Blog : Posts tagged with 'government' : Page 1

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Slash, slash, slash

In which spending cuts may be a good thing


Following on from yesterday’s post about government spending cuts: there is, of course, one thing that would save quite a bit more money than freeing up some unused phone numbers. Regular readers of this blog will – especially if they were regular readers about a year ago – be very bored of me droning on about the West Of England Partnership‘s* ongoing guided busway scheme, which consists essentially of turning former and current railway alignments such as the Bristol-Bath Railway Path or the Bristol Harbour Railway into private roads for the exclusive use of First Group, at public cost. Rather high public cost, at that, as for any road scheme; and the first phase of the project would have no purpose other than to replace the current Ashton park-and-ride services with new, less useful, park-and-ride services from the same car park. Follow this link to read more.

Well, the local press has suddenly noticed that cancelling this scheme might be a nice easy way to cut the Department for Transport’s budget down a bit; and other local bloggers have had similar news on another poorly-thought-out local transport scheme. That big hole in the government budget, it appears, is suddenly going to mean no money for new roads, whether that be a replacement for Hartcliffe Way, or paving over the Harbour Railway so that bus routes 903 and 352 can avoid Hotwells Road.**

Reading that Evening Post article highlights, really, how pointless the guided busway scheme is. It goes to the new museum, an entire ten minutes walk from the Centre. It goes to the new football stadium site – as, er, do the existing park and ride buses. How many people want to get the bus between the two?

You might also notice a quote from Councillor Hopkins in that article. “An alternative might be a much cheaper ultra-light rail system, which was tried out on a short stretch of Bristol’s dockside several years ago.” He’s referring to a machine called the Parry People Mover, a small lightweight railcar powered by a flywheel that gets charged up at stops. I don’t see it happening, either. Parry People Movers have been tried at various sites, including the Bristol Harbour railway, but they’ve never seemed to last very long except for one location, Stourbridge (West Mids), a very short line with no intermediate stops. They need a railway line to run on, and reinstating the railway to Ashton Gate then extending it to Ashton Vale would be as expensive, probably, as building a road. Similarly, you couldn’t extend a Parry People Mover line into the city: you’d have to lay tramlines, for one thing, and if you were doing that, you may as well go with a real tram that doesn’t have to wait for a 5- or 10-minute recharge at each stop.

So: a short-for-cash government means no new buses and no new roads. In the long run, no new public transport is a Bad Thing; but new roads, public or private, always mean more traffic, higher emissions, and more oil used up. Hopefully, an enforced pause will mean we can wait for a while, until we can design a transport scheme that’s actually useful, not just one that’s easy.

* I do wonder sometimes what other local councils, like, say, Somerset, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall think of the CUBA local authorities claiming the name “West of England” for themselves and themselves alone.

** Because that, essentially, is all that first phase of the “Bus Rapid Transit” scheme, for all the work it needs, amounts to.

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Snip, snip, snip

In which we reveal that there really are hundreds of government helplines that nobody ever phones – but cutting them won’t actually have any effect


Today’s big news story: the government has started on its grand crusade to save money and thereby rescue the nation. Whether it will work remains to be seen, of course. I was intrigued, though, by one assertion which I heard on the news this morning: the government will save money by cutting back on call centres and helplines, because there are, apparently, many many government helplines which have barely even received a single call.*

Which sounds, on the face of it, shocking. Hundreds of phone lines that have never taken a call? Surely there must be warehouses full of call-centre staff sitting waiting for the phone to ring, sitting with their feet up reading magazines and flicking balls of paper at each other, because they have hundreds of phone lines but no calls to take?

Er, no. Despite the image put across there, it is completely false. I know this because: well, I have worked for such phone lines. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of government-funded phone numbers that have never, ever taken a call. That’s because that’s how marketing people like it. The total extra cost of it, per phone line, is peanuts – maybe it gets into whole tens of pounds if you add up absolutely all the figures, but that’s about it.

