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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for the ‘Consumer’ Category

A Christmas Reflection

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Years ago, I attended a church where every Christmas morning the priest went through a routine at Mass that has stayed with me ever since.

It was the same every single year. He would begin his sermon by inviting all the children to sit in a semi-circle at the front. Then he would ask them what presents they’d received for Christmas. Excited hands shot up and the answers were much as you’d expect: games consoles, footballs, dolls houses and so on.

Next he would ask them what presents they had last Christmas. No excited hands shot up this time. A small number, maybe 10% of those assembled, cautiously raised their hands and could just about answer.

Then he would ask them what they received two Christmases ago. Not one hand went up. Nobody had a clue. Then he would turn to the adults and ask them the same question. In a congregation of around 300 people, not one individual could remember.

Now it’s your turn. What presents did YOU receive two Christmases ago? Can you really remember what you got last Christmas? There may be the occasional reader of this blog who received an engagement ring from their partner from the top of the Empire State Building, but for the most part it’s long forgotten.

This year, a great deal of media attention has been drawn to the phenomena of ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Manic Monday’. I first became aware of the former around a decade ago from America, where apparently it crept in during the late 1990s, but until now was unfamiliar with it in a British context. I can honestly say I was completely unaware of ‘Manic Monday’ in any sense until this year.

Those crazed scenes of stampedes of people  charging through supermarket doors before they’ve had a chance to open properly and those arguments between customers over who put their hand on the last cut price 42” LED TV first have become extremely ugly, unhealthy aspects of Christmas.

Whether you’re a child or an adult, ask yourself how much the presents will matter to you next month, let alone by next Christmas. In reality, people are sucked in by cleverly-pitched marketing campaigns and alliterative tabloid headlines. They are told that aspiring to own that TV or that computer game will make them happy and their life complete.

The truth is that excessive consumerism offers us no such thing. The more you have, the more you want. What you currently have will become the norm, and you will want more. This leads to neither happiness nor contentment long-term. In fact, the novelty will wear off in days or weeks, months at the absolute most.

Think back to your old childhood Christmases. Most people, including those youngish like myself, can remember a time before Black Friday and Manic Monday, when there was very little hype until well into December, and shops weren’t afraid of putting up Nativity scenes in their windows – the official excuse for not doing it is that it’ll offend people of other faiths. The reality is that it’s generally the aggressive secularists and radical leftists who dislike it the most.

Can you remember many (or even any) of your presents from those Christmases? Probably not. What you are more likely to remember, especially if you were fortunate enough to have a happy childhood, are family gatherings, nice meals, sitting in front of a warm fire watching TV or playing games together.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you’ll want to remind yourself every year of the Christmas story – of the baby Jesus born in a stable to give hope to a troubled world. But even if you’re not, it’s time to go back to basics, to a Christmas of families, long days spent with people who won’t be around forever, children appreciating the magic of the season.

These are the things you’ll cherish in your hearts in years to come. The other stuff, the forced jollity, the Black Fridays, the Manic Mondays, the big-screen TVs and games consoles that seemed so important at the time will all be long forgotten.

A happy and joyous Christmas to you all.

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Written by Marcus Stead

December 25, 2014 at 3:42 am

Qualified Praise for George Osborne – The True State of Britain’s Economy

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It’s true to say there are causes for optimism with regards to the British economy at the moment – unemployment is falling, consumer confidence is rising and the private sector is expanding. But this ‘recovery’ is fragile, and there is still a very long way to go before the nation’s balance sheet is back on a stable footing.

Gordon Brown grossly mismanaged the British economy

Gordon Brown grossly mismanaged the British economy

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how we got into this mess, and what the true causes were. Gordon Brown’s track record as Chancellor was largely to blame for the scale and severity of the recession. During his decade as Chancellor, he sold off much of Britain’s gold reserves when it was at the bottom of its economic cycle, he raided the private pension funds of working people who had saved and done the right thing by preparing for their old age, he introduced 157 new taxes, he borrowed more money than all previous British governments in history put together, and he paid for public sector ‘investment’ by private finance initiatives, a form of borrowing that was to land future governments with hefty bills that would need to be paid years after he was off the political scene.

Brown was fortunate that the chickens didn’t come home to roost a lot sooner than they did. He was lucky in that the global economy was largely stable for much of his tenure as Chancellor, and currencies weren’t as affected as they might have been by instability on Japan or the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

When the rain eventually came, there was nothing in reserves to help the country battle through a few hard years. Every responsible individual, and every responsible family puts some money to one side in case they lose their job or are unable to work due to circumstance. Mr Brown did not do the same with the nation’s money.

