Thursday, 26 March 2015

Lloyds Bank ECNs and 21st century Robin Hood

I've written before about Lloyds Bank and the attempt to boost its finances by redeeming ECNs.  These are a new financial instruments forced on bondholders when the bank was bailed out by the Treasury.  Lloyds plans to pay less than the going rate for ECNs.

Our modern Robin Hood is Mark Taber.  He voluntarily stepped in when bondholders were about to be fleeced by institutions such as Bank of Ireland (running Post Office banking) and the Co-operative Bank.  These banks decided that their customers could be pushed around.  Successive politicians have relaxed regulations on banks, so that they no longer depend on the relationship with retail customers and small investors, but generate more income from speculative investments.  The regulators ensure that the Treasury gets its money back with interest, but seem to ignore malpractice and actions on the edge of the law against customers.

Mark Taber has mounted campaigns to rally bondholders, worked tirelessly with banks and regulators behind the scenes and done what he can to ensure elderly savers and investors do not lose their savings when no one stands up to the City of London.  He does NOT steal from the rich, but helps protect the poor and those who were deceived into believing that banks would honour the contract they signed.

Today Mark Taber announced that a leading QC has studied the case and told him that Lloyd's plan to redeem the 'enhanced capital notes' for less than their market value had 'no proper basis for a redemption'.  Taber is seeking a 'declaratory judgement' in court, so that a decision is made in a contractual dispute before any action is taken.  The decision of the court is binding.

Court costs may affect the action, as Lloyds could claim £10 million + in legal fees.  This would be absurd if it applied to misselling of Payment Protection Insurance, for example, and should be ruled out in the instance too.

This is not limited to Lloyds Bank, but another financial institution is planning to pull the same stunt and would not hesitate to follow if Lloyds were allowed to proceed and effectively steal from its customers.

After my previous post, I wrote to the regulators, various MPs on the Treasury Select Committee and the Lloyds Bank CEO, António Horta-Osório.  I received standard replies from 2 of these people.  However from Lloyds Bank CEO - answer came there none.

Friday, 13 March 2015

How statins make you stupid

Imagine this conversation between me and Mr Big the Property Developer over dinner:

Mr Big:  Sorry I just have to take my tablet.

Me:  Let me have a look... mmm statins.  So tell me, when did you have the heart attack?

Mr Big:  What?  I haven't had one.

Me:  Oh I see... so the stroke, when did that happen?

Mr Big:  What stroke?  I haven't had one.

Me:  Right, so when were you diagnosed with Familial Hypercholesterolaemia?

Mr Big:  With what?  Never heard of it and I haven't got it, as far as I know.

Me:  Tell me then, why is your doctor prescribing statins?

Mr Big:  Because my cholesterol is too high.

Me:  If your site foreman came and said 'You have too much building material' what would you say?

Mr Big:  I'd want to know what building material specifically.  Is there too much sand, cement, bricks, piping, tiles, slabs... or what.  If there was too much of something, we could send it back or divert it to another project.  Sometimes it's useful to have some stuff in reserve in case there are problems.

Me:  Right, then why don't you ask your doctor to specify what is meant by 'cholesterol'?  What's the reading for your HDL, LDL and triglycerides?  Some of that is helpful and some not.  Trigs can vary wildly, so it's not a great idea to reach for drugs after one reading.

Mr Big:  Are you a doctor?

Me:  No.

Mr Big:  Why should I listen to you?

Me:  You shouldn't listen to me or anyone else without checking the facts.  Let me run a couple of scenarios by you.  Let's imagine you have a building site for a new block of flats.  It's a wealthy area but notorious for thefts from building sites.  How do you secure the site?

Mr Big:  If I could erect secure fencing on site, I'd do that.  I might have a camera and alarm system.  The most useful is to have a watchman on site from dusk to dawn.

Me:  What if your doctor suggested installing Exocet missiles at the perimeter?

Mr Big:  What!!!!??? That would be way over the top and not very effective.  Anyway we'd never get it past planning and building control in the local council.

Me:  Let's imagine when you were younger you had an offer to migrate with your young family to South Africa.  You'd have a bigger home, great climate and opportunities to increase you wealth.  On the other hand you might face the risk of attack to you, your family and home.  How would you secure your property?

Mr Big:  I'd erect a secure fence, install burglar alarms and good locks, have a camera system.  I might have guard dogs and live in help to act as security guards also.

Me:  What if your doctor suggested installing nuclear warheads around the property?

Mr Big:  You're crazy!  They're not appropriate for the job and would damage my family as much as any burglars or attackers as well as wiping out half of South Africa.

