Derbyshire County Council should choose a different route

Derbyshire County Council (DCC) are looking to withdraw all funding for all supported bus services, with the exception of school buses which they are legally obliged to provide under the 1985 Transport Act. They say budget cuts imposed upon them from central Government leaves them with no choice.

The following is taken from their website:  “Local residents are being asked their views on proposals to stop paying for local bus services and community transport to help us deal with the biggest budget cuts in our history. By 2020, the funding we get from central government is expected to be more than a third less than in 2010.”

“This means we need to review what we spend on paying for local bus services which don’t carry enough passengers to be run commercially (subsidised buses). We’re also reviewing the amount of money we give to Derbyshire’s six community transport schemes to run Dial-a-Bus (DAB) ‘shopping buses’. We’re already scaling back on our support for DAB services meaning that from this year we will fund one of these trips a week for every community, town or village, to a nearby town centre or supermarket. Some areas currently have several services a week.”

“But we are now putting forward further proposals to help save £4.4 million on transport costs.”

Their proposals would see the withdrawal of all county council funding for subsidised buses from October 2017, and therefore unless they can be run commercially they will stop. They also plan to withdraw all county council funding for DAB services, meaning that unless they can be funded from elsewhere they too will stop. To mitigate these losses, DCC would provide £1.3 million for a new Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) service which would be available to all passengers, both those currently using subsidised buses and those using DAB, and also provide a new Door-to-Door Plus service for people who currently use DAB but would be unable to use the proposed DRT service.

A quick look at how DRT services work: intending passengers have to book their seat either by telephone or online, much like a taxi. They then wait for the bus to turn up at the place and time booked, much like a taxi, and are then taken to the shops before being taken home afterwards, much like…

Councillor Dean Collins, Cabinet Member for Highways, Transport and Infrastructure, said of the DCC proposals: “We are facing unprecedented cuts and must review all our services, particularly those, like subsidised buses and community transport, that by law, we do not have to provide.

“We know from previous consultations that public and community transport is vital to helping people get out and about, enabling them to maintain their independence and wellbeing, but unfortunately, the fact is, we just don’t have the money to continue funding these services to the level we have previously, so we need to look at running things differently.

“No decisions have yet been made on these latest proposals and I would encourage people to take part in this new consultation so we are well aware of the public’s view of our plans.”

The consultation will run for eight weeks until Sunday 24 April 2016. However, smack bang in the middle of this period something even more significant in terms of impacting upon local services is about to happen. Under something called the Devolution Deal, part of Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” fairytale, all councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – the city councils, borough councils, district councils and county councils – are expected to reach a deal in March, following negotiations with central Government the “North Midlands” devolution deal, also known as D2N2.  As part of this it is intended to develop a North Midlands combined authority which would mean that decisions on and funding for services including public transport currently provided by Derbyshire County Council would stay in Derbyshire.

Whilst DCC laud this plan, claiming that as well as providing 55,000 new private sector jobs and building 77,000 extra homes, they would introduce “a better co-ordinated public transport system with ‘Oyster’ style smart ticketing that will help make sure communities are connected to jobs and training.  The inevitable conclusion would be quality contracts and effectively re-regulation.  All well and good and even nostalgic you might think. But since deregulation of bus services 30 years ago much has changed.

The promised revolution for bus networks and ticketing can work well in large cities such as London, but in shire counties like Derbyshire there are far smaller towns and villages, often served by single operators for the simple reason that there isn’t sufficient demand for a multi-operator high frequency network. Worse still, such schemes often result in cartels in all but name – Sheffield being a prime example – where two large operators (First and Stagecoach) effectively share the spoils between them, squeezing out small, independent operators who are more customer focused and offer a better standard of service with cheaper fares. With lower overheads these firms can continue to provide marginal services to areas which might not be satisfactorily profitable to the shareholders of the bigger companies, but are perfectly acceptable to your family run rural bus company.  This would be lost.

DCC believe that their proposals are “the best option for Derbyshire to bring more money into the county, improve the economy and protect services in the future.”  The plans also refer to a new “joint fund to spend on improving transport” whilst failing to mention that this refers to road infrastructure; not a single penny piece is promised towards supporting local bus services.

As if this wasn’t enough, Chesterfield Borough Council (CBC) are looking to bail out of the D2N2 scheme and instead join the new combined Sheffield City Region, which DCC object to, warning that if plans by CBC go ahead it will mean the biggest change to local government in Derbyshire for generations, meaning that “some key services in Chesterfield – Derbyshire’s largest town − would no longer be provided by Derbyshire County Council,” including public transport.

By now two things should have become apparent. Firstly, that DCC seem intent, come what may, to remove all funding – and responsibility – from local bus services. They’re simply not interested any more. Despite Councillor Collins’ words decisions have undoubtedly already been made and therefore secondly, the threat to supported services in Chesterfield is moot – they’re not going to exist anyway.

But rather than making party political capital at the expense of local bus services, surely there’s another way? DRT doesn’t work: they are inefficient, huge distances between the few passengers that use them meaning the exorbitant current subsidy of £24 per passenger for community transport would be peanuts. You’d have thought DCC themselves would know this following the last (and only) two DRT services they introduced, the Higham Connect and Hilcote Connect, both catastrophically expensive and unused failures swiftly replaced by a proper bus service, the 149 operated by G & J Holmes of Clay Cross.

Of course there is a better way.  The subsidies DCC currently provide to local bus services works out at, on average, £1.19 per passenger. They could quite easily use the £1.3 million they are planning to throw at a crackpot DRT scheme to continue funding more the most used but still unprofitable services. In 2010 DCC held a similar consultation, requiring the buses budget to be cut by roughly a third. The same questionnaire was published along with a list of supported services.  The original DCC proposal at the time, to withdraw all supported services where the subsidy worked out at more than £4 per passenger, was nodded through once the pantomime consultation dragged its way to the end.  If DCC repeated the exercise but set the bar at the current average subsidy per passenger of £1.19 this would save the £1.3 million they’re planning for DRT.

