1billion. She noted that, in the opinion of the London Technical Advisors Group (LoTAG), the capital is getting an unfair maintenance deal from the Government, that its road network is suffering from “chronic underinvestment” and that other English authorities are being granted a much more favourable annual financial arrangement: “London boroughs and TfL are doing their best, using their own budgets, but if the current funding conditions remain, the future state of the capital’s infrastructure is clear: Failing highways, more potholes and more closed bridges”.

In fact, most councils across the country appear to be facing similarly difficult circumstances. On 7th January, the Transport Network correspondent, Dom Browne, reported that there are almost 3,500 council-maintained road bridges in the UK which are considered to be substandard. He was quoting from a survey conducted by the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) Foundation with the help of the National Bridges Group of ADEPT (The Association of Directors of Environment, Economics, Planning and Transportation) which infers, for example, that 18 of the 34 bridges in the London Borough of Lewisham, 2 of the 4 owned by LBHF and all of the 25 in Redbridge in the east of London, are in some way deficient.

Substandard” is defined as being unable to support the heaviest vehicles now seen on Britain’s roads, including lorries of up to 44 tonnes. The analysis found that an estimated £6.7 billion is needed to bring all these bridges back up to perfect condition – but that budget restrictions mean that the “economically-straightened” councils anticipate only 370 of these will have the necessary work carried out on them within the next five years.

Filed under: Society, Travel | Posted on July 16th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Tussle To Control The Steering Wheel:

If you’re travelling by car to the beach, the countryside or abroad this summer, who will be in charge of the vehicle and making most of the decisions? The obvious answer would seem to be whoever is doing the driving – but a recent investigation conducted by Privilege Car Insurance, cited by the Sunday Times on 28th May, has indicated that this is often not at all the situation. On the contrary, the survey of 2,000 motorists revealed that arguments invariably break out between them and their passengers within 18 minutes of the start of the journey – the biggest reason initially being about which route to take and “bickering over whether to turn left or right”.

As Gil Warburton, a contributor to the Car Leasing UK website commented with some puzzlement on 27th May. “These days, with many of us using sat-nav’s to find the way to our destination, you’d have thought that peace and harmony would finally have taken over in our cars. But maybe we just love to quarrel with each other”. Warburton also observed that a third of the people questioned stated that, outside of the home, the car is the place where they feel most stressed.

Charlotte Fielding, the head of Privilege Car Insurance, has pointed out that although tensions can arise from apparently trivial issues such as the occupant of the other front-seat rummaging through the glove compartment, the main cause tends to be advice being offered by one or more passengers in the back of the car. defines a “backseat driver” as a person who spends much of the trip in an unofficial co-pilot role, vociferously criticising the skills of the actual driver, shouting instructions to him or her and issuing superfluous warnings about potential or imagined road hazards. Lewis Kemp, a marketing official with Connect Insurance, notes that it’s usually someone who would prefer to be in control of the car rather than sitting as a passenger.

Kemp provides a list of 25 types of behaviour associated with such people, among them: Complaining that the driver is going too fast (or slow) or is too close to the vehicle in front; telling the driver which lane they should be in; pressing an imaginary brake pedal; getting impatient at traffic lights; disagreeing with the SatNav; clasping their hands over their face or closing their eyes frequently; gasping at any slight braking; loudly reading out road signs; complaining whenever the car is stuck in traffic or that the ride is too bumpy.

Data from a different survey, of 1000 motorists, carried out by Budget Insurance, suggests that one in five of people in Britain consider their partner to be a terrible driver – so much so that 26% of them refuse even to get into the car with them and 68% who are reluctantly prepared to do so a “ bite their tongue when their partner makes a blunder, to avoid a confrontation”.

According to Budget Insurance, men get upset with their partner if they drive in the wrong gear or too slowly, lack confidence to overtake other cars, take too long to get out of a junction, brake too late or too hard and park too far from the kerb. Whereas (they say), women get annoyed with their partner if they tailgate (are too near the car in front), drive too fast – especially in country lanes or on motorways, put up the music on the radio to a high volume, continuously honk the horn, dangerously overtake other cars or indulge in road rage.

Michelle Megna, a correspondent for has quoted another investigation, commissioned by the company, which found that 40% of husbands say their wives are the most annoying backseat drivers, followed by friends (17%) and mothers (15%) and that 34% of wives regard their husbands as their most irritating passengers, followed by mothers (18%) and friends (15%). Included in’s compilation of annoying passenger attitudes are: making faces and gestures, blocking the rear view mirror, grabbing the car’s handles, getting car sick, telling the driver to turn when it’s already too late and giving incorrect directions.

