Sunday, January 23, 2011

What would a thin person do?

I don’t obsess about my weight and generally feel that I’m pretty healthy, although the BMI index tells me I’m overweight. However, I put on the usual half stone at Christmas, followed by a few extra pounds after an early January dinner party and general finishing up the holiday goodies. This brought me up to my heaviest since the late 1990s. Last time I hit that weight, I managed to lose a stone and a half through eating less, but it was agonising. Ever since then I’ve gone for weight maintenance at roughly a stone under that maximum, but it’s been creeping up again recently and something must be done.

This time I’m not going to starve myself – I’m trying a different approach. I started to observe the way thin people eat. And there were interesting differences. Whether it’s a matter of training or inclination, I realised that thin people organise their eating to include less fat, sugar and carbs. They probably eat less overall too, but I think that may be less important than what they eat.

I decided to adopt several of these habits, and as a consequence I have lost five pounds in a week. I can’t say I stick to them all the time, but something is clearly working and it has the added advantage that I’m not needing to consider exercise, which in my opinion is the work of the devil. They are:

• When in the coffee shop, always drink americano. This has been an easy change to make from my usual cappuccino or latte, and has had the added benefit that I can actually taste the coffee
• Also in the coffee shop – a hazardous area – never never have a muffin or cake. This is more difficult, being addicted to Starbucks blueberry muffins. The way to deal with this is to go to the coffee shop with a thin person and feel too ashamed to eat in front of them
• Eat very few or no carbs: potatoes, pasta, noodles, cous cous, rice, bread. I’ve found it remarkably easy to cut down, although I haven’t cut them out altogether
• When eating out, never have a pudding
• Avoid cream; reduce consumption of cheese and chocolate. Difficult, but at least I have a good selection of vegan recipes to rely on at home.

Of course there are always those irritating thin people who break all the rules, eat as much as they like and never put on a single pound. How do I know this? – I’ve been living with one for nearly thirty years!

Apologies to all who thought I might write about the political situation in the Irish Republic today. Unlike some in NI politics I haven’t been trained to hit a moving target, and so intend to comment once it has all settled down a bit after next Tuesday.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Work ’til you drop

The UK Default Retirement Age of 65 is to be phased out this year. After the end of September, no employer will be able to enforce retirement on grounds of age alone.

I have mixed feelings about this. There are both advantages and disadvantages for individuals. In some cases people will be delighted to be able to carry on working. They enjoy their jobs, perhaps because they are very skilled and knowledgeable and therefore valued by their employer and colleagues, or perhaps for the social contact, or the money – or all these reasons. Others might be happy to go, but would like to work shorter hours in less demanding employment. Working can provide autonomy and self-respect, which is why the transition to retirement can be difficult.

However, not everyone is in this position. People with physically or mentally demanding jobs may be past their best by the mid-sixties, and in some cases such as firefighters or police they will have been forced to retire earlier in any case (and a compulsory retirement age may still be operated in occupations if it can be justified). Others may have been looking forward to having more time for life outside work: spending more time on voluntary work or a hobby, and having more space in their lives for friends and family. They may feel obliged to work for longer if the opportunity is there, for example for financial reasons, but it would not have been their choice.

Employers obviously gain if they can hang onto good staff. But they have expressed concern about how, to be blunt, they might get rid of people who are no longer up to the job. The government’s response has been surprisingly robust, with the Employment Relations Minister telling them to use the capability procedure and that ‘the evidence that performance and effectiveness decline after 65 is just not there’. That may be so in the aggregate, but what about individual cases? As an ex-local government worker, I know how lengthy and complicated capability proceedings can be, and my experience was that incompetent people (of any age) were worked around rather than confronted.

The government agenda is clear. No doubt politicians hope that encouraging us to work for longer will soften the blow of the rising state pension age. In future, it may become politically feasible to reduce the flat rate pension and increase reliance on a means tested element. It’s been interesting to hear the Minister’s claims today that tax payments by older workers increase tax revenue, which implies that the numbers employed will increase as a result of this measure. Although in good times that may be so, I doubt that at present the public or private sector are taking on or keeping extra workers because some of them are over 65. It’s far more likely that younger people will be kept out of jobs in the short term, or in the longer term if the economy doesn’t pick up.

But most importantly, this measure increases the size of the labour pool, thus making it possible to drive down wages and conditions. Rising unemployment and increased economic activity means more competition for every job. That can only be to capitalism’s advantage.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What a way to run a water service

The statement ‘nothing of note has happened over the Christmas period’ in my last post now looks rather foolish. When I wrote it, thousands of people had already been without water for several days, and since then the crisis has (I hope) peaked but not yet been entirely resolved. Many people have been working very hard to improve the situation, including Belfast City Council, the Red Cross, lots of politicians from all parties, Stephen Nolan and others in the media, and of course the employees of Northern Ireland Water.

It’s been announced that there will be a full inquiry into the ‘operational failure’, and ominously, the Secretary of State is making noises about changes to the structure and financing of water services in NI, making it clear that privatisation should be on the agenda. But the real difference between NI and elsewhere in the UK is that, in NI, large-scale investment is more recent. Scotland’s water isn’t privatised and they have coped better.

As well as an inquiry into the event itself, a strategic review is needed which should cover the following five points, which seem to me as a voter, taxpayer and water consumer to form a suitable framework for delivering an efficient water service:

1. A safe supply: this hasn’t currently been an issue here, but ask Galway residents about the possibilities. Safety must always be the first priority.

2. Conservation measures: Reservoirs have been low or empty recently due to burst pipes, but could be so in future due to heavier usage. The water agency needs to put out the message that water conservation does not have to affect health. The people who know about this are the Australians.

3. Method(s) of investment in infrastructure: The issues here are how to increase investment levels, how to implement a programme of improvements more quickly, and how investment will be repaid. It also seems odd that there are plans to sell off reservoirs.

4. Methods(s) of payment for water: This is currently the most controversial and politically unpopular aspect of water policy, although in future conservation measure may take over. A review should look at all options for revenue generation, including water rates; other rates and tax options; water meters; and penalties for businesses and landlords who cause significant loss of water through poor maintenance. The basic principles of water charging should be that the less well off are not penalised disproportionately, and the most difficult aspect of this is how to create a fair charging system that takes into account different household sizes. A means-tested water charge for minimum use per person plus a top-up meter system might work. Whatever about the detail, water rates should not be ruled out for populist reasons. The best argument against water rates is that it creates a separate revenue stream for the service, which then makes privatisation easier. I’m not aware that any politician in NI wants a privatised water supply, in which case the favoured option may be an increase in the regional rate.

5. Day to day management of the supply: need I say more? Review governance and leadership capacity as well as structure and communications.

It’s been interesting to observe the buck-passing once calls for resignations started. The Minister is blaming NI Water senior management and says he has no cause to resign. Senior managers are blaming the weather and under-investment. There have been a few comments elsewhere about recent changes in Board membership, but no suggestion that non-executive Board members should resign or be replaced (again). This incident should provoke a debate about accountability in Government Owned Companies.