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The truths they don't want you to read....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Job security

Apropos my last post, this week has seen a huge number of staff related issues coming into our office for advice and support.

My good lady wife has a specialism in HR issues and this week has seen a surprising number of disciplinaries, Industrial Tribunals and requests from employers to help staff exist their current employments.

Employers are definitely taking a harder view and are less prepared to accept lower standards from staff; and that is what staff are going to have to lift themselves up to.

Direct feedback from other larger employers is that any downsizing is going to be by directly identifying those staff who can/need to/must go and I expect the private sector to see cuts at least equal to the cuts in the public sector. The 200 jobs that go in the council will easily be matched by 1 or 2 from a lot of small employers across every sector.

It is going to be rough....

60,000 public sector job cuts expected

What is the surprise?

It is expected that 6-10% of all jobs in the public sector will go in the next few years.

Yes, and.....?

There is going to be pain everywhere, and it is going to be shared around indiscriminately.

Accept that, live with it, and make the best of what the future brings you.

That might be harsh, but before the Unions scream about the pain, they need to remember that these self same Unions funded the Labour Party who sold, mortgaged, borrowed over, resold, bought back for an overpriced amount, and then resold at a loss all the family silver.

The Unions supported the binge; now they must suffer the aftermath.

If you face up to this you can manage the impact. Or you can stick you head where the sun don't shine and complain vociferously, but pointlessly.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rural schools

With the consultation over large number of schools in the Western Isles, I have been asked by a number of parents just how they should fight the proposed closures.

I must say that I was brutally realistic with them about their options, and possible opportunities, given how the strategy is going to pan out. All other things being equal.

The news that the Government has approved the closure of an Ayrshire rural primary school seems to fly in the face of the all the promises the SNP made at the last election.

The Herald headline was shockingly scaremongering:
Nats pave the way for cull on rural schools
But the previous claims by the MSP that no primary schools would close is as false as the claims by Calum MacDonald and Alasdair Morrison that communities would have a right of veto over wind farm applications.

Assuming (and this a fairly big assumption) that the Comhairle consultation has been properly conducted, then the schools will close and the overall educational strategy will proceed.

Such is realpolitik, where educational aspirations collide with educational constraints, and are battered by financial constraints.

Painful as this may be, I think that the Government are correct; as are the Comhairle in their plans; albeit that both have found themselves in the right place for some of the wrong reasons.

Educational provision in the islands will change dramatically - it is going to have to change dramatically - and electoral promises are going to be cast aside. The fallout locally and nationally will take some time to be determined.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Harris Tweed - a rich man's industry

One of the great surprises whilst I was away was the absence of any comment over the Harris Tweed Hebrides accounts, which were finally completed. They were due to be at Companies House in August 2009, but didn't get signed off until June 2010.

That is usually a sign of financial problems, and allied with all the changes in the ranking agreements for the 4 Floating Charges, it didn't look good.

However, a review of the accounts shows a position that is not as bad as I feared, but underpins the sheer scale of capital investment required to open the mill and get it operational. I have no inside knowledge about the financial position, so I am using my experience to try to read all I can into the accounts.

Anyone who has tried to interpret a set of abbreviated accounts will know just how little information there can be, and how much can be obscured. Limited Liability Partnership accounts are even more obscure, if that is possible. Readers are advised to think of them as partnership accounts first and foremost, with some limited company presentational issues.

I've attached a set of the accounts, which show (on page 3) an apparent loss of £680k. I say apparent, as it is possible that some of the £1.7m in "Loans and other debts due to members" may also have affected the profit and loss account; but this is impossible to quantify. If I had to speculate, I would guess that perhaps £1m of the £1.7m was through the P&L, increasing the loss to £1.68m (the reason for that estimate is that security has been granted over only £709,000 of the members loans).

The Floating Charges are mainly to the Royal Bank for debt factoring, but the first charge was to Iain Taylor, who owns and funding the mill.

A start-up loss of £1.5m would not be unexpected, indeed I had expected to be nearer £2.5m to equip the building, and market and develop the business. [As an aside, I expected all the bad news to be thrown in and appear in the 2008 accounts, but I suspect that this might not be the case]

Stock at £500,000 would imply turnover of between £2-£3m (3 months stock in yarn and finished tweed). Debtors of £890,000 strongly suggests that the debt factoring has been grossed-up by the auditors - that is to say that the debtors include the full amounts owed by the customers to the debt factors, with a compensating and offsetting balance in creditors for the advances received from the factors, and potentially repayable.

On any reasonable basis, perhaps £400,000 in creditors would be due to the debt factors, with perhaps £600,000 in debtors being the amounts due by the ultimate customers. Implying perhaps £250,000 being promised from Mr Taylor, but unpaid at the year-end.