This is how it works. When the government’s marketing people** think they might want to run a new advertising campaign, they buy up a block of phone numbers, 0800, 0845, or whatever. Then, they produce their TV adverts, print adverts, leaflets, whatever: and each one gets a different phone number on it. All of these numbers will point to the same team – who will usually be already handling a similar type of helpline – and, it’s true, someone does have to go through a spreadsheet of phone numbers and route them to the right call centre. It’s not tricky work. When a call comes in, the hard-worked call-centre staff look at their screen, and make a note of which number it came in on.*** That information all gets collated, filed, and sent back to the government marketeers, who will graph it all carefully and say “ooh, Leaflet 72B didn’t work very well, it only got half the calls-per-leaflet of Leaflet 72C.”

The reason they do it this way is: it gives them reliable data, not data that relies on the caller’s memory. If you actually ask the caller where they saw the advert, then a) it annoys them, and b) they can’t remember. Even if they think they can remember, they can’t remember. If you say “can you remember what you were watching when you saw it,” you’d be amazed how many people will tell you, in all sincerity, that they saw your advert in the middle of Eastenders. But, on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots and lots of phone numbers that have been bought up in readiness, but which don’t get used; they’re there, just in case more numbers are needed. Having them sitting and programmed-in to the phone network, though, doesn’t really hurt. It certainly wouldn’t save the government money if they weren’t there. Indeed, I’m sure that a marketing expert would argue that it wastes money. An advert that doesn’t get a response, after all, is an advert wasted; and if you’re going to pay for a prime-time ad slot, or to print x million leaflets of your latest advertising wonder, you will want to know what sort of response rate it’s getting. The less accurate the data you’re getting back is, the bigger the risk that you’re pouring your ad budget down the drain.

In the long term, a hurried cut in the wrong place could cost you millions further down the line. So: sometimes, something that looks like a simple saving isn’t one. Especially when it’s something that’s hardly a big saving at all. There are indeed many government-owned phone numbers that have never, once, been called. That doesn’t mean they’re costing us anything to have, though; and it doesn’t mean that somehow the government is doing something wrong, that it’s set all these call centres up then forgotten to tell anyone; or that it’s set up lines that nobody wants to call. Those people, waiting for you to ring, are already busy enough.

* This would have been on Today at some point, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I can’t really find any news stories online that refer to this particular claim, apart from this one in the Shropshire Star; The Guardian refers to it more obliquely.

** The Central Office of Information, who sound slightly Soviet but are really the government’s advertising and marketing arm. They are the people who sit between the media, the advertising agencies and the call centre companies on the one hand, and the government departments who want to put their message across on the other; whether it be an NHS public health campaign like “don’t get swine flu”, HMRC trying to get you to send your tax return in on time, or the MoD trying to get people to join up.

*** Well, it will be some sort of code like “Dept. F Line B2″, but it means the same thing.

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The Politics Show

In which FP goes through a few voting-related topics


I’ve been quiet about politics here lately, save for that post about revolutions the other day. The more noise there is about politics in the press, the less I want to add to the “debate”. All I feel like doing is pointing out the endless opportunism and hypocrisy of all, and that’s so plain it doesn’t need to be said.

We did vote, though. However apathetic I might get about politics, I still keep an eye on the news and the policies; and voting’s important. To get back on to the French Revolution, it’s one of the rights that Robespierre fought for even as he was also fighting for the right of the government to purge anyone he considered to be in the government’s way. I know I keep harping on about the French Revolution, but it’s still rattling around in my head a lot and I’d like to get it out of the way to make room for normal things again. Getting back onto the topic: lots of people would say that the European Parliament isn’t important, that despite the laws that emanate from it, most of the work done there emerges from the back room of the Commission. To that I’d say: voting for part of a partly-democratic system is better than voting for none of it. Moreover, I have my own view of Britain, and how I’d like Britain represented in the wider world,* and the MEPs that represent us form an important part of that.

The city elections made the news, being the one yellow blob on the map surrounded by a sea of blue; but we didn’t get to vote in those. Due to the city electing by thirds, only two thirds of the city wards participate in each election. This year, we were one of the wards which took a holiday from electing.

