Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Europe's mobile call and data costs cut

Eurocrats have agreed to slash the rip-off cost of mobile calls and data roaming charges when Brit's go abroad.

A provisional a deal agreed by MEPs and the Danish Presidency of the Council of Ministers on Tuesday evening still needs to be approved by Parliament as a whole, but if approved, it would slash costs from 1 July 2012.

There is currently no cap on how much overseas firms can charge travellers for a megabyte of data. From July this year it would be limited to 70 cents (59p) coming down to 45 cents next July and 20 cents – or less than 17p - in 2014. My last trip abroad with Vodafone cost £1 a megabyte. That £1 becomes 17p in three years.

Calls made are currently capped at 35 cents per minute but with would drop to 19 cents this year, 24 cents next year and 19 cents in 2014. The extra cost you pay for receiving calls will more than halve over three years from 11 cents per minute now to 8 cents in July, 7 cents a year later and 5 cents in 2014. That's just 4p.

Text messages will drop too from an 11 cents ceiling now to 9 cents in July, then 8 cents next year and 6 cents in 2014.

This is great news for holidaymakers and business travellers.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Up to 50,000 migrants 'exploited student visa flaw to work in UK'

The border agency was slow to withdraw leave to remain in the UK, the National Audit Office finds 

Up to 50,000 migrants may have exploited flaws in a new student visa system in its first year to come and work in the UK, a report by Whitehall's spending watchdog says.
Under a system introduced in 2009, each student must be sponsored by a licensed college and cannot change institution without gaining permission.
But "key controls" had not been put in place, the National Audit Office found.
The Home Office said "tough new rules" were cutting student visa numbers.
Under the previous system, there was no limit on the number of non-European Economic Area students a college could enrol and students were free to move college and course without notifying the UK Border Agency.
The replacement, brought in by the Labour government, states that each student must be sponsored by educational institutions licensed by the agency and cannot change college without applying to it.
'Low priority'
Colleges are responsible for judging people's intentions to study.
But the audit office said the system had been brought in "before the key controls were in place" and that "in its first year of operation, between 40,000 and 50,000 individuals may have entered the UK... to work rather than to study."
It added: "The agency did not check that those who entered the UK as students were attending college."
The report continued: "The agency has taken little action to prevent and detect students overstaying or working in breach of their visa conditions because the agency regards them as low-priority compared to illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers."
The agency has removed 2,700 students since 1 April 2009, but the audit office said it had "been slow to withdraw students' leave to remain in the UK, where it has cause to do so. This has meant that, in many cases, enforcement teams have been unable to arrest students found working and not attending college."
Addresses for almost a fifth of more than 800 migrants wanted by the agency were found in just one week at a cost of £3,000 by a contractor hired by the watchdog.
Amyas Morse, head of the audit office, said the flaws in the student visa system had been "both predictable and avoidable".
He added: "Action planned by the agency to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are identified and required to leave must now be pursued more vigorously."
Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: "This is one of the most shocking reports of poor management leading to abuse that I have seen... The agency needs to get a grip and fix the way it deals with student visas."
But immigration minister Damian Green said: "This government has introduced radical reforms in order to stamp out abuse and restore order to the uncontrolled student visa system we inherited.
"These include tough new rules on English language, working rights and dependants to ensure only legitimate students come to the UK. New restrictions on post-study work mean that all but the very best will return home after study."
He added: "These measures are beginning to bite, we have already seen the number of student visas issued drop considerably in the second half of 2011, compared to the same period in 2010."
Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge said "good progress" had been made tightening up the system.
She added: "Visa abuse in relation to UK universities is very low compared to other parts of the education sector and universities are committed to reducing it further."

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Should you fix your cash ISA rate?

ISAs, like all other savings accounts, are offering fairly meagre returns at the moment, with the best easy-access account on the market paying 3.10% on £1,000 or more.

You could earn 4.20% if you are prepared to lock your savings away for five years. But is it worth it in the long run? We investigate. 

You can put up to £5,340 into a tax-free cash ISA this tax year. And with the countdown to the end of the 2011/2012 tax year well underway, anyone yet to take advantage of their allowance is likely to be looking for the best account. But which account should you go for?

