Saturday, 15 December 2007

Will's Passing Out Ceremony

Yesterday was Will's Passing Out Ceremony as a Royal Marine Commando. What a great day!
A quick flight to Exeter from Newcastle the night before and we were at Commando Training Centre, Lympstone for 9am.

23 of the original 48 recruits in April had made it to the end. They were joined by 25 others from earlier troops who had been "backtrooped" due to injury.
In the Falklands Hall, the officers and training staff were introduced, with much Service humour, and then the successful recruits were introduced individually and each marched forward to collect the coveted green beret. Apparently the 32 week training had passed quickly for Will, due to his propensity to doze in his sleeping bag at every opportunity.
The top photo is a still from the video screen, then we have Will waiting to receive his green beret.
We then enjoyed a home-made film of 942 Troop through their 32 week training.
The action then moved outside, to the Parade Ground, where the Marine Commandos, as they were now permitted to call themselves, accompanied by the Marine Band, were presented to the VIP guests and did various marching manoeuvres.
The third photo shows Will on the left of the front row.
The outdoor bit, in temperatures just above freezing, lasted almost two hours, so it was a great relief to see the excellent food which had been laid on for lunch.
Then, in the afternoon, the families could meet the various officers and fellow Marines. The Marines held an informal presentation ceremony for their officers and trainers, and, aided by the well-stocked bar, a lively atmosphere was enjoyed by everyone.
The final photo above shows the Barker family taken during the afternoon.
Will flew back with us in the evening. He now has a three week break before being posted to 42 Marine Company in Arbroath from where he will be off to Norway in February and Afghanistan for a 6 month tour in September.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Sustrans wins!

As a member of Sustrans, I am delighted that their Connect2 project has won the Peoples' £50million Lottery Giveaway. This was a triumph of telephone-based electoral organisation of which Lord Rennard would be proud.

A couple of weeks ago I was phoned by a Sustrans volunteer to ask if I would vote for the project. Then earlier this week I received one of those text messages which are sent in spoken form to your home phone (there's probably some proper name for this process), then finally another personal phone call to make sure I'd voted.

The only drawback from my point of view is that none of the Connect2 projects touch Darlington. The nearest is a link path between Ingleby Barwick, Eaglescliffe and Yarm. Indeed, Darlington is one of the largest towns in the country not yet on the National Cycle Network map. There is a proposed route linking us to Stockton, from where there is access to the whole country by cycle routes, but as yet we are isolated, which is strange, since we are a Cycling Demonstration Town.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

December Cabinet. No mince pies.

I sat in on Cabinet as the Lib Dem representative last night. Our Group Leader will hopefully be back in action in the new year, so my stint at the high table will be over. Three members of the Cabinet were absent, which perhaps didn't make a good impression on the 20 or so journalism students packing the public seats.
I wonder what they made of it. The whole thing was over in an hour.
I spoke on Climate Change, particularly on the need to get our messages about recycling, energy conservation and sustainable travel over to those "hard to reach" groups who so far have proved resistant to these messages. I suggested, in line with some recent research, that Governmental bodies were not necessarily the best medium for this message, and that innovative ways have to be found to get this important message out into the community.
Cllr Scott for the Conservatives spoke on a few agenda items, particularly following up her comments in the press about whether the new Council complaints system being installed was necessary. It seems designed to streamline the complaints procedure, and to ensure there are dedicated and trained staff available to deal with complaints.
The important thing here, I think, speaking as the owner of a small business which (very)occasionally gets complaints, is that the new system must be used as a means of improving the Council's service, not as a means of fobbing off complainants. Any customer-oriented business knows that a complainant is potentially a valuable customer for the future. If you take their complaint seriously and recompense them promptly and appropriately, you may win the customer over and retain their loyalty. If your procedures are designed to delay the process in the hope that they'll go away, you'll lose the customer for sure.
I hope the Council's training regime for its new complaints staff stresses the importance of taking all complaints seriously. At the moment there is no doubt that the response complainants get is varied and very dependent on who you speak to. All complaints must be dealt with promptly, efficiently and curteously, and there must be procedures in place to ensure that any weaknesses in the Council's performance highlighted by complaints are fed back to the department and individuals responsible, so that improvements can be made.
It is important that when anything goes wrong, or a complaint is made, that the first response should not be to find someone to blame. Under a positive management culture, things going wrong, like complaints, would be treated as an opportunity to improve by learning. It is hard to improve if employees are frightened of being blamed for their mistakes.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

It's Huhne in Darlington

At our monthly executive last night, our outgoing Chair, Ian Barnes (who has presided for three years over our most successful period in terms of membership gains and seats won), asked how everyone had voted in the leadership contest. The result: Huhne 9, Clegg 1. But as someone said, the majority of activists went for Huhne last time too...(PS I was one of the nine).

Saturday, 8 December 2007

You beauties!

Ok, so we rode our luck, but to beat Liverpool 3-1, after they had won five on the trot, scoring 22 goals in the process, was just magnificent. We played like the team we were last season. This is the first time I've seen Reading win this season. As the proud holder of a Northern Away season ticket, it's been pretty desperate so far, apart from a tenacious 0-0 at Old Trafford on the first day of the season. But with an away game at Birmingham next Saturday (the ticket's already arrived) our season could just be taking off.

Friday, 7 December 2007

British Gas Electric! You're 'aving a laugh!

Our saga begins long, long ago in a world far away: a British Gas Electric call centre. Back in the summer I was phoned at work by a consultancy working on behalf of One North East, offering a free business energy consultation, which I accepted.

