04 October 2008

J.K.Rowling, the Labour Party and the Prince of Darkness

So let me get this straight, J.K.Rowling donates a ton of money to the Labour Party and a few weeks later, "he who cannot be named is back".


The Prince of Darkness plotting his next move

a government minister, yesterday

28 September 2008

Twestival Twestival Twestival

@bmje got there first by describing Twestival as a "real tweet" and Mike Butcher has written an excellent post highlighting the raw energy of the event and compared it to the staid proceedings the night before for VC of the year awards, but having taken my trusty flip along to this cracking event, I thought a bit of video blogging was in order and this is the first chance I've had following a busy week and weekend (Wednesday night was Bootlaw, Friday was Minibar - parents' 40th wedding anniversary - and sunshine - this weekend). Even so, I only managed this VERY rough cut with nothing fancy going on such as subtitles...

People to look out for include Benjamin Ellis (@bmje - he has been warned), Jake Stroud (aka Stride aka @jstride), Amanda Rose (@amandita), mad bloke from Geneva (@nuts!) who has sent 36000 tweets, Nick Halstead (@nickhalstead) and Sophie Cox (@sophiecox) discussing the meaning of Twestival, @mbites bidding for a book - and the best bit of all, the live performance by @Ihatemornings - brilliant musician Ben Walker - of the Twitter Song, who kindly gave me permission to upload this footage. Also, bits of Hermione (@hermioneway) dancing a bit madly.

and bits of yours truly - @danversbaillieu

26 September 2008

David Milliband - Separated at birth?

I have just started watching Prison Break on iTunes (having loaded up my iPod for the trip to NYC - but never had time to watch the stuff I put on it). Is it just me, or does the lead actor, Wentworth Miller, really look like David Milliband?


You tell me.

22 September 2008

The Cognitive Surplus

Last week Clay Shirky was at Web 2.0 in NYC but I missed his keynote. Looking for it on Blip.tv, I ended up watching his keynote to the same conference in SF in the Spring. It strikes a chord with me - particularly as it explains that, amongst other things, this blog is a result of the "cognitive surplus" being put to better use than watching TV - although I do have the Ryder Cup highlights on in the background as I type this, so I am not sure where that leaves us. However, if you have got a spare 15 minutes (and according to Clay, you certainly do), I would recommend you watch it also:

20 September 2008

Digital Mission - The Movie

At the suggestion of Hermione Way, who recently declared me to be a "cool lawyer" I purchased a Flip camera last week when I was in New York. I managed to grab a few seconds with some of the Digital Mission companies - and here is the result. Many thanks especially to Sam Michel and his team at Chinwag for organising such a great week.

16 September 2008

Digital Mission and when good government is above party politics

This week I am lucky enough to be in New York with 21 British companies who are taking part in Digitial Mission 08. We are hitting the Web 2.0 Expo tomorrow and have already been furiously networking with New York's techno-, digi- and glitterati - and sacrificing our livers for the cause of British exports. You can find out more on the Chinwag Blog, or follow @digitalmission on Twitter for more stories from the front line.

Digital Mission has been promoted by UKTI and has direct support from Tom Watson MP, junior Cabinet Office Minister and notable political blogger and twitterer.

I was pleased to have a chance to meet Tom before the Mission got properly underway, having got to NYC a few hours before the main group, a few of us headed to the rooftop bar at the Hudson Hotel and downed one or two beers whilst admiring the sparkling city above and beneath us. Anyone interested in the power of Web 2.0 - not just social networking, but better web applications - to improve government and society should be reassured that someone like Tom is in government and trying to do something with this revolutionary technology. His enthusiasm in describing the project which resulted in the excellent web service for car tax discs online - or his excitement at having met Clay Shirky earlier that day- is truly refreshing- even for a "raging Tory" such as me.


Tom Watson MP address the Digital Mission crew - DB listening intently
Photo from Flikr (Benjamin Ellis) Some rights reserved

The fact that he engenders such loathing amongst the Tory blogosphere (take this example from Iain Dale - particularly the comments) is no doubt because he is capable of being an old school political bruiser - and could certainly pass for a nightclub bouncer. These skills are probably highly valued by Gordon Brown who apparently calls him at all sorts of anti-social hours, and have resulted in his "enforcer" role in government. But, he is clearly very bright and passionate about good government in a way that transcends party politics - there is nothing right or left wing about Web 2.0 in government - and for that I am glad he is in a position of influence. Not to say of course, that I will not hesitate to help the Tories depose him and the rest of the sorry lot currently in power... funny thing politics.

UPDATE - Tom thank you for the comment, however, my name is Danvers, not David....

01 September 2008

Reforming the congestion charge

Followers of this blog will know that I have a minor obsession with the workings of London's congestion charge regime. Recently, I have had the relatively pain free experience of moving my resident's discount over to a new car (although there seemed to be no practical way of not getting charged for at least one of the cars on the change over day itself, which seemed a bit unfair), so am feeling relatively well disposed to the process side of the charge, even though I remain opposed to it in principle.

You can therefore imagine my excitement when I saw today that our great mayor, Boris, has started the consultation exercise about the reform of the western zone (press release here). Not that I mind that the leaflet is written in turgid civil service prose, rather than in a more elegant style befitting Boris, but I am sorry to see that the options for reform are so unimaginative.

They are:

1. Introducing payment accounts (applying to the whole zone).
2. Introduce a free period for the Western zone between 11am and 2pm.
3. Increase the resident's discount to 100%.

Item 1 (payment accounts) is a no brainer, was floated during the mayoral elections, and not really anything to do with the Western zone (although no doubt Boris agrees, but is slipping this idea in so he can make the reform and have it covered by this consultation).