Easy-access cash ISAs 
The best easy-access cash ISA currently on the market - according to comparison website MoneySupermarket - is the Nationwide Building Society Online ISA. It pays a headline interest rate of 3.10%, which includes a bonus of 2.90% lasting until the end of September 2013.

Benefits of the account, which can only be managed online, include that you get make withdrawals at any time and that you can transfer in cash built up with other ISA providers over the years. 

Potential disadvantages include that you must have at least £1,000 to open the account and that you will need to have a Nationwide card account to qualify. It is also worth pointing out that the large bonus included in the advertised interest rate will probably mean that you need to switch again next year to avoid missing out.

Other accounts worth considering include the ING Direct Cash ISA, which pays 3.00% and can be opened with just £1. The interest rate on this account does not include a bonus.

However, it is only guaranteed for 12 months, which means that it may become less competitive after this time.

Fixed-rate cash ISAs 
The Halifax ISA Saver Fixed, which has a five-year term, pays a generous 4.20% on £500 or more.

It accepts transfers in from other ISA providers and account holders with balances of at least £5,000 also qualify for the Halifax Savers Draw, through which 10 customers will win £100,000 in May.

However, you cannot make any withdrawals or deposits during the five-year term, and anyone needing to close the account early to access their cash will forfeit 365 days' interest.

Those looking for a new home for ISA savings built up in previous tax years, meanwhile, could earn 3.90% with the NatWest/RBS Preferential Fixed Rate ISA. It lasts for two years and requires a minimum deposit of £1,000 - which must be transferred from a rival ISA provider.

Which should you go for? 
You can only have one cash ISA for a particular tax year's allowance. So for anyone planning to add regularly to their ISA savings pots, the main disadvantage of the fixed-rate accounts mentioned above is that they do not allow additional deposits.

Those signing up for the Halifax account, for example, would therefore have to pay in the full £5,340 in one go to avoid missing out on some of their allowance - unless, of course, they decide to close the account and pay the price in loss of interest.

Despite the higher rates, longer-term fixed rate accounts should also be approached with caution as interest rates will start going up at some point, probably within the next five years.

You may, however, like the idea of a shorter-term fixed-rate account if you do not want to be tempted to dip into the pot you have built up so far.

Otherwise, one of the best easy-access accounts is probably the best option - as long as you keep an eye on the rate and switch away if it becomes uncompetitive.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Fingerprint-checking smartphone patent filed by Sony

Sony says placing sensors behind phone screens would simplify scans 

Technology to allow smartphones to scan their users' fingerprints through their screens as an identity check has been patented by Sony.
It describes a range of ways to build "light-transmissive displays" to allow sensors to look out of the screens.
It says an unidentified material would obscure the sensors so users would only see graphics telling them where to place their fingers.
Sony has not given any indication of when it might introduce the feature.
The innovation has been submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office and was flagged up by the website Unwired View.
It would not be the first time a smartphone has offered a fingerprint lock - Motorola Mobility launched the Atrix last year - a handset with a biometric scanner fitted to its back.
However, Sony's application suggests that allowing the scan to be carried out via the front of the phone would simplify the process.
"[It would] allow even a user who is not familiar with the fingerprint authentication to readily execute an input manipulation for the fingerprint authentication," the patent document says.
Many technology analysts predict that mobile phones fitted with near field communication (NFC) technology will be used in place of credit cards to buy goods in the near future.
To feel safe with the idea consumers may demand that their phone's security checks are more robust than a four-digit pin code.
'Better video calls'
"Making transactions easy for consumers is something that is a goal for retailers and technology providers," Brian Blau, research director at Gartner told the BBC.
"Having something like this that securely guarantees the users' identity can only be a good step forward."
Patent application imageThe patent document illustrates the advantage of the user being able to look directly into the front camera
Sony's patent document suggests handsets with a camera sensor behind the screen would also be better for video conferencing,
It says the handsets could have bigger displays without increasing their overall size since they would not have to leave space for a camera at the top of the phone.
It adds that the move would also help to prevent the "uneasy feeling" created at present when users do not maintain "eye contact" because they are looking at each other images on their screens rather than directly into the phones' cameras.
Sony is not alone in seeking a way to solve this problem.
Apple filed for a patent four years ago to place a camera sensor in the centre of a computer screen so that users could naturally video conference with each other and take self-portrait pictures of themselves while looking at own their faces. It has yet to put the innovation to use.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

What the budget means for families

The Budget was widely touted as being one for "working families". And while singletons around the country complain that they are working just as hard and deserve something too, families will have one question on their minds: what's in it for me?

