Jingle tills 
If the run-up to Christmas has not been the best so far, then today should at least bring some partial compensation.

Last weekend, shoppers were kept at home by severe winter weather but with the icy conditions now lifting a little, they look set to hit the high streets in earnest in a late surge of Christmas shopping. Some experts are predicting that today could be the biggest shopping day of all time.

To give a measure of the business that is expected to go through the nation’s tills, card company Visa says it expects to process around 26.5 million transactions, worth more than £1.2 billion, throughout the day, some 20 per cent up compared with last year.

That’s good news for retailers, particularly smaller traders. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, many had taken on extra seasonal staff to cope with anticipated Christmas demand, only to see a drop in footfall of up to 30 per cent last weekend, leaving them to cope with increased overheads and reduced takings.

As John Walker, national chairman of the FSB says: "Small businesses were banking on a good Christmas to make up for a bad year and the prospect of more bad news in 2011.”

With two shopping days to go before Christmas, a significant spending spree will go at least some way to get retailers back on track. And the start of the sales on 27 December should help too.

So while this may not have been quite the festive season they had hoped for, perhaps retailers will be enjoying some kind of a Christmas bonus after all.

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A nation of supermarkets... 
On a bleak midwinter day, when many people will be choosing to stay at home rather than venturing out for some almost last minute Christmas shopping, there’s some interesting news concerning one significant part of the retail sector.

According to research by the BBC, in the two years to 1 November, planning authorities gave Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons permission for at least 480 stores in England.

At least 67 were approved in Scotland and at least 22 in Wales and eight in Northern Ireland, clocking up to a grand total of 577 new stores either now in place or on the way.

It’s hard to ignore the success of our supermarkets, although residents of small towns where the traditional independent butchers, bakers and candlestick makers have fallen by the wayside as big stores take over would probably be up for a heated debate on just what benefits they bring.

Farmers and food producers are also likely to have strong opinions. As chef and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells BBC TV’s Panorama tonight, which will investigate different aspects of the supermarket issue: "You don't need to explain the attraction of cheap food, everybody likes saving money, but the effect of that simple drive to bring down price – it's massively altering the way we produce food, the scale on which we produce food."

The supermarkets clearly aren’t going anywhere. They’re too convenient, for one thing, and in hard times, their competitive pricing is hard to ignore for families getting by on reduced budgets. And they do create jobs.

But as their expansion continues, perhaps it’s time for the powers that be to very seriously consider the way they are influencing the life of the nation.

David Handley, chairman of the Farmers For Action campaign group, says that if the supermarkets continue trading in the way they do now, “they are going to put British agriculture out of business" due to the hard bargains they drive with farmers. And many of us might agree that’s too high a price to pay for convenience.

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Looking to the future on jobs 
Unemployment figures released earlier this month revealed that there are now nearly three-quarters of a million people aged from 18 to 24 who are out of work. Worryingly, that makes up almost a third of the jobless total.

Getting young people back into work – or into work for the first time – must surely be a priority for any government, to prevent a generation falling into the trap of long-term unemployment.

So a call by a committee of MPs for additional action to bridge the gap when the Future Jobs Fund ends in March would seem to deserve some attention.

The fund, created by the previous Labour government in 2009, is a £1 billion programme to create temporary employment for 18 to 24-year-olds.

The Department of Work and Pensions says that by the end of March 2011, bids for cash from the fund will have financed more than 100,000 jobs, mainly aimed at young people who have been out of work for six months and are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.

MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee have made a number of recommendations to the government after studying its plan to bring the scheme to an early close, ahead of the introduction of the new Work Programme next June.

Committee chair Anne Begg says: "Young people, especially those who may be lacking skills, experience and confidence, need appropriate and sometimes intensive support to find work, otherwise they risk falling into long-term unemployment.”

No-one is going to argue with that and the Department of Work and Pensions says there will be transitional support available in the run-up to the introduction of the Work Programme. The government is also planning to make £150 million available to fund new apprenticeship places, focused on small and medium enterprises.

None of us can take having a job for granted these days. But for many young people today, who should now be starting out on a productive working life of 40 years or more, getting a foot on the career ladder must seem almost impossible. And they deserve all the help we can give them.

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Time to show restraint on bonuses? 
It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall at this afternoon’s meeting between Chancellor George Osborne, Business Secretary Vince Cable and the heads of the UK’s biggest banks.

The topic on the table is the thorny one of bank bonuses. With so many businesses and families in the UK having to tighten their belts – and not a few wondering how they will pay their heating bills as another bout of cold weather settles in – a winter round of generous big bank bonuses is something the coalition government is keen to avoid.

Mr Cable said at the weekend that the banks needed to show “real restraint and social responsibility” and that the coalition was signed up to “robust action”.

He hinted at the possibility of some form of taxation if necessary but added: “We would rather they (the banks) accepted that they had wider obligations to British business and to the public."

The British Bankers Association (BBA) said the sector "truly understands people's concern over pay" and has made reassuring comments about a “radically different” bonus system that involves locking away much of the payments for several years.

BBA spokeswoman Angela Knight also makes the point that the UK's financial services industry had to compete for business and talented people, adding: "The banks are major employers and pay more tax than any other individual sector, where financial services as a whole contributes £1 in every £10 raised for the Exchequer.”

No doubt that’s fair enough. But given what might be called the “special relationship” between the British taxpayer and the banks – partly based on the role the banks played in shaping our current economic climate and partly on the millions of pounds the government has poured into propping up some of the biggest names of British banking – there are many people out there who might be hoping that it wouldn’t need a meeting with Mr Osborne and Mr Cable to get the banks to do the decent thing.

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Uncertainty at the Bank of England 
The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee plays a major role in the UK economy, setting the Bank of England (BoE) base rate, so it may be a little concerning that its members seem uncertain about where they should be heading next.

While the majority of members have continued to take a ‘wait and see’ approach, keeping interest rates at their current record low levels but holding back from additional Quantitative Easing (QE), two members – Adam Posen and Andrew Sentance – have increasingly gone public on their views that a change of approach is needed.

The problem is, they favour a different approach. Noting persistent above-target inflation, Mr Sentance thinks interest rates should be increased to prevent the economy overheating, while Mr Posen argues that since inflation has been caused by external factors – such as increased energy costs and a weaker pound – hiking rates would make no difference, and actually what is required is more QE to prevent the economy falling back into recession.

With such diametrically opposed views on the committee, it is perhaps unsurprising that the end result has been somewhere between the two, but rates cannot stay unchanged forever, so it will be interesting to see which view prevails. Next month sees the increase in VAT to 20 per cent, so a further jump in inflation is inevitable, but if it fails to come down after that, the BoE may be forced to act to maintain its credibility.

However, increasing rates too soon is likely to have a detrimental effect on growth and jobs, leaving the committee with a delicate balancing act. Furthermore, with the government not keen on stimulating the economy through tax cuts or spending rises, that leaves Quantitative Easing as the only means of stimulating the economy if growth does go into reverse.

While the Bank has taken its share of criticism over recent months, there is no doubt that it has a difficult balancing act to perform and it will be interesting to see which school of thought prevails.

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