Item 2 (free period) is no doubt a sop to businesses and residents who are annoyed by the cost of the zone being passed onto them by their own business visitors. However, it would make the system fiendishly complicated and raises the spectre of cars queuing up outside the zone just before 11am, then racing around to get out by 2pm. In any case, lunchtime is just a busy as any other time (certainly in the centre of town) and the 3 hour window proposed would not be enough time for the delivery drivers, plumbers, builders and others who need to travel by car or van to complete their business.

Item 3 (100% discount), would be nice - especially for those residents who are at work all day and rarely drive their car during the charging hours, but at most represents a £200 tax cut. It does not really address the issues caused by the zone covering such a large residential area.

My main gripe with the zone is that if you live in the zone (as I do, by a matter of metres), it is very annoying that visitors (whether friends, family or tradesmen) have to pay £8 to drive to your house in the day, regardless of how long they wish to stay in the zone. In the case of tradesmen, invariably they seek to pass this cost onto you (along with parking). Given I am trying to move out of the zone, and will lose the discount, I am equally conscious of the unfairness of having to pay £8 per day simply for wanting to visit some shops or other businesses just within the zone, when it is free to drive to those just outside. I also think it is mad that by living in the western zone, your resident's discount applies to the whole zone.

So here are a few of my ideas:

1. Cut the rate in the west: down to £2 or £3 per day. This would be an incentive for some drivers to avoid it (if they can), but not a huge penalty on those who really need to go in.

2. Resident's vouchers: Allow residents to pay the charge (at a nominal rate, say £1 per day) for one "guest" vehicle per day. Limits could be imposed (i.e. max number of days in total or per guest) or intelligent monitoring to prevent abuse and "congestion arbitrage".

3. A bigger, more flexible buffer: As well as cutting the discount to residents in the western zone for the original, central zone, I would introduce a series of "neighbour zones" so that residents within a mile or so of the western zone would get a hefty (e.g. 75%) discount, radiating outwards for several miles in stages until you got to a much lower discount. This would soften the blow on businesses as their local trade would not be so penalised.

4. A measured approach: if users can have payment accounts, why not allow them to pay by the amount of time spent in the zone, say £1 per hour up to a maximum of £8? This can easily be measured by using the current equipment as entry and departure from the zone is carefully monitored. Surely it is far fairer that a driver who nips into the zone for a few minutes is charged less than someone who spends the day (and make it so a 10 minute trip in the zone is free, so that "accidental" visitors are not penalised). This would also allow for the abolition of the free routes through the zone.

If I think of any more, I will put them up here, but in the meantime, I will try submitting them through the online consultation engine.

12 August 2008

How not to sell your house

Credit crunch woes are keeping many potential movers out of the property market making it hard enough to sell a house. However, pity the poor folk who are trying to sell in Chiswick. If it wasn't tough enough, the nice people at Rightmove, where your house might be listed in a Web 2.0 sort of way, provide links to the lovely people at Aboutmyhouse, who give information about the location, and in turn serve up maps from Microsoft Virtual Earth. Still with me?

So if you are curious as to what a house really looks like, you can go for the bird's eye view, and if you select it for a particular part of Chiswick, this is what you get:

Hmmm... pass the ear plugs.

Wrapit.co.uk - letter to liquidators

This is a public service announcement.
If you have purchased wedding presents for a happy couple via wrapit.co.uk and need to claim a refund now that they have gone into liquidation, you might want to use the following as a template (you need to fill out the square brackets..):


The Administrators
Wrapit PLC
8 Salisbury Square
London EC4Y 8BB

Dear Sirs

Claim in respect of goods not delivered - order ID [xxx]

On or about [DATE] I purchased a gift (namely: [GIFT DESCRIPTION]) through the Wrapit.co.uk website at price of £[xxx] using my [NAME OF CARD] credit card, in relation to the wedding list for [NAME OF COUPLE]. I understand that Mr & Mrs [NAME] have not received their gift, so I would like to cancel the order and claim a refund. Please confirm you will not be delivering the gift.

If you are unable to issue payment of the refund, please register me as an unsecured creditor of Wrapit PLC.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully


PLEASE NOTE: as per the disclaimer at the bottom of this page, this is not posted as specific legal advice, and is merely here to be helpful, and therefore does not create any lawyer/client relationship between us- as if you thought it could. If you want proper legal advice, you need to go and retain a solicitor.

07 August 2008

Back to NYC

Digital Mission

In September I will be spending a week in New York with the companies selected for Digitial Mission, which is being sponsored by my firm, Winston & Strawn. Here is the press release:

UK digital industry will be boosted when enterprise and expertise connect in Chinwag’s Digital Mission to New York from 14th-19th September, 2008, at the renowned Web 2.0 Expo. Organised by Chinwag (http://www.chinwag.com) for UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the mission includes a programme of meetings, networking events and seminars designed to help UK businesses expand into the US.

Twenty-one UK companies will take part, after selection by an advisory board of notable names including ex-Dragon’s Den star, Doug Richards; Tech Crunch editor, Mike Butcher; and Seedcamp CEO, Reshma Sohoni.

A list of companies nominated for the New York Digital Mission and information about them can be found on the Digital Mission website: http://www.chinwag.com/digitalmission/nyc08-companies Digital Mission’s partners can forge valuable business contacts and new relationships as they market and pitch their services in a globally influential forum. Activities will include a masterclass on doing business in the US, networking events, a reception at the British Consulate and an agenda scheduled around the Web 2.0 Expo event.

Companies nominated for the New York Digital Mission are: B View; Harvest Digital; Head London; Head Shift; Huddle; Idio Mag; KMP Interactive Marketing & Technology; Littleloud; Market Sentinel; Mippin; Quick TV; Slice the Pie; Smarkets; Sweemo; Tactile CRM; Tempero; UGame; UnLtd World; Unruly Media; Veedow and World TV.