However if for nothing other than to apportion blame for unnecessary service cuts on central Government they insist on cutting a full £4.4 million there are ways to breach the shortfall.  When you first look at how local authorities receive funding aside from their grant from central Government, council tax and business rates come to mind. But councils throughout the county have already raised council tax by the maximum 2% allowed, and gave also opted for the additional 2% precept earmarked for social care. As for business rates, under plans announced by the Chancellor last October, although councils can cut rates they are not allowed to raise them, unless they are devolved cities with an elected mayor, and even then rates can only go up by 2% which must be ring fenced for capital projects. So what could be done?

Firstly, DCC could compel bus operators to charge commercial fares for schoolchildren on supported schools services, rather than the current 70p flat fare; the additional revenue of over £100,000 could be offset against the amount paid for the contracts.

Then take this a stage further and allow community transport schemes to charge 75% of the equivalent commercial taxi rate (the discount being exactly that offered to children under DCC’s b_line scheme), rather than a £3 standard fare.  This would better reflect the cost of the journey being undertaken and also relate more closely to what the service actually is: a group hire taxi service.  This would generate just over £300,000.

Introduce a 35p on-street departure charge (roughly the going rate for similar schemes) for bus services operating via or terminating in Derbyshire towns. This would share the burden between highly profitable services and other socially necessary ones. DCC provide bus priority measures and bus stops at effectively no charge to bus operators. There is precedent for this in council and PTE-run bus stations, and would be no different for charging for on-street car parking.  In Chesterfield alone there are well over 6,000 departures every week and throughout the county this would raise £1.5 million.

Speaking of car parking the introduction of a 15% precept on car parking where fees are already charged, revenues from which would be clawed back from district and borough councils, would raise around £1.2 million.

And with all this, supported services that run across the county boundary would continue, and in turn DCC would still receive contributions from neighbouring local authorities to support these services of over £300,000.

And there’s the £4.4 million DCC want to keep bus services running. All figures are based on or taken from central Government and DCC websites along with Freedom of Information requests.

But having said all of that there is an even simpler way, which would relieve DCC of the logistical and administrative burden that supported bus services brings, and would genuinely ensure that local bus services continue to be provided where there is a clear demand.  The £1.3 million earmarked for what would undoubtedly be an ill-fated DRT scheme should be diverted and used to more realistically reimburse operators for journeys made under the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), a ludicrous idea implemented by Labour in 2007 giving virtually unlimited free bus travel to ten million people and reimbursing bus companies pennies in return. That is to say that currently, whenever a pensioner or disabled person boards a bus in Derbyshire (or anywhere) with a free bus pass, bus companies are not reimbursed the correct fare or even anywhere near it. They are paid about £1. That’s it. Even if the journey is 30 miles long and is totally unnecessary. And that is why not only are rural services more at risk under the politically motivated cuts that DCC seek to implement, but bus companies are not receiving what they should to contribute towards the running of what services do remain.

Despite their public service bleeding heart attitude, both locally and nationally Labour, through their “we know best” attitude of innovation-stifling regulation, continue to demonstrate their frightening lack of knowledge of the bus industry, risking isolating communities through political point scoring. It’s time they chose a different route.

Duff justice

Although The European Union’s meddling in sovereign affairs is often portrayed for comic effect – such as the Euro-sausage in Yes, Prime Minister – it is far more serious and wide ranging for citizens of the Member States.

For British citizens especially, living on an island as we do and attached to our pound, it might seem a little more of an ideological entity. What is now known as the European Union (EU) has enjoyed legal primacy over the parliaments of member states for over 50 years, something which the UK has subscribed to since then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath took us into the European Community in 1973.

The UK has always been known for its “unwritten constitution” which consists of the two principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. The UK has long prided itself on the fact that its sovereign parliament is the supreme law-making body, with its legislation standing as the highest source of English law. The rule of law states that all laws apply equally to everybody, nobody stands above the law and no exception is made, even to those in power. However, these concepts are no longer strictly accurate, particularly since an Italian citizen refused to pay part of his electricity bill, valued at what would now be less than one Euro, back in 1962.

Flaminio Costa was an Italian citizen who owned some shares in the then privately owned electricity company. In 1962 Italy had nationalised the production and distribution of electricity and created the Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica (ENEL). Costa was opposed to the nationalisation and as the protest he symbolically refused to pay 1,925 Italian Lire (€0.99) of his electricity bill and ENEL duly sued Costa for non-payment. He prepared a written statement of case where he asked the Court for an interpretation of the EEC Treaty provisions, as he believed that nationalisation was contrary to (then EEC) law.

The Italian Government stated that the national law, under which they had nationalised ENEL, was enacted after the incorporation of the EEC Treaty, so that it is the Italian law that should have the priority over it.  According to the opinion given by the Italian Government, application for a preliminary ruling was “absolutely inadmissible” and there were no grounds for raising questions concerning the Treaty.

The European Court of Justice ruled that: “As a subsequent unilateral measure cannot take precedence over Community law, the questions put by the Giudice Conciliatore, Milan, are admissible in so far as they relate in this case to the interpretation of provisions of the EEC Treaty”.

The Court decided that it could not resolve the dispute between Costa and ENEL at the national level, but it could only deal with the questions concerning interpretation of the provisions stated in the EEC Treaty (the Treaty of Rome). It further ruled that the EEC Treaty is not a usual agreement between the Member States, and that the Community (the EU) has its own legal system that they have to follow, which is the consequence of the fact that they gave to it (the EU) part of their own sovereignty, and therefore the Community (EU) Law should also be exercised by the national courts of Member States. Provisions stated in the Treaty cannot be changed by any national law, because every State has to follow exactly the same provisions. If the Member States have the opportunity to change implemented law by releasing new and quite different legislative acts, the Community (EU) Law would be different in the various Member States. That could be contrary to some general principles of the Community (EU) Law.