Me:  That is crystal clear to you because it's in an area you know and understand well.  Your doctor is doing the equivalent of this in managing your health, but you don't recognise it.  Statins may help prevent thrombus formation in the lining of your blood vessels, but the side effects are drastic.  Other drugs can achieve the same effect without such bad side effects, not to mention implementing simple dietary and lifestyle changes.

Mr Big:  My doctor wouldn't prescribe these drugs unless he thought they were necessary.

Me:  Hmm have you ever heard of a plumber called to sort out a central heating problem, who sucked his teeth and said the whole system would have to be renewed, when in fact a single part needed changing?

Mr Big:  Yes, there are cowboys in the building trade who want to make a quick buck.

Me:  Do you know what NICE is?

Mr Big:  The government health body that oversees health care standards.

Me:  In theory yes.  In practice they seem to be the mechanism by which drug companies make a load of money from the NHS.  At present doctors are heavily incentivised to prescribe statins to healthy people and patients who will not benefit from them.  In other professions, such as finance, advisers are supposed to disclose the fees they make from selling products.  Doctors don't have to tell you about the cut they make from prescribing drugs on the NICE guidelines.

Mr Big:  Oh.

Me:  As I said before, do your own research.  I imagine you wouldn't let someone rip out a perfectly good central heating system, just because they said it was necessary.  Then why would you let your doctor persuade you to take damaging drugs that may not lengthen your life by one year, just because he says it's a good idea.

Mr Big:  How do I keep my heart healthy?

Me:  Everyone is different.  This is what I'd do in your situation:  Have some more butter and lay off the sugar, bread and pasta.  Reduce your stress, take some enjoyable exercise and get enough good quality sleep.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

'Racist UKIP'

I had a conversation with a friend just before the local elections.  She was angry about the rise of UKIP and dismissed the party as racist and bigoted.  I told her some of things I'd written in a previous post, describing circumstances that may have led to rising support for Nigel Farage and his colleagues.  She was genuinely surprised and told me she didn't know.

My friend comes from a distant continent.  She married an Englishman and now works in a white collar job.  She lives with her family in a quiet suburb.  She is aware of the multi cultural composition of London and works with some migrants as clients in her job.

Unfortunately what she and most media pundits, including Radio 4 and BBC tv comedians, do not know is how life is for people in other regions of the UK.  Some areas of the country are powerhouses of the modern economy, others face high unemployment and economic downturn.

Now the BBC has broadcast a radio programme about asylum seekers.  Unless  you download the podcast, it won't be available for very long.

Here's the blurb:

'Around 28 thousand people are claiming asylum in the UK. They're accommodated in some of the nation's most deprived areas while their cases are considered. Now, with numbers on the rise, some communities saytthey're struggling to cope. 

Allan Urry reports from the Northwest of England where, in some areas, there's concern about growing pressures on health services and schools. In Liverpool the City's Mayor, Joe Anderson, talks of an asylum "apartheid" and says other towns and cities need to take a fairer share. In Rochdale in Greater Manchester, there are more asylum seekers than the whole of the south east of England. The local MP Simon Danczuk says he's worried the pressures could undermine the good community relations that have always existed in the town.

Recent stories of asylum seekers living in fancy hotels have led to outraged newspaper headlines but are they a symptom of bigger failings in the UK's system for housing those who come here seeking refuge?'ey'

Why did the government reduce the number of organisations dealing with asylum seekers to 3 private providers (G4S, Serco and Clearel, only one of which had experience in the field)?

Could it be that donations to party funds and sophisticated lobbying may have helped?  G4S made a modest £50K donation in 2012, compared with Serco's £300,000.  Conflict of interest amongst politicians may be a factor, given that 2 Conservative and 2 Labour peers have shares in Serco, for example.  Some politicians obtain consultancies and directorships (after Westminster) with companies that have benefitted from government contracts.

Why would the government dump most asylum seekers in North West of England and Rochdale on the outskirts of Manchester rather than dispersing them more widely round the country (so the South East of England, excluding London, had 441 asylum seekers compared with 6298 in the North West)?

One of the official reasons is that housing in these areas is cheaper, making it easier to accommodate people.  There are some cheaper areas in other parts of England, including the South East, but housing is a highly contentious issue.  Successive governments have allowed the UK economy to rest on inflated house prices, putting them out of the reach of youngsters and ordinary people.

North West England and Rochdale are traditional Labour voting territory and unlikely to change, unless they swing to UKIP.  South East England is a traditional Conservative voting area.  2015 is the year of a general election and polling suggests there will be no overall winner.
Why did the government remove local government from involvement in this process, having little say in who is moved into their areas?

