Moaning about the nightmare service in our shops is fast replacing Middle England's obsession with house prices.
Everyone I meet asks me why the high street has become such a misery and why Boots, in particular, is so bad. It's a good question. For those who may have forgotten, Alliance Boots was taken over by its boss, Stefano Pessina, and the private equity giant, KKR, about three years ago, precisely because the chemist chain was having such a tough time and they hoped to put some sparkle back by taking it private. Hiring Andy Hornby, the ex-HBOS boss, to run the show seems to have helped profits but done little to improve that elusive customer-care experience.
Boots certainly hasn't been helped in its ambitions by having Patricia Hewitt – ex-health secretary and undisputed queen of the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary "Politicians for Hire", shown last week – on its advisory board. After watching Hewitt being interviewed, we know why; she was too busy finding other jobs.
"Politicians for Hire" is a must-see for anybody concerned by the nefarious lobbying which goes on between business and politics; even the most cynical will be staggered. It's no exaggeration to say my jaw dropped, and stayed dropped for the 48 minutes of this sting which filmed Hewitt, and two other ex-ministers, Geoff Hoon, and Stephen "Cab for Hire" Byers, being interviewed by an undercover reporter for a role on the advisory board of the fictitious consultants, Anderson Perry. It's no surprise that the three have been suspended by the Parliamentary Labour Party.
What the secret cameras captured so well was the brazen way these ex-ministers preened and boasted about their lobbying skills as they auditioned for the Perry job. While Byers confirmed himself to be a buffoon and Hoon revealed his coldness, it fell to Hewitt to stun with her display of sourpuss complacency. As she explained, she had perhaps two days a month to spare for any new role after her "big" job – being a non-executive director for BT, her work for Boots, her work for Cinven, another private-equity group which owns Bupa, and her three days a month for the UK India group, and then her less arduous Barclays job. She didn't mention that she also squeezes in being an MP.
Hewitt joined Boots soon after the takeover and even then her appointment raised eyebrows because of potential conflicts between her previous role and that of advising Boots, which owns 25 private hospitals. And it was during her time in office that she was accused of "back-door" privatisation of primary-care services by paving the way for GPs and consultants to move outside the NHS and into chemist branches. It's unthinkable now that anybody on the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – which oversees applications by ex-ministers to take jobs in the two years after they leave – let her job through as the conflict was so blatant. Two of Acoba's committee voted against the Boots job, and they were right.
If you have any doubts about how tricky it is for politicians to balance paid-for private work with the public interest, watch Hewitt tell the reporter how she has five smart ways for new clients to get to lobby ministers and civil servants. Referring to one private-healthcare client, she claimed: "I got them into the system."
And with that she cut to the chase; the system. We all know big business can buy its way into lobbying; that's why there are rules about registering interests and the Acoba purdah. But to be shown so chillingly how "favours" can buy entry into a system that excludes the rest of us makes a mockery of our representative democracy. As Parliament clears up its expenses scandal, it's an appropriate moment to rescrutinise the rules on outside interests. It's tempting to call for an all-out ban on MPs having any additional work, but that's too reactionary and would lead to as many abuses as we have already.
Instead, the rules need to be transparent and, most pertinently, to be enforced. The only person who emerged with integrity from this Dispatches was Lord Maclennan of Acoba, who objected to Hewitt's Boots role but couldn't do anything about it because the committee has no teeth. That must change. Whichever party is in power in May should give Acoba statutory powers to block appointments, but also enforce the register of interests.
Business should also stop getting into Westminster via the back door; it demeans our democracy if it can be so short-circuited by a few bucks. I can't believe that Hewitt, Hoon or Byers add much to boardroom debate – she certainly isn't helping the Boots brand now. Eurotunnel's shareholders will decide at their annual meeting in May whether they want Hewitt as a non-executive, as the board is recommending. I suggest they watch "Politicians for Hire" first and ask themselves if they want someone quite so, how can I put it politely, busy.
The loss from Brown's Bottom gold sales can only get worse, says Hambro
In the City they call it Brown's Bottom; it's the moment in 1999 when then Chancellor Brown decided to sell off the country's gold reserves. Gold was trading at about $256 an ounce and, despite top gold gurus like Peter Hambro predicting the bullion was set to soar, Brown pre-announced the Treasury's plan to sell 395 tons, nearly half of the total.
The price of gold today stands at about $1,100 an ounce, with the loss to the taxpayer estimated at about £7bn based on figures from accountants Grant Thornton.
Selling off gold at the 20-year bottom is generally considered to be one of the Prime Minister's most catastrophic mistakes and, if he had been working as a trader, he would have been sacked for his misjudgement. Quite why Brown decided to sell half the nation's reserves when the price was so low has never been explained.
But now, following four years of freedom of information requests by The Daily Telegraph, the Information Commissioner has ordered the Treasury to release some of the details surrounding the sale although it is being suggested that much of the paperwork will remain hidden from public view.
Now the Treasury has got to come up with some answers by the end of April, otherwise it will be in contempt.
And one of the keenest of all to find out the official version of events is Peter Hambro. He tells me he phoned the Treasury himself at the time to find out why they were going ahead with the sale and was told it's all to do with "asset allocation in accordance with modern portfolio theory". Well, modern portfolio theory has cost the taxpayer £7bn already and could cost us more. Never fearful of sticking his neck out, Hambro – who forecast $1,000 an ounce at the start of the decade – forecasts gold will be as high as $1,500 by Christmas.
The owner of one of Russia's biggest gold miners Petropavlovsk, Hambro also has a new name for the shiny stuff: Tina – there is no alternative.Reuse content