Thursday, March 30, 2006

The cost of cost management

Just back from a short-break in Biarritz with the missus, which was extended involuntarily by one day because of the Tuesday 28th March general strike, in protest against the French Government’s new youth employment policy. This caused all Ryanair flights to and from France be cancelled, through no fault of the airline, leaving us stranded.

Ryanair’s drive for efficiency and cost control means that their operational objective is to fly all their planes every day on scheduled services, which results in a lack of any spare capacity when a problem arises. Coupled to this, they generally serve airports where there are no other carriers flying to foreign destinations and their flights average 80%-90% occupancy, even in the off-season.

The net result is that, when they have to cancel a flight, there is usually no other carrier serving that airport who can be used to substitute for the cancelled flight. Then, because all their flights are at least 80% full already, it will take a minimum of the 4 subsequent Ryanair flights to clear the backlog.

At airports where they have only one flight daily, or perhaps only one flight every second day, you can see how a stranded passenger might be stuck for several days. Ryanair only fly to Biarritz every second day, so having cancelled the Tuesday flight, their next flight was Thursday and our chances of getting on that were slim enough.

Luckily, we managed to book flights with Aer Lingus from Bordeaux for Wednesday afternoon, which involved getting the TGV from Biarritz to Bordeaux. The train journey took 2 hours and the TGV hit a maximum speed of about 60 mph - what a con-job!

All told, I reckon the delay resulted in extra costs of about €500 - between accommodation, air-fares, meals and train fares. It’s coming out of the wife’s house-keeping unless I can get it back off the travel insurance.

Children's Hospital Proposal

Noel Smyth's proposal to build the new children's hospital at Newlands Cross was the subject of a deeply sceptical interview on RTE's Morning Ireland today.

This prompted the thought that the ideal solution might be to move RTE to Newlands Cross and build the children's hospital on the Montrose campus, whose proximity to St Vincent's Hospital and excellent transport links would make it an ideal site.

If nothing else, the inconvenience to RTE personnel would be a bonus.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times (without the final sentence).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Healthcare - we're paying on the double

If I'm involved in a road accident, brought to A&E by ambulance and end up in the ICU for a week, most, if not all, of my medical bills will be covered by my PRSI contributions. I will receive exactly the same treatment as if I had VHI cover.

If, however, I tell the hospital that I have VHI cover, then VHI will be billed for several thousand euros for my care.

In effect, I will have paid twice for my hospital stay - both through the tax system and through my VHI membership.

VHI should only be billed for extra benefits for their members e.g. private or semi-private rooms, extra consultant time, queue-jumping for elective surgery etc.

Then the annual subscriptions paid by VHI/BUPA members would be very much lower, and many more people might be able to afford to take out cover.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Children's Rights

There was a time when adoption was thought of as a means of providing children for childless couples.

That position is now reversed and the function of adoption is to provide parents for children who, for one reason or another, are effectively parentless. In other words, consideration of the needs of the child is paramount.

This is enlightenment in action, it constitutes genuine progress in social thinking.

Now consider this: There was a time when children were expected to be conceived and born within a married relationship, and this was, traditionally in this country, the situation in the vast majority of cases. A woman having a child “out of wedlock” would be socially stigmatised and so would her child.

“Shotgun” weddings were not uncommon as people took responsibility for their actions, sometimes less than willingly.

Nowadays, about 35% of the 60,000+ Irish children born each year are “out of wedlock” and many of these are born outside of any long-term relationship or commitment of the child’s parents.

It has become socially unacceptable to express any reservations about such births. Indeed, it is decidedly non-pc to express anything other than the heartiest congratulations to the mother, the father if he is known, and the grandparents.

This is supposedly enlightenment in action and many people seem to believe that it constitutes progress in social thinking.

Yet consider the needs of the child and contrast this line of thinking with that which now applies to adoption. Why should we accept a lower standard of consideration for the rights and needs of children with their natural mothers or parents than we do for children with adoptive parents?

