editorofthechron

The blog of the editor of the Congleton Chronicle Series. We cover east Cheshire and north Staffordshire, which are at the very top of the English Midlands Views expressed are not always official newspaper policy.

Health trust ignores NHS guidelines

The row over the parking charges at Macclesfield Hospital — and soon, Congleton War Memorial –— rumbles on.
Perhaps it’s not surprising: in 2013 ParkingEye was bought by Capita for £57.5 million, and the latter has for long been known by Private Eye as “Crapita” and “the world’s worst outsourcing firm”.

Why hospitals would charge for parking is another issue but East Cheshire NHS Trust chief executive John Wilbraham has previously said that ParkingEye was brought in because some motorists avoided paying for parking or parked in the wrong areas, and made it difficult to keep enough spaces available for patients and visitors. Obstructive parking had even blocked emergency vehicles, he said.

Accepting the premise that parking charges deter non-patients from using a hospital’s free parking — though given the location of both Macc and Congleton hospitals, this is hard to swallow — it seems reasonable for the hospital to try and maximise revenue.

Less reasonable is Mr Wilbraham’s explanation for the cases where people have been wrongfully fined for parking, that is: after paying for a ticket.

He blamed patients, saying that motorists inputted their registration details incorrectly when buying tickets. He also said visitors would pay the correct amount and input their details correctly, but then park in a restricted area.

This may or may not be generally true: the one person we bumped into who had been threatened by ParkingEye was adamant that she had entered the correct registration, and was correctly parked.

Moreover, given the hospital’s user base — the old, the worried, the sick and the hurried — this seems more than a little unfair. People parking at hospitals are either ill themselves, or accompanying a visiting someone who is poorly. People with appointments might be rushing.

For a variety of causes, people are going to be stressed and entering their correct registration may not be as easy for them as, say, doing so during a leisurely shopping trip.

It’s because of these factors that the NHS has guidelines as to what hospitals should do when imposing charges, guidelines East Cheshire NHS Trust appears to have ignored.

The NHS recommends that trusts should consider installing pay on exit or similar schemes so that drivers pay only for the time they have used.

Macclesfield’s is pay on arrival, even though pay on exit is presumably easier for patients, who will be less rushed.

Macclesfield allows up to 20 minutes for drop-offs and pick-ups, but the NHS guidelines say additional charges should only be imposed “where reasonable” and should be waived when overstaying is beyond the driver’s control, for example when treatment takes longer than planned.

Moreover the NHS guidelines firmly state: “Contracts should not be let on any basis that incentivises additional charges, eg ‘income from parking charge notices only’.”

A number of readers have complained that this is what is happening at Macclesfield.

As we understand it, ParkingEye paid for the equipment and the trust gets the revenue from the parking charges — ParkingEye’s wedge is the money raised from the fines.

We’ve asked the hospital to comment on why it ignored NHS guidelines but, as this column was being written, it had not replied. We’d guess it would say the NHS advice is that – advice only. It says you can pay for parking at any point before leaving, though this is not the same as pay on exit.

In an era when everything needs to be “monetised” it seems sad that the time of the sick and their families has a value to the NHS.

***

Talking of ignoring guidelines, Congleton Town Council has apologised for ignoring its own financial guidelines but, as was seen last week, individual councillors have apparently failed to comply with the rules governing their actions.

Council critic Graham Goodwin is now digging into the events surrounding the Grove Inn/Lower Heath Stores and Coun Larry Barker.

Coun Barker was a director of Yu Properties, Yu Trading, Yu Developments (involved in the Grove planning application) and Lower Heath Stores at the same time as he was chairman of the town council Planning Committee.

He did not declare that he held directorships of these companies, though he resigned his directorships of the Yu companies in May of this year.

At the full council meeting last week, Mr Goodwin was told that such declarations were mandatory.

Just to make it clear: Coun Barker did not chair nor was he present at any of the planning meetings when Lower Heath matters were on council agendas, as the Mayor explained to last week’s full council.

But, given the mess it made of buying the DDU, Congleton Town Council needs to make sure that it and all its component people obey the rules that govern its work.

On this occasion, no-one is accusing Coun Barker of doing anything wrong, and he in effect declared an interest by absenting himself from the relevant meetings.

But the Simnet affair shows that relatively innocent mistakes can snowball and result in the loss of taxpayers’ money.

Coun Barker’s case is a warning shot to councillors on a personal level — under a different series of events, the omission of the directorships could have been viewed in a different light.

Criminal courts charge – a hidden tax on the poor or just criminals getting what they deserve?

If you read the court reports we carry, you will have noticed an extra payment that convicted people — or criminals, as they are known — have to pay.

Introduced earlier this year, the new criminal courts charge means that people convicted of offences will have to pay up to £1,200 towards the cost of their court case. The fees are not means-tested and start at £150, which is what most people will pay.

The fees are paid on top of fines, compensation orders (and legal charges) and are not linked to the sentence given, with a minimum charge for magistrates’ courts and the maximum level for crown court cases.