The banking crisis has its origins in legislation President Clinton brought in during the 1990s that effectively removed the boundaries between the day-to-day banking most of us use and the high-risk casino banking very few of us will ever encounter. The USA sneezed, and the world caught a cold, though it is worth remembering that during its 13 years in power, New Labour did absolutely nothing to stop ordinary people being exposed to the consequences of casino banking, nor did it do anything to prevent high street banks from merging, which led to them becoming too big and resulted in a lack of competition.

Then we have the elephant in the room, the big issue that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough – personal debt.

UK personal debt has doubled since the turn of the millennium. Our cultural attitudes need looking at if we are to address this problem. In Germany, the word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’. That, combined with looming memories from the financial ruin of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s means that the German people have a completely different, and much healthier attitude to debt.

The German attitude to household debt is very different to Britain's

The German attitude to household debt is very different to Britain’s

Most Germans pay for their weekly shopping in cash. Credit cards are rare. Most people, even middle class professionals, rent, rather than own their homes. We, as a country, need to learn lessons from this. In many cases, the debt burden of having a mortgage is too great, and people would be better off renting, which allows people to move house easily and at short notice as their jobs and personal circumstances change. You are only ‘throwing money away’ by renting if property prices rise indefinitely, if you are willing to gamble on what state your life will be in 25 years from the start date, and if you are willing to spend large sums on maintaining the property.

Then there is the issue of consumer debt. This will require a massive cultural shift. I hate consumer debt with a passion. I cannot imagine, at any time, or under any circumstance, taking out a loan or credit agreement to pay for a car, a new sofa, or a holiday. If I cannot afford something, I go without. I choose not to run a car because I wouldn’t use it anywhere near enough to justify the cost. It’s 10 years to the week exactly since I returned from my most recent foreign holiday (I have been abroad much more recently for work purposes). ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ is not one of my hobbies. Many people subtly try to outdo their friends by buying flash cars, building conservatories and holding fancy wedding days. They don’t fool me. I’m not impressed with any of that, because whenever I see it, my first question is: How did they pay for it?

This combination of factors means that George Osborne’s task wasn’t and isn’t one to be admired. Since he became Chancellor in 2010, his track record has been mixed. He deserves credit for raising the Personal Allowance, which has removed millions of low earners and part-time workers from income tax completely. He can take credit for the fall in unemployment and for creating the conditions that have allowed the private sector to grow.

The ‘tax cut for millionaires’ has been nothing of the sort – they’re actually paying more tax than before, and besides, Mr Osborne understands full well that raising taxes for the richest only leads to them taking their money, and their businesses, to other countries with a more competitive rate. That was a mistake Labour made during the 1970s and it would be even more disastrous in today’s globalised economy.

In today’s papers, we read that Mr Osborne is planning to merge income tax and National Insurance if the Conservatives win next year’s general election. It’s about time too – it’s a total myth that there is a separate pot of money set aside to help individuals in times of need, and it would be far more honest, and ultimately far more efficient, to make the two a single tax.

Yet Mr Osborne’s track record is far from perfect. Perhaps his biggest piece of good fortune is that most people don’t know the difference between the terms ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’. Understanding this point is crucial. ‘Debt’ refers to money owed historically, whereas ‘deficit’ refers to the amount the government borrows every year. Mr Osborne has indeed cut the ‘deficit’, but the ‘debt’ itself is still piling up year on year.

Government borrowing, namely the ‘deficit’ was £107.7 billion in 2013-14, down from £115.1 billion the previous year. That means that Mr Osborne has made up for an income tax shortfall to the tune of £107.7 billion this year by borrowing. There are two ways this figure can be reduced: 1. By increasing the amount of money the government receives from taxation. 2. By spending less.

Option one can be achieved by getting more people into work and paying tax, which, to his credit, he has helped to make happen. It’s important not to fall for the myth that the government could receive more tax revenue by raising taxes – this would lead to people having less money to spend on products and services, and therefore fewer jobs would be created, whilst business is lost to overseas markets.

Option two means accepting the cuts, making the public sector work more efficiently, and accepting that the government should do less, which means individuals and families would have to take far more personal responsibility for their lives.

Only once the deficit drops to zero, and the government receives more tax revenue than it spends (a surplus), can it start paying down the debt. And boy, does that mountain of debt need to be dealt with. It currently stands at around £1.3 TRILLION, but when we add in all government liabilities such as state and public sector pensions, the true figure is closer to £4.8 TRILLION. That works out at roughly £78,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. The interest alone currently amounts to £1 billion per week.

