BOOK REVIEW: BLAIR INC. The Man Behind The Mask

by SIMON BAIN


We part with convention here on the blog by publishing a fascinating review of a new book about Tony Blair, written by Simon Bain, personal finance editor at the Herald newspaper. Read on to discover what the former prime minister has REALLY been up to since leaving office…

BLAIR INC. The Man Behind The Mask

Francis Beckett, David Hencke, Nick Kochan. John Blake Publishing |£20.

When Tony Blair left Downing Street in June 2007, he told Time magazine that the Tony Blair Faith Foundation was “how I want to spend the rest of my life”.

His seven-strong personal PR team claims the former PM spends “two-thirds” of his time in “pro bono” work, and that his commercial activities fund his philanthropy.

Now Blair Inc., a dogged journalistic investigation into the 10-year Premier’s extraordinarily lucrative after-life, has uncovered an altogether more complex and disturbing picture.

It had to battle a “huge communications department aimed at not publishing anything” , a subject “who instructs his employees and adherents to give no assistance at all to so disrespectful a project”, and fear induced by 20-page employee secrecy agreements.

As former Prime Minister, Blair takes a pension of £64,000, an office subsidy of £84,000 and security protection which costs the taxpayer £250,000. Is it uncharitable to suggest that a man who donated his £4.6m autobiography advance to a service charity (I wonder why), and who may be worth as much as £60m, might perhaps be able to afford to pay for his own security?

But he probably needs it. Although one of his mentors Bill Clinton popped up in Edinburgh two years ago to address the Scottish Business Awards, Mr Blair’s globetrotting private jet itinerary seems unlikely to take in the country where he was brought up and educated (at Fettes College In Edinburgh) anytime soon.

Tony Blair

Aside from fearing a ‘blood on your hands’ Iraq protest, any UK charity event might expect Mr Blair’s fee to go – as Mr Clinton’s £200,000  fee did that night – straight to his African charity. The Clinton Foundation is in partnership with Scottish entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter to fund projects in Africa which government aid never reaches. But while Mr Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative also does some worthy work, it operates under the same secrecy blanket that covers the whole TB empire. Like the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, its donors are unknown. Do the charities benefit from Mr Blair’s eye-watering speaking fees, and the monster consultancy contracts won by Tony Blair Associates? If so, to what extent?

Neither TBA nor the “entirely separate” charities disclose any such information. They say it’s all above board with the Charity Commission – which has found it necessary to investigate the relationships with Blair’s commercial interests.

But while the Africa Governance Initiative says its aim is to bring “British standards of governance” to Africa, there is a rich irony in that Mr Blair’s own interests are said (by specialist academic Dr Nicholas Allen of University of London) to be in probable breach of six of the seven Nolan principles – the ethical code for public life introduced when Blair himself was PM.

Of course, Blair’s interests are not subject to the Nolan test – or any other code. Officially, he’s just a businessman.

“When Blair left government, he sought to build a global consultancy not unlike the government he had left. He turned himself into an international outsourcing company,” the authors say.

But when he left Downing Street eight years ago, in high dudgeon at the Labour Party having dispensed with him, the fallen idol couldn’t resist taking a high-profile public role as well. He wanted to become President of the EU, but that would have to wait, so he settled for Quartet Representative (QR) in the Middle East. That is supposed to mean “peace envoy” in the region for the US, EU, Russia and the UN.

“I think he does it because he likes to continue to feel like an international statesman and not just a businessman,” says former Tory foreign minister Malcolm Rifkind (recently revealed to be not averse to a bit of paid-for diplomacy).

Critics, including former Labour colleague Lord Hollick, say his agenda of economic investment for the Palestinians is doomed to fail as peace and stability must come first. The authors say: “There is nothing exciting about bus routes, Gaza border openings and security barriers in the West Bank. But this is what being the Quartet negotiator was mean to be about. It is a job to which Blair, with his once over lightly, butterfly approach to diplomacy, was entirely unsuited.”

They go on: “The fact is that it is not peace but money – both real money and pretend money – that is at the heart of what TB does in the Middle East. And that makes it all a chimera because private sector money is not going to flow into Palestine without real political progress towards peace.”

Tony Blair

If Blair had, like his predecessor James Wolfensohn, devoted himself to the job and achieved something reminiscent of his Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland,“it would be enough for most of us to say, well done Tony”.

But in reality the unpaid envoy’s “one week a month” in the conflict zone typically amounts to “arriving on Monday evening and leaving on Thursday morning”, according to one diplomat. More importantly, he is not trusted by the Palestinians – partly because the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is known to have major donors such as fiercely pro-Israeli lobbyist Saim Haban, one of the billionaire “old chums” who help to fund the Blair empire’s activities. “For the Quartet Representative to be so deeply indebted to Saban, even though wearing another hat, is a serious problem,” the authors say.

But the role enabled Blair to step straight into the role of shadow statesman and fantasy head of state. He turned his two principal homes into clones of number 10 and Chequers, and used two-way recruitment links with two secretive specialist agencies to maximise an international network for his own, private, diplomatic consultancy. 

