Abi's Accountancy Blog

So, Dave from down the pub told you that you could claim your Sunday family lunch as a ‘business expense’ and tells you everyone does it?!

Well, thanks Dave.

Sometimes people misunderstand what they can and can’t claim. Putting it simply if it doesn’t relate to the running of your business, then you can’t claim it – it must be ‘wholly and exclusively’ for business purposes.

HMRC can ask you to prove that an expense is wholly and exclusively for business purposes and you can’t say because Dave told you so. Alternatively, just because you discussed how business was going with your family for 5 minutes of your meal, HMRC aren’t likely to deem it a relevant business expense.

How’s that fair? Dave’s claiming it? Everyone’s claiming it!?

You’d be suprised how many people ‘say’ they are, when actually they aren’t. Dave could have been joking, or even overheard it…

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I’ll apologise in advance for this but this post is a bit of a moan I’m afraid, the main thrust of my point is going to be why on earth does everything take so long in the UK?  

I could pick a million things to illustrate this but let’s pick one at random, HS2.  20 years.  Really?? 20 Years to build a high speed rail link, by the time it’s done we’ll be driving our flying cars or teleporting round the country, what on earth is the point of building something  that won’t be fully up and running ’til 2035-ish?  

In China they’ve built much much larger stretches of railway in a fraction of the time, granted they don’t have our levels of ‘elf and safety but still 20 years is just taking the mickey isn’t it?  

Let’s look at another, the Edinburgh tram.  What on earth is happening with that? I mean they must be having a laugh, it’s been years already, they’ve laid tracks, dug them up and laid them again and it’s not going to be anywhere near as useful as it was first planned to be.  Given that it’s been so badly planned, so dreadfully managed, why haven’t people been sacked? Why have the council just handed the contractors a blank cheque to sort it out?  

I would partially like to move onto a rant about why the public sector is so godawful at commissioning projects like this but I’ll refrain and instead move on to another example and the real reason behind this particular blog.  

So, the Scottish independence referendum.  Why on earth is it taking so long?  2014?  It feels like it’s been dragging on for years already!  Yes I’m sure Mr.Salmond wants this to run and run and he wants as much publicity as possible but unless the man is an idiot (which I’m sure he isn’t) he must know how much this is currently hurting Scotland.  I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of it here, personally I think they’d be crazy to vote for it but what’s concerning me more right now is the uncertainty.  

Scotland is a comparatively large country by area with a small population, as such outside of the Glasgow/Edinburgh central belt a lot of the country is employed by the public sector.  So when private enterprise comes knocking on the door looking to invest the SNP should be rolling out the red carpet and laying on the fizzy wine.  There are businesses in Scotland right now with great plans, who’d love to start acting on their ambitions but the problem is the uncertainty.  Private equity is simply frightened of it, businesses which should have had  funding in a matter of weeks have taken months or even years to raise capital because nobody knows what’s going to happen after the referendum.  Scotland is in the doldrums, it needs all the help it can get, allowing this to continue for the sake of political expediency is wrong.  Hold the referendum, get it out of the way and get the country moving again.  It can’t be all that hard to arrange for people to vote, we do it all the time, so please Mr.Salmond, get on with it…

My blog is normally a light hearted (read rubbish) bit of pith and nonsense, or my views on some current event of some form.  However today I’d like to blog about the NHS and something a bit more close to home.  Recently I’ve been reading the reports on the Mid-Staffs scandal with interest, not just as a voracious reader of current affairs but and this is rare for me, genuine outrage and anger.  I think a large part of my anger over what happened in Mid-Staffs stems from my own experiences with the NHS.  Normally I wouldn’t be quite so personal on here but I feel it’s a tale worth telling, before I do though I will add some background detail.  I have a great affection for the NHS, my mother was a manager in a large hospital for many years and as such a lot of our family friends are doctors of one sort or another.  During my degree I spent huge amount of  time in hospitals.  My cousin is a very dedicated nurse.  I have every reason to love the NHS and I am an ardent supporter of what it’s function is, I believe it should be state funded and free for all to use.  

So onto my story, about 6 years ago my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia, we’d known for a while she had it though wrongly thought it was alzheimer’s.  For a period of time she lived with the disease and we were complicit in telling nobody what was happening, she asked my mum and I not to broadcast things or to go to the doctors and we respected her wishes.  Eventually she needed help so we spoke with the doctors, found as we suspected nothing could be done and I moved back into the family home to help with her care.  

Now I will say at this point we were well enough off that I could take time away from my business and mum was semi-retired, for the last months of her life we moved to Scarborough, a coastal town she loved and had grown up knowing well.  We cared for her at home for several months until one night she had a much more severe stroke.  In the morning we found her half stood next to her bed unable to move and freezing cold, my guess is in the night she’d stood up to go to her toilet and the stroke had hit, rendering her unable to move or speak and so shed half stood shivering and cold ’til we discovered her in the morning.  