I did hear, a few months back, of a campaign to end the “by thirds” system in Bristol and move to all-out elections. It seemed to be a Labour Party led campaign: at least, I first heard about it via a now-former Labour councillor, who had started a petition for it on the council website; and it emerged just after the council’s minority Labour administration had resigned. I could see partly why the Labour party might be attracted to the idea: although they only held about a quarter of the seats on the council, at the elections, over a third of the seats up for election were Labour seats. They lost heavily, as they were predicted to do, at a time when they were the party with the most to lose. What goes around comes around, though; at the next election, things will be a little more balanced, and Labour will only be holding about 20% of the seats up for election.**

I’m not convinced that there’s any need for all-at-once elections. It might make it hard for some parties, some of the time, to gain control of the council; but often those parties find themselves in the position they deserve. Moreover, it can be a good thing for it to take several elections for a party to gain control of the council, and the overall time taken is no longer. All-out elections would only make sense if proportional representation was brought in at the same time; and I can’t see the local Labour Party being in favour of that. Maybe they will be after the next council elections, though.

* not to mention the regions I have particular attachment to

** still a higher percentage than they now hold across the full council.

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Something for nothing

In which our eyebrows are raised when we learn that Americans all have free healthcare just like us


The scene: the office conversation, a quick conversation with a new member of staff whilst the kettle boiled. He was telling me all about his past, his former history of self-employment.

“… but you can’t do anything in this country nowadays, it’s terrible for small businesses, this government, it really is, they want to get control of every little thing…”

I thought: I know exactly what’s coming here.

“…it makes it impossible to run your own life…”

… any second now …

“it’s this Nanny State…”

BINGO! As soon as someone, especially a certain type of person, starts along that line of argument, they’re going to mention the Nanny State, which rules every aspect of our lives and tells us exactly what we can and can’t do. These are the people who believe that Christmas is being banned, or that the government has banned blackboards for being racist, and that it’s Political Correctness Gone Mad. And I don’t understand them. Do they never look at the world around them? Do they believe anything they hear or read?

He rambled on about how much better everything was in America – how life is far better, the taxes are lower, everyone is better off and lives a wonderful life without government interference.

“Yes, until they fall ill and can’t afford to pay for treatment,” I said.

“No, no, medicine is free in the USA too,” he replied.

“Really?” I said, because that really doesn’t square with everything else I’ve been told about the USA over the years.

“Yes, it’s all free, just as it is here,” he said. I was tempted to ask if the land is also flowing with milk and honey, with dollar bills and chocolate coins growing on the trees, but I’m not sure if he’d have realised where the joke was.

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Voter Participation

In which there is still nobody worth voting for


About a year ago,* I wrote about local elections, and why I wasn’t going to bother voting. I didn’t think it was a particularly good post myself, but it was good enough for the Guardian to quote it, so more people probably read that post (or that part of that post) than anything else I’ve ever put on the site.

Well, this year, I’m going to vote anyway, even though I have no idea who the candidates are, or what they are standing for. In fact, I’m not really sure why at all, other than a vague feeling that, you know, really, I should make the most of my rights. As I said last year, though, we get the politicians we deserve. I might not have managed to set up the Symbolic Forest Party in the last twelve months, but I’m going to go out and vote for someone today, and then (if they get in) I’m going to see what they do. I’m going to keep an eye on them and see what good (or otherwise) my voting has actually done.

* in fact it was a year ago tomorrow – I used a bad Star Wars related pun in the post title

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The truth

In which we are worried about the New Puritans


I’ve spoken several times before about the proposed Extreme Pornography Bill. Which will, it’s planned, criminalise possession of pornographic pictures which appear to show people at risk of serious harm.

There are a few keywords in the proposals which suggest that some of its drafters do care, at least, about trying to make sure the bill only applies to very extreme stuff. Any videos with certificates, for example, would be exempt, because the bill is only intended to apply to things which would be too extreme to pass the censors to start with. The wording is still very vague, though, and leaves convictions down to the whims of judge and jury. Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason to be worried. The bill’s drafters are not those who will use it. Whether people get convicted under it may well end up depending entirely on where they live.

