This week with Brian 25 April to 2 May 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a flagship policy, population density, Umuganda, a local footnote, bugs and exceptions, an elevator pitch, missing St George, other possible dates, symbolic horses, simpler fares, orange promises, passing off, water claims, peace women, family silver, finding a human, a gull enthusiast, 90% up north, a nearly unique final, you and the clouds and Marjorie’s fall.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

The government’s protracted Rwanda Bill finally got through parliament this week. All that now remains is for King Charles to make his thumbprint on it and the job’s done. Flights probably won’t start until July, according to the Financial Times and others. The pink paper quotes a former Cabinet Minister at being “bemused” at the seeming lack of urgency, suggesting that the thing could have been wrapped up weeks ago. The answer may lie in the PM’s desire to be able to time this “flagship policy” to be cleared for take-off before the election but not have its departure time – lest something goes wrong – until after it. If so, a June poll might be a possibility.

[more below]

• Rwanda

I’ve never been to Rwanda but much debate has centred on whether it’s a safe place to send already vulnerable people. Our World in Data’s figures are “based on the expert estimates and index by . It captures the extent to which people are free from government torture, political killings, and forced labor; they haveproperty rights; and enjoy the freedoms of movement, religion, expression, and association. The variable ranges from 0 to 1 (most rights).”

Rwanda scores 0.24, better than China, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, though that isn’t saying much. The UK is 0.89 and several other African countries are also in the 0.8s. The Law Society also has doubts about the scheme, though in this article at least they’re more to do with the specific issue of refoulement (whether the asylum seekers can be sent to a country where they might face persecution).  

It’s quite poor, with a GDP per capita of about $930pa (as opposed to Bermuda’s $125,240pa), putting it in 171th place out of 190. It’s also small (144th in the world) but very densely populated: indeed, it is the most tightly-packed country in mainland Africa and the 25th most so in the world. Indeed, you’re about twice as likely to bump into another human in Rwanda as you are in the UK and ten times more likely as you are in the world as a whole. The poverty aspect at least has been slightly improved by the estimated £370m so far committed to the project by the UK.

By one measure, however, Rwanda seems to be supreme: Drew Binsky, “a You tuber who has visited over 191 countries”, rates Rwanda as the cleanest of the lot. This is, he believes, because of “Umuganda, which loosely translates to a coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome after times of hardship. On the last Saturday of every month it is mandatory for everyone to come together and clean the streets in the morning.”

Seems like a decent plan. Other rankings are less complimentary, however. Perhaps these variations tell you a lot about what are largely subjective considerations: what constitutes clean after all? None the less, Umuganda sounds like a good idea.

For Sunak, the key point of the scheme is not Rwanda’s tidiness but whether it will be seen as a deterrent. Nearly 30,000 people crossed the Channel in small boats in 2023 but only about 200 a year can be sent to Rwanda. A less that one per cent chance of enforcement hardly seems off-putting.

In any case, the UK government has in the last two years done all it can to make Rwanda seem a safe and desirable destination in which case many asylum seekers – assuming they’re even aware of the scheme – may feel this final destination, at no cost, is actually an advantage and worth paying the traffickers the money.

The project seems more designed for domestic electoral advantage, proving that the government is trying to do something. The tides of despair caused by climate change, economic desperation and global conflict, will continue to flow just as strongly. People want a better life – the USA was founded on this principle – and if they feel there’s a fighting chance they’ll get it in the UK or, via there, in Rwanda then they’ll take the plunge. This is only likely to get worse: and, in this global story, Sunak’s plan is likely only to merit a local footnote.

• Bugs, exceptions and anomalies

The Post Office Inquiry has been told, as reported by the BBC, that following advice from John Vennells, former CEO Paula’s husband, “the Post Office stopped referring to ‘bugs’ and instead called them ‘anomalies and exceptions’. Senior executives felt that this language was ‘less emotive’.” A lawyer for the inquiry branded the move as “absolutely Orwellian”.

It’s obviously terribly kind of John Vennells to have taken such an interest in his wife’s mounting problems but it seems worth reflecting on how useful this advice was.

