Switched, bothered and bewildered, I don’t think my new bank likes me

DID you know you’re more likely to change spouses or partners than your bank – as Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that.

According to the UK Payments Council, the majority account-holders stay with their bank an average of 17 years in contrast to most marriages, which survive a paltry 11.5.

It’s not that Brits are so besotted with the treatment meted out by the institutions claiming to look after their money. Far from it, because complaints against banks soared 15 percent in the first half of last year alone to 370,000.

No, the prime reason for customer loyalty is fear…dread that switching to a rival will likely result in a calamitous hiatus, so direct debits or standing order pay-dates are missed, the electricity, gas or water will be cut off and the tallyman will repossess the family motor.

This same reluctance to change stalks most of the West, despite the array of incentives banks employ to lure each other’s clients, Consequently, while four in 10 of us regularly switch car or household insurer, only one in 20 has changed their bank in the last two years.

But what if a bank switches you, which is happening in my case?

It’s not that I’ve done anything to upset them. I keep a decent balance in my account, make few demands, never forget to say ’Have a nice day’ and am on first-name terms with the counter staff.

The pleasantries are always returned and, for the several years I’ve banked there – no names, no pack-drill, but it’s an international offshoot of a UK high street bank – I’ve been treated with cheery efficiency, sage advice and made to feel a valued customer.

IN THE MONEY? Who knows when banking parlance is so complicated

IN THE MONEY? Who knows when banking parlance is so complicated

Suddenly last summer, however, I received a letter from them, saying as of mid-March, 2014, I’d be a client of another bank, a Spanish one, whose name meant virtually nada to me.

In other words, having sold out to a competitor, I was part of the goods and chattels.

This was a fait accompli in the hatching; Hobson had more choice than me…it was either go with the flow or dive into the minefield of the great, financial unknown.

It isn’t that I’ve a problem with the theory of changing banks, despite my innate sense of loyalty/fear and belief in better the banking devil you know than parking my cash in another Satan’s den.

Nor am I particularly concerned about a bank’s country of origin, so long as it’s regulated to international standards and not run by some philanthropic Nigerian, offering me 1,000% interest if I park the odd twenty thou with him for a month.

Because – at least now – banks almost everywhere no longer act like robber barons in pin stripes. Mostly, they’ve mended their errant, grasping ways, stopped lending recklessly and quit foisting junk products, like payment protection insurance, on duped punters.

So, in the hope my familiar counter-staff mates would be part of the takeover, I went along with the assurances that this would simply be a name-change and the transition would tick with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Except it didn’t and isn’t.

At the turn of last year I received a leaflet from the future custodians of my moolah, explaining a few ‘modifications of the contractual conditions of certain bank services’.

Very thoughtfully, they’d written it in English, but – such was its arcane terminology – it might as well have been Swahili or Serbo-Croat.

Despite the vast cesspool of trivia drivel I accumulated over a lifetime, comprehension of banking parlance isn’t floating on its surface, like an unsinkable cowpat.

BANK ON IT: Most people get divorced before they change their bank

BANK ON IT: Most people get divorced before they change their bank

So the €35 ‘fee for dunning of debt positions’ fell on glazed eyes, as did the ‘formula used for calculating the settlement of credit and debit interest on sight accounts’.

Was my debt position being ‘dun’ over then?  And would I need an optical test to have a ‘sight account’?

Then, after receiving a new debit card, a further piece of plastic landed in my mailbox. Mysteriously titled ‘a new distance banking code card’, the accompanying letter exhorted me to ‘ACTIVATE NOW’ (their caps) by going on line.

Dutifully, I did – immediately. Except the website told me to try again in four days. So, I did. And the website said try again in a week. So I did and the website said phone a number somewhere. So I did.

‘We’re experiencing website integration issues’, explained a polite lady at the other end of the line. ‘Try again in four days’

‘But I’ve be trying for three weeks,’ said I, plaintively. ‘Besides, you’ve had since last August to sort this out and you’re a bank, for heaven’s sake, overflowing with IT geeks.’

‘You have until March 15 to do it, so there’s plenty of time,’ replied the call centre agent.

