Tories and IT procurement: headline-grabbing opportunism

Francis Maude has made the bold statement that the Tories will ban IT projects that cost over £100m. It looks good in the headlines. He said:

“Labour’s IT procurement process has been marked by a catalogue of failures, late deliveries and cost overruns.

“We need a freeze on signing up to yet more failed projects.”

You can read the full story in the Telegraph by following this link.

A week is clearly a long time in Tory politics.

On December 22  I blogged about the £5bn proposal by Lord Hanningfield‘s Tory administration in Essex to hand over the running of services it is unable to provide effectively itself to IBM. You can remind yourself of the story here.

Contrast the Tories’ willingness to talk tough on cash limits on  IT projects at the centre (probably quite sensible knowing how badly some of them have failed), with their example in local government in Essex. Unlike other local authorities, Essex are off-loading services that they clearly believe they are no longer capable of delivering. It strikes me as a comprehensive admission of political failure to deliver. If Maude’s boast is to have any credibility, the sheer untested lunacy of Hanningfield’s project demands robust intervention from Cameron et al.

Just as irresponsible spending on projects in Whitehall needs clamping down on, so local authorities, including Tory Essex, should not receive carte blanche to experiment with innovative IT projects at vast public expense.

Headline-grabbing opportunism is one thing. Dealing with your own IT cowboys is something entirely different.

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Check out your politics – political spectrum quiz

You may or may not have noticed the little chart I’ve added to the sidebar which makes an attempt to place me on the political spectrum. You can get yours (!) by doing this relatively short Political Spectrum Quiz. You don’t have to register and, at the end, you get the necessary code to cut and paste onto your blog or web page, together with some options to automatically add it to your Facebook page (if you have one).

My Political Views
I am a center-left moderate social libertarian
Left: 1.64, Libertarian: 3.29

Political Spectrum Quiz

Finally, there is an option at the end to see which political party is your best fit (you click on the link for It worked me out with hunch #1.

I am so transparent: result for me.

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China and the cruel lesson of the execution of Akmal Shaikh #humanrights #akmalshaikh

Akmal Shaikh - Reprieve

It is a hauntingly normal photograph.

For me, it is a picture of everyday humanity that is about as far as it is possible to get from the sense of dread and horror that must have overtaken Akmal Shaikh upon discovering from his family that he had barely twenty-four hours to live. Following the accounts of events around his final hours, as the increasingly frantic diplomatic scrabbling failed to halt his cruel and unjust execution, I felt a different sort of dread – familiar to me from previous death penalty cases. I have never seen the death penalty as anything other than imhumane – a signature of nations whose values are less civilised than my own. I accept that I might be blinkered in this understanding but I can’t pretend it isn’t so.

In recent days there has been much angry talk of political sovereignty, civilised values, humanity, mercy and the rule of law. Despite my rejection of the death penalty, I agree entirely with the assertion that states are entitled to enforce their laws upon their citizens and those that choose to visit or live within their jurisdiction. Equally, I resent being told by a sovereign state, which does not share my respect for free speech or multi-party representation, that my country has no right to criticise its “judicial sovereignty”.

Actually, it does. And I do.

I would go further and say that there is a moral responsibility on those who share liberal values to speak out in their defence, even if that means criticising other nation states. The alternative is that, in the hot-house of international negotiations, we risk seeing these values – important to our confidence in the legitimacy of our own civil society –  subordinated to priorities of trade and engagement, the manner of that engagement apparently far less relevant than the engagement itself. (I assume that sense of liberal indignation is what led Nick Clegg to make the statement he did following the British Olympic Association’s unsuccessful attempt to contractually gag British athletes from making criticisms of the regime in Beijing during last year’s Olympics – see this article in the Daily Mail.)

And that right is just one element of a tragedy of international misunderstanding between countries whose perspectives on history, justice, sovereignty, liberty and diplomacy are clearly very, very different.