Yet another survey of 2,000 motorists, this time by the car insurance retailer Swinton, has concluded that men are officially the worst backseat drivers because they adopt bullying tactics to compensate for the fact that have been removed from the dominant role of controlling a car- consequently 68% of all the drivers questioned declared they’d prefer to have women as passengers.

The UK’s Highway Code specifies that drivers should “avoid distractions such as trying to read maps, tuning the radio, eating, drinking or smoking and arguing with passengers”. Concentration, it emphasizes, is of paramount importance. Statistics for 2018 provided by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) show that there are 38.2 million licensed vehicles in Great Britain – 4.5 million of which are light or heavy goods vehicles, 1.2 million motorcycles, but with the overwhelming majority, 31.5 million (82.5%) being private cars.

Filed under: Travel | Posted on June 18th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Fingerprints (Almost) Never Lie:

When you go shopping, how do you pay for your purchases? Possibly with cash, if the amount is small. However, for a larger expenditure, you’re more likely to use your debit or credit card, either by entering your pin number or, if your card is “contactless”, waving it in front of the terminal. As we’re all aware, this latter option in particular involves risks: If you mislay your contactless card, anyone who finds it can then use it without having to provide identification.

As the Daily Mail journalist, Charlie Bayliss has noted, statistics provided by the UK Finance organization indicate that there has been a significant surge in contactless fraud, hence their advice that banks in Britain should not increase the existing limit of £30 for such payments. In many other countries, the limit is even less. For example, Spain (£17.90), Chile (£13.65), Brazil (£10.50), Italy (£22.47), although in the USA it’s higher – £78. Several UK banks have now come up with what they consider to be the ideal solution.

On 24th April, the Daily Mail columnist Joe Pinkstone, reported that NatWest is launching “Britain’s first biometric bank card which will allow people to verify payments over £30 just with their fingerprint and so without having to enter their PIN.” They will have to first arrange with their bank for their fingerprint to be converted into an encrypted digital template to be stored on the card, which they can then slot into any retailer’s terminal while placing their finger (or thumb) on the embedded sensor.

The technology has been developed together with the digital security company Gemalto, Visa and Mastercard, successfully tested in South Africa and “makes use of features that are naturally unique from person to person, so is thought to be much more secure than traditional authentication methods”.

According to research conducted by Purdue University in America and INHA University in South Korea – cited by the Guardian’s Money Editor, James Coney on 12th May – there is one “small problem” with this new system. Fingerprints fade as people get older, especially after they reach their sixties, due to the fact that the skin becomes thinner, and less moist. These “friction ridges”, as they are known by the experts, are found not only on our finger-tips, but also on our palms, our toes and the soles of our feet.

The BBC News magazine has pointed out that, although these patterns are durable and supposedly permanent, they can wear down. Builders who lay bricks, people who work with abrasive materials or frequently wash dishes by hand can lose some of the detail: “Labourers could also find their fingerprints are not recognised by new high-tech equipment. They are not alone: Typists, pianists, violinists and guitarists also face potentially inaccurate readings”.

The fingerprint expert, Raymond Broadstock, has emphasised that trying to change your fingerprints artificially – for instance by burning the finger-tips with fire and acid, as the American gangster, John Dillinger, did in the 1930’s – only works for a while, as the skin eventually grows back.

Another criminal, Robert Phillips, grafted skin from his chest to his fingers to erase his fingerprints – but was identified from the prints of his palms, which are also unique. “Others have tried smoothing their finger-tips with glue and nail-varnish. Again, they were caught from palm prints”, Even identical twins who have the same DNA have different fingerprints.

Although checking fingerprints to solve crimes might seem to be a relic of the past and to belong more to the era of Sherlock Holmes, it is still – according to IMI Data Search – “one of the best ways we have to track down offenders”. The Federal Bureau Of Investigation (FBI) in America now deploys “Advanced Fingerprint Identification Technology (AFIT) which, it insists, “increases the accuracy and daily fingerprint processing capacity and improves system availability”.

