Pouring our cash down the plughole

I won't be putting a timer on my shower until the Energy Saving Trust saves us money by putting itself into liquidation


The Energy Saving Trust – tasked with promoting the Government's Green Deal (only 200 households have signed up so far, so not exactly a success story) – complains about wasting water. We overfill our kettles, don't have dual flush toilets, and hang about in the shower for too long. Being lectured by a quango funded by the Department of Energy sticks in my craw – especially as it has just emerged that our highly profitable privatised water and energy companies (mostly foreign-owned) have dodged about £1bn in tax over the last three years, by exploiting loopholes in the law.

Yorkshire Water made a profit of £990m over the past three years yet managed to bank a £46m tax credit, and two energy companies paid no corporation tax at all. So who are we supposed to save water and use less energy for? Waste is not a word that anyone connected with government should bandy about. When it comes to loose purse strings, Whitehall, like the BBC, is highly skilled.

The number of senior advisers on temporary contracts earning £1,000 a day is up 50 per cent, in spite of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude being tasked with cutting unnecessary spending. Consultants are parachuted into the Ministry of Defence, Home Office and Ministry of Justice to bring difficult projects to a conclusion, so the Government can claim it is achieving targets before we troop back to the ballot box in 2015. Maude promised to drastically reduce quangos – but only 16 got the sack, many merged into other departments, and some, like the Care Quality Commission, actually saw spending rise.

Last week, it emerged that one civil servant spent more than £73,000 on an external consultant (£1,714 a day for 52 days) to prepare for an appearance before MPs on the public accounts committee, to explain his role in overseeing the disastrous NHS IT system. Ministers say they are reducing the number of civil servants, but hundreds have left with six-figure pay-offs in the past year alone. David Cameron says MPs shouldn't accept the proposed £10,000-a-year pay rise, but pours cash into macho projects like high-speed rail.

We might waste water meditating in the shower, but government wastage is far worse. Dave Hartnett, the former head of HM Revenue and Customs, left with £48,000 to compensate for "lost" holidays – and walked into a huge salary advising one of the accountancy firms he used to negotiate with. It's a bit rich for the public accounts committee to complain about the BBC dishing out big payouts to departing executives, when government itself has a flexible version of thrift.

I won't be putting a timer on my shower until the Energy Saving Trust saves us money by putting itself into liquidation.

Opera set in a fridge is so cool

I chose a piece by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau as one of my Desert Island Discs – the music is sublime, although his operas have plots that border on the utterly bonkers. Combining courtly dances and wonderful arias, these works last for hours – none of which I find a deterrent. As baroque opera has become increasingly popular, the trend has been to give them a contemporary setting, which often results in panto.

Recently, the ENO came unstuck with an outrageous production of Castor and Pollux, which involved nudity and a lot of gore. Glyndebourne has just staged its first Rameau masterpiece, Hippolyte et Aricie, (reviewed on page 48) which opens inside an enormous fridge, with giant florets of broccoli. The opera is about the battle between Diana, goddess of chastity, and Cupid, who advocates passion and free will. Hades is a dank and dingy compartment inside the freezer, full of dancing bugs. Jonathan Kent's staging is a delight and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on top form. Kent says he wants to reinvent Rameau for the 21st century – some critics might complain, but I think he's succeeded brilliantly. One of my top nights out this year.

Absurdly good festival show

Two fantastic nights at the theatre in one week – the Manchester International Festival opened with The Old Woman, directed by Robert Wilson. It is based on a novel by Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, written in the Thirties. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe star as A and B, two versions of the same person. Like Waiting for Godot, it muses on the futility of life, the struggle for individuality in the face of oppression. Two clowns swap roles, repeat banalities, and make small attempts to break out. A bare stage and minimalist props could be a prolonged statement of the obvious, but I found it unbearably moving.

Serve up wedding break, fast

The other night Ed Miliband told me he was against tax breaks for married couples and few people would get married for just £150 a year. I disagree. Our legal system is clogged up with unmarried couples arguing over access to kids, division of property and maintenance – the only happy people are lawyers. Marriage should be made attractive, because a legal contract ensures that if it ends, children don't suffer and there is a framework for sorting out disputes. Tax breaks could be a simple incentive – £150 is pathetic, but better than nothing.

How ridiculous of Nick Clegg to say these tax breaks reward those "who conform to [the Tories'] image of how you conduct your life". To me, it's not about belief or family values, but preparing the best strategy should the relationship go sour.

I was enraged to read about the couple who got married in Tower Hamlets being told their vows were "too Christian" for a civil ceremony. Talk about nit-picking! I married in a registry office in Tower Hamlets, and was handed a laminated card on which basic vows were printed in English and Urdu – the opposite of romantic. The bride chose traditional wording, she said, because it sounded poetic and flowed beautifully. My sentiments entirely. Let couples pledge whatever they want, but please promote marriage.

Suit's through, sir

Prince Charles, above, toured the Dr Who set last week wearing a suit with a patch below the jacket pocket – a timely bit of "tactical thrift" as figures showed his income from the Duchy of Cornwall had risen 4 per cent to £19m. The Prince is able to write off nearly half of his profits as taxable business expenditure, although his office says he is cutting running costs. A rip in an expensive suit is best repaired by the Invisible Mending company – but the result wouldn't be as obvious. This looks as if one of his many gardeners used secateurs and a bit of twine.

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