Local government in these areas, with long experience in dealing with migrants.  If government removes their power, they have little recourse.  These 3 private companies have a bad reputation in outsourced services.  Only local councils could call them to account, IF they were still involved.

What effect does this have on local people?

Local residents have less time to see their doctor, public housing is no longer available to them as asylum seekers (once allowed leave to remain) take priority, schools are full.

Some of my readers have assumed I'm a UKIP supporter, which I'm not.

However they have opened a discussion that most people (especially politicians cosily cosseted in the Westminster bubble and valuable houses in London, who hold down a well paid job and have expectations of lucrative contracts after their Parliamentary career) wish to avoid.

Gordon Brown tried to stifle the debate in Rochdale, when he refused to address the concerns of an elderly woma in 2010, giving her an election address and later referring to her as a 'bigoted woman'.

Gordon Brown remained an MP, though rarely appeared in the House of Commons (except to claim his allowances).  He and his wife ran a charity, which amassed large sums of money from his speaking tours, but strangely never seemed to disburse them to any charitable work.  He claimed £10,000 per week in expenses, but have less than £1million to charity.  He told this elderly widow that no one should claim benefits for more than 6 months, but get out to work.  Effectively Gordon Brown was a benefit claimant from the taxpayer, given how little he did as an MP in his last years.  Brown has resigned as an MP.

ng to cope. Allan Urry reports from the Northwest of England where, in some areas, there's concern about growing pressures on health services and schools. In Liverpool the City's Mayor, Joe Anderson, talks of an asylum "apartheid" and says other towns and cities need to take a fairer share. In Rochdale in Greater Manchester, there are more asylum seekers than the whole of the south east of England. The local MP Simon Danczuk says he's worried the pressures could undermine the good community relations that have always existed in the town.
Recent stories of asylum seekers living in fancy hotels have led to outraged newspaper headlines but are they a symptom of bigger failings in the UK's system for housing those who come here seeking refuge?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

'Fats Kill!': What's the Evidence?

Government guidelines have urged us to reduce fat in the diet.  We are specifically urged to give up saturated fats and eat seed oils.

Now mainstream media are backing down.

What a pity that the article includes a picture of fish and chips.  These days it is highly likely that both will be cooked in some sort of cheap seed oil rather than lard or beef dripping of yesteryear.  Sadly the picture doesn't indicate that there are far more carbohydrates in this dish (batter and chips) than fat, which are likely to increase weight.  The article mentions this, but the casual reader won't notice.

A more appropriate illustration might be this:

Steak, herb butter and salad.

Don't believe me.  Listen to Chris Masterjohn, a lipidologist, who knows a thing or two about different types of fat.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Scholarship and the BBC

This is the picture of Winston Silcott that appeared in the media, when he was accused of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985.

Wolf Hall, a tv dramatisation of a novel about Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel, is currently being shown on the BBC.  Building on the viewing public's love of history, particularly in relation to Henry V111 and his court, the BBC is also screening a range of documentaries giving a view of arts and culture at the time.

Waldemar Januszczak attacks the current revision of history in the way Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More are portrayed.  This is how he does it.

He focusses on the Shrine of our Lady of Caversham in Berkshire.  Januszczak went to a Catholic school nearby, as the son of Polish Catholic refugees.

He tells the story of how this ancient shrine was visited by Katherine of Aragon.  She prayed to Our Lady to prevent the divorce and Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn.  He alleges that Henry V111 was so enraged he ordered Cromwell to strip the shrine and have the statue transported to London.  Nice dramatic story.

Sadly for Januszczak, it leaves out some vital details and distorts time.  Henry was already married to Anne Boleyn and looking for a way to divorce her, so that he could marry Jane Seymour.  The shrine was stripped on 14 September 1538 as part of the reformation, to wipe out idolatry.  Far from singling out the Shrine of Our Lady, the King and his Secretary aimed to clean up the church.  This was 2 years before the fall of Cromwell.

Januszczak spends a lot of time discussing the character of 2 statesmen:  The Chancellor, Thomas More and the Secretary, Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas More was portrayed in Robert Bolt's 1954 play 'A Man for All Seasons' as a man of principle, who would not agree to the divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  In the play More is loved by the people and envied by Thomas Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel's novels revise this view and portray Thomas Cromwell as a quick witted man, who has risen from humble beginnings and made himself useful to the nobility and king.  She presents him as someone who prefers to persuade people rather than torture them, contrasting this with Thomas More, who pursues a fanatical anti-protestant ('heretic') line and relies much on torture, burning and hanging.  Mantel based her novels on exhaustive reading and research over 20 years.

