Sunday, 31 March 2013

Anti-Imperialist Rhetoric

An eagle-eyed in one of the national newspaper spotted that while the North Korean leader - Kim Jong-un - is happy to ratchet up his anti-imperialist and warlike rhetoric against America - he is nonetheless happy to have the latest iMac sitting on his desk.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over an urgent operation meeting on the Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force’s performance

Knocking Down Walls

I am normally a great admirer of Frank Field - the Labour MP for Birkenhead - because he's a bit of a maverick and tends not to pull his punches over controversial issues. 

Frank is not afarid to lead the charge, when necessary, against his own side - as he did over Gordon Brown's disastrous decision as Labour Prime Minister - to abolish the 10p tax rate, for example.

But Frank seems to have lost his senses when it comes to the so-called bedroom tax - which will see changes in the benefits claimed by social housing tenants - depending on their needs and the size of their properties.

Because Frank has issued a clarion call - which is likely to be taken up by every loony group in the land - by telling his local newspaper:

“I hope landlords will brick up the doors to spare bedrooms and, where appropriate, knock down walls so that the properties can safely fit the tenants. I have never before asked for direct action."

Now this seems to be completely bonkers advice to me - because if someone needs an extra bedroom for some legitimate purpose - then how does it help their situation to turn this into a single room?

Where will the carer who needs to sleep over - put their bed?

Seems to me that this is tantamount to cutting off your nose - just to spite your face.

And if the extra bedroom really isn't needed at all - then why not find a room mate and generate a bit of extra income to recoup any financial loss due to benefit changes.

Which people do in many other countries across the world - without batting an eyelid of course.

Now that would be a much smarter thing to do than bricking up doors and knocking down walls - and it would help solve some of the housing shortage into the bargain.  

Plain English

I came across an advert recently for a job with Glasgow City Council - who wish to recruit a 'City Data Project Officer'.

Now I'm not thinking of applying for the post, but I was fascinated by the wording of the advert - which left me completely baffled as to what the job was all about.

Here's an extract of what the advert had to say:

"Glasgow recently won a UK competition to be a Future Cities Demonstrator for the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and will deliver the Glasgow City Management System. This role will assist with the development of the data requirements and will support delivery of the City Data Work Package in particular. You must have a Degree level qualification, preferably ICT related, excellent communication skills, strong presentation/interpersonal skills and the ability to deliver/make decisions. The ability to manage a workload under pressure and meet deadlines is essential as is being confident in the application of ICT knowledge for analytical and interpretative purposes. This post is tempoary (sic) for a period up to 12 months."

Now if anyone knows what that gobbledegook means, I'd be interested to find out - for no great reason other than to understand how someone can mangle the English language in such spectacular fashion.

And if anyone is interested in the job - apparently it is based at 229 George Street, Glasgow, G1 1QU - on a salary scale of £25,071.14 - £29,519.58 a year

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Radical Cleric Mice

I enjoyed this Matt cartoon which appeared in The Telegraph the other day.

I have to admit to a twinge of sympathy for the current Home Secretary - Theresa May - because the problems presented by Abu Qatada have been with us for years and have thwarted successive governments.

Now the courts agree the man represents a danger to people in this country because of his terrorrists links - yet the law has prevented deporting him to Jordan, where he belongs, having entered the UK illegally years ago.

The law as it stands may be being upheld by the courts - but that doesn't mean to say the law isn't an making an ass of us all.

MATT cartoon

Benefits Cap

The Coalition Government is trying to introduce a cap on welfare benefits - which would place a limit on the amount any individual can claim of up to £500 a week or  £26,000 a year - which is just about the average salary in the UK.

The only expection to this new rule would be where people are on disability benefits - where claimants need more support.

So it's hard to see what there is to disagree to about the principle of a benefit cap - because to do so would be to encourage system where people are better off not working.

As in this example in The Mail newspaper recently where a mother of three (Sharon Minkin) says it's not worth her while working - and her divorced husband pays £13 a week in child support for his three children.

Now you can argue whether a benefits cap is the right answer - but clearly there's clearly something badly wrong with a system that allows this kind of nonsense - to continue for years on end.  

