Tuesday, 27 September 2016

YOUR STARTER FOR TEN


Serving suggestion
Following on from my last post about the dire choice of programmes on the BBC over the weekend. It doesn't get any better during the week. On my list of endless instalments of cookery and darts programmes, I forgot to mention quiz shows.

This week we will be treated to over 16 hours of them, and that's just the ones involving the public; I haven't included the endless "celebrity" versions featuring famous people no-one has ever heard of.

Cookery programmes - twenty two and a half hours this week, not including cookery items in other programmes.


BAILIFFS AND BEXLEY COUNCIL


I'm currently writing an update on the use of bailiffs by Bexley Council to recover outstanding council tax arrears. You will recall, I mentioned that Bexley is the worst borough in London for the use of bailiffs rather than recover through deduction of earnings or benefit.

It should be ready before the end of the week so keep a look out.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A HUNDRED AND AYTEEEEE!


Now I'm all in favour of the BBC. It's one of our most important institutions and losing it to commercial interests would be a disaster. I'm always going to oppose Tory attempts to shut it down or to reduce it to an "also ran" in the broadcasting business. 

Likewise, I have absolutely no sympathy for those people who complain about paying a £145 a year TV licence then happily pay £1000 a year or more for a Sky subscription in order to watch a endless morass of imported American rubbish, repeated BBC programmes they claim not to watch on the BBC, stuff about flying saucers and Football. 

Is it really worth paying all that much just to watch a bunch of multi-millionaires rolling about on the grass, clutching their leg and pretending they have been fouled? I don't think so.

I also support the fact that the BBC spends most of it's licence fee on home produced talent and the money they raise is ploughed back into the UK economy. There are some people who think that giving a small fortune to Rupert Murdoch so he can stuff it into some tax avoiding offshore bank account is a good thing; not me.

Because a succession of governments have starved the BBC of the funds it needs to provide a high quality service, they have sometimes had to resort to cost saving measures to make ends meet. One of those measures is to take one type of programme format and literally flog it to death.

Cookery programmes are popular and (usually) cheap to make. No problem so far, but they are now taking it to extremes. This weekend they are going to broadcast 9 hours of them, many will be shown back to back so you just get one after the other. When BBC1 has finished, they just transfer them to BBC2 and carry on.

There's nothing wrong with cookery programmes, even the ones featuring pretentious chefs offering warmed up bits of raw meat on a bed of vegetables no-one has ever heard of. But 9 hours?

Not Phil Taylor
Cartoon by DartsThailand.com
Likewise sport. Back in the 1970s, the British public discovered darts. Previously the preserve of elderly gentlemen in public bars, it suddenly became all the rage when the BBC discovered that they could broadcast hours of it for little or nothing. For reasons I will never understand, it became an immediate hit with the viewing public and was watched by millions.

Enter Sky. Seeing an opportunity to make money on the back of someone else's idea, they set up their own league and threw huge amounts of money at it. This had the desired effect of attracting all the big names around at the time, leaving the BBC with all the "also rans" and plummeting audiences.

Sky also made sure that no-one would be in any doubt that this was "their" league and so gone was the original audience of darts fans, quietly respectful of their heroes' efforts to be replaces by a bunch of yelling and screaming drunken yobs, howling through the whole proceedings.

The other main effect was the fact that you could only watch major league darts on a Sky pay-for-view channel, i.e. no-one was watching it anymore.

The best example of just how much public interest had disappeared was during an episode of the BBC quiz show "Pointless". The public were asked to name all the darts champions they could think of. The old 70s and 80s champions like Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow and the like all scored highly. Phil Taylor, who has been world champion more times than anyone can count, but mainly in the Sky era, was almost unknown.

Darts TV audiences are now back to the levels they were when the BBC first started showing it which is not very high but it hasn't stopped the BBC from treating like we are all still watching it.

This weekend we will be treated to over 15 hours of darts. Yes, that's 15 hours. I don't mind watching it for a bit but come on lads.

Looks like I will be spending some time in the pub. Deary, deary me.

Header Picture


My latest header picture features a Common Seal basking on the mud by the Thames, opposite the Thamesmead golf course. You will see them there quite a lot.


Friday, 16 September 2016

HERE COME THE BAILIFFS


In his latest post, Hugh Neal of Arthur Pewty's Maggot Sandwich reported that Bexley Council has started using bailiffs to recover unpaid council tax. Not only has Bexley Council started doing this but, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), is actually the council more likely to do this than any other London borough.