How does Januszczak rebut this?

He contrasts the portraits of the 2 men painted by Hans Holbein the younger.  He tells us that More is obviously honest and sincere, by the look in his eye.  Thomas Cromwell has small piggy eyes and looks shifty, says he.  What proof does he offer that this is true?  "Hans Holbein must be right BECAUSE HE WAS THERE."

Later, in discussing other portraits, Januszczak discussed Holbein's study of Anne of Cleves, which was shown to the king as his first view of the prospective bride.  

We are told that Henry V111 was repulsed by Anne of Cleves, claiming she looked nothing like Holbein's portrait.  Januszczak would have us believe that this picture must be right, because Holbein was there.

What has this got to do with Winston Silcott?

Silcott was released from prison and received compensation because there was no proof he'd killed PC Keith Blakelock.  Silcott commented on how the police skewed media coverage by releasing a photo to the media which seemed to show Winston has a deranged man.  This is how he looks today.

I find it hard to believe that we can credibly draw major conclusions based on how someone looks, rather than viewing hard evidence.  If we did, people like Stephen Hawking might be shunned for being a bad 'un.

Handsome is as handsome does.

The BBC seems to be saving money on research and producing nice looking, but vapid documentaries.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Passive House and the waterbed effect

What is Passive House?

This is a building standard for new and refurbished buildings.  They are airtight and watertight, free of draughts and damp.  Passive House buildings require up to 90% less energy to heat and light than conventional ones.

This results in buildings that are healthier for those living and working in them.  They are comfortable, with constant, even temperatures.  Air is fresh and warm.  There is no damp or mould and humidity levels are low. They cost much less to run.

The second passive house home I visited had been renovated by a young couple.  They regretted installing central heating, as they'd only had the system running for 2 hours in the previous 18 months.  Effectively the home could be heated by a couple of electric towel rails.  Their tenants were delighted to avoid problems with dry skin and rollercoaster variations in temperature of standard heating systems.  The mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system kept the air fresh and warm by heating incoming fresh air and removing cooking and bathroom moist air.

How is it done?

The key to reaching passive house standards is to put time and effort into the plans.  The essential tool used in the process is the PHPP package.  This is based on an Excel spreadsheet.

Data from the design of the new build or retrofit is entered into the PHPP spreadsheet.  These calculations enable designers to estimate whether the build will meet the standards (for Passive House or EnerPHit for older buildings being refurbished:

Energy performance targets and air changes per hour:

Criteria                                                                                          Passive House       EnerPHit                            

Specific Heating Demand                                                             ≤ 15 kWh/m2. yr          ≤ 25 kWh/m².yr

Specific Cooling Demand                                                             ≤ 15 kWh/m2. yr         ≤ 120 kWh/m².yr 
                                                                                     * PE ≤ 120 kWh/m².yr + ((SHD - 15 kWh/ m².yr) x1.2)
Specific Heating Load                                                                  ≤ 10 W/m2

Specific Primary Energy Demand                                                ≤ 120 kWh/m2. Yr

Air Changes Per Hour                                                                  ≤ 0.6 @ n50

Limiting Value                                                                              n50  ≤0.6-1                  n50  ≤1.0-1

Calculations include the Form Factor, derived from the external surface area and the Treated Floor Area.  The size and shape of the building affect the energy demand of the building and the amount of insulation required.  Data is included from the U values (thermal efficiency) of all construction material including windows.  Thermal bridges, the junctions and links between parts of the building, are potential areas for the greatest loss of heat.  These must be reduced or eliminated as far as possible and data is added to the spreadsheet to demonstrate this.

Airtightness is key to effective thermal insultation and airtightness tests are usually carried out several times during the build to ensure that detailed finish is done to a high standard.  Simple mistakes, such as poorly applied insulation tape, may negatively affect airtightness.  Summer temperatures are included in the spreadsheet and methods to prevent overheating, such as shading.  Data for mechanical ventilation and heat recovery is included.  Primary energy appliances are also calculated for heating, ventilation, hot water and cooking.  The orientation of the building and its geographical location are also included in the calculations.  Solar gain may reduce winter energy use, but may require additional shading to prevent summer overheating.  Windier, colder areas at higher altitude may face bigger challenges than buildings located in sheltered, mild valleys.

What has PHPP software got to do with a waterbed?

The spreadsheet provides a framework for the designer to use, against which everything is measured. Rather than guessing and producing a more or less well insulated house, PHPP channels the work into a disciplined approach, which achieves a specific result.