It continued: “It follows from all these observations that the law stemming from the Treaty, an independent source of law, could not, because of its special and original nature, be overridden by domestic legal provisions, however framed, without being deprived of its character as Community Law and without the legal basis of the Community itself being called into question. The transfer by the States from their domestic legal system to the Community legal system of the rights and obligations arising under the Treaty carries with it a permanent limitation of their sovereign rights, against which a subsequent unilateral act incompatible with the concept of the Community cannot prevail”.

“Member states [of the EU] have limited their sovereign rights…and have thus created a body of law which binds both their nationals and themselves.”

That is why the Court ruled that the Treaty has the primacy over national laws which is also confirmed by the provision that it should be binding as a whole and be directly applied in all the Member States. The national law of the Member States, that came into force later, it stated, should not be contrary to the Community (EU) Law.

In summary, the implications of this case are that where possible, UK courts must give effect to existing legislation in a way that is compatible with convention rights. But if that proves impossible, the most that a higher court can do is to declare the two laws incompatible and let parliament sort it out.

But EU law is different. It has direct effect under the European Communities Act 1972. And that means the EU charter can be used to “disapply” – effectively, to overturn – an act of parliament.

A more recent case involved two Moroccan women who were sacked by diplomatic missions in London. Benkharbouche was a cook at the Sudanese embassy and Janah was on the domestic staff of the Libyan embassy.  They complained variously of unfair dismissal, unpaid wages and breaches of the working time regulations.  The Working Time Directive, from which the UK has a “legally binding” opt-out (the original version was introduced in 1993 under then Conservative Prime Minister John Major)  provides EU workers with the right to a minimum number of holidays each year and a certain amount of rest, means that employees are restricted to a 48 hour working week.

Both their claims were dismissed on the basis that foreign states have immunity from the jurisdiction of the UK courts. Although that immunity is not unlimited, section 4 of the State Immunity Act 1978 gives embassies immunity in respect of staff who are foreign nationals and who are not habitually resident in the UK. So the two women were deprived of the right to bring their claims.

The question for the President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal was whether there was any way round this statute.  Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention gives everyone bringing a civil claim in the UK the right to a fair hearing. But the judge said he could not use the Human Rights Act to change the meaning of the State Immunity Act.

So the barrister representing the two women, turned to EU law. Article 47 of the EU charter also guarantees a fair hearing and an effective remedy.  His clients’ claims for unfair dismissal were covered by the working time directive, which is part of EU law, although other parts of their claim were outside its scope.  Since the charter has direct effect in national law, the question for the appeal tribunal was whether it could disapply national laws that were contrary to the charter in litigation between private parties, as for these purposes they were.

He decided it could, despite what he described as “the uncomfortable recognition that the domestic legislature took care in the Human Rights Act not to allow the courts to disapply any domestic statute which was in conflict with the European convention on human rights”.  He allowed the women’s appeals to the extent that they were covered by the working time regulations, as well as claims by Janah for racial discrimination and harassment.

Recognising that he was opening up a rift between the application of EU law and the use of human rights law, the judge granted the embassies permission to appeal. An appeal would also allow the two women to seek a declaration of incompatibility in respect of their unfair dismissal and minimum wage claims – something his tribunal had no power to grant.

The ruling demonstrates once again that EU law trumps laws passed by parliament. Despite all the attention paid to human rights law, EU law is much more powerful.

And its a decision that may make life more difficult for ministers. The foreign office will have to tell embassies in London that they can’t sack their domestic staff without paying the compensation to which those staff are entitled under EU law.

So what of the agreement secured by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (has anyone spotted a theme yet?) following his piffle-stop tour of Europe?  According to the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, the EU reforms are not legally binding and could be overturned by European judges, as these cases have proved.

Mr Gove said: “The facts are that the European Court of Justice is not bound by this agreement until treaties are changed and we don’t know when that will be”.

He said Mr Cameron was “absolutely right that this is a deal between 28 nations all of whom believe it. But the whole point about the European Court of Justice is that it stands above the nation states, and ultimately it will decide on the basis of the treaties and this deal is not yet in the treaties.”

So, even if David Cameron has secured legally binding reforms – and there are doubts that he has – to ensure the UK parliament retains supremacy over the European Court, as these two cases have proved it really doesn’t mean that much.

Sandwiched between politics and porn

I’m a bit of a telly nerd. Only a bit, mind – I wouldn’t profess to have the in-depth knowledge of someone for whom being an enthusiast is a career, besides which I just don’t have the time. Taking getting to and from there into account I spend more than half my life at work, and more than half of what’s left trying to get some sleep, if the cat has left enough room.

But I’m enough of a nerd to know my way around British television, particularly sitcoms and light entertainment as my mahogany shelves would testify, creaking under the weight of umpteen DVD box sets. I’m also quite into what are known as idents, endcaps and the like – the presentation-y bits before and after television programmes that tell you when they were made and who by. Southern Television is a particular favourite, a regional ITV company until it’s bitter demise in 1981 whose logo was a white star that looked a bit like a ship’s wheel on a blue background, in the days when ITV had a proper federal, regional structure and you could get a warm glow when your own local station had produced something the whole country was watching.

The other reason that my nerdometer perhaps registers less than others is that I have a genuine problem with concentration. There’s probably a support group I could join or benefit I could claim, if only I could be bothered to fill the form in. This means that no matter how much I love a particular television programme, any more than two half hour episodes and my mind starts to drift. I have to draw on every ounce of what limited brainpower I have to get through a single Columbo, anything beyond that and I have to lie down. That probably explains why, during my forty-one years of existence, I have only ever been to the cinema twice: Ghostbusters and Ace Ventura Pet Detective. For me films have to be particularly engaging, and the only two I own on DVD, apart from the Columbo box set, are All The Presidents Men and Falling Down, and only then can I watch them on a rare day off having completely drained my mind beforehand.

Imagine then being asked to watch a film. A whole one. Specifically “The Bungee” on something called Talking Pictures TV. Now, I’m a pretty unadventurous kind of person, and my frequent but familiar journeys through the EPG had just about taken me through the General Entertainment genre and scratched the surface of News. This channel I was being asked to watch was sandwiched somewhere between politics and porn, a bit like a Jacqui Smith expenses claim.

So to the film: Hemel Pike (played by Harry H Corbett who a year later would take on his career-defining role as Harold Steptoe) and his cousin Ronnie (a pre-Frost Report, pre-anything come to think of it, Ronnie Barker) carry goods by canal around the waterways of Britain. It is a declining industry which sees boatmen living on their barges, and in the film Hemel often spends nights with different women en route, and herein lies the plot.

He crashes into a novice mariner, played by Eric Sykes, and both eventually stop at Rickmansworth where Hemel hooks up with Nellie, one of his regulars, who is a barmaid. When she realises she’s not the only port where he unloads his cargo, so to speak, she chases him away, threatening to kill him should they ever meet again.

Hemel and Ronnie continue towards Birmingham, on the way stopping at Leg O’Mutton Lock to meet Christine (Julia Foster), daughter of possesive lock keeper Joe Turnbull (Hugh Griffith) who Hemel fears. In order for them to meet, he hatches a plan whereby Ronnie takes Joe for a few drinks, leaving the coast clear. However it seems that Hemel’s plan is about to be thwarted when Joe says he’s going home, but Ronnie goads him into a drinking contest, leaving Hemel and Christine alone. Christine tries in vain to persuade Hemel to leave the canal and get a job on land so they can marry, but he enjoys the lifestyle too much.

The following morning after Hemel and Ronnie continue to Birmingham, Christine collapses and Joe calls Dr Scott (a young Derek Nimmo in a rare appearance without a dog collar). He tells Joe that Christine is three months pregnant, and Joe jumps to the conclusion that the father must be one of the men who pass through on the canal. In order to identify the culprit he drains the pound and padlocks the lock gates to prevent any barges passing through until the father comes forward. He attaches a bomb to the gates and takes the detonator and his gun to the outside toilet from where he keeps guard. The police are called (two of whom are played by the youthful Brian Wilde and Richard Briers) but to no avail.

Eventually Hemel and Ronnie return from Birmingham, Hemel admits that he is the father and is forced by Joe to pay his way and get a job on land in order to support Christine once they are married. Hemel goes through a number of different jobs, including one smashing glass bottles and another making plastic chandeliers, but deliberately gets the sack from them all, hankering after a return to the water.

After Christine learns from Ronnie that the canal boats are to be withdrawn from service in eighteen months time, she has Hemel’s boats renamed the Hemel and Christine in time for the wedding, and they agree to raise their new family on the waterways until Hemel is forced to return to a job on land.

For me The Bargee started slowly, and my only two problems with the film came very early on. Eric Sykes’ character didn’t really seem to serve any purpose; if it was meant to provide some slapstick relief to a fairly traditional love story then it just didn’t happen. The other is that Nellie seemed to exist purely to establish Hemel as a dirty (old) man, and save for the briefest of mentions at the very end when realising they’d have to return via Rickmansworth, that was the extent of her role.

Setting that aside, I found the film hugely enjoyable, flowing over the mind like the rippling waters of the canal – gentle but absorbing. The beautiful scenery was delightful to see as were early but fleeting performances from stars who’d go on to far greater things in sitcoms that are now universally regarded as the pinnacle of British television.

That, for me at least, is probably the most wonderful thing about Talking Pictures TV: even for those who struggle to watch films, the majority of those that they show will having you elbowing your partner, saying: “Look! LOOK!! Isn’t that, er, you know, him from, er…” and for curiosity alone it’s worth giving the channel a go and you’ll start to enjoy watching films, almost by stealth. I’m now looking forward to watching “The Iron Maiden”, another film that’s been suggested to me. If you take the trouble to plough through their schedule there are gems in there including a huge number of British comedy films starring early incarnations of those who went on to become small screen comedy fixtures.

Talking Pictures TV are quite big on those, too. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they’re soon to show Take A Letter Mr Jones starting the brilliant John Inman as Graham Jones, “computer and secretary” to Joan Warner (Rula Lenska), a thirty-something executive at Eight Star, a company that seems to have its fingers in just about every possible pie. Add to the mix Miriam Margolyes as a mad Italian housekeeper and the writing of Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe (On The Buses) along with Bryan Izzard as producer and you have all the elements of a truly great sitcom. It is also, however, a sadly underrated sitcom due to it only running for one series, not because it wasn’t any good, but because it was produced by the aforementioned Southern Television which, if you haven’t fallen asleep by know, you will have read earlier disappeared from existence about six weeks after the final episode was aired. It is also often unfairly dismissed as not being that good, probably by those lazily comparing it to John Inman’s more famous vehicle Are You Being Served? (strictly speaking it began as a vehicle for Trevor Bannister but Inman stole the show), but it really does deserve to stand up there amongst the best.

That Beryl Marston! Is another Southern sitcom that’s coming soon starring Julia Mackenzie. And then my particular favourite, Tell Me Another, not a sitcom but a series where various television personalities of the day share anecdotes with Dick Hills, half of Morecambe and Wise’s early writing team, all edited together in the style of The Comedians, meaning you get around half a dozen stars per show. And all of this is possible because Talking Pictures TV are owned by Renown Pictures, who seem to have distribution rights for huge swathes of Southern’s back catalogue.

Although Southern weren’t as prolific a programme maker as their big five ITV contemporaries (ATV, Granada, London Weekend, Thames and Yorkshire) they did provide us with many high quality series. Spearhead, an army drama not unlike the later Soldier Soldier but without the irritating singers, Dick Barton plus many others are peppered throughout the Talking Pictures TV schedule.

Give it a try. Sky channel 343, Freesat 306 or Freeview 81. You’ll suddenly find yourself immersed in a world which you kind of knew existed and were desperate to discover, but didn’t quite know how. Until now.

The NHS: The last bastion of restrictive practices

Ok, she was talking about ITV during its last proper franchise round in 1991, but she may as well have been talking about the NHS today, for it is sick. Militant junior doctors are holding tax paying patients and the Government to ransom with demands for premium pay at evenings and weekends and various other bonus payments when most of us are paid the same regardless of when and how long we work.

For a large variety of factors – predominantly time related, be it winter or weekend – demands on the NHS are notoriously variable, from the drunks who are glassed in a town centre at 2am on a Saturday to pensioners suffering from hypothermia on a snowy January evening, patients require the availability of professional care 24/7. Many recent studies have identified the very times when junior doctors want premium pay as the times when there is the highest demand for them. This would be fine if they were paid according to productivity – but they want the money because those times are “antisocial”, and if they don’t get what they want they’re threatening to take their £250,000 taxpayer funded training somewhere else, be it Scotland, Wales or sunny Australia.  But you need only look at the definition of antisocial, which is “ontrary to the laws and customs of society, in a way that causes annoyance and disapproval in others.”   It would seem that junior doctors’ interpretation of that is society might want an NHS that is there for them at Saturday teatime, and that rather annoys junior doctors who feel they should get an extra thirty per cent in their pay packet for just doing their job and if they don’t, we can all die.

It strikes me, if you’ll forgive the phrase, that two practices which I’ve experienced myself in my varying careers, would solve both problems.

In some workplaces, a system of annualised hours can be beneficial for both employers and employees. While I was working at an engineering firm in Sheffield work became scarce. The thing was, though, the forward order book was pretty healthy with large contracts in the pipeline, but in the short term there was little to do. This is typical in the manufacturing industry but highlights fluctuations in demand that can befall any organisation.  In order to stave off redundancy a system of annualised hours was introduced.

Such a system sees employees work a certain number of hours over the whole year, but with a certain degree of flexibility about when those hours are worked.  Normally, a period of regular hours or shifts forms the core of the arrangement, with the remaining time left unallocated and used on an “as needed” basis.  Sometimes, the employee is paid in advance for the unallocated time, and may be called upon at short notice, perhaps to cover colleagues who are sick or on holiday, or according to a surge in demand.

Annualised hours are most often used for shift workers, but in theory they can be applied to any employee.  They are most useful when dealing with big variations in demand throughout the year, and can help reduce overall working hours and overtime. ACAS, the arbitration service involved in the current junior doctors’ dispute suggests that “organisations that need to run twenty four hours a day all year, such as hospitals and the emergency services, can also find this arrangement beneficial.”  Maybe they ought to have a nice word with the British Medical Association.

On the plus side, the system gives managers greater control over working patterns, with more potential to maximise efficiency. Employees may also benefit from longer and more regular breaks, and higher basic pay that’s received in even sums as a salary. But here’s the problem: when employees are currently enjoying high overtime earnings, annualised hours may be a disadvantage, which would have the effect of removing the cherry from the icing on the cake.

However, under most annual hours systems, overtime is removed and consolidated into basic pay. Employees may be required to work extra hours at short notice, which may disrupt planned leisure time, and be expected to work longer hours seasonally perhaps, in the case of the NHS, more so during the winter.  But if the junior doctors decide they’re really not happy and do take their talents abroad, UK taxpayers – who have invested a quarter of a million pounds per junior doctor in training – will lose out.  Happily, there is a solution.

When I first trained to become a bus driver – we are trained, unbelievably – I was trained by one of the largest multinationals that operate in the UK.  I signed something called a training bond, and here’s how it worked:

The main concept – where employees either stay for an agreed amount of time, or the employer agrees to pay for a percentage of an employee’s training costs – seems reasonable, as since employees are the ones who will benefit in the long run, they should bear the cost of their own education.  Doctors are funded by the taxpayer to get the skills that allow them to work in their chosen field.  The training bond is an amount the employee agrees to pay back should they decide to leave the company before a specific time.  Of course, the time an employee is required to stay with the company after training needs to be realistic as well.  A ten year term might seem unrealistic, while anything up to five years minimum seems fair.  Having the employee pay back costs on a pro-rata basis is also common practice in other industries.  The cost of the training is divided by the number of months you require the employee to stay as a minimum, and therefore bond debt would be reduced by that amount or a percentage of that amount for each month of completed service.

Indeed, I myself signed a training bond with a company, was “tapped up” by an old friend who I went to work for, and duly repaid about 25% of the cost of my training.  I understood that from the outset, and there were no hard feelings either way.

If employers use this type of formula, employees should not be reluctant to sign training bonds as these types of contracts are mutually beneficial: the employer has a trained workforce that they can count on for a minimum period, and the employee has an upgraded skill-set and an employment commitment from the NHS.  This, combined with annualised hours, guarantees training, work and pay for junior doctors giving them real security.

Implementing these two simple and commonplace ideas would ensure that junior doctors are properly trained and can be called upon by their taxpaying patients whenever they’re needed.  This is not about the Government having some ideological ccircle jerk over privatising the NHS.  It is about security for junior doctors and patients alike, with the knowledge that fairly paid staff funded by equally hardworking taxpayers are available to treat them according to demand.  In short, the NHS needs to grow up and behave as a service for the nation’s health, rather than a gravy train for junior doctors.

Equality isn’t fair, love

Equality. I’m all in favour of it, whether someone is black, white, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, tall, short, the feckless… let’s draw the line there. Television, for example, falls over itself to be diverse, with unspoken quotas on panel shows for example, giving us a blend of talents from differing genders and ethnic backgrounds and, as a consequence, the funny and the unfunny. Shappi Khorsandi, for instance, is a woman from Iran. She mentions this quite a lot when she appears on television, just in case you couldn’t tell. She isn’t particularly entertaining or hilarious, but there for balance nonetheless.

Equality comes at a price. You have to sacrifice some degree of ability and effort in order to satisfy an artificial and unnecessary need for the different – imagine a waif-like female hacking coal out of the ground, you know the productivity is going to be virtually non-existent, but cell GG27 on the diversity spreadsheet has got a little tick, so that’s all right then – and as a result productivity is, by and large, compromised.

Last summer the sickeningly liberal Prime Minister David Cameron set out to “end the gender pay gap in a generation”, in spite of the fact that the show latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) women between the ages of 22 and 39 earn more on average than their male counterparts. And it doesn’t stop there. Evidence shows that when men and women follow the same career path in the UK, women tend to out-earn and out-perform men.

Nicky Morgan, the Equalities Minister, said: “We’ve seen the best employers make ground-breaking strides in tackling gender inequality. But the job won’t be complete until we see the talents of women and men recognised equally and fairly in every workplace.

“That’s why I am announcing a raft of measures to support women in their careers, from the classroom to the boardroom, leaving nowhere for gender inequality to hide.

“At the same time, I’m calling on women across Britain to use their position as employees and consumers to demand more from businesses, ensuring their talents are given the recognition and reward they deserve.”

This alleged gap that the Prime Minister refers to is actually indicative of personal lifestyle decisions, not employer discrimination. While women who choose to stay on rigorous career paths usually find themselves rewarded, many women choose to take more flexible jobs and/or years out of work to focus on, for example, raising a family. This, of course, results in a significant change in working hours, as well as changes to responsibilities and/or roles at work – forced upon the employer in an effort to accommodate a new mother rather than discriminate against her – which would, as you might expect, have an impact on one’s salary.  This also tends to unfairly impact on other work colleagues who tend to have to work a greater proportion of school and bank holidays.  Carolyn Fairbain, the (female) director-general of the CBI, agrees:

“League tables should not be used to name and shame firms, as data will only be able to present a partial picture, particularly given factors such as the mix of part-time and full working and sectoral differences.  Where reporting can be useful is as a prompt for companies to ask the right questions about how they can eradicate the gender pay gap.”

Perhaps the most famous “inequality” in recent years has been that of the prize money on offer at the final of the Wimbledon tennis championship. Back in 2002 then Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell (whose husband, solicitor David Mills, was later jailed for four and a half years for accepting a bribe from the experts expert on women and money, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) called on Wimbledon to join the “modern world” and reward women players the same amount of prize money as their male counterparts.

Ms Jowell, who was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the then Labour government (wonder if there’ll ever be another?) urged the All England Club (AEC) to bridge the then £39,000 gap between the top prize for the winners of the men and women’s singles titles.

“We are long past the time where it’s acceptable for there to be discrimination between the rewards for men and women. Men and women should compete on equal terms and be rewarded on equal terms whether it be on the tennis court, the shop floor, in the office, running track or anywhere else.”

Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary at the time, accused the AEC of setting a bad example to the rest of society with its division of cash prizes. She said it was “simply wrong” that the winner of the men’s singles should walk off with £525,000, while the women’s champion collected only £486,000.

“Wimbledon seems to have got stuck several decades back in the last century, when it was just taken for granted that women were the junior partners to men, that they were rewarded less and that their work was less valuable than men’s work.

“We don’t accept that in law for employees. We challenge it where we find it.  It’s a pity that Wimbledon – an organisation that holds a major position in our national life – hasn’t caught up.”

Well Wimbledon did eventually “catch up”. Both men and women champions now get a clitoris-moistening £1,850,000 prize. But where’s the equality? Men play the best of 5 sets while women play the best of just 3 – 40% less work for the same reward. women’s tennis that is. Liz Reason, writing in the Oxford Mail:

“Women, who run marathons and triathlons, play football and cricket, clearly have the strength and stamina for five sets, so why don’t they play them?  Contrast a match between [two grunting] women on Centre Court – lasting barely an hour – with the thrilling 2014 four-hour final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Had that stopped at three sets, Djokovic might still have won – the last set would certainly have been longer and played till one of them got head by two games. But we would have missed out on an exciting match that ultimately rewarded Djokovic for his consistency and stamina.

“The fact is that women’s tennis is often not of the quality of men’s tennis. Going to five sets would help. It would mean that women would have to get fitter to endure longer hours on court, would have to find a variety of strategies for winning, would have to work to deliver consistency, and then they would deserve the equal pay that they get.”

And that is the crux of the problem. In order to truly close the alleged gender pay gap and to deliver genuine equality for all, productivity has to be quantifiable and that is how people should be rewarded, be it through pay or prize money.  And once companies and competition organisers are able to put such a system in place, we can fire the starting gun on the great gender pay race. And may the best man – or woman – win.

Having to work on a Saturday afternoon? That’s life…

Earlier today I drove past protesting junior doctors opposite Sheffield Children’s Hospital holding placards saying how tired they were (well go to bed then), how underpaid they all were (13.5% pay rise on the table taking potential earnings up to £70,000) and how many hours they work (apparently working after 5pm is antisocial).

They also wanted passing motorists to honk their horns in support. But that would have been in breach of Rule 112 of the Highway Code as enforced by the 1988 Road Traffic Act and would have put lives at risk. So I didn’t.

I was slightly puzzled although more annoyed that, in spite of their claims to be striking in the interests of the safety of patients, they were blocking the pavement while shouting their incomprehensible nonsense at the top of their union-sponsored voices, while simultaneously jabbing their placards up and down in a kind of half-arsed wanking motion, scaring small children shitless – as if going into hospital wasn’t nerve wracking enough – and forcing them and their parents to walk into oncoming traffic on the busy A57 coming out of the fourth largest city in England.

Back in the real world I drive buses.  Those who have experienced this would probably say I don’t do it particularly well but nevertheless I am paid £8.91 per hour, regardless of what day of the week it is and what time of day I work.  I regularly work significantly more than 60 hours per week including evenings and weekends and when everything is rotted up I take home about £420 per week, after giving a third of the gross to the Government, of which 17p would go to Trident’s replacement (well worth it), and around £1.60 to the EU which, having banned wonky vegetables, are singularly responsible for the demise of That’s Life and, thankfully, the fucking irritating Doc Cox.

Speaking of irritating Docs, I suspect I do my job for the same reasons as many junior doctors. Of course it’s for the money – let’s be honest, the bills wouldn’t get paid otherwise and we all want to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle without necessarily wanting to be extravagant. But also, surely, because each and every day we, in our very different ways, provide a service which is largely appreciated. We don’t get it right all of the time, we all get tired and frustrated, but that’s life. I’ve never been on strike or off sick, I do my job to the best of my ability then go home.  I enjoy a quiet life.

