Sunday, 29 March 2009

Worcestershire Sauce

As Jacqui Smith deals with the inevitable public disquiet about the UK taxpayer footing the bill for her husband to watch a couple of blue movies in the privacy of their (second) home in Redditch, Worcestershire, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for our Home Secretary.

I'm pleased to say, however, that I've managed it.

My own approach to MP's expenses is grounded in my years of toil in the cut-throat world of provincial journalism. It was cast after a fateful carpeting at the hands of the Stockport Sentinel's firm but fair editor, Wally Green. He raised his (famously bushy) eyebrows when, as a nervous, wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter (fresh from secondary school) I presented him with my first ever expenses claim.

I can still hear his stentorian tones as he scanned the carefully-typed sheet with barely-concealed contempt. "Mr Blunt!" he exclaimed, causing his secretary to look up from her typing and prepare herself to enjoy the imminent onslaught. "Since when did the vicar of St Olafs need three pints of stout and a whisky chaser to be persuaded to reveal the takings at the annual Jumble Sale? Do you think our accountants are imbeciles?"

A lesson learned early in life is one that should stay with you forever, and I'm pleased to say that, since that day, I've been altogether more meticulous in my expenses claims. Under Wally's expert guidance, I soon learnt how to draft them so they would pass across the accountant's desk with scarcely a murmur. The Miracle of St Olaf was to magic stout into sherry.

Any sympathy for Second Home Secretary Mrs Smith is hard to muster. It takes a certain lack of skill to be unable to hide the cost of a couple of pay-per-view movies in the vast pile of cash that MPs are able to claim in expenses each year. Surely Mrs Smith and her husband (employed by her, at public expense, for an estimated £40k per year) can do better than that?

We can all learn from this sorry episode. I'm sure that Wally Green, were he alive today, would have been happy to advise MPs on how to effectively massage their claims so as to make the bits they don't want the public to see disappear- for a small fee, of course. Or maybe just expenses.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Who Pays The Price When the Watchdog is Put Down?

It's a sad day for the people of Stafford who've lost friends and relatives who had the misfortune to be patients at the town's hospital over the past few years. The Healthcare Commission estimates that 400 more people died there between 2005 and 2008 than would normally be expected - as this BBC news story explains.

I wonder what Alan Milburn thought when he heard the news? Milburn it was who promoted the abolition of local Community Health Councils, which had the right to visit and inspect local hospitals, and report on their findings. Since they disappeared in 2003, responsibility for local monitoring passed to Patients Forums (which took a year or two to set up and begin working even reasonably effectively) and then, more recently, to Local Involvement Networks (LINks).

During all this re-disorganisation, local NHS managers have effectively had free rein to pursue their policies without interference from pesky people from the community. What has happened at Stafford shows how disastrous such freedom can be. I can't help feeling that a few visits to Stafford Hospital by CHC members (if they still existed) would have spotted such alarming signs as patients who were dehydrated drinking from flower vases...

At least the Healthcare Commission got onto them - in the end. But the Commission is a national body, and can't keep their eye on the ball in every locality.

Feeling thirsty, Alan? Better pour yourself a Pepsi...

Friday, 13 March 2009

Discretion Advised

The news that Ryanair have launched a prize competition for suggestions as to how they can increase revenue from 'discretionary charges' should fill the heart of the travelling punter with dismay.

As if it's not enough that their cheapo fares (often as low as penny) are mysteriously morphed (after taxes, charges, booking fees, insurance and the rest are added) to something approaching fifty quid, the Irish airline are apparently intent on scamming yet more dosh out of us. And there's 1000 Euros up for grabs for the best idea.

I can't complain - I've had my fair share of fare bargains in my time. But I'll bet this man will be quick off the mark to shout. Unless they offer passengers the chance to pay a supplement to fly over Bergerac without stopping, that is...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Surviving The Credit Crunch (2)

Anyone who has ever suffered the ignominy of having a cheque returned by the bank due to there being ‘insufficient funds’ will (perhaps) identify with the financial pressures that have caused me to radically revisit the way I spend money.

In the current economic climate, the recipient of such a returned cheque might be forgiven for thinking that the absence of money was more the fault of the bank running out of dosh than the account holder.

It’s a brave man who tells Bill Blunt to ignore the sirens. I think I know when it’s time to tighten my belt, just like everyone else. I’ve taken a long, hard look at how my money drips away. And, apart from the drink and the fags, it seems that quite a lot of my hard-earned lucre goes on … shampoo.

That’s right. I’m not so proud that I won’t admit to spending a fair wadge of cash each month on both keeping my hair in good trim, and washing it. So began my little experiment.

I decided to forgo my monthly trip to Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow – one of the classiest hair stylists on the Wirral – in favour of a five quid snip from Sharon at Ken’s Kuttery, just down the road. Somewhat surprisingly, I haven’t noticed a great deal of difference in the state of my locks. And, I am pleased to say, neither have any of the ladies who have recently dated me courtesy of GuardianSoulmates.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that even more economies were to be made. It came to me when I considered the utility of shampoo. A Proustian moment in the shower, when I was transported back to my youth, was enough to convince me.

I don’t know exactly how many of my readers are under the age of (shall we say) 40… but anyone older might recall that, when they were children, they regularly had their hair washed with soap. That’s right. A bar of soap brushed across your head was once the closest you'd get to a clean head of hair. So, in an attempt to re-create those childhood days, I treated my mane to a jolly good lathering of soap.

My readers will be pleased to learn that the end result was a head of hair that was thicker, more manageable and, well … generally much better than anything out of a bottle.

Give it a try. You’ll thank me for it. But not before you've sold your shares in Alberto Johnson.

This article first appeared in the Cirencenster Bugle.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Surviving The Credit Crunch

As I quantitatively-eased myself out of bed this morning, ready to face the day with a spot of early worm-catching, I couldn’t help but reflect on how my fortunes have changed over the past year.

While the Government prepares to inject £75 billion into the banking sector in a desperate attempt to get them to lend money again, I began to think it was time to withdraw my hard-earned dosh from the grip of the thieving banksters and slip it under the mattress. In fact, I’m seriously considering setting up my own, on-line bank – I have it in mind to offer investors a seriously good rate of 10% interest a year for five years, so long as they promise to leave their money untouched for a decade. I’m not making any promises about the capital, however, as I’ll be warning anyone who takes a punt (via some suitable small print) that this may be at risk. Sounds fair to me. So, don’t waste your money on pointless consumer purchasers. Send it to me, and I will waste it for you.

Meanwhile, I’m re-organising my assets in the expectation that I might make a jump into property later this year. One thing’s for certain, however: I’ll be by-passing the traditional route of Estate Agents, as my experience of them over a lifetime has not exactly filled me with glee.

Last year, I dated a woman who worked in an estate agency. It didn't last long. Whenever I took her out for a meal she would complain I should be spending more on her. She also seemed to think she got more beautiful with every passing day, and constantly reminded me about the long list of other blokes who were interested in her - some of whom had already viewed and were in a far better position to proceed than I was.

I called it a day when she tried to persuade me to invest in 'some improvements' she wanted to make to her 'bay window', which she thought would increase her value. I saw her the other day. She's looking a little tired and haggard now, and hasn't had a date in months. Thankfully, there are lots of other women on the market just now and, because of that, I think she'll be open to a night in on the sofa with a fish and chip supper, a bottle of Lambrini and a romcom DVD, if I pitch my offer right.

This article first appeared in the Letchworth Chronicle.