I have no problem stating up front that I see the application of the death penalty to a mentally-ill man as a barbaric act. Reprieve, the British Government, his family and independent witnesses produced a wealth of evidence that Akmal Shaikh was mentally unwell. Reprieve’s report that China had consistently refused a full medical evaluation since April 2009 is particularly shocking. To me, it reveals a regime in Beijing that, contrary to its protestations, is not concerned with a judicial process that fairly recognises the mental capacity of the individual – and that lack of concern is entirely Beijing’s prerogative.  However, Akmal Shaikh’s story, familiar and upsetting, is one of a man made victim twice over: once by traffickers, taking advantage of a mentally incapacitated individual to turn him into a mule; and once by a Government determined to place its domestic propaganda requirements above the requirements of fairness in justice.

I had hoped that the passage of hours and days might lessen the grip of Akmal Shaikh’s execution on my thoughts. However, it hasn’t. Perhaps it has been a conscious mental reaction against a sub-conscious and instinctive desire to obliterate his fate – this awful news story that needs relegating to the back of the mind. However, I find his execution challenging – as a Liberal, as a human being who loves his family, as a man with private dreams and ambitions, as a humanitarian and as a Christian. Also, like others, I was provoked by the disgraceful article by Leo McKinstry in the Daily Mail. McKinstry’s confused and contrary tirade is a potent reminder of the dangers inherent in removing rational, liberal voices from the political conversation. It reads like a cynical and desperate attempt to establish caricatured notoriety as a hard-line social commentator and it brought an old proverb to mind: silence is the voice of complicity. I have no desire to be complicit in McKinstry’s attempts to profit in any way from the execution of a mentally-ill man. And I freely admit that I am also attempting to lay my own particular haunting to rest with words.

Fellow liberals might reflect on the tragic irony that the execution of  Akmal Shaikh was carried out on the anniversary of the birth of William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone,  still years from becoming Prime Minister, used his journey from High Toryism to a radical and reforming Liberalism to condemn the Anglo-China war in 1840 and the opium trade that was its focus. I don’t suppose I was alone in my immediate disbelief when it was reported that the Chinese Embassy in London had released a statement referring to the “Opium Wars” in relation to Shaikh’s execution. I struggled to imagine a comparable situation in Britain where a judicial decision against a foreign national would be influenced expressly by a specific 19th century event.

Yet, part of me knows that, whilst as a country we are not so specific in the way we relate our history to our contemporary decisions, seismic events resonate across decades and shape our perceptions, both as individuals and as a society. No-one would doubt the impact of two World Wars on how we see ourselves or our European neighbours. The Great War began almost a hundred years ago, yet each year we remember its fallen. The Second World War still informs the cod-machismo of pub conversations. With that in mind, it is not so surprising that events to which we were a party, but that hold a different significance in the Chinese national conscious, are remembered vividly after just a further forty-odd years. In that understanding comes another, uncomfortable as it is: defence of liberal values does not preclude the responsibility to understand a state whose values are apparently so different. Quite the reverse, to my mind. Liberalism professes a profound internationalism and that obliges its adherents to understand and to identify, honestly, how a relationship can be developed that prevents a similar tragedy occuring in future. Remembering of course that explanation is not justification, perhaps we should not be so incredulous regarding the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China.

That recognition of the impact of historical events was signalled in the diplomatic phrasing of the two statements issued by the Chinese following Akmal  Shaikh’s execution, neither of which made direct reference to the Opium Wars (but which was made apparent in the Telegraph’s more hysterical translation – see above):

The recognition of threat that China poses to established positions of economic primacy, its self-acknowedged isolation from the world, the incomprehensibility of its vastness of geography and population compared to the United Kingdom, all appear to have helped skew attempts to fully understand China and its emergence onto the world stage.

Fu Ying, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, made a low-key but significant speech to the English Speaking Union on 14th December 2009 that bears re-reading. It is a recognition by China of the lack of understanding that exists between itself and Western nations:

I wonder if we forget even the basic political differences when it comes to negotiations such as those in Copenhagen? China is not a democracy. It is not the USA. It is not the UK. It is not India. It is not Russia. It does not see internal political competition as positive, however inadequately it is expressed in some countries. It is, still, a self-professed communist country, that retains myriad bureaucratic networks that obscure information and confound individual expression. Even economic reforms are restricted by political caution and the vast inequalities between rural, industrialised and commercialised areas. China, unable to resist the march of technology and the coincidence of interest in averting environmental disaster, is having to learn how to deal on the traditional diplomatic stage, just we are having to re-learn how to deal with China outside of a Cold War paradigm we can control. China speaks a political language that we in the West have forgotten in the twenty years since the Berlin wall came down.

