When is a published price not the price that you actually end up paying? When you pay for an airline, concert, sporting event or cinema ticket with a credit card it seems.
There seems little escape from the obligatory "card-handling fee" – which can be as high as £10 per ticket per person – and it's more than a frustration, it's simply a massive con.
I wrote last year about the unfairness of these fees – which in no way reflect the costs to the event organisers or airline of actually processing a card transaction – and the card industry itself has condemned them. But, finally, a leading consumer body has taken up the cause. Which? has lodged its first super complaint for several years with the Office of Fair Trading over these fees. Abuses highlighted include airlines charging a fee per leg of journey when the actual card payment transaction is only done the once. In one case an airline charges a staggering £36 in fees for one booking when the real cost would be closer to 20p. And it's not just the airlines, cinemas and event organisers who are taking advantage. The curse of the card-handling fee is spreading to include local authorities, the DVLA and even estate agency firms.
For most of us these fees may only be a few pounds here or there, but over a year it can really add up and, crucially, the reasons given are completely dishonest. On leaving university I briefly worked in retail and was amazed to find that it was cheaper to take a card payment than even cash. Incredible as it seems, the costs of securing and banking large amounts of cash were in fact greater than swiping a card. Wouldn't it be nice as a consumer if we knew that the price we saw advertised was the price we actually got to pay. It's not much to ask, is it?
Big society? Big rip-off
I still don't quite get what the Big Society is all about. Is the fact that Richmond Council haven't bothered to empty my bins for two weeks part of the Big Society? What about the huge pothole in my road which did for my front bike wheel the other day, is that another tangible sign that I should get out there with some tarmac and a brush merrily joining the Big Society? Well, one man who apparently does know what the Big Society is all about is the Housing minister Grant Shapps. One of the most bone-dry Tories in government was extolling the virtues of people taking up the right to manage their own property as the Big Society in action.
Now, do I need to remind Mr Shapps that he is the minister who decided to tear up a cross-party consensus on improving the rights of leaseholder property owners – about 1.6 million households in this country and counting – from being exploited by unscrupulous management companies appointed by the freeholder? The legislation – before it was killed off by Mr Shapps – would have finally brought transparency to the whole managing-agent industry and undoubtedly led to a huge number of leaseholders exercising the right to manage.
Let me give you one example of the type of abuse that currently goes on. I will introduce you to Company A, a managing agent, and Company B a major insurance company. Company A forms its own "insurance company" and then takes out buildings insurance for, say, double the going rate on a block of flats it manages. Company B colludes with this by in effect reinsuring Company A's insurance policy and receives a kickback for so doing. It is then in the financial interests of Company A – which, remember, is supposed to be acting in the interests of leaseholders – to keep any insurance claims to a minimum because it's all profit.
This is a racket worth millions and if it were to happen in the United States would be deemed fraud, with the perpetrators being led away in handcuffs. Yet here it and many other instances of abuse are allowed to go on, thanks in no small part to Mr Shapps inactivity. Mr Big society Mr Shapps? Big rip-off more like.
Interest rates have been left on hold for the 23rd month in a row. I keep being told that the Monetary Policy Committee is looking at inflationary pressures two years from now and this is staying their hand over rates. Apparently a lot of the inflationary pressures we currently feel are only temporary – the VAT rise and petrol prices to name just two – therefore it's still safe to keep rates low.
I have to say, the inflation I see in the supermarket and in other services doesn't feel temporary to me, and as for petrol and raw materials – are these really going to get cheaper once the Western economies recover? I hope for all our sakes the Monetary Policy Committee has its approach to rates and inflation right, because if they haven't then everyone will suffer – savers, borrowers, business and consumers. Remember, the last time the inflation genie was let out of the bottle it took two decades to get it back in.