‘So why, in January, did you send out the urgent ACTIVE NOW message?’

‘Oh, that was just in case you forgot.’

‘This doesn’t exactly inspire new customer confidence, does it,’ I noted rhetorically.

‘Well, send in a complaint,’ she suggested. ‘Here, I’ll give you the email address of who to write to. They’ll reply within four days.’

So I did – on February 6. And I’m still awaiting the courtesy of a response. Maybe it’s a hiccup with email ‘integration’. Who knows in this era of supa-dupa hi-tech.

Meantime, my pals at my old bank – the one that’s going to be eviscerated next month – managed to sort out my ‘new distance banking’ glitch, which I discovered is a bunkum euphemism for something simply known as ‘online banking’.

Ah, well, I sighed. At least that’s done and dusted…except every time I go online to check my balance I still keep being exhorted to ACTIVE NOW the ‘new distance banking code’, which I do ad nauseum, since it’s the only way I can access my account.

Maybe the computer that keeps saying ‘No’ doesn’t like me. Maybe I’ll send it a bunch of flowers as a sop.

Or maybe I’ll break the habit of a lifetime and switch banks.

How BDS bigots, deceivers and smear merchants corner the market in hate

IF you believe in fairies, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigners – who I’ll call BDS-ards for space reasons – are kindly folk, if a tad economical with truth, who only seek a better world…better still without that pesky state of Israel.

What a travesty it is, they claim, that uppity Jews – six million of them – boss the Middle East, an oasis of fellowship, where 400,000,000 amiable Arabs merely want to go about their daily business of annihilating each other.

And what are these ‘land-grabbers’ doing there at all, demand the BDS-ards. Huh! It’s as if the Jews think they’ve some 3,500-year-old right to Israel, not poor Arabs, who’ve identified themselves as Palestinians for…er, well maybe a century, give or take a decade.

So forget historical fact, including the glaring one that no country called Palestine ever existed.

And perish the thought BDS-ards think there’s anything amiss with China brutalising Tibet, Turkey – with more journalists jailed than anywhere else – persecuting Kurds and ‘annexing’ Northern Cyprus, Russia turning Chechnya into an abattoir or Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea believing human rights are just for the wimpy West.

Similarly, the gang of mass murderers blighting much of Africa are of no consequence.

Because in the warped, BDS mindset all the world’s ills lie at the doorstep of Israel, uniquely the world’s only Jewish – if secular – state and rated by internationally respected Freedom House as the Middle East’s only free one.

The point is, despite swapping land for peace with Egypt and Jordan, the confounded Israelis just won’t cave in to all Palestinian demands – PLO warlord-cum-compulsive kleptomaniac, Yasser Arafat, was even offered 96% of what he sought for a nation-state, yet still flatly rejected it.

Israel also has the audacity to insist on the same rights as 57 countries that are Islamic and be recognised as Jewish.

HEROIC GIG: Sir Paul McCartney defied death threats to perform in Tel Aviv

HEROIC GIG: Sir Paul McCartney defied death threats to perform in Tel Aviv

That’s a definite no-no, rail the BDS-ards, who contend – for all its Western democracy, respect for gays, equal rights for women and people of other faiths, especially its 1.3-million Muslims – Israel is an ‘apartheid regime’, ruthlessly occupying the West Bank, coincidentally the cradle of terrorism.

Israel even built a protective wall rounds itself, dramatically curbing terror attacks by 80%, and has the nerve to retaliate against suicide bombers and fusillades of rockets fired by Gaza’s cuddly do-gooders, Hamas.

So, indulging in a repugnant equivalence to the Holocaust, not a few BDS-ards compare Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence with ‘Nazism’, disingenuously obscuring the issue their own tactics smack of totalitarian thuggery.

Founded in 2005, BDS was inspired by Qatari-born bigot Omar Barghouti – bizarrely a student at Tel Aviv University – to delegitimise and destroy Israel via an international trade and cultural boycott.

BDS-ards say their model is the one that helped topple white, supremacist South Africa, though Nelson Mandela, who knew a thing or two about real apartheid, distanced himself from their ravings.

Meanwhile, BDS stoops to sophistry in a claim that it merely seeks to end Israeli ‘occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands’ and a ‘right of return’ for Palestinians.

What they’re coy about admitting is this includes today’s four million descendants of the 700,000 Arabs displaced in the 1948 Israel War of Independence, when five, invading Arab armies failed to crush the re-born, UN-sanctioned  Jewish state.

Note the ‘all’, because the ploy is to dump on Israel a multitude of Arabs, weaned on a diet of vicious anti-Semitism, that BDS-ards hope will deliver a new Muslim state, entirely Jew-free – ‘Judenrein’, as Hitler termed it – even if a bloodbath is guaranteed.

In its pursuit of this ghoulish vision, BDS never lets truth spoil its PR war, especially with a pliant Western media – lead by those bastions of journalistic objectivity, The Guardian, New York Times and BBC – to give lies legs

Naturally, there’s a fetid stench of far-Left odium about BDS-ards, who subscribe to free speech, only if it chimes with their preposterous ‘group think’.

OXFAM DUMPED: Actress Scarlett Johansson quit the charity in a storm over her role as the 'face' of SodaStream

OXFAM DUMPED: Actress Scarlett Johansson quit the charity in a storm over her role as the ‘face’ of SodaStream

Its key battlegrounds are academia, big biz and showbiz, where it has achieved some traction, though not without embarrassments, the latest being a kick in the bias of Oxfam by its former goodwill ambassador, actress Scarlett Johansson.

When the charity upbraided her for promoting SodaStream, a fizzy drinks gizmo made in a factory just over the contentious, pre-1967 Six Day War ‘Green Line’,  the Hollywood A-lister summarily dumped it, saying she supported ‘economic co-operation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine’ (which, by implication, Oxfam doesn’t).

Worse, Oxfam was told to shove off by SodaStream’s 700 Palestinian workers, who enjoy identical rights to Israeli staff and are paid four times the West Bank average.

Still BDS remains the toast of certain showbiz luminaries, like the preciously PC Emma Thompson, who ganged up with like-minded luvvies to pen an anguished letter to The Guardian – where else! – demanding an Israel theatrical troupe be banned from appearing at London’s Globe Theatre.

Another is ex-Pink Floyd strummer, Roger Waters, whose hysterical animus towards Israel is claimed by critics to hide motives far more insidious as he tries to harass pop stars into nixing appearances in the Jewish state.

Despite such coercion, icons such as Sir Elton John, Rihanna, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys continue to play Israel; Sir Paul McCartney did so, too, bravely defying death threats, reportedly from BDS-ards; and The Rolling Stones are due in Tel Avis this June.

On the financial front, several European banks have been pressed into severing links with Israel for ‘ethical reasons’, notably Denmark’s Danske Bank (otherwise known as the bank that liked to say ‘Yes’ to backing North Korean sales of ballistic missiles to Iran, according to a US State Department report revealed by Wikileaks).

In academia, the tiny, Left-leaning American Studies Association recently added its voice to BDS, only to find itself boycotted by over a hundred, top US universities.

But BDS-ards claimed a major scalp when they persuaded Professor Sir Stephen Hawking, lauded as Britain’s most brilliant physicist, to renege on an invitation to visit Israel…despite the hi-tech wonders powering his awesome, life-enhancing wheelchair being Israeli innovations

The stark truth is BDS is shot full of such hypocrisy and bigotry and – let’s face it – not a few who hide their repellent anti-Semitism under the pretence of Palestinian solidarity.

The authoritative Economist magazine branded the movement ‘flimsy’ and ineffective, pointing out that ‘blaming Israel alone for the impasse…will continue to strike many outsiders as unfair.’

And not even the Palestinian leadership supports the boycott.

Sane folk would also imagine art, wealth-creation and ground-breaking technology should transcended all boundaries, their bounties shared by people everywhere. But, where only Israel is concerned, that’s heresy in the skewered opinion of BDS-ards.

And the people they target – from showbiz stars to businesses and academics – are no more responsible for the Israel-Palestinian imbroglio than they are for the slump in Mongolian yurt sales.

So let there be no mistaking the real message of BDS: Make hate, kill hope.

Kids: Why nobody should be spared the agony and ecstasy of having them

IT was my birthday last week – no, don’t ask, because long ago I decided 39 was the perfect age, so stuck with it – and the following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with my eight-year-old grandson in London via the miracle of Skype.

Grandson (GS): ‘How old are you now, Grandpa Hugh?’

Me, teasingly: ‘How old do you think I am?’

GS: ‘Will you take me for a McDonald’s next time you’re here?’

Me: ‘Of course. I usually do when I’m visiting.’

GS: ‘Then you’re 22.’

Me, mildly bewildered, though flattered: ‘Twenty-two! Then how old is Mummy?’

GS: ‘Oh, at least 36.’

Me: ‘Hang on a mo’…if I’m Mummy’s daddy, how can she be older than me?’

GS: ‘Because she won’t take me to McDonald’s.’

Then there’s the Mallorcan grandson, aged six, who – apropos nothing in particular – demanded of his parents, ‘If you die, who’s going to feed me?’

This fixation with sustenance was also echoed by another London grandson, the four-year-old, who recently renamed himself Nemo and announced, ‘I’m never going to get married – I’m just going to get a cook.’

So, irrespective of how my grandkids are dispersed around the planet – three in London, including one who landed in November; another three in Luxemburg, the latest of whom hatched in October; and one here in Mallorca – all seem to be developing a survival instinct, based on naked self-interested, verging on misogyny in Nemo’s case.

Maybe that’s an inherent trait in us all and no bad thing, you might say, especially in today’s world of merciless cut and thrust.

It’s just that kids haven’t learned the niceties of make their feelings known without occasionally sounding artless and overstepping the fine, demarcation line between being endearingly cute and lippy, smart alecs.

ROLE REVERSAL: In the hit BBC sitcom, Outnumbered, the brats get respect, the parents just abuse

ROLE REVERSAL: In the hit BBC sitcom, Outnumbered, the brats kids get respect, the parents just abuse

For instance, I’m an avid watcher of the BBC1 sitcom, Outnumbered, in which two cringing schoolteachers are constantly ‘dissed’ by their three gobby offspring.

Though it’s amusing, I truly loathe the show’s characters, but still remain transfixed by the rampant anarchy of a household run by – and for the sole benefit of – obnoxious brats, where it’s impossible to determine who’s a parent and which is a kid.

In an unsubtle display of role reversal; the children get respect, the parents merely abuse.

Naturally, now, from the lofty vantage point of grandparenthood, it’s easy to identify our children’s parental fault-lines, while claiming in our day – tut, tut – we’d never countenance impertinence.

But we did, though it reflected the pre-gizmo times when the TV remote control was the ‘in’ thingummy, phones had dials and people called comptometer operators beavered away, generating rates bills in council offices.

Since we were post-WW2 Baby Boomers, we applied more liberalism to parenthood than our sterner mums and dads. No smacking – well, only when you were riled beyond reason – but gentle chiding and, in my case, verbal fisticuffs in which I always had the last punchline.

Once, in a hissy fit, my then sarky teenage daughter said to me, ‘I never asked to be born’ to which I retorted, ‘Yeah, and I’d have preferred a hamster.’

As parental put-downs go, it wasn’t bad, she later admitted. But the one that stuck in her mind was the note I once left on her pillow, saying: ‘Seeking refuge from the raging storm,  a troupe of wandering flamenco minstrels chanced upon your room today and, for reasons of personal safety, decided it was wiser to return to Spain.’

Apparently, though, my speciality in imposing order was a flaring of the nostrils, which petrified my children, plus hiding the remote control under the cat, while the telly was tuned to The Incredible Hulk. It figuratively froze the blood of my oldest son, then aged about five, who’d scurry off to bed and bury himself under the quilt.

But we all adapt differently to parenthood, which, short of going to war, is one of life’s greatest challenges. And, while I understand the self-indulgence of couples who opt to remain childless – and feel sorrow for those who dearly want kids, but can’t have them – nonetheless I think parenthood should be compulsory.

GRAND BEING GRANS: But as Baby Boomer parents was too much liberalism applied to child-rearing?