While his QR effort has arguably borne little fruit, his frequent visits to the Gulf states have been highly productive for his principal business, Tony Blair Associates.

Even the African charity offers “the chance to make contact with and attract the adulation and acclaim of African leaders”, the authors suggest. They do cite one example of Gulf state investment into Guinea, possibly brokered by Mr Blair, while a Blair supporter says he has unlocked some investment for the Palestinians from previously indifferent Gulf states. But which hat he was wearing at the time nobody knows, and all inquiries about the Quartet go straight to Blair’s personal press office.

The envoy can use the Quartet job as a “calling card”, yet is bound by no code of conduct. If he worked for the World Bank, IMF or UN he would have to set out in full all commercial interests – as he would by taking a seat in the House of Lords, to which he is entitled.

In Kuwait, Mr Blair’s introduction to the Emir in 2009 as Quartet Representative, when he was accompanied only by his strictly personal adviser Jonathan Powell, was quickly followed by a consultancy contract for TBA said to be worth £27m , but not disclosed until 2010. At the same time, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments revealed a TBA contract to advise a consortium involved in an Iraqi oilfield. Mr Blair is a regular caller in Abu Dhabi, where he also has a government contract, and the authors ask: “Which Tony Blair keeps visiting Abu Dhabi?” Of peace envoy, charity patron, and consultancy principal “it generally seems to be the last-named who benefits most”, they suggest.

An opaque web of 12 legal entities – all under Mr Blair’s control – hides everything, including speaking fees said by one charity to “start at £500,000” .

In Qatar, one of the book’s sources alleges, he earned “$5m for one meeting”.

Tony Blair Associates’ known clients, with guesstimates of deal value, include the Emir of Kuwait (£27m) Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (£1m a year) the President of Kazakhstan (£8m a year), US investment bank JP Morgan ($4m a year),  UI Energy which bought the oilfields in Iraq, and LVMH, run by the world’s fourth richest man Bernard Arnault and another old chum.

How does he rake in so much?

US billionaire and “former chum” Tim Collins says Blair’s $4m a year from JPMorgan is for “opening doors… the idea he is giving advice to anyone seems to me a stretch”.

The authors say: “When governments call on Blair they want not only the man but his contacts. This partly explains the eyewatering amounts corporates and wealthy individuals will pay for the Blair mystique…the fact that Blair does little more than pick up the phone to a contact he has recruited through a consultancy never reaches the ears of a deep-pocket who wants a call made or a back scratched”.

The most disturbing dimension of this investigation is the shadowy links forged by Blair with such non-New Labour regimes as Libya under Gaddafi, Qatar, Rwanda, Burma and Azerbaijan. The authors pay particular attention to the human rights records of these autocratic clients, or potential clients, of TBA and suggest that while the spin is all about helping these nations to progress, the reality tends to amount to “burnishing a dictator’s image”.

Blair held six private meetings with Gaddafi before his downfall, and his protégés Baroness Symons and former minister Stephen Byers were active in Gaddafi’s defence right up to his toppling.

In Azerbaijan Blair is reported to have made speeches at £100,000 a throw for politicians who are close to President Aliyev – the man whose 2013 election win was announced before the votes were counted.

Two days before the Scottish referendum, Tony Blair piped up for the Union. But while every other concerned politician was on the stump in Scotland, Blair pontificated from Crimea, where he was guest of Victor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine’s three principal oligarchs and the 255th richest man in the world. Just another of the globetrotting plutocrats – Pinchuk has a mansion in Kensington – who helps to boost the balance sheet of Blair Inc. (Talking of pontiffs, Blair is said to be well out of favour at the Vatican since he took to advising Pope Benedict on doctrinal matters.)

Private consultancies can earn fortunes from advising dubious regimes round the world and keep it nice and quiet. But TBA is different – it is Blair’s.

His corporate empire employs 200 and may have earned £54m in 2013. Tony and Cherie own 36 properties, including five overseas and two blocks of flats, and they could be worth £60m.

James Wolfensohn, who really did dedicate himself to the Quartet job, says discreetly of Blair: “He has helped especially bankers and their clients who want to see the rulers or their leaders. It has allowed him to be very well compensated.That is fair game and that is what a lot of former politicians and leaders do.”

But while Mr Clinton’s wealth is (at present) even greater, and John Major and Margaret Thatcher both took hugely-paid directorships with controversial US companies, all three are relatively untainted. The Daily Telegraph says that’s because Blair is a ‘human cash register’ compared with the feeble efforts of his predecessors – the first Labour Prime Minister Attlee left £7,295 in his Will.

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women raises a record amount of money and discloses support from American banks.

“Nothing is too grand for the Blairs,” say the authors, who boggle at the couple’s pursuit of money. Cherie suffered severe financial insecurity as a child, they note. “Blair too suffered some childhood insecurity though not as great…how far do these personal factors explain their apparent need to build wealth way beyond their needs? And to what extent is it due to the fact that Blair admires, and is dazzled by, the very rich?”

