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At the risk of being branded ... something. Alan Bennett's

diary from last year. Alan Bennett is a playwrite (The Madness of King George) and author and former member of Beyond the Fringe, a touch-stone for me in comic and satiric presentation.

" 8 April. The morning spent paying bills: British Gas (and electricity), Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, Camden Council, Craven District Council and Mr Redhead the coal merchant in Ingleton. Many of the bills are overdue, about which I am unrepentant. The only one I pay promptly and with no feeling of resentment is Mr Redhead's.

" It wasn't always so. Before the public utilities were privatised one paid bills more readily, not just because they were considerably cheaper, which of course they were, but because one had little sense of being exploited. Now as I pay my water bills for instance, I think of their overpaid executives and the shareholders to whom the profits go and I know, despite the assurances of all such companies, that they are charging what they know they can get away with. Competition has not meant better service nor has it brought down prices, with some corporate behaviour close to sharp practice. British Gas, for instance, regularly omits to send me a first bill but only a reminder, which has no details about consumption. When challenged they say this may be because bills have been sent online. But how can this be when we have no computer? If one telephones and manages eventually to get through one is dealt with by someone always charming and even-tempered (and often Scots) who promises to look into it. But when in due course the bill comes again it is still with no details and coupled with threats of court action. So whereas once upon a time I paid my bills as Auden said a gentleman should, as soon as they were submitted, these days I put them off, paying sometimes only at the third or fourth time of asking or when I am assured (rhetorically, I know) that the bailiffs are about to call. I am no crusader but I wish there was a consumers' organisation which could co-ordinate individual resistance to these companies, setting up non or late payment on such a scale that it would put a dent in the dividends of the shareholders and the salaries of the executives concerned.

" This was written a few hours before I learned of Lady Thatcher's death and it's an appropriate epitaph."

It is also a very clear commentary on the failings of the only acceptable economic system we are permitted to talk about, and the unexamined myths that surround it.

"Competition lowers costs" except of course that the breaking up of Ma Bell didn't all those years ago, and the Privatizing of Utilities in Britain has led to gouging on a Herculean scale.

Rob

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