So what does the Budget bring for families?

Child Benefit

There was mixed news on this front. The army of middle class Tory supporters who have been outraged at the thought of stay-at-home mums being penalised had little to celebrate.

But while George Osborne said he 'stood by the principle' of qualification for the benefit being based on the highest-earning individual rather than joint income, there was a good deal of watering down to the done in the Budget.

Chiefly, the cut-off point will not be when someone goes over the upper earnings threshold, but when they start to earn £50,000 or more. At this stage they won't lose all their benefits immediately, but will have them gradually withdrawn at a rate of 1% per £100 earned, so only those earning over £60,000 receive nothing. 

It means that 750,000 families will continue to receive some or all of the benefit - which means 90% will keep their child benefit.

Personal allowances

There was good news for lower-earning families - including those working part time and caring for children. There was the biggest ever raising of the personal allowance threshold, so that from April 2013 those earning less than £9,205 will pay no tax on their income.

Osborne was keen to point out that 24 million people earning less than £100,000 a year will gain from the measure, and that people working full time on the minimum wage will have seen their income tax bill halve since changes to the allowance began.

Personal statements

These will be brought in from 2014, and will make exciting reading for families. The personal statement will show how much tax and national insurance you pay, and how that money is spent.

There is likely to be a nasty surprise for those hoping to see education emerge as a top spending priority, once the full impact of the cost of paying interest on debt - and welfare payments are factored in.

Tax credits

Sadly one of the biggest stories for families in the Budget is what wasn't there. There was no u-turn on the cuts to tax credits, which make it more expensive for families to go out to work and pay for childcare.

And while Osborne was keen to point out that this wasn't a Budget of 'giveaways' there will be plenty of families who would argue that this was one 'giveaway' they will struggle to do without.
Huffington Post Budget 2012

Monday, 19 March 2012

Apple to pay dividend and buy back shares

BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones explains why Apple is spending its cash now 

Apple has said it will use its cash to start paying a dividend to shareholders and to buy back some of its shares.
The technology giant said it would pay a quarterly dividend of $2.65 per share from July.
It will buy back up to $10bn (£6.3bn) of its own shares starting in the company's next financial year, which begins on 30 September 2012.
At the end of last year, Apple revealed it had $97.6bn in cash. It expects to use $45bn over the next three years.
It is the first time Apple has declared a dividend since 1995.
"We have used some of our cash to make great investments in our business through increased research and development, acquisitions, new retail store openings, strategic prepayments and capital expenditures in our supply chain, and building out our infrastructure," Apple chief executive Tim Cook said in a statement.
"You'll see more of all of these in the future.
"Even with these investments, we can maintain a war chest for strategic opportunities and have plenty of cash to run our business. So we are going to initiate a dividend and share repurchase programme."
Apple shares have surged to about $600 in recent days, making it the world's most valuable company, with a stock market value of more than $500bn. Ten years ago, the shares were trading at about $10.
Booming sales of iPhones and iPads have helped the firm build up its huge cash pile.
"This is consistent with what we, and I think most, expected them to do, which is to address shareholder concerns around the huge cash stockpile while retaining enough of a reserve to keep a wide range of strategic options on the table," said John Jackson from CCS Insight.
"This, plus the buyback, should continue to bolster the soaring share price."
Shares in Apple ended Monday trading up 2.7%.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

How to have a super-cheap minibreak

Have you ever picked up a super-cheap holiday package - only for the costs to somehow spiral out of control?

One minute, you're patting yourself on the back after bagging a 'flights + hotel' deal for under £100. The next, you're stepping back off the plane, wondering how you managed to spend well over twice that. Here's how to dodge all those extra costs, so you really can have a super-cheap minibreak...

Getting to the airport
These days, travelling to a UK airport can sometimes cost more than the cost of the flight! But it doesn't have to be that way.

If you're going by public transport, try to avoid specialist, 'airport shuttle/express' train services. Very often there will be other, regular train or coach services that visit the airport too, and cost far less to use. Just remember that - because these are usually stopping services - you'll need to allow more time for your journey.

Airport parking prices are the stuff of nightmares. It gets much more costly if you book parking at the last minute; so at the very least, book a week or more in advance.