Children are neither playthings or companions to alleviate boredom, pets to provide unconditional love or mere fashion accessories to be paraded in public. Nor, dare I say it, are they just another example of "a woman's right to choose". They have a right to expect love, security, care and consideration from both their parents. It is a major commitment over an extended period of many years.

The fact that marriages and other long-term relationships can, and all too frequently do, break down is no justification for society to abandon the fundamental moral requirement for a parental commitment to the provision of the best possible family environment for children, before bringing them into the world.

Unmarried parents of children must take responsibility for the consequences of their own voluntary actions.

And taking care to avoid the hyprocrisy and stigmatisation of the past, the rest of us must not be intimidated by the new amoral orthodoxy from saying so.

The paradox is that current welfare rules discriminate against unmarried parents cohabiting, when it should be doing the exact opposite - subsidising them to do so for the benefit of the children.

Cosy Cartel?

The media like nothing better than lambasting what they see as cartels in business. Thus banks, insurance companies, estate agents, doctors, lawyers etc etc have all come in for negative media coverage on a regular basis.

Imagine my surprise this week to discover that Ireland’s two largest dailies, The Irish Independent and the Irish Times, have both chosen to increase their cover price by 10 cents, to €1.60.

Both papers have effectively charged the same cover price for several years, matching each others price increases within a matter of weeks, if not days.

Pure co-incidence, I’m sure.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Consenting Bedfellows

Government ministers have launched what is obviously a co-ordinated attack on the alternative coalition, seeking to highlight policy differences between Fine Gael and Labour. They’re even writing letters to the newspapers on this topic.

But the current government is surely proof that no gap is unbridgeable in politics.

The Progressive Democrat/Fianna Fail administration might well be described as a coalition of the upright and the bent, but the parties seem to have had little difficulty in cohabiting for the past 9 years.

Michael McDowell’s intemperate and personalised attack on Richard Bruton today followed hot on the heels of his outrageous comments to John Gormley in the Dail.

It’s clear the Government is feeling the pressure from the proposed Fine Gael/Labour alliance and has decided to have its ministers attack the opposition at every opportunity.

However, the sight of a Minister for Justice behaving in such an unbalanced fashion should not be seen, or tolerated, in a democracy.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Salvation & Betrayal in the same instant

Well thank God Cheltenham is over for another year - and I just managed to get out alive.

I backed War of Attrition @ 12/1 last Monday and he got me out of jail yesterday. I watched the race at home with the wife, who knew well which horse I’d backed.

My nag was looking good at the second last, but Hedgehunter began to close ominously as they came to the last. As they jumped the last almost together, imagine my surprise when a great shout of “Come on, Hedgehunter” issued from the couch beside me! That’s loyalty for you! Or, as Albert Reynolds would say, “that’s wimmin for ya!”

So, only two winners from 14 bets over the 4 days - War of Attrition @ 12/1 and Brave Inca @ 19/10 - but luckily they were my two biggest, though still modest, bets.

Two more Irish winners yesterday, War of Attrition (15/2) and Whyso Mayo (20/1) brought the Irish total for the week to 10 winners from 24 races over the four days. Yet most Irish punters will have lost money because many of these were the less fancied of the multiple Irish entries in almost every race.

And there’s 3 rugby matches to bet on today, plus the outcome of the 6 Nations and the Triple Crown. No wonder we're all exhausted.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Punter's Purgatory

Thursday was another bad day for the punters and a great one for the bookies. The 9/2 favourite won the first and a 100/30 joint favourite won the second, but after that the bookies cleaned up - winners of the next 4 races were priced at 8/1, 14/1 , 33/1 and 50/1 respectively. Only one Irish winner - Kadoun @ 50/1 in the last race when Irish punters had already been cleaned out - again.

My big hope Golden Cross, backed @ 12/1 in the main race of the day the World Hurdle, was beaten a head and should have won. He was backed down to 5/1 2nd Fav and I thought he had it won on the run in from the last, but he was definitely impeded by the eventual winner, My Way de Solzen.