Skipping at random through a court list I found criminal courts charges of £180 (carrying a screwdriver as a weapon) and £150 apiece for driving while disqualified, drink driving and criminal damage.

Criminals already pay the victim surcharge — a penalty not paid directly to victims but distributed through the Victim and Witness General Fund — and now they have to pay towards the court costs.

I realise that criminals aren’t going to attract much sympathy — but that’s my point. It seems to be a fairly hefty tax rolled out with little public opposition, imposed on a class of people who can’t afford it.

Now I know all the arguments. I’ve sat through enough court cases to know that most people who go court are guilty, and are in court because they’ve broken the law.

All their excuses can be countered — there’s plenty of poor people who don’t steal, and plenty of people who struggle with life and don’t take drugs.

No-one makes you drink and thump your wife or get behind the wheel and drive. There’s the old saying about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time, and (bad language ahead) many people who commit crime are simply just little shits.

But even if someone uses poverty as an excuse to steal, they’re still poor and whacking an extra £150 debt on them is not going to make them either better off or less likely to offend.

The Government itself says that it’s on the side of people “who work hard and want to get on” and that those who commit crime must pay their way and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.

The trouble is, however high the moral ground as regards criminals, that seems to be the view of someone who’s never been poor, and, moreover, the point of view of a politician who’ found a backdoor tax that no “hard working families” are going to oppose.

The figures floating about also suggest that making a guilty plea will save a defendant money, which can’t be a good thing.

Thanks to plea-bargaining in the States, the outcome of court cases is largely out of the hands of judges and instead rests with prosecutors. They use the threat of long sentences to cut deals — even an innocent man might decide it’s better to cop a short sentence with a guilty plea than risk a long stretch by pleading not guilty.

We don’t want the same over here, where fear of costs pushes people to a guilty plea.

For summary (magistrates only) offences, the charge for a guilty plea is £150. For a not guilty plea and subsequent conviction, this rises to £520.

The charge for pleading guilty in the magistrates’ court to a triable either way offence — one than can go to trial at either the magistrates or Crown court — is £180, but the charge for conviction after a not guilty plea at a magistrates’ court is £1,000. That’s an £820 difference — would a poor person with a minor record decide to plead guilty to avoid the risk of a hefty charge?

Pleading guilty in the magistrates’ court is cheaper both for summary offences (£150 v £520) and in indictable ones (£820 cheaper).

There’s actually little difference between a guilty plea and a trial in the Crown court £900 v £1,200, though the former figure will prevent people pleading not guilty at magistrates and then guilty at Crown, which is actually a good thing.

Maybe I’m being too cautious but I don’t like the idea of a hefty backdoor tax imposed on people most of us don’t care for, or for making poor people pay it, though I should stress that if they go straight after being fined, the court can quash the criminal courts charge.

The idea of a financial inducement to plead guilty also seems wrong. True, most of those who go to court are found guilty but even a fair amount of people taking a conviction because they don’t want to risk being hit in the pocket does not seem conducive to justice.

Time to draw a line under DDU shambles

So we’ve finally got the result of the investigation into why Congleton Town Council wasted £20,000 of taxpayers’ money on a fancy display board that never materialised.

And make no mistake: whatever else went wrong, the town council gets top marks for transparency.

Unlike Cheshire East Council, which hid the report into the Lyme Green fiasco — and continues to hide it — the town council handed a printout of the report to a Chronicle reporter and then emailed us a copy so we could reproduce more of it.

They might be slow at owning up to the mistakes but they were open when it came to releasing the report, unflattering as it is. Bravo.

And further in the council’s defence — town councillors are unpaid. They’re basically enthusiastic volunteers who give up their time for nothing for the good of the town. It’s admirable.

Sadly on this occasion, it all went a bit wrong. As the report showed, the town council failed to follow its own guidelines when ordering the digital display unit (DDU) from SimNet and, to be honest, drifted along in a bit of a dream.

We’ve had some waffly explanations over the affair but Southampton-based BDO has produced a succinct summary, which is that whether or not the DDU cost more or less than £25,000 — accounts vary — the council failed to get three quotes, as required by its financial guidelines.

It also failed to get an expert on board, despite not knowing much about DDUs, and ignored its own credit search on DDU supplier SimNet, giving it four times the amount of credit that on-line company credit checks recommended.

Again, in the council’s defence, things are changing in local government.

The Government is making cuts and expects Cheshire East Council to make cuts itself. Cheshire East in turn is hiving off services as fast as it can, including dumping — sorry, “devolving” — work onto town councils. Congleton Town Council today has a lot more work than Congleton Town Council of even a few years ago.

It’s perhaps a combination of this extra work and the volunteer status of councillors that allowed the DDU to drift along — drift being a good word, as the £20,0000 disappeared with the same effectiveness as the Mary Celeste.

There are lessons to be learned for all our local councils, who are getting more responsibility across the board.

You must have a good set of rules and regulations and you must adhere to them.