In conclusion, we are going to have to accept the ongoing cuts. There are numerous examples, especially among Labour-run councils in places like Sheffield, of pet projects continuing and the number of well-paid consultants increasing while frontline facilities like libraries and leisure centres are closing. The electorate needs to be vigilant in ensuring that their taxes are spent wisely, and that their council is run for the benefit of local people, rather than the people who work for it.

We should also fully acknowledge Labour’s role in creating the economic crisis. Gordon Brown’s closest adviser while he was playing hard and fast with the nation’s finances was Ed Balls, the current Shadow Chancellor.

There appears to be an inbuilt belief among the Labour hierarchy that all problems can be solved by throwing money at them, or by expanding the role of the state. Indeed, the public sector expanded by more than one million workers between 1997 and 2010. Good, efficient management and increasing productivity doesn’t seem to register with them. Of course, the fact that public sector union votes were the key to getting Ed Miliband elected as Labour leader, and that union donations are keeping the party afloat probably clouds their judgement somewhat. As far as Labour is concerned, all public sector cuts are bad and the current government is only making them to be nasty. They haven’t come close to grasping that these are necessary measures to clear up their mess.

The problems are many, and it’ll be a good while yet before the nation’s finances are back on an even footing. We are being kept afloat at present by the availability of cheap credit, which won’t last forever, so carrying on as we were before is not an option.

No matter how bad things are, and however much we may dislike the cuts, letting Labour back into office would lead to things being far, far worse.

Gordon Brown ruined this country’s economy. Don’t let his closest adviser do the same again.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

July 1, 2014 at 7:17 pm

The Modern-Day Cult Of Attention-Seeking ‘Charity’

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WE SEEM to have forgotten what the spirit of charitable giving is all about. When I was growing up, I was taught that charity should be a private matter and was to be done for the benefit of the cause, not to boost your own ego.

Several events in the last week have left me in no doubt that our society has lost all sense of charity’s purpose and the whole essence of giving.

The makeup-free ‘selfie’ seems to follow a specific format: The woman posts a picture of herself on Facebook, with an accompanying note nominating a few friends to do the same.

Within minutes of the ‘selfie’ being posted, they get lots of Facebook ‘likes’ and uninspiring comments from friends, along the lines of, “You look really pretty, hun” and, “Aww, you’re so cute without makeup.”

They seldom offer any explanation as to why they are doing it. Is it to raise ‘awareness’ of cancer? What exactly does that mean, anyway?
Surely we are all ‘aware’ that cancer exists. Which one of the (roughly) 200 cancers are they making us ‘aware’ of? Do they want us to donate to a cancer charity? If so, which one, and why that charity in particular? They hardly ever tell us.

They’re more interested in nominating their friends to follow in their footsteps and continue this self-gratifying, pointless exercise.

It seems that many take part just to follow a trend, and as is often the case, to satisfy themselves that they’re doing something useful. ‘All my friends are doing it, therefore it must be good’ appears to be the mantra behind it, unless I’m missing something, thereby excusing them of having to think seriously about how they can make a meaningful contribution to the fight against cancer.

This absurd ‘selfie’ trend is just the latest symptom of the wider problem of today’s vain, shallow, self-obsessed culture, full of instant gratification and quick-fixes.

The sad reality is that a significant number of young, British people (especially women) never really give a moment’s thought to anything much apart from their jobs, their immediate circle of friends, and celebrity culture.

Not all, I hasten to add, but quite a few, including some who have benefitted from a university education.

By taking a makeup-free ‘selfie’, they lap up the sickly-sweet comments from their ‘friends’ and trick themselves into believing they’ve done something even remotely useful to fight cancer.

Momentum built up all through last week, reaching a crescendo on Friday evening, by which time my Facebook wall contained little else.

I vowed to stay away from Facebook for the rest of Friday night, in the interests of keeping my blood pressure under control if nothing else.

I switched on BBC One, where Sport Relief was just starting. This was barely an improvement on the Facebook situation. Same concept, different style.

I’m not much of a fan of organised fun full stop, but I’ve always had an especially intense dislike for this fundraiser, and its elder brother, Comic Relief. I can’t stand the self-indulgence of it, the forced jollity, the unfunny sketches, the free publicity it gives to washed up has-been comedians and to the BBC itself.

In this case, instead of make-up free ‘selfies’, some very wealthy celebrities were taking part in mind-numbingly dull ‘activities’ to raise money for ‘good causes’.