A couple of years ago, I had installed a complete set of new, energy-efficient lighting in the business, using much less electricity. I had built up a significant credit with BG Electric, and had already negotiated a reduction in my monthly payments to allow for this. In addition, the consultants' survey showed I was actually being overcharged, such was the complexity of the various tariffs I was on.

So I contacted BG again and asked to be put on a simpler, more favourable tariff, or I'd switch to another supplier. BG didn't reply. I also asked BG to refund the amount I was in credit, which was about £2800. They agreed to do this, but still made no attempt to compete for my future business.

Two or three months passed, and despite a number of phone calls, no refund was received. In the end I threatened them with the Energy Watchdog. At this point I was transferred to a higher level: at last I was speaking to someone who actually sounded as if she could make some decisions. Up until then I'd been given various excuses for the non-appearance of my refund: "It takes a couple of weeks" became "It takes 28 days" became "It'll be done this week" became "There's a bit of a backlog" became "A cheque's in the post" became "You should have received it by now, I wonder where that's got to".

My new, elevated contact revealed the truth: BG transferred their accounts department overseas a few months ago, and the whole sytem was in meltdown with many angry customers chasing refunds or trying to close their accounts. Being unable to ascertain the whereabouts of my cheque for £2800, my new contact gleefully announced that she had authorised the repayment to me of my last two months payments, since my account was showing a credit balance of that amount (of course it was dear, my quarterly reading wasn't yet due, so there was no recorded electricity usage this quarter!). I pointed out that if these payments were refunded, I'd have no credit in my account when the next reading was taken, but she didn't seem to grasp this point.

Anyway, a credit for £1300 appeared in my account, followed, amazingly, a week or so later, by the long-lost cheque for £2800. It must be Christmas.

Then last week I received a letter from BG Electric telling me I owed them the previous month's payment, and to pay up immediately or risk further action. I phoned them up and was told that thousands of businesses had received this letter. Apparently, when they transferred their accounts department overseas they also changed everyone's account number. So when Direct Debit requests were sent out, the banks were refusing to pay up, because the account numbers didn't match up! They were having to send out thousands of new DD forms to all their customers. The threatening letters had been sent out automatically, but no-one thought to ask why so many were being sent out and that it might be advisable to stop the letters going out since it was BG's fault that the DD payments hadn't been collected.

As of today, no new DD form has arrived - and next week my new electricity supplier takes over. Bye-bye Britsh Gas Electric! The words piss-up and brewery spring to mind.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Proud dad!

This evening came the phone call I'd been waiting for. My son Will has successfully passed the 32 week Royal Marine Commando training course and been awarded his green beret. Today was the final test: a 30 mile yomp across Dartmoor in full uniform with backpack and gun - to be completed in 8 hours.
Will, as they say, barely troubled the scorers during his five years at Carmel. After working for a couple of years and building up his strength and endurance, he set off for Lympstone in Devon in the spring.
He'd wanted to be a Royal Marine Commando since the Royal Navy came to Carmel to meet the pupils when he was 13. Obviously I had reservations about his choice of career, but he was so determined, nothing would stand in his way. The change in him over the past 8 months has been remarkable - both physically and in his maturity.
So, next week we're off to Devon for his Passing Out parade, as he is formally accepted into the elite of the armed forces.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Tory PPC selection process

The closing date for applicants to be Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington was last Friday. They have been very slow in choosing someone, though I understand part of the delay was caused by the fact that when the position was advertised earlier in the year, there were no suitable applicants!

But now they've got Nigel Boddy as a member, they won't have that problem this time. Nigel would make a superb candidate and I urge any Conservative members reading this to vote for him. The democratic process needs men of integrity and ability.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Full Council

Fellow Darlington blogger, Nick Wallis, has already commented on the Echo's absence from Council on Thursday. While Nick rightly uses their absence to criticise the paper for failing to support the democratic process, criticism could equally be levelled at the Labour Cabinet for their continuing refusal to allow any proper debate in Council. When I suggested in the last Corporate Governance group meeting that we should consider ways of strengthening non-executive councillors, including giving them a right of reply in Council, this was flatly rejected by the Leader of the Council. Apparently this was a Lib Dem idea, and not part of Labour culture or tradition, so wouldn't be considered. Until such time as Cabinet members have to defend themselves in full debate in Council, the press may feel justified in preferring to attend their own local awards ceremony on the same night than report on what laughingly passes for debate in Council.

The meeting was intermittently amusing, and not just because one of the Conservative Councillors appeared to be fast asleep and then started speaking at the wrong time when suddenly woken up! From the Labour seats, as always, Cllr Dixon betrayed his true vocation as a music hall entertainer, though to be fair, his reports are detailed and interesting and he does not try to avoid questions put to him, unlike one or two of his colleagues.

Two of the newly elected younger Conservatives made their full Council speaking debuts with speeches on subjects of personal or ward importance. I wonder how long it is until newly elected Labour Councillors are allowed to speak! As it is, they just sit there and put their hands up at the appropriate times.

Without the press being there, any points scoring or successful questioning would go unreported, so there was little incentive to reveal one's hand on certain issues. I repeated my criticisms made in Cabinet about the lack of ambition inherent in the recycling targets agreed as part of the new Waste Management Contract. I also urged Cllr Dixon to continue the campaign against the rogue car dealers on North Road. But a couple of other points will be dealt with outside of full Council. With no press to report them, why reveal our hands in Council, where questions and criticisms are just batted back or ignored?

One of the mildly amusing aspects of Council is to see the chief officers scurrying along, bent over, to whisper the "right" answers in the ears of Cabinet members when the opposition ask questions. So, not only do they not have to face any follow-up questioning, there's always an officer there to help them out when needed.