The FT has suggested that these days it becomes part of the job at an early stage because “most leaders link up with the plutocratic class while still in office”.

Blair certainly tilled the ground well, and is now reaping the harvest. What else he may reap, this founder of a faith foundation and opinionated Roman Catholic, is perhaps not one for the economists, but for the theologians.

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PENSION FREEDOMS: Can we open up pension pots to help first-time buyers?

I’ve been talking about some new research from now: pensions on local radio stations all over the country today. the findings are controversial and should reinvigorate the debate on how to get young people thinking about their future. so what’s the report all about and why is it important?

Iona Bain

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Iona in the studio with Amy Mankelow from NOW: Pensions

· With so many demands on young people’s finances, it’s not surprising that pensions can fall down the priority list

· Auto enrolment will help get more young people into the savings habit but more needs to be done to really incentivise young people to save

· The research shows allowing pensions to be used to help fund a deposit for a first home would help encourage young people to save into a pension

· Come 6 April, older generations will be afforded considerable flexibility in how they access their pension savings

· This is a major shake up to the UK pensions system and fundamentally changes the nature of pension saving

· It could make a BIG difference if some of the flexibility being afforded to older people is extended to younger generations to encourage them to save into pensions

· One of the things which deters people from pension saving is that it’s locked away for a long time

· By increasing flexibility you can build young people’s interest in pensions and also help give them a much needed hand onto the housing ladder

· A similar scheme, the “KiwiSaver” scheme was introduced in New Zealand in 2006 and has been hugely successful

How does it work in New Zealand?

· In New Zealand the first home subsidy already exists as part of the government’s KiwiSaver auto enrolment initiative

· After 3 years of contributing to KiwiSaver, savers can apply for the first home subsidy

· The first home deposit subsidy is $1,000 (£500) for each year you’ve been contributing to KiwiSaver, up to a maximum of $5,000 (£2,500) for five years.

· For couples buying a house together, the combined subsidy could be $10,000 (£5,000).

· The subsidy is paid directly to the buyer’s solicitor on the day the purchase of the property is settled.

How many 18-35 year olds are saving for retirement?

· The research NOW: Pensions conducted shows that over half (58%) of 18-35 year olds aren’t currently saving into a workplace pension (65% of 18-25 year olds and 53% of 26-35 year olds)

· Over time, this percentage should increase as auto enrolment is being introduced which means that anyone over the age of 22 and earning more than £10,000 a year will be automatically put into a company pension scheme without them having to do anything which is good news

· So far it seems that when young people are auto enrolled, they are choosing to stay in the pension schemes rather than opting out which shows that young people understand the importance of long term saving but saving can be challenging

Why are young people not actively saving for their future?

· The main reason generation Y give for side-stepping pension saving is that they are prioritising saving elsewhere (cited by 43%)

· A quarter (25%) say that they simply don’t have enough money left at the end of the month

· For 14% of those surveyed, their debt is too much of a burden to justify saving

What are the implications of this?

· As a result, nearly two thirds (61%) say they are concerned or very concerned that they won’t have enough money when they retire

· At the moment, the State Pension is around £113.10 per week (not very generous)

· The new single tier state pension will be £144 when its introduced in April 2016

· At this level, the State Pension will still only provide a modest income and it’s important to remember that you are only eligible to receive the state pension if you have paid National Insurance for 35 years

How can we encourage or incentivise young people to start saving towards a pension?

· Over half (54%) of young people say they would start saving or would save more if they could access some of the money to help fund a deposit for their first home

· While four in ten (42%) would start putting money aside if a kick start payment was offered by the government

· One in four (25%) say being able to access savings during times of financial hardship or when facing serious illness would encourage them to save or save more into a workplace pension.

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Making pensions matter to Generation Y: my blog for Pensions Insight

Pensions Insight

By Iona Bain

As a young financial journalist, I am constantly asked the same question; how can we persuade Generation Y to save into a pension?

We’re all living longer but with no guarantee that the state can afford to pay us generous benefits towards the end of our lives.  A charm offensive is now afoot – the financial sector is desperate to persuade us youngsters to put more into our retirement funds, knowing all too well that minimum contribution rates will be painfully inadequate. 

I’ve got bad news, folks. It’s going to be an uphill struggle all the way.

Auto enrolment champions may point to high opt-in rates but let’s take a rain check when mortgage rates eventually rise, taking up an ever greater share of our stubbornly stagnant wages.

A concurrent rise in interest on our savings would also make Isas a far more appealing option for those who don’t fancy locking away their cash until…well, who knows when?

“In truth, we need vigorous and quick reforms to the industry to put all this right”

Plus, the much-discussed revolution to the pension system, aimed at preventing another wave of disillusionment among bedraggled savers, have mostly served to highlight its vast failings, further putting off a generation who has little to stash away at the end of each month.

Sneaky charges, pathetic annuity rates, meagre long-term returns, the wasteland of small pension pots and the disappearance of more generous defined benefit schemes have all left a sour taste in the mouth.