You have to make sure that everything is minuted, and that somebody reports back to the council on any more costly projects on a regular basis.  As town councils do more, it stands to reason they’re going to have to take on bigger projects.
It also seems to us that the DDU affair fires a warning at local councils where one party has dominant control.

We’ve said before that party politics should play no part in local government, and this episode may well prove this.

The DDU was simply not discussed enough, and one could argue that this was because one party was in power and knew that its decisions would go through on the nod anyway.

Vagueness abounded in the DDU story: the initial meeting with SimNet was not minuted; a resolution was passed to buy the unit at “£15,000+”, with no company name and no guidance for the town clerk; the price went up from “£15,000+” to £60,000 (including VAT and monthly costs) but was not referred back to the council; the specs were drawn up but no name appears on them, and this spec was not reviewed or adopted for some time, and a credit check was carried out but ignored.

Again: we only know all this because the council has released the document, so good for it.

Now a line should be drawn under this. It is annoying, both as a taxpayer and as a local business — for £20,000 up front we could have given the council a full page in the Chronicle once a month for two years if we stuck to rate card, probably four or five years if they’d negotiated nicely — but we have to move on.

Hopefully, no matter what their public utterances — that nothing illegal was done, even though nothing illegal was ever suggested — those involved feel a bit daft and a little ashamed.

We all make mistakes. The Chronicle has made some that still leave us embarrassed a decade on. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Hopefully Congleton Town Council will be allowed to move on, and all other local councils will be grateful for the lesson learned.

Democracy: not quite all it’s cracked up to be?

In the recent UK General Election there was well-reported dissatisfaction because one party formed a Government with only 36.9% of the vote and two others, with sizeable voting totals, only got a seat apiece.

But a recent research paper by Prof Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, found that — at least in America — democracy is functioning even worse than might be thought.

He looked at to whom the US Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) responded — average Americans or the economic elites.

If you’re cynical, you can guess what the finding was: Prof Gilens told Slate’s The Gist podcast that he had expected to find people with more money would have more influence, but he also expected to find that ordinary citizens would have at least some ability to shape politicians’ decisions.

They don’t.

He found that policy tracks what the affluent want, and bears no relationship to what middle income Americans want. By affluent, he meant the top 10%, not the top 1%, but he said his results probably underestimated the effect of that top 1%.

He found that the views of 90% of Americans had no impact at all at legislation, though it’s not that they never have an influence: the 90% does get listened to when there is a close election or a fine balance of power at Congress, though this is not reflected in legislation passed. Which sounds like they only listen when they need votes, and then they stop listening.

Whether the same is true of the UK is up to you to decide — though the systems of donations are different, it’s not hard to imagine that political parties are influenced by the views of donors. It would be easy to assume that, say, loosening of planning reforms to help developers coupled with the “bedroom tax” mean that similar principles operate here.

***

It’s probably not as simple as donor gives money, party frames law, though Labour did accept £1m from Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone just before it omitted F1 from a ban on tobacco advertising.

It’s probably more that wealthy donors are able to put their views to attentive politicians face to face, whereas your man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus never does.

Coupled with the fact that most of our politicians seem to be millionaires whose social life entails mingling with other millionaires, it’s possible something similar occurs in the UK.

Prof Gilens cited as examples tax policy — the rich want lower income and lower capital gains taxes — and free trade, with the affluent more in favour of free trade.

He said that sometimes Congress could appear to be in agreement with people, citing home security and the Patriot Act but this is purely coincidental, because the affluent are as concerned as the middle classes on the issue — policy again changed because of the top 10%.

Prof Gilens said this was “not very democratic” but said it wasn’t necessarily all bad: in social and moral issues, the affluent tend to be more liberal. So Congress was more liberal over issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

As his paper (Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, co-authored with Benjamin I Page) put it: “Economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

***

Prof Gilens based his research on his unique data, compiled over many years, originally gathered for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.

For the new paper, Prof Gilens and “a small army of research assistants” gathered data on surveys of the general public that asked a favour/oppose question about a proposed policy change. They gathered information on public opinion and then compared it to legislation enacted.

“Affluent” Americans were the top 10%, who, while “neither very rich nor very elite” (average annual household income about $146,000) served as an “affluent” proxy and were likely to give an underestimate of the impact of economic elites on policy making.

“If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater,” said the researchers.

Note that the preferences of average citizens were positively correlated across issues with the preferences of economic elites, ie average citizens and affluent citizens largely wanted the same things from government. This should temper any judgments on “winners” and “losers,” the paper said.

This is lucky, because the paper stated: “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organised interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

This means that majoritarian electoral democracy — encapsulated in Abraham Lincoln’s reference to “of the people, by the people, for the people,” — does not work in the US.

Interest groups did have “substantial independent impacts” on policy, but while a few groups — particularly the unions — represented average citizens’ views reasonably well, the interest-group system as a whole did not.

Said the report: “This does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favour, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence.”

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organised interests, they generally lose.

Even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.

Future research will try and pin down which group actually does influence law making — the top 1%? The top one-tenth of 1%?

