Impressions of the UK

We’ve been home for over four months now. I visited the UK every year that I was away, but visiting is not the same as living in a place and there has still been a cultural adjustment to make after eight years in Canada.

It’s not so much that things here are different to Canada, but that they are different to the way I remember in 2006 when we left.

My expectations have been pleasantly confounded by my experience of the NHS since I got back. Yesterday, I had to go to the fracture clinic again, because my cast had become loose as the swelling went down. Yet again I was seen within a couple of minutes of my arrival; so quickly that my husband hadn’t had time to park the car and join me in the waiting room.  Despite all the dire reports of crisis in NHS care in the papers, I’ve felt reassured by our experience so far

On the other hand, customer service by many of the big companies is no worse than I remember it, but it certainly hasn’t improved. Over the last four months, I reckon I’ve spent time equivalent to at least a working day in frustrating phone calls to undertrained staff in call-centres, taking hours to sort out petty problems that should have taken minutes.  It is not hyperbole to say that the combined poor service of the utilities and telecommunications giants must have a negative effect on national productivity. In the future when I’m shopping around for services, I’ll pay attention to the company’s customer service reputation and whether their call centre is staffed by anglophones.

When I went to Canada in ’06 a greater percentage of Canadians were sceptical about climate change than British.  In the last eight years that statistic has been reversed as the number of climate sceptics in Britain has doubled.  Yet, despite that, Britain still feels like a much more environmentally aware country than Canada. It helps that we don’t have a tar-sands industry, or a prime-minister who treats environmentalists as unpatriotic traitors, but it is also the effort that British companies make to show that they are green as well as the ubiquitous wind turbines and solar panels; an equivalent of Marks and Spencer’s Plan A is almost unimaginable in Sears or The Bay.

Despite the partial economic recovery, Britain still feels as if it is in recession.  Most of the smaller gaps on the high street seem to have been filled, but it is several of the the bigger stores which seem to be struggling, evidenced by perpetual sales or discounts, demoralised staff, and stock shortages. The revolution in self-employment is very evident in our locality.  Almost everybody seems to have more than one job.  Our local pubs sell ‘hand-crafted’ beer, the local shop sells local ‘artisanal’ ice-cream.  Our neighbour’s gardener also has a business making and hiring out yurts. It’s a hand-craft economy that might have pleased William Morris as much as David Cameron, but the economic insecurity must be frightening for many.

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I won’t wear a poppy again.

I didn’t wear one in Canada because I objected to the partisanship of the Royal Canadian Legion, but I intended to start wearing one again once I returned to the UK.

But, I’ve found the mawkishness of the WW1 centennial celebrations — I think celebration rather than commemoration is the right word — very distasteful.

I feel that the British political class has been manipulating national sentimentality and patriotism.  With Cameron it seems to be a deliberate policy, partly inspired by Thatcher’s triumphalism over the Falklands, and partly inspired by Blair’s handling of the death of Diana. First we had Thatcher’s funeral, now this.

Of course there is nothing new: a similar manipulation of sentiment was probably what led my grandfather and his brothers to enlist in WW1, and to the deaths of two of them.

But, I am disgusted by the lack of dignity and propriety and the dishonesty.

So now the fairground attraction that is the sea of ceramic poppies will tour the country to delight the general public.

I won’t wear a poppy again.

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The Single Tier Pension roll-out

My husband reaches state retirement age in 2017, so he will be eligible for the single-tier pension.  But, he recently got a pension forecast and discovered that the years he spent in contracted out employment would reduce the single tier pension by nearly half.

If somebody was entitled to a higher pension under the old rules they will be given that amount.  My husband comes into that category.

We had thought that he needed to pay five years Class 3 voluntary National Insurance contributions to bring his record up to 35 years, but there is no need: Since he already has the thirty years needed for the old style pension, there is nothing to be gained by buying more.

Que sera sera – the full single tier pension would have been more money, but we weren’t relying on getting it. I knew that there was going to be a reduction for contracting out, but I had no idea it was going to be so large.

