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Chaos with chips
OVER HALF a million pensioners, incapacity benefit claimants and widows have had their benefits messed up. This is because of the government's flagship Private Finance Initiative schemes which have brought private firms in to run computer systems for government agencies, with disastrous results.
Andersen Consulting has already cost tens of millions of pounds with the chaos its new computer system has caused calculating state benefits and National Insurance. Now the private firm Siemens Business Services is causing havoc with its £120 million computer system at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. The system was supposed to be ready a year ago but it isn't working. Staff cannot even work from the old manual filing system. In one room in the Croydon head office thousands of files are rotting away. Staff have been told they cannot go in because fumes from an adjacent car park have caused a health hazard in the room.
Many of the people affected by the chaos are asylum seekers. One Kurdish refugee has been waiting four months for his claim to be fixed. All five members of his family are sleeping in one room in a relative's house with no access to state benefits or medical help. Even well heeled businessmen from countries like South Africa and the US have been hit as their passports and visa applications are lost in the system. This is the public-private partnership New Labour says is the way forward for public services. Next in line is London Underground. The mind boggles!
No full stops
PRIVATISED RAIL firm Connex South Central, with one of the worst records for punctuality, came up with a neat way to make sure its trains ran on time recently. It launched a "Focus 100" day and pledged all its trains would run on time. All but two of the 180 trains that day hit their deadlines. How was the transformation achieved? Trains simply didn't halt at scheduled stops and sped through stations. The 6.20am from Ramsgate in Kent to London's Charing Cross went through four stations it was supposed to stop at. "We couldn't believe it," said Sally Leaver, one of 15 stranded passengers left at Wye when the train didn't stop.
SPARE a thought for Lady Chelsea. She is having a hard time since she split from her super-wealthy husband, the Earl of Cadogan. Lady Chelsea is burdened with a guaranteed £30,000 a year for life for doing nothing and two homesa £1 million London house and another in Gloucestershire. Now she has set up a sideline offering £150 a time sessions to advise rich foreigners "on the events of the social calendar and the maze of social manners in Britain".
Seven days hard labour
IN THE mid-1980s, at the height of Thatcherism, a Tory MP took part in a World in Action TV programme. Matthew Parris, then Tory MP for West Derbyshire, agreed to try and live in Newcastle on social security in a council flat for a week. The programme launched the MP's media career. Recently Parris has been fronting a campaign for truth in television making, after the exposure of several faked documentaries.
But it seems his tv role in Newcastle was itself less than truthful. World in Action producer Charles Tremayne has now admitted, "When Matthew ran out of money, he said things were pretty rough, and could he go back to London? We agreed but we all pretended he had stayed for the whole week. We never told anyone."
FRENCH NAZI leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was stopped in his car by police in the Belgian capital, Brussels, last week. Le Pen is a deputy in the European Parliament. You might expect to find him driving round with a briefcase full of papers. But in Le Pen's car the amazed officer discovered an arsenal of weapons. The haul included a shotgun, dozens of cartridges, bulletproof vests, retractable batons and teargas grenades. Incredibly, Le Pen's status as a Euro MP makes him immune from prosecution.
WE KNOW the police have a reputation for not being the brightest of things, but it seems to be particularly bad in the western US city of Seattle. Officers are being sent on special training courses on how to sit in a chair! Officers have ended up on the floor, injured because they cannot master this complex art. The police chief has sent a special memo out headed, "Chairs/Sitting", with temporary advice before the special training begins. It reads, "Please inform all employees to take hold of the arms and get control of the chair before sitting down."
MANY OF the sales items at Sotheby's charity fundraising auction were being snapped up last week. But one item could not find any takers until an anonymous buyer eventually came forward. The item? The original lyric sheet for D:Ream's "Things Can Only Get Better", the song used as New Labour's 1997 general election anthem. The sheet was signed by Tony Blair. Sale organisers were puzzled that this item failed to attract much enthusiasm.
THE Swedish furniture superstore Ikea likes to portray itself as an environmentally friendly outfit. But Sami reindeer herders in Sweden exposed its not so green credentials this week. They are protesting over the company's use of timber from their traditional winter grazing grounds. Ikea, unlike most major furniture companies, does not guarantee to only use timber from approved "sustainable" forests.