In truth, we need vigorous and quick reforms to the industry to put all this right, yet it is the consumer who has been expected to change.

“One pension firm admonished us, much like a head teacher, for wasting money on satellite and gym subscriptions”

Since I began writing about money and young people four years ago, I have been amazed at the out-of-touch press releases knocked up by publicity-hungry companies, determined to paint young people as fickle hedonists determined to live for today and doom themselves to an impoverished retirement.

One pension firm admonished us, much like a head teacher, for wasting money on satellite and gym subscriptions while a financial adviser implored a worker on an average salary of £26,000 to save more than £800 a month into a pension, putting them firmly in cloud cuckoo land when you consider the household pressures  facing your typical 30 year old.

Thankfully, there have been fewer demoralising lectures in recent times and more attempts to educate consumers so they can commit to pensions with confidence. Let’s build on that progress with pensions guidance for all employees, not just those in their fifties and sixties.

Pushing Generation Y into workplace schemes and ‘checking in’ just before retirement simply won’t do.

Iona Bain will be part of a panel of twenty-somethings tackling the retirement conundrum and how to get generation Y engaged with pensions at Workplace Pensions Live, the flagship conference hosted by industry publication Pensions Insight, in May.

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BUDGET 2015: What’s the state of play for young finances today?

As the Budget gets underway today, you’re almost certainly wondering how Mr Osborne’s red box of delights will affect you and your personal finances in the near future.

Now seems as good a time as any to take a rain check following five years of tough times for young people’s finances. So what developments have we seen in the last year that boosted our prospects and dragged down our outlook? What’s the state of play today and what we can expect going forward?

THE PAST

Cartoon: Gary Barker

The Chancellor made a huge splash last year, not once but twice, when he decided to free up access to pension pots in the last Budget before reforming stamp duty (not before time!)

One of these decisions was a more obvious shot in the arm for young people’s finances than the other – you can guess which one – but those far reaching pension reforms have completely carpet-bombed the financial agenda in the last year.

I also made the (much contested) point that higher limits on tax-free savings, introduced by Osborne in the last Budget, would be beneficial to young people who need every last incentive to save.

Debt charities have rightly pointed out that raising the ceiling on tax-free savings (to £15,000) is not that relevant to young people. Robbie De Santos, senior public policy advocate at Stepchange, told a charity conference last year:

“We do not necessarily believe that the changes to Isas will benefit those in lower income brackets and young people. Research indicates that these groups do not recognise tax incentives, which tend to appeal to those who are saving regularly and on top of their tax-free allowances.”

Fair play, though I believe that rising tax allowances (with a further one rumoured to be in the pipeline today) have benefited low earners and those at the bottom of the career ladder. But I agree that a more helpful policy might have been to introduce a you-save-we-save policy, whereby the government pledges extra interest or rewards for young people who save.

Sadly, we’ve seen nothing but gloom for savers in this department. The prolonged depression of interest rates, whilst good for those who borrow and are determined to reduce their debt, means there has been very little appetite to squirrel money away. A shocking statistic today from Fraser Nelson at the Spectactor (@FraserNelson) shows that £1000 put away seven years ago would now be worth £916!

On the pus side, stamp duty reform has cut the cost of buying typical starter homes both north and south of the border and will probably result in more long-term, profound ripples in the first time buyer housing market than the much-vaunted Help to Buy scheme. Also, let’s welcome the on-going squeeze on voracious payday lenders and parasites, sorry brokers, who facilitate that self-serving business online.

But here comes the bad news (again): we also saw the Mortgage Market Review take effect last year, resulting in longer waiting times and more stringent lending requirements (leading to perhaps unfair rejection).

THE PRESENT

Yep, those pension reforms are still the number one talking point for politicos and financial journalists everywhere (believe me, I am just as sick of hearing about them as you are!)

But in some ways, this is need-to-know information for young people, not least because the introduction of pensions ‘guidance’ for those approaching retirement (heavily criticised by the financial sector) has been described as “too little, too late”. Critics (not least me) have wondered why some form of free guidance cannot be made available to people of all ages.

Looking at saving, it seems that low interest rates are here to stay, but thankfully, banks are now being forced to tell us when interest rates plummet (as they so often do after new customers are lured in) and when a better savings product may be available. This is thanks to a regulatory crackdown that couldn’t have come soon enough.

We’ll have to wait and see whether the Independent’s scoop on abolishing tax on savings income – likely to benefit all but the most wealthy – will be confirmed this lunchtime when Osborne takes to the dispatch box.

Meanwhile, things are looking fairly grim on the housing front, as lending to first time buyers fell at the beginning of the year on account of those nasty MMR regs and housing stock being gobbled up by buy-to-let investors.

Thankfully, fuel and food prices have been falling, giving consumers a bit of a break. This has led to lower inflation, and even fears at the Bank of England over possible deflation, but is good news for Osborne who is predicted to have a £6bn windfall to play with today as a result. Will he use this to give further perks to younger consumers and workers on top of that much-welcomed rise in the minimum age?