Copenhagen is the starkest evidence of this failure of understanding. Whether Copenhagen failed because of a Western trap, as John Lee asserts, or because China was determined to protect its economic interests at all costs, as Mark Lynas suggests, we do not yet know how to talk to China and explain our priorities – and why those priorities matter.

To my mind, the execution of Akmal Shaikh is an extension of that failure.

As a Liberal, as a human being who loves his family, as a man with private dreams and ambitions, and as a humanitarian, I am appalled by China’s execution of this father of five, the mentally-ill victim of drug-traffickers who was denied access to even a basic evaluation of his mental health.  However, as a Liberal, as a human being who loves his family, as a man with private dreams and ambitions, and as a humanitarian, I believe I need to understand China better, so that, should the opportunity present itself in some small way, I can show more clearly why I adhere to the beliefs I do – and demonstrate their intrinsic value.

As a Christian, quietly sharing the sentiments above, I am left reflecting on the intolerable cruelty of Akmal Shaikh’s lonely and forsaken grave – a cold world away from his wife, five children and the taxi business he used to run in North London.

Akmal Shaikh's unmarked grave - N/A

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PAVIS, Basildon Council and The Institute of Fundraising – cheque it out #cheques #fundraising #poverty

Jane Lutton’s comment to my previous article on cheques has prompted me to write another little piece.

Jane works for PAVIS Foundation for Visually Impaired People, a small registered  charity set up in 1998 that provides a tremendous range of services for those with sight difficulties. Jane’s concern is that it is this sort of charity – and I think that there must be hundreds around the United Kingdom – that will be disadvantaged by the removal of cheques, as proposed by the Payments Council [see this summary note for a reminder of the plans].  If PAVIS cannot identify the resources to invest in direct debit facilities to manage donations, then I presume that, if it can no longer raise the necessary funds, then this is a charity whose very existence could be determined by the usability and cost-effectiveness of any cheque replacement.

It is the threat to vulnerable individuals that concerns me most.

For instance, the Conservative administration at Basildon Council has decided that it is no longer cost-effective to provide housing benefit by cheque and so has announced it is to withdraw that option. The Cabinet member with responsibilities for resources, Cllr Phil Turner, claims it costs £10 to process each cheque, making it too expensive. In a further telling comment, he explains that it is more convenient for the claimant. It is refreshing to see that for all of Cameron’s Conservatives’ pretence at reinvention and identification with modern Britain, its members remain as patronisingly paternal in their treatment of those less fortunate than themselves. They, it would seem, are not entitled to decide what is the most convenient way for them to be paid.

For those who are might be defined as vulnerable, the threat is two-fold.

Firstly, the interplay between the continuing “electronification” of financial services will lead to a particular form of financial exclusion amongst those unwilling or unable to adapt to new technologies. If you think this is a small number of people, Lavinia Mitton’s 2008 study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, entitled Financial Inclusion in the UK: Review of Policy and Practice, will shock you with its reporting of a 2003 review in Scotland that showed that a third of disabled people in Scotland did not even have a current account with a cheque book. (There are two other superb studies on the JRT website, both ten years old, that look at financial exclusion: Understanding and combating ‘financial exclusion’ and Family finances in the electronic economy. Both highlight some of the issues that are coming to light in the current debate around cheques.) Andrew Harrop, for Age Concern, was similarly concerned:

“Many older people rely on cheques as their main form of payment and will be very worried about how they will manage if they are withdrawn.

“Our fear is that setting a date will give the green light to banks and retailers to withdraw cheques even earlier than 2018‚ as some already have.  It is vital that before cheques are phased out‚ the Payments Council ensures there is a practical‚ safe‚ paper-based alternative in place which serves the needs of this group.

“Chip and pin is problematic for many older and housebound people and we know 6.4 million over 65’s have never used the internet. Without cheques‚ we are very concerned people will be forced to keep large amounts of cash in their home‚ leaving them vulnerable to theft and financial abuse.

“We are being asked to take on trust that the banking industry will create an alternative people can use‚ but new forms of payment can take a long time to develop and no action has been taken to date.”

