Miquita Oliver? A week ago I’d never heard of her. Now I am a big fan, a supporter, an advocate.

Hers is not a name you would expect to see on a 70-year-old bloke’s blog. She’s in her late twenties and was formerly ‘the face of music TV’ on Channel 4.

At seventeen, Miquita was earning so much money she didn’t know how to handle it. She ended up bankrupt over an unpaid tax bill.

Now she’s a campaigner on the paydays loans issue. She’d not alone; many financial journalists have been consistently outspoken on the subject, as has the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the TV programme she fronted on Monday was the most powerful message I’ve seen about the insidious power of the now-substantial payday loan industry.

Why? Because she’s young and it’s her age-group that the companies target; because she’s a great communicator; because she’s had money troubles herself and displayed great empathy with those who were getting sucked into the vicious circle of debt. And because she went out and about interviewing lots of young people who were tempted by the loans as a way to instant parties; and showed us the moving stories of those who had been driven to attempted and actual suicide because of the ballooning debts. Impressive stuff.


To watch the programme on the BBC’s iPlayer, click HERE.

(it’s available only until just before 10 pm on Tues 10 Dec)



On Sunday I had my first introduction to an organisation I’d read about many times in the seven years since I moved to Bristol and started using the public transport here. The organisation’s full name is Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways; admittedly a bit of a mouthful, so they tend to be known by their initials FOSBR. (well, OK, acronym, as it could be a word)


The occasion was a celebration of progress made in several of FOSBR’s campaigns and the location was a pub near Bristol’s Temple Meads station. Being fond of trains and pubs, I found it an easy decision to attend; I also found that FOSBR has even produced a guide to pubs along the Temple Meads / Severn Beach line, called FOSBEER of course.

Serious content

Enough of the fun side of it; the content of the meeting, even though billed as a celebration, was deadly serious, i.e. the possible / probable negative impact of the recent McNulty Report. I was impressed with the presentations by three local rail union officials (RMT, TSSA and ASLEF respectively); incisive and fact-filled.

Correction; I’d assumed they’d be local union officials but in fact two of them had national status: Alex Gordon is national President of the RMT and Manuel Cortes is Assistant General Secretary of TSSA.

They also had a local councillor speaking; importantly, he represents an area in North Somerset that could be served by rail once more if passenger services are restored to the (currently freight-only) Portbury branch and it’s extended a couple of miles to Portishead.

Subsidy five times higher since privatisation

I’ve often read, (e.g in The Economist) or heard it said verbally (Richard Wilson’s recent impassioned plea on behalf of harassed British rail users on Channel 4) that the level of public subsidy of our railways was now higher than it was pre-privatisation, despite our fares being the highest in Europe. However it was not made clear in either of those sources if the comparison was inflation-adjusted.

At this meeting, though, the guy from TSSA filled in the blanks; the subsidy is now five times higher; £5 bn, compared to £1 bn at today’s prices back then. How can that be? McNulty apparently thinks that staffing levels and pay costs are a big part of it, which concerns the unions, naturally, including the possibility of DOO (driver-only operation). Maybe his brief didn’t allow him to conclude that the fragmentary and thus potentially chaotic way the railways were privatised had a big impact on costs and that should be addressed first.


I learned some other interesting stuff, all of which I shall check out in the interests of balance; for example that First Group will be able to exploit a loophole and avoid large subsidy repayments by giving up the Great Western rail franchise three years early.

The feeling of the meeting was summed up for me by FOSBR member Mike: “McNulty is Beeching Mk 2”.

I’ve now joined this worthwhile and effective organisation and will be blogging about rail in the West, so watch this space.


On the McNulty Report:

On Driver-Only Operation (DOO):



I posted recently a piece entitled “Dream School and Real School”, about a radio interview I’d heard with one of Jamie Oliver’s “Dream School” pupils. I tweeted too: how cutting-edge am I?

Based on what seemed to be encouraging evidence of a turnaround in the attitudes and self-belief of this particular “problem pupil”, I thought that good old Jamie had found yet another successful formula; that’s why I wrote: “Dream School rules”.

I did however admit in my blog that I hadn’t yet seen any of the programmes. I have now corrected the omission, watching most of the last episode. That was enough to make me feel that my enthusiasm might have been misplaced.

A Coren summing-up


Victoria Coren, writing in The Observer last Sunday (17 April), summed the series up superbly and I could not improve on what she wrote. Admittedly, anyone with the surname Coren starts with a credit balance in my book, as I was and remain a massive fan of her dad’s writing. I’m glad to see that Alan Coren’s brilliant torch has been passed on safely.

Coren jr. ended her piece thusly: “The vaguely happy ending wasn’t enough to undo the message of the previous six weeks. Half the kids were still interrupting, swearing and self-justifying. The cleverest girl, who had won a science trip to Arizona, a further education scholarship and a tour of Cambridge University with an encouraging David Starkey, is now, we learned, ‘auditioning for TV dramas’. What sort of conclusion are we supposed to draw from that?


“… let’s strive to remember that it didn’t actually prove anything and was just a piece of weird entertainment.”

Alf Garnett stares back

Ms Coren clearly watched all six episodes but then she was paid to do so. I feel for her. Despite that fact that she was writing here in a newspaper that I’m sure would describe itself as left of centre, she said: “after each episode, I looked into the mirror and Alf Garnett stared back”.

(NB: If you are not a Brit, or not old enough to remember him, Alf Garnett was the fictional epitome of reactionary attitudes)

Want to know more?