Before instructing bailiffs, the council must first obtain a liability order from the magistrates court. Now given that once they have obtained a liability order, they can then instruct your employer to make a deduction from your wages or, if you are on benefit, they can ask the DWP to make a deduction from your benefit, one has to wonder why they feel the need to instruct bailiffs in the first place. All this does is delay any payment they receive and, because of additional cost you will have incurred, make it less likely they will get their money.

Using bailiffs is a process that can get them into a whole world of trouble if they are not very careful and, given the history of Bexley Council, being careful is not something they have shown themselves to be very good at.

I would like to tell you a story about what happens when councils let their debt recovery get out of hand.

Some years ago and for a number of years, I worked as a specialist money advisor for the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and while it was doing this I encountered a number of problems with the bailiffs being used by Greenwich Council. 

Basically, they were completely out of control; it could best be described as being like something out of the Wild West. Bailiffs, acting under the direct instructions of the council were using bullying, threatening and, in many cases, completely illegal practices to recover money. 

In a number of cases that I was dealing with, bailiffs were threatening debtors with visits from the Police (illegal), threats to break into homes (illegal) and even resorting to threats of physical violence (definitely illegal). What made it even worse is that they would often not pass money collected on to the council in order to reduce the debt but would pocket the money themselves and claim it was "costs" or "expenses", the majority of which were also illegal.

All of this was going on with the full knowledge of Greenwich Councillors and the staff working in the council offices. I know this for a fact as a large amount of evidence confirming this had been made known to the relevant people on Greenwich Council by the CAB, Greenwich Money Advice Service, Greenwich Housing Rights, The Housing Aid Centre, Greenwich Law Centre and other advisory services in Greenwich, in letters, phone calls and face-to-face meetings over a number of years. No attempt was ever made by Greenwich Council to investigate these claims or to bring their agents into check or control their activities.

One particular case I was dealing with highlights possibly the worst example of the kind of thing Greenwich Council were getting up to.

My client, we will call her Mrs Smith (not her real name) was an elderly lady, living in a small house in Abbey Wood. She first contacted us for help after finding herself with council tax arrears, in addition, she also had unpaid fuel bills and a couple of credit debts. As she was also disabled, I had arranged to interview her in her own home, as we did from time to time with particularly vulnerable people.

She had never been in debt before but after her Husband had died some years earlier, she was finding it more and more difficult to cope. The small pension she was receiving was not enough to cover her living expenses and had applied for income support. She was certainly entitled to receive this, I had done a benefit calculation for her and established that she was entitled to a small but significant amount of money. I was surprised then when she showed me a letter from the DSS saying that she was not entitled to anything. After some investigation, I discovered that the DSS had miscalculated the amount she was entitled to.

For those of you who have never experienced the welfare benefit system I will need to explain a few things at this point. 

Please note that the benefits and levels of entitlement I am about to describe were relevant at the time. Since then, there have been a number of changes to the benefit system and what I am describing below might not apply to a claim being made today. I will direct you to where you can get up-to-date information about befit entitlements later.

The way it works is this -  Parliament (that is the government) decides how much a person needs to live on, added to this are various premiums according to their personal circumstances. There are additional amounts if you have a partner, have children, if you are disabled, are elderly, etc.

When I checked the calculation done by the DSS for Mrs Smith, I discovered that they had left off one of these premiums. At the time there were two levels of disability premium, a standard rate and a severe disability premium for someone in receipt of the higher level of Disability Living Allowance. Mrs Smith was entitled to this premium but the DSS had left it out out of their calculation. When I contacted the DSS to ask why they had done this, I was informed that this happened all the time. Apparently, there was a fault in the computer system that did the benefit calculations and it meant that this premium was always ignored even if the claimant was entitled to it. I was also told that they would correct it if anyone complained.

The obvious problem with this of course is that most claimants, especially frail, elderly and confused claimants would reasonably expect that the DSS would be doing their jobs properly and assume that if they got a letter saying they were not entitled to anything then that was actually the case.

Enter Greenwich Council. At the same time Mrs Smith applied for income support, she also applied for council tax benefit. When the DSS informed the council that she wasn't entitled to income support, instead of calculating how much council tax benefit she would be entitled to even without income support, they just cancelled her claim and told her she wasn't entitled to anything.

What we now have is a combination of wilful neglect by the DSS combined with the incompetence of the local council resulting in Mrs Smith having to pay her full council tax liability. Not being able to do this, she soon got into arrears and the council, despite being pretty much wholly responsible for the situation decided that the heavy handed approach was the way to go.

Enter the bailiffs. By the time I became involved in the case, Mrs Smith had a couple of years council tax arrears plus court costs, plus (and this is where it gets really nasty) hundreds of pounds of illegal expenses added to her bill by the crooks that Greenwich Council had hired as their enforcers.

One strategy they would use is to phone her and say that they were coming with the Police and if she didn't pay them some money they would have her arrested. 

This is a criminal offence.

Senior members of Greenwich Council knew this was happening and had been given examples of this type of behaviour by all of the agencies I have described above. At no time did any of them intervene to stop it.

Senior members of the debt recovery department knew this was happening and at no time did anything to stop it.

The next thing that would happen is that the bailiff, having bullied their way into her house would then demand she pay them. In many cases Greenwich Council would never see this money, it would go straight into the pocket of the bailiff.

This is a criminal offence.

Senior members of Greenwich Council knew this was happening and had been given examples of this type of behaviour by all of the agencies I have described above. At no time did any of them intervene to stop it.

Senior members of the debt recovery department knew this was happening and at no time did anything to stop it.

Mrs Smith, having been terrorised into giving the crook acting for Greenwich Council all the money she had then couldn't pay any of her other bills and so was getting into arrears with them as well.

I made a number of attempts to get Greenwich Council to deal with the matter properly. It was their error or rather neglect, that had caused this problem in the first place. They should have re-assessed Mrs Smith's claim and, having done so, realised that they owed her council tax benefit to cover her liability.

They were having none of it, insisting I had to speak to the criminal gang they had hired to collect money for them. They, of course were in no mood to lose the cash cow that was Mrs Smith and refused to negotiate. One of them even phoned her and told her that she shouldn't listen to the CAB as it would get her into even more trouble.

Sorting out Mrs Smith's DSS benefit claim and her claim for arrears of council tax to be sorted out was going to take time, meanwhile, she was being bombarded with ever more threatening demands for money and I needed to do something quickly.

Enter a really useful device called a composition order. A county court composition order is similar in some ways to bankruptcy although less formal and is used for smaller debts. If you are in a situation where you are unlikely to be able to repay a debt in a reasonable time, you can ask to court to make a composition order. What will happen is that you will list all of your creditors and how much you owe them, you also provide a financial statement showing you income and normal expenses excluding any debt repayments you may already be making. You then offer whatever is the difference between your income and outgoings to your creditors on a pro-rata basis and ask for it to be time limited. This is usually three years. After this time, the debt will be deemed to be satisfied and the creditor cannot pursue you for any other payments. They are also not permitted to ask for payments outside the amount agreed on the court order.

Obtaining the order was relatively simple, a county court judge is always going to by sympathetic to an elderly disabled applicant, especially given the circumstances under which the debt arose in the first place.

Mrs Smith told Greenwich Council that she had obtained a composition order and that the council tax debt was on it.

You remember the bit I said about the creditor could not demand any other payment once the composition order had been made. Well, Greenwich Council debt recovery were having none of that. deciding that being informed of the order by Mrs Smith wasn't an actual official notice, they contacted their enforcers and told them what had happened and to get round to her house and get as much off her as they could before they got the official notification from the court. I know this because someone in the department had a conscience and phoned me to let me know what was happening.

The point of me telling you all this is to point out that unless properly monitored, debt collection agencies can and will often resort to illegal methods to recover debts for clients and add spurious and illegal charges in order to make more money for themselves. Often this will result in the creditor not getting all the money they are entitled to as the debtor has given it all to the debt collector.

I have no evidence that Greenwich Council uses or allows these methods today, if I'm wrong, perhaps someone will let me know.

One has to hope that Bexley Council has measures in place to ensure the agents acting on their behalf collecting unpaid council tax are acting legally. I am interested in any examples of where this is not the case.

Some advice on council tax.

Pay your council tax. It is a legal requirement and is one of what debt advice agencies call a "priority debt". To explain, anyone you owe money to can take legal action against you if you fail to pay. Some creditors have other sanctions they can impose as well. For example, it you don't pay gas or electricity bills, the supplier can disconnect you. Failing to pay rent or mortgage can result in you losing your home. All taxes and duties are what are called statutory debts and you are committing a criminal offence that could result in your being sent to prison if you refuse or wilfully neglect to pay them. Court fines come under this category as well.

All of the above are priority debts and need to be dealt with before anything else. That's not to say other debts aren't important as well, it's just that they're not as important.

If you are getting into debt, don't just ignore it, it isn't going to go away by itself. The best thing to do is get advice. Bexley Citizens Advice can be found here, where you will find links to their website plus details of their phone lines and office opening hours. The National Debtline also provides advice and they can be found here.

The important thing is to deal with it before you are taken to court as this will only increase you debt burden as costs and penalties are likely to be added to the original liability.

Citizens Advice provides a very useful leaflet on how to deal with council tax arrears and can be found here.

If you have problems with bailiffs at the moment, you should be aware of the following:-

A bailiff is not permitted to force entry into a residential property except in certain circumstances which are unlikely to apply to a council tax liability order. If you have previously allowed a bailiff to enter your property and they have seized but not removed goods, they have the right to come and remove them by forcing entry but only with a court order.

Anything the bailiff has seized has to be named. I have seen letters pushed through peoples letter boxes with the words "all goods" written on the list of goods seized. This is completely meaningless, especially, as in most cases, they haven't even obtained access to your home.

Bailiffs will often use peoples ignorance of the rules to imply they can break into your home. I have seen letters from bailiffs stating that "we hope you will be in when we arrive". What they don't explain is that is because if you are not in, they have to go away again.

Bailiffs, and other debt collectors as well come to that, will often use vaguely worded threats to imply they have more powers than is actually the case. For example, the bailiff employed by Woolwich County Court used to write "final van arranged" in red Biro on letters to debtors when warning of visits. No-one has ever managed to explain to me what a "final van" is, or how one might go about arranging one, or what you would do with it if you did. It just sounded vaguely threatening if you didn't think about it too much.

A bailiff can enter your property through an unlocked door or window and can seize goods left outside. One bailiff acting for Greenwich Council seized a child's pet bunny from a back garden.

A bailiff can only charge for one visit, even if they have made several. They will often lie about this and was one of the more successful money spinners for the bailiffs working for Greenwich Council.

Currently, bailiffs can charge £75 for sending you a compliance letter, that is, to ask for payment or issue the enforcement notice. If the bailiff attends you home, they can charge an additional £235 but they can only do this once. If they have seized your goods, they can charge £110 for removing and selling them. If a bailiff asks for or demands any other payments they are committing an offence. I would be really interested to hear of any cases where this is happening.

For general advice on how to manage your financial affairs if you find yourself getting into debt can be found on the National Debtline website.



Friday, 9 September 2016

A BIT OF GRUMPING

It is my job you know


Thames Path looking West
A while ago, I commented on the fact that whoever is responsible for the maintenance of the Thames Path behind the Crossness Pumping Station isn't doing their job and that plant life is taking over, exploiting the cracks in the path and turning it into a jungle. Most of this stuff is Buddleia (an invasive species, imported into Britain in the 18th century) and is known to cause problems if it isn't dealt with promptly. The roots can undermine foundations, dig into walls, and cause general damage to whatever structure it is growing out of.

Thames Path looking East
Since then, it has grown so much that you can now no longer use the footpath at all, it's completely blocked by Buddleia shrubs and pedestrians have to stray onto the cycle path to get past.

I don't know who is actually responsible for this bit of the Thames Path, it could be one of several organisations although I suspect it belongs to Thames Water. Anyway, it's not going to be long now before they have to close it all off while they carry out some very expensive repairs to the foundations. Still, it's better than paying someone to come along with a can of weed killer and deal with it straight away.


ON THE RIVER


My stroll along the river wasn't all grumpy, there were other things going on as well. Here are a few pictures I took.


This is the Princess Pocahontas, a small cruise ship that travels up and down the Thames past our garden. We always know when it's going past as the PA system is quite loud. I've learned quite a lot about the history of London and the Thames riverbank from listening to the commentary as the ship sails by.


The Police were looking very busy, I'm not sure what they were doing but I feel much safer just knowing they were doing it.


As this was approaching from a distance, the orange colour first made me think of the Lifeboat service but now I'm not so sure. It does look very official though.


Here is a Herring Gull flying over, unless it's a Great Black-backed Gull; I can't be sure. 



Don't know what these are either. Even experts have trouble telling the juveniles apart. Are they Herring Gulls or Great Black-backed Gulls? Who knows? Not me.


THE INVASION OF SOUTHMERE LAKE


While I was at the Crossness hide, someone told me about some Egyptian Geese that had arrived at Southmere Lake. I thought I would go along and take a look. Invasion is the right word because I counted thirteen of them and there may have been more.

There has been a breeding pair at Danson Lake for a few years and you get the odd one or two turning up at Crossness from time to time. But thirteen? That's just being silly. Anyway, here are a few pictures I took of them plus some of the other wildlife on and around the lake.