Secondly, as Jane’s example shows, there is a very real threat to the plethora of voluntary support services that provide assistance to the vulnerable.

By way of representative organisations, Jane mentions the Institute of Fundraising. In its own words:

“The Institute of Fundraising is the professional membership body for UK fundraising. Its mission is to support fundraisers, through leadership, representation, standards-setting and education, and it champions and promotes fundraising as a career choice.”

Sadly, in their list of top stories in fundraising, the issue of cheques doesn’t feature. This is a significant omission as, whilst it is unlikely that this decision can be reversed, development of a suitable alternative needs to be championed by an organisation that can represent the broad range of interests in fundraising – not just the corporate donors. If you are interested in raising this issue, even to establish their opinion, you can contact the Institute of Fundraising here.

Finally, the Lib Dems have started a group on their new social networking site ACT, which is dedicated to saving the cheque. You don’t have to be a party member to join ACT and the group is called Save The Cheque Campaign.


By way of a small distraction, Cllr Turner’s eagerness to refuse to pay by cheque is not matched by his readiness to refuse payment. Enter “cheque” into the Basildon Council Website  search facility and you produce 41 results (including the press release linked above). If you require reports from planning services, you are instructed to pay by cheque. If you are disabled and eligible for aid, you are instructed to pay the builder by cheque. If you want to get a season ticket you are to fill in a form – and pay by cheque. Paying fines? Cheque is an option. Rebate on your council tax? Basildon can pay this by cheque. I do not know if Cllr Turner is planning to cancel all these facilities shortly or if these cheques are somehow cheaper to process.  If I were less generous, I might think that he is starting with desperate people who will go through whatever Council hoops are forced on them in order to keep a roof over their heads (the comments on the Echo story linked in the main piece suggest that housing benefit claimants are not particularly popular and therefore an easy target for a Council wanting to save some money). Thoughts would of course be appreciated, together with suggestions for questions that should be asked.

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China, Mercy and Akmal Shaikh #amnesty #humanrights #akmalshaikh

It is a sobering email to find yourself sending in the days immediately after Christmas:

Dear Ambassador Fu Ying,

I write to express my deep concern for Akmal Shaikh, who faces execution in China on December 29.

Akmal’s family has pleaded for his life to be spared, and my heart is with them at this terrible time. Akmal’s death, particularly during this holiday season, would destroy his children, his brother and his elderly mother, and tear the family apart.

I know that the Chinese people care deeply about family and I would like to join Akmal’s children in begging for mercy for their father.

This unusual case is not about politics, but about humanity and compassion — values that we share with the Chinese people. My plea to the Chinese authorities is based on the greatest respect for Chinese culture and for these shared values.

yours sincerely,

Ben Williams

If you’ve not done so yet, I would urge you to send it as soon as you can: to the Chinese Ambassador on and to the Prime Minister via the Number 10 website.

The case of Akmal Shaikh makes for tragic reading and one that, having had cause to have contact with mental health services in the UK, is very believable in terms of the circumstances of his arrest and subsequent explanation of events. Chinese criminal law recognises that mental incapacity reduces criminal responsibility, though the stark way it is written up in the Chinese criminal law suggests that there is a tremendous onus on the defendant to demonstrate diminution of responsibility due to mental ill health at the time the crime was committed.

Whilst the lack of facilities for the treatment of mental illness is a constant source of criticism in the British justice system, particularly in terms of prison care (see this BBC report for more info), a huge library of case law has been developed to help with the interpretation of circumstances (e.g. Wiki Mental Health, a continuously updated online database for professionals who need to understand mental health and the law). China has a powerfully symbolic opportunity to reveal a similarly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of mental health. At the same time it would demonstrate that it is prepared to engage the language-deficient West in terms of European liberal democratic criminal law that can be readily understood.

For me, as citizen of country that is looking to foster enhanced trade relations with China’s provinces, and who has found himself having a small but real part in the conversation about such relationships, such a gesture would be a resonant signal that the identification of a shared global future is not some self-justifying, post-colonial Western construct – but a definite objective rooted in the practical, hard-nosed give-and-take of international politics and appreciated by a modern China willing to embrace the world.