The main aim was. obviously, to avoid the word “bug” with all its connotations of incompetence and human error. “Anomalies and exceptions” are, one might think, just stuff that happens: acts of God over which no one has any control and for which no one can be blamed.

Well, not really. From talking to people wiser than me in these matters, these have fairly precise meanings in the IT world. The words also – and here’s the clever bit – have fairly benign meanings in the world at large. Best of all, Mr Vennells selected two alternative terms, both of which mean different things, to replace the B-word, so blurring the distinction still further. This one short phrase is thus a masterpiece of obfuscation in a story which already has far too much.

An “exception” is the result of something that the programmer doesn’t expect to happen, or shouldn’t normally happen but might, such as someone entering an invalid date like 31 June, asking that something be divided by zero or perhaps something less obvious like entering a negative number where a positive one is expected. Certainly the first two should have been anticipated. We’ve all filled in online forms where an entry has been rejected because of using wrong formatting or meaningless data.

How good a piece of programming is partly depends on how many possible exceptions the developers have anticipated and written a piece of code to trigger a prompt, an auto-correct or some alert. Exceptions can also be the result of factors outside the system’s control such as a broken connection or shortage of memory. All of the instances of these should also be stored in a report which the developers can review at any time in order to see what’s causing problems and how as a result the “user experience’ can be improved and the whole system run more efficiently.  

The key point here is that these kind of “exceptions” have been anticipated and provided for and therefore cannot be conflated with “bugs” (which have not).

Either because of indifferent programming or the sheer rarity of the occurrence, some exceptions cannot be predicted. These may cause problems which make them indistinguishable from bugs (a piece of coding which is wrong, or in the wrong place). They are, however, different things. An exception is essentially something unexpected that the user or outside circumstances have created; a bug is a mistake created by the programmer. The results may be similar but the causes, and the responsibility, are different.

As for an “anomaly”, that’s an even less useful term to intrude as it’s generally taken to mean any error that’s currently undiagnosed and so could include all of the above.

To return to the avoidance of the word “bugs”, as the PO had long claimed that Horizon was free of these it makes sense that the CEO, and her husband, should strive to spin the term away. However, no piece of programming is completely free of bugs, particularly in its early days. Testing for these typically involves about a quarter of the total development time.

Whether this was the case with Horizon I cannot say. Even if it were, testing can only detect the presence of bugs, not prove their absence. To deny that any could or ever did exist is, at best, foolish. To try to deal with them by calling them something else is rather worse and provides yet another example of the depths of self-deception and dishonesty to which the organisation had sunk.

• Education

I wonder if an edited highlights of the PO Inquiry might make a useful public information film, of the kind that the government delighted in making back in the day but which have since – along, perhaps, with the general decline in respect for what the government thinks on many matters – gone out of fashion. This would provide a wonderful chance of redemption and a re-boot.

True, the thing would carry more weight were the government not to be the sole shareholder in the Post Office and at times a pretty uninterested one. None the less, we are where we are.

We pan in to a board meeting of what is obviously a large organisation. This impression could probably be created by having a number of recognisable recently-deposed MPs in the non-exec chairs (memo to producers: don’t pay them a fee). The first line we hear is the Chair asking “so – do we feel we have a Horizon on the horizon?” Cue shuffling of papers and nervous glances, followed by a few people putting their hands up. We then cut to some of the more forensic bits of interrogation by Jason Beer and his colleagues and the squirming body language of those being questioned. A voiceover at one point would ask “is this what the shareholders want to see?”

Look – I’m not a TV producer but perhaps you get the drift. If this isn’t an opportunity for organisations of pretty much all sizes to look at things undone that should have been done, or vice versa, then I don’t know what is. If they don’t take advantage of it then another inquiry might be waiting for them.