THE FUTURE

Those falling prices mean UK consumers will be tempted to splash out much more in the coming weeks and months, according to Money Dashboard.

Us lot are going to be spending more on looking our best and enjoying ourselves in the run-up to the election, with a fall in the cost of essentials likely to lead to an increase in spending on fashion purchases and alcohol, in particular.

Trash To Couture: Trash to Couture's Guide to Thrifting.

Data scientists estimate that spending on clothing will rise 5.7% year on year in the next quarter to an average of £30 a month, as last month’s retail sales growth continues. Being well heeled is an even bigger priority, with a 7% year-on-year rise expected for footwear purchases, with a monthly average of £39 being spent between April and June 2015.

There is also likely to be a rise in spending on alcohol as consumers raise a glass to bigger bank balances, with £9 more being spent on booze each month between April and June, taking average monthly spend to £41.

The strong pound is likely to loosen the purse strings for holiday bookings in the next quarter as well, with an estimated £230 on average being spent on getting away each month.

The extra disposable income is likely to come from the on-going trend of cheaper energy bills and falling prices at the checkout and at the pump, the data shows. The data suggests that a monthly average of just £33 will be spent on fuel in the next quarter, which represents a drop of 5% year on year. Meanwhile, an average of £194 a month will be spent on energy bills in the next quarter, a 3.1% drop on the same period in 2014. There is likely to be a 3.9% drop on food shopping next quarter too, a slight fall of £1 a month on average.

The data shows that reliance on credit in the UK will continue, with credit card repayments likely to increase 8.4% year on year in Q2. This is a rise of £11 on the same period last year, with £137 being repaid each month. Savings are set to be neglected next quarter too as consumers concentrate on living in the present, with a likely £6 drop in average monthly savings to £107 compared to the second quarter of 2014.

It appears that the falling cost of essentials and record employment rates have given us a sense of security that will see us reward ourselves in the next quarter. But it is so important that UK consumers are cautious during this spell of renewed optimism. It is easy at times like these to put more on the credit card and forget about saving, when it’s actually vital that we take the chance to squirrel something away for a rainy day.

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Freak fires shine light on home insurance; are you underinsured/overinsured/paying too much through price comparison sites?

Herald Scotland

By Iona Bain

Scots are being urged to check their homes – and insurance cover – just in case they fall victim to the so-called ‘magnifying glass’ effect.

Just last month, Glasgow entrepreneur Michelle Mone issued a warning to her Twitter followers after a mirror in her Mayfair home beamed sunlight onto a bean bag, setting it alight.

Not So Shabby - Shabby Chic: Mirror wall is almost complete....

In London in January, novelist Daisy Goodwin came back to find her three-story terraced house gutted by a fire ignited by a shaving mirror.

And last month a house in Twickenham was partially destroyed, and a dog killed, when an empty jar containing hairbands in a girl’s bedroom refracted sunlight onto window blinds.

Last March, Scottish Fire and Rescue Services were called to a house fire in Aberdeen, triggered by the sun shining through a snow globe placed on a windowsill. Watch manager Garry Chalmers said: “It heated the curtains, which then caught fire. The curtains were completely destroyed and there was fire damage to the floor and ceiling.

“This is certainly one of the most unusual causes I have seen during my career as a firefighter, but it highlights the risk of leaving any glass object in direct sunlight, such as mirrors, reading glasses or even drinks glasses.”

The fire service in London has reported 125 such call-outs in the past five years. A spokesman for Scottish Fire and Rescue Service could not give a figure for Scotland but said: “Since 1988 any item containing upholstery sold in the UK has been required to have a permanent label confirming it meets British Standards for fire resistance. If an item of furniture shows signs of being affected by heat – like small scorch-marks or a smell of burning – then it is obviously a risk that shouldn’t be ignored.”

READ THE REST HERE

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The gender gap in STEM subjects – and why it matters

The latest study from the OECD has confirmed that girls are still underperforming in STEM subjects in school, predominantly due to lack of confidence. And the UK is one of the worst performers overall. But how does this play out? And why does it matter?

by Helen Lawless

Generally girls are keeping up, or frequently outdoing, their male counterparts in school and university. Girls tend to get higher grades at GCSE and A-level, and more of them are entering competitive university courses like law and medicine than ever before. However the important and enduring caveat to this is that girls continue to do less well from a very young age in subjects like mathematics, chemistry and physics.

This means that fewer of girls choose to study higher mathematics or triple science at GCSE, and then fewer of them select to study STEM subjects at A-level, and thus they become ineligible to enter courses like engineering at university. The situation is slightly more balanced in the biology related fields, but there is still an enduring gender gap, particularly at the highest echelons of third level.

Essentially, young girls opt out of STEM subjects very early on, and with our increasingly specialist education system, never have a chance to opt back in. But even in countries with broader university systems which encourage cross-disciplinary studies like the USA, the gap persists because by that point it’s often too late. By that point many young women have already decided that “they can’t do maths.”

