Monday, 18 May 2009

A Night Sleeping Rough...

On 15th May 2009, I joined 300 others to sleep rough in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral in support of the homeless. Here's what it taught me....

I survived the night, not least because the changeable weather forced the organisers to have Winchester Cathedral opened, so we could at least sleep “dry”. Some hardy souls did sleep out the whole night (and were rained on at 3.00am!).

What the experience taught me was that it takes very little to knock you off balance. I was fortunate to have a decent meal before I went to sleep on a dry stone floor, and although you can get a decent-ish night’s sleep if you are lucky enough to find shelter like the Cathedral, you still feel wretched the next day. In particular:

You get tired very quickly.

If you are going for a job interview, your mental faculties will be affected by a rough night out, so the chances of failing the interview (and therfore remaining jobless) are much higher.

Being homeless, you may not have been able to wash and brush up before the interview.

It just showed me how quickly the system can become stacked against you. We need to do more for those who have lost their homes, the numbers of which are increasing as houses are re-possessed, or landlords of property sell without giving tenants any time to find alternative accommodation. Being homeless can turn very rapidly into a downward spiral which leaves you feeling hopeless and puts more pressure on our social services.

One thought that struck me was that the Church complains of losing followers, but could be doing more at this stage by providing an alternative to the various nightshelters. After all, the nightshelters have limited space, but there are more churches and/or cathedrals. I know that this raises a host of security, Health & Safety, insurance and other issues, but surely these could be overcome with a bit of determination and pragmatism? Why not ask at your local church and get them thinking about this? Having a dry, sheltered place to sleep for the night really does make a difference.

One of my most inspiring moments was talking to Des (I have changed his name deliberately) – a recovering speed and crack cocaine addict. Des hit drugs for various reasons – peer pressure and personal problems. He has been off drugs now for 17 months and his ambition is to start his own rehabilitation centre for others. Des is a truly likeable person, has turned his life around, and has a goal in life. He is one of the lucky ones, and his determination and strength of character have a lot to do with this.

If offered the chance, I would do this again and hope that what I have said above gives you a brief idea of the challenges that we put in the way of our homeless through not realising what it is that they go through.


Tuesday, 12 May 2009

MPs' Expenses...

We are seeing a huge furore on the expenses charged to taxpayers by MPs across the board. After the populist focus on the monarchy's costs and (more recently) bankers' remuneration, it was perhaps inevitable that those who made the fuss should expect to become the subject of public scrutiny themselves.

MPs who have been exposed claim that they were "following the rules". The rules, however, were written by MPs for MPs - a practice akin to company directors producing their own expense policy without independent review by the board and/or the auditors. No one would tolerate this in the private sector. Some of the claims definitely raise the odd eyebrow - pet food, swimming pool maintenance and, of course, the celebrated porn film claim!

In my view, this is a simple case of "compensation review". We need to re-define our expectations of what we require of our MPs and what it is reasonable to provide in order that they may discharge their duties effectively.

We start with the premise that MPs are employees of their constituencies (the taxpayer) in the same way that executives are employees of their companies. Where is their "office" - in London or in their constituency? My view is the latter, but MPs must also be "out of town" frequently to represent their employer effectively.

In the private sector, if someone has to travel frequently within the UK and/or overseas on company business, the employer meets the cost of being away from home (i.e. accommodation, meals, transport) within strict parameters. The same should hold true for MPs.

What constitutes a "legitimate" expense for an MP? The only way of defining this once and for all is to have an unbiased third party draw up a set of rules based on current private sector practice to fit the modern context. Chlorine for my MP's swimming pool, food for his/her pets and pornographic films are not "legitimate". Travelling up to London and staying there overnight to defend my/the country's interests are.

In the private sector, if my workload is such that I work ridiculous hours and it impacts my health/family life, I have the choice of: staying in a small flat/B&B close to my office from Monday - Friday, moving my whole family closer to my office (with the attendant upheaval this entails) or finding a job with better hours (and possibly less pay) closer to home. These are lifestyle choices that we all make. My employer would not however, be prepared to pay for a "second home" for me except in highly unusual circumstances. Some MPs do not have the choice of where their "office" is if they represent constituencies far from London and therefore need some leeway. Accommodation at taxpayer's expense is not unreasonable here.

Those who choose to serve the public should not be penalised for doing so (nor should their families). If we expect our MPs to be effective, they need a "reasonable" standard of living and of family life. We need to accept that there will perforce be more disruption to their lives and that they need to be compensated. One way forward would be to consider "zones" for MPs so that, the further from London their constituency is, the more travel and/or accommodation they may claim. Any MP living within an hour of London (by train) should not be entitled to a "second home", but to (say) travel expenses between London and their constituency and to hotel accommodation and meals when necessary. The latter should be rigorously scrutinised. Parliament should perhaps consider a "bloc" agreement with local London hotels, or leasing flats for MPs at a fixed rate.

Ministers may need different standards, as I expect the demands on them to be heavier.

Other expenses also need to be reviewed. Again, the only way to do this is through an independent third party who is accustomed to dealing with major corporates. To be sure, some items will need to disappear, and MPs' salaries may need adjustment in order to make them competitive (we want the "right" people in the job after all). However, when all is said and done, MPs need to remember that they are very much accountable to the taxpayer and that the latter is no longer prepared to overlook abuse.


Friday, 1 May 2009

Swine Flu - Services

I have written so far about what business should be doing from an internally-focussed point of view. However, you need to think of the outside world as well. In particular:

Which essential services will you require to run your business and who provides them? This could be IT support, cleaning contractors, maintenance, inspectors, and (even) bankers! What precautions/plans do they have in place for a pandemic? Will they be able to continue servicing your business? If so, will it be full service, or "best efforts" as they may also be impacted by staff shortages? How will you handle visitors from companies where one (or more) of the staff have come down with flu? What will you do to compensate for a reduced service?

Equally, what is/are are the vital service/services that you provide to others? Will you be able to continue providing them if you have half your staff away due to illness, etc? What allowances will you need to make? What are your customers doing and what would their reaction be if they know that one of your staff had come down with the flu?

Cashflow will be critical. Is your business cyclical, with cash coming in only at certain times of year (and if so, is this the time when you are shortest)? Will your buyers be able to continue paying you? Will you need to make arrangements for extra finance with your bank (will they provide it, if not, what do you do)? Will your cash depend on your ability to honour contracts with clients? If so, will you be able to honour them?

There may be more issues to address, but this will (I hope) get you started!