They might not have got paid for taking part, but this struck me as something of a cynical public relations exercise in promoting their image as caring, compassionate, selfless ‘celebs’.

At least one ‘celeb’ who featured heavily is a former colleague of mine, and I know from bitter personal experience that he does absolutely nothing unless there’s something in it for him.

Surely Coronation St on ITV would be a ‘safe’ zone. I know it’s going through a bit of a weak patch at the moment, and the storylines aren’t up to much, but surely this would give me an escape from this back-slapping tripe?
Afraid not. Very early on, Julie, an absurd character at the best of times, was thinking up charity fundraising ideas, and tried in vain to persuade Roy to give the green light for her and her work colleagues to replicate ‘Calendar Girls’.

There really was no getting away from it, so I turned the TV off. My mind harked back to a recent conversation with a friend who works in a large office.

He had a good rant to me over a pint about the compulsory ‘office collections’ that take place. This involves a member of staff, always female, always excessively cheery, going around the office when she is supposed to be working, rattling a collection tin for the latest ‘good cause’.

This doesn’t just happen from time to time. It’s at the very least a weekly occurrence, usually more.

It happens every time a member of staff has a birthday, gets pregnant, gives birth, has a Christening, gets engaged, gets married, or is ‘fundraising’ for their latest ego trip.

My friend, who has enough financial concerns of his own at the moment, rightly pointed out that he goes to work to make money, not to give it away, but feels he can’t say anything in the workplace for fear of being branded a ‘Scrooge’ or accused of not being a ‘team player’.
Even self-employed types like me who work from home can’t get away from it. I can’t remember the last time a whole week went by when I didn’t receive an email or a Facebook message demanding that I donate to someone’s latest fundraising activity.

Nearly always, the person doing the fundraising is someone I haven’t seen for at least ten years, didn’t know all that well to begin with, and probably hasn’t given me a moment’s thought for most of that time.

This is never a heart-felt, personal invitation to donate to a good cause. I only received it in the first place because I was in their email address book or Facebook ‘friends’ list, and it’s been sent to everyone in it, regardless of how little involvement they’ve ever really had with me.

There is always a sob story attached, usually about a family bereavement, and at the very least about someone who has bravely battled some horrible illness.

Look, I’m very sorry to hear about your granny dying, but I never knew her, and, in all honesty, I don’t really know you. What right have you got to try and guilt-trip me into donating to your cause?

And what has coming to work dressed as Lady Gaga or doing a ‘fun run’ in a Scooby Doo costume got to do with your departed relative anyway?

Most also seem to want me to donate online via Justgiving, a profit-making company that deducts 5% of whatever you give, along with additional credit card fees in many cases.

If they bothered to do just a little bit of research, they’d discover they’d be better off using Virgin Money Giving, where charities register with them, and they in turn charge just 2% commission on donations to cover running costs.

Ironically, I’ve had requests to donate to participants in this year’s London Marathon using Justgiving, whereas its more philanthropic rival came into being after Virgin Money became the event’s sponsor and created an easy way for people to donate.

As a society, we even seem to have lost all sense of what charity actually is.

Christopher Snowdon’s recent report for the Institute of Economic Affairs explains the extent to which the lines between charity and political lobbying have been blurred since New Labour came to power in 1997.

We have now reached the stage where 27,000 charities are dependent on the government for more than 75% of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the state than it does in voluntary donations.

This inevitably leads to charities being far more reluctant to criticise government policy. In a sense, it leads to the government lobbying itself.

They typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws. Indeed, it’s hard to see how some of these organisations can be classed as ‘charities’ at all.

This newspaper, and indeed the BBC, has in recent years revealed that Comic Relief has invested money into such ‘good causes’ as alcohol, tobacco and the arms trade.

There at least 30 charity bosses earning an annual salary of more than £100,000. Harpal Kumar, the CEO of Cancer Research UK, which claims to have benefitted hugely from the ‘selfie’ trend, pockets £220,000 per year, £77,000 more than the Prime Minister receives. I wonder how many of the makeup-free posers bothered to investigate that?

I’m 30 years of age, and it was around the time that I was born that self-indulgent, celebrity-backed charity really began to take off, with Band Aid, followed a few years later by Comic Relief.

I had a Catholic education, and during my primary school years the old standards were adhered to. It was only when I went to secondary school that I was really exposed to high-visibility, noisy, public charity.

I recall a history lesson with an older, male teacher being rudely interrupted by two younger, female teachers who came barging in rattling tins to collect money for Children In Need. Our history teacher didn’t look impressed, but said nothing. It’s been downhill ever since.

