Fundamental rights and quite nice ideas; it's a fare cop on Le Shuttle; how to curb the over-pushy lenders; my crash course in decor... Evan Davis at large.
It's been hard to escape the debate over the European Union's new constitution. But has anyone noticed the odd style of European legislative drafting? I refer to the Charter of Fundamental Rights that might be tacked on to the constitution, bestowing on us those freedoms so familiar from the French and American constitutions.
Article 1 of the charter says: 'Human dignity is inviolable.' Article 2 says: 'Everyone has the right to life.' Article 5: 'No-one shall be held in slavery or servitude.' So far, so good. But the charter gets more prosaic as it goes on. Article 14 says: 'Everyone has the right to education and to have access to vocational and continuing training.' Vocational training? Isn't that a little specific for a document that also insists: 'Everyone shall be equal before the law'? It's as though the unfettered thinking of the founding fathers has had a head-on confrontation with some mid-level EU bureaucrat, mixing up fundamental rights with good public policy.
Take Article 29, 'Everyone has the right of access to a free placement service.' Coming after 'everyone has the right to life', a free placement service doesn't have quite the same ring. This isn't a fundamental right - it's just a good idea. And finally, what about the provision that talks of a right to free compulsory education? How can something compulsory be a right? I think some decent sub-editors are called for.
Holiday season again, and maybe you are about to take a car across the channel for a trip to the continent. If so, you may hear the phrase 'ticket abuse' while you're on the ferry ticket sales line. What can it mean?
Ticket abuse is a big issue for cross-channel operators. The problem arises from their wacky fare structures. For example, a day return through the tunnel costs only pounds 15. A single, on the other hand, costs pounds 155. I understand why Le Shuttle has this kind of pricing. If it charged everyone pounds 155, the trains would be half-empty and it wouldn't make money; but if it charged everyone pounds 15, the trains would be crammed but they still wouldn't make money. So they charge the less price-sensitive customers a high price and give cheap prices to discount customers. It's a similar story on the ferries. But although the operators may be justified in setting these varying fares, it's hard to see how they enforce their price discrimination.
'Why does anyone buy the single?' I asked the nice woman at the call centre. If you buy the return but fail to use the return leg, she explained, they go after your credit card for the full single fare. This seemed unlikely, so I asked Eurotunnel's press office. In fact, if they detect ticket abuse, they write a warning letter to the abuser. Only repeat offenders are chased; single instances of abuse will probably go unpunished.
It's forgivable for the salespeople to exaggerate the threat of detection and punishment - they have to dissuade people from misbehaving. But the exotic world of cross-channel ticket prices is every bit as entertaining as the sights of France and Holland.
The advertising of credit is almost out of control. The daily pile of direct mail shots are as irritating as e-mail spam, and the ads that fill Sky's daytime television schedule are no less annoying. Credit is marketed either to the likes of MT readers, who have access to more credit than they can use; or to people who can ill afford it, with tempting slogans about how you can consolidate debt, afford a new car or a holiday, all with a phone call.
It's destabilising to the economy that, in the upswing, credit is pushed so extensively, while in the downswing the ads disappear as lenders decide in unison that the loan business is too risky. So what do we do about it?
I believe banning or regulating the marketing of credit is a bit draconian. Instead, let's have a code of conduct to limit advertising, and give firms that breach it more limited rights to enforce debt repayment than their more responsible rivals.
There's nothing like the prospect that borrowers don't have to repay their debts to make lenders more careful.
I recently visited the offices of TRL Ltd, formerly the Transport Research Laboratory, which employs 500 people to research everything from car emissions to road surfaces in a huge campus in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Walking the corridors, I had a minor moment of disquiet as I noticed the pictures on the walls. Could they not have thought of a nicer way of decorating the office than exhibiting photos of motorbike accidents and crash test dummies?