Health trust must tackle the parking problems immediately

Most issues we write about in this column have two sides, even if one side is weaker than the other. There is always some balance to be made.

But one issue is as clear-cut as anything we have seen in many years: the problem of parking at Macclesfield Hospital and, soon, Congleton War Memorial.

When people can pay for a parking ticket and then be hounded for fines they allegedly owe, something is wrong.

And something is clearly wrong with the hospital’s ParkingEye system and East Cheshire NHS Trust — a public servant at the end of the day — should be ashamed of the stress it is putting people under. The situation is reprehensible.

It doesn’t really need much more saying about it, but two points need to be made (ignoring the debate over whether hospitals should be charging people to park in the first place).

The first point is that a hospital is not like a commercial enterprise that can charge people to park (though many commercial enterprises don’t charge customers) because people have no choice but to attend.

You can decide whether to shop at one supermarket or another based on its parking policy, and we know of examples of where it has happened.

But if your doctor sends you for tests or you’re having a baby or you get run over and rushed to A&E, you have no real choice where to go (particularly the latter).

If a private company had a monopoly and then enforced a punitive measure on people because of that monopoly, the authorities would take swift action, such as happens with dominant IT companies.

Second, people who attend hospital are, by definition, usually stressed.

If they’re not ill themselves, they’re either taking in a sick child or or visiting a sick relative. Being hounded over parking fees is the last thing they want or need. The mither is only adding to their stress.

Actually there are three things: if this parking system was in the private sector, it would work.

A private company could not afford to upset people in the way East Cheshire NHS Trust is doing.

As a result, similar systems in the private sector work. We don’t hear of supermarket ANPR systems regularly fining large numbers of people who have paid for a ticket, because any store that did that — unlike a public body — would lose customers and lose money.

But that’s what appears to be happening at Macclesfield. People are paying for tickets and then getting threatening letters trying to enforce a fine, saying they either haven’t paid or were in two places at once.

For example, local man Mike Muston received a £70 fine even though he held a valid parking ticket, and is now so worried about getting another ticket he’s thinking of going on the bus, to hospital, with a bad leg.

Is this what health chiefs want? To force sick people to travel on the bus and walk to hospital? (Maybe it is: the car park is always full).

We’ve heard of another case where a driver drove to a different part of the car park to pick up a frail relative and received a fine — because he’d left the car park and driven back on.

Another person, visiting hospital because of a sick child, is being taken to court by ParkingEye, despite having a valid ticket at the time.

And yet another victim, Tony Carroll, has found out that East Cheshire NHS Trust has received dozens of complaints about ParkingEye. This, just to repeat, is a public body that is supposed to be looking after the health of taxpayers, not adding to the stress in their lives.

As said at the start of this column, this a rare case where there is only one side to the argument.

It’s clear something is going badly wrong with the parking system at Macclesfield Hospital.

It’s clear East Cheshire NHS Trust is treating patients and their families badly.

It’s clear that the trust’s agent threatening people with legal action when they have abided by the law is wrong.

The trust has no defence whatsoever, and needs to sort this problem out immediately.

Even Tories are entitled to make a living . . . .

The internet is in many ways marvellous and/but it means that all information is available, all the time, for anyone who has the time to look for it.

What to make of the information you find is another matter.

After the recent elections, we’ve had a number of people contact us. They’ve spent hours — days for all we know, emerging only when hunger and neglected children call — searching company directories, where you can pay for information on firms and directors, but also get a decent amount for free.

For example, Coun Larry Barker, of Congleton Town Council has been the subject of a number of searches, because (i) he’s a Tory and (ii) involved in Hood’s Stores at Lower Heath, Congleton, both of which annoyed people.

Before the election we had someone stirring up Tory-related trouble on Facebook, having found that — wait for it — as a professional man, Coun Barker was director of some companies.

The generally tenor of the conversation was: “We’ve found this on the internet, he’s a Tory, so there must be some-thing going on.”

After pointing out the fact someone with a directorship of a small shop in a small northern town wasn’t really headline news — or indicative of anything at all, come to that — we had to break it to our contact that even Tories were allowed to make a living, particularly when the position they held on the council was unpaid.

(It’s worth pointing out that this person who was so keen to “expose” Coun Barker had registered onto Facebook using a fake name — openness and transparency having its limits, apparently).

If you take the trouble to look up Coun Barker’s directorships, you’ll find he’s involved with shadowy groups such as Congleton Rugby Union Football Club and Newcastle-under-Lyme Community and Voluntary Support.

A town councillor, member of various community bodies: the man clearly needs exposing for all his good deeds.
It is more newsworthy that he’s a director of Lower Heath Stores, because that area has been in the news over plans to open a new store on the site of the eyesore that is the Grove Inn, and the closure of Hood’s shop. But when we contacted him for a comment he wasn’t hiding in his secret underground base stroking a cat but as open as anyone involved in a mildly controversial deal would be.

We don’t know the full details of what councillors are expected to declare but we doubt it’s every facet of their lives.
Town councillors are not paid, so it stands to reason that many will have jobs: they are supposed to declare paid employment and so on (as well as any “beneficial interest” in land that is within the area of the local authority upon which they serve).