Pond full of Egyptian Geese. There are thirteen in this group in the water to the left of the bridge when you enter the park from Belvedere Road.


Egyptian Goose


Egyptian Goose


Canada Goose


Canada Goose


This looks like A Canada/Greylag Goose hybrid which you do get occasionally


Greylag Goose


Mute Swan


More Mute Swans


Great Crested Grebe


Coot


Domestic Farmyard Goose


This I believe is the West Country breed of Domestic Goose.
I wonder how it got to Thamesmead.


Grey Heron


Spotted Something


Gotcha!


Cormorant having a preen


Monday, 5 September 2016

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

or, why some people are really stupid.


Cognitive dissonance is one of those terms that sound really technical but actually explains something very simple. We all experience cognitive dissonance sometimes, it happens when we feel conflicting urges or beliefs that make us feel uncomfortable. Wikipedia uses the "doughnut scenario" in order to describe the process of dissonance reduction where we try to assimilate the two contradictory desires.

Imagine - you are on a diet because you want to lose weight but someone gives you a doughnut. You still want to keep to your diet but you also really want to eat the doughnut. You are now experiencing cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling of wanting to do two contradictory things at the same time.

People of an extremist persuasion, religious, political or whatever, will find themselves in a similar situation when someone shows them evidence that their beliefs are based on poor or false data.

When you are in this situation, you are forced to modify your belief or behaviour in order to restore a balance. It's in this process that psychologists have a field day because although the obvious thing to do is accept the evidence and modify your belief or, in the case of the doughnut, just accept that you can't have your doughnut and eat it, (not without abandoning your diet anyway), and accept one or the other, people rarely do this. Many will go to extreme lengths to avoid doing so by adapting some genuinely bizarre strategies to eliminate the state of tension they find themselves in.

While researching this piece, I came across a website called simplypsychology.org which not only is a good read if you want a simple explanation about cognitive dissonance, it also uses as an example the case of a group of "end of the world" religionists which is going to neatly segue into the article which follows this.

"Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.
While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members)." (Simplypsychology.org).

In other words, while trying to reduce the feeling of psychological tension or distress, people will go extraordinary lengths to justify not changing their belief.

The religious nut as described above is just one example of someone turning the evidence on it's head in order not to have to change their world view. We have all met the cigarette smoker who refuses to give up because he might get run over by a bus. While any normal person would struggle to find anything to connect the two situations, the smoker who isn't willing or able to give up their addiction will argue that stopping smoking increases their chances of being involved in a road traffic accident, to justify continuing with their dangerous habit. 

Recently, most US Republican Senators voted to deny that human activity contributes to climate change????

Personally, I'm with professor Brian Cox on this one. "Human stupidity is the greatest threat to mankind."


STOP PRESS

World ends - again


A story in the Sun, copied from the daily Star (now there are two publication worthy of taking notice of) are bleating on about a prediction they claim has been made by a Christian fundamentalist website called Unsealed. In their story they claim that this website has predicted the end of the world to coincide with a total Solar eclipse due to take place over the United Stated next August.

The story in the Star describes the people making the predictions as "hardcore Christians" but when it is copied in the Sun, they are described as "conspiracy theorists". It's possible that they are confusing Unsealed with Unsealed Alien Files which is a flying saucer nut website.

Anyone born later than the 15th century will know that Solar eclipses occur as the Moon passes in front of the Sun as it orbits the Earth. Because of a curious coincidence, the Moon appears to be the same size as the Sun in the sky, so when their positions coincide, you get an eclipse. The orbit of the Moon around the Earth is not directly in line with the Earth and Sun so you don't get one every month, you can however predict them with great accuracy and we have known this one was coming for several hundred years. 

I have had a good look at this website and I can't find any reference to the eclipse. They do go on a lot about "The End of days" type rubbish but no more than any other website of their ilk so I don't know where the Star got it's story. 

They do have an article about a suggested end of the world event but unusually for a Christian fundamentalist website they actually claim that no-one can know when the world will end. There is no reference in this article about the eclipse that I can see. In the comments section, "Bruce" has suggested there may be a connection with the August 2017 eclipse so really the Star and Sun headline should read:-

Apocalypse 'coming in 2017' after total solar eclipse hits US and UK says Bruce.

A TOTAL solar eclipse will plunge Britain and America into darkness - and bring on the end of the world next year.
By the way, America won't be plunged into darkness, only a small strip of land the shadow passes over. It's so small that if you were standing on the Moon, you would need binoculars to see it. The UK will be plunged into darkness however as the Sun will set before the eclipse is over.