Most Latin American countries require a fingerprint on their ID cards so that public and private institutions can verify immediately if the bearer is the person they claim to be. The European Commission has now also proposed that identity cards held by European Union (EU) citizens should be required to include two elements of biometric data: an image of two fingerprints and a facial image. The objective, it declares, is “to eliminate paper-based identity documents that are easy to falsify and can be used to enter the bloc from non-EU countries”.

This development is vehemently opposed by the civil liberties group, Statewatch as “unnecessary and unjustified”. More than half of EU Member States, it observes, “don’t currently collect their citizens’ fingerprints to store on identity cards, so hundreds of millions of people will become subject to this disproportionate measure. It should be rejected by the European Parliament and Council”.

In Germany, nationals can choose whether or not to have finger-print data on their ID cards. In Belgium, it will be added as from October 2019. In Spain, new ID cards already include fingerprints. There’s no obligatory ID card system in the UK.

Filed under: Society | Posted on June 4th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Limited Rights Of Airline Passengers:

If you’re taking a plane to go on holiday this summer, will you pay close attention to the safety instructions given by the cabin crew before take-off? Possibly not, if you’ve heard it all many times before. As the Daily Telegraph’s travel writer, Lizzie Porter, has noted, airline staff are not legally required to oblige people on board to take notice of their announcements, though they “can intervene if rowdy passengers are preventing others from listening”. Porter suggests it makes good sense to be familiar with the action you should take take in the event of an emergency and to check, for example whether there is really a life jacket under your seat. She quotes George Hobica, the founder of, who told the Huffington Post that “A plane might make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could take a life jacket as a souvenir”.

Professor Robert Bor, an aviation clinical pyschologist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, has acknowledged on “Sky Library”that there is a lack of awareness among many passengers as to why certain procedures should be followed: “Most people have little understanding as to why they shouldn’t stand up until the seat belt sign has been switched off”. He agrees that, because flying has become so routine, the airlines need to find more effective ways of delivering their messages – not least because research has shown that 40% of passengers don’t want to be informed about risk and safety since they’d really prefer not to be on the plane at all and are suppressing their anxieties.

Bor’s colleague on Sky Library, the aviation consultant John Barrass, considers that the challenge airlines face is to minimise the threat posed by recalcitrant passengers and engage with them in promoting and enhancing safety. He refers to an occasion when he was on a flight descending to Los Angeles airport: “Even while the cabin crew were reminding passengers not to switch on their mobile phones, I looked around and saw that many people were already busy sending texts to announce their arrival”.

This reluctance to comply with the rules can sometimes result in airlines taking extreme action. A recent case reported by the Guardian on 9th May involved a “wealthy-looking woman with a Louis Vuitton handbag” seated in an exit row who was removed from an Air New Zealand flight en route from Wellington to Auckland because she refused to watch an air safety video or read an instruction card handed to her and put her fingers in her ears to indicate she had no intention of listening.

The most notorious recent episode occurred in April 2017 when a Vietnamese-American doctor, David Dao, suffered concussion, a broken nose and lost two front teeth while being forcibly removed from a United Airlines plane by Chicago Department of Aviation police due to his refusal to give up his seat to a crew member who would be accompanying the flight but not working on it. In the opinion of the Fox News legal analyst, Andrew Napolitano, Dao had paid for the ticket, was in his seat and had every right to stay there. However, Timothy Ravich, an aviation law professor at the University of Central Florida, has pointed out that passenger rights are limited under the “contract of carriage” system and that airlines have the authority and power to remove people against their will if they choose to do so.

According to the Sun journalist, Becky Pemberton, there are many situations in which you can be “booted off” a flight. Among them (she asserts): American Airlines gives its staff the freedom to eject passengers who smell strongly; Delta Airlines may refuse people who are so overweight that they can’t fasten their seatbelt; Jet2 staff will not allow anyone on board wearing t-shirts displaying offensive language. A group of 18 women on their way to a “hen party” in Magaluf were apparently kicked off a Jet2 plane for that reason.

Other examples: A passenger forced off a Ryanair flight from Rome to Milan because they refused to move their metre-long toy crocodile which was blocking an emergency exit (The Metro); another who attempted to take a squirrel onto a Frontier Airlines flight to Cleveland (The Daily Beast); a third because they berated a Donald Trump supporter on a plane going from Baltimore to Seattle ( Daily Mail); a fourth who complained vociferously when she was put next to a mother with a crying baby”(The Sun): a fifth who “launched into a tirade” about being seated between two fat people on a United Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Newark NJ ( News).