But look at the level of turnover. It is so wildly out of proportion to the publicity generated and the energy expended by the Board, and there seems not a huge amount of evidence that turnover has grown significantly since that point, and I doubt if it is past breakeven. Yet.

With Haggas liquidating some of the group companies for very good financial reasons, it is painfully obvious that the industry has shrunk fast with large and continuing overheads and fixed costs requiring a huge financial input and a large personal financial risk, before turnover can be ramped up to turn the companies from loss to profit.

That the industry has to rely exclusively on such goodwill from three very rich individuals for its survival is a measure of the continued failure of the industry and its supporters to deliver new market and recovered volumes.

We need to be grateful to these three investors, but as a community we also need to realise that it is built on very shaky foundations and is entirely dependent on the continued financial support of a very few; unless somehow the industry can be resurrected.

I know that the kids put a lot of work in the signs around the entrance to the Castle Grounds for the Festival, most of which were based around the theme of Harris Tweed, but it all struck me as all so desperate and backward looking, celebrating an industry that has been constantly in the doldrums since before the kids were born. And possibly since even before their parents were born.

It is no longer OUR industry, probably because WE let it drift into failure. Accept that; be grateful for the external investors and the drive of some local residents; and hope that THEY make a success of OUR lost heritage.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hitler can't get to Barrafest (NSFW)

Thanks to whoever created this work of deranged may need the Flash plug-in to see it properly, otherwise you can see it here.

(If I've got the code wrong for embeding the flv file, can someone help me, as I might be out of my depth!)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Free whisky

Aberlour certificateTen years ago I bought, was given or somehow acquired a bottle of Aberlour single malt.

And very nice it was too.

Even better, it came with a certificate that entitled the bearer to a free bottle of whisky one decade later.

Being a true pedantic accountant, I had kept the certificate safe, and had put a reminder on my electronic calendar that it had to be returned between 1 July and 30 September 2010.

I am now awaiting delivery of my bottle, which will undoubtedly taste all the better for being free.

Golf Club Sunday licence

One of the joys of sitting on the Licencing Board - as I did for 4 years - was to read the various objections to licencing applications and to try to draw some coherence from the more 'green pen' letters that were received.

The re-application by the Golf Club for a Sunday Licence has resulted in four objections, three of which are detailed on Hebrides News; and all which seem to have a religious flavour.

Unfortunately for the objectors, they seem to have got their knickers in a twist over what there objections really are, and as a consequence they seem to undermine each other.

The Free Church Continuing warns that Stornoway suffers from alcohol fuelled violence and criminal behaviour.

They say that shut pubs on Sundays gives families with an alcoholic parent some sober relief on one day a week.

The church fears people could buy a carryout to drink it, outwith the control of the club, in the surrounding tree-secluded vicinity, possibly leading to anti-social conduct.

With seven licenced premises already open in Stornoway on a Sunday, giving "sober relief on one day a week" is a ludicrous aspiration, as an alcoholic will obtain drink if they want it almost regardless of the day or time.

Indeed a walk through the Castle grounds early in the morning on a Sunday and there is often a dawn patrol quaffing a mix of Special Brew and White Cider, even without the Golf Club being open.

The more cerebral objection comes from an individual:

Murdo Murray who was an independent Christian candidate in the general election, argues it presents temptation to people enjoying a walk in the Castle Grounds on a Sunday afternoon and that there is more than sufficient licensed premises opened on Sundays in Stornoway.

This objection reflects the reality on a Stornoway Sunday and addresses the grounds of over-provision, which is one of the aspect that the Board can genuinely take into account in coming to a conclusion.

Whilst not doubting the sincerity of any of the objectors, the approach of the LDOS suggests that they perhaps inhabit a parallel universe where watching golf on TV automatically results in attempted infanticide.

Rev Donald Macdonald for the LDOS is concerned it would result in drunks disturbing strollers in the surrounding scenic Castle Grounds and create more crime and disorder.

He suggests that showing televised sports in licensed premises exposes "children to violent behaviour and abusive behaviour" with an knock-on risk of domestic abuse and reduced family quality time.

He stressed: "The increased temptation for parents to spend their time in the golf club will cause untold harm to their children."

Can I suggest that the Golf Club deal with the LDOS applications by ensuring that a Family Licence is applied for, as the Licencing Board policy is very clear on how this would work.
30.2 The Board wishes to see family friendly premises thriving in the Islands Area; it would welcome applications from those who wish to operate licensed premises which will accommodate children. In determining any such application the risk of harm to children will be paramount.
There you go Rev MacDonald, the Board believe that taking the kids into licenced premises is A Good Thing, as it improves the quality of the premises, demystifies alcohol for the kids, and ensures that the children are protected.

As anyone who has been in an English family pub beer garden will testify, it can be entriely normal for a family to eat, drink and socialise together on a Sunday without the Police in full riot gear being required.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Upgrade your exchange

Many thanks to a regular correspondent for pointing out the Leader European Funding site, which is encouraging communities to get funding to upgrade their exchanges for Broadband.