I wonder if anyone who has spent a substantial part of their career in public service will get the single-tier pension. Or indeed, how many people will get it at all in the first few years of the scheme, since there is another category of people better off under the old system — people who were not in contracted out employment and paid substantial amounts of SERPS (or ‘second pension’) contributions.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think the new scheme is a good idea, but I do know a number of people who are very uncertain about their own level of entitlement. This is a more important issue for people on lower incomes. At the moment single-tier pension forecasts are only available for people born before 1955.  The Pension Service website states that for everyone else, forecasts will only be available from April 2016.  It would be helpful for people in their late fifties planning retirement, for that date to be brought forward.

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My past experiences of the NHS A&E service were not very positive.

In 1978 I went over the handlebars of my bike and smashed up my left arm; I had a shattered elbow, fractured wrist and mild concussion.  I was found by a man who took me to hospital in his car — an exquisitely painful journey — but it meant I walked into A&E.  I was ‘triaged’ by the nurse at the desk as a non-urgent case and told to sit down and wait.  I waited, in agony, for some time before I lost control and started screaming uncontrollably, which got me some attention.

In 1988 I was rushed to hospital with a life-threatening kidney infection.  I’d been unable to keep down the antibiotics I’d been prescribed and needed to be given them intravenously. Despite arriving in an ambulance, I was then put on a trolley and not seen for an hour and a half.  Keeping hydrated is vital with kidney problems, but nobody put me on a drip and I may have only survived because my mum kept ferrying me paper cups of water from the washroom. Eventually I was found a bed on a nursing ward, only because the ward sister decided to ‘uncut’ the three beds on the ward she wasn’t supposed to fill.

Of course, that was the height of Thatcherism.  Whom we gave a state funeral including a lift on a gun carriage. And not one leading politician had the courage to refuse to attend…. all unprincipled cowards and wimps.  But I digress.

In around 1994 I spilt some boiling water on my foot.  I only attended A&E because my brother was visiting and he insisted on taking me.  After we’d waited for two hours to be seen we went home and I dressed the wound myself.

I’ve just related this series of anecdotes (and I have more) because they contrast with my recent experience at Barnstaple.  It’s been my bad luck to have to attend A&E twice in the last two months.  The first time was because flashing lights and floaters in front of my left eye indicated a risk of a detached retina, and the second was because I’d broken the fifth metatarsal on my left foot.

On the first occasion at Barnstaple A&E I did have a wait, not long, maybe half an hour, but I think that was because they had to get an eye doc over from the eye clinic. On the second occasion, for my broken foot, I was seen within minutes and was plastered and discharged within an hour, with an appointment at the fracture clinic for the following Monday. Even at the fracture clinic I was seen within five minutes of my appointment time.

This is marvellous.  This is not the NHS I’ve been nervous about putting myself at the mercy of in old age.  I keep reading that the NHS is in crisis, which may be true, but crisis is a relative term, and for the NHS, I suspect it has a different meaning for those of us whose expectations of the health service were forged in the seventies and eighties.

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Some suggestions for Homebase

As someone who has been renovating a house for the last few months, the news that Homebase is in trouble was the least surprising piece of news I’ve read this week.  They really don’t get internet shopping.  I have a few suggestions to up their game:

  • The whole idea of ‘Click and Collect’ is that you have the goods ready for the customer to collect on the date you’ve given them. So, when a customer has driven 15 miles to pick up twelve shelf brackets, the news that the goods are still in the warehouse in Swindon will not be received well.
  • Internet shopping is not an excuse for staff at your branches to distance themselves from responsibility. “Oh, it was an internet order!  Can’t help you there.  The internet lot have nothing to do with us.” is not a good line.
  • When a customer rings a branch about an order, it does not inspire confidence if the phone is answered by a man who tells her that it is no good quoting the order number, because he doesn’t know how to turn on the computer and he’ll have to get ‘one of the girls’.
  • A DIY warehouse is not a bank. Is it really necessary to demand that your customers register before ordering and give you their date of birth, mother’s maiden name and a password containing two numerals?
  • Having made them register, is it also necessary to insist that they sign in before checking whether the local branch has a pair of rising door hinges in stock?
  • Having given them access to the page showing rising hinges, it is counterproductive to time them out of the site while they are comparing prices at your competitors’; that is unless your aim is to drive up sales at B&Q and Wickes.

