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20151023 Charity begins at home - not. And other short stories.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

After a few days in the UK, I'm back in Kuala Lumpur. It's been an interesting trip.

First, there was the immense contrast between service levels of different airlines.

I've written before about how a Middle Eastern airline decided to cancel the already issued boarding passes of about a dozen transit passengers when an inbound flight was slightly delayed, presuming that they would not make it to the gate on time: in fact, despite mis-information and staff-created delays and no help from airline or airport, we all did but the airline refused us boarding and stranded us for 8 hours. I've not named them here because they have resolved my own case to my satisfaction. I have no idea how others got on with any complaints they may have made.

Contrast that with Cathay Pacific: after being pushed back at KLIA, the Boeing B777 returned to the gate because the toilets were not working properly. That much I knew - the stench was awful, even while we were boarding. I hate flying on Boeings: aside from the noise and the things shaking like they are falling to pieces, the seats are arse-bruisingly uncomfortable and, on the B777 at least, some idiot with a totalitarian mindset dispensed with individual air vents so that all passengers are subjected to the same temperature which, inevitably, is either too hot or too cold for many. Those who are cold can load up with blankets. Those, like me, who have a naturally high body temperature, can do nothing to cool down.

Anyway, that's not the point of the story: it's that we arrived in Hong Kong more than an hour late and that left insufficient time for me to make it to my connecting flight by any normal means. In fact, I had only 15 minutes But this is an airline for which service is the number one priority: I was met at the gate, introduced to a young woman who has but one job: to rush delayed passengers to their connecting flights. And rush we did: we didn't actually hurdle over entry gates in the style of movies, but we used staff and VIP channels, even jumping queues in those lanes. She didn't have a horn to honk when people didn't get out of the way as we used travellators to boost our walking speed, but she found that I did. Sort of. Booming "excuse me," I cleared the way like an auditory snowplough.

I arrived at the gate, was introduced to the boarding clerk at the business check-in, despite being on an economy ticket, and boarded, incredibly, not quite last. The young woman had turned and shot off before I had chance to thank her, waving acknowledgement that she had heard me as she raced off to solve someone else's problem.

It's hard to find a bad word to say about CX: always a class leader, always looking, on a minute by minute basis, to see how they can make each customer's journey better, even to the point of using premium check in desks to prevent queues building at economy and decent food. Usually, in fact, there is only one thing that's not quite up to scratch, it's the low-lactose meals. I was absent minded and on auto-pilot made the selection. CX is a Chinese airline and so the Chinese food is, almost by definition, non-lactose. So on two legs I had variations of the same pretty dire fried potatoes and mushrooms, instead of eating congee on one and chicken on the other, both of which are perfectly safe for me, and on one leg I was served two courses, of the same meal, as the same or very similar fruit salad. My mistake but CX really should get someone to check the quality of the special meals, as ironically, it is likely to be that rather than the overall excellence that people remember. Or just give us one of the standard meals and leave any butter, cheese or yoghurt in the galley!

Again, great service from Enterprise Car Rental in Ashford where I'm a regular customer : they collect me from my father's house to start the hire and drop me off again when it ends. It's a service available to all. I asked them to pick me up in the car I had booked so as to make sure my elderly father could get his head in (designers have raked windscreens so far in the pursuit of aerodynamics that people who are no longer bendy have trouble getting in and out). They turned up with a bigger car having decided to give me a free upgrade so as to make sure he could get in without difficulty.