'Why should I go to work when my benefits are worth £70,000 a year?'

Mother-of-three refuses to get a job because she is better off without one Sharon Minkin, 49, says she cannot find a job that pays the same as benefits
  • Lives in a semi-detached house, drives a 4x4 and has a 42" flatscreen TV
  • Was qualified accountant on £120,000 a year but has not worked for 18 years
  • Benefits she receives are equivalent to earning £70,000 a year before tax
By Alison Smith-squire

Sharon Minkin says she earns the equivalent of £70,000 a year in benefits because she won't go to work for a low salary

A mother-of-three says she is caught in a 'benefits package trap' equal to a salary of £70,000 a year.

Divorcee Sharon Minkin says she cannot afford to work – because it would leave her worse off and her children would no longer qualify for free university places.

Ms Minkin, 49 and her three children aged 19, 18 and 14 live in a spacious semi-detached three-bedroom with its own drive and 80ft garden in up-market St Albans, Hertsfordshire.

She drives a four-wheel Honda CRV and her 26 ft lounge boasts a 42 inch flatscreen TV.

Instead of going out to work, she spends her days writing novels – as yet unpublished – and walking her two pedigree white Samoyed dogs.

Her life is funded by the taxpayer, yet privately educated Ms Minkin – who before her divorce lived in a £1.6million seven-bedroom house complete with housekeeper – claims every day is a struggle

'People might call me a scrounger but I don’t like living like this,' she said. 'So my children don’t have to share a bedroom, I’m forced to sleep in the lounge. And having lived in a house with five bathrooms, it’s hard fighting over the one bathroom that we all have to share.

'Then whereas once I thought nothing of spending £230 on the weekly supermarket shop at Waitrose and M&S now I find myself having to choose between petrol and food from Morrisons and Aldi on the table.'

But she blames the government for creating a benefits ‘trap’ that means she can never earn so much money as she gets in handouts.

Ms Minkin, who recently turned down two jobs because they didn’t pay enough, says: 'It’s not that I can’t find a job – I went for two last week and was offered both of them - but myself and the children would be worse off.

'We couldn’t afford the rent on the house. And the children would have to take out student loans to fund their university fees. That means they would start their working lives in debt, something I wouldn’t want.'

A former chartered accountant, Ms Minkin once earned £120,000 working in the City.

But 18 years ago, after her second child was born she gave it all up to be a stay-at-home mother. Her ex-husband worked as a financial advisor and the couple had no money worries.

Pictured with her two dogs, Ms Minkin said that she did not want to go to work because it means her children would have to do what thousands of others do when they go to university and take out a student loan.

'We lived in a seven-bedroom house that I personally designed,' she said. 'Five of the bedrooms had their own ensuite bathrooms. We had a holiday home in Spain. The children went to private schools and I drove a £35,000 Touraeg car.'

Domestic chores were left to a live-in housekeeper, leaving Ms Minkin, who worked part-time for her husband, free to lunch with friends and go horse-riding every day.

Ms Minkin's financial 'woes' started after she divorced her husband. But after growing apart, in November 2007 the couple split and have since divorced. It was then Ms Minkin’s financial nightmares began.

'By the time we’d paid back our borrowings and debts, I was left with virtually nothing,' she says. 'My ex now claims he’s only able to pay me £13 a week maintenance for the children.'

Ms Minkin intended going back to work as an accountant but couldn’t afford the £5,000 plus fees necessary to retrain after such a long break, leaving her with the only option of claiming benefits.

She now receives £32,800 in benefits – which per month includes £1,400 housing benefit, £152 in council tax payments, £403 tax credit, £394 in employment and support allowance, £84 for free school meals and £180 for travel to school. Child allowance adds a further £130 a month.

On top of that, because she is on benefits, her eldest child qualifies for a grant, which pays for the £3,500 a year fees.

There is also an £800 a year bursary towards buying books. Her second child, who is off to university in October, will also have the £9,000 a year fees paid by the taxpayer and will qualify for help towards books.