To read Victoria Coren’s excellent article “Jamie’s dream was a nightmare”, go to:

(That’s not just a suggestion: it’s an order!)


Jamie Oliver’s latest initiative, “Dream School”, sounds interesting, though I admit I haven’t seen any of the programmes yet. His personality, energy and high profile have ensured the involvement of all those “experts”: people with not only exceptional levels of knowledge but also the time to give the 1:1 attention that many “troubled” children inevitably lack at school.

Teenage nightmare rehabilitated?

A couple of days ago, I tweeted about an interview with former “problem pupil” Angelique Knight on Radio 4’s You and Yours. “Dream School rules”, was my conclusion. The findings were unsurprising to me but encouraging. Unless she was no more than an accomplished actor, Angelique had changed in a short time from a teenage nightmare to a motivated young person who now wants to go to university.

“So what?” you might say. Is this just a neat way to get TV ratings? A country mile from what can be achieved in a practical sense? Resource constraints will never allow this kind of thing, or anything like it? As the saying goes, “You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment” although I do admit to being pretty impressed when I heard that interview with Angelique Knight.

Real-world school on show

I was even more impressed recently when I saw one small snapshot of what a difference good leadership can make in schools. I was staying overnight at a hall of residence at the London School of Economics (LSE, to us Brits) and when I went down to breakfast the dining hall was half-full of schoolchildren on a study trip; it was university vacation time, so they, and I, were taking advantage of the good-value accommodation such halls offer.

These kids were of primary school age; animated, not Ritalin-sedated, but so well-behaved that I admit to thinking (please forgive my former prejudices) that they must be from a fee-paying school. It’s a well-known fact that discipline is an issue / challenge (we don’t say problem anymore, do we?) in many British state-sector schools, even at primary level.

But not all schools. Suddenly I heard an adult voice raised, in a quietly authoritative tone: “Sit down! How dare you embarrass the school by your behaviour!” Silence reigned again. We random adults looked at each other and smiled; this took many of us back to our own schooldays.

Primary school rules

I went over to a table occupied by half a dozen teachers and congratulated them on the kids’ behaviour. One said: “well, these are pretty tired kids.” That’s when I found they were from a state-sector primary: Southill Primary School in Weymouth, Dorset, and I talked briefly to the Deputy Head, the man who had laid (or is it lain?) down the law.

After the kids had left (in an orderly fashion) I noticed the same guy going round and thanking all the dining-hall and kitchen staff. That impressed me too, as it seemed to be consistent: show respect to kids and to adults alike and with luck you get it back.

As I said before, it was only a snapshot; but it showed what can be done, even without Channel 4’s budget and the presence of TV cameras. I don’t know anything about the academic results of Southill Primary School but I’ll bet they are pretty good.

Ideal vs. real

In conclusion: hats off to Southill. It’s inspiring to find out what could be done in an ideal world, through projects like Dream School. It’s even better to see people who seem to be doing it in the real world.

Want to know more?

Southill Primary School:

Jamie Oliver’s “Dream School”:



A recent news item (Channel 4 News, I think) flagged up a potentially alarming problem that’s been caused by the recession. (Yes, that’ll be the recession that the experts say is now officially over. Try telling that to someone who has lost their job.)


What’s the problem? According to a report by the charity Shelter, there’s been a large increase – possibly 50% in a year – in the number of people using credit cards to pay their mortgage or rent.


Does this affect owner-occupiers? Or tenants? Or both?


According to the BBC website, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) suggests that the problem has been sensationalised by the media. That may be true. It would not be the first time. I should point out the obvious, however: the CML’s concern is only for mortgages. What Shelter describes may well be more of a problem for tenants than for homeowners. Mortgage rates are exceptionally low at present, so it’s less likely that an owner-occupier will have difficulty meeting housing costs, other things being equal. Also mortgage payments are normally taken on a direct debit, the CML says.


The reduction in housing costs caused by low mortgage rates has not yet been mirrored in reduced rents (why not?? Logic tells me it should be). Therefore, other things again being equal (which they never are) a tenant is more likely to be tempted to solve a short-term cash-flow problem by paying the rent with a credit card.


Is the story true?


“In the current climate”, I would not be surprised if there has been an increase in the number using cards. But has the increase really been 50% in a year? That’s massive. What they say, if you read the various reports, is that it’s gone from 4% to 6% and that is indeed an increase of 50%.


Firstly, you’d have to ask how big was the sample; obviously they didn’t interview everyone in the country (well, they didn’t ask me, anyway). And secondly, here’s a bit of a giveaway. Last year’s survey calculated the number of households, rather than individuals, that fell into this category. However, “the figure for households has not been calculated this year”, according to the report. So are we comparing apples with oranges, to make a point?


So is it safe to pay with a credit card?


Back to the question at the top of this post; is it safe to use a credit card to pay your rent or (less likely) your mortgage? The answer is a cautious yes, but only under certain circumstances. Credit cards do not have the astronomically high interest rates of payday loans, but the principle is the same. IF there is no alternative, and IF you are 100% sure you can pay off the card in full before the interest kicks in (you have 4-6 weeks to do that) then fine. If not, then as I have said many times before … get help from one of the debt advice agencies (for example Citizens Advice, or Consumer Credit Counselling Services, or National Debtline) and put together a plan. If you don’t, you could find yourself on a slippery slope.


I’ll be following up this story. “Watch this space”, as the saying goes.






Here’s a piece on the website of Shelter, who produced the original report:


And here’s an item about the story on the BBC website:




My book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is now available to sample or buy, as a multi-format e-book, at: