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Tag: Consumer Rights Page 1 of 2

Finding Space for the Public in Transport

This is one of those posts which makes it to the draught stage and never any further, but as I was tidying up my WordPress install, I decided with a bit of reworking it’s something I still feel strongly about. The original title had referred to British public transport in particular, but in truth there is very little specific to the British experience.

Virgin Trains

Before I start my rant, let me plainly state that I am great supporter of the principles of public transport. That is not to say that I don’t see the use or take advantage of private transport, merely that I feel the balance in society is generally wrong, particularly in the first world, or whatever the preferred term is these days. These societies should be perfectly capable of providing for the vast majority of man’s annual miles, with our regular combinations of buses, trams, trains etc. and private transport being available to fill in the gaps where required. Being able to pack your bags, grab the kids and hit the road for a weekend away seems like a reasonable thing to do, but where is the logic of moving a ton of metal to work and back five days a week?

BT and the Cost of Money

Cash - An Expensive Commodity

Cash – An Expensive Commodity

How much does it cost to pay? That might appear to be an odd question, but it is a seldom acknowledged hidden attribute of the market economy. Paying costs. If one only imagines the contingencies required to handle the coin money which filters through any system of minor payments, such as a road toll booth, a system of parking meters or a public transport system, it becomes clear that dealing in such currency requires some not inconsiderable expenditure on the part of the service provider.

The key here of course is cash, that anonymous key to the monetary house. Some have pointed out that the age of using cash as a medium is gradually drawing to a close, and the establishment is beginning to see the benefits of expediting its demise. This includes the government, banks, financial markets and big corporations. For an example, we need only consider the recent charges introduced by BT.

According to the government watchdog Ofcom, in recent years BT have had a residential market presence of 70-80%, with the latter figure roughly representing the number of residential lines. This totals roughly 20 million landlines, which using the traditional quarterly bill paying system makes 80 million payments a year. So how much does it cost BT to collect these charges? Well, consider the options.

  • An old-fashioned method such as paying your bills at the Post Office should involve little detriment, the money being transferred electronically into BT’s bank accounts, with presumably some small handling fee for the Post Office.
  • A cheque made payable to the company, which given the scale of their operation should also be a simple matter for the giant to deal with.
  • Online credit card transaction, which would incur charges from the credit card companies, though I’ll admit I don’t know if BT passes these on to its customers.
  • Electronic Direct Debit payments direct from customers’ bank accounts.

BT’s preferred method is clear, and as their website points out:

Many of our customers now pay by Direct Debit which is an ideal option if you find it difficult to get out or worry that you will forget to pay your bill on time.

The arguments are dressed up and sugar coated to make the idea of giving BT direct access to your bank account seem to be a rather agreeable proposition. The icing on the cake is that it costs customers less to pay via this method. BT have introduced a scandalous ‘payment processing fee’ amounting to £4.50 (plus VAT) per transaction, paying via cheque or cash.

Now one can understand the complexities of dealing with payment methods such as the cheque. Assuming BT have no automated procedures for dealing with cheques, manually inputting the figures, such as dates, sums, account numbers etc., requiring an hour’s labour for 100 payments, one can see how a wage of £500 per hour is justifiable. But to charge such extraordinary fees for cash payments that are dealt with by another body, where is the justice in that? The levy represents around a 10% increase on the average customer’s quarterly bill. Add to that the fines for late payment (which are avoided with Direct Debit by having your bank balance overdrawn instead), and it becomes clear how BT are dictating the payment methods of their victims customers.

This isn’t the first example of prejudice against traditional payment methods, nor is it a precedent for cash payments being made financially unsound. But it is surely an example of the way in which the demise of anonymous paper money is slowly being exacerbated by that interlinked establishment of government and big business.

Will Anyone say ‘No’ to the ‘No Smoking’ Ban?

No smoking sign

No smoking

They all roll over. What else can they do in the dictatocracy? Smoking is bad for you. It kills! And according to recent adverts on British television, passive smoking is even worse, since the smoke comes from the ‘bad’ end of the cigarette. Is it any wonder the state becomes nanny when society acts so wimpish?

But society’s seemingly burgeoning fear of death isn’t the issue here, at least not to me. That issue is freedom of choice. The ban on smoking in public places perhaps has a right to be enforced; there is no choice about which train or bus station you use, after all. But when it comes down to banning smoking in all bars, pubs and restaurants, one has to ask why we are no longer allowed to choose. Are we so incapable of rational thought? For a long time now, many restaurants have had exclusive smoking sections, and many bars too have proven capable of sectioning off areas for different clientele. One might question therefore, the need for a blanket ban.

Whose National Trust is it Anyway?

A visit to Threave Gardens near Castle Douglas in Dumfriesshire, one of the National Trust for Scotland’s many well-kept properties in the south of Scotland. Beautiful weather, the height of the summer, and the chance to explore a well-kept garden and the fully restored Threave House. As the NTS website even offers:

Visit the Countryside Centre to find out more about the estate’s wildlife and conservation work before setting off to explore, perhaps to Threave Castle or the bird hides overlooking the River Dee and Black Park Marsh, a Special Protection Area for breeding waders and wintering wildfowl. If you’re lucky you may even see otters and osprey fishing in the river. Just make sure you leave enough time for a cup of tea and a slice of home-made cake.

Sound wonderful? A perfect day out for the family, wouldn’t you say? That is, until it comes to paying entrance fees. Bearing in mind the respectable discounts offered for families, simple admission to the gardens costs an impressive £5 per adult. Access to Threave House in addition (by guided tour only) brings the ticket price up to £9. In order to visit the nearby Threave Castle a further £3.50 need be added to the day’s toll.

Of course, these are more extreme price figures, and some people may even consider these prices to be good value. Indeed for families of the just the right proportions, the discounted family ticket prices offered by the Trust do make travelling with a family much more affordable. But that’s besides the basic principle. According to the National Trust’s annual review financial summary for 2005-2006, admission fees account for just £12.4 million of the £337.2 million total revenues – just under 4%. This proportion is not as low in the case of the NTS, but the figure begs the question: how can they be so low? The answer is simple; the prices are set to make the costs of membership all that more inviting. The National Trust boasts of membership exceeding 3.4 million. From the NTS’ website:

The National Trust for Scotland is the conservation charity that protects and promotes Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage for present and future generations to enjoy. With over 270,000 members it is the largest conservation charity in Scotland and it depends for its support on donations, legacies, grants and membership subscriptions.

That massive membership cries testament to the injustice of the National Trusts’ admission fees. Claiming to be an organisation run for the benefit of everyone, in truth the Trusts offer the preservation of the nation’s gardens, collections, stately homes, castles and sundry for the benefit of those who can afford the membership costs. In principle, through the National Trust Acts 1907-1971 which grant the singular right of the charities to hold lands in perpetuum, by declaring them inalienable, every member of the nation has paid their dues to the Trusts, by the foregoing of the inheritance taxes on National Trust lands which often directly precipitated their acquisition in the first place.

Whilst few would quibble with the way in which the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland conduct their business, the issue of funding is in need of some redress. The Trusts’ current position on admission fees actually limits access to certain sections of the public, for the sake of gaining increased revenues through membership fees. Although membership offers good value for money for the regular daytrippers, it does little to assuage the image of elitism the Trusts project to the poorer sections of society.

LCD Monitor Lifespan Saved by Customer Services

iiyama ProLite E435S-B

Searching the Internet for a comparison of CRT and LCD monitors will soon find numerous assertions that the lifespan of an LCD monitor exceeds that of a CRT. Just take one such example from Matrox Graphics’ website:

Longer monitor lifespan: Generally, LCD monitors last longer than CRTs. A typical LCD lifespan is 50,000 hours of use compared to 15,000 to 25,000 for a CRT. A longer monitor lifespan can provide a better return on investment.

There we have it, a rationalising argument for purchasing the more expensive LCD model. Indeed that 50,000 hours works out to be almost 20 years at 8 hours a day, quite an impressive statement. In my experience, aside from those which fail unnecessarily early (and usually, therefore, still under warranty), a CRT monitor usually lasts a long time indeed, and to claim that LCDs are expected to outlive these by anything up to 3 times as much on average would certainly make them worth the extra cost.

Sadly, however, this has not been the case. The first LCD I purchased failed 12 months out of warranty, whilst my mother’s failed with 12 months coverage to run. Of course it appears that when an LCD monitor fails, there is no working around it. CRTs gradually lose their sharpness or fade in luminance, which obviously becomes a problem at some point depending on what the monitor is used for, but does not make the monitor unusable for certain functions and short periods of time (indeed, one might even see the benefits of a bit of free anti-aliasing). The LCD monitors on the other hand had no such gradual decline; the first, an Eizo FlexScan L365, suddenly failed outright refusing to power on; the other, an iiyama ProLite E435S-B eventually stopped producing any blue colours, resulting in an increasingly irritating pink-tinged display.

But this is where credit must be given to the customer support services of both of these companies. iiyama’s monitor was covered by 3 years’ warranty, and true to the agreement a replacement was sent, the old monitor taken away for repair or disassembling. Simple, no hastle, and a fresh display within a week of the problem being reported. The case of the Eizo monitor is a little more complicated as it was out of warranty when the fault developed. Of course without being able to even turn it on, the problem went undiagnosed until it could be returned to base. An estimate of £75 + VAT was offered to fix the monitor and return it, with us being given the option of cancelling it should the repair turn out to require a more expensive part. Given the monitor’s quality, and the fact that the price was very reasonable to at least save on waste, it was sent back. In the end, however, Eizo deemed the faulty part to be so small as to not be worth charging for, and the monitor was repaired and sent back without charge. And all this out of warranty!

Ultimately the lifespan of LCD monitors has yet to be properly tested, and it will only be in coming years whether we find the initial estimates to be accurate or not, as many of the original buyers of LCD monitors may already upgraded to take advantage of improvements in refresh rates and contrast ratios, not to mention falling prices and larger screens. Nevertheless, we can rest assured that if companies are willing to offer the kind of customer support seen here, our investments may go the distance, even if the monitors don’t.

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