If this was any major flat race, not only would there have been a steward’s inquiry but Johnny Murtagh would have lodged an objection to the winner for taking his ground.

Anyway, that’s 10 bets and only one short-priced winner in 3 days. The wife’s housekeeping money is shot to hell. So here’s today’s bets - so far.

Triumph Hurdle - Turko @ 14/1
Gold Cup - War of Attrition @ 12/1 and L’Ami @ 16/1

Wish me luck. It’s looking like Spam sangwidges for the next week unless we hit gold today!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Sustaining Progress, my arse!

Tuesday’s launch of the joint Fine Gael/Labour proposal to clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of both ministers and civil servants and also to set ministerial performance targets is to be welcomed as a putative step in the right direction.

However, Wednesday’s announcement by the Civil Service Arbitration Board that the out-sourcing of any function carried out by full-time public servants, e.g. driver testing, is banned under the terms of “Sustaining Progress” suggests that a far more wide-reaching and fundamental reform of the management of the public service is required.

At a time when Government was waffling on about the benefits of bench-marking - the improved flexibility, efficiency, value for money etc, some idiot was agreeing this incredibly restrictive clause in Sustaining Progress.

Who will take political responsibility for this? No-one, as usual, I presume.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Independent and the Irish Examiner.

Bookie Heaven

Irish Winners at Cheltenham to date.
Day 1
Champion Hurdle - Brave Inca 7/4
Wm Hill Chase - Dun Doire 7/1
Cross Country Chase - Native Jack 7/2
Day 2
Sun Alliance Hurdle - Nicanor 17/2
Sun Alliance Chase - Newmill 16/1
Coral Hurdle - Sky’s the Limit 11/1
Champion Bumper - Hairy Molly 40/1

Even with 7 Irish winners from 12 races to date, most Irish punters are now skint. This is because most of those winners were the less fancied horses in races with several Irish runners.

Yesterday was a bloodbath for punters, with no favourites winning. Indeed, only one winner was priced at less than 10/1. A William Hill spokesman on radio this morning said that they if the bookies had been allowed, in advance, to pick the winners it could hardly have been a better day for them. He estimated that bookies made about £50m profit on yesterday’s Cheltenham card alone. He shed some tears for the punters, but only because they’ll all be a bit short of cash to bet today and tomorrow.

I’ve had 8 bets to date and only one winner - Brave Inca @ 19/10. Today, I’ve only backed two horses to date - and may not back anything else until tomorrow - but I’ll probably be tempted.

Ryanair Chase: Sir OJ @ 9/1
World Hurdle: Golden Cross @ 12/1

I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Media Watchdog

The BBC’s weekly Watchdog tv programme has been a well known consumer champion for many years and, while I don’t watch it regularly, I would suppose it to be reasonably fair and balanced in its exposure of suppliers of goods and services which fail to meet expectations, as well as the occasional complete chancer.

I was interested therefore when, at the end of last night’s programme, a long judgement from Ofcom was read out. Ofcom is the independent UK agency which investigates complaints against the media.

Ofcom had upheld a complaint by Erich Reich of Classic Tours about an item concerning his company which Watchdog had featured - broadcast on 7th December 2004.

It seems to have taken 15 months for Mr Reich to get some form of public retraction. How many viewers would have bothered to stay tuned as the text of the finding scrolled up the screen, accompanied by a low-key voiceover? How would this compare with the number of viewers in December 2004 who made a mental note never to use his company?

I went to the trouble of looking him up on the internet and, thankfully, his company seems to be still in existence. He’s lucky, because Watchdog would undoubtedly have damaged both his reputation and his business.

This is typical of the approach of media - a major “exposé” turns out to be incorrect and results in a small apology printed on an inside page, weeks or even months later. In the meantime, the damage to someone’s reputation has been done.