Chinwag CEO Sam Michel said: “We’re impressed that so many companies applied for Digital Mission to NYC, especially as the deadlines were so short. The range of companies from start-ups to established agencies demonstrates the strength of the digital sector in the UK. Chinwag will be working closely with our network of contacts and the UKTI team in London and New York to create opportunities for the mission companies to meet US partners, clients and investors.”

Chinwag has been nominated as the UKTI's designated partner for the Digital Mission to take small-to-medium-sized businesses in the digital sector on two separate visits to the US to make business contacts and promote its companies at two of the most prominent and well-respected global web events. Chinwag will be working with sponsors and international law firm, Winston and Strawn, for both the New York and SXSW Interactive Digital Missions. For more information, about this mission and also for the SXSW Interactive mission, please visit: http://www.digital-mission.org/

PS - I forgot to mention that top lefty political blogger, Gordon Brown hatchet-man and Minister of State for Trade, Tom Watson, may be coming along to New York as well for this, so we should have some stimulating conversation....

05 August 2008

Eco ambition

The government's much maligned Eco Towns are palpably nothing to do with being nice to the environment, but the name is supposed to make you think otherwise. A bit like when the barren land next to the North Pole was christened Greenland. However, this is nothing compared to the planned "Nanocity" in India - nano it ain't.

Hat tip: Confused of Calcutta

04 August 2008


Whilst most of the blogosphere has been raving about the Dark Knight (well, the Scottish blogs - here and here, at least, oh, and here), and others have been raving about Mamma Mia (pure crap, by the way, I concur with the Hon Member for Glasgow South), the only thing I have managed to see in the cinema in the last few weeks is Wall-E. Pure comedy genius. But even better, I felt that the environmental message was one of hope rather than impending disaster - the final message is one of hope over defeatism and that the earth can recover from even the most devastating abuse.

03 August 2008

Chavtastic Chinawhite

The news that Katie Price aka Jordan was refused a table in the Chinawhite tent at the Cartier Polo last weekend must rate as one of the most bizarre news stories of the summer (that, and that idea that Labour will have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the next election by having Mr Millipede as their leader).

In here eloquent riposte to the "snobs" who excluded her (published in the Times, no less), Katie railed against the unfairness of letting others in, whereas she, who has actually played polo was rejected. Quite apart from the issue of whether the bacchanalian tableaux that is the Chinawhite tent is a suitable day out "for the family", the idea that such an event should seek to exclude anyone on grounds of taste, class or anything else is absurd.

Furthermore, given that Polo as a sport has made at least some progress in widening its appeal, that it should be associated with such daft discrimination is potentially damaging. The Cartier International Day provides the lion's share of funding for the HPA's development budget - and I am sure that China White's contribution to this is substantial. Since it was apparently China White's people who rejected Katie's money, a good start towards showing that polo is not completely up its own backside would be to find another nightclub operator to provide the entertainment at next year's International.

25 July 2008

Let the disqussion begin

I have just attempted loading up disqus to handle all the millions of comments I get on this blog. Here's hoping it worked...

PS If anyone can tell me how to get rid of the annoying and pointless ads underneath the top post on the blog, I would be most grateful...

PPS Hurrah, I have fixed it - turns out Feedburner was to blame... Given the low number of visitors I have (yes, I was joking about the millions of comments) and that none of them click on the ads, I do not see the point in having them. I am not exactly going to get rich from blogging....

21 July 2008

The joy of recruitment

We are currently looking for an au pair to replace the wonderful Aussie nanny who has been looking after our girls for the past 10 months or so. The process of finding a new au pair has not been without its frustrations given that all we want is a Mary Poppins on the minimum wage...

One of the more important criteria is reasonably good English skills - important for both the twins' language development and ability to communicate clearly in case of an emergency - as well as just not being plain annoying. One hapless candidate on a job website decided (it would seem) to use an automatic translation service to provide the English version of her French description of herself. The French reads, perfectly fluently:

"Je m'appelle [nom] , j'ai 20 ans. J'ai passé mon bac en juin. Ensuite j'aimerais faire infirmière. J'ai 2 grands frères qui ont à eux 2 , 5 enfants agés de 2 à 9 ans. J'aime m'occuper d'eux. Je fais également beaucoup de baby-sitting. je pense passer mon permis cet été. je suis responsable, sérieuse, bavarde, patiente, attentive, sympathique... j'aime lire, faire du shopping, écouter de la musique, voyager, sortir avec mes amis, découvrir beaucoup de choses... je suis non fumeuse !"

However, the English turned out to be not quite so comprehensible:

"My name is [name], I am 20 years old. I crossed my receptacle in June. Then I would like to make nurse. I have 2 elder brothers them with 2, 5 agés children from 2 to 9 years old. I like to be in charge them. I make also a lot of babysitting. I think cross my licence this summer. I am responsible, serious, patient, attentive, nice talkative I like to read, to make of the shopping, to listen to music, to travel, to go out with my friends, to discover many things I am not smoky!"

If I thought her spoken English was that good, she could have had the job, just for the constant comedy value...

16 July 2008

Top telly

I have a new favourite TV programme - Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes is what the BBC is all about. It provides a fascinating - dare I say "educational" insight into modern farming and is beautifully filmed. My guess is that it shares much with the equally brilliant Coast series in that the mixture of entertainment and fact is similar. For those of us who enjoyed prep school geography lessons, both series are a delight.

11 July 2008

Wat da hell?

There is something irresistable about Europeans who do not take themselves too seriously. The success of both 'Allo 'Allo and Fawlty Towers tapped into the British love of foreigners acting strangely and comedy accents. Very much in this genre appears Wat Zat Song.com - a French start-up which allows you to upload music - either a recording or yourself singing the clip. and then invites other users to tell you "Wat Zat" song is... I met them last night at the TechcrunchUK Pitch event in Soho, of which they were the popular winners and promised to sing something down the phone for them as soon as they have the UK telephone number set up...