You've got 6 weeks to make your case, before the group decide who the lucky winners are....

As with all these types of bidding applications for limited funds, the broader the range of community support you can establish and document, and the wider the level of take-up, and the deeper the involvement of the community then the more chance you have of success.

And write it all up in a nice readable document.

This gives communities a chance to move forward rather than bitch about Connected Communities and what might have been.

I'd be very interested to hear back from anyone who gets involved in a bid.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lockerbie 'bomber' - not dead yet.

The sound of politicians scurrying away from their decisions is becoming tiring.

When Labour were in Government - remember then? - they took a rather schitzophrenic approach to the decision.

On one hand, they were glad to palm off the decision to anyone else, knowing the shitstorm it would stir up; whilst on the other, they were relucatant to cede any powerrs or give any type of credence to the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government played the humanitarian card, at the time, and tried to claim the moral high ground, but the refusal of al-Megrahi to stick to his end of the bargain and shuffle off this mortal coil at a speedy rate has caused there to be renewed political fallout.

And you can understand why, even if you don't agree with any of it.

No-one seems prepared to justify their actions, all blaming each other, and allowing the Americans to seek vengeance in the name of justice and to make the decision entirlely political again.

Which is where it started, if you read the statements from Holyrood and Westminster carefully, with each blaming the other for making shady deals.

The truth will out, eventually, but in the meantime there is a hugely unedifying spectacle of everyone distancing themselves from any responsibility, whilst getting a kicking by the Americans.

As an aside, I understand that like every other prisoner released early, Mr al-Megrahi must report to a supervising Social Worker. I'm told he doesn't abide by these terms, but having been sent from the country by the Government, the Government now find itself unable to enforce any of the terms and conditions they set for parole.

All in all an utterly shambolic and disgraceful episode that fails to shed light on the key issues; and one that runs the risk of perpetrating the fog of cover-up and conspiracy, rather than helping to resolve them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Peter Mandelson - an apology

I've been sitting by the pool reading the latest extracts from the marvelous autobiographical hagiography of Lord Mandelson.

I really had failed to realise just how clever, intelligent, witty, prudent, economically aware and politically sensitive he was, until he modestly laid out his innumerable achievements in graphic detail for us all to look at and appreciate the sheer scale of his polymath abilities.

He really was so wonderful in being able to make all the right calls on every single issue of substance over the past 50 year or so, and it is a pity that he was so badly let down by those pygmies who grasped at any political office for personal aggrandisement, rather than the good of the country.

If only the Prime Minister had listened to him at every opportunity, then nothing would ever have gone wrong, anywhere, at any time.

Where the Labour Party went awry was in not appreciating his many skills and putting them to good use by giving him more control over the levers of power that he would have wielded so magnificently - with hindsight.

It is unfortunate that he was not given the third opportunity to resign from the Cabinet for misleading his colleagues and for financial irregularities and compromising his position with those who could have exploited these opportunities. But they were all honourable men, and wouldn't have done such a thing to a prominent politician on the make.

Peter is absolutely right to expose the division at the heart of Labour and how the main protagonists despised and insulted each other; and every time he highlights the lies he decided he had to tell, the misleading impressions he knew that he had to portray, the duplicity he had to promote to try to keep the truth from being exposed, then the more we realise that here was an honourable man caught up in untruths of his own creation who knows absolutely that he could should have been a leader of the Government in whom we could place our trust.

The Kings are dead - knifed in the back by this book. Long live King Peter I. He'll get my vote at the next election.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Back home

Building siteIt is good to be back home, apart from the weather, the cold and the absence of cold drinks around the pool.

But you can't have everything.

A tour through town on the busiest week of the year shows that the visitors to the Celtic Festival are in fine form, despite having to negotiate the building site that is the town centre.

With tourists looking to gain an impression of Stornoway, having diggers surrounded by security fencing blocking most of the pedestrian precinct gives the impression of down-town down-market Pyongyang rather than a busy island town.

I've been trying to find if there was a deadline for the works to be compelted - given that they were decided upon, tendered, accepted and funded in a two month period, due to the sudden appearance of some Scottish Government funding - and I am told that there was no consideration of the works taking place through the busiest time of the year. But that might just be a Councillor covering their backside.

I'd like to think that the work will be done soon, but looking at it, it is difficult to judge how long it is likely to take. A wild guess might be that it will be completed just after the tourists leave.

I really hope it is worth it when it is completed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

NIMBY's have your say.....

It only took a few minutes before some of those who opposed all the Lewis wind turbines removed their heads from their derrierres and looked out to sea, to look at the possible site of the offshore wind power they supported*.  Until this week.