We called an ambulance and she was taken to Scarborough Royal Infirmary, which is where my experience of how awful the NHS can sometimes be began.  Over the first few days we stayed by her bed day and well into the night each day but with no change to her condition. The nurses seemed busy but unconcerned and as we were always there we often did whatever little things needed doing for her.  We learned on the third day she’d had a severe stroke, and we were shown scans of her brain.  The doctors held little hope of any meaningful recovery and we braced ourselves for the worst, indeed on the fourth day she had the last rites read.  While I’m not particularly religious my grandmother was and for the first time since being in the hospital we noticed her eyes flicker with emotion when the priest was there and she shed a tear.  From that point on we knew that while she could neither speak nor really move on her own beyond random arm movements, she was still somewhere in there buried below the damage done by the catastrophic stroke she’d suffered.  

Over the next few days though she seemed to get lighter, the dark place she’d been inhabiting seemed to be less harsh, the faint light behind her eyes was growing ever so slightly stronger.  Yes it’s tempting to believe something like this when you’re a grieving relative but at certain points she would smile or frown.  Pictures of her big dog Monty (now mine) would put palpable pictures of excitement across her visage.  While we didn’t dare hope for recovery we did believe she was perhaps out of the horrible place she’d been inhabiting.  

Unfortunately this is where we started noticing problems, the first was compassion.  The staff even when we were there were treating her as a hindrance not a person.  She was unable to control her bowels so when she did have a movement she’d be laid in it and frankly the nurses were ignoring her obvious suffering, discomfort and lack of dignity.  Even though mum and I were spending days there it an uphill struggle to force them to change her, on numerous occasions I threatened to do it myself but was told it would be a breach of ‘health and safety’ and they would get round to it eventually.  They treated her as a nuisance and a chore, never a person who deserved respect and empathy. 

By far the largest problem though was food and drink, during the stroke she had lost her ability to swallow.  Now during this phase where she seemed to be growing in strength, whenever we ate or drank near her she leaned forward  clearly craving what we had and on numerous occasions we were told we must not even give her a drop of water or food as it could kill her.  Of course we obeyed unthinkingly, options were discussed has to how to overcome the problem one of which being we don’t and she would effectively slowly starve.  However neither of us would allow this so we firstly insisted on a daily SALT test, which is where a speech and language therapist checks her ability to swallow and also in the interim they would fit a naso-gastric tube.  We were warned that her dementia could mean she could pull the tube out eventually but we had to try.  The first tube was put in by one of the nurses, during the procedure we heard my grandma cry out in pain.  We sat there for 4 hours with her eventually persuading her not to pull it out, at which point they checked via ultrasound that the tube was in correctly and it wasn’t it was dangling painfully into her lungs.  Again a nurse put the tube in and again she cried in pain again 4 hours later after we’d sat with her they found it had been done wrongly and had to come out.  

The following day the doctor told us they’d tried and it was distressing and they should now stop trying.  The night before though we’d spent some time on the phone to a friend of ours who happens to be a consultant gastroenterologist, he advised us that the reason it hadn’t worked was purely incompetence on the part of the person doing the procedure and that the best thing was for us to ask for a consultant anaesthetist to do honours.  After much arguing we stood our ground and eventually well into the evening our doctor came, he spent literally 10 seconds with her, no pain or anxiety later the tube was in place.  A scan confirmed we had our now working NG tube.  

By this time it was late into the night, we spent another hour keeping her calm and then went home.  The following morning when we came back to the ward to see her we weren’t allowed in due to an outbreak of diarrhea and vomiting.  For two days we couldn’t see her as we were told the ward was having a deep clean and nobody was allowed in for fear of other germs.  Thankfully she wasn’t affected by the bug but after the 2 days when we finally saw her we discovered the tube was gone and we were told she’d pulled it out during the first day of the bug.  One can’t help but think if only we’d been there.  

The following day a minor miracle happened at 6pm she passed the swallow test.  The senior nurse on duty said we could give her a drink and knowing exactly what she would want she had her first sip of tea in nearly 2 weeks.  We used a sponge but gave her a good half cup of sweet tea and the joy on her face was plain to see.  For the first time in what felt like forever we had a little ray of hope.  Yes we were torn, we didn’t want her to have such an awful quality of life but neither did we want her to die, yes it was unlikely but even the tiniest hint of recovery is something I think one always looks for.  

The following day as we went in we took a cup of tea for her again but were stopped from administering it by the senior nurse on duty who told us we couldn’t as she hadn’t passed a swallow test.  Of course I relayed the tale of what happened the night before but she told us it wasn’t on her notes and essentially accused me of lying about it!  What made it worse was she then proceeded to tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about and I was simply being stupid.  After a moment or two to calm down and seeing how keen my grandmother was for the tea, I ignored medical advice.  I told them it was our choice and we would take any responsibility for any problems.