But, oh, VW. Your Blue Motion Golf is a great car but has a couple of fundamental flaws: the gap from 3rd to 4th is too tall so on hilly, winding roads, constant gear changing is necessary and with a notchy gear box, slipping from 4th to 2nd happened far too often. And that electronic handbrake? Nah. It's a gadget too far. I want to feel the tension in the handbrake with one hand while I'm balancing the throttle with one foot and the clutch with the other when I'm in traffic, on a hill, at traffic lights. I just don't trust an electronic brain to interface with my brain. I'm an old-fashioned seat of the pants driver and I really don't want electronics programmed by a dodgy German car company making decisions that I might have to defend in Court if the car runs away. "The car rolled back because the handbrake was off before I found the bite point" countered by the company which, to avoid a rash of claims, would have to join in my action as a third party, saying "It cannot happen. It must be operator error. Our programmers are first class." Yep, they can even hide software designed to produce fraudulent emissions data so they are obviously clever. And dishonest. And aside from that, all that slippery design at the front is wasted because, as the rain attaching itself to the rear window shows, you've totally stuffed up the airflow off the back of the car: with good design, the airflow lifts the crap off the rear screen, not attracts it and holds it in place. Really, someone has really slipped up with this model.

I came into (indirect) contact with the UK's tax office: their treatment of visiting shoppers is a disgrace. Tourists can reclaim VAT on purchases, right? It's 20% so it's a big slice of the headline price. The answer, it turns out is yes, but no. The system is convoluted and stacked against the visitor. First, you have to know, before you buy anything, that you have to ask for a special VAT receipt that includes a VAT reclaim form. But only retailers that are signed up to a special scheme can issue reclaim forms. So before you buy, you have to make sure that the retailer is part of the scheme. There are window stickers but they are not conclusive and, in any case, who has time to look in all the windows of a department store to find out if they have a small sticker in one corner?

Fascinatingly, the reclaim form is rarely issued at the till at the time of payment. To get the receipt, one has to go to a "customer service" desk. Every time I see that I am puzzled: aside from the dubious grammar, surely the purpose of a retail outlet is to provide customers with service at all points in the shop, not only at a desk where everyone who has any query about any product or service shows up. So, customers wanting to reclaim VAT find themselves in a queue while people argue about refunds, defects, even apply for store cards and loyalty cards. For anything other than substantial purchases where the VAT reclaim is a significant sum, there is a huge disincentive to bother collecting the form. Also, some companies apply a minimum spending limit. In the case of John Lewis, it's GBP75 including VAT.

Worse, for those that prefer to shop online, while combination retailers like Tesco and John Lewis, which have both shops and internet sales, are allowed to operate the VAT reclaim scheme, pure on-line businesses such as Amazon.com and those businesses that use the Amazon platform for sales are not allowed to be part of the scheme.

So, had I bought my new Magimix food processor by telephone order from John Lewis, a VAT reclaim form could have been issued, resulting in a tax saving exceeding GBP50. But I didn't: I was doing a bulk shop on Amazon and added it to the order. So no VAT refund was allowed.

Worse, for those that do have their paperwork in order, they find out at the airport that, unlike most other countries, VAT refunds are not handled by Customs. It's contracted out to a third party which, of course, needs to pay for its premises and staff and to make a profit. Therefore the amount which is actually refunded is less than the VAT paid. For those with only "normal" receipts, the result is to be sent away. This is ironic in the extreme because those "normal" receipts are accepted by HM Revenue and Customs for VAT claims by VAT registered businesses.

Some people blame Travelex for this mess and for the cost but that is entirely unfair: Travelex simply apply the rules set by Customs and the lead reclaim agencies such as "Global Refund" - who also have their noses in the trough.

The UK is by no means the only country to have retailer registration nor is it the only one to have a convoluted system. But as a highly developed first world country, it is embarrassingly old fashioned and time consuming, to say nothing of unduly discriminatory against those who shop outside the prime tourist districts of large cities.

Contrast that with my treatment at Malaysian Customs: I went to declare the food processor, producing the invoice. I explained that, because of the UK rules, I had not been able to reclaim the VAT on departure. Malaysian customs calculated the nett price of the product, then deducted the tax I had already paid and calculated the import duty on that price. I thought it was an incorrect calculation - but after it was explained to me, it made sense. There was no delay, no argument, just rapid, fair treatment, as I get every time I come home to KL with goods to declare.