Something else that would focus the mind would be a bit of reciprocal justice. two points here. Firstly, money. The PO has so far spent more money defending itself than it has spent on compensation. Who owns the PO? The government, ie us. Also, Jason Beer et al do not, I suspect, work pro bono or on the minimum wage and, good job though they seem to be doing, that’s all being paid for by us as well. There’s no point in making the PO bear all the costs as that would be on our account too. What’s wrong with a few fines for those responsible?

This of course assumes that the behaviour of some of those responsible fails the satisfy the condition for limited liability, as increasingly seems likely. If so, a few custodial sentences wouldn’t go amiss. That’s what many of their victims suffered.

Both of these measures would focus every director’s mind on the idea that actions have consequences. Some of those who ran the PO don’t seem to have been terribly bright, or in control of good systems, or well served by their underlings or advisors. None of these are defences. For goodness sake, let’s not hope that the breast-beating from those responsible is taken as adequate remorse and the whole thing doesn’t end up with another establishment white-wash.

• How to talk to a human

I had a phone call from a long-time PP subscriber this week who sorrowfully told me that, as of next week, another Newbury bank – Lloyds – will, in his words, cease to have anyone working there who knows anything much about the products of services it offers. I haven’t managed to contact Lloyds to confirm this but, if true, it’s part of a seemingly inexorable decline in high-street banking services. Indeed, I think Newbury is now the only place in the district that still has any conventional banks at all. The way things are going, there soon won’t be any left there either.

Although I pointed out that organisations like Post Offices and others like the Newbury Building Society are trying to plug the gap as regard the use of existing services, that’s of no use if you want to find out, say, what kind of deposit account would be best for you. My caller pointed out that he’d been advised there were three ways Lloyds could be contacted.

The first was online: which was, he suggested, a no-no for a small but significant minority of people, mostly in the old age bracket. In any case, as we all know, corporate websites and in particular the FAQs sections have the unerring knack of answering every question except the one you’re enquiring about.

The second method offered was the post. The service in parts of the district is so poor that to send a letter, have this considered by a large corporation and then receive a reply could take a week or more, even assuming both the letters actually arrive. By that time, you may well have forgotten what the question was.

The third option was the phone. The problem here, he pointed out, was that you could hang on for ages pressing a range of buttons and at the end still not get what you want. As it happened, I’d caught the tail end of R4’s You and Yours earlier this week during which someone from a large call centre was explaining how he realised that AI needs to be trained faster and better. The day may come when this happens but it hasn’t happened yet. There are, however, some humans still involved in the process: the trick is getting to talk to them.

The strategy we’ve developed is, on being confronted with a call-centre question that requires a verbal reply, either to say “I want to talk to a human”, or to say some gibberish, or to say nothing at all. This seems quickly to wear the system down and quite soon you should hear the lovely words “I’m just transferring you to a customer advisor.” It’s not an ideal solution but, in these imperfect times, a successful work-around is another small victory.

• And finally

• It was St George’s Day earlier this week, I forget exactly when. In most countries this national event would have been marked by wall-to-wall speeches and fireworks and would probably have been a public holiday. Our national day, if that’s what it is, was mainly notable for several arrests at a right-wing march in central London.

• The question has often been asked as to what national day we should celebrate, if we have to have one. Most states commemorate either independence or a revolution. The former doesn’t really apply to us, the best bet being the Battle of Hastings (14 October, 1066). Or we could go for the most dramatic event in our own revolution, the execution of Charles I (30 January, 1649). Or, for those more royally minded, we could have the Restoration (29 May, 1660), though there’s already a holiday around then. Shakespeare’s birthday (23 April, 1564) is no good as that’s also St George’s Day, which hasn’t really caught on. Any other ideas?

• A number of cash-strapped councils are, according to the BBC, selling off the family silver –literally in some cases – to plug the often alarming holes in their budgets. This might work well for this year but then what? These include things like galleries, office buildings and car parks which could be either assets or liabilities depending on how they’re run. Other items that might change hands in this municipal fire sale include Portsmouth’s collection of antique silver and the Mayor of Oxford’s personalised numberplate which apparently is worth ten times more than the car.