Presumably if you say you get paid as, say, a self-employed builder, you don’t have to also give details of the companies you actually trade under.

So for future reference:

It’s not always news that someone owns a company.

It would be news if they failed to properly declare when they should.

And it’s certainly not news just because it’s on the internet.

Not that it’s not interesting: from Coun Barker we got to Yu Convenience and Yu Trading, which are the companies currently hoping to develop the former Grove Inn.

From a director there we got to Heritage Properties Congleton (which is based in Cleethorpes) and Yu Property Group (based on the Isle of Man) and then back to Hurst Street Dock Mill Partnership, also in Cleethorpes.

This led to us to Mr GN Malouf, who may not may not be Gregory Nicholas Malouf, who may or may not be the same man as gregorymalouf.com, some kind of motivational speaker, with booklets such as Breaking Down The Berlin Wall In Your Head.

Actually, that’s 10 minutes of life we’ll never get back.

Advice for new councillors

With the area’s new councillors now all settling in their new roles, this week I offer some advice . . . .

(1). The most important thing to remember is that you’re not important, so don’t start thinking you are. The council upon which you serve is important, your role in society is important, the office of councillor is important, but you are not.
You may be popular but the odds are that you are on the council because someone pinned a rosette on you, of a hue that your voters preferred.

This may seem a little harsh, but as editor of the Chronicle I know I’m not important either.

The previous editor held that position for 40 years and during that time he was the person everyone wanted to speak to. As his deputy, they’d sometimes deign to speak to me, but usually they wanted him.

Then one week we ran a small panel saying I was the new editor. On Monday morning the situation was reversed: everyone wanted me and the calls for him stopped coming. Now: either I’d miraculously gained enormous wisdom and influence over the weekend, or it was simply the position that was important. Obviously, it’s the latter, much as I’d like to believe the former.

You’re on the council now and you’re the person to go to, but if you lost your seat they’d all go to someone else.

(2). Your loyalty is to the people who voted you in, not any political party you may belong to. Voting along party lines or because of national policy has no place on a local council.

It’s noticeable that politicians regularly go over to the USA and come back with good ideas (sometimes not so good) but none has ever returned with the basic element of local government in America: town councillors (or at least the US equivalent) are not elected on party lines. They are elected on their own achievements, as individuals.

As an aside, this is the reason local newspapers endorse candidates in the US — there is no wider implication. We could (say) have recommended Denis Murphy or Sam Corcoran or Glen Williams but as soon as we pick a candidate, we favour a party. This stifles honest debate about candidates.

As a further aside, we could ask why this is. It’s not terribly good for democracy.

It obviously makes it easier — parties can round up people and stick a rosette on them, and people know for whom to vote, without having to bother reading about candidates. This is a rather lazy form of democracy, and people do get elected who have no interest in doing so, standing just to make up the numbers.

The downside is that independents, who may well be very talented, just not interested in political parties, find it harder to get elected.

Maybe one of our more adventurous councils could try and sever the links between party politics and councillors.
Incidentally, Congleton Town Council’s code of conduct implies that party politics has no place on the council.

Members are told that “you must act solely in the public interest”; “you must not place yourself under .. . obligation to outside individuals or organisations”; “you should exercise independent judgement . . . reach your own conclusions on the issues before you and act in accordance with those conclusions.”

That last point includes the phrase “(you) may take account of the views of others, including a political group,” but the general tenor of the code is to vote independently. We shall be watching for anyone putting party before people.

Talking of which:

(3). We (in the media generally) are not out to get you, or your council. Do your job correctly and fairly and don’t say anything too stupid and you’ll have no complaints about your Press coverage. Councils generally complain about negative reporting but in fact most reporting is either positive or neutral. You’ll just remember the bad stuff, that’s all.

As long as you remember point (i) — that you’re not important in the first place — you won’t go wrong.

Talking of the media: you stood because you wanted to help people and get involved. You didn’t do it to get your photo in the Chronicle, or any other newspaper. Some causes need publicity, and we’re happy to help, others do not. But whatever you do, you doing it for its own sake, not to get publicity.

But:

(4). It’s also true you won’t get praise for your good work, only complaints for your failings. That’s human nature. You can do 99 good things, but it’s your one cock up that people will complain about, probably by writing to the  Chronicle. Suck it up. And don’t complain to us: we can run a report every week for a decade but the one week we lose it, odds are someone will write in saying “I don’t know why I bother writing our reports when you never use them…..”.

There you go.

Don’t believe in your own importance, put your people first and don’t expect praise.

Why did you stand for council again?

Mad Markers of Mansions: myth or miscreants?

You smell gas, your legs no longer work, your husband sees a dark stranger outside, a neighbour picks up a cloth, sniffs it and keels over . . . . Pretty scary, uh?

This was the experience of residents in Mattoon, Illinois, during the mid-1940s. Those attacked by the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, notably Mr and Mrs Bert Kearney, the victims of the first Mattoon case to be reported by the media, described the gasser as being a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap.

