Oh Jack – forgive the familiarity – but where have you been all this time? It's almost 20 years since the Dejevskys had a house fire. The fire-engine took its time and came all the way from Kilburn, even though there was a fire station practically at the end of our road, but the questionable insurance agents were quicker off the mark. Scarcely had the fire-engine left than there was a knock on the door from someone asking whether we were insured, and assuring us that, even if we weren't, he could probably fix something.
I was more interested in establishing how he – the first of several such callers – had learnt about our fire, since he had come by car and seemed a stranger to the locale. It crossed my mind that someone at the fire station had a nice little earner going. It is the same sort of nice little earner that, I have always assumed, perhaps wrongly, some members of the police force receive for tip-offs about celebrity misdemeanours, a practice that pre-dates – and I have little doubt will post-date – the current phone-hacking scandal. Not that this makes either practice any less reprehensible.
Since then, such paid-for tip-offs – which I now know are called "referrals" – have only multiplied. I have written in the past about how my husband received mail-shots from companies offering private tests for stroke-prevention within a couple of weeks of being prescribed the anti-clotting drug, Warfarin. And earlier this year I had scarcely arrived back from A&E after breaking my foot, than my mobile was abuzz with messages about a recent injury I might have suffered and the possibility of compensation. It was the same with a minor car prang last year that went to insurers.
No wonder, as Jack Straw said on discovering the extent of such practices, insurance costs are constantly on the rise. In drumming up business, the companies are also increasing their costs – or rather, to be pedantic about it, ours. At one point, I was fielding so many text messages that I wondered whether anyone actually knew about specific accidents and injuries or simply fired off texts on the off-chance. I've recently received "cold calls" about switching my gas supply to my office direct line. When I protested that this was a company number and they had no business calling it, they said that I must have given it as my daytime phone number – but to whom, they would not say.
Of course there should be penalties for the unauthorised use of personal data – penalties that far outweigh the financial advantages that accrue to those who gather it. But the venality goes far beyond the emergency services, insurers and lawyers. At a time when local councils think nothing of selling their electoral registers – Westminster allows you to opt out of the commercial edition (not opt in, mind you) by ticking a very small box – it's hard to argue that others should not be able to do the same. This is where any new legislation should begin.
Until then, this might be a good time to reflect on the benefits for the rest of the population of ministers compelled by an election to rejoin real life. Suddenly responsible for their own cars and their own dealings with public services, they profess amazement at the "rackets" going on. The pity is that, by then, they no longer have the power to do anything about it. What they need is a hotline to their successors.
We shouldn't judge by appearances – but we do
This is a really unfair question, but it is one that nags at me whenever I see Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, defending tomorrow's planned teachers' strike on television. Bousted is a redoubtable advocate for her cause. She is forceful, fluent and never short of a sound-bite. In comparing the Government's supposed "theft" of teachers' pension rights to Robert Maxwell's looting of his company's pension funds, she was perpetuating a cynical and quite monstrous untruth – but a highly effective one for all that.
My question, though, is this. If I were a parent, how would I feel about the leader of one of the main teachers' unions sporting a red – not auburn or ginger, but red – streak in her hair? I suspect it may divide parents between those who say hair is quite irrelevant to good faith and competence and those who say that it sums up the parlous state of the teaching profession. As I say, it's an unfair question, but I incline towards the second group.
In groceries, real beats virtual hands down
As a whole, shopping on the internet is up, but ordering groceries online is down. I can't say I was surprised by that news. Annoyed by the preponderance of imminent sell-by dates and horrified by the rise in my bills over a year – if you want a really scary gauge of inflation, your internet grocery order exposes it mercilessly – I decided to return to Sainsbury's after a two-year defection. And what a palaver it now is to start an internet grocery order from scratch! I counted more than 30 varieties of cooked ham; biscuits run into the hundreds. In the time it took to establish a new list, I could almost have made the return trip to the shops. Even then I completely missed the dairy section.
When immobilised with my injured foot earlier this year, internet orders provided a lifeline – as they surely do for many who find it difficult to get about. But there are two excellent reasons for going to the shops yourself. One is that you can judge the quality yourself, and the other is that you probably won't return with four times the mushrooms/bread/apples you need. Britain has been a pioneer in online grocery sales, with one of the most developed markets in the world. Perhaps the real and the virtual are gradually coming back into balance.