GRAND BEING GRANS: But as Baby Boomer parents was too much liberalism applied to child-rearing?

Because there’s no feeling like quite it…a meld of agony and ecstasy, when – as I told the son who only became a father in November – ‘for the first time in your life, someone’s come along who’s more important to you than you are.’

It’s no good trying to explain the emotional roller-coaster ride of being a mum or dad until you’ve been there. And, despite humungous piles of bumph written on the subject, no manual – not even the latest guide, H is for Hummus: A Modern Parent’s ABC – will help.

However, the book is an interesting intro to trendy phraseology: ‘A’ might still stand for Apple, but ‘B’ is for ‘Babycinno’ (a mini-cup of choc-sprinkled frothy milk given away free at Starbucks); ‘I’ is for ‘iPaddy’ (and related to ‘M’ for ‘Meltdown’), which occurs when an iPad is repossessed from a snarling tot; and ‘W’ means ‘Wine-time’, the moment after you’ve put the kids down and reach for liquid tranquiliser, having survived another day of their assault.

But probably the most important issue overlooked by most parents is the burgeoning cost of child rearing racked up over a 21-year stretch, which insurer LV’s Cradle to College report last week estimated to be £225,000/€270,000.

Excluding private education, this covers everything…from childcare, clothes, food and school necessities to spending money, toys, holidays, travel and furniture.

Which is why, each year on their birthdays, I pop a bill – headlined: ‘Services to Upbringing & General Maintenance’ – inside my kids’ cards. Calculated to the dates each finished uni, it averages at about £180,000/€216,000, plus accrued interest at a not unreasonable 3% per annum.

Have I received a penny back? Not a chance.

In my sons’ cases, the accounts are returned, unpaid, with Post It notes attached, saying, ‘No longer at this address.’

Meanwhile, my daughter continues to insist she never asked to be born and I continue to riposte I really wanted a hamster. They’re so much cuddlier and don’t answer back.

A taxing dilemma: How to squeeze the rich without panicking the rest of the nation…

TO hike tax or not to hike tax, that is the question. And – taking further liberties with The Bard’s Hamlet soliloquy – whether to do so is nobler in the mind, even if it means suffering the slings and arrows of an outraged electorate?

Clearly, in Britain, the Opposition’s big Eds – Miliband and Balls – believe picking the pockets of those with more spending oomph than what’s good for them is a risk worth taking. Besides, the whiffy rich are probably all Conservative voters (not the case, incidentally, as some of Labour’s mega-donors are billionaires).

Importantly, the rationale is the plebs will love it, just as Madame Defarge famously knitted and cackled, as French aristos arrived at the guillotine in Dickens’ Tales of Two Cities, only to exit several inches shorter (hey, whatever else, nobody can deny this column isn’t a minor tour de force in classical literature).

So Shadow Chancellor (Finance Minister) Balls says the top rate of income tax will rise from 45 to 50% for those grossing £150,000-plus come a  government of The People’s Party.

It was meant to have been his boss’s grand proclamation at next autumn’s party conference, as the wind-up to the 2015 General Election steamed nearer boiling point. But improving GDP, lower inflation and higher employment stats dulled the resonance of Miliband’s recent call to arms that the ‘squeezed middle’ and lower paid aren’t benefitting from the UK’s trajectory out of the economic gutter.

So, the tax card has been played now and it’s a clever ploy from the Red Eds. Never mind previous assertions of a ‘one-nation Britain’ – a quote Miliband shamelessly purloined from Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th Tory leader – this is pure divide-and-rule strategy.

The bet is it could woo back into the Labour fold those who deserted to the Liberal Democrats in protest at Tony Blair’s Iraq adventure, only to find they’d backed a bunch of political harlots. And even some lukewarm Tories, hammered by the ruling Coalition removing Child Benefit for families where a parent earns over £50,000, could register their disgruntlement by biting the hand that robbed them.

TAXING TIMES: High earners, grossing more than £150,000 a year, will be hit by Labour's ploy

TAXING TIMES: Earners grossing more than £150,000 a year  will be hit by Labour’s 5% tax-rise ploy that’s more politics than economics

Yet Gordon Brown’s lustre was hardly burnished when he inflicted the 50% rate on high earners, before transmuting from Iron Chancellor to jelly-wobbling Prime Minister, then disappearing into the Sahara of political obscurity, post the 2010 election fiasco.

The problem is – as the august Institute of Fiscal Studies pointed out – the five-percent hike isn’t likely to grab that much cash. And, with a bodyguard of lawyers and creative accountants to protect their assets, the really seriously affluent won’t bat an eyelid, because their lucre is parked in trusts or offshore tax shelters.

So, there’s no disguising what this gambit is all about – politics, not economics

Yes, there’s an incontrovertible moral case for the well-shod to shoulder their fair share of the nation’s burden. But most already do, with the top 1% of earners annually coughing up nearly £50-billion to the Treasury, which accounts for over 20% of the overall take.

Tax, though, is rather like taking a friend to the dentist to have his root canal filled, minus anaesthetic; it’s an unpleasant experience, but mitigated if someone else’s suffering is all the more painful.

Yet none of us escape its clutches, either directly via income tax or pernicious ‘sales’ duties, like those levied across the European Union under different acronyms – in Spain it’s IVA, in France TVA, in Scandinavia the cuddly-sounding but detested Moms and Britain has Value Added Tax/VAT, though where the ‘value added’ is remains shrouded in mystery.

To me, income tax always seemed the fairest imposition, because it’s based on earnings and graduated. In contrast, whatever their quirky handles, catch-all ‘sales’ taxes aren’t, since they don’t discriminate between rich and poor, and impact harder on the have-nots than the haves.

However, the key to making tax work is setting a rate that’s equitable. Because, illogical though it may seem, the higher it is, the less the state’s overall gain.

EDS YOU WIN? Miliband and Balls have played the tax-hike card, but whether it brings them victory in the 2015 election is another matter

EDS YOU WIN? Miliband and Balls have played the tax-hike card in a bid for victory in the 2015 UK General Election

For instance, in the 1920s, under President Calvin Coolidge,  the top rate of US income tax was cut from 73 to 25% – yet the amount of cash flowing to the Treasury went up, the economy boomed, GDP soared by an average of 4.7% and unemployment fell to just 3.2%.

And a pet anecdote of mine further underscores this apparent contradiction: On assignment in Sicily some years back, I was imbibing a few flaming Sambucas with a clutch of local scribes and we got around to discussing which of our nations squeezed us most.

I thought it was Britain, until one of the Italians piped up, insisting, ‘No, is-a Italia. ‘Ere is 80% – dat’s-a why nobody pay-a tax!’

When he’s not playing musical beds, President Francois Hollande is discovering a similar scenario erupting in France, after raising top-level taxation to a swingeing 75%, only to find the country’s coffers fell 2.7-billion euros short of expectations.

‘Ill-thought-out taxes, from sales tax to heavier social fees, push people toward the informal economy,’ explained economist Samuel-Frederic Serviere.

So, not only are fewer French paying – some fled the country, actor Gerard Depardieu even decamping to Russia – the ‘black’ economy is booming, last year up by 10.2%.

Ditto Spain, where taxation impacting on the self-employed is so punitive there’s no incentive for wannabe entrepreneurs to open small businesses. Instead, as in France, the illegal sector expands, in Spain’s case to 19%.

So the question remains of how best tax can be used to pump-prime a declining economy and foster enterprise – which creates more jobs, thus more tax-payers, and reduces benefit dependency – even if the post-tax, take-home pay of some CEOs is panned as obscene by hard-pressed workers.

By playing the tax card, Labour is pandering to that naked popularism and we’ll see if it charms the voters in the General Election of May next year.

The People’s Party track record, however, isn’t inspiring, especially with Balls still remembered as Brown’s chief bully boy, who helped tax and spend Britain into the sick bed of Europe.

Another downside for the Red Eds is the general public’s edginess at any mention of tax hikes, even if Britain’s rich are due to be first in line for the squeeze.

Who, perhaps they might wonder, is next in the queue to get clobbered, especially from a party where raising taxes is ingrained in its DNA?