Victims reported smelling an unusual odour, being overcome by nausea and being unable to use their legs. When police arrived, however, they could smell nothing.

The police increased patrols, the FBI was called in and citizen vigilantes roamed the streets.

Now it’s accepted there was no Mad Gasser of Mattoon and that it was all a case of mass hysteria. Oh, those wacky people of small town America in 1944.

Except: England 2015. Gangs of mystery men no-one has seen roam the land, looking for victims. None are ever spotted, but, like the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the modern bogeymen leave behind panic and small clues.

Yes, it’s the Mad Markers of Mansions, the ghostly beings who are reported to be leaving chalk marks on houses (we only said “mansions” because it was alliterative) across the area, indicating a wide variety of targets: people without dogs, people with dogs, people with old dogs, people with corn dogs, vulnerable people, old people, rich people, gullible people who believe whatever they read on Facebook….

No-one has seen anyone make a mark but everyone seems to believe the markings are being left by dognappers or burglars or gypsies. Or even burglarising gypsy dog thieves.

As you can tell, we don’t believe a word of it. It just doesn’t seem logical.

Think about it:

• It means burglars/dog thieves — we’ll just call them bogymen from now on — are casing out houses twice, once armed with chalk making obvious marks outside houses, and running the risk of being caught, and once when they come back and actually break in.

• Talking of which: there hasn’t been an epidemic of break-ins or dog thefts.

• It would mean the bogymen ran a hugely organised operation — there are chalk marks all over the place. Yet bogymen by nature tend to operate alone. You do get gangs, but most are loners.

• No-one has ever seen anyone making a chalk mark.

• It’s pointless (i): Bogymen  aren’t stupid — mobile phones and the like offer the technology to mark houses. Why risk being caught when you can use Google maps?

• It’s pointless (ii): marking houses with chalk only makes sense in the absence of other identifying features. Unfortunately for the bogyman theory, we already identify houses quite well, giving most of them street names and numbers.

• Finally, myth-busting website snopes.com reports that warnings about bogymen tagging homes with coloured stickers, stealing of canines for the use of, was originally circulated in the suburbs of Perth, Australia. Strewth!

In February 2013 it moved to the UK — many people in Perth are of UK origin. But animal welfare authorities in Perth, inundated with phone calls, said the warnings were “completely unfounded.” Similarly, in March 2013 officials in Yorkshire denied that bogymen were placing stickers or other markings on vehicle tyres.

By this year the bogymen had crossed to the US, where they were tying plastic bags to trees as a harbinger of doom, or at least dognappers.

According to Facebook, criminals marked dog-owning homes by tying grocery bags to trees, but no-one stopped to think how the bogymen would know the difference between dogfight bags put there on purpose and bags that had simply blown there.

Clearly there are some sort of chalk marks appearing, but whether it’s kids or workmen, we don’t know.

The Yorkshire warning over marks on tyres arose because of the red and yellow dots/stickers put on tyres by manufacturers (red dots denote the heaviest part of the tyre and a yellow dot the lightest, usually by the valve, apparently).

Does anyone know who would leave chalk marks on footpaths? Email us (no questions asked!)

Someone does appear to be leaving chalk marks, but we’d guess it’s a mixture of pranksters and assorted workmen.

As in 1944 in Mattoon, Illinois, imagination does the rest.

We wuz right!

National newspapers and pollsters might have been surprised at the results of the General Election, but readers of the Chron should not have been.

My faith in the bookies over the pollsters proved absolutely correct.

A number of pollsters, quizzed on their total failure, admitted that they had ignored results that didn’t seem to fit the perceived way things were going.

What they meant was the way the media shaped the reporting of the election: the national media can only handle excitement — predictability doesn’t sell papers — which is why neck and neck races and landslides are so popular. Last week’s result was seen as neck and neck, except by the bookies.

I wrote that the most likely outcome would be the Tories with the largest number of seats, Labour in Scotland wiped out, the Lib Dems given a kicking, SNP the third largest party, Labour unlikely to do well, and UKIP ending up with only one or two seats, as well as all the losing party leaders out of a job. Pretty close.

I did think that a lot of people would vote Tory once they actually got in the election booth, because the Tories’ record on the economy was a known quantity. Unfortunately I didn’t write this down, because I didn’t want to appear biased.
Based on highly researched analysis — a friend in Rochester — I also said that UKIP’s Mark Reckless would lose his seat. Not bad at all, mainly thanks to William Hill, of course.

***

Locally, and predictably, the Tories retained control of everything. Even people who didn’t vote for her seem to have no problem with Fiona Bruce, who is a good constituency MP. The Moorlands used to be vaguely marginal but the lack of any big-hitting ministerial visits this year showed that Karen Bradley, another hard-working MP, has got the seat sewn up for the Tories.

More worrying are Cheshire East Council and Congleton Town Council, who, particularly the latter, became even more Tory. Regardless of party politics, dominance by one party has the potential to go wrong, as the Lib Dems showed when they ran Congleton Borough Council. The ability to do whatever you want can be good if you have good ideas, but a few bad apples can cause things to go awry.