Over the next week and a half we continued going every day, the nurses stuck to their line that the passed SALT test didn’t happen and I continued to fight our corner.  We gave her regular cups of sweet tea, chocolate buttons which melted in her mouth and good vanilla ice cream which did the same.  She clearly enjoyed the food and was asking for more.  Yes we could have been prolonging a poorer quality of life but there is now way I was starving an elderly lady to death, especially one who had been there throughout my life as a hugely important figure.  During those final days she smiled, she enjoyed what we gave her, we enjoyed the time to say goodbye to her.  She suffered a fatal stroke 10 days after passing we started feeding her.  She died in the night peacefully and I’m sure in the full knowledge that we would be there again in the morning to take care of her.  

As an aside when the morning came the hospital had another diarrhea and vomiting outbreak.  Two in 2 weeks on the same ward!  

The time I spent at Scarborough Hospital is one I will never forget.  The wards were dirty.  The nurses were rude, unhelpful, uncaring, clearly overworked and clearly utterly disinterested in patient care and utterly lacking in empathy to relatives.  Our doctor was either the same or incompetent, much of what we were told at the time we later found out to be false.  

My one lasting regret is that I never complained or spoke out afterwards.  It is to my shame that the grief we felt as my Grandma died deflected me from complaining very loudly and very publically about just how poor Scarborough Hospital was in almost every regard.

As a final note, I do not say this as a political point, I don’t use it as a justification for any argument.  I’m simply relaying my story of what happened to my family within the NHS.  Yes the NHS is a noble institution and yes I would defend the ideals of it but that doesn’t make it perfect or immune to change.  Clearly there are grave issues which require attention and I have no obvious solutions to put forth but I certainly don’t feel the NHS is above criticism.  

Networking, what a horrible word it is.  Perhaps a more apt way of describing it is socialising professionally so that you raise your own personal profile and gain valuable professional contacts. It’s not an easy thing to do and after several recent meetings discussing this recently I thought I’d do a bit of a blog on it. 

It’s fair to say that my job is all about networking, I meet people for a living and talk about lots of intangible things such as the ‘markets’ and trends we’re seeing within it.  I hope I’m reasonably good at my job though I fully expect that if ever anyone reads this I could have several naysayers!  With this in mind I thought I might give a few tips as to how to do this without seeming over eager or desperate.  The worst thing is to be the type of chap who is at every industry event and hands out business cards like confetti.  

Ideally you want to be in contact with people who are relevant to you, in other words the people of the right level who ultimately make decisions which could affect you in some way.  Be it your next job, your next non-executive position, your next client or your next sales target.  The problem with this is of course that these people are in demand, so how do you get to them without sounding like everyone else who’s trying to get to them?  In short, how do you stand out?

Without a doubt the best way to meet people and to network is by referrals.  If someone gives you a personal recommendation that is gold dust, people are far more willing to chat with someone if they’ve been referred to them by a friend or trusted colleague.  So the question becomes how do you get referrals?  Well that’s a little tougher but I believe there are two main areas to concentrate on, one is being damn good at what you do, whatever that is and do it for a long time, it builds word of mouth.  The second is to be an open networker yourself, by this I mean be generous with your own contacts.  Introduce people you know in similar fields, if for instance you know a pensions consultant very well and an in house head of pensions, why don’t you introduce them? It doesn’t cost you anything except a couple of minutes but it builds your credibility, of course assuming both your connections are good!  Ultimately both these people will be that little more willing to do you a favour and introduce you to someone they know when the time comes.  I’m a firm believer in what goes around comes around and if you share your time with others, help them with no thought of reward for doing so, ultimately others will come back and do the same for you.  

The more we all learn this skill and do it better, the more generous we are with our connections, then the more business will be transacted, new roles found and friendships formed.  It’s a valuable skill and one that benefits us all ultimately.  

A bit of a random blog for me this but a reaction to something I’ve seen a lot of on twitter of late and something I’m half struggling to understand.  A while ago some police force or other released a poster, very similar I’m sure to the type we’ve all seen warning young ladies about rapists, the usual don’t go down dark alleys on your own at night kind of thing.  Similarly there was also one about not getting too drunk.  Immediately I noticed a bit of a twitter outcry about how the police were indulging in ‘victim blaming’ and it would be far better to have posters simply saying ‘don’t rape’.

It’s a view I have a lot of sympathy with actually, young ladies should be absolutely free to walk down dark alleys or across parks in the middle of the night wearing as little as they please without fear of attack or reprisal from some crazy chap lurking in the bushes.  If I ever have children I hope the world is a safer place and this is no longer an issue.  

