Monthly Archive for September, 2006

Hollow Tory spin on Council Tax

One of the press releases out of CCHQ (which is apparently what Conservative Central Office is now called) caught my eye yesterday: Council tax is the ultimate stealth tax.

Ummm… hello? How on earth is Council Tax a “stealth tax”? I thought a stealth tax was a sneaky revenue-rasing measure that most people wouldn’t notice whilst going about their ordinary business (hence taxation by “stealth”): Crafty things like phasing out the married couples’ tax allowance, mortgage interest tax relief and tax credits for pension funds. Council Tax, on the other hand, is one of the most up-front, in-your-face taxes in our entire system – which is precisely why it is so unpopular. It is the only regular tax for which you get an invoice, which you have to settle directly by cash, cheque or direct debit. People moan about their Council Tax bills but most of them never stop to think about VAT (which they probably pay a lot more of).

Getting away from the bizarre spin, the Tory press release did quote Caroline Spelman pointing out two real problems with Council Tax. Firstly that many households, especially pensioners, simply can’t afford it; and secondly that many eligible households do not claim their Council Tax benefit because of the many hurdles involved in the ever-complex tax-and-benefit system.

Then the press release stops, with the obligatory swipe about how council tax has gone up 84% under Labour. No attempt at presenting a solution – other than the inference that Council Tax is too high. What would the Tories do? Cut services or increase other taxes to reduce Council Tax bills?

The fact is that both of the problems Mrs Spelman describes are actually symptomatic of the fact that the very premise of Council Tax is ill conceived. As a tax on property value, rather than income, it is obviously going to discriminate against pensioners. Furthermore, because it is a regressive tax, it needs a system of rebates (student exemptions, Council Tax Benefit, etc.) which incur a great amount of hassle and bureaucracy to process.

The Liberal Democrats are known for odd-ball policies but surely their position on Council Tax is sound: it must be replaced with a local income tax. It’s not a pinko-lefty idea, they have it in the USA. Such a tax could be collected by the Inland Revenue, through the same PAYE mechanisms as the main national income tax. (The Scottish parliament can already raise extra tax in this way so it’s nothing new.) This would not only make the system fairer but would also do away with the costly paper-pushers administering Council Tax Benefit in town halls across England.

Unfortunately the Conservatives seem to be focussing on a rather negative campaign claiming local income tax would cost people more money. Well yes it might, depending on the rate at which is set. That doesn’t impact on whether the tax is fairer, or not. Actually, given that the Tories complaining that some people are unfairly having to pay more Council Tax than they can afford, the logical argument must be (if taxes are not to be cut) that others will have to pay more.

There is a separate debate to be had about whether local taxes should be higher (with national taxes being lower) so that more money is raised locally to pay for local services. There was an interesting thread on this at Conservative Home awhile back. I quite like the idea of having a range of local taxes to include business rates and sales (VAT) as well personal incomes – it would help to ensure that local authorities think about nurturing their local economy in a sustainable and coherent manner. Obviously these would have to be off-set by cuts in national taxation so as not to increase the overall tax burden.

Of course, a local income tax is not the only answer, but it is the most progressive, straightforward and transparent proposal I’ve seen so far. The point is that we all know that Council Tax needs fixing. It would be nice if the main opposition party could put forward constructive solutions rather than incessantly whining about it.

If this is the sort of press release is able to weasel its way out of CCHQ then Cameron still has much work to do in making the Conservatives a positive, constructive forward-looking party of government rather than one carping in opposition.

Booting the Mac Mini from a LaCie mini Firewire drive

For nearly a year now I’ve been using my Mac Mini as my main computer. One of the main drawbacks of the Mini’s compact design is that Apple decided to use a relatively slow (4200 rpm), laptop hard disk. I therefore bought mine with a Firewire companion drive, the LaCie mini. To get the maximum benefit I decided to use it as the boot device, and here I found a little difficulty.

Macs, unlike most PCs, are very happy booting off Firewire drives without any hassle. Normally. However, this depends on the drive being switched on before the computer.

Separately switching an external hard drive on-and-off is a little tedious – and in the case of the LaCie mini, the button is small and out of the way and clearly designed to be not used very often. For that reason, the drive automatically powers down into sleep mode when the computer either enters sleep mode or is switched off. When the Mac is powered up again, there is a short lag (a couple of seconds) before the Firewire drive powers up too.

This is fine when waking the computer from sleep (you get the spinning beach ball for a couple of seconds before the system resumes). However, if you are powering up the computer after a shutdown, it can’t detect the boot partition. By the time the drive is powered up, the boot loader has already stalled. To boot successfully you have to manually power-cycle the hard drive whilst the Mac is off (forcing the drive to power up) and then switch the Mac on. Try explaining that to Mom for when she just wants to check her email!

It took me some time to figure out just what was going wrong (and neither Apple nor LaCie would support the use of the companion drive as a boot disk) so I had to make do with just sleeping the computer and never switching it off. So, when I did figure out what the problem was I wasn’t in a rush to solve it. I knew there must be a geeky way to slow down the Mac OS X boot loader. And then I remembered that I’d done so for years with my previous computer!

XPostFacto, is a cunning utility, that I had been using to run Mac OS X on my old, unsupported Mac. One of the tricks that XPostFacto uses is to slow down the boot loader so as to boot on computers with older (i.e. slower) hard drives. So, a quick 30 seconds install and my computer finally boots up properly after a power-down. Hurrah!

Tomorrow

I was flicking through Bill Clinton’s autobiography when my eyes just happened to gaze over the final paragraph, describing the moments just after George W. Bush had been inaugurated in sucession to him.

Within an hour, the peaceful transfer of power that has kept our country free for more than two hundred years had taken place again. My family said good-bye to the new First Family and drove to Andrews Air Force Base for our last flight on the presidential plane that was no longer Air Force One for me. After eight years as President, and half a lifetime in politics, I was a private citizen again, but a very grateful one, still pulling for my country, still thinking about tomorrow.

How very much like the ending of a certain television series!

Telephone support desks

I’m normally very tolerant of telephone support desks – even those that have been contracted out to hapless call centers in India. (There’s nothing wrong with them being in India, par se, just that often the company gets so excited about saving money by contracting out they forget about service quality and making sure the telephone operators are sufficiently trained and empowered to be able to help.) Nevertheless a new level of incompetence has stretched my patience.

For the last couple of days I have picked up voicemails from an Indian-sounding lady claiming to be from “First line support” wanting to contact me in relation to a password-reset inquiry. She keeps asking me to give the helpdesk a ring but has not once told me the telephone number, let alone the name of the company or product/service this is in relation to. Which is most unhelpful because I haven’t the foggiest idea what this is about. There’s no caller ID recorded either so I actually have no way of getting in touch.

Anyway her most recent voicemail threatens to “close the call” as they’ve been unable to make contact. Sigh!

I’ve now changed my voicemail greeting to include a special message for this call centre…

UPDATE 21 Sep 2006 Apparently the helpdesk was the IT support desk of Logica, a company I last worked for in 1998… I rang up and explained this to them but they were unable to help (different helpdesk operator and I couldn’t make out the name of the one who had called me). Apparently my name is no longer on their system and they can’t search by telephone number so they can’t find out who they were acctually trying to contact. So I have to wait for their next call attempt and hope I catch it before it hits voicemail…