Cheshire East Council seems to be getting better under Michael Jones, even though at times he’s like an unguided missile, but Congleton town’s rather heavy handed handling of the DDU episode is a cloud on the horizon. It is remarkable that Cheshire East’s ineptitude over the local plan seems to have had no effect at all on voters.

The Conservatives on both councils might feel the public endorsement means they can’t be criticised, but all those who voted for them have the right to expect well run, democratic, efficient and transparent councils. The Chronicle, if anything, will be keep an even closer eye on what they’re doing, in the absence of any real opposition.

***

Nationally a lot of people seem unhappy at the result. I have every reason to be among them: hardly any of the people I voted for won seats.

(In the spirit of transparency, I expect from our local councils, nationally I voted Green because I think global warming is an issue that dwarfs all others and a “greener” lifestyle would ease the pressure on the NHS by encourage people to take more exercise. Locally I voted for all the main parties, because I believe in balance).

Those who complain miss the point of democracy. The alternative is not some other form of democracy where everyone gets their way, but something much less pleasant: oligarchy, a monarchy or dictatorship. No votes are “wasted”. The deal is not that all votes get people’s choices elected but that votes mean the process is being observed and adhered to.

Not for nothing do people without democracy take to the streets and demand it, or form lengthy queues when they get it. Not for nothing do dictators fear democracy, rigging ballots and intimidating or murdering opponents.

Your vote might not have counted this time but it will do next, and politicians know they will be held to account.

***

To go back to the beginning and the media message: it also seems that some in the media are trying to create the illusion that UKIP had an effect on British politics, and has a role to play.

It seems to me it failed completely. This election was its big chance to grab a share of power and it didn’t. Only one MP and its charismatic leader failing to get elected is not a success, especially when its expectations were (probably) for no more than 6-10 seats.

It’s no wonder UKIP doesn’t want Mr Farage to resign (assuming it wasn’t all planned to begin with).

One possible reason for its poor performance is, ironically, Europe. Despite claiming to be different to other politicians, UKIP MEPs are just the same, but worse.

According to figures compiled by The Independent in 2012, over the previous three years the party’s 12 MEPs had tabled no reports, 11 had tabled no opinions, nine had signed no written declarations or motions, and seven had tabled no amendments to reports, ranking them at the bottom of all 753 MEPs.

UKIP would say that as it doesn’t agree with the EU people should expect no more, but of course its MEPs keep all the money and expenses that Europe has to offer.

Mr Farage is still an MEP and in his resignation speech said: “I intend to take the summer off, enjoy myself a little bit; not do very much politics at all,” suggesting that his work as an MEP is still not high on his agenda.

Final Election Watch . . .

It’s election day today (Thursday) so I’ve tried to keep politics out of this issue but letters page stalwart Sam Corcoran (Labour) wrote in complaining that I didn’t fact-check some of the claims (made in the hustings and letters pages etc) in last week’s issue.

He’s done his own fact checking — obviously fairly biased towards his own party — so I thought I’d use his letter as the basis for a final Election Watch.

You would be foolish to take any headline claims seriously. Both the main parties are manipulating the numbers in a way I’ve come to mentally label “gas boiler lottery”.

My gas boiler broke this year and cost me £2,500. If I was a politician I could claim I was “£2,500 worse off” under the Tories without saying exactly why. Conversely, I could have won £5,000 on the Lottery and claim I was £5,000 better off.

This is a crude comparison but politicians use figures crudely, taking the worse figure possible for their opponents’ budgets and then dividing it by the smallest number they can morally use, to get the most damaging figure.

Both, for example, often use tax figures based on “working households” paying tax — but only working households. Pensioners are excluded, as are nonworking households, yet they all pay tax too. By just using “working households” (probably “hard working households”) a politician can make tax plans look much more damaging.

Anyway, back to Sam Corcoran’s letter.

He wrote: “I was sorry not to see your Election Watch fact check in last week’s papers as some of the lies being peddled need rebuttal.” Lies? Strong words indeed.

He cites:

• “Labour ran up the biggest debts in our history”. Sam said this was not true because the UK’s net debt now was higher than when Labour left office.

This is true, in a court-of-law-leading-question sort of way.

From 2002–2007, Labour increased national debt, which it spent on health and education. Under Tony Blair, the country had four years of budget surplus, but Labour increased the debt.

The Tories (and the next government) are stuck with this and older accumulated debt because the average growth of public spending is about 3%, and much of this is automatic, such as rising pensions.

Both parties are stuck with managing the deficit, and both are reluctant to go into detail.

The Tories will continue to make the cuts we all know and love; Labour seem to be committed to borrow an extra £25-£30bn for capital spending, which is what they did last time they were in, spending it on schools and health.

