Most workplaces have them from time to time. Young people who seem to appear out of the blue, and hang around for a week or two with expressions on their faces that start out as a mixture of terror and wonder, but after a while settle down into something approaching confidence and – more often than not – contentment and camaraderie.
I’m talking, of course, about students doing their ‘work experience’, a modern-day rite of passage to help young people get a flavour of what the world of work feels like. It’s a huge step forward from the old system, where work was something that drew you in once education had finished with you. You applied for a job that more or less fitted what you reckoned you could do, went for endless interviews and, with luck on your side, a few weeks or months later you pitched up at your workplace for what was probably going to be the strangest day of your life. A sea of new faces with names you forgot within half a second of hearing them, inexplicable rituals and procedures involving tea and stationery and somewhere underneath it all, the work itself. Only the strong survived…
My ‘business buddy’
Doing the whole thing as a grown-up ought to be rather different, of course. Or so I reassured myself as I arrived last week at Mendip Outdoor Pursuits in Congresbury, a small business run by David Eddins, in my constituency which had been picked to give me a short, sharp work experience to help me – both as local MP and, more to the point, as Minister for Tourism – learn about the challenges and opportunities facing businesses in the tourism sector. It had all been organised by the Business Buddy Scheme and, not at all to my surprise, provided a really interesting and useful insight into the way in which rules and regulations have a practical impact on the way in which businesses operate. I’ve written about this before, and taken an active part in the Government’s Red Tape Challenge, but there’s no substitute for seeing in person how bureaucracy, always created with the best of intentions to begin with, can become unfit for purpose and downright obstructive if not regularly pruned.
But no good deed, as they say, should go unpunished. And so it was that I finished my work experience with a hands-on encounter of an entirely different stripe. There are those who think that abseiling, like speed-dating or playing air guitar, is one of those things that your fortieth birthday grants you immunity from taking part in. Not me. And, although throwing myself backwards over a cliff with only a surprisingly slender rope between me and a premature meeting with my maker, has never featured on my personal must-do list, I’m pleased to say that I actually succeeded. Exhilarating? Yes. Terrifying? That as well. But, boy, your heartbeat and basic respiratory function go through the gears as you bounce down the rock face. Fantastic. The pictures accompanying this piece will give you a flavour of it, and the look on my face is gritty determination, not blind panic, by the way.
THAT Lottery jackpot
Did you see that couple on the TV this week that have picked up the £101 million Euromillions jackpot? As the chap with ministerial responsibility for the National Lottery I’m more than happy to send them the warmest possible congratulations on behalf of everyone who enjoys a flutter on it. And do I do so through gritted teeth, stifling a howl of rage and envy? Of course I do – that’s human nature, and has been part of our make-up since the first caveman noticed the fur-clad hunter-gatherer in the cave next door bring home a slightly larger lump of mastodon for the family pot than he had managed to find.
I’m reminded, in fact, of a story I heard about the Cabinet meeting which took place two days before the very first National Lottery draw in November 1994. The Prime Minister, John Major, told his colleagues round the table that if any of them chanced to win the estimated twenty something million pound jackpot, he would expect them to give the prize to charity without hesitation. Much nodding and murmured words of assent followed, and the meeting broke up. The identity of the Secretary of State who then asked his colleagues as they walked towards the front door ‘So how any of you had your fingers crossed back then, eh?’ is sadly shrouded in mystery.
The inexplicable force of random numbers
Now the reason for this rambling reflection on the nature of good fortune (and our sometimes ignoble response when it benefits in others) is simply as a curtain-raiser for some thoughts on a number of pieces that have appeared in the press in recent days about the other half of the Lottery equation: where the good cause money goes. Put briefly, the accusation is that the good cause money is not shared out equally across the country and – rather less convincingly, I think – that it does not match the regional patterns of where the money was originally staked. To a certain extent the first point is true, of course, as it always will be. The distribution of Lottery funding is driven by applications coming in. And they do not arrive with a perfectly proportioned geographical spread. There’s also the point about population distribution not being parcelled out equally across the country; and the fact that for historical reasons dating back to the 19th century in some cases, our ‘national’ institutions are very often to be found in capital cities; or that grants are recorded by address of the applicant not location of the recipient; or that lots of grants are submitted from one single address for a nationwide project (like the Sustrans national cycle lane project, the first 5,000 miles of which came about thanks to Lottery funding). All very far from straightforward, I’m afraid. Odd though that the Lottery which, by its very nature, is driven by the inexplicable force of random numbers when it comes to picking prize winners, should be so much in the spotlight for being seemingly less than rigidly equal at the distribution end of the operation.
It’s always nice to give a bouquet to an organisation not normally directly associated with tourism that does the sector a good turn. So congratulations to the Royal Mail who have just issued a stunning set of stamps – The UK A–Z Issue – which by the time they’re all issued will feature 26 beautifully designed landscapes and iconic images from all over the country. The first 12 are on sale now, with the rest of the alphabet following next year. Because ‘D’ in the series is for Downing Street, they cleverly roped in the PM to launch the set. He said “The UK has some of the most beautiful landscapes and fascinating heritage, things that we can all be incredibly proud of. I am delighted to see some of our most loved landmarks on these stamps, celebrating much that is great about our country. Seeing the front door of Number 10 featured on a stamp is of course particularly special.”
Can’t wait for next year to see if the new pier at Weston is there representing ‘W’. I wonder if they read this blog…..
All images © Lindsay Fowke Photography