Even better, investigate some private parking alternatives. Sites like ParkAtMyHouse and YourParkingSpace help you find parking spaces - let by private homeowners - near the airport of your choice. The rates are likely to be a fraction of those charged by official airport car parks.

What not to do with your credit card
It's always a bad idea to use your credit card to withdraw cash - for several reasons:

- You're likely to be charged a set withdrawal fee (around £1-£2) each time you do it.
- A massive rate of interest will be charged on the amount withdrawn.
- This rate will kick in immediately (rather than in a month's time, as with other credit card transactions).

However, when you're on holiday, financial good sense often goes out the window - and suddenly you're using credit cards to withdraw cash all over the place.

Don't do it! Instead, make sure you convert enough currency in advance, or use a debit card designed for fee-free withdrawals overseas.

Currency conundrum
Which brings us on to currency conversion. In all the rush and excitement, many of us end up getting our foreign currency at the airport.

Unfortunately, this is effectively pouring money down the drain: You may see a sign saying '0% commission', but the actual conversion rate you're offered is likely to be absolutely awful.

Instead, use a good value online currency conversion service and get it sorted well in advance. This Guide shows you where to get the best currency deals at the moment.

Do. Not. Touch!
An oldie but a goodie: Don't, whatever you do, touch the minibar. The drinks prices are usually astronomical and almost never specified - and of course, the more you drink, the less you care!

And finally, you should also be very wary of consuming any hotel extras you assume are 'complementary'. A friend drank a bottle of mineral water she found positioned by her hotel bed, assuming it was a nice freebie. When she came to pay the bill, she realised that water had set her back an extra £5! 

West Kirby student named UK's top young scientist

Ms Vallabhaneni said she was "so happy" with the win 

A Merseyside student has been named as the UK Young Scientist of the Year.
West Kirby Grammar School's Kirtana Vallabhaneni beat 360 other entrants to be awarded the prize at The Big Bang Fair at Birmingham's NEC on Friday.
The 17-year-old was part of University of Liverpool's research project aimed at identifying the harmful cells that cause pancreatic cancer.
She said she hoped her win could help "instil the same kind of passion I have for science in other young people".
The judging panel for the national award, open to 11 to 18-year-olds who completed a science, technology, engineering or maths project, included renowned space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, and the Science Museum's inventor in residence Mark Champkins.
Dr Aderin-Pocock said she was "delighted" with Ms Vallabhaneni's work.
"The country's science and engineering industry has an incredibly bright future ahead of it if Kirtana and her fellow finalists are anything to go by," she said.
"It's these talented individuals who will inspire others to think about science and engineering in a new and exciting light."
Ms Vallabhaneni, who was part of the project team working to isolate cells in the pancreas that can be targeted with chemotherapy, said she was "so happy" with the win.
"Everything that I've worked for over the last year has come together," she said.
"The fact four finalists were female shows that there are strong opportunities for women in science and it proves they don't have to follow convention and stereotypes.
"I'm so passionate about what I do and I hope that with this success, I can instil the same kind of passion I have for science in other young people.
"If I can do it, they definitely can."

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Five websites to make you money

We could all do with a bit of help when it comes to the battle to make ends meet. Of course we can do our best to cut back on what we spend, but sometimes the only answer is to boost the cash we bring in. If you have a great deal of brass neck, now could be time for your 'dog art' business to take off.

Otherwise, there are a host of handy websites which will help you make a few extra quid.


Let's start with the most obvious answer - selling your unwanted stuff. This can be anything from duplicate presents to clothes we have grown or shrunk out of. The biggest auction site is, which means you'll get a huge audience for your stuff. However, it's also worth considering specialists. This includes people like Amazon for your secondhand books, CDs and DVD and Preloved for things like clothes.


Once you have flogged your unwanted stuff, you need to consider what you can create. If you have any flair for craft or art, then it's well worth considering setting up an Etsy site. Two recent sites came from a woman who made her own wedding seating plan and after people admired it she started a business selling them. Another made a sock monkey for her baby daughter and after getting compliments in the street started a site selling them. It's really that easy - just be careful to price them so you can make money from them, and that you have time to complete all your orders.