• The BBC reports that Labour has pledged to renationalise “most” passenger rail services in England within its first parliament, if elected. As regards the fares, the Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh said that they would “make them more accessible, more transparent and more trustworthy for passengers.” No mention, one notes, of making them simpler. “Trustworthy” is a strange word to use about fares, and is perhaps explained by her promise that the party would provide “a ‘best fare guarantee’, so people could be sure they are always paying the lowest fare for their journey.” I might be being really thick here but this wouldn’t be necessary if you only had one price for each journey.

• On 24 April two horses, one jet black and the other pure white and covered in blood, absconded from their duties with the Household Cavalry and stampeded through central London, including past the building when’re the Post Office Inquiry is being held. This somehow seems as if it ought to be deeply symbolic of something-or-other but at the moment I can’t think what. Suggestions on a postcard, please…

Across the area

• Watching the water

In her regular column in a local newspaper, local MP Laura Farris bemoans the fact that, despite new powers given to it by the Environment Act, the Environment Agency seems unwilling to slap any fines on Thames Water, despite some fairly disgusting scenes, particularly in the Lambourn and Pang valleys. “Now is the time,” she declaims, “for Thames Water to urgently undertake the required improvement works…and to set a comprehensive timetable for the works.”

The time for this came some time ago. I can, however, reassure Ms Farris that, certainly in the upper Lambourn Valley, the pressure group SAGLUV has pressed TW into confirming exactly these points without, so far as I’m aware, any particular support from any other group or individual.

She also says, rightly, that Thames Water should pay for the clean-up. Hopefully this will prove to be more effective than recent work in our part of the world which appears to have mainly involved brushing sewage solids into the gully and then sloshing several gallons of disinfectant onto the road, which then drained into the River Lambourn. This might be worth a fine on its own.

The reluctance to issue fines can perhaps be explained by the fact that Laura Farris’ government seems more concerned with protecting the water companies than protecting the environment. At present, Thames Water et al can be seen to be the problem. If any of them fail, the problem will become the government’s. I doubt that Sunak wants to embark on a general election campaign with a major nationalisation programme – surely the only sensible option – to add to the manifesto. That would surely be to undo all the work propitiating his party’s right with matters such as the promised increase in defence spending and, of course, the Rwanda scheme (which the current Home Secretary allegedly described as “batshit” before his promotion).

Laura Farris refers to a letter recently received from TW about planned improvements which she criticises for “speaking in bland generalities and technical jargon.” Bland generalities are certainly things that any politician should be specialised in: as for the technical jargon, this can often be translated as “specific terms which a lay person may not understand”.

Perhaps Laura Farris doesn’t understand them herself: no shame to that if she’s not in the water industry. She’s a lawyer and I’m sure that some of the expressions she uses when in full legalistic flow could be so described. Perhaps the letter could be translated by an expert. The current situation has produced plenty of experts in the area, many of whom have been responsible for making progress on some of these issues more than Laura Farris is aware of, or prepared to admit.

She also revisits a familiar claim that she was seemingly single-handedly responsible for getting the work advanced at the Hampstead Norreys treatment works. This assertion first surfaced in November 2023 and was accepted without comment by some local media sources. At the time, I spoke to Peter Devery, the Secretary of the Tidmarsh Fly Fishing Syndicate (who attended the Scrutiny Commission meeting in October 2023 which Thames Water attended) about this.

“While Ms Farris’s newfound activism is appreciated,”he told me on 7 November, “it seems a little disingenuous to claim her letter of 18 September influenced the long-planned and much-needed upgrades to the Hampstead Norreys sewage works. Following pressure from local clean water campaigners and councillors, along with extensive publicity regarding the ecological decline of the Pang earlier this year, Thames Water had already confirmed in August that the upgrades were scheduled for completion in 2025.”

• A look at the leaflets

My survey of the campaign literature from the various local candidates this week looks at the message from Helen Belcher who’s standing for the Lib Dems in the new Reading West and Mid Berkshire seat. This doesn’t take the form of a leaflet but of a statement on the local Lib Dem website.