Nevertheless, the latest UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) statistics show that despite the number of departures from Britain’s airports increasing by 8.9% between 2016 -2018, the number of disruptive passenger incidents has remained relatively stable: 415 in 2016, 417 in 2017 and 413 in 2018.

Filed under: Travel | Posted on May 21st, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Uncertain Future Of Britain’s Public Libraries:

When was the last time you used your local council library? Is there one near you that you can go to? The Reading Agency (RA) emphasises on its website that anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow books free from public libraries, so as to ensure that “everyone can have equal access to the power and pleasure of reading, information and ideas”.

The latest available statistics provided by the RA (for 2017/18) show that there are 3,618 public libraries, including mobile ones, in the UK with 15,483 staff who cater for 8 million active borrowers and issue almost 183 million books each year. During the 12 months cited, 58% of 5-10 year-olds, 72% of 11-15 year-olds and 36% of adults (of whom 38% were women and 27% were men)visited a public library .

The RA states that “72% of people in England think that libraries are an essential or very important service to the community, with 22% regarding them as fairly important”. The website has observed, however, that whenever a library is threatened with closure, “community groups and public figures spring into action to save it” yet simultaneously far fewer people are now using libraries than in the past.

This continuing trend has been attributed by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) to the “catastrophic’ scale of library closures resulting from £66 million being “slashed from libraries’ budgets as part of the Government’s austerity programme, which is turning the sector into a “war zone” and making it difficult to recruit staff.

As Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of CIPFA, has pointed out, in order for public libraries to be able to thrive, local authorities need adequate and sustainable levels of funding. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has responded to the criticism by insisting that the government is “completely committed” to helping libraries to prosper and that it recognises the “important place they have in communities across the country”.

The “Top Five” most visited public libraries (according to “The Bookseller”) are: the Library of Birmingham, Central Library Manchester, Wembley in Brent, Woolwich Central Library in Greenwich and Croydon Central Library.

One way libraries have traditionally been able to augment their finances, of course, has been to levy fines for books that have been borrowed and then returned late. The amounts involved, though, are fairly modest. Lewisham Council,London’s “standard overdue charge” for customers aged 14-59 is 20p per day (maximum £10) and for senior citizens / over 60’s it’s 10p per day (maximum £10).

The rates are similar elsewhere in the capital and Hackney Council, for example, has a policy of no fines at all for anyone aged under 18. Last year, Trafford Council in Greater Manchester abolished the fines altogether with the objective of removing all barriers to its residents accessing its libraries. Hatton Council in Cheshire did likewise as from 8th January, for the same reason.

There have been several recent cases of books being returned many years after they were due back: On 4th January, BBC News reported that a copy of the crime novel “A Touch Of Danger” by James Jones which had been borrowed from the central library in Aberdeen in Scotland in 1978 had just been taken back: “Luckily for the person concerned, the fine was capped at £3.60”.

On 19th April, the Guardian journalist, Sarah Marsh, highlighted the reappearance of “The Manual of Daily Prayers and Litanies” by Jeremy Taylor, handed in anonymously after 43 years to the Royal Holloway University library – which estimated the accumulated fine to be worth about £6,278. As Marsh’s colleague, Alison Flood, has noted, this was still far less than the £209,000 theoretically owed for “The Law Of Nations” by Emer de Vattel, borrowed by the first US President, George Washington, in 1789 and returned to the New York Society Library 221 years later.

Universities tend to be much stricter regarding library items returned or renewed after the due date. As with many of its counterparts elsewhere in the UK, Kings College London charges 10p for each day beyond a stipulated 4-week loan period; 30p per day in excess of a one-week loan; £5 per hour or part of an hour for laptops and 50p per hour or part of an hour for headphones. If the amount owed reaches £20 or more, borrowing rights are suspended until the total is reduced to less than £20.

Research conducted by the Press Association a few years ago and cited in the Guardian revealed that Britain’s universities had collected almost £50 million in library fines over a six-year period. Top of the list was the University of Leeds with £1,2869,340, followed by Manchester (£1,299,342), Wolverhampton (£1,252,253), Kings College London (£1,197,715) and Hertfordshire (£1,147,238). The University of Westminster apparently doesn’t fine its students for returning library books late but instead bans them from using the library for the length of time the books were overdue. The investigation also indicated that many UK universities bar students from graduating until they’ve paid their library debts.

Filed under: Society | Posted on May 7th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »


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