On paper, building designs look straightforward.  In practice, building takes place in messy, complex situations.  Typically people create problems or require certain amendments to the plan.  A house may lie in a conservation area, which prohibits use of modern, highly efficient, single expanse, triple glazed window units.  The local authority may insist that the facade matches its neighbours, increasing the heat loss from one part of the building envelope significantly.  PHPP helps the designer increase insulation in other parts of the building to compensate for heat loss at the front.

The customer may insist on a particular design element that includes a thermal bridge, which may be difficult to reduce or eliminate.

The client may refuse to spend as much money as the designer suggests on insulation, focussing instead on state of the art facilities in bathroom and kitchen.

The builder may not be able to source material of the required U value for a part of the build, which may mean that PHPP has to be recalculated to make up lost ground elsewhere, if the project is to be complete on time and to budget.

Push down the energy gains in one area, then lift up insulation/reduce the energy loss in others.  PHPP enables a dynamic design process with constant iterations throughout the project.

Why bother?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and, as the above link indicates, politicians may rush into new schemes that look as if they will solve all of our housing and energy problems at a stroke.  I see new and renovated buildings that are completed without using a rigorous and dynamic standard: medical centres with noisy reception areas because of 100% hard surfaces, where confidential information is heard by all; public buildings which are too hot in Summer and too cold in Winter; heating vents on outside walls that pump valuable heat into the street.

PHPP and the passive house standard enables designers to achieve a level of energy efficiency and comfort in buildings that will have a long life and fewer problems than those of conventional design.  Whether they meet the standard or not, the discipline helps ensure a quality finish and customer satisfaction.  Bob Prewett's 80% house, above, didn't meet the standard, but achieved a comfortable and energy efficient level, which fitted well with the rest of the street.

PHPP is not an easy or straightforward tool to use.  A new book is designed to assist the designer in getting to grips with the process.  PHPP is cost effective and can be used when standards change or a designer decides to include heat recovery from water and other Passive House Plus elements.

I wouldn't employ an architect or designer who DIDN'T use PHPP, even if their work didn't fully hit the target.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Westminster Paedophile Mystery

Geoffrey Dickens MP made allegations about a paedophile ring that included people in power.  He compiled a dossier of evidence and handed it to the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, during a 30 minute meeting in 1984.  It then disappeared.

Leon Brittan, who died last week, was alleged to have suppressed the evidence and to have been involved in abuse of minors.  The satirical magazine, Private Eye, broke the story and continued to make allegations for many years.  One recent article described Brittan's rage at the allegations, plus his adamant contention that they were all false.

Public figures have appeared in the media since Lord Brittan's death to defend his reputation and dismiss the late Geoffrey Dickens as a publicity seeker.

The same media outlets have also published interviews with senior politicians, justifying the choice of ex-disc jockey, Jimmy Saville, to manage a secure mental hospital.  Saville is alleged to have taken advantage of his position and sexually abused a number of inmates.

I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse.  I've never met one person who wanted to take their abuser to court.  Many have never told their parents or family.  It's rare for a survivor to wish to test the judicial system and go through the gruelling court process.  Frances Andrade was forced to go to court and testify against her abuser, because a colleague broke her trust and spoke to the police.

I don't have any concrete evidence to support or contradict allegations by Geoffrey Dickens and against Leon Brittan.

Two questions puzzle me:

1)  Why didn't Geoffrey Dickens keep a copy of his dossier?

2)  Why didn't Leon Brittan sue Private Eye?

Update Tuesday 17 March 2015

Investigative journalist, Don Hale, reports that Cyril Smith MP confronted him and demanded he hand over evidence gathered about 7 paedophile offences committed by Cyril Smith and other powerful people in the 1980s.  This evidence had come to him from retired police officers and special branch members as well as spooks from the security service.  Hale refused.  Special branch police officers visited Hale the following day mob handed and demanded he hand over all his evidence.  They said that publication would not be in the public interest and that it would be a threat to national security.  They told him that if he didn't hand over the files he would be arrested and jailed for 2 years for perverting the course of justice.  They were aggressive and threatened violence.  They ransacked his place, took all the files and demanded to know if he'd kept copies.  He described it as a shock tactic, because it was something out of the blue.

Retired officers now report (confidentially) that they presented evidence of abuse at the time but were told to drop the case.  They were threatened by Special branch officers with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and that they would likely lose their jobs and pensions if they proceeded.  Cyril Smith was arrested a number of times but released after the intervention of Special Branch.

Geoffrey Dickens may have believed that his dossier would be acted upon rather than destroyed.

The Home Secretary,  Theresa May ,has issued a vague statement that people might be protected against prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, if they speak up.  I wonder if she thinks the law is contingent and that covert bullying that prevents justice is OK.