Inside the system
WHY ARE there so many holes in the roads and pavements? Do you curse your local council? Well, it seems privatisation is really to blame. Endless roadworks are the fault of the growing numbers of private utilities and cable companies. The number of utility firms with a licence to rip the roads up has grown to 138. There are more than 30 in London-three times the number ten years ago. Under the 1991 New Roads and Street Works Act, gas, electricity, water and telecom companies were given Department of Trade and Industry licences to dig the roads up at will. They are supposed to give local authorities 28 days notice of work except in emergencies, but they decide what is an emergency.
Roger Kharma is the highways adviser to the London councils. He says, "The problem is that the utility firms are incredibly powerful, and once they have a licence they have no financial incentive to complete the work quickly, or at a time convenient to road users. "It is one of the great myths that local councils have any power to coordinate the bulk of the utility work. They [the utilities] inform us overnight what they are planning to do, often claiming it is an emergency or a commercial necessity. We are powerless to stop most of them." The government has now announced new measures to fine utility companies �500 a day if they fail to complete work on time. But, as Roger Kharma says, "it is a struggle to keep up with the utility firms' work. We would be chasing ghosts." $ Choc theft jail
A MAN in the US has been jailed for 16 years for stealing a Snickers bar. A court in Texas told Kenneth Payne that if he had stolen a Milky Way he would have got off. Payne has other convictions for shoplifting so prosecutors decided to change the charge from shoplifting to felony, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. The assistant district attorney said the charge was raised because "Payne needed to be taught a lesson. The Snickers was kingsize. If it had been a Milky Way we probably wouldn't have tried him." $ THE children of police officers and prison staff are the most disruptive in school. That is the opinion of John Dunfold, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. He says the children's "authoritarian" upbringing is to blame: "Attitudes which prison officers and policemen have in their jobs-which are very authoritarian jobs with hierarchical structures-if replicated in the home, can set up some quite severe tensions between parents and their children. Sometimes that means that the children are unduly quiet, but often it can mean they are noisy and disruptive." $ Excuses depleted
THE government now admits NATO used depleted uranium ammunition during the bombing of the Balkans last year, something it covered up during the war itself. In a written response to a question from MP Alice Mahon, who opposed the bombing, a junior minister says depleted uranium was used in "an area west of the Pec-Dakovica-Prizren highway, in the area surrounding Klina, in the area around Prizren, and in an area to the north of a line joining Suva Reka and Urosevac".
The environment minister, Lord Bassam, was being tough on beggars in the House of Lords recently. He declared, "Begging is a prosecutable offence. A person convicted may be sentenced to a fine of �1,000." But quick as a flash the Countess of Mar, of all people, asked, "What is the purpose of fining a beggar?" "A good question," replied Bassam. $ 'Sorry boss, I can't hear you'
DO YOU hate mobile phones? Maybe they are more of an aid to workers than you think. The Institute of Personnel Development complains that mobile phones are giving too many workers more chance to skive off. It seems that some phones just "break up" whenever the office is calling, and then the pager does not go off when the office is calling. Other good ideas they don't like are surfing the net for your own purposes, playing computer games and spending hours "fixing the photocopier". Surely these are all part of acting as "flexible labour", as the government is always urging?
Black day for union
CONRAD BLACK, the international media magnate who owns the Daily Telegraph, is busting trade unions at his newspapers in Canada. Workers at the Calgary Herald have been on strike for over four months as a result, and Black is bringing scabs in to get the paper out. Celebrated playwright Dave Fennario was also fired from his job as a columnist for another of Black's Canadian papers. His crimes as a columnist were to defend strikers, attack NATO's bombing of Kosovo and criticise former US president John F Kennedy.