Basildon District Council recently took part in a trade delegation organised by Essex County Council. Two councillors and two officers took part in the visit, which was to the Changzhou area of China’s Jiangsu province. It was reported by the Basildon Echo in this report. It was reported to the last Cabinet meeting (see item 7 on the Agenda) and received support as an initiative from both the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups (see Minute 812). Conservative Councillor Stephen Horgan, Deputy Leader of Basildon Council, was a member of that delegation and his blog report can be read here.

On November 7th, prior to the visit, I wrote to Conservative Councillor Tony Ball, Council Leader, raising amongst other things the imprisonment by the Jiangsu authorities of Guo Quan, the pro-democracy campaigner (see this Financial Times report). Guo Quan was the author of an open letter to the Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo calling for democratic government and multi-party elections [NB the later references to Falun Gong are disputed, apparently not appearing in the original Chinese version].  In my email, acknowledging the positive step this trade mission represented for Basildon, I made the following statement:

“As locally-elected politicians, we are the public face of a district that has been politically and economically shaped at a fundamental level by healthy competition between political parties. I hope you share my view that it is important to account for our robust democratic values in any dealings in Jiangsu Province and not see them set aside or devalued because they are in some way inconvenient.”

I don’t know if that statement was pompous, naïve or entirely appropriate.

I am yet to receive a response.

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Syrian regime disappears another journalist – Ma’an Aqil #aqil #labwani #syria

I received a disturbing email from Alkarama this morning.

Ma’an Aqil, a prominent journalist, was arrested on November 22nd. His would appear to be the latest in a wave of intimidation conducted by Syrian security forces against journalists and bloggers.

You can read the report from Reporters sans frontières on this link here: Newspaper journalist is latest victim of wave of arbitrary arrests and trials

Ma’an Aqil had been investigating government and corporate corruption. No surprises there then why the Syrian regime wanted to shut him up.

Friends and supporters of Kamal Labwani will want to make sure this latest detention is brought to people’s attention.

The full press release from Alkarama is below in PDF format (English and Arabic):

Arbitrary Detention of Ma’an Aqil

سوريا: اعتقال السيد معن عاقل

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Tory-run Essex County Council becomes Cameron’s sandbox

IBM takes on services in Essex as part of £5bn privatisation deal

It is one of those headlines that makes you wonder where on earth it will lead. I’ve spent the past hour wondering if my immediate Tweet in response was over the top and a misinterpretation of what is going on:

Essex Tories begin revolutionary dismantling of public services – with Cameron’s full support

It wasn’t.

This is a deal that has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of local government in England. A Cameron win in 2010 could see a revolution in the provision of local services that strangles political differentiation, subjugates community priorities to an ideology of technocratic efficiency – and all whilst reassuring voters that these changes are merely efficient and (of course) apolitical.

Superficially, the attraction is obvious.

Politicians are held in contempt on a national and local level. (Ironically, Lord Hanningfield bridges the gap between the national expenses scandal and the crisis in local service provision in extraordinary fashion, with reports that detectives have sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service alleging fraud, just at the point that Essex County Council, which he leads, is condemned for its appalling record on children’s services.) What better way to score a political victory than to tacitly acknowledge that distrust by placing the delivery of services in the hands of a non-political and widely-respected industry leader such as IBM?

IBM has considerable experience of public service delivery in Canada, as the Times article linked in the headline shows. There is an impressively detailed exposition of its objectives and relationship with Canadian public services in IBM’s paper Service Canada – A New Paradigm in Public Service Delivery. Even a cursory reading demonstrates that IBM’s engagement in Canada is very, very different to what is being reported has been agreed with Hanningfield. Prioritising 21st Century public service delivery in a mountainous, multi-lingual country, that is the second largest in the world, yet the ninth least densely populated, is rather different from the Essex experience (Langdon Hills may boast “one of the most astonishing prospects to be beheld“, but. let’s face it, we’re not exactly talking the Rockies here). Yet even with these laudable objectives, the project has attracted criticism on a variety of levels, for its effect on women, its impact on health care and even concerns for national security. (A google search consisting of “public services” “wholesale privatization” and “canada” is revealing.)

I have no ideological objection to the delivery of public services through the private sector. I believe that the well-considered and appropriate out-sourcing of services and the importation of industry best practice have led to genuine improvements in service. The key to its success is the accountability that comes from having contracts that are carefully scrutinised, regularly reviewed and competitively tendered for.

