Archive for British politics

Solar panels

Back last summer, we decided not to put solar panels on our roof, but recently we have reconsidered the pros and cons and decided to get fresh quotes.

On the con side are the aesthetics.  This was the deciding factor last year, since our house is part of a terrace of coastguard cottages which are a local landmark. The roof is mellow dappled Delabole slate. The terrace is not listed, however, and one of the houses already has panels. The other con is the uncertainty about how long we will remain in the house and whether it will be long enough to get our money back (I don’t buy the argument that panels will increase the value of the house on resale: panels are a depreciating asset so even if they add value initially, they won’t after a few years).

But, there is one big pro, which is that the FIT (feed in tariff), even now it has been reduced several times, makes panels one of the best financial investments we can make with our savings, possibly yielding as much as an inflation proofed 9% p.a. compared with less than 6% fixed from an annuity.

I could also argue that it is our civic duty to utilise our prime south facing sunny site, but actually I think the ethics are fairly evenly balanced pro and con. On the one hand the FIT is a ‘middle-class subsidy’, and George Monbiot makes a convincing argument that due to the inefficiency of panels in our maritime climate, it is a poor way of spending public money to reduce our carbon emissions. On the other hand, this is a democracy and this is the way we as a society have decided to fulfil our commitment to combat climate change, so is it right to opt out when I agree with the objective and only object to the method?

Last year I was also put off by the difficulty of comparing quotes and checking the information provided by salesman and I’m not relishing going through the process again.  There doesn’t seem to be any industry standard for comparing the efficiency of panels. A label system for panels similar to that used for electrical appliances would be very helpful for consumers. The  Energy Savings Trust provides a useful solar energy calculator which estimates the savings for the first year after installation, which is a better guide than the figures provided by salesmen.

Most installers seem to be small local firms, which means that any guarantee they give for their workmanship is almost valueless, so a national guarantee scheme would also be helpful. Not that there seem to be many complaints about workmanship, but it is of particular concern to coastal dwellers like ourselves, whose panels will have to withstand high winds and salt-laden air.

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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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A&E

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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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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The Scottish Referendum

My husband and I disagree on the subject of the referendum.  He, a Canadian of Scottish descent, believes wholeheartedly that Scotland should vote No.  I, an Englishwoman with no Scottish connections whatsoever, am undecided but veer towards Yes.

The fact is that I can’t possibly know how I’d vote if I lived in Scotland, but I think the prospect of living in a smaller, more egalitarian society with a fairer voting system and no Tory party would have enormous appeal. On the other hand the dire warnings about the effect of independence on Scotland’s economy might sway me and I would not be reassured by Salmond and crew underplaying the difficulties ahead.

I’m certain that the rhetoric by the No campaign about what our country has achieved ‘together’ would have the opposite effect to the one intended. I find it very distasteful that David Cameron, the descendant of slave-owners, claims the abolition of slavery as one of Great Britain’s achievements.  It is a mitigation of our slave-trading past, but it is not something to be proud of. And his claim that the Enlightenment was kickstarted by the UK is just ignorant.

I’m also certain that the decision this Thursday is one for the people of Scotland and them alone.  I wish them success whatever they decide.

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Why does the Coalition have it in for ‘Ex-Pats’?

The government seems to have it in for British citizens who get on the Tebbit bike (or in their case a plane) and go and seek their fortunes abroad.

Woe betide them if they decide to come home, because they won’t get a welcome and a pat on the back for their initiative.

Bad luck to the low earning ex-pat who wants to return with their non-British life partner. The new financial requirements for a spouse visa are being challenged in the courts, but currently the Briton who wishes to sponsor their non-British partner will need an income of £18,600, and to show that s/he has earned that amount for at least 6 months, or have savings of  £62,500.  It is one law for the rich and one for the poorer.

The Immigration Act 2014 imposes a NHS financial levy on migrants without indefinite leave to remain.  Someone applying for a spousal visa does not get ILR for five years, so if the NHS levy is going to be £200 p.a. then that’s another £1,000 on top of the existing fee of  £1,500.

And that is just for sponsoring a spouse.  If you also have step-children who are not British nationals, the income and savings requirements and the fees get higher.

If things don’t work out for the young Brit abroad and she arrives back in the UK without a penny to her name, well that’s her bad luck too, because the Coalition has decided to deny her any benefits for three months.  This is to discourage undesirables from entering the UK such as skint British nurses, plumbers and electricians who might take a few weeks to get a job.  And it doesn’t matter a damn how many years tax and national insurance they’d paid before they left.

These measures have been introduced by this government without altering the existing injustice of the frozen state pensions for British retirees in Commonwealth countries. This provides a strong incentive for brassic OAP ex-pats to return to the UK and not only get their pensions index linked, but avail themselves of the other supports of the NHS, free bus passes and means-tested benefits.

So to recap:  If you are young, economically active and have the drive and initiative to seek work abroad, you will be discouraged from returning.  On the other hand, if you are old, retired and poor, you are given a positive incentive to come home. Someone should make a poster to hang above Theresa May’s desk that reads “Remember — This is an Ageing Society”.

My own stint as an ‘ex-pat’ is about to come to an end. I’m not personally affected by the Coalition’s ‘reforms’, but I’m very aware of them as a result of taking part in ex-pat forums. Just today there was a query from a single mother in New Zealand who wants to return home, but wouldn’t have a penny to live on when she arrived until she found a job.  For someone like her, the three month rule is devastating.

 

 

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Ten weeks to go

This year was probably my last White Good Friday, and I won’t be sorry if I never experience another White Christmas either.  My heart’s desire is never to see another snowflake for as long as I live.

Swapping continents involves keeping a lot of balls in the air at once, and between now and the end of June I will have constant anxiety about dropping one of them.

Planning our relocation, I’ve found the British Ex-Pat forums invaluable. With the help of the forum I’ve managed to keep the cost to under £10,000, which is remarkable given that we spend nearly £13,000 in ’06, though then we were spending a generous relocation allowance from Ian’s employer.

The biggest expense is for a 20′ container, which will transport our books and household goods. The cost of transporting our two cats is the next most expensive item, more than our own airfares; they travel on the same aircraft as us, but as cargo. The remainder of the expense is made up of car and van hire and a hotel for our last few days in Canada after our house has been emptied.

The whole of my time in Alberta has been overshadowed by the fact that our life here is subsidized by an industry, the tar sands, that I think should be closed down. There isn’t any way the industry can be made sustainable.  Being here has meant living a contradiction and it has made me unhappy.  It was a huge relief to me last year when the sale of our house meant that I no longer had a significant financial investment in the economy. But I’ve also made friends here, and how genuine can my friendship be when I wish their economy, and with it their careers and financial security, to blazes?

I think the outlook for Alberta is grim whatever the future holds. If the world is going to deal with climate change then Alberta is going to become known as the province of stranded assets.  If the world doesn’t deal with climate change then the outlook is grim for all of us including Alberta. While I’ve been here, I’ve been very disappointed by the British government’s backing for Canada on the EU Fuel Quality Directive. A true friend to Canada would not give it a helping hand on the path to perdition.

 

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