Greg's Occasional News & Views

21 January 2018

Penelope and I went on a “Date Night” on Tuesday. We went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri followed by dinner at a nearby hostelry. We had wanted to see the film for a little while and, after it did so well at the Golden Globes we thought we’d better do it rather than just think about it.

If you’ve not seen it yet, do. We thoroughly enjoyed it and Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell give outstanding performances. It was written and directed by Martin McDonagh who also wrote and directed In Bruges (another terrific film which, if you’ve not seen it, again I would urge you to do so).

It’s described as a “darkly comic drama” and, while it’s certainly dark it also sprinkles just about enough comedy around. The two hours just flew by.

It did very well at the Golden Globes picking up a handful of the top prizes. Frances McDormand won best Actress and Sam Rockwell picked up the Best Supporting Actor award. It also won Best Picture and Best Screenplay. We’ve not seen the other contenders yet so can’t legitimately compare but it was very, very good.

After the film we made our way to Bella Italia. In true Date Night with Greg tradition, I had acquired some vouchers and, after a brief discussion we concluded that the one free main course offered best value for money.

I think the last time we ate at Bella Italia we said we wouldn’t do so again. Unfortunately, neither Penelope nor I remembered until we were already in the place and had ordered some drinks to be getting on with. It’s not that it’s bad as such – the service tends to be a bit slow (although this time it was OK) – but the food is, at best, ordinary if not, on occasion, substandard.

Pen ordered Pollo Arrosto: “A succulent half roast chicken on a bed of rosemary roast potatoes, pepper, onion and courgette. Served with thyme jus. Perfect for Sunday lunch or anytime.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pen was somewhat taken aback (and disappointed) to see boiled potatoes arrive rather than the “rosemary roast potatoes” described on the menu. When she alerted our waitress to the discrepancy between the menu and the actual dish, she (the waitress) was very apologetic and immediately took the plate back to the kitchen to be rectified. She returned a few minutes later with boiled potatoes which at least had been shown the inside of a frying pan and explained that they don’t actually have any roast potatoes but she hoped that the flash fried ones would be acceptable. When we suggested that perhaps the menu ought not to say “roast potatoes” if the potatoes, in fact, are not roasted, her response was to tell us that, to her knowledge, no one else had ever complained. Hmm, I’m not sure a lack of complaints is the best measure of success?

My lamb shank was fine but the whole experience reminded us that we really ought not to come here to eat again, vouchers or no vouchers. Please remind me of that conclusion should I write about Date Night and Bella Italia again.

Finally, a rant. Why does it take a colossal failure before people recognise that a bad government initiative is just simply bad?

I’m not sure to what extent the collapse of the out-sourcing giant Carillion has featured in the news where you are. Here, it’s a big, big deal.

Carillion was a huge government contractor which grew almost entirely out of the decision by successive governments to privatise the provision of public services, i.e., running prisons, providing school meals, cleaning hospitals and to outsource the construction of new infrastructure projects such as building new schools, renovating hospitals as well as a number of eye-wateringly expensive public projects such as HS2 (the High Speed Railway from London to Birmingham). These deals were financed through what is called Public Private Initiatives where the private sector borrows the money and carries out the work, the government pays a substantial sum up front and then enters into a contract to pay for the services for many, many years to come. The whole objective is to reduce government borrowing.

Firms like Carillion would bid to provide these former public services for a lower cost than a fictitious reckoning of what it would cost the public sector (even with borrowing at historically low rates). In other words, Carillion bids to provide the same tasks and services as the public sector at a lower overall cost even though there are the additional costs of payments to directors and shareholders.    

Almost inevitably, they can only make the contract work by cutting staff and/or reducing wages and reducing the standard of service. That would be bad enough but the real failure is the realisation that the various PPI projects are essentially Government-backed Ponzi schemes. The firms get money up front with which they pay their shareholders and directors and move on to the next project. Having turned large sums of money over to their shareholders and directors there’s not enough money left to actually run the project so they borrow more money and delay paying their suppliers and subcontractors for up to four months. Ultimately, as in the best Bernie Madoff tradition, the firm collapses, tens of thousands of people lose their jobs, countless others in the supply chain go under because they don’t get paid and the directors and shareholders walk away with millions. Brilliant.

In an interesting coincidence, the National Audit Office has just published a report highlighting that the British taxpayer is on the hook for £200 billion over the next 25 years as a result of these PPI initiatives.

Taxpayers will be forced to hand over nearly £200bn to contractors under private finance deals for at least 25 years, according to a report by Whitehall’s spending watchdog.

In the wake of the collapse of public service provider Carillion, the National Audit Office found little evidence that government investment in more than 700 existing public-private projects has delivered financial benefits.

The cost of privately financing public projects can be 40% higher than relying solely upon government money, auditors found.

Ironically, the Tories and the former Chancellor George Osborne were vigorous and vocal opponents of the PPI initiative when it was introduced by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Astonishingly, they found it to be excellent value for money once they came into power in 2010 and the number of PPI initiatives has mushroomed under the Tories along with the staggeringly huge sums of expenditure to which the government has committed for years and years and years to come.

And finally, did you see the article about the Brit who is “missing” in Israel who some feel is suffering from something known as the Jerusalem syndrome? Apparently, this is a condition where an individual believes they are a prophet or other biblical figure. I don’t know about him but we’ve certainly got a significant number of politicians who believe they are on a par with the almighty! I suppose one should have a certain degree of sympathy for these political impersonators who, at the very least, have delusions of adequacy.

Love to you all,



One Response to 21 January 2018

  • Wow! An excellent analysis of the theory – massively overoptimistic – and the results – often disastrous, of PPIs. They’re constantly floated here as a solution to government funding shortages, which clearly they’re not. Wonder how long it’s going to take our pols to develop enough backbone to actually raise taxes to the point where we can afford to pay for what we need. And how long it will take for the general public to accept the fact that we need to do just that.

    Also enjoyed ‘Three Billboards….’. Can also recommend ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ and ‘I, Tonya’.

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