Ms Minkin said: 'I always wanted to be able to put the children through university. I never wanted them to graduate with debts. If I get a job, my children will be forced to take out crippling student loans.'

She added: 'Because I’m on benefits the whole family qualifies for free dental care, free eye care and free school trips, which would cost extra £200 a month. I have totted up our benefits package and I would have to earn around £70,000 before tax to be able to live as we do now.

'Just to earn the basic £32,800 we receive in benefits, I would have to get a job paying over £44,000 a year.'

'I already struggle to feed us all and pay the bills. Luckily my retired parents – who are not rich by any means – help as much as they can.

"I’m sure people might say "oh, what a sponger she is" but although I don’t feel guilty for claiming benefits because for years I was a high rate tax payer, I'd much rather go out to work and earn that money with a proper job.

'I feel ashamed telling people I’m on benefits. However, I have to put my kids first. It’s no good me going out to work if I can’t afford the roof over their heads, food on the table and they have to go into debt if they go to university.'

She admits some people have suggested she save money by getting rid of her beloved dogs, 'But although they do cost around £40 a month to feed and I recently had to pay a vet’s bill for £300, they are elderly and have health problems. I don’t think anyone else would take them on.'

She also defends her decision to drive her seven year-old 4X4. 'We live in a rural part of St Albans and need a car. Following an accident a few years ago, I’m visually impaired in my left eye. So I need a car that is higher up so I can see the road properly.'

And she is unable to move to a cheaper property. 'Rents here are expensive. Although the house has been extended downstairs the bedrooms are really quite tiny. After living in such a big house, we couldn’t imagine being in something even smaller.'

Ms Minkin used to live in a £1.6million house. She now rents a property for £1,400 a month


Housing Benefit: £1,400
Council tax £152
Tax Credits £403

Employment and Support

Allowance £394
School travel expenses £180
Dental/eye care/school trips £200
Eldest child's university fees £292
Eldest child's book bursary £67

From October 2013 this will include:
Second child's university fees £750
Second child's book bursary £67

Total income: £3,905.00 per month

.Ms Minkin says it is also not worth her working part time. 'I can work up to 16 hours a week and still claim but when I looked into it, I would lose so much in benefits, I would end up working for free.'

Last week she went for two job interviews – and was offered both jobs. 'One was promoting a gym and the other was selling expensive wines. But the first one paid only £6.35 an hour and although the second said they expected me to earn over £25,000 a year, there was no guarantee. So I was forced to turn both down.'

A year ago Ms Minkin tried to set up her own party events business. 'I’d got as far as putting up a website when I was hauled into the benefits office and accused of fraud. After three months investigating they realised I hadn’t made a penny but it was a horrible experience.'

Ms Minkin believes the government should allow people to get a job or set up a business and still pay benefits, gradually reducing the amount as they earn more. 'That way I could have taken the job selling wines. Or seen if I could make a go of my business idea.'

She would also like to see more done for women like her returning to work after bringing up kids. 'There should be more financial help for women to retrain.'

Ms Minkin, who hopes publishing a novel will eventually get her off benefits, added: 'I am sure people will think, how outrageous it is that I get all these benefits. I bet this makes hard working people very angry.

'But anyone can fall on hard times and I’m just telling it as it is. I don’t like the benefits trap I find myself in any more than anyone else.'

Pseudo Names

Private Eye has a regular feature column which features Pseudo Names sent in by readers - covering a range of topical events.

I especially liked the following entries which feature in the latets edition of the magazine:

Pseudo Names

...Pretty stressful job electing a new pope. Who'd want that?


I've just been sacked by the BBC, and now I'm not sure whether to join the Catholic Church or the Liberal Democrats.


Are you guilty of excluding contributors with foreing sounding names?


We are pleased to announce the formation of the first Rod Stewart fan club in mainland China.


It surprises me that we never see anything in "Pseudo Names" which can be said to celebrate our wonderful diversity of sexual identity.


Why oh why won't people trust tried and tested pesticides and GM crops? Do they suspect vested interests?


I won't give my full name because I don't want my children to find out they weren't conceived naturally.