It seems to me that a fairer approach, where substantial damages have not been paid, would be to make available to the aggrieved party the same amount and prominence of media space as was allotted to the original article or programme. This space to be used as the recipient sees fit, as long as it avoids libel etc.. So it might be used to rebut the original story, or to promote the recipients business or any other cause or topic s/he chooses.

Colin Farrell keeps it up.

Good to see that Colin Farrell, Ireland’s cultural ambassador to Hollywood, is keeping up his usual standards. He’s embroiled in a legal battle with former girlfriend Nicole Narain, Playboy’s Miss January 2002, about a 14-minute amateur sex video they made together.

She wants to sell it, he‘s trying to stop her. It’s probably because Colin’s been telling people he can “go all night” and a 14-minute video won’t exactly support that claim to fame.

This story is reminiscent of the famous sex video made by Paris Hilton with a boyfriend, which is widely available on the internet under the subtle title “One Night in Paris”. Joan Rivers has the best line on that one. She reveals that the Hilton parents were shocked and horrified by their hotel heiress daughter’s porn video, because it was shot in a Marriott Hotel room.

Cheltenham Hell

Yesterday wasn't a great start to the festival - Sweet Wake was many people's Irish banker and it was heavily backed but easily beaten.

Thankfully I backed Brave Inca @ 19/10 which took the bare look off my bookie account - but some of my horses would have been better off running at Shelbourne Park.

Today I've backed (so far)
Sun Alliance Hurdle: Denman @ 6/4
Sun Alliance Chase: Commercial Flyer @ 6/1
Champion Chase: Moscow Flyer @ 11/4 - now available at about 6/1.

Cheltenham is a metaphor for one of the great perils of western life - paralysis by analysis:

We're bombarded on all sides with information, tips, whispers etc.. - media, friends, pub-talk, our own opinions. Much of it is uninformed, most of it is conflicting.

Radio, TV, newspapers - every correspondent becomes a racing pundit this week and every race has several potential winners - often 10 or more - if you listen to the "experts".

You'd be better off to just get the morning paper, make your own mind up and then just watch the actual race on the TV. That way you'd hopefully end up backing just one loser in each race and you might even manage the odd winner.

As in many other areas, we have too much choice, too much money, too much "information", too many opinions to consider, too much time to think about it, coupled with a fear of making a wrong choice that will cost us money and/or be derided by our families, friends, colleagues etc..

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cheltenham Heaven

Shares in Paddy Power Bookmakers have risen sharply in the past couple of weeks as the stock market anticipates the bookies having a very good Cheltenham this year, naturally at the expense of the punters. Last year was a tough one for Paddy Powers with a lot of heavily backed Irish favourites winning.

This year, several prominent ante-post favourites e.g. Kicking King, Best Mate, have failed to make it to Cheltenham while others such as Moscow Flyer and Hardy Eustace have not demonstrated good form in their recent races. Beef or Salmon is ante post favourite for the Gold Cup but has never looked like winning the race in the past. In fact, I don’t think he’s ever won outside Ireland.

As always, Irish punters at Cheltenham will roar home any Irish winner. The problem is that we’ll have several runners in each race and it’s often one of the less fancied, least backed runners that actually wins. Patriotic fervour and empty pockets too often go hand in hand.

Day 1 - Tuesday 14th March 2006

It’s only 9.30am, but already I’m on the following horses for today’s racing:

Supreme Novices Hurdle: Sweet Wake @ 3/1
Arkle Chase: Accordion Etoile @ 6/1 and Don’t Be Shy @ 9/1
Champion Hurdle: Arcalis @ 14/1
Wm Hill Chase: Korelo @ 12/1

I’ll probably lay off some of the Arcalis bet on Betdaq, the horse should start at 6/1 - 7/1, and have something on one of the fancied Irish nags. Picking the right one will be the challenge.

I have to look after my mother this afternoon. I hope she likes watching racing on the box.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Vincent on the road to Damascus?