There are a number of websites which enable you to make money from uploading photographs, but is reasonably straightforward. You need to ensure all photos you upload are yours and that anyone in them has signed a release. Then you simply submit them and when people upload and buy them they'll pay you between $0.25 to $28.00 a time. It doesn't sound like a lot, but if you take great photos of popular subjects, tag them correctly and get lucky, you could start making some serious money - although it's worth noting that you won't get any payment at all until you have amassed $75 on the site.


There are a growing number of freelancing websites, which let you advertise your services on the side as an expert - or apply for a couple of hours' work here or there. Some of these sites tend to be fairly techie, but they are continually expanding. You can create a profile and let people come to you, or contact people looking for expertise in your area. Just a quick glance will reveal that your skills are surprisingly in demand.


This isn't technically a way to earn extra cash, but it will get you something in return for your time. The idea is that you consider your skills and add them to a local skills bank - whether it's gardening, DIY, babysitting, dressmaking, speechwriting, book-keeping or anything else you have a flair for. People will then contact you, asking if you will swap some time for theirs. So, for example, you could bake a cake for someone and get some help on your tax return in exchange for it. Or you could iron a handful of shirts and get someone to mend your lawnmower. It could save you a fortune. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

What the budget holds for pensions

There has been plenty of talk about pensions in the run-up to the Budget. It is widely predicted that the government is planning some sort of raid on pensions in order to make its sums add up. There are a number of ways in which George Osborne could do this: some would be devastating, and others less so.

So what could happen, what will the consequences be, and what should the government be doing with pensions?

Raid on relief

In the last few days all the talk has been about a raid on tax relief. There's no doubt that pensions tax relief is generous - because you get relief at your marginal rate. This means that higher-rate tax-payers receive relief at 40%. There has been a great deal of speculation that this could be set for the chop.

However, Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at advisers Hargreaves Lansdown says this is highly unlikely: "Any move to restrict tax relief would be a tyre-screeching u-turn, given that this government only restored full tax relief a year ago." 

"Any disconnect between the rate of tax an individual pays on their income and the rate of relief they receive on their pension contributions would result in an obscenely bureaucratic system to police it. No one who advocates a restriction to higher rate relief has yet come up with a credible way of achieving this goal whilst also keeping complexity down to an acceptable level. So unless the Treasury is really, really desperate for money, we don't think this will happen."

Tax-free cash

Another potential target is the tax-free cash that pensioners are allowed to take out of their pension on retirement. At the moment this is usually 25% of the pension pot, and there have been questions as to whether the government will cut this.

However, again McPhail thinks this is erroneous. He explains: "There will almost certainly not be any restriction to the tax free lump sum payable at retirement. If this were made retrospective, applying to existing accumulated pension funds, then it would be widely seen as a betrayal of investors' trust and would have an immediate and significant negative impact on investors' confidence in pensions. If it were to apply only to future accruals then it would not only create further bureaucracy, it would also fail to deliver any significant new revenue to the Treasury for many years to come. "

Annual allowance

Instead, he thinks Osborne will focus on cutting the annual allowance. He has already shown a good deal of enthusiasm for this approach - and in April 2011 slashed it from £255,000 to £50,000. This has the advantage that it would be seen to take action against higher earners, and it would be simple to implement. However, McPhail warns: "It would generate no more than a few hundred million pounds at most."

Do nothing

McPhail warns that although this is the most likely option, it could further damage confidence in the system. He says: "The government should leave pensions alone. Better still, it should give a commitment that it will leave pensions alone for at least the remainder of this parliament and it should call on the opposition to form a consensus that pension taxation is off the agenda for the next 10 years. The government should resist the temptation to treat pensions like an ATM, what we need is a period of stability."

NFU Mutual's pensions specialist, Steve Meredith, agrees: "We think Mr Osborne should steer clear of pensions. All people saving for retirement need reassurance that the Government isn't going to move the goalposts halfway through their working life. Rather than adjusting tax reliefs, Mr Osborne should focus on encouraging more working adults to make a much-needed long-term financial commitment to their retirement."

In fact, Meredith wants to see pensions become more generous rather than less, saying: "If the Chancellor really wants to provide more flexibility in retirement savings he could allow for premature access to pension funds for one-off purchases such as a first time buyer's mortgage deposit. This may not only encourage people to start saving for retirement from a younger age, it could also give a sluggish housing market a boost."