In terms of time, they are many years behind that granddaddy of mobile apps- Shazam. Having previously only used Shazam via my phone I thought I would check out its website today. Once registered, I was astonished to see that they still kept the records of my queries made in 2003!

20 June 2008

Australia: an apology

Our friends the Australians have traditionally had the image of being a nation of healthy, sporty people with a robust sense of humour and a tendency towards colourful language. A combination of Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee, endless sucessful sportsmen and women and entertainingly foul mouthed politicians such as Paul Keating as well as important figures such as Sir Les Patterson led us to what we know now was an erroneous conclusion, for which we apologise.

It transpires that Australia is a nation of fatties - and has now overtaken the US as the most obese nation on the planet and that they are a bunch of prissy wimps when it comes to "naughty words" being spoken on telly.

I am now looking forward to the news that Japanese are the most laid back and lazy nation in the world, the Greeks the most officious and the Canadians the most interesting.

19 June 2008

David Davis: Theory vs Reality

I have spent the last few weeks trying to work out what I think about the 42 day debate and now about the position taken by David Davis in his by election stunt. Here's where I am:

42 Days: I do not believe it is right that the police can hold someone without charge for more than about 48 hours but I do accept that there can be circumstances when this might be necessary and that if the judicial oversight is adequate it can be justified. The craziness of this law is that it is all highly controversial, whereas it is not at all controversial that suspects can be held post-charge, pending trial, for months, if not years. However, the rules as to how suspects are treated before rather than after charge mean that the police would prefer that they remain uncharged for as long as possible. The Americans have a more sly approach to this: they have created a bunch of offences which can be used as a basis of a holding charge (we have many of those as well) and then, with the suspect in custody, continue to investigate the "major" offence.

We might be much happier that a suspect is held in custody because he has been charged with an offence (such as refusing to hand over decryption keys for his computer equipment) as at least there would be the chance for an innocent person unwittingly caught up in an investigation to get out of custody quicker through co-operation with an investigation.

What I find extraordinary is that someone who is identified as a dangerous terrorist, such as Abu Qatada is released from custody because a deportation is screwed up and no one has thought to charge him with anything in the UK.

Put it this way, there seem to be better, less controversial, ways of protecting the public from terrorists than the current proposals emanating from the Labour government.

CCTV etc: Unlike David Davis, I do not feel my freedoms are being invaded by CCTV, ID cards or a DNA register. My freedom is invaded by the bastard who keyed my car on not one but on two occasions (on each side), the sods who have used my doorstep as a urinal (particularly the one who used the letterbox) and the twats who burgled my wife's offices twice in a week.

For many of us living in London - including the nice parts - crime is not theoretical or the subject of over-active paranoia, but a daily concern and an all too frequent reality. Add having young children into the mix and your concerns increase exponentially.

(Of course I hate speed cameras that catch you doing 35 mph in the countryside at 8am on a Sunday morning, but it is the heavy handedness of the speed control freaks I object to, not their efficiency in enforcing those rules.)

I want the state to do its job and protect me, my family and my property from the yobs, the spivs and the criminals. I want to it to enact sensible, relevant laws which give the police and the courts the powers they need and for them to enforce those powers diligently and proportionately. If that means the state utilises the technology available to do that job more effectively, then all for the good.

I am not so naive as to believe in the endless bounty and goodness of the state or, for that matter, its consistent competence. However, neither do I believe that the state, in the UK at least, is a malevolent force or that by giving it the tools it needs, that these tools will be abused by a future government.

Ultimately, this debate is not black and white, as it is presented by David Davis, but there are shades of grey. The job of government is to navigate those tricky questions and strike the right balance and the present government is clearly failing at that task. David Davis, by his gross over-simplification of the issues, has shown that he is equally not up to the job, so perhaps we have been spared a Home Secretary who cares more about the theory than the reality of government.

13 June 2008

Breaking News: Haltemprice and Howden is near Hull

Well, OK, it is breaking news for most of us who previously had no idea where David Davis' constituency is located.

Like many people who follow the ins and outs of the Tory Party closely, I am sceptical of both the value of Davis' "resignation" and the motives behind it. Ever since Davis declined to serve in William Hague's shadow cabinet in order to chair the Public Accounts Committee, I had always regarded him as something of a selfish politician, preferring to put himself above party. On the other hand, many people I know and respect rate him highly and he came very close to leading the party in 2005.

But to make such a dramatic move without the blessing (or even agreement) of the Party leader and with no regard to the impact on the Tory revival is, without a doubt, selfish.

To those who say he has put principle above party, explain to me why he could not stay in the Shadow Cabinet and work towards becoming the next Home Secretary so that he can repeal (if necessary) the 42 day legislation. Equally, until this legislation passes the Lords, the fight is not yet over, but now Davis has cast himself out of Parliament he cannot play such an effective role in that fight. In my mind, Davis' move is more about having the Conservatives' policy on 42 days set in concrete than it is about reversing the present government.

Finally, the move is a waste of time as predictably Labour look like they will refuse to play the role of whipping boy in this by-election. Iain Dale says that they would be treating the issue and voters "with contempt" if they do not take part, but I don't see it myself. In that constituency and in the current climate Davis is clearly going to beat a Labour candidate regardless of the issue, so a by election is not exactly the most appropriate forum to test the issue. If Labour were to fight they would literally end up in a no-win situation. A real contest would be if Davis had stood as an independent and challenged a prominent Tory who is in favour of 42 days to run against him - Kelvin Mackenzie (whilst not a Tory exactly) might almost fit the bill.

It is undeniable, however, that Davis' move has captured the public mood and that among those who are not bothered with the niceties of different Tory cliques, Davis now appears noble and principled in stark contrast to the snouts in the trough approach of other politicians. The Daily Mash captures the mood nicely in an article titled: "MP DOES SOMETHING OTHER THAN BEING A DICK". No doubt this perception will be useful when he launches his next bid to be Tory leader.