In this week’s opinion piece in the Sunday Business Post titled “Let us forgive those who trespass against us”, Vincent Browne sought to strike a balance in the debate, mainly driven by the media, of the cases of disgraced judge Brian Curtin and obstetrician Michael Neary.

Vincent posed the following question: “Why is it not allowable to acknowledge that, in spite of the wrongs persons have perpetrated, they may also have done good in their lives otherwise?”

In response one might reasonably ask Vincent who he thinks this question should be addressed to and does he ever review his own output?

Using his multiple media outlets (The Irish Times, The Sunday Business Post, Village Magazine, Tonight with VB on RTE radio 1 etc.) Vincent is himself a one man demonising machine, vilifying and castigating those who he disapproves of, disagrees with or simply are available to alleviate his boredom or his need to indulge in a little bear-baiting to keep himself and his listeners/readers awake.

A few mirrors around the house might not go amiss when Vincent is looking for culprits in his tale of forgiveness foregone.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Sunday Business Post and in Vincent Browne's own Village Magazine, to give him his due.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wasting Garda Time

The Sunday Independent’s lead story this week was a report about the abuse of state cars by prominent politicians, including the president. State cars with garda drivers are routinely used to drop children to school, do the weekly shopping, transport families to race meetings, collect pizzas etc etc.. Money is no object when it’s coming out of the public purse.

On Sam Smyth’s Sunday Supplement show on Today FM, Minister for Education Mary Hanafin explained that the role of the gardai is not primarily to drive govt ministers but rather to provide personal protection. She cited as justification the murder of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh in September 2003, who was stabbed to death while out shopping alone.

It is very easy to get used to the trappings and privileges of power and politicians like Minister Hanafin will always be able to come up with glib answers to justify their own excesses. Mussolini was shot but I don’t think the lady wears a flak-jacket.

The use of state cars should be confined to state business and garda protection only provided to ministers with sensitive highly sensitive portfolios such as Justice. It would do ministers no harm at all to have to endure some of the daily grind the rest of us put up with.

Crime & Punishment

The recent spate of gang-related shootings has sparked a heated political and media debate about the length of sentences served by those who commit serious crime such as murder. The do-gooders are quick to point out that harsher sentences have little or no deterrent effect on criminals. The point they seem to miss is that prevention rather than deterrence is the objective - the longer they're locked up, the less opportunity they have to commit crime.

What really pisses off Joe Public is where someone commits a serious crime while out on bail or on early release from an earlier prison sentence.

Here's a recent case that will undoubtedly have Joe Duffy's phones ringing:

On Friday 10th March 2006, Ian Horgan was sentenced to 8 years in jail for raping and killing Rachel Kiely. Though charged with rape and murder, he had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and not guilty to the rape charge. The jury found him not guilty of murder but guilty of rape and manslaughter.

Horgan had originally been convicted of rape and muder in June 2002, but the conviction had been overturned in December 2004 by the Court of Criminal Appeal who ordered a retrial. Horgan was released on bail pending the retrial.

Having been convicted at the retrial, Mr Justice Barry White sentenced Horgan to 8 years in jail on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently. He acknowledged that Horgan had already spent 4.5 years in custody since November 2000 and said that this was the equivalent of a six-year sentence. Consequently, the judge suspended the last 6 years of the 8-year concurrent sentences he was now imposing. This means that Horgan now has less than 2 years to serve in jail.

This calculation of 4.5 years served being equivalent to a 6-year sentence assumes that the prisoner had earned remission, commonly termed “time off for good behaviour”. However, before passing sentence the judge was made aware that Horgan had been convicted of burglary, assault and possession of stolen property in 2005, while he was out on bail pending his retrial for rape and murder.