At the same time, I am very conscious that public services are exactly that: services provided to the public by authorities that should be transparent, prepared for detailed scrutiny and, ultimately, held to account. There is a balance to be struck and the job of local politicians is to strike that balance, serving the needs of those they represent as best they can. Those in opposition draw attention to deficiencies in current services and offer an alternative programme for local priorities.

Ultimately, the people who pay for and use those services decide who they want in charge.

Hanningfield’s wheeling and dealing should send a chill through anyone who still places a value on choice, transparency, accountability, competition and social justice. Companies like IBM don’t invest in technological infrastructure to run services for a couple of years. They expect to be the partner of choice for many. The contract we are told is for eight – well beyond the date of the next County Council elections. And as many will have noticed,  it is measurably harder to extract detailed information from private sector partners, council officers nervously explaining that such information is restricted due to the need to observe commercial confidentiality (actually it isn’t, a lot of the time, but that’s another story).

Couple the Essex example with Tory-run Barnet’s attempts to experiment with ‘no-frills’ local government services – two-tier services that lead to extra charges or rebates depending on how much you need them – and everyone involved in the political conversation of the country should take note:

The Cameron revolution is under way before a single vote has been cast and it shows every sign so far of being as ideological, divisive and destructive as Thatcher’s.

We in Essex and Barnet may be living in Cameron’s sandbox today, but the results of these experiments could inform the local services of everyone tomorrow – for years and year to come.

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Snow and trains and First Class grimness

So Em and I paid the difference to travel first class because it’s nice to have a quiet space before returning to London. (It’s also cheaper to travel first when booked early than it is to travel standard off-peak booked nearer the day. Go figure.)

We don’t do it, however, to listen to some chav family shrieking at the top of their voices for the ENTIRE journey.

Gruesome bunch. Like the Royle family on acid.

Yes. It’s snow. Yes, it is snowing heavily. We have snow down south too.

No. Harry shouldn’t be running up and down the carriage. No. He really shouldn’t. AT ALL.

Parenting skills much?

And now, according to the nice lady on the intercom, the points are frozen. We are stuck here together a little longer. This is my punishment for blogging about them.

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Chequeing Out

Sometimes something can simply not feel right.

Remember the phasing out of Morse Code? It just didn’t sit comfortably.  You can’t argue the case, because the “experts” tell you that it’s been superseded by technology. You feel foolish when it’a pointed out how antiquated it all is. The tech “expert” is the conversational equivalent of the l33t gamer and trying to tell them how to play is going to get you pwnd like a n00b.

Yet, deep inside, the armchair captain in you still knows that when the the computer, the radio and the satellite link-up have failed, you would take more comfort from knowing you could still communicate at a distance with a flash light than from the extremely-expensive-but-now-useless box of WEEE now adorning the bridge. Finally, and long after you’ve been laughed out of the room, a story like that of the MN Rocknes pops up and reminds you that sometimes the old ways of doing things have a flexible benefit all the clever tech in the world can’t beat: Filipinos communicating with Norwegians through the hull of a capsized ship in Morse Code. Now it is the turn of the 350-year-old cheque to be unceremoniously phased out in favour of as yet undeveloped alternatives.

When the Payments Council tried this last year, it found itself facing a less than positive response from small businesses who agreed cheques were inconvenient, but pointed out there wasn’t really a well-developed alternative. It would seem the “experts” in the Payments Council are giving “customer forces” a little nudge in their preferred direction, because, let’s face it, there really isn’t any alternative to a cheque, is there?

Aha, the technorati cry, there are plenty of alternatives! E-mail money transfers! Online payment systems! We can even use our mobiles as alternatives to cheques!

And so this time around, the Forum for Private Business has rolled over.

Nuts. Big fat ones.

Thales is a company that knows a thing or two about electronic communications and financial transactions. They’ve been doing fancy things with MasterCard and something called Advanced Authentication for Chip. Their strategy manager is a chap called Steve Brunswick. It is clear from his blog that even people like Steve haven’t got a clue how they are going to solve this one, really. He makes the brilliantly insightful observation that “Repaying a friend or paying a plumber or gardener for example will be problematic without cheques.”