The thing is, the striking junior doctors claim to be saving the NHS, but how many patients lives have they put at risk today?  3,000 operations have been cancelled or postponed as a direct result of industrial action, 7,000 in total to date with more set to follow.  It’s a bit like that thing you did at primary school, where you were told there were a dozen people in a hot air balloon and you had to lose some so the rest could survive. Except nobody is forcing the junior doctors to go on strike.

The key sticking point appears to be payments for working Saturdays. The British Medical Association (BMA) wants the whole day to attract an “unsociable hours premium”, but the Government says the hours between 7am and 5pm should be paid at the basic rate.  Like the rest of us. The BMA proposed accepting around half of the 13.5% basic pay rise (that’s THIRTEEN AND A HALF PER CENT) offered by the government in return for retaining extra payments (about £7,000) for working Saturdays.  Jesus.  Based on my current hourly rate, in a typical working week I’d be about £200 better off, and if such a whopping pay rise is, as the bleeding hearts claim, going to destroy the NHS then perhaps it’s not worth saving.

It’s perhaps worth noting here that the proportion of the total salary bill for junior doctors which would pay for the increase alone is almost exactly half of the entire mental health budget (currently just 1.4% of total NHS spending), so some people seem to have, shall we say, a skewed sense of priorities.

The Government says it wants to make these changes – which would be cost neutral so that the extra £8 billion they’re investing into the NHS would go directly to caring for patients –  to make it easier for hospitals to roster junior doctors at the weekend to address evidence of higher mortality among patients admitted Friday to Monday which, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in September 2015 increases by up to 15 per cent.

Could any of the supporters of the strikes and other bleeding hearts honestly say they’d turn down such an offer?  Back in the day at the tender age of 19, I was staff representative (NOT union rep – can’t abide unions, bunch of trouble causers) for the IT and Purchasing departments at the fabulous Markham and Company of Chesterfield, and was able to secure the overwhelming majority of colleagues’ wishes not by strikes or walkouts or childish militant behaviour, but by building coalitions with others, differentiating the important and achievable from the outrageous and unrealistic.  And everybody was happy.  It was a cracking firm to work for (we built the machines that dug the Channel Tunnel, you know which, come to think of it, although was a terrific feat of engineering, the consequences have become catastrophic, allowing a [insert appropriate collective term here] of migrants virtually unrestricted entry into the UK) with a friendly atmosphere, devoid of back stabbing and selfishness, everybody pulling together for the common good   Not unlike my current employer which just goes to show that if you put in the effort and are alway prepared to listen, others will too.

What I can’t understand is how exactly, as the BMA claim, such a proposal would put patients’ lives at risk. Is it because junior doctors would be a bit miffed because they wouldn’t get an extra SEVEN GRAND for working after 5pm on a Saturday, and so would deliberately botch operations to get their own back at the nasty Tory Government?  Grow up.

The starting salary for a junior doctor is currently just under £23,000 a year, but with extra payments for things such as unsociable hours, this can quite easily top £30,000. Junior doctors at the top end of the scale can earn in excess of £70,000.

I get tired most days.  Driving a bus while listening to passengers witter on about the last person to get off (and wonder if they’ll ever be seen again other than in the obituaries column of the Derbyshire Times) and having to think for every other retarded arsehole motorist in five hour spells with just the occasional few minutes layover is tiring, and one slip of the steering wheel – like a slip of the tired doctor’s scalpel – could prove fatal.  The difference is the doctor would just kill his one patient; I could kill a bus load.  Surely in any other occupation you’d kill for those terms doing a job you liked, so what on Earth makes junior doctors think they’re so special?

Thr similarities between the NHS and the once thriving coal industry is stark.  There was an insatiable demand for coal in the UK, a demand privately owned and run organisations would be grateful for.  But because it had a unionised workforce for whom striking was a sick habit, satisfying that demand became so expensive it simply wasn’t economic – or in the country’s interests – to artificially prop up the mines, and so more efficient alternatives became commonplace and gradually (and sadly) our mines closed.

After their day in the fresh air and on the telly he junior doctors will return to work and catch up on the backlog of work they’ve created – and doubtless moan about that, too.  But for the many thousands of bleeding hearts – surgery is not the answer.

“Can I have a return to common sense, please?”

In 1957 then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the country they’ve “never had it so good”. Fifty years later slack-jawed paranoid lunatic Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor-cum-PM, with all the economic acumen of a rent boy, his one good eye looking nervously over his shoulder for any Blairite blades that might be hurtling his way leaving him blind to the impending economic disaster, introduced the bloated electioneering vanity project known as The Concessionary Bus Travel Act, rimming the wrinklies to the tune of £1.1 billion per year courtesy of hardworking taxpayers which, needless to say, our country couldn’t afford as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. It provided (and still provides) unlimited free bus travel for pensioners on services in England (there are similar schemes in Scotland and Wales); bus companies are in turn paid a “contribution” towards the lost fare revenue which Brown promised would see them “no worse or better off”.

As funding to local authorities is being cut, evening and Sunday services throughout the country and all day rural provision are under threat. For example, last week Derbyshire County Council (DCC) – local authority to the small, family run bus company for which I work – announced proposals to reduce the support for bus services that are not commercially viable (defined as being socially necessary but not profitable) from £5.4 million to zero. That is to say all funding for bus services, except for school buses for which they have a statutory obligation to provide, will disappear. DCC are looking to bus operators to run underused services on a commercial basis – likely at a loss, or they will disappear. So, they will largely disappear.

Peter Box, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said councils were finding it “impossible” to continue to make up a funding shortfall for the scheme.

“The way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has long been unfit for purpose and has not kept up with growing demand and cost. Unless the Government commits to fully funding concessionary fares, vital bus services that support the most vulnerable in our society will continue to come under pressure.” Amen to that.