Friday, 29 March 2013

Spirit of Adventure

To the memory of my young brother - Kevin John Irvine - who died on this day last year (29 March 2012) while living his dream.

I think of you most days, but on this one above all - so thanks for all the memories, Kevin, and especially your great company and good cheer.

Play - 

Spirit of Adventure

Born: 12 August 1967
Died: 29 March 2012

Kevin John Irvine died on his beloved Buell motorbike in Bolivia on Thursday 29 March 2012 while undertaking a dream trip from Whistler in Canada to Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America.

Kevin left Scotland in 1989 on a family sponsorship scheme following in the footsteps of his parents (Adam and Sheila Irvine) who emigrated to Canada in 1952 before returning to Glasgow some years later, where the Irvine family grew up.

Kevin went to the Glasgow Nautical College with dreams of travelling the world, but after two tours of duty he decided that a seafaring life was not for him, not what he expected, because he got to see so little of the exotic ports and locations where his ship dropped anchor.

So being a resourceful, flexible young man, Kevin changed direction completely and after working in Bishopbriggs Sports Centre for two years to save up the money he needed, Kevin made the jump to Canada, where he lived in Toronto for six months before heading further west to Whistler, a fast growing ski resort in British Columbia.

Whistler turned out to be the place where Kevin found his true spiritual home; where he became a first-class skier who loved nothing better than being dropped off by helicopter in some remote location before making his way back off piste, often with friends, but sometimes with clients as a tour guide.

Like so many people in Whistler, Kevin had to turn his hand to a variety of jobs to make a living and he soon became one of Whistler's best known bar staff with regular customers and locals referring to him as 'Scottish' Kev. Over the years Kevin worked in lots of different bars and restaurants where his charm, good looks and easy manner won him many lifelong friends.

Kevin later added another string to his bow, by becoming a highly skilled masseur who was proficient in a wide range of massage techniques, such as Thai and Sports Massage, which helped to soothe the aches and pains of the many skiers and visitors to Whistler, including the odd famous name such as the Hollywood actress Halle Berry.

In short Kevin became something of an institution in Whistler, a highly popular and well-known local figure, so much so that it was impossible to walk through the Whistler village or any of its ski centres without a journey being interrupted several times, by people keen to stop, say hello and shoot the breeze with Scottish Kev.

Another defining aspect of Kevin's life was his passion for motorbikes and the great outdoors; he became renowned for his epic journeys: across Canada and America, Australia and the Far East, Scotland and Ireland (where his great grandparents came from), the rest of Britain and latterly much of Europe including Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland and Croatia - where he biked along some of the most spectacular touring routes on the planet.

Kevin revelled in the wonderful scenery, the many incredible sights to be seen on his journeys but, most of all, in the companionship of the people that he would meet on the road, often other bikers, whom he would stay in touch with via Facebook by posting wonderful pictures and scenes for others to share.

Kevin's last great adventure took him to South America where he was heading to the bottom of the world, Tierra del Fuego, which would have been his journey's end. En route through Bolivia and heading south outside the town of Potosi, Kevin was stuck by a 'volqueta' (a large mining truck) and died from his injuries at the scene on Thursday 29 March 2012.

Kevin was the 'baby' of the Irvine family, the youngest of five sons, but he was the one in whom the spirit of adventure burned most brightly.

Kevin will be missed terribly by his four brothers - Paul, Brian, Mark and Ian - also by his 'family' in Whistler, British Columbia where he lived and worked for over 20 years - and by his many close friends back in Scotland where he was born.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Richard Keen QC

Richard Keen QC is one of the most highly respected barristers in Scotland - indeed in the UK.

Which is good news for everyone interested in freedom of information (FOI) in Scotland - and the ongoing fight for equal pay. 

Because Richard Keen QC is representing the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) in the forthcoming appeal at the UK Supreme Court - where South Lanarkshire Council is trying to overturn a previous decision in the Court of Session, Scotland's  highest civil court.

Regular readers will recall that this all started with a simple FOI request in which I asked South Lanarkshire Council (SLC) for some very basic pay information - about traditional male council jobs.