If you’re a Tory tutting at Labour borrowing while in budget surplus, instead of paying off debt, consider that quantative easing seems to have just made the very wealthy even wealthier and the top end art market has boomed. In four years, the global turnover in sale rooms almost doubled since the slowdown of 2009/2010. The New York Times said that US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was “a major patron” of the art market.

• “The Conservatives never promised to eliminate the deficit in this Parliament”. George Osborne said in his budget speech in June 2010: “That deficit will then be eliminated to plus 0.3% in 2014-15 and plus 0.8% in 2015-16. In other words, it will be in surplus”.

Sam seems to be wrong here. George Osborne promised to eliminate the STRUCTURAL deficit by 2015-16, not the deficit. Tedious semantics I know, but this is how politicians work.

The Tories CAN claim not to have promised to reduce the deficit. They did promise to reduce the structural deficit, which they failed to do by as much as they promised. Because of this, they’ve tried to say they’ve reduced spending as a percentage GDP but this is also untrue.

• “The Conservatives have fixed the economy”. Sam said this was not true and he appears to have a point. Some facts:

(i) Living standards up to 2013 rose more slowly than expected but after 2013 speeded up more than expected.

(ii) Consumer confidence has been low for 12 years (ie back into Labour) and is now improving. The official rating for confidence fell into negative figures during the early years of the coalition but has picked up. At the peak of New Labour, confidence was rated +10, during the early years of the coalition it fell to -30 and is now +4.

(iii) The gross domestic product in the UK expanded 0.30% in the first quarter of 2015 over the previous quarter.
As a comparison, the growth rate averaged 0.61% from 1955 until 2015. The all-time high was 5% in the first quarter of 1973, the record low -2.70% in the first quarter of 1974.

Sam wrote: “The Conservatives inherited a growing economy, but destroyed that growth by making sudden ideological cuts in 2010.” That’s also sort of true. Growth was about 0.3% in 2008 but crashed around 2009 (Labour) to -2.2%. By 2010 it had jumped back to over 0.4% and was rising but slowed, peaking at a full 1% mid-way through 2010 before dropping back. Then it kind of goes up and down around the 0% mark.

The economy is probably not doing as badly as pessimists feared but neither is it fixed. It all depends whether you agree that:

• “Labour caused the financial crash”. Sam said this was not true and was denied by Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England.

In fact Mr King — whose bank must also carry some of the blame so he’s got a dog in the fight — said there was “a shared intellectual responsibility” across all the political parties, bankers’ speak for “everyone is to blame”.

Politicians of all hues failed to control the banking sector, probably because it was too complex, bankers were big donors, and the biggest fools sound the most confident.

While the banking collapse fell on Labour’s watch — and Labour raised the debt despite running a budget surplus — both main parties allowed the banks to be less well regulated, from Maggie T to Gordon B.

• Tax. If you’re still reading, you’re doing well because I’m running out of steam, which of course is what politicians hope. Repeat enough dodgy figures enough times and people won’t have the energy to check them all.
Sam made a point about tax: this is the point where both parties get hard to follow.

Labour claim working people will be £1,600 worse off under the Tories, but this doesn’t include pensioners, tax and benefits changes and is based on year-old figures. The Tories ditto. You can’t really believe anything you read about tax. Both parties are going to cut services and raise taxes; Labour will borrow more to invest in public services.

As a final Election Watch warning: readers of the dreadful Daily Express need to be aware that its owner Richard Desmond has donated £1m to UKIP. This obviously affects its reporting.

I say “dreadful”: a Washington Post article branded the Express “evil” for a headline that read “80% want to quit the EU”. The Post noted: “The headline is beyond misleading; it is an outright lie in any meaningful sense of the word.” It added: “It seems that the Express isn’t a real newspaper . . . (it’s) in the same category as those Nigerian spammers. The difference is, perhaps, that from the outside it looks like a legitimate (if low-brow) newspaper, so it’s polluting the public discourse.”

Another media-related issue is the non dom tax debate. The most famous non dom in the media is the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere. That newspaper had a go at Ed Miliband’s father; the abolition of non dom tax loophole would raise very little in actual revenue but annoys the Daily Mail very much, as well as forcing the Tories to take a stance.

Readers of either newspaper should thus treat any stories with even more suspicion than usual.

Talking of UKIP: I‘ve not fact-checked Mr Farage’s claims as most are very misleading but tedious to check, as with houses being built for immigrants, which I wrote about the other week.

For example: his claim that 60% of the 7,000 people treated for HIV at £25,000 a year were “health tourists” is not true, not least because NHS records do not make it possible to make the claim he did.

For a start, 6,000 people are year are treated, not 7,000.
What is known is that 46% were from the UK and 54% are not (the possible source of
Mr Farage’s “60%”).

But some of the 54% were from countries where HIV treatment is free anyway (so not “health tourists”), or from countries with whom the NHS has a reciprocal agreement — ie the money can be claimed back, or offset against the cost of Brits treated abroad.

Some of the 54% would have a right to use the NHS — like Mr Farage’s own German-born wife.

Around 30% of those were from poor countries, 25% from Africa, but some of these would have UK citizenship.

Happy voting.

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