PS - The Daily Mash also has the best take on the outcome of the 42 day detention legislation: "MILLIONS PLANNING £3000 'I'M A TERRORIST' SCAM"...

16 May 2008

A real test

Although woken at the crack of dawn by my daughters this morning (note to self - buy thicker curtains for their room) it was not until about 8am that I heard the interview on the Today programme with the new head of the exam markers' watchdog, Ofqual (Offmark would have been a much more satisfying name), following up her remarks about imperfect marking. The BBC News website has the story...

However, spare a thought for the poor students who are taking English exams in other parts of the world. When in Bermuda last week, the hot topic of conversation was that GCSE students are having to get up as early as 4.30am to get to the exam halls for 5.30am and 6am exam starts. This is to avoid, it is said, the prospect that someone in the UK could leave an exam after 30 minutes and then start emailing the questions to Bermuda, thus giving those students an unfair advantage. The Royal Gazette had a piece about this yesterday.

Given that the time difference is 4 hours (at the moment) this means that a UK based student could start sending information over at 5.30am Bermuda time (assuming the exam started at 9am in the UK). Quite what the Bermudian student is supposed to do with this information at this time of the morning is beyond me. I would have thought if people are going to cheat then there are better ways of preventing it than penalising a whole cohort of students. I also understand that this is a new arrangement as of this year, and the students got all of a couple of weeks' notice. Clearly, if it continues, the students with wealthier parents or families in the UK will come over here to take their exams and not be caught up in this mess.

26 February 2008

Non-doms: Gordo's got it wrong

I have been wrestling with the issue of the much trailed non-dom levy. On the one hand I am all in favour of people paying their fair share of tax, but on the other I am dismayed that it is being done in such a cack handed manner which is likely to damage the economy. Whilst I have little sympathy with US businessmen who are to be taxed on their worldwide income or pay £30k since a UK citizen working in the US would not even get the benefit of that option, I can see that the arbitrary change is a bit tough on people who have managed their affairs in the expectation that the tax system would remain stable.

However, rather than imposing the flat, reggressive £30k levy, there are a couple of sensible reforms that the Chancellor could make in a few weeks which would not be such an obvious cause celebre amongst the ex pat business community.

  1. Change the rules so that any income derived from employment based in or mainly undertaken in the UK is subject to UK taxation, regardless of where the payment for that employment is made. Currently, non-dom workers can be paid through off-shore companies for work done in the UK. This would be similar to the crackdown on consultancy companies, which were used as tax efficient vehicles.
  2. Levy a small percentage of the value of any real property held by an offshore company. Lots of properties (including the entire HMRC estate, via Mapeley STEPS) are held in offshore properties to be tax "efficient" and where properties are held in an SPV, this SPV can be sold avoiding the need to bring income into the UK or pay UK stamp duty as the only transaction is the sale of the SPV, in the BVI or whereever it is located.

There is no reason why foreigners working and living in the UK should be getting a free ride on the work done in the UK or property owned here. But the compromise (to keep a competitive advantage) is that we do not seek to tax money earnt and kept offshore.

Banking 2.0

I have recently become intrigued by the newish phenomenon of P2P lending over the internet. Irritatingly, I recall reading an article all about it but now cannot locate it - I am convinced it was in the Spectator, but it appears not.

The principle is simple - you agree to lend money at a particular rate, and then the website lends it out to borrowers who want the money at that rate. The trick is that the website cleverly splits your money into parcels as small as £10, so if one lender defaults, the loss is not major. The downside is that whilst the returns are greater than traditional bank interest, your money is tied up for the lifetime of the loan (up to 5 years), although for some people, this might be a good thing.

I have signed up on Zopa.com and have experimented by lending a measley £100. You can either lend in the general market (where Zopa does all the work once you have set the criteria) or you can take part in the Dutch auction and bid to lend money to people who are on the listings section. In the US, a rival site, Prosper.com, has a vibrant listings section, but on Zopa it is quite small and many of the people on there seem to be having a laugh. For instance, people borrowing a couple of thousand pounds but claiming that their income exceeds their expenditure by £500 or more each month, which in my mind does not really stack up. I have offered £20 to a lister, but I think I will steer clear as the borrowers are obviously hoping the "personal touch" seep through and the lenders will allow their heart to rule instead of their head, and I have no intention of becoming a one man Northern Rock (although I have just got 8.5% on my £20 for 3 years, which is not bad, let's see how it goes)

If you are interested in Zopa, please click on the link in the side bar and sign up so that we both earn £30 or you can sign up here.

Of course, micro lending is also used as a development tool, and if you are not worried about getting a return and just want to do good - I recommend you check out www.kiva.org.

14 February 2008

Ken's cant

This week Ken Livingstone has been busy justifying the new increased congestion charge for drivers of cars in emission band G or above - which will be up at £25 per day with no rebates for residents.

Ken says that if people want to drive polluting vehicles, they should have to pay for the privilege.

This is a fine sentiment, but bears little scrutiny, when you examine his scheme.

  • All cars pollute to some extent. The scheme is favourable to small cars, and neutral for cars just within band F.
  • There is no charge for driving outside of the operation hours of the scheme - but what difference to London's air quality and climate change is there if big cars are driven at night or at the weekends?
  • The zone covers a completely arbitrary part of London - why are band G car drivers in South, North and East London all exempt?
  • The scheme makes no allowance for the number of people in a car. Two band F cars each emitting CO2 at the rate of 224 g/km and each carrying one person is far more polluting than one band G car emmitting 230g/km, but carrying two or more people.
  • There is no allowance for the amount of CO2 actually emitted by a car on a particular day: a smaller car might be driven around all day - free of charge - whereas the large car may just take one short journey but be subject to a £25 charge. This is mad, when the smaller car has pumped out more CO2 over the course of the day.