Predictably SLC refused, but I appealed their silly decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner - who upheld my perfectly sensible request and ordered the council to release the pay details.

Incredibly, South Lanarkshire appealed the SIC decision to the Court of Session where three senior judges gave the council's arguments short shrift  before agreeing - unanimously - that the pay information should be published in the public interest. 

Again, South Lanarkshire appealed this decision and, as far as I know, it's the first case of its kind to go before the UK Supreme Court - where it us due to be heard on 8 July 2013.

Which is where Richard Keen QC comes into the picture - because in July the 'public interest' is at stake along with the need for openness and transparency in government affairs - local and national.

Because that after all is what Freedom of Information is about - the ability of the little guy to hold the big guy to account which, in turn, means being able to see clearly and understand - what these large organisations are doing with all the public money that they receive.

A ful profile of Richard Keen QC can be viewed at - and at - but in here a few extracts for informtion

Richard Keen QC 

"Richard is ranked as a ‘star individual' in Commercial Dispute Resolution and top ranked in three other areas:

Administrative & Public Law “fabulous advocate" … “mesmerically good”

Commercial Dispute Resolution – “the outstanding advocate of his generation” … “the top civil silk in Scotland” … “we'd use him for any type of civil law matter” … “fantastic”

Company - “brilliant at anything he turns his hand to” … “very impressive”

Construction – “a very accomplished performer”

Richard Keen QC is regularly instructed in the Commercial Court; in the Inner House (the Court of Appeal in Scotland) and in the Supreme Court in a range of Commercial and Public Law cases."

Well there you have it - and there will be much more to follow in the build up to July 8th 2013. 

Court of Session

Here's a previous post to the blog site which highlights a key part of a landmark FOI judgment at the Court of Session - Scotland's highest civil court.

Lords Marnoch, Mackay and Brailsford unanimously dismissed South Lanarkshire Council's appeal - over the release of pay details ordered by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

So the case is now off to the UK Supreme Court in July and is unique in Scotland - as far as I know.

In the sense no other Scottish council has refused to follow an independent adjudication from  the Scottish Information Commissioner and then lost a subsequent appeal (unanimously) at the Court of Session - only to lodge a further appeal with the UK Supreme Court.

Which begs the obvious question ''What does South Lanarkshire Council have to hide?'

Labour Hypocrisy (1 April 2012)

Scottish Labour stands accused of hypocrisy in a long running dispute over equal pay in South Lanarkshire Council.

The Labour-run council - which has been propped up by Tory support since 2007 - has lost a major legal ruling in the Court of Session after refusing to accept an independent adjudication by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

The information originally requested relates to the pay and treatment of traditional male jobs in South Lanarkshire Council - compared to female jobs.

Similar information is freely available in every other council in Scotland, but not in Labour-run South Lanarkshire.

In a detailed written judgment Lords Marnoch, Mackay and Brailsford said:

"We say that because, having regard to the Commissioner's findings looked at as a whole, we are satisfied that even applying the stricter test the Commissioner could only have concluded that necessity (of publishing the information) was made out. In particular, he held that the Requester's own interest coincided with a widespread public interest in the matter of gender equality and that it was important to achieve transparency on the subject of Equal Pay. No better means existed to achieve that goal than be releasing the information in question."

Now what's interesting about this case is that the Labour party has had lots to say about the need for Freedom of Information - but only when the obligation to comply or publish rests on someone else.

For example, the Scottish Government in Edinburgh - or the Coalition Government in Westminster.

In fact Labour seems really keen on transparency and openness everywhere in government - except in local government - which of course is one of the few remaining areas where Labour still has influence.

The former Scottish Labour leader - Iain Gray - made a huge fuss during the 2011 election campaign over the SNP Government's failure to comply immediately with a disclosure order from the Scottish Information Commissioner.

I wrote to Iain Gray and the time and here is what I said:

Iain Gray MSP
Leader of the Scottish Labour Party

Dear Mr Gray

Freedom of Information

I followed the recent Scottish election campaign with great interest and noted your positive comments and strong support on the subject of Freedom of Information.

I wonder if you would like to intervene in a situation much closer to home - one that involves Labour-led South Lanarkshire Council.

For years the council has been refusing to publish proper details about the pay levels enjoyed by traditional male council jobs - information which every other council in Scotland released a long time ago, without any fuss or bother.

The Scottish Information Commissioner issued a decision in April 2011 which required South Lanarkshire Council to release this information at long last, but since then the council has lodged an appeal with the Court of Session - using taxpayers’ money of course.

The circumstances are similar to the one during the Scottish election campaign where - as Labour's Scottish leader - you called on the government to stop wasting time and comply with the Scottish Information Commissioner's decision.

I wonder of you would now do the same in relation to South Lanarkshire Council - as I'm sure your views will be listened to very carefully by the council's Labour leadership.

I look forward to your reply.

Kind regards

Mark Irvine

I never received a proper answer to my enquiry about to the behaviour South Lanarkshire Council - the Labour leader just fobbed me off and refused to answer my questions.

To my mind the whole affair is a complete abuse of the FOI process and is similar - in many ways - to the way the last Westminster government behaved over MPs' expenses.

The Labour Government of the day - led by Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman - tried everything possible to keep the details of MPs expenses secret and under wraps.

And that's exactly what they're trying to do now in South Lanarkshire Council and they're using taxpayers' money by the barrowload in this desperate, last-ditch effort to cover their tracks.

Now I find it truly amazing that the Labour party has such a selective approach to the importance of Freedom of Information generally - and the behaviour of South Lanarkshire Council in particular.

So I think I'll write be writing to the new leader of the Scottish Labour party - Johann Lamont.

To my mind the voters in South Lanarkshire are entitled to know where Scottish Labour stands on this issue – in the run up to the local council elections on May 3rd 2012.

And Then There Was One

The resignation of David Miliband - the Labour MP for South Shields and Foreign Secretary in the last Labour Government - means that there is now only one big Labour beast from that era - still operating as a part-time MP. 

So step forward Gordon Brown - the former Prime Minister and sometime Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath - when he's not at the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University for 70 days a year where he acts as a 'distinguished global leader' in residence.

Now it may have taken David Miliband the best part of three years to decide what to do with the rest of his life - having lost the Labour leadership to his younger brother Ed, courtesy of the big public sector trade unions.

But at least David Miliband finally made up his mind and did the right thing - for himself and his family - whereas the 'man with the moral compass' (aka Gordon Brown) is still hanging on in there - and gives every impression that he will remain an MP until the next general election.

To my mind this is one of the main things that gives politics and polticians a bad name - saying one thing, but then doing another when it becomes convenient - from a personal point of view.

I can't think of anyone in the Labour party who doesn't believe that the job of an MP should be anything other than full-time - yet the silence within party ranks about Gordon Brown is deafening.

Now that David Miliband has finally grasped the nettle, I would like to wish him well - because he did win the support of the most ordinary Labour members in the party's leadership - and as Labour's director of policy between 1994-2001 played a key role in turning the party's fortunes around before becoming an MP.

Talent like that is bound to be missed in any political party - but I think he's done exactly the right thing in making a fresh start. 

Number Crunching (8 October 2012)

The latest edition of Private Eye contains some interesting information regarding the two Miliband brothers - Ed and David.

According to the Eye:

Number Crunching

"65% - is the percentage of Labour supporters who said they would prefer David Miliband to Ed as leader.

65k (or £65,000) - is an MP's salary at Westminster to which David Miliband has added £398,000 of extra-parliamentary earnings in the past year, which probably makes him in no hurry to take over."

Now as far as I can recall the Labour Party always took a dim view of MPs taking on other external roles and responsibilities - because the job of a Member of Parliament was always regarded as a full-time.

Yet two Labour MPs very close to the Labour leader - David Miliband (his older brother) and Gordon Brown (his former boss) - devote huge amounts of time to extra-curricular activities to the extent that they both operate as part-time MPs - and no one says a thing.

To my mind it makes the Labour Party look foolish and hypocritical.

Never mind whether we're all in this together - some people (who should know better) - are having a great old time by playing both sides off against the middle.