A short digression: Edinburgh has two big seasonal tourist attractions you’ve probably heard of: the Festival season, and the Hogmanay celebrations. You might not have heard, though, of its third big seasonal event: Beltane. Revellers climb Calton Hill to watch a grand fire-juggling performance. Some do treat it as a religious festival, but most are just there to have a good time;* and, like the other two events, people come to watch from all over the world.

You’d think Edinburgh City Council would support Beltane, it being one of the main tourist-attracting events outside the main season. They’re generally not very supportive at all, though – their support has always been lukewarm, if visible at all. And the reason for this, it is rumoured,** is the strong evangelical Christian faction on the city council. They see the Beltane celebration as Satanic and Evil, and definitely not something to be encouraged. They may be completely wrong, but they have positions of power.

BDSM isn’t evil, but there are certainly people who think that it is. If a high-ranking police officer was of that opinion, he could easily try to use this bill to push forward his own personal opinion on it. He may think that pornography itself is evil – certainly, there are people out there who say they want to ban “all pornography”*** There’s a high chance that such a hypothetical policeman would waste an awful lot of time and money aiming this bill at harmless Sensible Pervs, just because he doesn’t like what they do in the bedroom.

A lot of people on the BDSM scene are worried that this bill isn’t just a move against pornography, it’s a move against them personally; a move by a puritan government towards directly attacking people who don’t fit their own straitlaced morality. Maybe some of the bill’s supporters do indeed think that. You might not care about that, yourself, either because you’ve never had a kinky thought in your head, or you’ve never admitted that you do. The Sensible Pervs, though, are ordinary people just like you and me, ordinary people whose acceptance of their own psychological makeup has led some of them into wonderfully deep and supportive relationships. The bus driver who drives you to work, the signalman signalling your train, the IT guy fixing your computer or the shopkeeper of your neighbourhood shop – they could all, for all you know, have sex lives far kinkier than anything you can imagine. But, moreover, at the same time they’re all ordinary people just like you. And an attack on any of the ordinary people in our communities, is an attack on everybody.

(this post was inspired by Blogging For Backlash)

* like all the men who hang around Calton Hill on all the other nights of the year, it being Edinburgh’s closest equivalent to Hampstead Heath

** but it’s likely to be pretty close to the truth, because I heard it from a senior Beltane Fire Society official a few years ago

*** and they tend to think that the definition of pornography, too, is self-evident.

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Owning up

In which, unlike Mario Reading, we own up to a wrong prediction


Owning up to your mistakes is almost always the best thing to do. In an hour or so, it looks like I’m going to be proved wrong about something.

Specifically, something I wrote almost a year ago,* when I said: “at the earliest, [Tony Blair is] going to resign in the first quarter of 2009″. It looks, now, that I’m going to be nearly two years out, and that he’s going to give up power before getting within a year of Thatcher’s longevity record. On the other hand, I’m not the only person who was wrong. According to the article that prompted the earlier post, this time last year most Labour MPs weren’t expecting him to go until 2008. I still don’t believe he would give up power willingly until 2009, if he thought he could get away with it. I think that saying “yes, I’m going to resign, but not yet” is a bloody stupid way to run any sort of organisation, to be frank. Moreover, I’m wondering just how many journalists who have previously said “Blair will resign in 2008″, or similar things, will admit that they were wrong about it.

There’ll be plenty more chances for my predictions to come true in the future, of course. In January this year I said that George W Bush will still be alive in 2009, despite the “Nostradamus-inspired” prediction of author Mario Reading. I’m betting that my own prediction there is rather more secure than Reading’s – or than my earlier prediction about Blair. We’ll just have to wait and see.

* fifty-one weeks ago yesterday, in fact.

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Follow-up

In which we care for hedgehogs


A couple more links about yesterday’s post. At least one BBC editor was surprised that not everyone has believed the government’s line on the issue. Meanwhile, a Guardian blogger points out that the proposals are based on people who believe they don’t need any evidence, and it could be the thin end of the wedge.

Enough of all that. Direct campaigning clearly works: McDonalds has finally given in to the Hedgehog Preservation Society’s hedgehog preservation campaign, and is going to redesign its McFlurry cups to make them less hedgehog-toxic.* Hurrah! Clearly there’s something in this campaigning thing; I just need to find something of my own to campaign for. Suggestions, please.