Whoa! I’d not thought of that! (I’d say your cheque is in the post for Insightful Blog Post Of The Week, but hey, it’s a weak gag.)

What we have here is a familiarly depressing example of how very different groups of people – with very different needs and expectations – participate in the same discussion, but to very different ends. Our “experts” talk in the language of Module Based ID Encryption and “P2P mobile payment solutions” (see Steve’s blog link again for that one). Meanwhile, Mrs Trellis of North Wales doesn’t want to send cash through the post, only has a basic mobile, doesn’t use the internet, but does want to pay that nice chap on the market to frame her pictures and does want to send little Berthog £10 for her birthday. (Berthog is a Welsh name that means “wealthy”. And it is a “her”.)

What does she choose? A cheque.

In the meantime, the Payments Council forces the pace of the getting-rid of a method of payment that is a better leveller of the means of financial exchange than anything other than cash.

I had hoped to point out the finer distinctions between Mrs Trellis and the characters that make up the Board of the Payment Council. Easy enough, I thought.

Mrs Trellis is a single female pensioner and therefore more likely than any other pensioner to be on a low income. Department for Work and Pensions research shows that in 2007-08, the average single female pensioner has just £185 a week left after housing costs. As Mrs Trellis must be almost 80, she will be the wrong side of that average.

By contrast, the Board of the Payments Council is a very different kettle of fish. Curiously, for an organisation which is concerned with all things paymenty, they are very coy about what they are paid.

It is probably a voluntary organisation.

It currently has no Chairman.

So next on the list, by unhappy alphabetical accident, is Michael Alexander, one of the Payment Council’s independent directors. Michael is also Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies, Chairman of TGE Marine AG, Non-Executive Director of Costain Plc, and a member of the European Advisory Board for Landis and Gyr. After several hours of looking, I’ve pretty much given up trying to establish Michael’s weekly take-home pay. Like the Payment Council, there is a general coyness around the sums of money involved. Perhaps they are all voluntary positions. However, deep inside (!) I can’t help feeling that it is probably a little more than £185. Something tells me, too, that it’ll probably be equally hard to obtain the figures for the rest of his colleagues. (My apologies to Michael Alexander – I am just attempting to make a point about the different worlds in which this same conversation is taking place.)

None of this rambling post is meant as an attack on business or somehow a criticism of companies that I am sure will all play a key role in the UK’s recovery from recession. It is, however, trying to point out that the needs of a commercial world that trades in bits and bytes is very different from that of an impoverished pensioner in a part of the country where she may still be struggling to get Channel 5.

The cheque, physical, simple and technologically challenged, is trusted almost as much as cash by those who live simpler, ordinary lives.

And when the cheque goes?

Perhaps it is time to reinvigorate the Postal Order for the 21st Century. For those who are prepared to make the leap to the web, the Postal Order could provide a secure vehicle for non-cash transactions, requiring the sharing of bank/card details with a single provider: the Post Office. Those not comfortable dealing electronically could purchase them from the Post Office, perhaps through little dispensers (like parking ticket machines only rather more pleasant). Properly coded it could place little strain on the banks, provide an approximate solution for those who fear the increasingly virtual nature of our money, and reinvigorate a failing Post Office network at a time when rural and urban  communities alike are looking for a stable community focus.

Finally, late as it is, and prone to conspiracy theories as I am, I will simply remark on the curiosity of discovering what a small world it is. I began this piece knowing nothing about Thales or ATOC. It was only in the writing that I noticed that the former – specialists in cashless, virtual transactions – and the latter, which shares its Chairman of the Board with the Payments Council, have already done a deal of business together. National Rail Enquiries, which is run by ATOC, awarded Thale the contract to design, build and operate DARWIN, the National Real Time Database (NRTD).

I am still learning about how the world of business works.

P.S. Some interesting stuff about cheques:

  1. The world’s largest cheque was probably this one from Zimbabwe.
  2. What is probably the world’s oldest surviving cheque is dated February 16th, 1659 and is made out to a Mr Delboe for £400.
  3. What is probably the world’s smallest cheque at 1.1mm by 1.8mm was presented by Queensland State Minister John Mickell to Griffith University in Brisbane in 2007 – value $6,000,000.