To be clear, I’m certainly not anti-charity, but I’d welcome a return to the days when it was done privately, quietly, and without celebrity endorsements.

In my experience, the better-run charities are often smaller, low-key ones, free from political influence and lacking in celebrity backing.

I can think of several that are involved in worthy projects both in Britain and overseas where every effort is made to ensure that the vast majority of money raised reaches its intended cause, and one that guarantees that every penny goes straight to Africa, where it will be spent on a range of projects focusing on education, healthcare and self-help. Even the volunteers are expected to pay their own transport and living costs.

Now that’s what I call a good cause!

Written by Marcus Stead

April 1, 2014 at 5:37 am

Pensioners Warned Over Boiler Insurance Scam

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LUCKY: Pina Morrish realised what had happened in time for the payment to be stopped

LUCKY: Pina Morrish realised what had happened in time for the payment to be stopped

ELDERLY people are being warned not to feel pressurised into giving their credit or debit card details to cold callers following a series of complaints about a company that attempts to sell them boiler insurance products they don’t need.

The company, Heat Plan Utilities, based in Surrey, calls elderly people to tell them that their boilers are out of warranty and typically tells them they need to buy ‘Silver Plus’ cover costing £119.99.

They are then told that they need to buy the product there and then, and are pressurised into giving their credit or debit card details using ‘hard sell’ techniques.

Pina Morrish, an 88-year-old widow from Cardiff, was recently contacted by the company. She said: “They called me one afternoon and frightened me into thinking I needed boiler cover.

“The man I spoke to seemed very nice and was well-spoken, but he was very insistent that I bought the cover there and then, and persuaded me to give him my debit card details.”

Mrs Morrish, who is originally from Italy and settled in Britain after marrying a Welsh soldier in 1947, soon realised something wasn’t right and phoned her daughter, retired deputy headteacher Christine De Souza, who immediately contacted her mother’s bank to stop the payment and cancel her card.

Mrs De Souza, 59, who assists her mother with financial matters, said: “I discussed the possibility of getting boiler cover with my mother some time ago, but since she has it serviced on a regular basis, we agreed it wasn’t necessary.

“My mother is still very independent for her age and makes her own decisions. It seemed very clear to me that this caller was using ‘hard sell’ techniques, because she is not easily manipulated, and was aware her boiler was in good working order following the recent service.”

The following morning, Mrs De Souza phoned Heat Plan Utilities to try and establish exactly what has happened.

She asked how exactly they had obtained her mother’s number, and was told that they got it through a survey she had completed. Mrs De Souza said it was highly unlikely her mother had filled out a survey, and was told: “If she can give card details, I’m sure she can complete a survey.”

Mrs De Souza replied that she was sure she knew her own mother a lot better than they did. Angered by his attitude, she asked to be put through to a supervisor, but he initially refused to, claiming they were merely selling insurance.

Undeterred, Mrs De Souza insisted she be put through to a supervisor, and he eventually agreed to do so. After being kept on hold listening to music for an extended period, she hung up the phone. She has since reported the company to Trading Standards and the Citizens Advice Bureau, who were both sympathetic, but didn’t believe any laws had been broken.

There are a number of near-identical stories about Heat Plan Utilities on internet forums that deal with issues relating to care of the elderly. Typically, the calls take place during daytime hours and the same price, £119.99 is quoted.

Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director at Age UK said: “Scams can take place on the doorstep; by phone, on the internet or through the post and the sad fact is that if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is. If you feel under pressure to commit, then just step away because any reputable company will allow you time to think an offer over.

“Anyone can be taken in by a scam so people shouldn’t be embarrassed to report a crime. If you feel you are or have been a victim speak to the police, a family member or friend.”

Matt Smith, of Heatplan Utilities, defended his company’s sales techniques. He said: “We obtain our information from surveys, and if people are well enough to give their credit card details over the phone, they are well enough to complete surveys. Our sales techniques are perfectly legal.”

Meanwhile Mrs Morrish considers herself to be one of the lucky ones. She said: “I was fortunate in that I realised I had been mis-sold the insurance very soon after the call, and there was enough time to stop the bank payment from going through.

“I’m sure there are plenty of vulnerable elderly people who weren’t so lucky, and I’d urge those who look after older people to remind them not to give their card details over the phone, or to feel pressurised into buying products they don’t need by telesales calls.”

Written by Marcus Stead

September 30, 2013 at 4:01 am

Posted in Consumer