If that constitutes “good behaviour”, meriting a calculation of remission on time already served, then the law really is an ass and I’m a chinaman (if you’re allowed use that expression in these politically correct times).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Political Marriage

Joe Higgins is a very impressive Dail performer on social issues, but his Marxist economic policy is a proven failure worldwide. Mary Harney is a principled champion of free-market economics, but her PDs seem overly biased in favour of those who are already able to help themselves.
I’ve often thought that a political coupling of Joe and Mary might produce a very interesting policy baby, so imagine my excitement when, at Leader’s Questions in the Dail yesterday, Mary Harney, standing in for the Taoiseach, told Deputy Higgins that he would “make a very tasty meat sandwich”.

I'd favour a Left/Right administration as a way of seeking to achieve the right balance between economic and social policy, so perhaps an alternative coalition line-up of FG, Labour & PDs might be ideal way to make up the necessary numbers.

Naturally it would require all the parties (and personalities) involved to have the political will, and mutual respect, to make the compromises required. You'd almost have to keep them all away from the media, who'd be more than happy to speculate on all the political and policy fault lines - real, imagined and potential.

Two of the most important functions of Government are (a) how it raises money and (b) how it prioritises the spending of that money.

In my hypothetical administration, the PDs would have the Finance and Industry & Employment briefs, charged with taking the lead on economic and competitiveness policy. Labour would hold the high-spending social departments - Health, Education and Welfare (and prhaps one other cabinet post) and would be responsibile for taking the lead on formulation and implementation of social policy.
FG would have most of the rest, but Enda Kenny’s main role would be to act as a strong executive chairman of the cabinet, needing to be both glue and grease in order to hold the disparate team together and keep it moving forward. John Bruton surprised many observers in his term as Taoiseach of the rainbow coalition, could Enda Kenny pull off the same trick?

Political coalitions are inherently unstable, but I suggest they’re preferable to the polarising administrations you risk getting in “winner takes all” elections/systems e.g. Bush in the US and Thatcher in the UK.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Politics & Religion

Jon Snow of Channel 4 News has been reporting from Iran this week. His many political interviews have been notable for the civil tone and content of the questions, a marked change from his normally robust domestic UK style.

But his greatest deference is reserved for the mullahs, whose theocratic input to the Iranian political system is treated with the utmost respect.

It could not contrast more starkly with the ridicule and scorn heaped on Prime Minister Bush or President Bush by the UK media for daring to make reference to their own personal faith.

Of course it’s sheer hypocrisy, but you get away with that in a democracy.

Is there a doctor in the house?

The 'doctor-only' medical card was introduced in 2005 to help low- and middle-income families, who wouldn't qualify for a full medical card under current income criteria. It was estimated that up to 200,000 such cards would be issued, and Mary Harney, Minister for Health fought a major battle with the Irish Medical Organisation to get the scheme off the ground.

However, several months on, only a couple of thousand people have applied for these new cards.

This very low take-up of the “doctor-only” medical cards suggests a major systemic problem in the way rights and benefits are delivered in this country. It surely can’t be a lack of demand, given that your local GP might well charge you €50 for a 5-10 minute visit to the surgery.

I believe the self-interest of politicians lies at the heart of the problem, with (at least) two key flaws in the system.

Firstly, TDs have voted themselves large allowances to run “constituency clinics”, at times and places of their own choosing, instead of adequately investing in professionally-staffed information and support services at local level. These TD clinics should more accurately be termed “re-election offices”. The funding for these clinics should be diverted into well-advertised advice bureaux - there should be one in every medium-sized town.

Secondly, far too many rights and benefits are categorised as “discretionary“. This often means that those most in need fail to receive them, while those who do apply often believe they might need the local TD to pull some strings on their behalf.
TDs do nothing to dissuade their constituents and will happily claim credit for any positive outcome, regardless of whether they’ve made any representations at all, or simply passed on an application form.

Those who don't know their rights, who don't vote and who are generally unable to advocate on their own behalf are the main losers here - yet they should, in fact, be the sector of society which is the focus of a disproportionately high level of resources.

It should be a priority of the next Government to eradicate these deficiencies and abuses, but will the self-interest of politicians win out again? I'm not holding my breath.

Footnote: A version of this published as a letter in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent.

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