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Small print: huge pension boost

The Daily Express has been highlighting a common piece of small print, hidden away in many pensions, which means that pension holders may be entitled to a far higher pension than they think.

So what's the small print, and how can you claim?

The guarantees

The feature that's key here is the 'guaranteed annuity rate'. These are not in every pension contract - far from it - however, it's well worth checking if you have one, because in some instances it could double your monthly payment in retirement.

Guaranteed annuities used to be fairly common. Hidden away in the small print, they say that if you want, at the end of your period of saving, when you're hunting around for the best value annuity, they will guarantee you a certain level. 

The reason why they can be such a godsend is that many of the relevant pension contracts were written when annuity rates were very different. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, annuity rates were 10% or more - so guarantees reflected this.

  • Get up to 40% more pension income

Since then a combination of life expectancy and record low interest rates mean they have crashed to 5.9% (which means your annual payment will be 5.9% of your total pension pot). It means someone with a guarantee could get twice the annual payment of someone without a guarantee.

Check it now

Ros Altmann, director general of Saga, told the Daily Express that pension providers are unlikely to honour the guarantee unless they asked about it. She said: "Unless you read the small print, or have an adviser, there is no one to tell you how valuable your Guaranteed Annuity Rate is."

Tom McPhail, head of pensions at Hargreaves Lansdown says: "Anyone with a pension set up in the mid 1990s or earlier should check their policy documents, or get an adviser to check them. If they don't have the documents any more they should contact the pension company and specifically ask about the guarantee."

He says this is worth doing, not just at retirement, but right now, to ensure you are making the right choices for your future. He explains: "You may have an old pension languishing somewhere and a new pension that you are pouring money into. However, you are never likely to get the investment growth from a new pension to match the benefits from an old one offering a guaranteed annuity rate of 8%, 9% or 10%, so they should channel pension savings down that route instead." 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Five ways to save on inheritance tax

UK taxpayers will pay £1.3 billion in inheritance tax this year - but some of this could be saved.

Find out how to avoid paying unnecessary inheritance tax by planning ahead.

Karen Barrett, chief executive of independent advice website unbiased, says: "With the IHT threshold frozen for another three years, it is important to make sure your financial affairs are in order to protect your family and loved ones after you have gone. The easiest way to ensure that your financial arrangements are as tax efficient as possible, and to check that you will not be over paying taxes such as IHT, is to visit an independent financial adviser."

  • Free equity release calculator!

Inheritance tax saving tips
Although professional advice is essential for those with very large estates, there are several checks that anyone who is concerned about inheritance tax can make to keep their exposure to a minimum. Here are five ways to reduce the tax your heirs may have to pay (there is also a guide on How to avoid inheritance tax on the consumer champion's Which? website):

1. Claim a partner's unused IHT allowance
Married couples and civil partners can boost their IHT-free allowance by claiming any 'nil-rate band' their deceased partner has not used. The allowance is currently £325,000 per person. If the first partner has made no use of their nil-rate band (by leaving everything to their spouse, for example), the second partner effectively has a double allowance of £650,000. If the first partner used part of their allowance, the unused proportion is carried over to the second - and applied at the current rate. To claim unused allowance after the second partner's death use HMRC form IHT 402.

2. Reduce your estate by making tax-free lifetime gifts
Gifts made during your lifetime can reduce the size of your estate substantially, but there is a limit to how much you can give away tax-free in a single year. The individual allowance is £3,000. You can carry over any unused portion of this to the following year. Other tax-free gifts include wedding gifts (up to £5,000 if you are a parent of one of the couple, £2,500 if you're a grandparent), small gifts of up to £250 per recipient, gifts out of income that are normal expenditure and maintenance payments to family or dependent relatives.

3. Reduce your estate by making potentially exempt transfers
Larger lifetime gifts may escape IHT but only if you live for seven years after making them. Known as potentially exempt transfers (PETs), they are added back into your estate if they 'fail'. The reduction in IHT is on a sliding scale, depending on how long you live after making them. IHT is charged at 40% if you die within three years of making a PET but only 8% if you survive longer than six years but less than the full seven.

4. Insure against inheritance tax
If you think your heirs might be faced with IHT, you can take out a whole of life insurance policy to cover the likely bill. The policy pays out on your death, or that of the last surviving partner if you are a couple. It is important to make sure the policy is 'written in trust' for your beneficiaries, so that the money doesn't form part of your estate and simply boost the IHT liability.