She starts off, as do so many such articles, with a statement about her local associations including having been born in Reading and brought up in Burghfield. She was a maths teacher in Yorkshire and the founder of an IT company and claims, without any examples, “a strong record of listening and then delivering practical solutions.” Her three main planks are “sorting out the NHS, sorting out the economy, and sorting out the environment.  These go to the heart of the issues our people are facing and that are holding them back.” There’s little in the more detailed assessments of these areas that I’d disagree with, were there to be almost unlimited funds and a wide desire in Whitehall to see these matters addressed. The pledge about investing in “crumbling infrastructure” is welcome, assuming we can find companies to do it that won’t go all HS2 on us. So too is the desire to reform the water firms into private interest companies.

She also stresses her background as a campaigner for civil rights and freedoms, saying that she’s “passionate” about these “and will be vigilant against attempts to roll them back.” Slightly more mystifyingly, she says that she “will fight for fair votes, ensuring that no-one has to vote tactically and all votes count equally.” I’m not quite sure what this means unless it’s just a longer way of expressing support for proportional representation: in which case, why not just say so?

As this is a new constituency, predictions about previous election results are meaningless and she has wisely refrained from drawing any conclusions from these.

• Passing off

The most recent communiqué from Journalism Matters includes the following observations about an issue that I’ve had cause to mention before.

“We have seen further examples of political parties continuing to produce fake local newspapers, despite several calls from the news industry and editors to put an end to this misleading practice. These publications, which mimic independent local newspapers, erode trust in both politicians and legitimate local newspapers. In a world where fake news and AI deepfakes are increasingly prevalent, it is crucial that we can depend on trustworthy sources of information.

“As we look to World Press Freedom Day next week, we must reaffirm our commitment to protecting the freedom of the press and upholding the principles of free speech and transparency. It is crucial that we continue to support and defend the vital work of journalists and media outlets around the world, who play a critical role in informing the public and holding those in power accountable.”

Regarding the first point, the newsletter refers to an article in Hold the Front Page which refers to several cases of this dismal practice. May advice to anyone who gets these misleading leaflets is to put them straight in the recycling bin where they belong.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes Greenham Peace Women sculptures, the PCC election, biking courses, careers, start-up business venues, M4 bridge works, the Health and Wellbeing Board, consultations, will writing, studying online, becoming a school governor, the Lido and a tower princess.

News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• West Berkshire Museum is “delighted to announce the acquisition of two contemporary art sculptures. These represent ‘Greenham Peace Women‘ and were created as part of the 2021 project ‘Peace Camp’, led by artist Jemima Brown to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Peace Camps (1981-2000), established to protest against nuclear arms. They were purchased through a crowdfunding project supported by The Good Exchange, which gratefully received donations from individuals, the Peter Baker Foundation and match-funding from the Greenham Trust. The project also had a generous donation from a West Berkshire Council Member’s Bid demonstrating strong local support for heritage and the arts.” Read more here.

• Councillors have backed a motion at the recent Full Council meeting to give people who’ve been in care greater protection.

• A reminder that grants are available for those who’ve been affected by flooding.

• The Let’s Get Active Fund (LGAF) is back, with £40,000 available to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire.

• The animal of the week is not an animal Bute sure sounds like one. Non-year-old Cooper Wallace, a “gull enthusiast” from Chesterfield – it’s hard to think of a place in England which is further from the sea – has recently won the European championships of a gull impersonation competition.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

So here we are at the Song of the Week. The more I listen to XTC, the more I think they were one of the smartest and most musical bands the country – and certainly Swindon – has produced. I hadn’t listened to this song for years but it’s been floating round on the edge of my aural memory for a few weeks so thought I’d look it up again – You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful.

• So next must surely be the Comedy Moment of the Week. A bit more Fry and Laurie as so many of you liked last week’s offering: Marjorie’s Fall.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is. One aspect of this year’s FA Cup Final hasn’t happened since 1885: what is it? Last week’s question was: Roughly what percentage of the world’s human population lives in the northern hemisphere? The answer is about 90% – seems a lot, but there it is.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link 

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