That’s enough for this week, I think. It’s gone by far, far too fast.

* link via BoingBoing

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Pressure group

In which the government panders to the moral minority


“Violent” pornography is back in the news again, as it has been on and off for the past year. Now, the government has announced that it is going to ban the stuff, however impossible it is to define, thanks to a single-issue campaign group who are already crowing about their success. If it’s that easy to get the government to do what you want, I think I should start up my own single-issue campaign group. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to campaign for, but I know I’ll think of something. On the other hand, the government doesn’t exactly listen to what most people say. They carried out consultation on the “violent” porn law, and found that over 70% of responses were against introducing it; but they’re going ahead with it anyway. It was pushed for by people who believe that porn on the internet can induce people to carry out fantasies they wouldn’t have tried otherwise, even though there’s no evidence at all that that happens. In essence, this is faith-based legislation.

As I said a few days ago, there’s an easy solution to the problem of people with dangerous fantasies. It’s education, helping them find safe releases. If you ban “dangerous” pornography – leading aside the question of whether it is truly dangerous or not – you don’t do anything to dissipate people’s fantasies, the fantasies that make them look for the stuff to start with. The solution is to make it easy for people with unusual fantasies to discover that there’s a huge crowd of Sensible Pervs out there, who will help them learn how to carry their fantasies out safely.

All that, though, is besides the main problem with the bill: that it will be impossible to tell whether or not something is pornographic, or dangerous, just by looking. On the first point: look at people with a “splosh” fetish.* Internet sites for that sort of thing regularly feature clips from children’s telly, or entertainment telly, where people get covered in gunge. Is that pornography, just because some people get off on it? Is it dangerous, given that you could drown in the stuff? You could easily take a photo of a couple in a lovely, romantic-looking pose, one person holding their partner’s head in both hands. There’s a specific pose I have in mind that could look fine on a photo, but would cause the partner to faint if held for more than about 10 seconds, and die if held for longer still.** Would you be able to recognise it on a photo? It doesn’t look dangerous to most people.

Sensible Pervs are still campaigning hard against the violent porn bill. There’s still a good chance it will never appear, given the constraints of the parliamentary timetable. It looks, though, that in a couple of years’ time there might be another ill-thought-out, hard-to-enforce law on the statute books.

* getting turned on by getting covered in messy, gooey stuff.

** no, I’m not telling you what it is.

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Permissive Society

In which the government wants to ban things


I know it’s only a few days since we last had a “the government are taking away your rights!” post on here, but I’m afraid it’s time for another one.* This time it’s not just about politics, though, it’s about sex too.

Over the past few months, the Home Office has been running a consultation exercise on what it calls “extreme pornography”, with the intention of trying to ban it. They were pushed into it by a single-issue campaign group called The Jane Longhurst Trust, who mistakenly believe that criminalising violent sexual images will make people less violent.

It would be nice if this were true, but it’s very clear that when you’re dealing with sexual fantasies and gratification, pushing things under the carpet doesn’t help. For years homosexuality, for example, was barely represented in the mainstream media, but that didn’t stop people being gay. Banning images of violent fantasies won’t prevent people having those fantasies and wanting to act them out. If the Jane Longhurst Trust’s members actually want to do some good, they would have to go out and educate the people with the violent fantasies, instead of pretending that if you can’t see the pictures, they don’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind, just doesn’t work.

Anyway, many many people have written in to the Home Office trying to point this out; and the summary of the results is due to be published. Whether they will be promoting it very heavily probably depends on whether or not they’re minded to go ahead with the proposed law very strongly, or if it will be quietly allowed to run out of parliamentary time. Whatever the government’s publicity machine does, there’s one group of people who will be publicising it heavily: the group set up to campaign against the new law. They’re called the Backlash, and if you want to learn more about what the government is trying to propose, and why it is a bad idea, they have written about it in far more depth than I have room to here. If you want the freedom to do what you like in the bedroom,** go and support them.

* Why? Because I promised someone I’d write about it.

** subject to what your partner tells you to do, of course

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