Complete the following sentence

I really support renewable energy and think it is a good thing, but we don't need onshore wind power, when the real resource is at sea......

The site lies on the ley lines between my house and the grant giving departments in the Scottish Government.  My plans for mass producing Gaelic surfing gnomes will bring jobs, prosperity, tourists, a Gaelic language plan for surfing gnomes and the value of my house will all be affected if the turbines are erected and I don't get my grant.

Further submissions welcome.....

* Those who genuinely and sincerely opposed the plans have my respect.  They are and were, however, the minority.

The Town Hall farago rumbles on....

Even at this far distance, I am told that the Council have made yet another series of mistakes as there proposals to rip the stage out of the Town Hall, fill in the balcony and create yet more publically subsidised space to compete with the struggling private sector.

Complaints have been lodged that the Council did not put the revised proposals out to public consultation - as they are legally obliged to do - before they took a decision on their own proposal (and unsurprisingly found it to be acceptable).

The complaint has not been responded to, and the Ombudsman is now being involved in Council maladministration, again.

The grounds for the complaint include that the revised proposals are, er, not Disabled Disability Act compliant; which you may recall was one of the principal reasons for making changes to the Town Hall in the first place.

The proposals also appear to be contrary to the Council's own policies, as former emergency Planning Officer, Murdo MacLeod, explains.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lunatics; asylum; close the doors; burn the building down

You know that some people just have too much time on their hands and too little to do....
Holyrood staff to be taught Gaelic[...]
Alasdair Allan, the Nationalist MSP who represents the Western Isles, said he believed the plan would make life easier for some of his constituents.
Fuel poverty.  Jobs. Decent public services.  These will make life easier for people in the Western Isles, not this insane scheme to create a pan-Scottish Gaelic luvies section, of those who have a view on how us natives should live and converse, and by God, are they going to impose that view on us.

A new ferry? A new shambles.

The new ferry for the Stornoway-Ullapool run is to be 15% bigger than the "Isle of Lewis" but will replace both her and the "Muirneag".

Good news?

I don't think so.

With ferry capacity close to maximum at the moment, it is almost impossible to get a vehicle onto any of the ferries; and don't even think about arriving at short notice.

It might be a short season, but if we have to turn people away at Ullapool, Uig or Oban, it will be an even shorter season.

Oh yes, and the ferry is to be built, if they can find the money.

So where does this leave what passes for RET on these routes? Aren't we due a consultation over the future plans and strategy for ferry fares to and from the islands?

Yes, but. It's that BUT again.

It looks like they already know what size of new vessel is going to be fitted onto the Stornoway-Ullapool route, and at what cost, so it looks like the RET assessment will have to fit the economics of the capital spend, rather than the needs of the community. So the questions about economics are now largely irrelevant, as the constraints are already in place.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the consultants employed to assess RET recommend that ferry fares should be reduced by a further 25%, which will increase ferry traffic by 30% and solve all the economic ills of the islands. Not an option, as the boat is already committed to.

I forecast that the new boat will be too small for the run within a couple of years, and that we will have frustrated tourists and locals sitting in Ullapool. As well as all the problems that are going to arise if there any mechanical issues with the new boat.

We are losing an adequate service for something slightly better, when we need a major review and revision of the whole concept of cross-Minch ferries, with the Government looking backwards and not forwards.

Sad, but another missed opportunity looms.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


The Spaniards know how to celebrate without needing to have chip supper and a fight....

Promises, promises, promises

I know, I know. I made a promise and failed to deliver.

Look, I'm on holiday spending a wonderful family time, where for once the stress from work is knee-high rather than tree-high.

My days consist of an immense late breakfast of assorted cured meats; a family dawdle around; watching the unsubsidised catamaran make the short crossing in competition to a conventional ferry (Note to Transport Dept in the Comhairle: Ask Fred Olsen about the economics, especially in bad weather. That'll be a free consultation, for travel expenses only); a long leisurely lunch; and then out for the evenings entertainment.

The food in the hotel is exceptional: the kids have eaten three or four permutations of fabulous Italian food, and last night we all ate at the in-house Japanese show-cooking restaurant where the food was cooked in front of us. The kids loved it and tried everything, and are desperate to go back for the other choices we didn't share. Daughter (2) used chopsticks. As skewers.

Goodness we are relaxed, and the world of blogging seems so trivial and inessential at the moment.

Back home too soon, whence I will revise my opinions about insulting all and sundry and will start up again in earnest.

Until then, I will continue to glow red in the dark and gently abrade the sunburn from my face.

You may or may not hear from me in the interim. It depends on the weather, lunch and the books I might read - I have read SuperFreakenomics, 208 Bones (with the obligatory 2 for 1 sticker from WH Smith) and the utterly gratuitously offensive Frankie Boyle autobiography. It doesn't get much better.

Ding, dong: another meal calls your porky correspondent.....