Notice that this is an extremely useful skill to decide is beyond you; being able to use statistical measures, perform accounting calculations, and analyse quantitative data are all skills which are highly advantageous in a myriad of careers. Furthermore a degree in a STEM course like chemical engineering is vastly more employable than most. STEM degrees offer graduates nearly secure employment prospects and often well-paid careers with lots of upward progression. And as we try to tackle global challenges like climate change, food shortages and an increasing population, the demand for scientists who can propose solutions to these problems will do nothing but increase.

In short there is a dire global macroeconomic need for the best and the brightest scientists, and currently we are losing nearly half the possible talent pool through an arbitrary gender bias that in no way reflects ability. Girls have proved they are just as intellectually capable, there is no reason why they should be intellectually intimidated away from “the hard sciences”, but they are, and we are all losing out as a result. Not to mention girls are losing out by not considering careers which could make them happy.

Fun Science Experiment for Kids:  Elephant Toothpaste! from Fun at Home with Kids

So where does this crisis of confidence stem from? Partially it’s the problem of the self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers and parents don’t expect girls to excel in these subjects so they don’t push them

as much as they necessarily would in other subjects. It’s also an issue that a lot of the fields associated with the hard sciences are wrapped up in gender stereotypes. Girls aren’t brought up to be interested in space exploration, Formula 1 cars, or circuit boards. We buy little boys Lego and chemistry sets: we buy little girls plastic ponies and princess costumes. It’s only natural that the careers they choose to pursue mirror the expectations we’ve laid out for them.

But it’s more than just a “boys and their toys” problem, that word “confidence” is crucial. Theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, these are the things we laud as the pinnacles of intellectual achievement, and so it is the less confident gender that feels they are out of their grasp. A young girl is much more likely to be scared off something she doesn’t instantly grasp, and much more afraid of failing. Why? Because she doesn’t have the same level of self-assurance to fall back on that the boys in her class do. We teach young girls the worst thing they can do is fall on their face, which means they never try to fly.

The STEM gap isn’t going to disappear organically – it hasn’t yet. It is only through persistent and conscious encouragement that we can get girls to perceive these things as within their grasp, by perceiving themselves differently. And even if it would eventually disappear on its own, we can’t afford to wait.

DO YOU AGREE WITH HELEN? SHOULD GIRLS BE NUDGED TOWARDS MORE SCIENTIFIC SUBJECTS? GET IN TOUCH OR COMMENT BELOW…

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The forgotten art of talking; how digital communications hamper gen Y in the workplace

Emails, social media and texting have revolutionised our lives – but are they adequate substitutes for good old fashioned talking? I ask whether young people need to get working on their presentation skills

Iona bain

Remember back to January 1st? Ah, what an innocent time, when you were brimming with optimism for the year ahead. All the skills waiting to be learned, the bad habits waiting to be scrapped, the empty bottles waiting to be put out in the recycling bin after THAT New Year’s Eve party.

Alas, it is all too easy to neglect self-improvement once the day-to-day routine kicks in. All those deadlines, meetings and all-round pressurising responsibilities mean we keep treading water, rather than swimming ahead. But if there is one resolution that is worth your attention – and commitment – it relates to the device you are using to read these very words.

Many business leaders are blaming the rise of smartphones, computers, tablets and other technology for a soft skills deficit, saying that our ‘heads down, screen on’ mentality means we cannot engage with others in the flesh.

Last month, Anthony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays, warned of a “lost generation” of youngsters who cannot shake hands, stand up straight and even make sustained eye contact. He said that while social media is a very “effective form of communication”, it was important for young people to learn the art of effective talking.

He added: “Parents and teachers can nurture confidence in their children,” he said.

“In the workplaces of the future, collaboration will be very important. The question of how to teach this generation to be successful is very important.,” he said.

Sadly, soft skills may well have been put on the back burner by school children who are trying to squeeze in Mongolian nose flute lessons, ice hockey try-outs and applications to study Guatemalan history at university. A teenager today is encouraged to put great emphasis on working towards academic glory, but it is their personal skills – or lack thereof – that may prove to be the deciding factor in a job interview ten years down the line.

Robert Doisneau (April 14, 1912 – April 1, 1994) was a French photographer noted for his frank and often humorous depictions of Paris street life.

An article published earlier this year in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine highlighted how workplaces of the future may be divided between technology based jobs for the highly skilled and charismatic leaders who create, innovate and generally make people feel good about doing business with them.

The article spoke to the only known professor of networking in the world – Julia Hobsbawn from Cass Business School. She said: “On social media, many of us are very disinhibited, which means our approaches can ricochet from one extreme to another. In person, we make much better judgment calls. Fifty to 70 per cent of communication comes through body language. But people need to be persuaded that this is the case, then be given the confidence to go out and meet people.”

Sadly, the article showed how oral communication was fast becoming a lost art among young job hunters. This is a crying shame, because your manner of speech alone can hugely influence how others perceive your ability to lead, work with others and get the job done.

David Spencer, founder of Spencer Media, is a highly regarded voice coach who tells me that young workers who depend on email and other impersonal communications miss out on valuable opportunities to foster meaningful connections and put across valuable ideas with meaning and clarity. In other words, they don’t learn how to communicate effectively. So how can we go about improving the way we speak in the workplace?

The key is to know how you sound in terms of pace, tone and language. David Spencer said: “How we perceive ourselves is very different to how other people perceive us. So it may be useful to record our voice so we understand whether we speak authoritatively, take our time over sentences and give enough emphasis to what we’re saying.”

Prepare thoroughly what you say before you say it. Make notes before an important phone call, run through presentations with colleagues and (patient) friends, rehearse difficult or sensitive conversations in front of a mirror…just remember that even the great Mark Twain once remarked: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

So what are you waiting for? Next time you are tempted to hide behind a computer screen, pick up the phone or get yourself out there in the flesh. Give your true voice a chance to shine.

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EXCLUSIVE: Shops incentivise staff to sell YOU store credit despite its role in surging personal debt

Iona Bain

Herald Scotland

The days when pushy staff used to flog store cards at the till were thought to be over, following a clampdown on aggressive sales tactics and immediate discounts for signing up.

But new research and employee testimonies show that a ‘buy now, pay later’ culture is still alive at the big retailers, with some shoppers paying a high price for this luxury.

Before 2011, retailers typically paid commission to staff whenever they sold a store card and offered shoppers upfront price reductions as an incentive.

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Should you invest in property rather than your pension?

By Ryan Smith

As young people, we’re always told to start thinking about our futures. Pension investments are one of those things that just seem so far away that it becomes difficult to comprehend as something we need to concern ourselves with right now. Reports state that young people are more interested in saving the money they’re earning to invest in a property; that first home is something we aspire to more than a pension fund. And while auto-enrolment is making it easier to at least start putting something away for retirement (alongside extra contributions from our employers and the government), property still might be the best investment.

Here are 5 reasons we think you should invest in property instead of your pension…

Military Couple In Front of Home, House Keys and Sign

1. Property prices up 4.2% in 2014

In the 12 months between December 2013 and 2014, UK property prices saw an average yearly increase of 4.2%. Greater London saw the biggest increase at a whopping 11.1%, with the South East just behind it (9.5%) and the South West reporting increases of 6%.

2. Mortgage rates have fallen

Thanks to a combination of low inflation, a prediction of slowing economic growth and more Eurozone fears, Autumn 2014 saw a drop in mortgage rates. A healthy deposit is required but you can now get a 2-year fix below 2 per cent, a five-year fix below 3 per cent and even a ten-year fix at around 2.94 percent. It’s worth setting up a meeting with an independent financial advisor as they’ll be able to help you make the most of a property deposit while these great rates are available.

3. Generate an extra income

One of the more popular mortgage products on the market these days is buy-to-let mortgages. It may require a bigger deposit, and won’t be ideal for a ‘first home’ but it could be helpful for generating an extra income, particularly in later life. An investment in a buy-to-let property, with the combination of rent incoming and the increased value in the property could see a much greater return than the same investment into a standard pension fund.

4. A retirement nest egg

Those who purchase their first home between the ages of 26 and 35 are expected to be mortgage free by 61 years old. The average age of first time buyers has increased to 36, so it shows just how important it can be to get on the property ladder early. Not only will you be paying into your own bricks and mortar, rather than throwing money away to a landlord, by the time you retire you’ll hopefully have no mortgage left to pay. This leaves you able to live a more comfortable existence, or even unlock the value in the home by downsizing. If you have a number of rented properties you can also sell these to fund your retirement if you don’t want to continue on as a landlord.

5. New pension rules show uncertainty

With new pension rules coming into effect from 6 April 2015, the landscape looks blurry. Annuity rates are expected to fall, at least in the short term, so you may not get the best return on your savings. Some reports are even predicting that pensions may not even exist by 2050, due to young people’s disinterest in saving into funds they cannot access when needed. It’s always good to have a mix of investments, but a financial advisor who is independent and unbiased can guide you through the changes, and advise you on any questions you may have on finances, pensions and investments.

Ryan Smith writes for Local Financial Advice, pointing people in the direction of independent financial advisors in their area. The views of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Young Money blog.

What do you think? Do you agree? Leave a comment or get in touch – ionabain@hotmail.com.

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How to avoid waste in Foodbank Britain; the joys of homecooking

By Iona Bain

Last year, I looked at why food banks have become commonplace in modern Britain – what is it due to a real fall in living standards? Difficulties in finding worthwhile jobs that put food on the table? Or has there been a growing faith in – and awareness of – food banks to provide a sticking plaster when all else fails?

All three factors have played their part, but a further issue began to play on my mind recently; how many people know how to cook with the ingredients they have?

Baroness Jenkin in the House of Lords landed in hot water last year by seeming to suggest that ‘poor’ people cannot make their food last because they don’t know what to do with it. Many critics hit out at her comments, arguing that you cannot produce ingredients from thin air and that extreme poverty cannot be simply alleviated with a quick Home Economics lesson.

A valid point, for sure, and one that Baroness Jenkin and her fellow peers endorsed in a comprehensive report on Feeding Britain at the end of last year. But the report also pointed out the need for more hands-on, intensive support for food bank claimants that includes training on supermarket psychology, food planning and healthy eating.

Who wouldn’t support this initiative? I have talked many times about financial literacy on the blog but what about culinary literacy? In fact, Baroness Jenkin’s comments can be applied to most of the young population, if my experience is anything to go by.

A newspaper column by the journalist Daisy Goodwin recently highlighted a worrying lack of cooking skills among all demographics thanks to a fast-food culture promoted by takeaway firms and supermarkets on every street corner.

The writer referred to a friend who volunteers at a foodbank and kept seeing one client who couldn’t make her food go far enough to feed her children. The mother in question didn’t know how to cook the spaghetti that she received, so the volunteer showed her how to knock up a nutritious and delicious meal, using tomatoes and tinned veggies to make a lovely pasta sauce.

Such such skills not only help you to survive and make your money go further. Creating dinners with healthy and varied ingredients makes a tremendous difference to your quality of life, whatever your income.

Sadly, I know many young people who lack the desire and ability to cook a meal from scratch. Why?

Fantastical programmes like Masterchef and The Great British Bake-off can make us feel very inadequate in the kitchen. Many of us believe that cooking should be of the highest standard, and if we can’t achieve that, we leave it up to the professionals. That means takeaway apps like Hungryhouse and Just Eat have exploded in popularity. If a meal can be delivered to our door, why slave over the stove? The extortionate prices charged by Dominos and other major chains shows our willingness to pay over the odds for a quick, comforting meal. It seems like a very high price to pay for poor organisation.

Young people, especially in urban areas, are also relying a huge amount on mini-stores. Rather than do a big shop for the week, they pop in and out of these stores, spending relatively smaller amounts on ready meals and essentials (and by essentials, I mean booze, chocolate and sweets…no?)

Why defer gratification when food is instantly available at practically any time? But the next time you go into one of these outlet stores, have a think about the ratio of healthy to junk food. Just as importantly, consider the following question; what is the mark up for this convenience? Does a ready meal, a pizza, a fatty pudding represent better value for money than a recipe using thoughtfully sourced ingredients?

Question of the day~ What is ur favorite junk food snack? I can't get enough oreos

Popping into Tesco Express on my road is an eye-opening experience. There are whole aisles devoted to chocolate, alcohol, crisps, sweets, puddings and pastries. It’s a veritable temple to instant pleasures. But try asking for some oatcakes! It’s like asking whether they sell oven-roasted unicorn.

To be fair to Tesco, it has played a huge role in helping foodbanks and their clients by hosting collection days and contributing produce. Other supermarkets such as Asda, Waitrose and Sainsburys have also partnered with local foodbanks to minimise food waste and making sure surplus food goes to those in need. These efforts are somewhat undermined, I think, by marketing techniques to persuade people to buy more food (at a higher price) than they really need.

I have also had the dubious pleasure of inviting a very popular breakfast cereal back into my life recently, as my flatmate (aka my brother) developed a sudden New Year craving for them. This cereal isn’t particularly cheap, especially when you’re getting through pints of milk at a rate of knots. Worst of all, it doesn’t fill you up. You find yourself having another bowl or snacking throughout the morning (or evening, if you desperately use it as a substitute for a meal!)

I hate to come over all pious – I go for the easy option whenever I can. I think proper food planning is one of the hardest tasks of modern day life. I have a made a study of it in recent times as I try to figure out what’s good value, what’s healthy and what’s filling. It’s a challenge but one must we try to tackle every day if we are to function and thrive.

So my first insight would be; soups and stews are a life saver. It’s ideal to plan meals for the week so you save yourself time each day, have the right ingredients to hand AND save money. But if we’re time poor or lacking imagination when it comes to food – and I frequently have both problems – then the slow cooker is your friend.

Here are typical ingredients that go in a slow cooker: tomatoes, stock, vegetables, hummus, pesto, cream, potatoes, cupboard sauces, curry paste, sesame oil, soy sauce, any kind of stir fry, beans, lentils and of course meat or fish. Never put the last two together, though I find finely cut anchovies add great flavour to any meat based stew.

It is often pointed out that you can use less meat in a stew, and cheaper cuts of it, without really compromising the taste. My favourites are mince and lamb but I also use pre-cooked chicken and turkey, both of which are cheaper and take no time to prepare.

In other words, just about anything and everything savoury you can think of. You can even use some stale bread to make croutons on top, or grate some cheese as a topping.

And here’s an extra treat for you. Why not try making this soup in the next week? It’s got ingredients that may already be in your kitchen and it only costs £2.40 per person. Make a big enough batch, add some bread and you have a warming meal for these harsh Winter months. Many thanks to Jona at Soupe du Jour for the suggestion. Bon appetit!Image

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