As a bus driver, day after day I see the abuse of the free bus pass scheme. For example, one lady travelled on three separate services around the Derbyshire countryside, a total of 43.2 miles, to go home – which was just 1.8 miles from her starting point. This week, 4 pensioners boarded my bus which runs a particular route just once a day but is over 30 miles and takes almost two hours because it was a “nicer run” than the direct service that was stood in front of me which runs every half an hour, and is half the time and distance. And this is commonplace. A few years ago there was a debate on rehabilitated coke-fiend Richard Bacon’s BBC Radio Five Live show on which I explained that this kind of thing was happening, neither he or his guest David Quantick believed it.

Bus companies are obliged to accept free passes between 9.30am and 11pm weekdays, and all day weekends and Bank Holidays. There are 9.8 million of these free passes currently in circulation, each of which performed 102 journeys on average in the financial year ending March 2015. Now, given the cost of the scheme, that means operators are paid a CONTRIBUTION (that’s a CONTRIBUTION, not subsidy) of £1.10 towards the cost of each journey. As the average single fare in England is £2.01 (all based on Department for Transport figures), and in the same period a third of Concessionary journeys were “generated” (that is to say had they not been free they wouldn’t have taken place), bus operators lost over £303 million that year alone, effectively in unpaid fares. This used to be called “theft”.

It is argued that free bus passes encourage pensioners to be more physically active and socially integrated. In a study performed by The Imperial College London and published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers analysed data on the travel habits of 16,900 people over a four year period.

Over this period the percentage of pensioners with a free bus pass increased from 56.8% to 74.7% – a jump of around a third – in line with the DfT’s own figures – while over the same period there was an increase in the percentage of bus pass holders walking three or more times a week. The study also found that these people were more likely to undertake any “active travel” – defined as walking, cycling or using public transport.

Sophie Coronini-Cronberg, who led the study from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said the public health benefits of the scheme should be taken in to consideration when deciding its future.

“Although the costs of the scheme are considerable, it may offer value for money as it seems to promote physical activity among older people, thereby helping to reduce inactivity-related mortality and morbidity.”

“It enables a huge glut of the population to be active. It also supports economic growth, particularly as grandparents are freeing up mothers to go back to work. They use them to take grandchildren to museums and to and from school.”

Former councillor Richard Worrall, from Walsall, has made several long-distance trips on his pass and argues that pensioners who travel extensively are not abusing the system.

“On your way you’re spending money on B&Bs, food and drink and putting money into the local economy. So when people say we don’t like retired tourists gallivanting on the bus pass for free, they ought to think again. What they aren’t spending on local buses, they’re spending in the local shops.” So that’s alright then.

He and several friends, reported The Guardian, armed with a hefty A-Z and four paper bus maps, pointlessly and at tremendous expense to the taxpayer and at a roughly equal loss to the bus companies who fell victim, set out to travel every bus route in London from end to end. They completed 549 journeys within 12 months just because, er, they could.

You think that’s bad? The best free bus journey in Britain is Lancaster to Keswick via Windermere Ambleside and Grasmere on the 555 in the Lake District, according to another freeloading sponger, retired engineer Steve Gibbs, 74. He completed a 2,000-mile round trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats, entirely on local bus services, armed with his bus pass and a total absence of shame, starting with the 1A bus from Land’s End to Penzance and returning 13 days later.

But why is it the responsibility of private companies – especially small, family-run concerns such as the bus firm for which I work – to subsidise public health? Why should bus companies bail out other struggling businesses? Why don’t the B&Bs that the former Councillor enjoys give him and his ilk a free warm, hearty meal? Why aren’t the food and drink retailers of the local economy obliged to provide unlimited free fruit and vegetables then be reimbursed just half the cost? Or why not provide free energy so pensioners can keep warm, then expect the energy providers to stand half the cost? Oldies would be shovelling strawberries between their dentures with their thermostat set to “tropical” at the drop of a loose fart. Such schemes would be abused – just as the free bus pass is now. And when something is abused in this way provision becomes unsustainable, either through the inability to supply or due to it simply being uneconomic.

Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive of Stagecoach, agrees: “I won’t provide a service and not get properly paid for it. You would not go to Tesco and say to them – great idea, we’re going to let OAPs have free food. They cannot stand up there and be dishonest with people and say we’re going to have a scheme but not fund it properly. That punishes people who do pay, whether it’s full-fare paying adults or the children or young adults who I want to be the passengers of the future. Are there some passengers who board our buses who could probably afford to pay? Of course they could. I want to know bus services are going to be protected. They have to decide what is the prioritisation.”

It is often argued that bus companies wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the free bus pass. Er, wrong. Do the maths – two-thirds of journeys would have been made anyway generating twice the revenue per passenger, net gain of a third. And that other one – “Well, the bus is running anyway so why shouldn’t pensioners be able catch it for free?” Ok, and then on that same logic since there’s electricity and gas already running into your house why not simply bypass that inconvenient meter thing that someone had the temerity to install – you know, that monitors what you use so it can be paid for – and enjoy unlimited free energy? What’s the difference between a meter and a bus ticket machine?

In the 1970s a scheme was introduced where pensioners would be given a number of tokens which were exchanged for free bus journeys. This meant that bus rides were chosen prudently and according to necessity, not because they were abundant.

And that is why bus services are being cut. In 2010 new Chancellor George Osborne asked the public for ideas. I submitted one which proposed that pensioners be allocated one free return journey per day by the most direct route to their nearest suitably equipped town (which, say, has a hospital, GP, dentist, library and a big-five supermarket), and any unnecessary journeys would be charged at the normal fare. Economically sustainable while providing socially necessary free bus travel. Not even a reply.

So, dear pensioner, when you start moaning that your buses are disappearing, just think back: would you have made all of those bus journeys around the countryside if you’d had to pay for them? Because a third of you wouldn’t have, and soon you won’t even be able to nip to the shop on a Sunday or go to the bingo of an evening. And if you live in a rural village you’re set to be isolated, cut off from the real world whose hard earned taxes you frittered away while munching your sandwiches and gazing out of the bus window. And you’ve only got yourselves to blame.