5. Make gifts to charity
Gifts to charity reduce the size of your taxable estate. From April 2012, they can also reduce the rate of IHT your heirs have to pay. If you give at least 10% of your estate to charity, the rate of tax levied on the rest will be reduced by 10%, from 40% to 36%.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

DS dilemma: If your child loves computer games does that make you a bad mother?

According to CBeebies and the Boden catalogue, children are always mucking about outside, picking vegetables and making recycled rain catchers with plastic bottles and wooden spoons.

But for my square-eyed four-year-old, life revolves around one thing, and one thing only - his friend's Super Mario game.

Here is an (edited) example of what I have to listen to every day.

"Mummy, when you get the coins and it goes really big and then there's Donkey Kong and Princess Peach...but Mummy, Mummy – let me show you – there's the FIREBALL game and you get the fireballs and then you winned (sic) but the balloons will make you DIE."

Now, don't get me wrong, occasionally he stops thinking about Mario long enough to read books and play with toys and draw pictures and dance around the kitchen. He's a smart boy (most of the time), and doing great at nursery.

But I suspect that if you gave him an MRI scan, his brain would have a moustache and be wearing a little red cap with 'M' written on it.
I blame his dad. Well, I blame his dad for everything anyway, so it seems fitting that I should also blame him for our son's burgeoning computer game obsession. My husband was born with a joystick in his hand, (if you'll pardon the expression), and secretly loves the fact that our boy can navigate an expert path around the Marioland racetrack.

He thinks it's a life skill. I think it's a waste of time and that my child should be making an organic pirate ship out of twigs while wearing a jaunty Boden hoodie with stars on it.

Still, like most mothers, I'm also a hypocrite. When my son is round at his friend's house next door, playing Super Mario Kart on the Wii or tinkering around on their DSS, I LOVE IT.

It frees me up to sit in the kitchen and drink G&Ts and talk about pelvic floors and Masterchef. There's nothing better than knowing that my child is happily occupied, with a limited chance of a tantrum or whining attack.

Then there's his unbridled joy. He loves Mario. And he loves his friend, who he plays Mario with. Once I came into the room and they were playing a game. When they finished they gazed at each other and said "I love playing Mario with you" and kissed each other.

OK, so maybe he'll be telling that to his therapist later in life, but he's happy, so why not? But still I can't stop worrying. What about his brain? Will he grow up thinking that when he walks along the street coins will fall out of the sky? Will real life seem like one big monochrome bore?

And sometimes, it's all he wants to do, and I have to be exhaustingly strict. Suggest painting or Lego and it's "I want to play a game". Sometimes, when he's in this mode, (ie, tired and grumpy) rallying him to do something different is hard.

So when my husband came home the other week with a DS for our son's birthday present, I went ballistic. You could say he was in danger of losing a life, or at the very least getting zapped by a fireball in his plumber's dungarees. "What did you do that for?" I screamed.

After a torturous hour, the truth came out. HE wanted to play Mario, too.
So I'm a real dilemma. Give into my middle class parenting fantasies or give my boy(s) what they really want? I asked around to see what other mothers think. Are they all out in the forest with their charming, grubby-kneed offspring, naming species of wildflowers and building forts? Er, no.
"At least the DS keeps them quiet, " one said. "I have to ration it, because after a while it makes them grumpy, but they all love it," said my friend, a mother of three.

"My boy is a screen addict, and from time to time I think, 'Oh God, he doesn't do anything else'," said another. "But mostly I think it seems to be a common phenomenon and I'm not going to sweat it. And 'no computer for you' works as a great punishment.

"Anyway," she added. "If anyone tried to stop my TV viewing to go for a lovely walk or make a collage, I'd have a major tantrum too."

True enough. Inevitably then, the DS will be unveiled on his fifth birthday, to a chorus of delighted oohs, ahhs and 'Mamma Mias'.
I figure as long as we take him to football and swimming and hug him and feed him as well, he won't turn into an unfeeling robot psychopath.
And when he's busy in Marioland, I will put my feet up and have a G&T. Game over.

Does this sound like you? Are you happy if your children are happy playing computer games (and giving you some time off)? Or do you feel guilty?