And finally, not all the cars in the scheme are 4x4 giants of the road. Try getting more than three children and two adults in anything smaller than a people carrier (with compliant child car seats). Sure, there are people carriers which are not in band G, but many of them are.

The sad truth is that Ken Livingstone is a bitter little man who wants to do what he can to make the lives of people he hates as difficult as possible. He has no genuine interest in the environment - if he had he would be thinking hard about some of the points above.

Yes, I do drive a car in band G - it is an estate car. Just about the only time I drive it on my own is to move it onto residents' parking in the morning and usually when I am in it, it is full. If the scheme goes ahead, I will have to get a new car as we live 15 feet within the zone and I could not even move my car a few yards into a resident's bay without being caught on camera - although this means I will change my car sooner than I would otherwise and thereby cause even more carbon to be emitted.

So our only hope is Boris.

05 February 2008

MP's expenses and pay - a simple solution

Two problems: (1) Members of Parliament are paid a salary which is too low to attract talented people; (2) Members of Parliament have expense allowances which are not transparent/are misused.

Solution: Roll up the the total salary paid to an MP together with the total amount which could be claimed via allowances (adjusted for London MPs smaller housing allowance) and place the entire amount for each MP into an account to be operated by that MP. The MP should then be free to use this budget as he or she sees fit (in connection with his/her activities as an MP), including to boost his or her own pay. Clearly, the bigger the salary, the smaller the budget for other things.

This solution would mean that there would be no incentive for MPs to employ family members in jobs to boost the family finances artificially. It would also make it much easier for MPs to pool resources - share staff and subscribe to centralised services. Not having set amounts to be claimed for certain activities would make MPs more businesslike and encourage them to shop around for the most efficient service and thus stretch their budget the furthest. This amount could then be increased each year in line with inflation, but then it would be up to each MP to set his/her own pay. Might make for some interesting decision making....

27 January 2008

Curious timing

There has been much in the media lately of private schools being forced to justify their charitable status to the Charities Commission which has been gleefully implementing the new Charities Act 2005 - or as some of us would have it - doing the government's dirty work.

Quite why it is thought to be a good idea to make it more expensive to send children to private schools - and therefore out of the reach of more people - escapes me, rather in the same way as it escapes the Charities Commission that saving the public purse the cost of educating a significant number of children and improving the economy by providing thousands of well educated young people is actually a public good.

It is no co-incidence that my alma mater, the Dragon School, is in the Observer today which reports that it is giving lessons in generosity in a bid to be more charitiable in the eyes of the Charities Commission.

However, I wonder if it is more of a co-incidence that my other mater, Eton College, has been in the public eye following the broadcast of only the third ever documentary in its history filmed with its co-operation. A Boy Called Alex was shown last week on Channel 4 launching the new series of Cutting Edge (the documentary filmed at Eton about 15 years ago, when I was there, was also under the auspicies of Cutting Edge) and it traced the story of the remarkable Alex Stobbs pursuing his goal of conducting Bach's Magnificat whilst battling cystic fibrosis.

The film showed Eton at its very best. Not only is Alex a music scholar on a full fees bursary but the school was providing him with every possible assistance so that he could continue to attend whilst being treated for his debilitating condition. The film showed hardly anyone from Eton other than head of music, Ralph Allwood (a dedicated teacher if there ever was one) and Alex's nurse and a few interviews with Alex's contemporaries who were performing. As a result, it portrayed a school comprised exclusively of motivated and talented students. Hmmmm.

But as much as the film boosted Eton and showed what it is doing for a musical prodigy, it also raised awareness of cystic fibrosis. So, I wonder what parents of cystic fibrosis sufferers now think of Eton and whether they would want to strip it of its charitable status - especially that famous one, Gordon Brown?

22 January 2008

Ken on Dispatches

The Dispatches programme last night on Channel Four was a rare example of the media giving serious attention to the office of London mayor. For most Londoners, if you do not read the Evening Standard, you would not hear anything about what goes on in City Hall. Although I was delighted to watch Ken take a pasting. I thought that Martin Bright dwelt too heavily on trivia and conjecture and thereby diluted all his decent points.

Amongst the trivia, the "revelations" about Ken's drinking and the news that out of tens of millions, the LDA has made a few grants to companies that have soon after failed. On the latter, it would be extrordinary if any public body making grants to businesses did not have the occasional failure - thriving businesses with strong cash flows rarely apply for grants. If Bright had evidence of corruption or negligent procedures, he should have put this on TV, but his hackneyed tactic of turning up at abandoned offices was not worthy of the complex issues being discussed. As to the drinking, I couldn't give a monkeys.

The issue of Ken's foreign policy is more of an issue. Whether London has its own missions in foreign cities is neither here nor there if they actually provide some benefit to London and its economy. However, it would have been more interesting to know what is the cost benefit analysis of a London "embassy" in Beijing or Mumbai - rather than a sneering commentary.

The programme dwelt heavily on Ken's relations with Venuzuela. The deal can be summed up simply as it is a bad deal for the poor of Venuzuela and that it would no way cover the costs of the half price travel for 250,000 people as Ken claimed it would.

However, the fact that the Mayor of London is able to conduct his own foreign policy independent of the UK government is frankly absurd. Whose fault is that? Surely those who framed the legislation have got this to answer for and is an obvious area for reform by the next Conservative government.

The allegations around spending public money to discredit Trevor Phillips and to pay for people working on Ken's re-election campaign were the most significant and direct allegations of corruption.

But where was the material about Lee Jasper (as revealed by the Evening Standard) or Ken's approach to local democracy when he extended the Congestion Zone into west London? Or why he thought it a good idea to put bendy buses on London's streets or why traffic has apparently been deliberately fouled up by badly phased lights and pedestrianisation schemes, such as around Trafalgar Square? Why was there no investigation or explanation of the cost of Ken to the London tax payer and where was the analysis of the delays caused to the Tube modernisation from the battles he had with Brown over PPP?