P.P.S. In a further vindication of older technologies, you might recall the story about the Australian museum that staged a run off between an old-school Morse Code telegraph operator and a mobile-phone-using teenage texter?

Go on… You know who won!

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“Right to Buy” and the strange death of the New Town concept

Tim Montgomerie has tweeted that today is the 30th anniversary of the Right to Buy Scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher.  There is no doubt in my mind that it is a policy that has fundamentally altered the shape and original purpose of the New Town concept, creating something of an identity crisis for these sprawling conurbations which local politicians of all parties are struggling to overcome. As suppliers of social housing on enormous scales, the New Towns, like Basildon, were inspired by the concept of  Garden Cities, in a time when big government still believed it could socially engineer society. The New Towns Act was passed in 1946 and, between then and 1970, 21 New Towns were built. In a glorious piece of propaganda, the Central Office of Information attempted to explain the concept of these sustainable living areas in an informative cartoon about an ordinary bloke called Charley:

Many of the concepts are eerily prescient in an era when we are concerned with carbon footprints and quality leaving spaces. It’s important to remember, however, that the New Towns are entirely artificial. Unlike other villages, towns and cities, the New Towns had no historic focal point to draw people together. Indeed, in most cases, a huge amount of effort was put into destroying the character and history of the original area, instead of building in sympathy with it. This parliamentary exchange from 1954, between Mr Bernard Braine (as he was then) and Sir Thomas Dugdale reveals how pressure for development land was paramount. In Basildon, this has led to local people asking serious questions about the origins of the place they live in and fighting hard to save what little remains of the pre-New Town identity (e.g. the efforts of the Chalvedon Hall Community Group).

When places are shiny and new, they are usually attractive places to live. However, a home, in its broadest understanding, is not just the fabric of the building – it is the infrastructure that supports a community: roads, utilities and recreational facilities amongst others. The prospect of a new home and services beyond the imagining must have seemed incredible to those leaving the bomb-shattered ruins of the East End. However, with the provision of social housing on unprecedented scales as the foundation of the New Town, it seems obvious with hindsight that  “Right to Buy” would have an enormous effect on their purpose and future expansion.

Don’t get me wrong: “Right to Buy” and its promotion of home ownership encapsulates a fundamentally liberal aspiration. I wouldn’t suggest turning back the clock. However, by encouraging the social housing stock to be sold off, without permitting local authorities to use the proceeds of sale to provide new social housing,  Thatcher effectively destroyed this visionary concept of confident, sustainable communities.  On a social level, the gap between those who could afford to buy and those who could not became immediately visible in the heart of local communities.  On a planning level, physical expansion was required to attempt to meet the needs of those who had been promised a home but for whom there were few council properties available.

Skip forward thirty years and look at the situation of the New Towns now.

Just as they were built at a similar time, their infrastructure is coming to the end of its life at the same time. What would have been an incredible headache for local and national government in any event has been exacerbated by the pressure placed on New Town roads, services and utilities. Doctors surgeries overflow, roads and footpaths crumble, drains and pipes block and burst as capacity is exceeded – and new development encroaches more and more onto the green belts that were designated to provide recreational relief from the urban environment, preserve the distinct identity of urban communities and retain a much-needed connection to our environment. There is a danger in the South East, with regional initiatives such as the Thames Gateway redevelopment, that towns and villages may simply disappear into an anonymous morass of urban sprawl. Government risks failing again to grasp that communities are self-determining and not engineered, spending vast quantities of taxpayers’ money on enormous and totemic projects instead of stimulating the local economy by assuring the basic fabric of the places in which we already live.

“Right to Buy” is not to blame for the ills of the New Town. However, just as we can appreciate the liberation of the individual and the creation of opportunities to satisfy aspiration that it represented, so we should recognise that the fundamental mistakes of its implementation, driven by Thatcher’s peculiarly ideological politics, have contributed significantly to the difficulties faced by local government in sustaining these enormous and artificial conurbations. More importantly, and regardless of government (local and national), the fact that local communities are determined to preserve their past is a reassuring demonstration of the hunger of local people to know and own the identity of the wider space in which they live.

If you are interested in the campaign to save Great Chalvedon Hall, please contact Gary on who will be able to let you know how you can help.

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