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Low Finance

This blog entry is about my strategy for maximising my state pension. I’m making the entry for anyone else in my position — that is with a low income but spare cash, or a partner with a higher income, which means that they are not forced to claim their state pension at the first opportunity and who has reached, or is reaching state pension age before 6th April 2016 when the single tier pension comes in. Mostly they will be like me: women in their early sixties. If you are like me, there are a number of tax concessions available.  The question is how to best utilise them:

I’m not poor; I have cash and property and my husband has a good income, but my personal taxable income is well below the personal allowance now that it is £10,000.

I reach the state pensionable age in March next year.  If I take my pension then it will raise my income above the personal allowance and I will have to pay some tax.  But, if I defer taking the pension I can utilise two tax concessions to increase my income meanwhile.

The first is the cash added to a Stakeholder Pension by the government, even if you are a non-taxpayer. If I invest £2,880 the government will make it up to £3,600.  I can take the whole lot out as cash using the ‘small pot’ rule, making a profit of £720 in the 2014/2015 tax year.

Next year, 2015/2016, I can do the same thing again, but I will also be able to utilise the transferable tax allowance for married couples which will be available for the first time in the 15/16 tax year.   I will be able to transfer £1,050 of my unused tax allowance to my husband, reducing his tax bill by  £210.  So my ‘profit’ for 15/16 will be £720 + £210 = £930.

Then I repeat in the tax years 16/17 and 17/18.  My total gains over the four tax years will amount to £3,510, which I would not have made if I’d not deferred taking my state pension.

Then I will claim my state pension at the start of the 18/19 tax year, by which time I will be sixty five and a half, I will have deferred my pension for a total of three years, four weeks. You get an increase of 1% for every five weeks deferral, so my pension will be increased by 31%, an extra £1,823 p.a at current rates.

It will be nearly ten years before the total extra money I’ve been paid in pension is more than the pension money I would have got between March 2015 and April 2018 if I hadn’t deferred, and by that time I will be 75.  But, actuarial tables tell me that my life expectancy as a healthy 62 year old is 87 years old. If I live that long, the deferral will have gained me an extra £22,000 in state pension over my lifetime. My mother is a reasonably hale 88, which encourages me to hope that I may even live longer.

There is one other offer being made by the government to people in my position, which is the Class 3A National Insurance Contribution. I’m considering it, but it isn’t very attractive to me at the moment. It doesn’t help that the online calculator isn’t currently working. But, according to the information that is available, the latest date for paying in will be April 2017. At that date I will be 64 and the online table states that a 64 year old will have to pay £913 for every extra £1 in pension. To get the full extra £25 a week I’d have to invest £23,075. That’s an inflation proofed return of 5.69%, which compares well with buying an annuity, but not so well with deferral. Every calculation I do suggests that anyone who has the cash  to invest in Class 3A contributions would be better off using the money to subsist on while they defer their state pension for a period. I’d love someone to explain to me what set of circumstances would make Class 3A contributions preferable to deferring, other than having deferred previously (because you are only allowed to defer once, although you can have a period of ‘deferral’ after having claimed your pension).

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Post Referendum Reform

Well I wasn’t on-message over the Scottish referendum.  On the post-referendum reforms, however, I’m just undecided.

Nick Clegg suggests that we should start by implementing the recommendations of the McKay Commission. I’d probably agree with him if I could get my head round what those recommendations would mean in practice. Until  a Peter Snow has explained them to me with the aid of digital 3D diagrams, I don’t relish the prospect of going canvassing and trying to argue the virtues of a Legislative Consent Memorandum.

On the other hand, the McKay Commission proposals are the least risky reform on the table, the others being radical reforms to remedy, what is in reality, one of the least significant imperfections in the democratic process. McKay’s solution to  the West Lothian Question may be inadequate, but I think I prefer a weak nutcracker to a destructive sledgehammer.

The constitutional issues I care about are, unsurprisingly, reform of the House of Lords, a fairer voting system, a written constitution and more power for local democracy.  So, I support Miliband’s proposal for a Constitutional Convention.  I’ve signed Unlock Democracy’s Petition.

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