The speed of getting through airports is important. On departure, I sat in my living room in central KL drinking coffee. I used MyTeksi (Grab) to book a car. It was two minutes away. I immediately washed my coffee cup and went downstairs, the lift being unusually co-operative and arriving immediately. The car was waiting. He drove me to the station, where a train was waiting. That took me to the airport where my pre-printed boarding pass whisked me through, customs / security scanning and immigration had no queues. I was at the gate less than an hour after making the taxi booking.

Contrast that with LHR: travelling with hand luggage only it took me more than an hour to get from the plane to the car on arrival at Heathrow.

With time to kill in KLIA, I went to what has been, in my extensive experience, the best Burger King in the whole world for at least a decade. What have they done? In the few weeks since my last visit, the food has gone from outstanding to disgraceful. Cold, greasy, overcooked burger with gristle in it, flaccid chips and an almost stale bun. How does that happen? From treat to dustbin in four or five mouthfuls. And a "never again," flag.

There was one more thing about the trip that confused me: London Heathrow has long been an absolute nightmare for security, especially the dismal Terminal 3. It's had some work done and the facelift has made it less dreary but the idea of flying out through it, with its long queues and jobsworth security team, fills me with dread. I get there expecting trouble. What has happened? For the first time in years, the queue for the scanners moved freely, there was no demand for the removal of shoes and boots, staff were efficient and friendly. It was a revelation and a very pleasant one at that.

I came through security and straight out into the shopping area. Here's why I am confused: the UK is making a lot of fuss about (mainly) young people travelling to various parts of the Middle East, especially Syria, where they join so-called Jihadist groups. It is said that they wish to prevent such travel. Yet at no point did I have to present my passport to immigration. Visible security is a significant deterrent. I don't want more queues and delays, but I do want to know that the identity of the person next to me has been verified by an immigration officer. It's not only UK citizens that don't go through a formal passport check - it's everyone. How, then, do non-EU citizens get cancellation stamps on their passports, a stamp that, in absence, may confuse immigration officers in other countries?

Given the vast numbers of people arriving in Europe from Syria, it has to be assumed that at least some are radicalised or violent Jihadists. The failure to contain the movement of these people, who are by definition criminals having breached border controls, at borders and return them to their point of departure is a disgrace which can only backfire on Europe. There is a growing view that the UK's in/out referendum in relation to membership of the EU will, regardless of the agenda politicians and their media pals choose, be heavily influenced by those who now fear unrestrained migration into the UK from within the EU of those granted permission to stay by another EU state. Figures show that in the past year, intra-EU migration into the UK has increased to 330,000. These have not been coming to waiting jobs. Worse, that is only legal migration. Let's put that figure into perspective: it is almost exactly equal to the number of Jews living in the UK according to the Council of British Jewry. And the UK has had Jews since before Christ. No one knows how large the illegal migration problem is. But one thing is for sure: a massive rapid cultural shift is going to lead to trouble.

There is one last thing that rankled during my trip. I don't use Starbucks because I deplore their corporate policies: over the years, I have read and witnessed their treatment of coffee farmers, profiteering from customers, tax avoidance policies and abuse of franchisees which all turn it into a company I do not want to do business with. Those who know me know I'm a coffee freak but I'll suck on a stone rather than put a penny into the Starbuck's machine. Some years ago, after they were caught out in dubious practices relating to coffee growers, Starbucks did a volte face and developed what it calls "ethically sourced" coffee. It is proud of its conduct. But it's highly selective. At home, English diary farmers are closing down, committing suicide, being bounced off their land as business financing falls short and their stock, equipment, land and homes are sold to repay debt. Why? Because the amount paid to English farmers is significantly less than the cost of production. Why? Because large scale purchasers negotiate bulk deals with a national co-operative that pays farmers on a take it or leave it basis. Starbucks, and others, need to start paying English farmers ethical amounts for their milk. It's not charity, it's sustainable supply chain management. And just as it's important to pay the world's coffee farmers an amount that provides them with a living and a return on capital, so they should for milk. Oh, and they really should pay taxes on their profits, leaving royalty and other IP payments out of account.

So there you are. If you've been wondering why I've been quiet for a week or so, now you know.

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