Still, for all its faults, if the Dispatches programme encourages more people to back Boris, it is not a bad thing.

20 January 2008

Me and John McCain

Nearly eight years ago, I had some spare time between finishing law school in June 2000 and starting my training contract in March 2001. So I headed out to the US and found a nice little House of Representatives race in western Massachusetts where the Republicans, in the form of Pete Abair, were making a concerted effort to win back the only district in Massachusetts which was even vaguely winnable, but which had been Democrat since Bill Clinton entered the White House.

The highlight of the campaign was a visit by John McCain. I wrote it up at time in an email I sent home to a long mailing list (this was before I discovered the joys of blogging). Since Mac is now back, I thought this was a good time to reprint the extract from my email, with a few snaps I took on the day, so here it is:

"From the time he touched down in his jet, to the time he took off again, he was on our turf for no more than 2 hours, yet still his visit has been the major event of the campaign. For the programme to be a real success we were relying on the weather, since the first event was a welcome rally at the airport, complete with the West Springfield high school band in attendance. In fairness, whilst as a Brit, I would never think the weather in October reliable enough for an open air event, it has been pretty good - Don's [the campaign manager] jeep still hasn't got it's cover on (although the snow today may change that). However, the day McCain came the temperature dropped 10 degrees and the heavens opened - raining particularly hard during his speech. I nearly missed his airport speech, as one of the less helpful volunteers had left all the refreshments for the event back in the campaign office, and I was sent off with Matt - one of the more helpful volunteers (volunteer is not quite the right word for Matt, as he is actually getting credit points towards his college degree for working on the campaign - if I could have done that in Bristol, I might have got a first!), to fetch it all. Heading back towards the airport, Matt said "there he is" pointing towards the small jet flying across the road.

We had spent the previous evening painting signs for everyone to wave on his arrival. I had seen campaign workers distribute such signs when I was down in Philadelphia for the National Convention back in August, indeed I had even waved a sign saying "Welcome Dick Cheney" (usually a strange sign to wave but appropriate enough at a Dick Cheney welcome rally). With this expertise alone I was made head sign honcho, and merrily got a whole group of people painting "Welcome Senator McCain" and "We love McCain" etc with several different colours of emulsion paint. The "McCain Abair 200?" sign was supposed to suggest that Pete will be his running mate for President some time in the next decade, but no one else really got it. I seem to have been put in charge of all graphics - which is very funny, since I can't draw for toffee - although I am with the right party, since I can do an elephant from behind - the elephant being the symbol of the Republican Party. I have been producing flyers,
I made the 'This Bear is for Abair' sandwich board [above], and the office volunteer wall chart. However, I am most proud of the fact that my flyers for the McCain event were adapted and turned into adverts in the local press - so my artwork has now been published! In the end, with all the rain, nobody really waved a sign, as they were too busy holding umbrellas.

McCain made light of the rain, referring to "this balmy Arizona day" (he is Senator for Arizona). Later
he joked that in Arizona they have so little rain that the trees chase the dogs. We then put him on a bus with the press, which we called "The Straight Talk Shuttle" in deference to his "Straight Talk Express" campaign earlier in the year. The press were on top form asking him such tough questions as "Senator, do you think there needs to be more civility in politics?" (he does) and "Senator, certainly the country's thoughts and prayers were with you through your cancer surgery this summer, what is the prognosis?" (excellent).

With our police escort, no less, we got to our destination probably at the same speed (there is not a lot of traffic that can be held up in Holyoke, MA), as we would have done anyway, but it gave the proceedings a touch of glamour. The main event was being held in a converted warehouse, and cunningly renamed, "The Wherehouse?" (reminds me of the joke about the dyslexic pimp, who bought one). The first problem was that we had set aside a room for the big sponsors who had contributed $500 or more, where they were going to have their photos taken with McCain. However, this was not being properly policed and every Tom, Dick or Harry was wandering in. Then the press wanted to come in. I was pretty sure they weren't allowed in, but was not confident enough to chuck them out. Finally Don turned up and told everyone in a loud voice what the situation was, and I had great pleasure in helping him to evict the interlopers. Luckily, despite not paying $500 I was allowed to have my photo with McCain - sharing my moment with Matt. Apparently, it is the done thing to send the photos off to the office of the famous guy in the photo, where he will then sign it and return it to you. I am thinking I should sign the photo myself and send it to McCain, as a memento of his visit.
[I still have this somewhere, but sadly not scanned]

Upstairs for the main event, and more speeches. It was all going so well, the tree/dog joke, and some other choice lines until McCain, trying to refer to Pete, called him 'Brian', corrected himself, and said 'I mean Jay' and proceeded to call Pete 'Jay' until enough people in the crowd called out 'Pete'. He recovered pretty well, when a minute later he referred to entering his 'declining years' and then added, 'as I just demonstrated'. Then when Pete took the microphone again, McCain came up behind him, and said, 'You can call me Frank'. Still, Pete took it all well, so when Matt and I were idly drafting his thank you letter to contributors, Pete accepted Matt's suggestion to style himself Pete 'Jay' Abair at the bottom of the letter.

On the way back to the airport in the bus, there weren't so many press, so I saw my opportunity to speak to the Senator. I had already met him briefly in the Wherehouse? where I had tried to explain that I would have tried to get on his campaign if he had won the primaries - he had looked slightly baffled. This time I had a better cover. A few days ea
rlier, whilst reading the Spectator magazine over the Internet (for those who are not familiar, despite its name, it is a political weekly, not another type of magazine you'd expect to find on the net under that name, although I am sure they get plenty of hits due to mistaken identity), I was frustrated to see that the cartoons were a bit too small to read some of the text. So I sent an email to the online editor. As I was writing, I had the idea to suggest I wrote an article on politics and the internet, or on the US political campaign. Much to my surprise, the editor, Toby Young, wrote straight back, saying yes, but how about an article on US politics and the Internet? So I replied, yes - when do you want this article and by when? Again, I got a reply within the hour - 1000 words by Monday, if you can. So my assignment became a pretext for speaking to McCain. By a stroke of luck, his primary campaign stands out as the best ever use of the Internet by a politician or political campaign, so my pretext was further enhanced. Most of what he told me was already in articles had previously read, but it was nice to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

McCain is a living legend in the US. The story of his 5 years as a Vietnam prisoner of war leaves in no doubt his status as a true hero. The Vietnamese offered him early release, since as he was the son of the US General in command of the Pacific region (although not directly in charge of the war), it would have broken the morale of the other captives. When McCain refused, he was tortured more. He said the beatings weren't so bad, because after a while he would just pass out. I hate it when people are described as heroes, when all they are doing is taking the only route to survival - they deserve praise indeed, but McCain had a way out, and for good reason didn't take it. After returning, he went into politics. As a politician he has led the crusade to clean up US politics, in particular the pork barrel system, whereby in return for supporting a piece of legislation, the Congressman or Senator inserts an 'earmark' or rider into the bill, spending, X million dollars on some project in the home state.

This is the concept of 'bringing home the bacon', and some of it is worthy, and many legislators boast about how much they have brought home to their state or district. However, much of it is promoted by lobbyists hired by the Congressman's constituents, at great expense, and often lots of money somehow makes its way from the lobbyist to the politician. The other corrupt part of the system is the 'soft money'. Individual campaigns, such as this one I am working on, cannot accept donations from companies or from individuals in amounts exceeding $1000. However, the National Parties can take unlimited amounts of 'soft money' from corporations and spend it on behalf of campaign. Also companies (or unions or anyone else) can set up Political Action Committees or PACs as they are known, which can give up to $5000 to a campaign. Because of this, and the astronomical cost of campaigning, the Republicans are totally dependent on money, for example, from the drug companies, whereas the Democrats get millions from trial lawyers. The drug companies want to keep their products less regulated, but the trial lawyers want more regulation, giving them more opportunity to sue, you guessed it, the drug companies. About the only workers with any rights are union workers, because the only people to give money in return for workers rights, are the unions.

McCain was never the favoured candidate of the Republican Party because he was standing up against this system, and in the end, it was the sheer weight of Bush's warchest - raised as per above - which sank him. Personally, the whole thing has come as a shock to me, although if I have explained it properly, you will understand the system better than the average American - or dare I say, American journalist. I am just pleased to find myself on the 'right' side of this argument.

McCain's visit raised some valuable dollars - not anywhere near the $50,000 we wanted, but more importantly it raised the profile of the campaign ten fold. We were on the evening news (if you pause at the right spot, you can just see me in the background) and on the front of all the papers. We have used footage from the event as the basis of our Campaign commercial - which I have tried to put on the Internet ..."

If this post gets any traffic, I might be tempted to post more of my juvenile correspondence home. If you would like to read more, let me know in the comments.

14 January 2008

Party funding - does it matter that much?

Ever since Lord Nolan reported on standards in public life as cover for Labour's plans to introduce "transparency" in party funding (before it blew up in their face so spectactularly), I have been suspicious of attempts to limit the ability of individuals to donate to political parties. It is unfair, for example, that a busy person who chooses to donate more than £5000 must appear on a public register, but a person with a lot of free time can work unpaid for a political party and it is lauded as a healthy part of the process. In the US, it is treated as a question of freedom of expression that political donations can be made - albeit with certain limits imposed on donations to individual candidates.

As usual, I digress.

In amongst the funding scandal have been regular discussions of whether or not political parties should be funded by the state - here, for example. Given that both Labour and the Tories could probably get by on £20m per year and presumably the Libdems on a lot less, the amounts in question are a drop in the ocean, even when compared to the running costs of Parliament let alone overall government spending which runs at about £1bn per day.

Clearly, if there were to be state funding, the key issue would be as to how the money is handed out - and the advantage of incumbency would be completely unfair and open to abuse. Surely a perfectly fair route would be to combine donation limits with tax relief and/or match funding.

To be clear, I do not think donations should be limited, but sometimes when the writing is on the wall it is better to go for the least bad solution.

13 January 2008

One rule for them...

Speaking as someone working in a sector regulated by the various bits of draconian anti-money laundering regulation, I have no sympathy for politicians such as Peter Hain who have so flagrantly managed to breach the funding rules and then try to explain it away as "administrative error".

At least one solicitor has been sent to prison for failing to abide by the money laundering rules when the judge agreed that he was completely unaware that there was any criminality involved or that he had profited by more than his usual fee of £399 for doing the work he was asked to do by a acquaintance - details here. On the appeal against the sentence of 15 months (reduced to 6 months) the judge also noted that the solicitor, Mr Griffiths "had lost his practice as a result of the conviction and the impact on his health and personal life had been ‘dramatic’". However, he agreed with the first instance judge that ‘society demands a high degree of professionalism from solicitors’, and predicted that Mr Griffiths will ‘rightly’ be struck off the roll.

Compare this to the standard demanded of our politicians.

06 January 2008

Offset your infidelity

My friend Tom over at the Wobbling World blog (the link to which in my blogroll, I have just repaired) has recently highlighted an amusing little site - Cheat Neutral. This site allows anyone who is considering adding to the general misery of the world by cheating on their partner, to offset their cheating by making a donation to keep a faithful partnership together.

The site is a joke, obviously, but makes the serious point that carbon offsetting is also a joke. Although I am no expert in this area, it did strike me sometime ago, that if a person is concerned about the size of his carbon footprint, then the sensible thing would be to try to reduce that footprint before spending money on schemes which purport to reduce carbon dioxide on the other side of the planet.