Whilst I have sympathy with the view though I don’t wholly agree, I place no blame whatsoever on the victim of what is an awful crime however there are things one can do to minimise crime.  For instance one wouldn’t walk around on the tube with all your possessions on show, iPhones dangling out of pockets or your wallet peeking out from wherever you happen to keep it.  Of course we should be able to and I’m desperately sad we can’t but it’s a fact of life that pickpockets exist.  Unfortunately it’s a fact of life rapists and murderers exist also.  So while you are in no way responsible for your own misfortune if you’re a young lady alone at night and you decide to take that short cut down an unlit street or across a deserted park I would urge you nonetheless the take care.  Please do not tempt fate, please take care of yourselves and take the longer route home or get a taxi or a bus.  For until we live in that Utopian society where no evil acts are committed we need to advise our loved ones to be as safe as possible and to not take unnecessary risks, with our property, our person, or our lives.  

Also I’m sure the police whilst perhaps a little misguided in how they worded the poster I’m sure were well meaning in what they were doing.  Yes they probably got it wrong and as I recall apologised but anything that lowers incidences of violent crime, be they rape, gbh, or even murder surely that’s a laudable aim.

So the other night I bought a wonderful piece of Ribeye… and then decided I didn’t want steak what I really wanted was a burger.  Not a ropey little mince burger though or some rubbish asda-made burger but a proper, spicy, rare, cheesy monstrosity.  My ribeye was slowly minced, well chopped, very finely with a sharp knife.  I then pounded 2 cloves of garlic in a pestle and mortar with some coarse rock salt before adding 2 bird eye chillis to it.  The garlic and chilli mush was added to the meat and left to stand for a couple of hours.  

Next I fried some lardons of pancetta in a frying pan ’til crispy before taking them out and frying the three burgers in the bacon grease.  Never said this was healthy!  90 seconds on each side then taken out while still quite rare.

Next up put the 3 burgers onto a baking tray and add a slice of cheese to each one, I used mozarella as it’s mild and I just needed a vehicle for the heat but emmental or cheddar or whatever would work.  Next up I topped the cheese with the pancetta, a whole chopped chilli each and some fried onions.  Then add another slice of cheese and put into a hot oven for 2-3 minutes ’til the cheese bubbles and goes gooey.

Spread bread roll with home made beetroot coleslaw and voila, heart attack on a plate!  

You’d think I’d have far better things to do on New Years eve than write this but it’s rainy outside, all jobs are done and I’m waiting for the sound of bells so it’s as good a time as any to do it I guess.  Plus the chances of me finding any time at work when I get back are probably nil.  

Anyway today I want to actually write about work, well partly.  I also want to tackle the issues of sexism, women on UK boards and ‘diversity’.  Recently I’ve been working on several briefs for Non-Executive Directors at a range of companies from large to smaller sized, part of these briefs has been diversity policy.  Excellent, you might think, more women on UK boards, a jolly good idea!  Well, I absolutely agree, we need more women, minorities and diversity on our boards and I would love to be one of the people supplying it… there’s just one slight niggle.  Candidates.  

I work in a rather niche field so this problem may well be one of my own specialty and in the wider environment this may be totally wrong, however in the field I work there is a distinct lack of female/minority candidates.  There’s a simple reason for this, most NED’s are semi retired people in their late 50’s or 60’s, these people started work in the late 60’s or early 70’s when Britain was a very different place to what it is now.  The candidates I find are representative of this, 80%ish are white chaps of a certain age, the rest are a mixture of ethnicities and ladies.  Well you might say, that leaves 20% to go at, plenty of people?  Well no, most companies want the top 10% if not the top 5% of people on their board, those with the broadest experiences and the most to add.  That leaves plenty of the white chaps but significantly fewer of the female/minority candidates.  This means that those candidates out there who are in that group are incredibly in demand right now and frankly there’s not enough to go around for every company to increase diversity on their board.  

Now the thing is in the next layer down, the people who started their careers in the 80’s there is a comparable reflection of a changing society, far more women and minorities and far more candidates.  The thing is though these people aren’t at the stage in their career yet where they are looking for NED positions and don’t have the experience to do them.  In ten years time we will have greatly more diverse boards on our big companies as there’s a much more diverse workforce, in the meantime though, well that’s another story.  

I’d like to make it clear at this point, I’m not defending the status quo, boards must adapt, however this is not a short term issue we can simply fix with a positive selection method. There just aren’t enough quality candidates right now and the one thing that a business will do first and foremost is look after itself to make profit and continue to employ people.  Boards will always reflect society from 30/40 years ago which is something we can’t really change unfortunately, however on saying all that I would be more than happy to hear from female/ethnic minority candidates for NED work within investments and pensions!  Literally, the more the merrier.